The governors met in a rotunda surrounded by a cluster of antechambers and offices. In the plazas bordering the Pupil, the streets split into terraces, with so many gardens, pathways, and enclosed markets it was easy to become disoriented. Staever and Emaria were level with the rotunda’s rooftop patio until they descended a corner-hugging staircase and found themselves before the two-story entrance to the meeting hall.
They approached, buffeted by minor officials surging to and from the building. He kept one eye on the dome, and the other on Emaria, who was on fire from within as she bombarded him with advice.
“Keep focused on your points: health, resources, expansion. Don’t stumble, talk fast and loud, and if you can’t think of anything to say, repeat yourself. Don’t forget, being prepared isn’t as important as looking prepared.”
Staever felt the opposite of fast and loud. On two hours’ sleep, the desire not to miss any of Emaria’s advice and his exasperation with the key were the only forces keeping him awake. “I’m glad we spent so much time preparing, then.”
Emaria sighed. “Staever, this is serious. They hear hundreds of petitions in a day. They’re looking for any excuse to throw yours out.”
“Hundreds?” For some reason he’d thought the governors never did any work. “Could help. We stand out from a crowd. Who’s on before us?”
“Something about the Field,” Emaria said. “I couldn’t get specifics. But it’s not going to be helpful. When the council brings up the rebels, it tends to mean they want a few weeks of war as an excuse to shut down the chambers.”
Staever fell silent. The Field had existed on the far end of the desert since before he’d been born–some said the cluster of tents had been growing for thirty years, but it was hard to tell with a city that rejected the idea of being a city. The lobsters who populated it had gathered for three reasons: to gain protection in numbers from harsh heat and winds, to prove they could coexist without the corrupting influence of yellow and red clay, and to wipe the Eye off the face of the beach. Every now and then they would kidnap travelers, waylay sleds and haulers, or even capture a village or two before the Eye Militia shut them down.
“Vanish from the public eye until the canals get fixed,” Staever said as they entered the antechamber. “Smart. Awful for us, though.”
The chamber was the size of Taiga’s apartment, with sand walls polished to a shimmer. Several of the governors’ hangers-on–the type White dwellers called “council-shrimp”–chattered in low voices about one among them who had received a letter of merit. The glass door taking up the wall opposite the opening was translucent, telling the expert it was fake and the layman it was expensive. An attendant stood before it, clad in exquisite cloth.
Upon seeing them, he inched in front of the door. “I’m sorry, sir. The chamber is full at the moment.”
“No it isn’t.” Staever tried to pass.
The doorman blocked him. “It is for those filthy enough to constitute a breach of decorum.”
“I work in the desert. The grit does get under my shell, but my partner and I are far from filthy. Did you recently let through a big lobster? Grey type?”
“He’ll have saved us seats. Fellow petitioners, I understand, should sit together in order to minimize the time spent gathering at the podium.”
The doorman was stunned into silence. Staever wasn’t sure if he was gobsmacked by an unwashed from the desert knowing an unwritten chamber protocol, or by his having the gall to actually attempt a petition. This and an approving smile from Emaria filled Staever with confidence.
“I’d like you to let us through,” he said, “and I’d like you to apologize to the Lady Emaria.”
Emaria’s eyes widened and she stepped between Staever and the doorman. “Please, that’s not necessary. Let’s just go in.”
The doorman hauled a pair of ropes to raise the glass door by a sliver, ready to guillotine Staever with it as he slipped through behind Emaria.
“Why did you do that?” she asked on the other side.
“Call me the Lady Emaria.”
“That mudeater deserved to be toyed with. You could have run with it a little ways, at least.”
“Don’t, all right? I’m sure you can find other ways to mock gate attendants.”
Staever faced her, halting them both on the grand staircase. “Em, I’m the one the stress should be getting to, not you. You’ve known your part since the library. I’m sorry if I upset you, but I’m counting on you to keep us together in here.”
“Please, let’s find Wrest. Nobody stands still this long on the main staircase.” Behind her, he saw the lackeys from the antechamber, the whole single-file line tapping their front legs. A sickly lobster with a pale-yellow shell cleared his throat and looked everywhere but at Staever.
Emaria pressed past him. “Another thing,” he said as he followed her. “How do you know all the unwritten tricks?” But she pretended not to hear.
Wide pews ringed the council chamber, nested from the top to the bottom of the room. Wrest held a space at the base, wide enough for five lobsters to sit abreast. His usual wave was absent, and Staever, remembering the Field petition, grew concerned.
“Is, um…is he here?” Staever asked as they sat down, surveying the room. Wrest nodded, and Staever swore as he noticed the lobster at the lectern. Kragn–duller in color and larger than Wrest–could make things difficult.
“Have you seen the others?” asked Wrest.
Staever fidgeted. “They’re late.”
Wrest looked even more ill at ease. “Don’t we need five people?”
“We only need five petitioners to submit the paper, not to defend it,” Emaria said. “It won’t make us look good, though.”
“Well, what am I supposed to say?” Staever stage-whispered. “‘I’m sorry, Governor Crane, we had five people but one’s hung over and another’s a sociopath?’ Let’s soldier on.”
“Right.” Wrest swallowed. “Soldier on.”
“Gallery attention!” A shrill-voiced herald raced down the grand stair. “The council session will now resume. All seven governors are in attendance, High Governor Crane presiding. Debate will continue over the motion in question at the recess.”
Crane mounted the upper tier of the enormous dais spreading over the far half of the room. On the three tiers below, each split into two platforms, the remaining governors stood paired according to the High Governor’s will. At the base of the grand stair, facing down Crane, was the lectern for speakers.
Staever noted the gaudy robes and ornamental scepters in fashion among the council ever since Crane’s ascension to the high tier. Since he could remember, Crane had been a stickler for tradition, which meant dressing like a courtier out of a wall carving. The only one of the seven who looked like he’d ever slept outdoors stood on the bottom tier, wearing a gray cloak and a defiant expression.
Graphus. Staever swelled with pride. This was closer than he’d been to his buyer for a whole season.
“Previous debate concerned a motion by General Kragn to undertake military action against the rebels of the Field with the full might of the Eye Militia.” Crane’s voice echoed over the assembly. The grizzled lobster at the lectern inclined his head. “Governor Graphus retains the floor.”
Graphus exploded. “It’s an outrage to consider! We’ve had no word out of the Field for three seasons. Kragn’s spies reported no specific plans against us. We have attacked the Field in the past to ensure they do not threaten us, not to punish them for disliking us.”
Crane raised his scepter, signaling his desire to speak. He and Graphus stared each other down, the air between them thick with hatred. The two had equal seniority, and only a single majority vote had placed Crane first among equals. That hadn’t stopped him from placing Graphus on the lowest tier–across from Xander, the newest and youngest governor, whom everyone knew had bought his deceased father’s position.
“Who was his dad, anyway?” Staever whispered to Emaria. He’d never given the council enough thought to learn.
“Shh,” Emaria said. The question only appeared to worsen her mood. “You’ll make us look bad.”
“You diminish their intentions, Graphus,” Crane said. “Did ‘dislike’ drive them to raid our villages and capture our people? We cannot continue this way forever, cutting them back like a noxious weed. One of our cities must fall. I for one would like to see the Eye remain standing.”
He pounded his scepter to a murmur of assent from the crowd. Graphus raised his again, but the governor to Kragn’s left–an elongated woman with a pale shell–beat him to the punch. “Indeed. I wonder what solution Graphus would endorse instead? Perhaps we should allow the rebels one free raid, one cohort of rangers slain, before we bring our force to bear?”
“I merely ask we consider alternatives,” Graphus shot back, over the thud of his staff on the platform. “Kragn proposes we use bombs to hunt beetles. Why not send agents first, diplomats, to find terms?”
“Would you serve them hot foam yourself, Governor Graphus?” came a reedy voice from the other lowest tier.
“You’re out of turn, Xander,” Graphus said.
“Let the junior governor finish,” Crane declared. “The young speak with the voice of the people.”
Staever bit back the urge to shout, turning to Wrest instead. “Remember when we were going to steal those pearls?” he whispered, pointing at Crane. Wrest, still pretending not to watch Kragn, managed a silent grin.
“By assuming the Field is not dangerous, Graphus wagers the safety of every lobster in this city.” He paused, feeding on the buzz from the audience. “I say our citizens are not to be toyed with! If it’s a threat, let’s deal with it–or why do we have an army at all?”
Some in the audience yelled assent. Xander smirked. Graphus clutched his scepter hard enough to snap it into three pieces.
“If it is such a threat, why have we waited so long?” he retorted. “Why cut the weed if we could have pulled it up by the roots? Could it be this has less to do with Kragn’s report than it does with distracting the people from their empty water pools?”
Conversation erupted in the chamber. Xander cracked a smile, while the other five glared at Graphus as though he’d crawled over their platforms and defecated.
“There will be no more debate on this petition,” Crane declared, avoiding Graphus’s gaze. “Further deliberation will occur among the governors in a private session this afternoon, but I will not leave the fate of the Eye to chance. Begin marshaling your troops, Kragn, in anticipation.”
“Thank you, High Governor.” Kragn bowed, then began the long climb up the staircase. A few others, his military clerks, filed out along with him.
“To new business,” Crane said. “A petition was submitted last night entitled ‘For the Safety of the Eye and its People.’ It involved, for the first time in my tenure, a request for clearance to cross the Forbidden Expanse.”
Crane let the whispered conversations run for a few moments. A half-smile crossed his face. “Needless to say, it piqued the council’s interest.”
Staever’s pulse quickened. His stood up on weak legs and tried to clear his mind. This nervousness didn’t become him.
“Petitioners Staever, Wrest, Emaria, Arcite, and Eventhe,” Crane called, “approach the council.”
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