“Don’t.” Emaria took Staever’s arm. Her claw was warm with heat from their work. “I mean–don’t sell it yet. Give me time.”
“How much time?”
“One day in the Iris Library. To find out if it matches any of the histories.”
“What makes you think it’s going to?” Though Staever knew the answer. The key was too bizarre to be modern and too real to be a legend. If they were not the first lobsters to ever lay eyes on it–if it had not fallen out of the sky that dawn–it would be in the records.
“All right, three days. But we’ve got to go. Come to me!”
Wrest echoed the summoning phrase. Their raiding crabs scampered toward them with the two other crabs they’d hidden uphill under sand-colored blankets.
Staever stacked a quarter of the glass on one of the getaway sleds Arcite and Eventhe brought, covering it with the blanket. The others followed his lead. They were in twice the danger on the way back if the council guard got wind they had something worth confiscating. Under the blankets, their glass could look like anything from a ranch-grown beetle to loose quarry sand, so the key was anonymity: a downtrodden affect nobody would bother to search. Staever, Wrest, and Emaria took up positions on three of the sleds, while Arcite offered Eventhe a ride on the fourth.
“I will not return to the city today.” She glanced back and forth at the hills.
Staever nodded approval. “Come find me when you want your share. You did well.”
Eventhe darted off, giving no indication she’d heard.
The silence was tense, each of them on high alert, none of them comforted by the vast dome of sand they could now see in the distance. “Why do we have a gang if she can leave and come back whenever she wants to?” Arcite grumbled after several minutes.
“Because I trust her to come back.” Staever leaned left, and the other three followed him onto a side road, out of sight of the widening highway.
“What if she doesn’t one day? What then?”
Staever half-watched as Arcite drew level with him. “I’ve planned for it.”
“There’s the outer ring road.” Emaria was always the first to notice the start of the council’s jurisdiction. “We’ll start seeing patrols below.”
“Thanks, Em.” Staever pocketed his mask in his belt satchel. “Mouths clear, everyone. Look alive. Or rather, don’t.”
They followed the circle road to within a thousand paces of the Eye. Other lobsters appeared around them, walking, riding crabs, sailing in land skiffs. Staever let his breath out. The crowd passing from the villages to the farm camps to the city and back diverted attention from the bulky blankets.
He spat a mouthful of grit into the road and gazed ahead to a site that would have made a foreign traveler gasp, if any ever came.
The entire city of the Eye–from the lowliest shacks around the base up to the grand towers surrounding the pupil–was built upon an enormous, perfectly smooth hill of compressed sand, rising like a pearl embroidered into the continent. Some sand highways ran the radius of the hill, but most people entered via hundreds of wooden staircases, stretched across the surface of the hill from where it met the desert. As the slope became more suitable, some wooden paths ran into packed-sand streets, while some, narrow and steep, entered dark alleys in the outskirts.
Lobsters of all colors and sizes milled around the slopes of the Eye. They haggled with slumlords at the base of the crooked staircases, unloaded their wares for the bored council Guards stationed at customs, chatted with their fellow travelers, all with the slow and weary pace of lobsters accustomed to going thirsty.
The four riders watched a family on foot scatter to make way for a clay-barge, which lumbered towards the city on three stout treads. Odds held it was full of wealthy passengers, back from the ocean. Staever resisted the urge to ask Arcite if he had any bombs left. Arcite might say yes.
The vessel approached a smooth central ramp, the widest of them all, and trundled upward toward the Pupil. Its ultimate destination, the tower built to the scale of a large village, rose high above the rest of the Eye, its many floors and rooms anchored with the miraculous properties of yellow clay.
“No patrols,” Emaria announced.
“And a hundred clear paces between here and Gattick’s gate,” Wrest added. They steered their sleds onto a transect, then to one of the inner ring roads, riding in a close pack to hide their loot from prying eyes.
“A bit of speed might be safest,” Emaria said. “The sooner this glass is in Gattick’s claw, the sooner we stop being a target for every common mugger in the Whites.”
Staever looked at her past Arcite and Wrest. Emaria was their lookout, but she was also the one who plotted paths through the least watched areas, and the one who’d spent a growing season learning the ins and outs of glass appraisal so Staever would have ammunition for haggling with their fence. Clamped in one of her back legs was the strange key they’d found secreted in the wreck. He meant to sell it without a second thought if she failed to find its significance in the Iris Library–if nothing else, it was an idiotically valuable treasure to carry around the Whites–but it would not keep him in her good graces.
A raspy voice greeted them when they drew out of sight of the checkpoint crowd. “Ten pieces for the stairway. It’s here or go through customs.”
Staever pulled his crab to a stop and held out a claw for his gang to do the same. “Gattick, you’re as blind as a dying shrimp, and about as scary. It’s me.”
“Staever?” A wizened lobster with cracks dotting his pale shell shuffled out from the shadow of the dome and cocked his head. “Damn. I haven’t gathered a toll today.”
“You’ll get your commission from Graphus.” Staever dismounted. “There’s no need to go fleecing me. And while you’re at it, go for tributes from the Iris once in a while. Nobody in the Whites has anything to give you.”
Gattick’s stairway was the thinnest and most skewed on the south-seaward arc. He himself was missing an eye and a back leg, both on the right, and covered them with a ragged jacket he held on with his left claw. He grinned like a sea monster and shambled to the sleds. “Your treasure looks as beautiful as ever.”
“That it does, Gattick,” Staever answered, tying his crab’s reins to one of the bridge’s support poles. Following Gattick’s gaze, he saw it was fixed hungrily on the key. Emaria, still holding it, gave him a hard look.
“But the key’s not for sale. Historical significance.” It’s too valuable to sell, it’s the biggest trouble magnet I’ve ever carried around, and yet…he could not shake the feeling he was doing more than a favor for Emaria. Without realizing it, he too had assumed the key was important. Was it a trick in the metal?
“Suit yourself,” the old lobster said. “That’s enough glass to make me forget about some old trinket. Graphus will be pleased to have this back in the treasury.”
“It’s not exactly back,” Staever clarified.
Gattick scratched his head. “Isn’t that what you all do? Some Pupil-dweller skims off the top of the pile, and you make sure it doesn’t leave the city for good?”
“Sometimes it’s that. Sometimes they try to skim glass directly from the source.” It was a practiced explanation, given dozens of times–to his mother, to Wrest’s little brother and sister, to drunkards at Lash’s; in the early days, to Emaria, Eventhe, and Arcite. “Glass guarantees wood’s value. The more glass private interests secret away, the less driftwood pieces are worth the city over. We steal as much glass as it takes to maintain the balance.”
“You’ve got no business sense, Staever. Keep the load for yourself one day and you could make it to the Pupil on your own.”
“Were you listening? Never mind.” Staever watched with one eye as his thieves pulled the sleds under the shadow of the bridge. “Your job is to take a cut, get the loot to Graphus, and let him wash his claws of the whole thing. So get started.”
“Truce, Staever. Nobody tells anybody how to do anybody’s job.” Gattick gestured to a shadowy vault under his footbridge, dug by claw. “Have your men keep it in the hole and I’ll have one of mine send it to the treasury.”
Staever looked over at Arcite and Wrest, Arcite holding forth on some obscure weapon or fabricated story and Wrest ignoring him. “You’re my men.”
Wrest groaned. “Staever, I was going to visit home.”
“I’ll help out. It’ll go faster.”
Gattick scratched figures in the sand while they hid the bounty. He used his right claw, keeping the left on his rags. “Thought you favored the left,” Staever commented as he climbed out of the ditch for more glass.
“Thought you had the sense not to wear a cloak ten hightides into summer,” Gattick said without looking up. “What, think winter’s gonna sneak up on you?”
“You know damn well the reason I’m wearing this. You paid for the reason.”
Staever had a piece of another lobster’s shell grafted over a wound on his abdomen from seven years prior, when he and Wrest were stealing together before Wrest joined the Militia. He’d tailed a mark through the crowd at a birthing pool–always good cover–but the mark had gotten the drop on him and stuck him with a knife.
He’d deserved it. The mark was innocent, and though Staever had never taken a life, he and Wrest had been thieves for far longer than they’d been stealing for the greater good.
Wrest had run for help to the only underworld contact nearby–Gattick, who had loaned him enough money for Staever to get a patch of donor shell grafted over his gash in a back-alley basement smelling of disinfectant sludge. Gattick had been understanding–had even waited until the graft had healed before demanding repayment–and when Graphus’s agents had approached him with a job offer, Staever had suggested Gattick as permanent go-between.
Gattick’s eyes remained fixed on the figures. Something was eluding him. “I don’t see why you’re so eager to cover it up. Makes you look dangerous.”
“Makes me look too memorable,” Staever said.
“Hasn’t killed me yet.” Gattick tapped his skull, scratched out a few more numbers, then, satisfied, looked up at the other Cuttlefish. “I’ll take the load for to twenty-thousand pieces.”
The four thieves–Emaria had jumped into the ditch as well–froze. Staever took a while to find words. “That’s the biggest payout you’ve ever given us.”
“I suppose Graphus knew what he was doing, sending you after that boat,” Gattick said. “Tough to sit on the council without learning a bit about the comings and goings.”
Emaria hauled herself out of the vault. “Or he’s getting desperate. More and more Pupil families are skimming less and less glass lately.” She squinted up at the city. “I wonder what they know that we don’t.”
“You mean that irrigation’s failed again?” Wrest put in. “Tough to forget.”
“The important thing,” Staever told them, “is how much we know that they don’t. Like Governor Graphus being a patron of thieves.” He swelled with pride as he surveyed the gleeful faces of his crew. “Or that with specialists like this–with a gang like all of you–we’ll never fail a job.”
He stepped back from the vault, seeing the city tower above him. Lobsters were as connected to their architecture as the sea was to glass, and even the residents of the Whites, poor families living in one room and shelling beetles out the window, banded together to construct homes with soaring roofs and portals. Everything was connected by spiral towers, archways, bridges, forming a web around the great Pupil tower. The beach haze hung below everything as though the Eye were attached to nothing, a myth made real, ready any moment to fall into the silence of the desert.