Wrest opened the door like he had a thousand times. Alta usually came bounding up, while Wier hung in the background, pretending he was too cool to notice.
Not tonight, though. Alta and Wier had been with him when Xander had snatched Staever in broad daylight. Their brother was about to have a talk with them.
The siblings shared the third floor of a tower in the Iris. It was a bright home, tucked away in a residential district, overlooking a garden with its own small aqueduct–dry now, but more reliable than some. Staever had condemned the place more than once for being nice enough to attract attention. Wrest retorted that if Staever wasn’t planning to use any of the money they got paid for stealing, he wouldn’t mind borrowing it. Alta and Wier deserved a childhood.
He couldn’t keep them in poverty. Not when he’d already failed them once.
When he’d stepped off the sea-ship, Wrest had walked mechanically to the desert transport bound for the Eye. He slumped in the corner of a hold full of lobsters joking about how much they were going to drink, or showing oil sketches of a patient lover. In the far corner, someone took out a clawharp. She sang some song of home that gave Wrest a headache, then switched to the Song of Boralus, which didn’t help. He’d hated Boralus as a kid, with his hundred damn verses and the awkward pause before every fourth line.
Back in the Eye, he wandered the Whites, unable to see the point of drinking and even less interested in buying company. He bought a tankard of hot foam at the Two Moths to delay going where he had to go. After a year in the Militia, battening down hatches in gale-force wind while red clay lit up the night, he remained too cowardly to face a pair of children and find out what they’d become.
Midnight had gone when he made it to his family’s old house. The knot in his stomach tightened, apprehension pushing against him like a stiff wind. He couldn’t hear any voices, playful or otherwise.
The house was a ruin, with loose sand piled around the doorframe. He crept up to the window where he’d waited for his father or brothers to come home from war. It couldn’t have been the same house. That one was alive and noisy, so crowded you couldn’t leave the latrine without tripping over someone in the doorway. This was a shell. Wrest’s home had molted and crawled on.
Scavengers had long since stripped the living room of furniture. Sand was coming loose from the walls.
Something moved in the latrine.
He drew his sword and swung it at the doorway, driving back whoever or whatever had taken up residence in there. After the year he’d had, some squatter having the gall to move into his bathroom was the final straw.
The thing in the latrine made no sound after he attacked, and though the blade hadn’t touched anything, Wrest wondered if he’d killed it. Then it said, “You know, my mom does that too. Is it my face?”
Wrest dropped the sword. He choked out a half-sob, and staggered into Staever’s arms.
Staever held his friend, claws barely touching around Wrest’s thorax. “What in sea’s name happened here?” Wrest asked. “Where are Wier and Alta?”
“They’re at my mom’s.” Staever pulled away and struck a torch, casting some light around the empty room. “She and I take turns. We each watch them when the other one has to go work in the Pupil. At first we kept them here like you wanted, but it wasn’t safe anymore.”
“Wait–but…” This was all wrong. “Don’t tell me you’re both still stealing.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten I’m no good at anything else?” Behind the torch, Staever’s face was difficult to read. “It’s not like before. We’re not hurting anybody. But ‘working in the Pupil’ doesn’t mean maid service.”
“You shouldn’t have to. Not you and Taiga. I sent you my salary, I sent–” Keep talking, so you don’t drown. “Why do you think I joined the damn army?”
“Wrest,” Staever began. He’d rehearsed this, waiting in the empty house. “We never got the money.”
It couldn’t be true, because then he would have wasted a year of his life for nothing, abandoned Wier and Alta and Staever for no reason, suffered for free the things he’d suffered under Kragn’s command. “If this is a joke, I’ll take your head off.”
“You’d be right to, but it’s not. The salary didn’t get to us. Maybe some clerk skimmed it. Maybe some shrimp dug it of the mail.” He shrugged. “This is the Eye. You take your eyes off your money, it stops being yours.”
“No!” The sword was in Wrest’s claws again. He rammed it at the wall, grimaced when it stuck, pulled it out again. Staever yelped and jumped back, scampering into the front doorway, while Wrest hammered on the walls of his old house. Sand drifted in the air, gathering at his feet. To stop hitting was to start thinking, something he could not do.
Staever let him do it until his arms got tired. In the lull, he said, “Wrest, come outside. I know you’re angry. But you’re going to knock the roof loose.”
Under his rage, Wrest remembered he’d been raised in a sand hut that had structural integrity like a mail clerk had ethics. With effort, he slid the sword back into his belt, and joined Staever in the street.
“So.” The back alley was quiet. Wrest and Staever could hear the howl of the night wind as it skimmed the Eye’s rooftops. “You’ve been stealing enough?”
“Enough to provide,” Staever said. “I’m getting jobs done, but it’s tough without you.”
Those last words kindled something in Wrest, something he could pay attention to.
“I hired a woman. A beggar off the streets. She’s brave, and clever, too, but she’s a lookout. No good at getting her claws dirty.”
“Are you…teaching her your tricks?”
“Best I can. But all my tricks are about running away, or hiding, or not starving to death in the desert. Your tricks get things done.”
The moonlight and the year apart made Staever’s face half-familiar. “I need you back, Wrest. There’s only so much I can do on my own. You and me and Emaria–she’s the lookout–that’s a proper gang.”
“If we had a real fighter, or someone who knew clay–” He shook his head. “I’m no good. I’m a soldier.”
“Your father was a soldier. Your mother and your older brothers were soldiers.” The edge in his words was new. “But not you. You’re a thief in your shell and your marrow. They’re gone, and you’re still here.”
Wrest went for his sword again. “Don’t talk about them.”
“I didn’t mean it that way!” Staever backed away. “They were heroes till the moment they died and after. But that isn’t you. Don’t you want to get back at the people who did this? This city looked the other way while some bastard dug your pay out of the mail!”
Being a thief had been more than a job ever since they’d plotted to steal Crane’s pearls. After Staever got the graft and the two of them swore off mugging, he’d followed his father and brothers to the Militia. But he’d failed. A thief was his whole being. He could no more get mad at Staever for pointing that out than for mentioning his shell was grey.
“Can I see them?” he asked.
Staever broke into a smile. “I’ll take you there. They can’t wait to see you. Especially since we can make so much more working together.”
“I haven’t said I’ll join yet.”
“Right, of course.” Staever set off walking. Wrest tore his gaze away from the house and fell into step beside him. “Do you know what a cuttlefish is?”
“Some of the crew said they saw one once,” Wrest said. “Tentacles, funny-shaped eyes. Ghouls of the sea.”
Staever grinned. “Ghouls we can work with.”
So they stole. While Staever hid his money away, Wrest bought Wier and Alta a real home. And it was there, the day after the marketplace, that he sat them down to give them so little information it was one pace from blatant lying.
“We’re going to break into somewhere tonight,” he said when he’d settled them on the sofa. “Emaria, Eventhe, Arcite, and me.”
“Are you gonna save Staever?” Wier asked.
“That’s the plan. But we can’t get him out of the dungeons right now.”
“Why not?” Wier saw no reason they couldn’t swashbuckle past a force of council Guards. Wrest decided to cut down the amount of time he spent around Arcite. Probably Staever too.
“They’re locked up too tight,” he explained. “We’re going to steal something to get us in and out.”
Wier said, “Awesome!” while Alta said, “What?”
“Transportation,” Wrest told them, then knelt down low. “It’s going to be pretty dangerous with our numbers reduced. So I need you two to be brave. After I go to the hideout tonight, you have to wait here for two whole hightides, all right?”
“But…you’re gonna come back.” Alta stated it like a fact, faithfully enough to make Wrest gag on his words. He asked himself again if it was worth it, if Staever would want Wrest to risk his brother and sister to save him.
Well, he would. But he’d never ask. He wouldn’t have to. It was what they did.
“Yeah,” he said, “I’m gonna come back. But it might take me longer than two tides. If it does, this place might not be safe.”
“So where do we go?”
“Do you know how to get to the Pupil?”
They both said yes–he’d taken them around a hundred times. “Good. There’s a garden by the tower with three whole rows of green coral. Remember it?”
Wier made a face. “Yeah. Who likes green that much anyway?”
“Governor Graphus.” That shut him up fast. “He’s powerful, and he’s friends with me and Staever. So if I’m not back in two tides, go find him, all right? He’ll look after you.”
“The governor?” Alta jumped off the couch. “I bet he’s got scrolls you can’t find in the library! Has he read Turner?”
“You should ask him.” Wrest hugged them one after the other, then headed for the door. If he waited any longer, it would be hard to convince them he wasn’t terrified.
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.