Now for the hard part. Staever regretted storming off before taking a drink from the burst canals. Thousands of lobsters shouted his name, and he was too dry to shout back.
He wanted to limp to the sea and throw up, dig a cave, hide. But he’d given up those luxuries by appearing on the bluff.
“Listen closely!” he shouted, and quiet rippled across the camp. “We will be traveling a road nobody’s taken for hundreds of years. The journey will be long, and dangerous. We can’t afford to discount any legends about the Forbidden Expanse, not air demons, not the South Wall–” he touched the roll of paper through his satchel “–not even weather.”
“Though they could also be totally unfounded!” Staever pinched himself as Emaria took a place at the shells. Scaring them would squander a lot of precarious goodwill. “The council wouldn’t want us to know about an alternative to living under their claws. We know the Pupil-dwellers rewrote their own histories. They could have rewritten the Expanse.”
How sure are we they weren’t afraid of it too? The crowd booed the council at the right moment. He couldn’t waste what Emaria had given him.
“I’ll be navigating, so under no circumstances is anyone to take any path unless I’ve decided it’s safe. The most important thing is not to take risks, and to stay together.”
He stopped to take a breath, using it as cover to make sure they were listening. They were.
“Everybody fall in with your families and their families. Each clan is responsible for its members, and clans will remain together at all times. Those without families, or with fewer than five relatives accounted for, fall in with a larger group. No, no, not yet!” he interjected as lobsters started to mill about, chattering and shouting for their loved ones. “Wait until tomorrow. You have all night to find them.”
That pacified the shufflers, at least in the front quarter of the crowd. “I expect every able-bodied adult to hunt insects. The land’s been undisturbed for hundreds of years, so we should be able to pick off whole herds.” Emaria smiled at him, and strength flared up within him. “Water…we will find along the way. The sea’s never far away. Even in the mountains, it will provide.”
The priests cheered, but nobody else did. Too late, Staever remembered how many of them thought the Greater Mirror, the sea, was now an enemy or a tool of one. Soon, they would hear about the capabilities of manatee coral, but tonight they could trust the ocean to provide nothing but misery and death.
They may not have been wrong. Staever had little enough faith in his own plan. For the love of the sea, he was trusting Cyprus with their lives.
“Any threats, or lost walkers, fall to me and my gang: Wrest, Emaria, Arcite, Eventhe.” He pointed to each of them. “You’re scared, you’re confused, find one of us.”
A conch note in the front caught his attention. Lash was with one of the other thieves from the market, catching his breath from the alarm. He waved his claw feebly, while the other shouted, “Behind you! Xander’s coming!”
Would’ve appreciated that warning a few days ago.
Xander’s three dozen trapped them on the ridge, cutting Kragn’s weary force off both ends. The governor himself advanced toward the line of megaphones.
Before Staever could jump the slope, one of the police twisted his claws behind his back. Another lobster did the same to Emaria, while two got the drop on Wrest. Staever’s blade slipped from his belt. Arcite fumbled for a ball of clay, but Xander himself put a sword to his throat. “By the way,” he said, “we know.”
“Kill us,” Emaria said. “Let them watch you do it.”
A sharp crack punctuated her words as Eventhe slammed two Guards’ heads together. She let out a cry and ran at Xander, three steps from tearing his head off.
Around the second step, Xander pressed the blade deeper into Arcite’s neck. The bomber’s eyes rolled in his head, meeting hers, not scared but uncomprehending. Eventhe faltered midstep. Nobody went near her.
Xander dragged Arcite to an amplifier. “As commander of the council Guard, I place these five lobsters under arrest for conspiracy, treason, espionage, piracy, and theft of a ship. Throw them in the dungeons.”
A guard beside Xander said, “We don’t have dungeons anymore, sir.”
“Just–take them away!”
“Stay where you are,” said a voice from the end of the ridge. Wrest held both claws to his eyes and breathed deep.
Xander looked around.
The remains of Kragn’s army were squeezing the Cuttlefish, the governors, and Xander’s police between two advancing lines. Kragn himself strolled behind the seaward front as though pitting the Eye Militia against its own civilian security was a move he’d practiced countless times.
“Orders?” The guard beside Xander didn’t know where to point his blade.
“Split evenly and engage!” Two of the governors hurled themselves down the back of the hill, scrambling into the dark.
At each end of the bluff, swords clashed: a fresh, small group of elite council Guard against a tired and battered Militia with overwhelming numbers. Anyone’s fight. Police and soldiers tumbled down into the crowd. Whenever a Militiaman fell, some lobsters of the Eye gathered to shield them.
“Form up around me!” Xander ordered, still clinging to Arcite. “How many dead?”
“No dead, sir. Eleven prisoners.” His captain backed up to him.
“Prisoners? I hired you to fight.”
“We can’t fight the militia! You hired us from the militia!”
The guard holding Staever was trying to join the fight now, searching for a replacement to keep his prisoner under control. Staever struck him in the face, then lunged for his sword, pulling it free. He struck with the flat of the blade and sent the policeman over the edge.
Right next to him, Wrest stopped a sword with his claw, then another. Staever knew the look on his face. Best to leave him alone until things resolved. “Em?”
“Over here, with Eventhe.” He couldn’t see her. “Get Xander before he does anything stupid.”
“Anything else, you mean?”
Xander slung Arcite around like a dead insect, bellowing a new order into the conches every few seconds. Kragn passed through his army, most of whom were corralling prisoners. He lifted Arcite away from Xander, carried him to Staever, and laid him down. Arcite scuttled to hide behind Wrest.
“Staever,” Kragn said into a megaphone, “the Eye Militia would be honored to protect you on your way to the Clearing.”
The battle was over. Staever noticed all eyes were back on him. How could he not accept? It was a golden opportunity to abdicate responsibility: put the exodus in Kragn’s claws, stay on as a figurehead, give the expedition a leader that knew what he was doing.
Only Wrest, standing at Staever’s tail, gave him pause. The fire in his eyes from the fight had died.
He asked, “Could I have a minute to talk it over with my second?”
Kragn nodded, and caught Wrest’s eye. “Lieutenant Wrest.”
“General,” Wrest mumbled back, and dragged Staever off to a corner of the ridge.
“We need him,” Staever began. “I know you don’t like him–”
“Don’t like him, be damned. It’s what he can make people do that scares the piss out of me. What he made me do.”
“He’ll only have the power we give him,” Staever hissed. “We need him.”
“That’s too much power already.”
“Our list of assets on the Expanse is damn thin without an army.”
“You said yourself the whole Forbidden Expanse thing could be a lie.” Wrest watched Crane and Xander stand rigidly in the light from the soldier’s torches.
“That was Em, not me. Also, if we say yes, we can have him in eyeshot the whole way. Send him off into the desert, he’s liable to turn rogue.”
This threw Wrest. “If I can’t stop you,” said the big lobster, “you’d better be serious about it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Make Kragn fire his colonels. Or tell them all to meet with you every hightide. Put the army under your claw.”
If anybody tried to put him in command of anything else before midnight, Staever would slap all hundred thousand lobsters in turn.
“The only way this is going to work is if you’re in charge,” Wrest said. “Fine, it’s irrational. Rationality falls apart against the enemy anyway.”
The governors who had thrown themselves off the embankment had sheepishly returned. Crane and Graphus stood with them. Emaria was at the conches trying to pacify the confused crowd, while Arcite and Eventhe were avoiding each other, again. Kragn watched him and Wrest in polite silence.
“With conditions,” he said to the crowd, “we may accept Kragn’s offer.”
Kragn nodded. The Militiamen raised a cheer.
“Back to business,” Staever said. The logistics of moving thousands of lobsters across a continent grew more intimidating the darker it became. “All crab-sleds and vessels are now public property.”
The wealthy lobsters raised an uproar. He waited for it to die.
“All other possessions are still property of their owners, but we need those vehicles to carry the sick, the young, and the elderly. And yes, you’re all sick. That’s why we’re going. But I need you to ride only if you absolutely can’t walk.”
He had to leave it there, trusting the Pupil-dwellers to see the wisdom of his plan. If not, they could squeeze their ships through the mountain crags without his help.
“Tonight we organize into clans and find who needs to ride. We’ll leave at first light.” I can’t just say good night. They need to hear something else. “I know this seems scary. Dangerous. A bit ill-advised.” Emaria gave her familiar shut-up signal. “But imagine what’s waiting. Enough water for everyone for the first time in our lives.” He swallowed. “When we wake up tomorrow we’ll head through those mountains, into the highlands and down to the southern sea. If you come along…I can promise you a home.”
The crowd roared. Weary, dehydrated lobsters began chanting while he contemplated the magnitude of his lie. He couldn’t promise them anything, not even a swift death by air demon.
He looked back at his gang. At Wrest, asking Arcite what Xander meant by we know, at Emaria talking to a librarian and Eventhe retreating in the shadows. He could promise them one thing: every effort five thieves could make.
Crane approached, untying the cords of his elaborate cloak. “Take this. Save my city, if you can do better than us.”
“Keep it,” Staever replied. “It’s not wilderness gear.”
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