One street over, Wrest conversed with a haggard farmer and his wife, while Wier and Alta worked on his brood of children. The farmer clasped Wrest’s claw in both of his, shaking it hard. His equally dirtied wife was less exuberant, but sank down among her young and closed her eyes, as though meditating.

“Hey,” someone behind him called. “You seen this girl?”

Farther down the street, Emaria had gathered a whole crew of laborers away from the crates they were supposed to be unloading. While she talked, the foreman came towards them with murder in his eyes, but she flashed the metal and said something, and he too stopped, his eyes filling with wonder.

“She’s crazy,” the voice said.

Another shot back, “Hey, maybe, but the way she talks about it, you wanna believe her.”

“The Clearing,” said a third. “Think about it.”

Staever turned, and recognized Lash–the innkeeper who never questioned a thief in his bar–with two cronies. They were hardscrabble lobsters with little time for speeches, but Staever couldn’t write them off.

“I know her,” he said. “Name’s Emaria. We pull jobs together sometimes.”

“She’s pretty,” one of the cronies said. The other pinched him.

Lash rushed up and shook Staever’s claw. “Heard about what you pulled at the council yesterday. About sea-damned time someone stood up to them.”

It warmed Staever to hear that. He hadn’t realized he’d been acting out the fantasy of every lobster in the Whites, and half the Iris. “I suppose they’re saying I jumped up on Crane’s platform and beat him with his own staff?”

“You didn’t?” asked one of Lash’s cohorts.

Lash lowered his head to Staever’s and whispered. “Is it true, though? About the Clearing?”

He could fight it no longer. Lash had dropped the chance into his lap. If he was the one who could save the Eye, it was time to start saving the Eye.

“Yeah,” he told Lash. “It’s real. And you know something else? Those mudeating governors don’t want us to know about it. They know they couldn’t shove us into crayfish holes like this if we all had water.”

Though as skeptical about stealing the Eye as ever, Staever stopped everyone that passed. The occasional two or three that stopped to listen were worth the many shunting him aside. Whenever he could, he capitalized upon having berated the council.

“How’s it going?” he asked Wrest, when they passed each other an hour later.

“Good,” Wrest said. “You got a strategy?”

“Yeah, I’m working harder on the merchants. I’ll get them gossiping to their customers, working for me.”

“Staever, listen,” Wrest asked, “are you with this?” Staever caught a hint of sorrow in his friend’s eyes. So I’m not the only anxious one.

“I run the Cuttlefish,” he said. “This gang doesn’t do anything I’m not in charge of. Yeah, I’m with this. Why are you asking?”

“Mostly because if any of us aren’t sure, this is a complete waste of time. And I want to know you’re all right.”

“Turn that caution on yourself for once.” He glanced down the street, where Emaria was working another crowd. “It’s…a bit off. What we used to do on these streets, versus what we’re doing now.”

“Hey.” Wrest leveled a claw at Staever. “I joined the damn army so we could stop mugging strangers. You kept my family together while I was out there. We’ve both paid our dues. We have a right to put those days in the past.”

“I keep wondering what’ll happen if I try proselytizing to someone I threatened to gut once.”

“We did what we had to. We survived. Nobody in the Whites would’ve done differently.”

“Someone must have,” Staever said. “Nobody ever robbed us.”

He left before Wrest could probe him again. He’d suppressed himself before. He was practiced at it.

The size of Emaria’s new crowd made him remember something he should have brought up earlier. He pushed his way toward Emaria, hoping he wasn’t too late.

Emaria left off her speech when reached her. The swollen mob of laborers whispered excitedly. “Listen,” Staever said, “be extra careful showing the key if you’re alone. There’s a dozen thieves in any crowd.”

“I thought of that.” He noticed she wasn’t holding it. “When the crowd got too big, I passed it off to Wrest. If his crowd got too big, I said to give it to you.”

He chanced to look back, and caught sight of a speeding glimmer. A lobster with the key. Running with it, wrapped in a cloak too heavy for the heat of the day.

It was not Wrest. But Staever didn’t understand until he saw Wrest tearing after the figure, throwing aside his new converts as the key vanished up a staircase.

The blunt end of a shell dagger slammed into Staever’s skull. The world dissolved into water. He saw Eventhe perched on a rooftop, Arcite upending buckets in his haste, both shouting at him to run.

“Wrest–get the kids–” were the last words he managed. As he sank into unconsciousness, a police vessel materialized to block the sun, a form at the prow so well-dressed it could only have been Xander.

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One thought on “The Song of the Clearing

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