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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.
“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.”
“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–
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.
Wrest whipped the crab into life.
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