The Great South Wall

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In the south of the continent, at the tips of the last mountain ranges, a river fed by storms flowed to the sea. Another river joined it where it bent east in the woodlands, surrounding a forested plain by water on three sides. The Great South Wall stood across the tip of this inland peninsula, blocking the only route from the north.

The whole thing smelled putrid. It could have been the yellow clay holding the Wall together, but that didn’t explain such a stench.

Eventhe hid in a grove with the western river at her back, ill at ease as the crowd gathered at the Wall. Kragn’s army searched among the trees for citizens trying to slip out of their tightly-guarded clans. The sky was bright, the morning warm, the water at her tail cool.

Kragn stood in front of the Wall, holding a barbed metal wand half the length of his body. Beside him, Shael and one-clawed Magnam held a staff each.

The metal reminded her of the thing strapped under her abdomen. She touched the key to the Clearing, in a pocket by her conch, passed off by Emaria as they carted her back to the stockade. Eventhe was more than willing to keep it from Kragn.

Wrest was not retaken, but he and Staever could have shared a grisly fate. If he has not returned by now, when will he?

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Carry It to the End

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Staever blinked. “You died.”

“I did.” The cloak lay on the other side of the pit.

“He stabbed you. I saw it.”

“No. You weren’t there. I died of fungus poisoning during the Grey Spring, the year you were born.”

“What are you talking about?” He was hallucinating. Once, in the far province of the magma pools, he’d been certain he’d wandered the streets of a glittering glass city, ringing with strange music, before Wrest coaxed him to take a drink.

He reached out to the mirage. It was solid, but Farid no longer.

This lobster was larger and more handsome, bedecked in pearl-threaded battle attire as unwieldy on him as a cloak on a crab. He was acting, even in death–exactly how Staever had imagined him.

“Cyprus. My father.”

He shouldn’t have been able to speak. He’d chewed through a scrap of cloak trying to moisten his mouth.

“Am I dead?” he asked. Maybe this was what happened when they didn’t float you. Lobsters will know he was not ready to pass beyond the twin mirrors.

“I am not interested in where we are,” Cyprus said, “and you have more pressing concerns. How could you let this happen?”

“What do you mean, how?” Miracle or hallucination or whatever Cyprus was, that question the last thing he needed. “If there was a damn thing I could have done to stop Kragn, wouldn’t I have done it?”

“I don’t mean the past. How could you give yourself up to die?”

“Do I have a choice?” Staever said miserably. “There’s no magic sword to make things right. Kragn has the magic. I’m bound for wherever you are.”

“For now, we’re here together. You’re on land, I’m at sea. This is the shore.”

“Glad to see you.” Staever fixed his eyes on the blue-stained cloak. “I’m going to die in the desert, I’ve abandoned my friends, but at least I can work things out with my dad.”

“One does not cut through the Great South Wall. One passes it,” Cyprus said stiffly.

“What?”

“Your friend Arcite is preparing to bomb it as we speak. You can’t let him get away with it. It will mean absolute catastrophe.”

“Catastrophe. Fine. I know Kragn is using Arcite. That’s not saving me.”

“I’m not here to save you.”

“Then why are you here?” He strode back to Cyprus. “I didn’t even learn you were dead until six years later. Now you’re here on the shore, and all you’ve got for your son is half-cooked prophecies?”

“The Clearing is–”

Damn the Clearing!” Staever roared. “Damn the Great South Wall and damn whatever you came here to say! The only way I’ll see the Clearing is if Kragn carries my head through the streets!”

“The Clearing is not home, and it is not safe.” Cyprus said. “The trial is yours to face. Not Kragn’s.”

“Not yours, either,” Staever spat. “Call my mother, or Graphus if you must. Have one of them spout the platitudes. We’ve gone twenty-five years without meeting each other. Why break the streak?”

“This is what you want to talk about?”

Staever rammed a claw into the dunes. “I’m not getting out. The way I see it, you’ve shown up to entertain me in my last moments.”

“Careful with your words,” Cyprus admonished. “You may be ashamed to have me as a father, but I’ve never been ashamed to have you as a son.”

“You talk like you hadn’t decided you’d rather raise Xander. Fine job there, by the way.”

“I see.” Cyprus looked thoughtful. “You are like her.”

“Watch it.”

“You know what you are,” said the apparition. “A thief by night and a thief by day. You know nothing of a double life.”

Staever could not retort. Cyprus didn’t change his expression, but the words were enough.

“I came to see you several times after Taiga’s visit to the pool. Your first dryland steps were an ordeal. But you did move. All your legs. We were so proud.

“I was in hearings for a vacant seat on the council. I never got the hang of anything Taiga taught me about stealth, and people started to see me in the Whites. I had to cut down on visits. Finally, to kill the rumors, I had to have a Pupil child.”

“Xander,” Staever said. “Born to hide me.” His fate was bound more tightly to his brother’s than he thought. He felt a shred of sympathy for Xander. Everything he’s ever done and wanted and been–all for the love Cyprus used up on my mother. On me.

“You could have given it all up,” he said. “Stayed, and raised me.”

“Council glass paid for my research into weather. Council security kept it quiet. Had I stayed, a hundred thousand lobsters would have dried out on the Forbidden Expanse.”

He wandered the pit. ”I had such plans, Staever. I would have strengthened the irrigation channels, expanded farming. Made the Eye a home for everyone.”

“Alone? What difference could you have made?”

“A strange proclamation for Staever the Traveler. Like it or not, you are my son in more than body. You’re carrying on my work.”

“Two idiot dreamers. Together in death.”

“You must make the choice to survive. There’s no other way.”

Staever remembered the plan he’d made while captive on the militia sled. Did I mean I’d fight two soldiers, or fight a whole damn continent?

“What’s so special about the Wall?” he blurted out. “How am I supposed to stop Kragn? How can I deal with whatever happened to the Clearing if I don’t know what it is?”

“Remember,” Cyprus commanded. “The Clearing is not home, and it is not safe.”

“The Clearing is all we have!”

The last thing he heard was, “Carry it to the end,” then–

“Staever!”

Farid was still under the cloak.

The pit, and his skeleton, were as dry as weed-paper. The scorching sun was high in the sky, and Wrest was standing on the rim.

“Staev, are you all right? Are you hurt?”

The mirage had gone, leaving a weak dying thing. He couldn’t answer.

Wrest rolled a bone jug down. Staever uncorked it with tremendous effort. Water trickled onto his claws, forcing the oppressive cloud to the edge of his brain.

He splashed more on his skeleton, slowly, to avoid convulsions. The grit of his sand coating washed away. When he could stand, he drained the rest of the canister.

Thirst hurt. It meant nausea, crawling through a world made of sandpaper; weakness, headaches, and death. A perfect drink of water could dispel them all at once. Staever would never have a better drink.

Wrest was lowering a rope. “Don’t talk,” he cautioned. “You’re still weak. Try your best to climb.”

Staever did as told. After two steps, his legs gave way again. He clung to the rope until feeling returned. His feet scratched against the sand walls, and the dunes gave a few times, but Wrest pulled him through. Soon, Staever lay prone on the rim of his prison.

“Wrest…” he tried to say, but nausea walloped him. A thief trusts nothing but his greed and his gang. The phrase rattled around his head.

“No thanking.” Wrest hoisted Staever onto his back. “You would have done the same. We’re getting you back, all right? I have more water. You’ll be safe.”

“Safe…” Staever croaked. “We’re riding into war.”

Wrest smiled so wide he must have been scared. “Yeah,” he agreed, “together.”

Wrest laid him across the sled, the big model he used to ride on hijackings. “The game has changed,” Staever warned. Something was battering the walls of his memory. “Kragn’s got Arcite demolishing the Wall. We can’t let them do it.”

“You told us.” Wrest handed Staever the sword that had killed Farid. “If Kragn puts the fleet in the water, we’ll never catch up.”

“It’s worse.” Staever stowed the sword. “The problem is the Wall itself. The phrase was ‘absolute catastrophe.’”

“What phrase? Where’s this coming from?”

Staever pointed at the pit. “It’s hard to explain. Down there…I had a chance to remember things. Things I’d suspected, but forgotten. Or ignored.”

“We’re up to our necks in mud either way,” Wrest shrugged, then produced the detail map. “I looked this over. Could it have anything to do with this weird blotch under the Wall?”

Staever had talked this over with Emaria while they sketched the detail one night. It had looked intentional, a sort of signature.

“Wrest,” he asked, suddenly cold despite the heat, “does that color remind you of anything?”

“Hm, red dye, red sand…”

They looked at each other as Wrest’s eyes went wide. Staever finished for him.

“Red clay.”

Wrest whipped the crab into life.

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Dead Man’s Thoughts

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Staever lay still. The heat had risen fast enough to make a mockery of his thirst tricks. Swelter seeped through his bones, enfeebling him, evaporating his last moisture. He lacked the strength to lift a claw.

By the ocean. How is this fair?

He thought of the glass-hauler and the key, the petition, the arena, the miraculous rains, the bridges, the air demon. Of how Farid had almost saved him, how his act of betrayal and faith had come to nothing.

A dead man’s thoughts. Wier and Alta would grow up in the general’s world, taught to hate. Even if Wrest could save them, Kragn would split them up. And Emaria, imprisoned for the rest of her life…he would have shared her cell, so she wouldn’t be alone. If only Kragn and Xander had let him choose his defeat.

That reminded him how Arcite wasted more clay when Eventhe disappeared, how Eventhe talked more to everyone when Arcite was around. They would never have another moment together. Kragn would bury them under the Great South Wall.

It isn’t fair. It isn’t right.

“Nor is it the end.”

The words came from beside him. But nobody else was in the pit. He swiveled his head and met a pair of eyes, staring back at him.

“Hello, Staever,” Farid said.

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Cutting for Sign

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Wrest halted at the edge of the desert to pour water on his crab. It could rest while he searched for sign.

It didn’t rest long. Three tracks in the sand caught Wrest’s eye. Kragn’s guards liked to grease the runners and leave the underboard dry, sacrificing steering power for speed. There was no set of tracks returning–maybe the wind had picked up on the outward journey, but been kind on the way back.

Or they stayed to watch him die.

He slapped the crab awake, then again to set it moving. The desert was as featureless at first glance as the Eye’s country. The mountains far away, the only landmarks, descended to headlands in the western sea.

If the soldiers had set on torturing Staever, then he was alive. And if he was alive, whether paces or miles away, Wrest could do nothing but drive faster.

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In the Dunes

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The sky was deep blue, heading for aquamarine. Staever moistened sand in his mouth and plastered it to his shell. He was beginning to bake in his skeleton, a crayfish roasting in a fire pit. He couldn’t remember his last solid drink.

It’s only a sand ditch. Climb out. He had to take stock before the heat got to his head. The walls towered twelve paces over his head, foul all around, piled into zigzagging dunes.

He scrambled for one wall and found purchase. As he reached to dig further up, his arm went numb. His foothold collapsed. Laughter died in his throat as he slid to the bottom, his aching legs dangling like rope.

Possessed now, he rammed himself against the wall as though he could beat it into submission. Each futile rush gained a little less height than the last.

“I need water!” Each time he slipped, he spoke to nobody: “I need shade! A doctor! A moon-cursed rope!”

He lay still. Nobody heard him but the soldiers, who couldn’t help anybody now. The sky was a shade away from crystal blue. What he needed was a priest.

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Hold the Wind Back

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Also, people might have noticed I double-posted on Wednesday. It’s all fixed now, this is the real Saturday update!

Free from camp, Wrest gave up stealth and drove his crab at full speed. The sky was light enough to read the map, which meant day, which meant Staever cooking in the desert. Wrest read without slowing, one eye on the scroll and the other on the horizon. The desert beyond the trees offered nothing to steer around anyway.

The map was a detail of Turner’s, which Staever and Emaria had transcribed to note southern landmarks. Wrest plotted himself on a strip of marshland bounding the region of bad sand. The desert was full of sinkholes. Without a sign, he’d have to search every one. He crushed saplings and reeds with reckless abandon, charging forth lest he sink into the wet ground.

He used the northern mountain peaks to remain on course. Every time he drew a new mark with his bit of charcoal, the South Wall drew his eye. The Wall was one of the Architect’s last constructions, but Staever had no idea why Turner built it. The Clearing had no northern enemies.

Something aside from that was off about it. The pictograph featured a red stain, starting at the Wall’s core and spread out through the woods. Turner would have removed the stain if it were an accident. Apparently Emaria agreed–she’d copied it, after all.

The soil was turning to dry loess. He had distance to cover. Now was not the time to let his drowsy mind wander.

Once he hit sand, he would look for the tracks Kragn’s men left. He sent a prayer to the ocean to hold the wind back until midday.

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Dry

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Staever woke himself shuddering. The sand was cold. The stars above had changed to the bright-shining Thief, who stole the white ribbon of sky-foam in stories too ancient for scrolls.

Half-conscious, chilled to the bone, he struggled to stand. He took a step, then another–then struck a wall. Sand fell loose around his legs. The hole was deep, and its sides were sheer.

He dug around on the ground with both claws. Soon he touched something damp.

Farid lay on his back with his legs splayed. His blood had leaked out on the sand. Staever unknotted his cloak, and draped it over the body.

“You deserve better than this.” He tucked in the edges so it wouldn’t blow away. “I’ll remember you.”

Blue streaks touched the edge of the dark sky. Morning was coming, and with it, heat.

“For as long as I can.”

 

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Edge of the Darkness

Though Wrest had greased the sled with all the mud he could get his claws on, every bump threatened to tear out the old deathtrap’s wooden rivets. His biggest concern was keeping the crab from running. He had memorized the patrol schedule: though there was a blind spot here, galloping legs and a rattling sled would bring three teams down on his head.

The Star Moon lit his way into the scrubland. His shell-blade was in his claw, four jars of water at his side.

A shrub rustled. He leapt off the platform, pointing his blade at the noise, relaxing when Eventhe stepped into view. “Thank the sea. I thought they’d found me.”

“Where are you going?” Eventhe stared at his sled and provisions.

“To find Staever.” Wrest stepped back onto the sled. “Is something wrong?”

“You remained for the sake for Wier and Alta. What will happen to them if you are caught?”

“You think I haven’t–”

“What about Emaria?” Eventhe moved closer. “He will hurt her, Wrest.”

“I won’t get caught,” Wrest mumbled. “I’ll be back before Alta and Wier reach the Wall. Nobody will miss me.”

Eventhe didn’t sound like herself. The Cuttlefish were isolated, all but her either captured, enslaved, or under a death sentence. More than ever, against her will, she was one of their number. “Take me with you.”

Wrest shook his head. “When we return, something has to change.” He gestured back towards the camp. “We can’t go on like this. Until then, I need you watching over my brother and sister, and Emaria.”

“Watch them yourself. Send me after Staever. I can track him.”

“I need to move fast.” Wrest took the reins. “Don’t take offense, but you have no idea how to run a crab.”

“If Staever is dead?”

If Staever is dead I will fill this camp with bodies until I turn Kragn’s shell into a dinner-knife. His claws shook so hard he could barely hold the crop. “He’s alive.”

“You are wise.” To Wrest’s surprise, Eventhe touched his side. “Fear yourself above all. It is a source of strength. You will trust me with your charges?”

“Staever likes to say…” Wrest wrapped a rein around each claw. “We’re always Cuttlefish. You too.”

He rode away. Eventhe disappeared into the grass.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Glass Thief. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

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The Moonless Sky

Hey, everybody. I just want to start this chapter with a quick apology for the schedule slip here. I’ve been going through some personal stuff that’s diverted my attention from writing, but starting with this update, I promise to get back to the Wednesday/Saturday update schedule–count on it.

On with the chapter!

Staever faded into consciousness on a sled rattling over sand. His claws were bound tightly, and a weight was tied to his tail. The sky was moonless, full of stars: he saw the land-ship, the constellation of summer, with the Five Bright Ones along its blade.

They hadn’t bothered to blindfold him. Nobody cared if he knew his way back. He was alive for now because Kragn wouldn’t risk killing him where anyone could see.

The Militiamen who had arrested him rode with him, one driving the crab, the other in the back. Watching their silhouettes, every ditch and stone sending shudders through his body, Staever decided he’d wasted enough time feeling stunned and betrayed. There had to be a way to two go down fighting.

“Hoy!” the driver said, and the crab stopped, kicking up a cloud of dust. Staever coughed.

“He’s awake.” The lobster riding the sled jumped off, dragging Staever with him. From the heat of the sand, it must have been before midnight. They’d left him his thin cloak, but grit caught in the seams was rubbing his shell raw.

“If he’s waking up, let’s gut him already. This is too easy to mess up.”

He’d slipped ropes before. It was a matter of working his claw in rhythm.

“Sorry,” said a soldier, with forced calm. They’re afraid of me. “Making sure the crab won’t bolt. Get his tail, I’ll be right there.”

The lashings on the rock around his tail tightened. “Not long now, Staever.”

Staever twisted his right claw. The fibers of the rope would fray under brute force.

“Got the knife?”

Yes, dammit.” A blade, white in weak starlight, heading for him. Staever scraped both claws back and forth, thrashing his tail against the weight, panic white-hot behind his eyes.

“Finish it,” the one behind him said. “He’s trying to–hey!”

Shell cracked behind him. A shout of alarm turned to a moan of agony. Feet scuffed through the sand. The weight at his tail fell away as a blade cut the ropes.

The soldier who had been driving stood before his partner, holding the blade meant for Staever’s neck, stained blue. He had skewered the militiaman under the thorax, dropping him with a single attack.

“How…why…” Staever stammered. “I was ready to fight you both myself.”

“Not everybody in the army supports Kragn.” The soldier touched his head. “Having him in charge scares the water out of me. My name’s Farid.”

Staever did the same, shallow breath slowing. “Farid. Thank you.”

His gaze wandered to the other guard’s body.

The body wasn’t there.

It was behind Farid, thrusting a sword up through his abdomen. Farid died with his wide eyes locked on Staever’s.

The knife fell to the sand. Before Staever could reach it, Farid’s body slammed headfirst into him. The two of them tumbled backwards.

Staever slipped into empty space.

He remembered Turner’s note on this desert. Pits. Sinkholes in the bedrock. Open graves.

He and Farid hit the bottom hard. The last things Staever heard before blacking out again were the driver’s sword hitting the ground, and the mournful keening of his crab.

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Spare Her

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With every step, the smell of trees grew stronger. Damp as the river, crisp as sea air, the scent of things growing. Arcite didn’t like it. He preferred the desert, where nothing that was alive was pretending it wasn’t.

Someone pulled off the blindfold. Arcite squinted as his eyes adjusted to the evening light. His antennae had not lied: they were in the densest forest yet. King Crab could hardly have sailed between the trees. And they were taller–some obscured the sun, scattering light across the grass like pebbles over a beach.

Even they paled before the wall.

Story upon story of incredibly solid sand barred the plain. Arcite judged fifteen paces to the top, but he had no head like Eventhe’s for distances. He could not see the end of it in either direction. Water was rushing softly nearby.

He’d imagined Kragn had dispatched a whole cohort to escort him, and was disappointed to discover only two sour-looking guards, one of whom was missing a claw. Arcite stared. “How’d that happen?”

The one-clawed lobster swung him back toward the wall. Arcite wondered when he’d become so easy to drag around.

“Behold the Great South Wall, Field-ant,” the other soldier said. “Study it. We have a task for you.”

“What task?” Arcite asked as he figured it out. “Come on,” he told himself, “what’s the one thing anybody needs you for?”

He sucked the dew from a blade of grass. Clay was supposed to make him happy. This morose feeling didn’t make any sense.

“You know red clay,” One-Claw said. “If you can blow a hole in this, Kragn will get what you need. If not, you’re dead weight. Understand?”

“Or there’s a third option,” Arcite replied. “I could tell you I don’t want to work for you because your boss is a mudeater I wouldn’t trust to govern a tent, let alone the Clearing. What happens then?”

Both soldiers opened their mouths, but Arcite wasn’t done. “Or a fourth. What if I set up the clay so it would blow up Kragn, but none of you would notice until it was too late, because, you know, I’m a lot smarter than you?”

For such a bulky specimen, One-Claw moved fast. He lifted Arcite’s head and thorax off the ground by his chin. Arcite’s legs scrabbled in midair.

“Whatever happens to the wall,” One-Claw growled, “happens with you on top of it. Brain has to be in one piece for you to be smart.”

Arcite tried to talk, but One-Claw was clamping his mouth shut. Amused at his wild-eyed gaping, One-Claw thrust him down.

“I don’t like to be coerced. I’m a Cuttlefish.” Saying these words while a crumpled ball on the ground didn’t lend them the weight they deserved.

“You’re being coerced.” Two-Claw lifted a corner of his light cloak to reveal one of the three manatee wands. “Knowledge goes both ways.”

Arcite’s blood boiled. He hated those damn rods. They had no elegance, no strategy. You didn’t even have to aim.

He skittered to the base of the wall and tapped it, aware of his captors’ gaze from uphill. “Impossibly solid. Maybe half as thick as it is tall. Hard to find the load-bearing points…”

“Oi!” shouted Two-Claw. “Can you break the sand or not?”

“If it was sand, you wouldn’t have brought me out here.” Arcite turned. “It’s rock.”

“Rock?”

Their confusion betrayed everything. Neither of them knew lobsters could build things out of rock. Neither of them knew how to demolish it. “So they’re threatening me, but they also need me.”

He brushed a claw on the rock. It caught in a groove. Stepping back, he discovered–as he’d been dreading–the tree, mountain, and river. He clamped his claws over his antennae, waiting for some grass demon to start talking in his head.

The voice didn’t come. Arcite carefully examined the mark of Turner. It was different than before. In the temple and the nexus, it had been clean, but here, it was haphazard, angry.

The guard called again. “I said, can you–”

“Of course I can break it!” Arcite couldn’t pinpoint when he’d decided he would. He owed the Eye nothing, and Kragn less, and didn’t care how long they had to trudge to find a way around the big wall.

But they needed him. That was too precious to waste.

“I’ll need half a day to identify weak spots,” he told the soldiers. “How long is the wall?”

“He’s stalling.” One-Claw moved forward, but Two-Claw stopped him. “Over the horizon in either direction, there’s a river. That’s as far as we’ve scouted, and we still can’t see the end. So don’t get any ideas about knocking out the whole thing at once.”

“For the breach you want, I’ll need at least nine lobster-weights. Preferably more.”

Two-Claw answered, “We hardly brought that much.”

“Unless Kragn can’t handle it?” Arcite narrowed his eyes.

Two-Claw stood his ground. “He’ll handle it. Break this damn wall down.”

Arcite threaded his way east, making the Militiamen follow. He saw he’d started on a hill, one of many rolling in shallow waves under the trees. It was a pleasant spot to spend an early dusk: the light was soft, the breeze cool, and the music of river over rocks mingled with the quiet buzzing of insects too small to eat.

This was a place for drinking, not work, but work had to be done. He’d been outcast since the beginning, lurking at the fringes of camp. Now, he was the one with power over Kragn.

“But I wasn’t alone,” he said, soft as the stream. “Even out on the edge.”

Suddenly he knew what to use his power for.

Striding back to Two-Claw, he said, “Eventhe.”

“What about her?” Two-Claw asked. “She has our men afraid to go on patrol, If we do catch her–“

“–you will treat her with every courtesy your little mind can conceive. That’s my price.”

Two-Claw thrust the wand into Arcite’s face. One-Claw, who was leaning against a tree a few paces away, snorted. “You’re no bargainer.”

“Spare her,” Arcite said. The wand in his face was making his heart beat faster than he cared to admit. “If you don’t like the deal, meditate on how little I value your life. Or mine.”

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