Staever tossed and turned through the night. Sometimes, in a daze near sleep, he tripped over something and land in the cell, awake but immobile, the walls swimming around him. Toward dawn, as he tried to blink himself awake, he had a visitor: a stately lobster in council robes, with a skeleton the same shade of red as his own.
“You’re Cyprus,” he said. “My father.”
Cyprus stared at his son, then turned to leave the dungeon. Staever followed him, brushing the bars aside like a curtain. They walked outside together, into deserted city streets.
“Don’t go.” Staever reached out. “We need you.”
But Cyprus slipped into an alley. As Staever pursued him, never gaining ground, the buildings of the empty Eye sank into the sand. Gardens died when they passed.
They reached the edge of the city. A dust devil blew up, hiding Cyprus from view. Don’t leave again, bastard, Staever tried to yell, but the words wouldn’t come. Finish something for once. Stop running–stop it–stop–
“We’ll stop when we get where we’re going.”
Jerking awake, Staever stumbled into the back wall of his cell. The jailer swung the door wide and grabbed his claw. His silent companion took the other one.
“No need for that,” Staever told him, shaking fluff out of his brain. He should have stayed awake. “I’m not going to run off.”
“We’d better do what he says,” the jailer told his companion, laughing. “He might get hostile.”
He clamped a wooden rod between Staever’s claws, forcing them uncomfortably apart, then pulled Staever along so fast he had trouble keeping his footing.
Staever grimaced. “Can’t keep the audience waiting.”
“Keep your head down outside.” The guard looked through the door, grimacing at an indistinct sound coming from beyond.
Outside the dungeon, the noise grew clear: multiple people far off, shouting. The jailers bundled Staever onto a crab-drawn wagon and slammed the back gate shut. Staever checked his options. The wall was low enough to leap, but with his claws cuffed and his mind foggy, he’d be recaptured after ten paces. But if the Cuttlefish took any more time to show up, he’d have no other choice.
The coliseum was on the far side of the Iris from the library, its grand entrance not far from the prison. The shouts swelled with more voices the closer they drew, and the jailers tensed. The one not driving drew his blade.
“What’s going on?” Staever asked.
“I said to keep your damn head down.”
As they rounded the corner, he saw the crowd.
Lobsters packed every flat surface, facing down the coliseum. They mobbed thoroughfares, trampled over gardens, rallying toward the arena. Their cries melded into one roar. Some of them shouted Staever’s name.
They’d be doing this no matter who was in the wagon. The thought sounded hollow. Usually, the only Whites-folk who got near public executions were hoping to pickpocket a rich attendee. He’d never seen a riot like this in his life, except during Xander’s crusades.
One of which Xander had just launched, to capture the lobster who had accused the council. The lobster who had offered the Whites paradise. Who was going to his death.
If any of the rioters hadn’t heard of the Clearing last night, every one of them would know by midday.
He thought about bolting when the crowd got close, but banished the idea when half the Eye Militia came into view, fanning out a bristling pike wall to keep the rabble back. Kragn, behind it, looked disgruntled enough to cross the line and join the mob.
The crabs arrived at the main gate, a path broad enough to march a squadron through. Racing jockeys or combatants in war games would enter this way, coming out directly into the center ring. Kragn barked an order. The militia parted to let the crabs through, then swiftly closed, reminding Staever of the birthing pool.
He scanned for familiar faces, pushing down his restive fear. Whatever plan Wrest came up with would require deep cover. Emaria could be anywhere, in disguse until the right moment.
The two guards unhitched the crabs from the wagon, and the talkative one led them away, giving Staever a salute. The silent one took hold of the leads and pulled the cart through the archway on his own.
Inside, the walls muffled the commotion of the chanting mob. Here the cheering of the pupil-dwellers ruled instead.
“Isn’t this funny?” Staever said to the guard, as they neared the center of the ring. “They’re all here to be seen here, right? Nobody actually enjoys public executions…”
He wanted the jailer to say something, so he would seem like a lobster and not some mechanical avatar of Xander’s hate. The good humor from the riot dropped away as he saw the platform in the center. Xander stood at its head, holding a heavy axe, while ceremonial police waved the jailer on.
The guard shoved him onto the low wooden platform and flipped him onto his back with brute strength. Xander smirked as the guard used ropes of reed to bind Staever’s claws to the corners of the platform, then unlatched the wooden pole.
Staever sank bank, taking deep breaths. The moment would not get more opportune than this. If his friends weren’t coming, the crowd could break the line of soldiers with sheer numbers. If Kragn ordered the militia to cut them down left and right, some soldiers would throw down their swords, join the riot.
I’m not going to die here. Not without seeing the Clearing.
“Good ladies and gentlemen of the fair Eye!” Xander shouted, raising his claws for silence. “You have come here today to see a thief and a traitor cut down by the swift blade of justice!”
“For the love of the sea…” one of the police muttered. Xander shot him a look before continuing.
“This Staever, the leader of a band of ruffians intent on disrupting the fair trade of glass along our thoroughfares, has attempted to turn his sights upon our ship of state. He has failed!”
Cheers from the stands. The guard who had spoken made a sign of acknowledgement and stepped over to Xander. “Problem outside, governor.”
“It can wait.” Xander gripped the oversized shell-blade. “Who’s ready to see justice served?”
The Pupil-dwellers roared. “Does the convicted have any last words?” Xander asked Staever.
“You’re a barnacle on the back of this city, Xander,” Staever said, “but I’ll choose my last words carefully. I haven’t thought too hard about these.”
Maybe I’d be more useful dead. With a martyr, they might have a chance.
“Let’s see how your wit serves you when you’re floating on a pauper’s raft.” Xander raised the blade.
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.