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At the top of the tower, where long glass windows overlooked sea and city, the Architect’s men served them drinks.
Staever, Emaria, and Eventhe stuck close around one side of a table, perched on reed mats, with Turner opposite against the city window. His kind eyes hadn’t left them since his hulking aide poured the hot foam.
Let me do the talking, Staever had signed to Eventhe and Emaria as Turner had led them up endless flights of stairs.
“I know the history,” Emaria said under her breath.
“You know Turner,” Staever hissed. “This is some drifter who thinks he’s Turner.”
The others in the tower, whom he called his engineers, accepted him without question. He had enough talent to mimic the Architect’s schematics. But beyond this, what did he have to prove he wasn’t lying, or mad?
Maybe they all went crazy together. Contagious insanity depopulated the Clearing.
Two engineers took up positions in the corners. Staever had seen more on the lower levels. He’d yet to hear one speak, or make an expression. Unlike the old man, who was merely suspicious, the engineers downright unnerved him.
Turner dipped a claw in his mug of foam. “You don’t believe me.”
“Sorry?” Staever willed his features under control.
Three drinks sat untouched in front of them. Emaria spoke up. “I don’t mean to…offend you, sir. But Turner was a hero from the old days. I can’t accept that–he–is here.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to,” Turner said. “I only wish for you to listen to my story. You will not regret it.”
Staever had never seen a lobster perk up as quickly as Emaria did then. For a second she resembled Alta. Whether or not this was the man responsible for the Clearing’s final glory and ruin, he had a history unrecorded in the Iris Library. Staever understood how wrongheaded he’d been, expecting to do any of the talking with Emaria present.
“Tell the story,” Staever said. “We’ll decide if it’s true.”
“This is not a story of truth, but of trust,” Turner answered. “Your trust, tested alongside my truth. None of us are innocent.”
“Do not cloud the issue,” Eventhe told him. “You are the one who destroyed the Clearing, or you are a liar, or a madman. You will earn our trust.”
The old lobster did not seem offended. “Engineers, some privacy?”
“Downstairs,” one said. The two departed in single file.
When the room was clear, Turner drained his mug. “When yellow clay first drifted into the harbor, the king was desperate to get rid of it. His court was terrified of pollution, even after one of his advisors applied the clay, and reported feeling better than she had in her life.”
“They thought it was red clay with a blemish,” Emaria said. “They threw it away as fast as it washed ashore.”
“How could you know of this?” Turner’s brow furrowed. “Have records survived outside the walls?”
Emaria opened her mouth, but Staever cut across her. “Your story first. Ours will come.”
Turner sighed. “That king’s successor was as stubborn as her brother. By the time her son was on the throne, I was an old man, working away with sand and coral, denied my true passion. I went to court every day to beg his attention, but to no avail.” He dug for liquid left in the corners of his mug. “So I took my secrets to his enemy faction. He was forced to accept my help, lest he lose control of the city. The day my workers first harvested yellow clay for the good of the Clearing was the greatest day of my life.”
“It must have been awful,” Staever said.
“Awful?” Turner’s head snapped to face him. “I’m sorry, I never asked your name…”
“Staever. Did I hear you wrong?”
“I don’t mean then.” Staever felt he was trying to sail backwards. Creeping into the city and ending up at somebody’s dinner table was enough to tie anyone’s tongue. “Later. When it went bad.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Turner said, “but I’d rather you stop interrupting. It throws me off. This was more than two hundred years ago, and even my memory is not infallible.”
“I never meant–please, keep going.” If this lobster wasn’t Turner, he was playing the role well enough to command respect. He hadn’t expected to remind himself more than once that Turner was dead.
But why hadn’t he known what Staever meant?
“Yellow clay,” Turner went on, “surpassed coral within years. A city that took a millennium to build doubled its size in decades. We needed it, too. As the clay made fatal injuries into trifles, the population exploded.” He gazed behind Staever, out into the sea where the waves were growing. “We discovered deposits underwater, and started blasting…the manatees took umbrage, but we no longer needed their trade. Then came the Great Dam.”
“Nobody names it that way.” Eventhe was coiled to leap across the table and strangle their host, Turner or otherwise. Staever didn’t doubt she’d do it.
“Ev,” he said, “go downstairs and check on Arcite.”
“My concern is here,” she replied with a hint of contempt.
“Your concern is downstairs. I’m still your employer. I gave you an order.”
Eventhe stormed from the room. Emaria, Staever, and the old man were alone now. An engineer entered, lit the four braziers, and left.
“I didn’t mind,” Turner said with a smile. “A good host should be slow to anger.”
“Eventhe has no love for clay,” Staever explained. “And some skill at starting fights.”
Turner nodded, thankfully not asking why Eventhe had been there in the first place. “The greatest clay deposit in the ocean was in our own harbor, and the Dam allowed us to harvest it while disregarding tides, storms, and manatees together. We were unstoppable.”
Emaria had an answer to her question about Turner’s monopoly. Turner hadn’t thought in those terms whatsoever.
“Soon after, the changes began.”
Staever perked up.
“The lobsters treated by yellow clay complained of an aversion to water. When they went to the sea or the forum pools, a potent revulsion overcame them– a powerful dread and hatred. The worst victims couldn’t leave their homes.”
His face turned grave. “Some died. They lashed out at caregivers bringing them water. They dried out, believing themselves safe.”
“We never heard of this,” Emaria said. “I only knew people thought the water was contaminated. Even the sea.”
“Interesting,” Turner said. “Many came to fear yellow clay so much they would not drink water in which it had been mined. That ruled out most of the Clearing’s irrigation. Though I entreated them to stay, lobsters abandoned the city–individuals, families, then whole clans.”
He interlocked his claws. “I must ask you again where you read of this. Without the Clearing, who keeps records?”
He doesn’t know about the Eye. Though it unnerved him to be locked into a bargain, Staever said, “We’ll explain once you finish. I promise.”
“What did you tell the ones who walked away?” Emaria asked. “Didn’t they have a point? If yellow clay was drying people out…”
“Not everybody!” Turner exclaimed. “Only the ones who didn’t understand.”
“What do you mean?”
“Once they became patients, doctors prescribed water, not clay.” Turner leaned over the table. “But yellow clay eliminates the need for water.”
Madness. But he remembered he was talking to a vagrant who was pretending to be three hundred years old.
“Are you certain?” Emaria asked. “Medicine can’t replace a body’s basic needs. There’d be nothing left to heal.”
“Nothing left?” Turner rose. Staever shuffled away a bit. “Sufficient yellow clay flawlessly regenerates any part of the body. When the body is healthy, the clay is free to go further: creaking joints, aging muscles, a slowing mind…”
The air in the room grew heavy, the old lobster’s presence weighing on Staever. Was he facing Alta’s long-gone hero? Was it so implausible, after the journey they’d made, to meet him?
“Dear lady…the consequence is immortality.”
If this is Turner, what else has to be true? His engineers had left the gate unlocked, maintained the city–for a few dozen lobsters to sit on the largest reserve of yellow clay in the known world, like fish guarding a clutch of eggs.
“Chief Architect…” he said. “Tell me something.”
“Gladly,” Turner replied, “Once you keep your end of the bargain. I’ve told you a great deal, and enjoyed the telling, but I wish to know where you came from.”
Emaria caught Staever’s eye, reminding him he was designated liar. I did ask to do the talking.
“The Clearing dwarfs every city we built after,” he said, adding grains of truth. “We’ve gone back to being nomads, like in the oldest days. We camp around water, and when they dry up, when the food gets scarce, we move on.”
“Why are you the first in two hundred years to return to me?”
Staever took a long sip of cold foam to buy time. “The others are afraid, but we wanted to know if the stories were true. They tried to frighten us about the Clearing. About you.”
Turner sat back. “Then the Eye was a failure?”
It took a moment for the words to register. Staever’s gut clenched. Their faces must have been open books. “I, ah, I’m not sure what you’re talking about–“
“Some lobsters who left took great cargos of yellow clay. They considered my work repulsive, but recognized the clay’s power. They chattered of a new sort of order. I saw the prints for the fortress they planned–a ridiculous mountain with themselves at the top.” He interlaced his claws again in a manner Staever was quickly learning to dislike.
Emaria laid a claw on his back. “Couldn’t we tell him?”
It might not have been. The Architect could describe the shape of Staever’s entire life. Why was there a council, a Militia, Pupil-dwellers interbreeding their way to becoming a different species? Why did the glass treasury guarantee driftwood pieces, if Graphus needed Whites thieves to keep it solvent? Why was there a Cuttlefish Gang, a Staever the Traveller?
He touched Emaria’s claw and nodded. I’m the liar. You’re the truth-teller.
Emaria said, “We come from the Eye.”
“I suspected as much.” Turner’s face revealed nothing.
“Some things we said were true,” she pointed out. “The Eye is gone. It was a cesspool from the start, poor, dangerous, drying out. They couldn’t build near the shore because of the winds and tides and bad sand. The irrigation kept failing, so there was never enough water. Now there’s nothing left.”
Turner relaxed. “I am your host. There is no reason for us to lie to each other.”
“Then–maybe–you could tell us why they built where they did?” Emaria asked. “There’s a whole coastline of deserts.”
“It was the waters,” Turner said. “The ocean to the north was more palatable to those who had absorbed yellow clay. A bit of water in the body reversed the process of immortality. The new nobles summoned lobsters who feared for their families, and promised canals to make the desert bloom. A new order from nothing.”
It all could have been avoided. Staever had never hated the system from which he stole more. If refugees from the Clearing hadn’t hijacked the Eye, would he have become a thief?
Probably. I stole before Graphus came along. But that was when he and Wrest had robbed passers-by in dark alleys. The injustice of the Eye had given him purpose, which only made him sicker. The outline of his shell-graft itched.
“Come to think of it,” he said to mask his swallowing the news, “I always wondered what kind of eye the city was named after. I’ve seen sketches of it from above. It looks nothing like a lobster’s eye.”
“You’re astute,” Turner told him. “The prints my engineers brought me showed a manatee’s eye. These lobsters idolized manatees, for reasons I can’t fathom. The sea-dwellers have never built anything resembling a complex society.”
“They were organized enough to attack us,” Staever said.
Turner left his seat at the table to regard the Clearing through the cityward window. “The Eye was destroyed?”
Emaria nodded. “By the manatees. Unprovoked,” she added, perhaps trying to get him on their side. “We brought others here, so they could prosper, like they used to.”
“How?” Turner asked.
“How did you get a whole city to follow you?” he repeated.
“A…a key.” Emaria shot a look at Staever.
Turner swiveled around. “Do you have it with you?”
“No,” Staever jumped in. The change in Turner’s tone troubled him. “But it doesn’t do anything. Why does it matter?”
“Is that your question?”
Staever considered, then shook his head. The other was more important. If he asked it right, it could tell them everything.
Turner waved a claw to Emaria. “You said you sought to prosper.”
“I said…with the sea nearby…”
“Wait,” Staever blurted out, “my question.”
Turner glowered at him. “If you recall it, of course.”
Suddenly it didn’t matter whether Turner was real or not. He and his engineers held the city–along with the beliefs that had poisoned it years ago. If they tried to move in without permission, the silent lobsters could deny the hundred thousand any peace. But one question, the one mystery of all that truly made no sense, might reveal the Architect’s mind. Then they could make a deal.
“Why did you build the Great South Wall?”
A flicker of confusion crossed Turner’s face before his glare returned. “I didn’t.”
He’s telling the truth. That’s the first thing he hasn’t taken credit for. “Who did?”
“I don’t know. I first encountered it when bringing materials north for another project. I could pass it, but none of my supplies could. Until I discovered how to lower it.”
“The winch? With the big wheel?”
“I imagine it was my enemies in the Eye.” Turner looked back through the city window as Staever, apprehension pooling within him, recalled he could easily be counted among Turner’s enemies. “They must have believed I was going to attack them, but why would I?”
He paced. Staever and Emaria stood rooted to the table.
“My friends, you have my apologies, if you’ve come to trade. There is nothing you have the Clearing requires. We have our forum, our harbor, our beautiful trees. Yellow clay makes the towers soar. Yellow clay makes this city a beacon to every corner of the sea. Those unready for the future fled long ago, far away, to build themselves their own punishment. And so soon, this place shall be ready to awaken.”
“Awaken?” Staever found the strength to stand. Emaria did the same. Turner didn’t move.
“Now you strangers arrive,” Turner said, “from the Eye, which lasted, I admit, longer than I predicted. You are no different from those the doctors let dry out. You chose to die of thirst rather than accept yellow clay.”
“It’s been two hundred years, Turner,” Staever said. “We’re asking you to live alongside us–”
“I have fought you my whole life, with one face or another,” Turner interrupted. “Doubters. Skeptics. Quick to judge. Slow to risk. Your world cannot accommodate me.” He advanced around the table. “You lied to me, concealed the homeless rabble you brought to my door. Now you ask to reignite a feud I won long ago.”
“Thank you for your hospitality.” Staever took Emaria’s claw and guided her toward the stairs. “If you don’t mind…”
“Wait.” Emaria broke away. “Turner, there must be an arrangement you can live with.”
“My terms won’t change,” Turner said. “If your people consent to augment themselves with yellow clay, I will allow them to enter.”
“What if we don’t?” Staever halted by the stairs. “You and your engineers can have Turner’s Clearing. My people will take the coral half. We don’t have to bother each other.”
“If I must enforce my decree, I will. I cannot allow mortals to live inside my walls.”
“We don’t want a war,” Emaria said.
“Let’s not speak hastily,” Staever whispered to her. “He isn’t Kragn. We have an army. He can’t have more than fifty.”
“We have an army at half strength, and enemies unaccounted for,” she told him firmly, “and we are here to talk.”
“Listen to her,” Turner said, and Staever swore. “If you press battle, my forces will annihilate you.”
“What forces?” Turner was deluded, yet Emaria agreed. Did she want to hear his story that badly?
Turner inclined his head. Staever jumped away from the stairwell as two engineers ascended. One of them carried a thrashing Eventhe, pinning both her arms with a single claw.
“The engineers were a motley lot, once,” Turner said as Staever gaped, “but they have evolved into the perfect workers. I speak for them all they require.”
Staever’s head swam. Eventhe couldn’t be captured–she would have died first. Kragn and half the council Police could attest.
Who are they? Where’s Arcite? Had the engineers shaken off blasts from the wand?
Only then, questioning the use of a thousand fighters and a superweapon against fifty lobsters, did he accept Turner as real.
The Architect spoke. “Search them for the key.”
The engineer not holding Eventhe patted Staever’s and Emaria’s cloaks and satchels. He stepped back, claws empty.
Turner shrugged. “The awakening is too soon to bother with you. My engineers can cut through your army like water through sand. Join us, or be gone.”
“Sorry, Turner.” Staever’s voice shook. “You aren’t awake. You’re still dreaming.”
“Wait!” Emaria shouted. The engineers blocked the exit. “Tell me about awakening. I want to know.”
“But there is little I can make you understand.” The Architect sounded like a disappointed father. “Engineers. Kill them.”
Rain began to batter the roof: every streak on the windows outlined separately against the dark city and the raging sea. Fear, or rage, or desire to protect his people, might have made Staever do it. Or the fulfillment of the prophecy he’d made to himself through Cyprus, the paradoxical calm of one’s worst fears. He’d never know.
He seized Eventhe’s untouched mug of foam, and threw the liquid in her captor’s eyes. The engineer lost focus on Eventhe, clutching his eyes in pantomime. Eventhe loosed her claws, rolled free, and struck.
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