The day Xander raided the Whites, Crane cleared the dungeons beneath the foundations of the arena of all prisoners. Uniformed guards bundled thieves, murderers, and racketeers out of the city on vessels bound for wilderness work camps. The jailers remaining had orders to let nobody inside, but the old woman seemed innocent enough, and they were tired. The piece of glass she slipped them each didn’t hurt.
Taiga pulled off her veil to breathe easier in the musty basement. A torch-lit hallway ran between ten cells, with wooden bars on all sides save the back wall. She made her way toward the cell where Staever lay on his back, taking up half the space. They’d taken his winter cloak, displaying his discolored shell graft for the world.
“Hi, Mom.” He rose warily. “How are you?”
“I–” A fit of dry coughing stymied Taiga. “I broke somebody’s glass window to bribe a jailer to let me visit my condemned son. Fine, otherwise.”
Condemned. He would have visited her after escaping. She shouldn’t have been here now. “How did you hear?”
“What got into your head?” Taiga raised her voice. “Thinking you could beat the council!”
Her words cracked where the chastising façade failed to cover her fear. Staever turned over to face her, bumping against the bars. “Mom…”
She cut him off. “You knew it would be a sham trial. You knew execution was the only way it could have turned out.”
“I can’t say for sure. They didn’t let me attend.”
“Did they bother telling you what you’re charged with?”
Taiga rapped the part of Staever’s face she could reach through the bars. “Stop saying that like it’s such a swashbuckling adventure. You’ve got no chance of a reprieve. Crane’s going to make you a spectacle.”
Staever flinched back against the wall. “I don’t want a reprieve, Mom. High treason is exactly what I did. I didn’t have a choice.”
“You had a choice to back off, to stay in the shadows. To remember what I taught you.” She reached through the bars and clasped his face. “Is whatever you’re doing for Graphus worth your life?”
“Yes.” He’d made his decision–in anger, yes, but final. “They aren’t going to kill me.”
“You’re damn certain for a lobster in a cell.”
“Because of you!” Staever scratched tally marks in the sand. “Wrest could be on his way right now with a whole force at his back. Em can cut a deal with anybody, even the governor of prisons. Arc can blow through that wall whenever he wants to, and if they got Ev involved, she could be in and out of here in a minute.” He struck a line through the four marks. “A thief trusts nothing but his greed and his gang. You taught me that. I trust my gang.”
“What did you think the greed part was, a joke?” Taiga dropped to rest on the floor. “Greed teaches a thief to stay out of sight. At least if he worships glass he doesn’t try changing things that can’t be changed. Then he doesn’t scare his mother–doesn’t make her see him in a dungeon…”
The cracks in her voice grew wider as she struggled to keep her sobs from pushing through. A heave overcame her words, and Staever clasped his mother’s claw and whispered hollow comfort. “I’m scared,” she managed. “Being scared for you is different. It’s worse.”
“You and I and the Cuttlefish don’t play by Crane’s rules. He wants me dead. Doesn’t mean I’m going to die.”
Taiga sniffed. “Do you know how often I wish I’d let you go off to be a farmer? Or join the army like Wrest?”
“It can’t be as often as I thank the sea you didn’t.” For the first time since she’d come, they both smiled.
Memory popped into his head, as it had in her apartment. He and Taiga stood in the shade of an awning, a cool breeze on his back.
Are you ready?
Are you sure?
Yeah! He struggled against her light grip. Quit asking. I want to do it.
All right. She waited a second more, then pointed at a man crossing the street ten paces away, carrying a stone jar. Bring back whatever he’s got in his satchel. Signal if you’re compromised.
The recollection gave him an idea about how to do his mother a mercy, letting her out of her own head.
“In case I have to skip town after this…tell me about my father. I’m ready to listen.”
She knew exactly what he was doing, but wiped her eyes nonetheless. “It’ll have to be quick. I don’t know how long the glass bought me.”
“Visit me in the desert if you leave anything out. I promise I’ll still be in the mood.”
“Doubtful.” She wiped a last tear away.
“It was winter,” she said. “I was working the rooftops, trying to find new shortcuts, when this lobster in a pearl cloak walked right underneath me. Clearly lost, asking people for directions. I had to keep an eye on him.”
Staever could see him, his gilded cloak and condescending air. The chill of the dungeon air became the chill of a winter morning.
“Sure enough, he was surrounded before the Star Moon dropped. Four huge bastards, hemming him in.” Her claws twitched. “He had a blade, and he could use it, but he couldn’t cover four sides at once. I jumped in to help him out.”
“How did he wind up there in the first place?”
“He wanted to see the Whites,” Taiga said. “He wanted to know if it was true how they lived. Well, he couldn’t leave on his own in that ridiculous cloak, so I told him we could lay low until nightfall, and I’d watch his back when he went for the Pupil.” Her voice hardened. “That night they launched a crusade.”
Staever imagined Xander’s father sending forth Guards, bleating about the disappearance of a servant of the Eye.
“One afternoon turned into a whole week. I showed him the back streets, the second-story escape routes, everything I showed you when you were little. Except you got hooked, and he ran away.” She tried to smile. “Things could have gone the other way around. Cyprus picking pockets, you safe in the Pupil.”
“How did he get back? Did you ever see him again?” Unexpectedly, Staever wanted the answer. He’d meant to let Taiga forget he was locked up, and for an instant had ended up forgetting it himself.
“I did. Many times. It didn’t make sense. But we couldn’t say goodbye.” She squeezed his claw again. “Until we found out about you. After that, he was gone. A son in the Whites would have lost him all his clout. The end of all his lofty goals.”
One more vision of Cyprus: rushing up to the Pupil tower, sheltering behind its doors, to die before Staever could understand he’d never have a father.
Yet in a curious way, being locked up made it harder to hate Cyprus. Now they’d both taken blows for the sake of some nebulous common good, both felt rage too deep to understand. We fear what we are.
“Mom.” Taiga let go of his claw. “Don’t go to the arena tomorrow. Whatever happens, it won’t help you to watch.”
“What am I supposed to do, pace the house? Wait for news? I’d go insane.” She scowled. “Let me help the Cuttlefish. If they’re planning something, I want to be with them.”
Staever would have preferred her out of the city. But after a silent moment, he remembered he had another problem. His head ached at the recollection. “There’s something you can do.”
“How well do you know the major criminals in the Whites?”
“I’ve kept a handle on things since retirement.”
“Is anybody desperate for a big score? So desperate they’d make a play for something as dangerous as that key, in front of a whole market?”
At the mention of the key, Taiga made a face like biting into rotten meat. “A few. There’s a boss northeast who’s losing turf fast.” She paused. “Come to think of it, there’s that codger you all use. Graphus’s middleman. Always whining about his cut.”
Your treasure looks as beautiful as ever.
And it clicked.
Gattick needed cachè in the underworld, and the key was valuable enough to buy an arc of the Whites. He could parcel money out to the bosses in exchange for favors. It could give him negotiating power with Graphus. The key would make old Gattick young again.
If Xander’s Guard hadn’t made off with it, there was nobody in the Eye more likely to have stolen it.
“Go find Gattick,” he told her. “Find out if he has the key. Don’t fight him,” he warned, as her claws twitched again. “Just tell me if he’s got it.”
“Right.” Taiga looked more composed.
Before he could say more, a gruff jailer poked his head into the dungeon. “Time’s up. I’m not getting fired for a glass piece.”
“Don’t ever forget, Mom. A good thief can trust his gang with his life,” Staever said, by way of farewell.
She headed back to the doors, coughing every few steps, without a word of goodbye. Goodbyes admitted dark possibilities: from now on they might communicate only by letters. This might be the last time she saw him alive. They left the conversation open, dangling like a protective amulet.
Taiga pulled the veil back over her head, and the door slammed shut.
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