He hardly remembered the walk to the podium. All eyes were on him, the council-shrimp trying to figure out who he was, how important. When he, Wrest, and Emaria took their places at the lectern, the other two spots loomed like great empty deserts.
“There are only three of you?” Crane asked.
“High Governor, our other two were detained,” Emaria said. “This is too important to wait.”
Crane towered over them, cold and officious. Staever glanced at Graphus, but the councilman was unlikely to wave. “It gives you no credit to mock the rules of this chamber, Staever. You will need to impress me.”
“I understand, High Governor.” I could kill you if we came to blows, impressive enough?
“Travelers, all three of us.” In the Pupil and Iris, this meant a merchant who transported his own goods. In the Whites, it was a kind word for criminal. Crane scratched a note into his platform. “Begin.”
Staever risked one more second’s pause. The three Cuttlefish were too exposed to signal, but Emaria’s look of encouragement helped. He coughed.
“The three of us have come into possession of a peculiar key. Research indicates this key is connected to the lost city of the Clearing, the predecessor to the Eye. It may be able to make the Clearing habitable again.”
He listened, hoping somebody had grasped the weight of what he’d said. Emaria kicked him behind the lectern, and he jumped back into the speech.
“The Clearing is a superior settlement to the Eye. The lack of an abundant water supply from the string of irrigation failures has caused a noticeable decline in the health of the population. The longer we remain here, the worse this will become.”
He met Crane’s eyes on the last line, willing him to counter. Then pause stretched on too long.
Repeat yourself. Before he could, Crane lifted his scepter, seizing the floor.
“You propose, instead of trusting our engineers to save us, we put our faith in a ruin nobody has seen for two centuries?” All the governors save Graphus were nodding in agreement; some were chuckling. Staever felt like he was being crushed under a sand dune.
“You travelers have an odd sense of logic,” said another governor, whose name Staever forgot.
“I don’t mean to send the whole population, I’m proposing a well-outfitted expedition across the Expanse…” It was useless. One of Emaria’s first instructions had been to never contradict a statement from a governor, especially Crane. He tried to recall their rehearsal, but could only think about was how much sleep they’d lost in preparation.
Desperate, he prepared to double back to the start. Emaria swooped in to save him. “The frequency of respiratory distress–”
But she herself was cut off.
“Where are these pitiful wheezing urchins you keep mentioning?” asked the lobster a step above Xander. “I see none of them in this room. I certainly see none at your podium, unless your large friend is some sort of idiot you’ve trotted out to tug at our heartstrings.”
Later, Staever would be able to pinpoint with clarity the moment he elected to throw out their chances. It was when a barnacle with gold woven into his shell insulted his oldest friend in a voice he would use to order drinks.
“This,” he motioned, “is Wrest. Formerly a Lieutenant of the Eye Militia. Distinguished in battles against bandits and rebels. Half a dozen times a hero defending your worthless tail.” He leaned over the lectern to face the junior governor. “And dry-lung may not be a problem for lobsters in gilded robes, with clay-vessels you can take down to the sea whenever you’re thirsty, but the rest of us are already dying!”
He was panting. Emaria glared at him as though intent on murder, then gave up anger, sunk her head in her claws.
Nobody was laughing anymore. Crane planted his scepter upright in his platform, a privilege reserved for him alone. Nobody else was to speak.
“On what authority do you fault my leadership, scum?”
The scepter remained planted. Violating the symbol would get the Cuttlefish thrown out in a heartbeat. For Staever, to hold his tongue would be as useless as to speak.
He held his tongue.
“Have I not the safety of every lobster in the Eye at heart? Have I any other motive?”
Meet my eyes, Staever dared him.
“If you wanted to destabilize the entire order on which our home is based,” Crane said, “you could, at the absolute least, have brought five petitioners.”
He uprooted the scepter. Emaria swept Staever out of the way, a weed-scroll in her claw. “There are other reasons, Governor Crane. Ore deposits at the Clearing could revive trade with the manatees. We could end riots at the birthing pools–”
“I will not permit debate,” Crane announced. “This petition is beyond ill-conceived. If you wish to blather about a lobster’s connection with land and water, I bid you go to the Field and leave us in peace.”
“But–” Emaria flipped through her scroll.
“Petition denied! Get out of my sight, or the Guard will remove you.”
If Staever had any lingering doubts about returning the key to the Clearing, Crane had dispelled them all. He’d babbled himself hoarse at the lectern playing by this old man’s rules, defended Crane’s authority to his own gang, out of nothing more than fear.
“The Eye,” he said, “won’t find any peace so long as you idiots are steering it.”
Eventhe would be so proud of me.
The men-at-arms advanced. Staever bowed to them and turned up the grand staircase with his friends following behind, taking the steps three at a time.
If you liked this chapter, check out the rewards available on my Patreon! I’m a self-supported writer, and even $1 a month helps.