Emaria crept through the gardens to the front gate, wearing a scarlet robe fastened by a wooden clasp. The coral beds of the Pupil district cast a motley light across her, staining a rainbow on the red garment.
The Pupil tower itself had two entrances from the district–the stables and docks, which the stablemaster sealed off at dusk, and the surface entrance, open around the clock so wealthy sons and daughters could return from sludge bars and gambling houses any hour of the morning. Two guards jumped to attention when Emaria appeared at the latter. One nudged a bottle of fermented foam out of sight with his tail.
“Who’s there?” The drinker wore a crayshell helmet lopsided over his mandibles, leaving one eye covered and the other exposed. Emaria stepped out of the half-light of the garden.
“The Lady Emaria, here to see Governor Xander.”
“Xander knows you, does he?” The other guard leaned on his weapon, his face locked in a sneer. “Nice-looking for a beggar, but learning a councilman’s name isn’t good enough if you’re hoping for favors. Blow off.”
No fear. Remember you were born to this. Emaria adopted a regal step, legs marching in time rather than splaying and scrabbling like a commoner’s. She slid one claw into the other and made certain neither them nor her tail touched the ground.
She didn’t stop until her face was an inch from the doorman’s. “I have been expected here for a long time. Go inside and do whatever you need to verify they know the Lady Emaria in there. I will see the governor. Or I will tell him who stopped me.”
The doorman fled into the service door, while his companion stiffened at attention. While he pretended not to notice Emaria, she tapped her feet. Wrest was expecting her in a few hours, and she’d hardly slept.
The drinker returned. “Governor Xander will see you,” he told Emaria, curiously formal for a lobster who had been draining a jug a quarter-hour prior. “Please follow me.”
The second doorguard opened the gate with a winch three times the size of the one in the council chambers. While he strained to hold open a lobster-sized gap, Emaria and her guide ducked beneath. The lobster led her up a staircase behind the gate, winched open another gate, then followed her through a soft curtain into the circular main chamber.
Most of the sand in the Eye was bleached white, but the interior of the Pupil was a golden yellow, laced with streaks of black sand from a beach so distant only its owner knew the way. Half-columns were spaced around the outside of the lobby. Light came from red clay torches mounted on the walls, while coral provided the golden hue. Under the lights sat sofas and of cloth and bone. More than a dozen staircases led up to the hive of private solaria. Each one had its own servant, standing rigid with nobody but Emaria to serve.
From the garden, she’d watched many of the residents depart for a party held near the arena, leaving the tower emptier than usual. The society lobsters would stay the night at inns, whereupon those with whom public executions didn’t sit right would sneak home. But Xander, star of the show, hadn’t left with the others.
The grandest stairwell was right across from the entrance, but the room was so cavernous Emaria had to catch her breath when she reached it. Her guide from the front door ushered her up the stairs.
“Does Xander still live on the third floor, in the south quarter?” she asked.
“No, m’lady. He moved to the penthouse years ago.”
“I see,” Emaria said, then stiffened. Another lobster was descending around the spiral. When they locked eyes, the other drew up as well, a conversational stance that always reminded Emaria of a fighter’s guard.
“Lady Emaria,” said the lobster.
“Do I find you in good health?”
“The best of my life, Lady.” Gamane’s gown had enough gilding on it to shimmer like moonlight. Emaria wouldn’t have minded if Gamane had asked where she’d been for five years. She wanted proof she’d sparked a scandal by vanishing, whether or not it was why she’d left–vindictive, but she wanted it badly. But Gamane would say nothing directly, when she could maintain the advantage without bringing it up.
“I trust your vacation was fulfilling, then,” Gamane said.
“My travels have been satisfactory.”
“You must have such stories! Someday I’ll invite you to dine with me and share them.”
“Someday,” Emaria affirmed, “but today, I have an audience with Governor Xander. Perhaps I owe him an apology.”
“Oh, Xander doesn’t resent anybody. Least of all you. He’s ever the rising star.” Gamane inclined her head. “I’m going to make an appearance at the arena gathering. Will I see you tomorrow for the big event?”
“I suspect you will,” Emaria told her, more harshly than she meant to, and continued up the stairs. “Take me to another stairwell,” she ordered the doorguard. “Somewhere more private.”
A few minutes later, she stood at Xander’s door. The guard excused himself and returned downstairs to finish his jug. She wished she could have joined him. Instead, she knocked on the carving of Khalis.
A voice said, “Come in.”
For Staever. She opened the door.
Xander’s solarium was smaller than she expected, the only furnishing out of the ordinary being a collection of weapons hung along one of the walls. Though she was no expert, Emaria couldn’t help gawking at the variety. Xander had shell-blades, bows, glass-spears, throwing knives, and some others she could not name. She remembered he’d once kept a sword or two for practice, but nothing like this. At the bottom, a axe as long as she was hung in several braces.
The far wall held a couple of oil sketches of the desert, and the door to Xander’s private rooms. The third held the front door. The fourth was enough to distract her from the armory.
It was a window large enough to light place with sun from dawn to dusk. Seeing so many stars, outside of the glow of lamphouses, she could pick out constellations she usually only found in the desert: the crab, the immense sea-ship, the priest holding aloft his scroll.
Below them, the Whites lit up with thousands of torches carried along streets, the points of light pooling where some monk read from an epic scroll, then vanishing into alleys where their bearers would trade wood pieces for black-market water. Like currents, they flowed in and out of bars, brothels, and the old warehouses where an enterprising lobster could set up a gaming house on the cheap. The lights in the Iris moved in flotillas, following carts laden with unsold merchandise. Some headed towards the arena, where they hoped to sell to the crowds at the execution.
Looking at that black hole in the city, the pit of sand built for races and mock battles, Emaria’s wonderment ebbed away. She turned towards the small inner door and came face to face with Xander.
He took one of her claws in both of his, and held it for a long moment.
He let go and looked out the window. “Beautiful, isn’t it? Did you notice the covering?”
She had. Near-imperceptible cracks crisscrossed the view, indications of many pieces welded together. “It’s glass.”
“Sharp-eyed as always.” He smiled. “Covered windows are ostentatious, but there was no alternative. I can’t have winds blowing into my solar, or clumsy old lords falling to their deaths every time I host a meal.”
Emaria got the sense he wouldn’t mind this much. “And the weapons? I don’t recall your collection being so…extensive.”
“Ah.” He coughed. “I still practice. I’d say I’m the equal of any of Kragn’s army, fighting or shooting. That may sound like arrogance, but it’s only fact.”
No more small talk. She looked down at the blank arena again to steel herself.
“I’m here about Staever.”
Xander’s eyes flitted to the weapons and rested on the axe. “I suppose it was too much to hope that you came back for me.”
“I came back to ask for your clemency,” Emaria said. “Staever is more than a thief. I’ve dealt with him in the past. Killing him would be…a loss.”
“Dealt with him?” Xander asked sharply. “What sort of dealings?”
“I hired him as a bodyguard. I’ve traveled a lot, in some rough areas, and…”
He waved her into silence, which ordinarily would have done nothing, but which she obeyed because–though it made her feel dirtier than a sludge beach–she needed his help.
“I believe you’ve dealt with him. I don’t believe he’s any more than a thief. You didn’t spend the last five years voyaging around beaches and villages. You spent it in the Whites, with Staever. Stealing with him. Probably coupling with him, too.”
You need him, she thought over and over. “He was an associate. Killing him would be a loss to the Eye. Why don’t you hire him instead? Have him assess the security of your trade routes? They clearly need the help.”
Xander reclined on a sofa under the wall of armaments. He did not invite her to sit. “I’ve had a long time to think about you, Emaria. About where you might be, who you might be with, day and night. I ignored my own parties, left idiots in charge of my affairs.”
He stroked his claw along the blade of the axe, and Emaria felt a chill. It was the only weapon on the wall big enough to be seen from the stands of the arena. It would execute Staever.
“Do you know when that changed?”
You need him.
“Governor Crane took me aside and told me I had too much potential to waste it pining after a woman. So I applied myself to my businesses and made governor the next year. They say my father won me that seat, but the truth is, Emaria, you did.”
“I’m not asking you because of love, Xander.” Her voice shook. “I’m asking for mercy. You want to kill him to set an example. Set the example by pardoning him instead. You’ll knock out his rebellion, and silence all the people who say you bought your seat.”
“Should I care about them?” Off the sofa in a flash, Xander circled her like a shark. “When we show mercy to the Whites, they only get bold. I’ll kill Staever to remind them where they stand. Cut back the garden, like Kragn does with the Field.”
“If you kill him, you’ll wake up with ten more of him.”
He closed in, his breath hot on her face. “Then I’ll execute them as well. And all that come after them. A leader is not a sluice gate through which allowances pass. A leader is a knife, to cut off diseased limbs. Dissent is a disease. The other six are too squeamish for surgery.”
Emaria stood rooted to the spot, back to the outer door, ready to bolt if he tried to brandish a weapon. Instead, he kept talking.
“I have an idea you can take or leave. I’ve long since given up loving you, but a woman is useful. For children, and for parties.” He followed her gaze to the arena. “If you agree to renew our promise to make an heir, I’ll have Staever spirited out of the dungeons by night. I’ll ship him to a labor camp and kill a lookalike in his place. He’ll never see the Eye again. He’ll never see you again. But you won’t have to watch him die. What do you say?”
“No.” It could have been harder. She could have considered how easy it would be to vanish from the Pupil’s sight again, to gather the Cuttlefish and steal Staever from a work camp. But she would not kill an innocent for the crime of looking like Staever.
“You could keep living your fantasies, if you liked. Is there anything we can’t give you? Any luxury we can’t offer you?”
“Yes!” she exploded. “Freedom! Control of my destiny! And, while we’re at it, truth!” She leveled a claw at him. “You aren’t some old Clearing noble. Nobody here is. Your ancestors brought yellow clay from the Clearing and lied about being descended from the old heroes. Don’t look so surprised,” she raised her voice, “You couldn’t destroy every scroll. You’re all liars. You, Crane, even Graphus. If you won’t pardon Staever, you can’t protect me.”
Xander reached for the wall of weapons. “I’m giving you the only chance you’ll get. Do you intend to save him yourself? What are you and your pathetic bunch of misfits going to do?”
“Something really impolite.”
He took a throwing knife from the wall, his eyes dead as stones. Emaria shoved open the door with her tail and slipped through. A blade thudded into the wood as she slammed it closed, the point of the knife sticking out between Khalis’s eyes.
She ran for the public stairwell, hoping witnesses could keep him from attacking, but he didn’t follow her. Nevertheless, she hurried through the atrium, past the two doormen, and into the coral garden before she felt safe enough to stop.
Xander’s story had made one thing clear. Emaria had created him. It was her duty to defy him.
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