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.”
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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