“Buy some yellow clay, sir? Mined fresh from the chasms of the Last Isles.” A small lobster dodged out of a doorway in front of Staever, trying to take up the narrow alley with his slight bulk.
Staever sighed. “You’re from the Last Isles, no question. Your accent’s authentic. What I take issue with is your product.”
The boy faltered. Staever betted people tended not to pay him this much attention. “It’s fresh from–”
“No, it’s not. Any idiot can tell that’s dead clay you spat in. When I’m rich enough to pay for dirt, I’ll come back.”
The boy regained his senses and slunk away. Staever’s annoyance softened.
“Here,” he called after the boy, who was about to disappear around the corner. He dropped ten carved pieces of driftwood into the young lobster’s claw. “Take this. Are you an orphan?”
“Buy your family some water. A bit of food, too. Lots of people think it’s pointless, but variety helps.”
Struck dumb for the second time, the boy could only gaze at the pieces.
“Don’t blow it on sweets, or I’ll want it back with interest.” Staever turned to leave.
“Blessings of the sea on you, my friend!”
“Both seas? Water and sky?”
“And all the islands in between!” the boy shouted, scuttling away into the warren of alleys.
Stepping onto a wider street, where pedestrians and saddled crabs beat paths under carved bridges, Staever saw a gaggle of children clustered behind an insect butcher’s. He altered his route, unsure whether they’d seen what happened in the alley. Twenty thousand pieces was a lot, but not enough to water every child in the Whites.
When I fence the key, things will be different. He thought of Emaria, holed up with it in the Iris Library. I’ll come back and buy water for every one of them. I’ll buy them all apartments in the Pupil tower.
The children’s stares burned Staever’s carapace as he climbed a ramp around a minaret of sand. Three floors from street level, he could still hear the vendors shouting at destitute crowds to buy their wares–weeds grown in the outer farms and insects hunted in the desert, crayfish milk and hot foam, claw-carved trinkets for luck and blessings of the ocean written on scrolls. At this time of the afternoon all their patters grew hoarse. The insect butcher sounded so far past his once-daily splash of water he might be sampling his own wares: food would allow a lobster to go longer without water, but only water did he truly need.
He walked partway around a circular bridge, squeezing past a family with a mumbled apology, looking for a bridge to the central tower. Finding it, he crossed it to a wooden door, carved with a simple tale in pictographs: Khalis, the Desert King, stealing sand from the stars and fashioning it into buildings. Staever rapped a few times.
“Hello?” he called.
No reply. He knocked again.
“Mom? Are you in there?”
Still no response. The vendors continued to yell.
“Mom, on three I’m going to let myself in.” He counted aloud, then eased the door open.
The apartment consisted of two rooms. The small entry served as a living room, with wooden platforms for lying on stacked against the golden-yellow walls. Scrolls and cookware were strewn across them.
A red blur dodged out of the bedroom ahead and he spun on instinct, jumping away from the front door into the room. He landed on the edge of one of the wooden benches and sucked in his breath, thanking water and sky he hadn’t banged his graft a second time. His attacker hurtled past him and halted in the doorway. As Staever’s eyes met hers, the other lobster dropped a shell-dagger to the floor and lurched backwards, breathing hard.
Staever ran to help her. “I was hoping we could skip it this time, Mom.”
He eased her into the bedroom, where she dropped down on her mattress of loose sand. Taiga rolled over and smiled at her son. “Don’t ever be an aging thief. I get paranoid every time I can’t see who’s coming up the ramp.”
“You haven’t lost any skill with the dagger,” Staever rubbed his back where he’d landed on the furniture. “I’m lucky to be alive.”
“Flatterer.” Taiga eased into the mat. “I wish you wouldn’t speak like that. Are you staying safe?”
“Safe as a hired thug can stay.”
“Now don’t tell lies. You’re no thug. You steal for the public welfare.” Her eyes crinkled. “I never did that.”
“I steal for my dinner. And to piss off the Pupil. Graphus can do what he wants with–” He stopped. “That can wait. I came to see how you’re doing. You’re too sick to be jumping at shadows.”
Taiga’s reply drowned in a coughing fit. Staever steadied her with his claw while the dry heaving wracked his mother’s body. She blinked back tears when she calmed.
“Mom,” Staever began carefully, “when was the last time you bathed?”
“Oh, you know.” She didn’t meet his eyes. “When you’re as old as I am, it gets to be less important…”
“Answer the question.”
“I have water stored away,” Taiga said. “I’ve rationed it out. I drink enough.”
How much could she hide? Staever could still hear the hoarse peddlers through Taiga’s window. “What about the local well?”
“Bone-dry. It’s all anyone talks about lately: why the irrigation channels failed, how long until the engineers get them working again, what we’d like to do to them if they keep dragging their feet…” Taiga shook her head. “The only people that can afford trips to bathe now are the rich folk with clay-engines. And the thieves with good contracts.”
“Some people in the Iris own crabs,” Staever pointed out.
“No good if the crab goes thirsty too.”
He clasped her claw and found it as dry as driftwood tinder. “Listen, Mom,” he whispered, checking the window to make sure nobody overheard, “I hit the biggest score of my life today. I can get you some yellow clay. We both know the black market. You can bathe whenever you want.”
“Would the Whites’d let me keep a clay-craft here without descending on me?” Taiga asked. “How are you always describing those sorts of things? ‘Death magnets’?”
“Fine. We’ll buy you passage on somebody else’s.”
“Pupil types don’t take passengers. Do they need the money?”
“One ride!” Staever’s voice rose. “One drink won’t–”
“Look at me.”
For a moment, Staever was a child again, sitting in his yard with Wrest–who had dwarfed him even at a young age–drawing up plans to steal the pearls from Governor Crane’s cloak in the middle of a council session. Taiga spoke with the authority she’d had then, standing in the back door of their hovel, telling them she was going to do something a little dangerous.
It’s no different from the other jobs. If I don’t come back in three days…
…take the money from the jar, and go to Wrest’s parents, Staever would finish. At six years old, he knew the speech by heart.
Today, years later, Taiga said, “My rations will last me until the waterhole comes back.”
Staever had lost the argument, wasting time mixing up the present and past. He deflated. “It’ll happen. The sea comes back. It’s a hard faith, that’s all.”
“What’s that bastard have to do with anything?”
“Your father believed in The Eye,” Taiga snapped. “He trusted the engineers. He knew where the hope lay for this city.”
“Yeah. In someone else. My father couldn’t fight and he couldn’t rule.”
“Cyprus worked for what was right.” Taiga spoke haltingly, replaying the kind of memories that took a great effort. “Just not by fighting. Or by ruling.”
She was fond of mentioning his father, but obliquely. Staever was fine with it staying oblique. He’d known all he needed to ever since he grew old enough to understand how people could hurt each other. Cyprus had gotten bored. Taiga had borne a son to a man who would never look at the child.
“Whatever he did, it’s taking a damned long time to help,” he said.
A sharp knock against the door interrupted them. Taiga pushed herself up from the bed.
“No more ambushing, Mom.” Staever helped her back down. “I’ve got this one.”
“Take the dagger.” But the door had already swing wide. Taiga relaxed at the sight of Emaria, out of breath and holding the key before her like an amulet. “Emaria, dear. It’s nice to see you.”
“You too, Taiga.” Emaria turned to Staever. “You’ve got to come down to the Library. Now. I found out what this is.” Without another word, she headed back out the door.
Staever faltered, glancing at his prone mother, but Taiga was already on her feet, shooing him out. “She’s getting ahead! Go! I’ll still be here.”
“Right.” With a wave of his claw, Staever hurried out of the apartment.
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