“Recorded history of this continent starts about a thousand years ago,” Emaria began. “Lobsters have been here for longer, but there was no need for written language before there were cities, and there were no cities before the Clearing.”
Staever waved her on. “Skip to the good part.”
“It helps to start at the beginning.”
“It helps me, all right?”
Emaria wore a hard expression. Staever decided to change the subject. “What did we do before then?”
“Followed the water, and hunted insects as best we could. Then came Khalis.”
“The Desert King,” Wrest piped up.
“He figured out how to build from sand, and gathered lobsters in a desert to the south, around a great bay.”
“Where the best sand was, right?” Staever asked. “Up here was a distant second.”
“Right. Weed scrolls pop up then. Building records, at first, but then epics about the heroism of the engineers and the ancient nomads. With the city came doctors, farmers, sea priests, governors, and everyone else.”
“Hold on,” Wrest interjected. “All those stories I used to hear–the ones where Khalis raises a great city by the power of the sea…” he gesticulated, “…they said it wasn’t another pile of sand. The Desert King had something else.” He looked from Emaria to Staever, embarrassed. “Were they true?”
“There’s always truth in legend,” Staever said.
“The history of the nomads is distorted,” Emaria cautioned, “but there’s one part we can verify. Khalis got ahold of manatee coral.”
Wrest drew in his breath. Staever said, “I knew it. Every time the sea is giving power to some great hero, the manatees are there. The priests write about them like they’re organs of the sea. Heralds.”
He realized Wrest and Emaria were staring at him. “What? Em isn’t the only one who reads. I didn’t learn all that scripture by accident.”
“Do you see them as heralds?” Wrest asked.
“I’ve never seen one.”
“If we could get back to the facts,” Emaria said. “Manatees in the ocean work with ores that are useless to us on the surface. We traded them for coral, and built the Clearing. It’s not like the decorative coral you see in gardens. It’s lighter than air, and more efficient than yellow clay.”
“They didn’t have yellow clay, did they?” Wrest asked.
“Not for eight hundred years,” Staever said. This would be the end of the uplifting part of Emaria’s tale. “The first yellow stuff came in on the tide, right?”
Emaria nodded. “The Clearing ran smoothly for centuries before that. Afterward, it fell apart in years.”
Staever rarely heard it put so bluntly that the Clearing’s decline had begun with the discovery of yellow clay. It was not a view the Pupil endorsed.
“The engineers building the city started to find it everywhere,” Emaria told them. “For a while they threw it away.”
“Until Turner,” Wrest said.
“Right,” Staever said, “Turner the Architect. First lobster to discover the three uses of yellow clay. Alta’s talked my antenna off about it.”
“Try living with her.”
Emaria forged ahead. “Turner preached the yellow clay gospel. He taught them how it could perform feats of architecture coral could only dream of. He discovered it could power vehicles, and repair the body itself. He is the new era of land-borne civilization.”
“How did he fall?” Wrest asked. “I know what happened, but how?”
Staever snatched a weed from Emaria’s claw. “Says here he hit a slippery slope. Turner and his band of engineers built too fast for the supply of yellow clay they had, so they tried desperate measures to get ahold of more.”
Emaria grabbed the scroll back. “He started drilling at the bottom of the Clearing’s harbor,” she said. “He built a dam across the bay around that time.”
“To keep the payloads from floating away?” Emaria guessed. “The scrolls are maddeningly vague. They jump right from the dam to the trenches Turner blasted along the coast to dig up more clay.”
Wrest said nothing, but Staever could tell he was thinking of his sister. Alta worshipped Turner because she heard the child’s history of his works: he built great bridges and walls and towers and canals at a time when the Clearing had needed it most. Parents did not teach their children how Turner balanced every heroic deed with a colossal error in judgment.
“In a year yellow clay crowded water out of the bay and the city was unlivable,” Emaria said. “The land was barren–”
“–turned out the one thing yellow clay couldn’t do was fertilize crops–“
“–and the manatees refused to trade any longer. Some lobsters had the foresight to horde clay before everything came crashing down. The rest had to walk.”
“I guess cities can get worse than this one,” Staever said. “But they had somewhere to go. One more option than we’ve got.”
“I don’t know what first started them leaving,” Emaria admitted. “All I know is whatever they did to save the city failed, and after a point they were gone.”
“To the north, right here to the Eye. The only other desert on the continent with sand enough to build.”
“We didn’t know how to live en masse outside of cities. We lost the nomadic wisdom.” Emaria’s voice broke a bit, but she reined it in. “So we built an ill-conceived, hastily constructed settlement and we’ve been slowly dying here ever since.”
“‘Dying’ is a bit much. The wells have failed before,” Staever said, louder than he meant to. His runaway thoughts distracted him, many concerning Taiga. When did everyone in this city become so fatalist?
“Hold it,” Wrest said, on his feet now, all the hope that had filled him upon hearing talk of the Clearing replaced with a military strength. “Emaria, you wouldn’t be talking like this if you didn’t have a plan. Where does the key come in?”
“Right.” Emaria blinked several times before continuing. “Let me warn you this is where myth starts merging with fact.”
“It did already,” Staever cut in. “All the lobsters who brought yellow clay from the Clearing made up long and noble family histories for themselves when they got here. They’re the ones living in the Pupil right now.”
Emaria shuffled the scrolls, discombobulated. “That’s…difficult to verify, since they wrote all the post-Clearing histories.”
“C’mon, Staev, I want to finish this.” Wrest’s demeanor had changed. To him, this was no longer a story, but a briefing.
“All right, all right.” Staever bowed. “Carry on, milady.”
Emaria rolled her eyes. “Legend has it the king of the Clearing was the last lobster out of the dying city. The poets say he built an impenetrable barrier and sealed it with a key of wrought metal. Allegedly, he begged the manatees for the knowledge.”
Neither Staever nor Wrest spoke a word. They stared at the artifact lying in the sunlight.
“The king died on the journey north, and they sent his body into the sea when they arrived. His servants floated the key with him…”
“…and now it’s drifted back to shore,” Staever finished. “That insect from the glass-hauler must have found it among a payload on the beach and decided he’d fence it to some underground boss to decorate his door.”
“Isn’t that what you want to do?” Wrest asked.
Staever fumbled. “Different. That thing is worth enough money to take everyone in the Whites and the Iris to the sea and back, every hightide, until the engineers fix the wells.”
“Staever.” Emaria’s eyes flashed. “We need to take the key back.”
“To the Clearing.”
“Em, we can’t do that.”
“Maybe the Last King did more than seal the city.” She swept half the scrolls into her arms, and Wrest gathered the others. “Over the history of the Clearing, the royal line traveled to parts of the sea nobody alive has seen. The Last King had all the wisdom they brought back in one place.”
“So what are you claiming he did with it? Magic?”
“He literally moved into his library for the last years of his life. He was researching whatever this unlocks. A whole shield, or a defense system or something.”
Wrest ventured, “Two hundred years is long enough for the water to become clear again.”
“Nobody will believe that.” Staever hated the Eye: the lords and ladies who hoarded glass, the governors of the council who legislated from a bubble, how a lobster would dry out in the Whites if he did not steal, brawl, or sell bogus goods. But these were the only rules he knew to live by. “We can’t save the world. We can barely keep the treasury full.”
“It’s not the world,” Wrest said, “it’s one city. We can save the Eye.”
“Not you too.” Staever felt inarticulate, useless.
“We don’t need anybody to believe us.” Emaria snatched the key from the desk. “We’ll go ourselves, and once we get there, tell people we have the ocean on our doorstep. That’s how the Eye got started–a few people came here and told the rest it was livable.”
“Ourselves?” Staever asked. “Five of us against the Forbidden Expanse? Mightn’t it be forbidden for a reason?”
“Didn’t it occur to you the council sealed it off all those years ago because they were afraid of the unknown?”
“Right, well, since you’re clearly not, I assume you found research on the Expanse? Biology? Hydrology?”
“There isn’t any, is there?” he said. “Didn’t it occur to you we know enough to be afraid? The happiest story I’ve heard about the Expanse is about a wall as high as a mountain sealing the whole continent, and on the darker side…people have seen things, Em. On the edge of the desert. Big, hungry things, shadows with wings.”
Emaria had backed away into a corner. Wrest stepped between them, claws raised, and Staever heard himself agreeing with the Pupil hardline, advocating for things to stay the way they were.
Then, against his will, he imagined the Clearing. He saw a group of children playing in a pond full to bursting, while their parents bartered in voices strong and healthy. He saw his mother, vital once more, emerge from an apartment overlooking the sea, leaving her dagger behind.
Emaria still held the key out, indicting him with it.
He blew out a long breath. “I am not by any means agreeing with you,” he said to Emaria.
“I don’t expect it right away.”
To them both, he said, “We’ll put it to a vote.”