Arcite wasn’t in his usual tub at Lash’s. The patrons directed them to a tavern on the north-landward arc, where Arcite drifted in and out of awareness in a sludge-water bath, his legs moving lazily. A slovenly, oddly-proportioned attendant asked if they’d be able to cut strange character off.
“He said he’d blow up the place.” Arcite opened his eyes halfway as Staever and Wrest lifted him from the tank, muttering a threat he was too drunk to finish.
“Guy’s good at two things,” Staever said as they dragged their partner across the floor. “Blowing things up and drinking. Good thing he drinks so hard he’ll never do both at once.”
Arcite revived a little in the cool evening air. When he recognized Staever, he said something sounding like “My cut…”
“Nope. Gattick’s late on the delivery.”
“I’ve got a tab in there,” Arcite groaned.
Emaria, who had been sheltering on a side street, sidled up. “Can we go? There’s a yard full of prawns giving me looks.”
Arcite wheezed at her. “Gattick’s a bastard. I bet he sold the glass himself.”
Staever tried to decide whether this would win him Arcite’s vote. Arcite helped by howling, “Graphus is a myth!”
“We’ve got to find Ev,” Staever told the others. “I want this resolved so I can start looking for a fence.”
“Me too. We have to submit to the council by midnight if we want to be heard tomorrow,” Emaria said over her shoulder. “And the council doesn’t listen without five petitioners.”
They would have to petition the council of governors for access to the Forbidden Expanse. That lengthened the list of reasons he’d be voting no. “They don’t listen anyway.”
“They can’t flout the rules of the chamber. If we have five petitioners, it forces them to debate.”
She paced ahead while Staever wondered if they were talking about the same governors.
The four Cuttlefish turned onto North Pool Street. In front of them, a crowd pressed toward three burly lobsters in a doorway, who held them at bay with pole-spears. Staever swore. “Em, what’s the birthing hour this hightide?”
“One after dark…” Emaria said, then added, “Oh.”
“This’ll be a while,” Wrest said. “We’ll go around.”
Two of the guards parted their staves and allowed a young man to escort a woman through the door. Her tail was heavy with eggs, a few of which she would manage to hatch in one of the pools of water inside. Several lobsters in the crowd rushed for the opening, but the guards crossed their poles while others jabbed around their flanks at the crowd.
Staever led the gang through a back-alley shortcut around the birthing house. Somewhere in the dark, Arcite said, “Should stop laying eggs.”
“What?” asked Staever and Emaria at the same time.
“You heard me. Nobody has any water, and they’re hatching more lobsters to drink all the water we don’t have. Meanwhile those pools they dump the eggs in could water us all for days, but they’re sitting behind armed guards. Since when do we respect armed guards?”
They emerged on the other side of the mob. “Remind me to slap you when you’re sober,” Staever told Arcite. “I can’t bring myself to right now.”
Eventhe’s home was a room in a hostel for transient miners, dank and remote enough for the Cuttlefish to use as a safehouse of last resort. The oblong building was so ugly no lobster would have tolerated it if it hadn’t been temporary. It squatted on the desert floor at the head of a road leading to the latest open shaft, and would squat there until the mine was tapped out of clay.
Emaria didn’t want to bring the key into the barracks, so Staever left her outside to babysit Arcite. As she coaxed him to a roadside shelter and they faded from view, Staever wondered once again where she had come from. Though they’d found her in a trash pit, she never quite understood the language of the Eye’s seediest corners, its barracks and black markets. Wrest agreed she must have been highborn, but they could never come up with anything else.
She was the first hire Staever and Wrest had made after getting back into the business, dirty and defiant despite sleeping on the street. They paid her to keep watch while they ransacked a house in the Pupil’s shadow, she fled alongside them when the shrimp started howling, and before Staever knew it, the Cuttlefish were three. What Pupil-dweller could tell a story like that?
In the hut, they passed a common area where tenant miners gambled with bits of shell, tossing clawfuls and betting on how they would land. They whooped and cursed under the wavering light of torches.
Two miners lounged at the end of the hallway, one of them crunching a bit of bug in his mouth. “You’re lost, prettyboy,” the other one said, rising from his corner. Wrest stepped forward and glared at him.
“We’ve got business. Clear out.”
The miner was heavyset, but Wrest was bigger, and his grey shell was pockmarked with scars. The miner hesitated. “You some kind of thug?”
“Some kind,” Wrest replied. “I’m Lieutenant Wrest. Second Eye Militia. And you’re in my way.”
“Second Militia?” The miner scrambled backwards, clearing the door. “You’re one of Kragn’s boys.”
“Was.” Wrest eased the door open without another word. Staever followed, patting the miner on the shoulder. “No hard feelings.”
The chamber on the other side was the largest room in the building, its uneven edges dug by claw. When Wrest cracked the door, a shaft of torchlight spilled into the pitch-dark room and landed on a lobster, masked, stretched on the floor.
“Ev?” Wrest went to her, not noticing Staever silently but violently making the Cuttlefish signal for no.
The moment Wrest stepped within a pace, Eventhe launched herself into him. Both sprawled into the doorway. Wrest scrabbled to right himself while the miners dashed away, but Eventhe kicked and scratched too hard for him to find his feet. They wrestled each other in the entrance to the room.
“Dammit, Wrest, you know better than to wake her up when she’s meditating!” Staever shoved past them into the room, getting a leg pinched for his trouble. “She’s not herself!”
Wrest’s shell-blade glinted in the torchlight as it flashed into his claw. Eventhe’s claw darted out and the blade slid across the floor. Wrest raised his claws over his face.
“Stop!” Staever roared, with such fury Eventhe froze where she stood. He was shrouded in shadow in the corner, holding a perfect conch shell.
“Ev, I need you to snap out of it, or I’ll smash this before even you can save it.”
Eventhe backed away from Wrest, who kept his claws raised. She looked to Staever, to Wrest, then back at the shell, and blinked.
“I am sorry,” she said to Wrest. “I was dreaming.” She turned to Staever. “Put it back.”
“At once.” Staever returned the shell to the only furniture in the room, the slab where Eventhe slept. Wrest took a torch from a bracket in the hallway and closed the door behind them.
“Why have you come?” Eventhe asked.
Staever forced himself not to say, Because we’re your only friends. “We’re here about the key.”
“Ah. You have sold it. You are here to deliver my share.” Eventhe looked less interested in the prospect of a pile of driftwood pieces than a crab presented with an engineering schematic.
Wrest said, “It can’t be sold” and Staever said, “We haven’t yet” at the same time.
“Then you have discovered it means something.”
Staever told her the salient parts of Emaria’s story. By filling in gaps in each other’s explanations, Staever and Wrest explained how the key–allegedly, Staever asserted–fit the lock on the seal around the Clearing.
Eventhe’s mask wrinkled. “I want no part of this city if it is tainted with yellow clay. I had a lifetime’s worth of that poison in the mines.”
“It’s not,” Wrest said hastily. “The Last King had a plan. The key is proof. This might be the secret to cleaning the place up again.”
“What makes you believe this?” Eventhe asked.
Wrest flushed. “Well–the key–”
“Isn’t proof, is it?” Staever interrupted, frustration getting the better of him. “The key could do some real good here, in the Eye, and you’d throw that all away for some lost city which might–might–be habitable, or might have spent two hundred years getting worse. What if nothing’s changed?”
“You agreed to the vote.”
“So we could put this to rest.”
“What are you afraid of?” Wrest asked.
“Afraid?” Staever paced his quarter of the chamber. “Nobody’s gone that way since the exodus. The journey alone could kill us. Not to mention the attention it’ll attract if we petition the council. Do you think I want to see any of you in prison? You or Em or Arc under the axe?”
“An alternative,” Eventhe said.
Staever started. He’d forgotten she was listening. The masked lobster sat, mulling over whatever she’d heard.
“Great,” Staever spat. “I’ve lost your vote too.”
Eventhe walked to the door. “If we are putting it to a vote, let us do it soon. I should sleep.”
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