The General’s Offer

Kragn was waiting for Staever at the front of the column, wearing a sword and a short knife, alone. Staever quickened his pace, hoping this wasn’t bad news.

“Is something on the perimeter?” he asked as soon as Kragn was in earshot.

“All’s quiet for a mile out. Do you have a minute to talk?”

They fell into step, together leading the long strand of red and brown and pink and green dashes, threading away from the mountains.

Kragn asked, “Have you broken up any more fights?”

The general took long steps. Staever wasn’t sure what to make of Kragn’s having heard that story. Any number of lobsters might be interested to hear of strife within the camp. He was suddenly glad to be seen walking with the general: it was good to remind people whom Kragn supported.

“A few,” he admitted. “I try share the water out equally.”

“I’ve had the same problem among the soldiers,” Kragn said. “Thirst has a way of revealing the disciplined ones. We dry them out in training, but they never quite see it as real.”

Staever concealed a shudder. He and Wrest had taught the same methods of resisting thirst to the Cuttlefish. “The soldiers are fighting over water?” he asked.

“Not with their weapons. The penalty there is immediate discharge. And not all of them fight. In fact, that’s why I came to see you.”

Haze rising from the rocks obscured the edges of Staever’s vision. He couldn’t make out a single perimeter soldier.

“Fights over water are going to continue,” Kragn told him. “I came to offer you some extra security.”

“What kind of security?” Every fighter in the militia is already out on guard…

Then it hit him.

“No,” he said. “I’m sorry. Absolutely not.”

“Don’t answer hastily,” Kragn warned. “The more the peace of this camp gets damaged, the longer it’ll take to undo. My men can ensure nobody gets hurt. As a precaution. Until we find water.”

“I’m not changing my mind.” The comfort Staever got from being seen with Kragn was turning to dust. He wanted to get away.

“Is there nothing I can say to convince you?”

“I…” He stammered like a fool. “I need all your forces on the perimeter. Or something might get through.”

Kragn sighed. “I respect your conviction, Staever. We won’t speak of this again.”

He set off ahead, vanishing from view on his way back to the ring.

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The Flyer

A tiny shadow wheeled above the zigzag line of the mountains, the size of the tip of her claw at arm’s length. As Emaria watched, it dipped, hovered, then soared again.

The sun beat down on her. Her dry tail scratched against bunchgrass, and she wondered how the scrub survived without seawater. Maybe their roots are so deep they can reach water we can’t. Maybe we should dig.

A young man paused beside her. “What’s that flying thing?”

“I’m not sure.” She’d better tell Staever. Out here, all knowledge was superstition. He knew superstition.

And his map? Superstition as well?

“Ma’am?” asked the young lobster. “Are we going to stop today?”

The sky was pink with sunset. The lobster in front of her had the rough claws of a laborer but had slid up deftly as a pickpocket. His clan had stopped in their tracks to hear Emaria’s answer. If Emaria told him they planned to stop, he’d send the news up and down the column, and it would take all night to get them moving again.

Another night and morning, and people would start to die. But what else was there but the one hope of rain?

“Not yet,” she said. “Another hour. Then we’ll make camp. You can walk another hour, right?”

The lobster nodded dully and went to prod his family onward. I’ll come back in an hour and tell the truth.

She looked back to the darkening mountains. The flyer was gone.

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Xander and Crane

Crane cast a wistful glance at the Council Flagship, as its oarsmen poled it along pace by pace half a mile behind him. It was svelte, impressive in craftsmanship rather than size. The other governors–save Graphus, who preferred to hitch rides with bottom-feeders–were comfortable in its cool hold, maybe watering right now. Not him, though. Returning after boasting he could handle the desert would be one humiliation too many.

The irony was, he could handle deserts. He’d led troops against nomadic bandits, traveled miles then sat for days at a time outside some desolate cave. But this desert was wrong. Every desert ended in the sea, every desert was made of sand. The Forbidden Expanse never ended. It was made of nothing.

As groups passed him, he bent an antenna to their conversations. Lobsters wanted to know where the water was. One or two would have turned back, except they didn’t fancy making the northward journey alone.

This was better than water. Staever’s coup was collapsing. All he needed to do was give it a push.

Yet he wielded the political clout of a scrawny miner after a bad throw of the dice. He could do nothing without help.

He sighed and turned back. Time to talk to Xander.

The young governor was walking in the shade of the flagship, tailed by a couple of lobsters who looked unsure why they were there. Xander dismissed them when Crane slipped into the shadow. The polers a slow enough pace for Crane, with his bent driftwood staff, to keep up.

“Your clan?” he asked.

“They’re warming to me,” Xander replied, self-assured as though his breakdown at the ruins had never happened.

Crane suppressed his distaste. “I need your help.”

“You speak like I should be honored to offer it.”

“No, I don’t,” Crane said. “There are no pretenses out here and no room for gamesmanship. I dislike you. Immensely.”

“And I find you irrelevant.” Xander turned away. “If you don’t mind, there’s only so much shade, and I like to spread out.”

“I’m not finished.” The poles scraped out a beat. Half the rowers held up the ship while the other half drove it forth. “You made an excellent proxy in the Eye, for measures I didn’t want on my reputation.”

“Does this have a point? With our water on rations, conversations this dull are a luxury.”

You don’t sound like you’ve gone wanting. Crane said, “I’m aware you saw me as a means to advance your career, and nothing more.”

“Correct.”

“There’s no reason we can’t still be useful to each other. After the fall, certain things stuck to me that didn’t stick to you. You have influence I lack.”

“You assume I need your help.” Scrape, scrape. No sign of uncertainty in Xander’s voice, a spectacular self-delusion.

“Your clan doesn’t respect you,” Crane snapped. “Staever asked them to pretend they do. You need my help.”

“Staever wants me placid and subservient. I let him think I am. You’re not part of the transaction.”

Scrape. Crane’s walking stick outpaced the poles as he struggled to keep up. “What’s your plan?”

“You wouldn’t understand it. You dig your every word from some ancient weed-scroll of moral philosophy. You lack imagination.”

Crane planted his staff, but it slid against the rock. The desert floor seared his skeleton when he fell. He scrabbled against the ground to right himself, the staff spinning away. Xander walked on, the shade moving with him, leaving Crane in the sunlight as the poles scraped.

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Forsaken

Every time Staever checked the map, he became more certain. A mark spanning the eastern highlands matched a ridge up ahead, a web of lines beside it matched a web of crags. The grey shadow of a summer storm’s path ran to the south. There was only one problem.

“It’s a day away.” Staever passed the map to Wrest. “Have they got a forced march in them?”

Wrest fidgeted. “Maybe we can send out a party, bring some water back here?”

“For a hundred thousand?” The path wove on for miles, each ridge speckled with scrub grass. White patches drifted in the sky.

“Enough to prove the rain is real.”

“What if it only falls for ten minutes?” Staever asked. “Sea, I wish I could trust Cyprus more than I do.”

Ships were now so loaded the treads jammed routinely. Clans spread thin across the landscape. How much longer until they lose sight of each other? Until everybody is food for something creeping or flying around out here?

He said, “Some people don’t have the time it would take us to get back.”

“So we’re going?”

“I’d rather be moving.” Rather not trust. “I wonder if the ocean forsook this continent on purpose.”

“The priests would say the water is scarce to make us strong.” Wrest scratched his thorax. “Right? That’s more your department.”

With trembling arms, a mother lifted her child to a vessel rail, where two crewmen hauled him aboard. As the ship pulled away, she sat motionless in the sand.

Staever’s graft itched. “Over there.” He pointed at the mother. “Is her clan coming?”

“Wait and see.”

It wasn’t easy, but Wrest was right. The clans should protect their own. He thought about Wrest’s theology to keep from running to the woman. “Depends what priest you ask. Some of them think the idea of the sea ‘forsaking’ stuff doesn’t make sense, because everything is the sea. Some say it’s a cycle. ‘Where once was land, will then be sea’.”

“How soon?” Wrest asked. His laugh disappeared under a flurry of hacking coughs. Anxiety seized Staever. “Wrest, have you been drinking your ration?”

“I’m drinking enough.”

“I know what you’re doing. I gave the kids a ration, too.”

“Wier was coughing last night, Staev. A little one, but thirst gets worse fast. I gave them a little more. It’s not going to kill me.”

“Wrest. The sea is with us all, got it? It’ll protect them too.”

Wrest nodded. Staever hoped he’d go back to Alta and Wier and give them good news about rain. He himself headed for the grieving young mother, to ask her to keep walking for one more day, for water, for him.

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The Clay Temple

A square building squatted on the hill, with open sides and a ceiling supported by four pillars of sand. When Arcite caught up to Eventhe, she flung out a claw to stop him entering.

“Yellow clay.” She sniffed the air. “The tang grows stronger.”

“You can smell it?”

“You cannot?”

Set into the floor was a pit with a gaping mouth. Peering into it, Arcite saw empty jars and decaying wooden tools. “It’s a temple.”

Eventhe nodded. “The pit is for offerings.”

“Offerings to who?” Arcite followed her over the threshold.

Starting at one corner of the floor, a series of carved images ran left to right in lines, like the text of a scroll. Arcite picked out lobsters, all handling small lumps or carting them around. Tumps evolved into towers and piles–yellow and red clay.

The carvings descended into the offering pit, where the jars and shards of jars covered them. When they reappeared, something changed. The lobsters were joined by a creature much greater in size, though never the same creature twice. An enormous lobster in one, a manatee in the next. Then it slid into the shapes of animals Arcite had only heard of from myths–whales, giant squids, a taloned monstrosity like one of the air demons Staever was so afraid of. It was as though–

“–nobody knew what it looked like. Like they couldn’t agree.”

The same positioning, the same size: the carvers were all trying to represent the same being. What kind of animal didn’t have a body?

“I have heard a voice in this place,” Eventhe said. “As though the walls spoke. Their story is bloody.”

“What story? Do you mean really talking, or…”

“This will make it clear.” Eventhe had moved to the final panel in the sequence. It bore a pictograph simpler than the other carvings: a lone tree, a mountain, and a winding river. “The mark of Turner.”

“Turner the Architect?”

“He sealed his completed projects with this mark.”

“I still don’t get it.”

“This temple,” Eventhe said, disgust in her voice, “is a monument to worship clay. The only power Turner believed in.”

“So that big animal thing is…clay?”

“Clay personified. Clay amplified. Its power unbound, its potential unlimited.”

The explanation felt incomplete, but there was something else on Arcite’s mind. “Why did you bring me up here?”

She straightened her mask. “When I was a miner, clay was more important than water. Small grains had great power. Whoever found red clay bought drinks for the rest of us at night. Whoever found yellow clay retired to the Pupil. It was our purpose.”

“They talked like that in the Field,” Arcite said. “Clay is excess, clay is for the ocean alone because lobsters can’t handle it. Hot air. It shouldn’t hurt people.”

“It hurt.”

Arcite shut up.

“A hairline crack in a tunnel made it unstable. Someone dug up a vein of yellow, and the inspectors were trying to claim their share. They didn’t notice the fracture. I was the last one out.”

“Ev,” Arcite said, “it was you, wasn’t it? You found the yellow clay.”

“Do you intend to blame me for it?” Eventhe snapped. “I was not myself then. I was unwilling to let the yellow clay go. I stayed to protect it as the tunnel fell, then…” Her claw went again to the mask.

Arcite thought he saw underneath it–not the shadow of eyes, but the whole face. Under the cloth, Eventhe’s heart was naked. He wished he could take the burden from her, but it was so obvious she didn’t need his help that the offer would be nonsense. In a life of blurting out everything on his mind, he’d found the one thing he couldn’t say.

For a while they stood in the open temple, blown by the highland winds.

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Shael

“Wrest?” the lobster asked. Wrest relaxed infinitesimally. He’d been hoping for this one.

“Hello, Shael. It’s been a while.”

“I’ll say it has!” Shael shook Wrest’s claws, one after the other. “You know, now we can say things like this, I wanted to tell you I’m proud to know a thief. My war buddy, second to Staever himself!”

Wrest cased the room. Kragn’s bed held nothing useful, but the platform from which Shael had gotten up was half-strewn with weed-paper.

Captain Kragn had kept a meticulous log. If General Kragn kept up his habits, he’d left it out to complete after his midnight rounds.

“I was worried about you for a while,” Shael said. “You dropped off the map after we shipped home. I used to drink with some of the guys from our boat, but you…”

“Couldn’t afford it. I went back to my family.” Wrest moved toward the bed. If Shael got suspicious, he could say he wanted to rest.

“Don’t tell me they messed with your pay, too. My last term, they garnished me for damage to my armor. They should have compensated me for making me wear equipment that flimsy.”

As Wrest wandered another couple of paces, Shael asked “Hey…why didn’t you ever re-enlist?”

Shael was Kragn’s man. Wrest would not be able to explain to him how the army had made him fear being alone with himself. “Honorable discharge.”

“Right. The patrol boat incident.”

“Had to keep me quiet.” Wrest’s voice caught.

Shael laid a claw on Wrest’s back. “No reason to dredge up ancient history. You followed orders. Nobody could ask for more.”

“They were innocents, Shael!” I’ve had this memory already. He had to stay focused on the desk, only a few paces away. “For a few Field casualties we sacrificed a hundred lobsters from the Eye.”

“You don’t have to go over it. I have the nightmares too.”

“They aren’t nightmares for me. They come in the day.”

Shael turned away. Whether or not he understood didn’t matter. The weeds were in claw’s reach.

“I can see why you went back to crime,” Shael said.

“Staever and I were going to be thieves since we were little. I shouldn’t have given that up. Turns out it’s more honorable.”

“Hey now. There are good and bad soldiers, there are good and bad thieves. I’m honorable, right?”

A sheath of seaweed lay under a pile of scraps. “You’ve got honor coming through your shell. The world needs a dozen more of you.”

He pretended to trip, and jostled the desk, scattering the weeds. “Sorry!” he cried out, and bent down to rearrange them.

“I do that all the time.” Shael moved forward. “Let me help out. I know where he likes things.”

Wrest waved a claw. “It’s my mess. Look busy in case Kragn walks in.”

Perplexed, Shael returned to his post. The moment his back turned, Wrest dug through the sheath to the leaves marked with the days before the fall of the Eye. He cut a few at random, returned the rest to the heap, and placed it all back on the desk.

“All clean. I should go, Shael.”

“Of course,” Shael said. “Take care of yourself, Wrest. You’re doing everything you can to keep us safe.”

“Thank you.” Wrest stepped into the night, wishing their conversation had meant what Shael thought it had–two old friends catching up, nobody in danger, no-one stealing anything.

He tucked the pages of the personal journal of General Kragn into his waistband, touching them all the way back, like prayer.

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The Shell

From a hollow above camp, Arcite watched the Cuttlefish salt their leftovers. His life on the fringes wasn’t so bad. He was free to blow up rocks or insects, and when he could pilfer sludge, he didn’t have to share. Sometimes he descended to eat with the Cuttlefish, but the way they lured him with food like they were baiting an animal got on his nerves. More often than not he turned around halfway to the fire.

“I don’t need company,” he said. “They didn’t like me in the Eye, they don’t like me here. They won’t like me in the Clearing.”

He walked uphill from the dell with a vague idea of circling the valley, up where the grass grew in tight bunches. He could see lobsters throwing blankets out by their fires, arranging watches. Maybe he should have somebody watching his back, in case something crept out of the night to avenge the beetles he’d exploded. “Would shake things up, wouldn’t it?”

Ahead of him, as if in response, something cut at the grass.

He dodged behind a rise. The slope flattened ahead, and on it was a woman. She cut down some scrub with a sweep of her claw, then dodged around and slashed one behind her.

Arcite recognized Eventhe’s mask. His heartbeat sped up.

“It’s because she’s going to kill you if you come at her out of the shadows,” he told himself.

“Come out,” Eventhe called. “Slowly.”

He could run. But where? His space to roam was being hemmed in by lobsters.

“Stop.” Eventhe squinted as he clambered over the rise. “Arcite?”

He nodded.

“You were missed at the fire,” she said. “Staever wonders where you vanish to.”

“Does he need something blown up?” He wound toward her, staying out of claw range. “What brings you up here?”

“Training.” She shifted into her stance. Without breaking eye contact, she cut a stalk in half.

Arcite shuffled backward. “Looks…good.”

“I must stay in form.”

“Why? Makes sense, but…what’s out here to fight?”

Another punch, directed at the dirt. “If my skills are all standing between these lobsters and chaos, I do not want them to decay.”

“Chaos?” Arcite circled the edge of Eventhe’s range. “Don’t take this wrong, but doesn’t that sound like an improvement sometimes?”

Slice. “How would I take that wrong?”

Arcite gestured at the camp. “You know, you and I, we can…can get along with decay.”

Eventhe’s claws flew faster. She intended to wind herself. “My appreciation for solitude is not the same as yours.”

“Oh, I’m learning to appreciate it. Nobody down there sees me as anything but the Field on legs. You’d think I sunk the damn city by myself.”

“And you mind?” Eventhe was panting now.

“Just means I have to go up here to have fun.” He kneaded a shrub with his foot. “It makes me mad. The Field was my home. But no, the Field could never be anyone’s home. Only radicals live there. They never eat, or sleep, or play stones, or fall in love.”

Arcite wondered for the second time what was keeping him talking. “I came to the Eye because I needed to work with clay to stay sane. Of course now everyone thinks I’m crazy. Irony.”

“The belief that people cannot change is comforting.” Sometime during his blather, Eventhe had stopped punching. “It absolves us of responsibility for our souls.”

“What about you? What were you before you changed? What’s so different about your solitude?”

Eventhe walked toward him out of her training space, leaving a near-perfect circle in the scrub. “I was a miner and a midwife. No lobster is more alone than those.”

“None? Are you sure?” Sense ran giggling from his mind.

“If you do not understand, you fail to grasp something about the birthing pools.”

“It’s not that.” He was searching for proof he could be as much of a loner as she was. “It’s the shell.”

“The shell?”

“That conch in your room. You always put it out of the way when we go to ground there.” Instead of answering, Eventhe pruned bits from her circle. “That must have been from someone, or meant something, or…”

She stepped close enough for him to distinguish the black of her eyes from the weave of her mask. “You are in a mood to tell stories tonight, I see. Fine.”

She hadn’t walked away.

“I returned from the mines in need of work, and could find none except for the midwife guard. They often had vacancies.”

“Yeah, I bet–”

“Do not interrupt. You want stories, you will hear mine. They set me beside one of the pools with a pike in case anybody entered seeking water.” She scraped the dirt, slow and thoughtful. “Some days, someone did.”

“And you fought?” She would jump on him for interrupting again, but staying silent was taking monstrous effort.

“I stood between drying thieves and pregnant women and drove the pike at them until the others dragged them off. After a while, I discovered the pike was getting in the way.”

“And…the shell?”

“A couple from a far village needed a pool. They thought they had to pay.”

“Hold on–the pools are free?”

“The council knew restricting birth rights would foster revolution. But I could not convince the farmers. I had to take the shell.” She touched the shape in her pocket. “Since then I have felt it would be unwise to lose it.”

Did everybody else understand this? “Were you wearing the mask then?”

“The mask?”

“Yeah–I know it’s from the clay mines, and I thought your story was from there–because of the solitude…”

She spun and walked away from him. “The mines?” he told himself. “Idiot! Idiot, idiot…“

“Follow!” Eventhe called. Confused as Arcite was, his mind and legs were in total agreement. He followed.

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Night Watch

It was night. Wrest clutched a red clay bomb on a deck pitching in a vast ocean. He raised his arm and threw.

The bomb spiraled over the waves, its target a ship bristling with weaponry. Except, Wrest thought as he stumbled over a shrub, it wasn’t. Its gunwales were lined with passengers screaming for mercy.

The red clay rent everything in two. The halves of the ship broke into fourths. Wrest lost control of his body, buffeted by shouts and laughter from behind him, and the screams of the lobsters lost at sea.

He jerked out of the memory. He’d reached a dell on the edge of the highland camp. Plants covered the ground, scrawnier than kelp or grain but denser on the ground. Emaria called it “grass.”

The camp was alive. Three hunting parties had returned in the afternoon, each with a catch. Somebody broke open a stash of sludge-water, and lobsters danced to music coming from many fires. Arcite brought the Cuttlefish a whole beetle, in only four or five pieces this time. Staever and Emaria managed to turn it into something edible.

For a night, they could feel safe. Who’s going to protect me?

The army formed their ring around the camp, exchanging shifts. Wrest sometimes joined in, though he would seek out a high promontory or a broad field to minimize his chances of running into Kragn. Tonight, though every inch of his skeleton told him it was an awful idea, he would risk the opposite. He didn’t know what had brought on the memory–he never did–but for once he thanked it, for reminding him why he was going to rob a general.

Kragn pitched his tent at the line, a spacious pavilion where the general slept, ate, and took visitors–though he never slept through an entire watch. Before the party at camp died, Kragn would make an inspection.

At midnight, with the Land Moon at its apex, Kragn emerged from the tent and headed toward the perimeter.

Wrest held his breath and moved in. When the general had been Captain Kragn of the Ocean Patrol, he’d considered his own safety subordinate to his men’s, posting a skeleton guard at his cabin so as not to steal lobsters from the watch. One of two people would be present in the tent. Wrest could get what he wanted from either of them.

There was a glow inside–the watch was awake. If he ran into anybody before he entered, he would talk his way out and run.

Drawing one last deep breath, he strode three paces into the tent–and saw one lobster, reading a scroll.

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The Invincible Staever

Noon the next day, as Staever watched the column from an overlook, his thoughts returned to rain. The sky was blue, limitless, and empty.

A scratch came from the rocky path to his perch. His instinct kicked in and he spun to leap at whatever came over the crest. His mind conjured herds of savage crawfish and flocks of winged demons.

Two heads bobbed into view: Wrest and Emaria. Staever relaxed.

“How did you get up here?” he asked.

“Saw your tracks on the slope,” Wrest said. “Emaria said you’d be up here brooding.”

Staever cocked a brow. “I don’t brood. And you two shouldn’t be up here. It isn’t safe.”

Emaria interrupted. “Can I tell you something?”

“Anything,” he said, guardedly.

“I know this is…out of character, for me, but…you’re thinking too much.”

Staever agreed: this couldn’t be Emaria talking. Either she’d been replaced by an impostor, or Wrest had begged her to rehearse something. “Should I stop making decisions? Or quit reading the map you gave me?”

“No, the map is fine, but–”

Wrest jumped in. “You’ve had your head in weed-scrolls the whole journey, obsessing. It’s not like you.”

“You know what’s not like me? Leading a hundred thousand lobsters on a long march to nowhere.” Words poured out of him. Blood rose behind his eyes. “I have no idea what is and isn’t like me anymore. I have so many souls riding on me there’s no room left for me. What if something comes off that peak and carries someone off, and I could have read about how to kill it? What if a family dries out while I’m not paying attention? What if someone decides they want my job?”

He was shouting by the time he caught Wrest and Emaria signing to each other. “Sorry, am I messing up your script?”

“We listened to you,” Emaria said. “Listen to us. We’re worried. You’re so busy looking for danger you don’t notice we’re actually getting somewhere.”

“We’ve lost people–”

“We’re moving a city,” Wrest said. “People die in cities. The best commanders don’t come back with everybody. Even Kragn lost a few soldiers when that ridge went loose.”

Emaria took up the thread. “People died on the council’s watch. You care a lot more than they ever did.”

“Who’s to say they didn’t?” Staever slumped. “We never heard what they talked about in those back rooms. Maybe what they did in the Eye is what caring looks like.”

“See, now I know you’re talking out of your tail,” Wrest said, but his expression was uncertain. In the Eye, they’d been paid because the Pupil-dwellers were evil: it had done no good to question that. Now Staever had altogether too much leisure to ponder Crane’s mindset.

Emaria touched his claw. “There’s caring, Staever, and there’s what you’re doing right now.”

“Obsessing,” Wrest reminded.

“If you want to know who’s right, look at the governors,” Emaria said. “Crane’s holed up in the flagship, not speaking to anybody, and Xander is begging thieves for a job. While you…”

“Wait, he’s talked to you as well?” Xander had approached him several times–asking for a clan, a wagon, anything at all to push around.

Emaria went on like she hadn’t heard his question. “While you are beloved throughout the camp.”

Staever could have talked longer about Xander suffering, but then Emaria’s words sunk in. “You’re joking.”

“You should hear how they talk,” Wrest said. “Alta said an old lady thinks Xander’s axe bounced off you. My favorite story is the one where you summoned the manatees yourself to cleanse the Eye of injustice.”

“What, they think I destroyed the city?”

“No, usually they betray you. You scare them off by calling a sandstorm to fill their hovercraft.”

Creaks of wheels and strains of conversation emanated from the column. It was already more than half gone: he recognized the Flagship, which traveled near the rear.

“I waited too long.” He hurried down the path, checking once to see if Wrest and Emaria were behind. “Come to me!” His crab thundered up the slope, trailing its sled. He cracked the reins, and sped off past the column, racing toward the head.

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Graphus’s Penance

Graphus was sharing dinner with the proprietors of the Two Moths Gaming House when someone mentioned Staever was walking the camp. A moment before, he’d been marveling at the ability of the brothers to recount the worst Twelve-Stone games of their lives while lost in a desert. Now, a bit of salted clam halfway to his mouth, he forgot he was eating.

“I did what I had to,” he murmured.

“Eh?” one of the Moths asked. “Gonna finish that clam?”

“I apologize.” To cover his embarrassment, Graphus tossed the scrap his way. The man had watered less than he had. “I didn’t know I spoke out loud. I was recalling a game of my own. Capture on three different nodes, no water between them. But finish your story first.”

The Moth launched into a tangent about women he’d known in a Long Reach village. Graphus watched the camp while the brothers droned on and interrupted each other. Around where he lay, a thin plank between his body and the sun-scorched rocks, shelters packed tighter than shops around a Whites waterhole. Being from the Eye, a whole city built as a shelter from wind, lobsters knew how to handle hot siroccos from the east. Some draped cloth over posts. Some had cobbled together whole frames big enough for their families. One shelter consisted of three wagons pounded together in a triangle, and at least one of its neighbors was halfway to copying its example.

Staever appeared, catching the attention of the two women who guarded the pyramids. One of the builders grunted and went on working. The other went to Staever with a question. Graphus held his head up. If they had to encounter each other, he would not avert his eyes like a child.

“That’s him!” The hungry Moth cut across his brother’s lament for a claw band he’d dropped in the ocean. Both craned their antennae toward Staever.

I’m the reason he’s there at all, Graphus thought, as Staever made his way along a row of hovels cannibalized from a desert cruiser. I’m the reason we’re all here. Without me we’d be building another Eye.

“Don’t you know him?” one of the Moths asked.

“He used to work for me,” Graphus said. “I was going to tell you about my game…”

The Moth waved him off. “Call him over. I want to know what goes on in that guy’s head.”

“He’s a lobster who feels pain more acutely than most do.”

“Call him. He’s probably coming here anyway.”

“I can’t.” Graphus knocked the rest of the clam loaf into the sand. The Moths stared at him. “We…had a disagreement. About how to run the journey. I…”

How could he finish? Half of him expected Staever to be grateful. The other half welcomed all Staever’s hatred, the price Graphus had known beforehand.

“I doubt he’d want to see me.” He mumbled farewell to the bemused Moths.

There must be a way to do penance. Graphus beat an aimless path through the mobile torchlit shantytown. Every desert ends in the sea. The exodus had no shortage of troubles. Perhaps he could solve one.

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