There were no last minutes left.
Sea-scripture. He found a verse. The sea is a far road, and the living may not take it. Only he on the burning raft may see what is beyond. The sea will sweep his ashes back…
Outside, the chanting became a cheer loud enough to buckle the arena walls. Guards scuttled through the stands and along the side passages, heading for the gate. Someone shouted, maybe Kragn.
A great shadow rose to fill the entryway.
The police at the entrance threw themselves aside. Xander overbalanced under the weight of the axe, and fell off the edge of the platform.
Staever raised his head to discover he was still whole, as the shadow in the gate resolved itself into a ship.
Xander picked himself up. “They’re here for the prisoner! Don’t let them near the platform!”
Under clay power, the ship’s treads dug into the arena sand. The crew, one of them whooping and hollering, began a wide turn.
The ceremonial guards for the execution had neither bows nor red clay, nor anything else they could throw. They brandished their swords, but it was like trying to attack a tidal wave. They dove for cover.
Somebody had turned a ship into a giant arrow pointed straight at Kragn’s riot-breakers. Whether it was the Cuttlefish or not, Staever didn’t intend to waste the chance. He squirmed against the knots around his claws.
His breath caught as he realized the ship was heading at him and gathering speed. Before he could free himself, it collided with the apparatus, prow pitching upward. The platform splintered: they were trying to smash Staever’s prison with the wobbling boat’s blade.
“Whoever’s on the helm, give it to Wrest!” he shouted.
The treads reversed, but the post binding his left claw was loose. He cut his right claw free, then slashed the rope off his left. Rolling off the platform, he noticed a fragment of driftwood the right length for a club, and snatched it up.
He dashed toward the ship as it rounded the outer edge–but his legs, sore from the cell, cramped, slowing him down.
As the boat headed back toward Staever, Xander strode past him, dragging the axe. Burning with adrenaline and rage, he lifted the axe over his head and hurled it at the vessel’s hull.
It found its mark. With a creak of protest, the hauler pitched sideways and came to rest, deck facing the stands. The audience screamed, racing for the exits.
Staever saw the crew–his crew–vault the gunwales with poles to relaunch. He was ten paces away, on the wrong side of Xander.
“Back them against the ship,” Xander barked. “Don’t let them get away!”
If they divide us, we’re dead. Staever willed feeling into his limbs.
Xander turned around at exactly the wrong moment. Before Staever could strike with the post, Xander locked claws around his arms. They grappled, rolling over the mock battlefield. The guards tightened their ring slowly, wary of harming Xander.
“Nice of your friends to surrender themselves,” the governor snarled. “Five executions makes a much better show.”
Xander pitched him onto his back and drew a small throwing knife from a pocket of his cloak. Staever was on his feet before Xander could get his grip right, lunging with the driftwood post. The sharp edge cut the governor across the face.
The knife flew wide. Xander gaped at the blue blood staining his claws.
“I told you,” Staever said. “You don’t get to hear my last words.”
The Guard ran to help him. Staever bolted through the gap they left, rolling as he went. A sword swung over his head, but he was faster by far than the soft honor guard. He reached the shadow of the ship before they started to pursue.
Wrest, Emaria, Arcite, and Eventhe each clutched a pole to brace the ship upright. Staever skidded in behind them. “Everyone, they’re closing in. Time to board. Wrest, will you be the last?” Wrest nodded. “Good! Push!”
As the ship righted, Arcite broke from the rank and sprinted up the ladder to the clay chute on the deck. “They’re launching!” the guard captain cried, shooting a look at Xander, who clutched the gash on his face, blind to the chaos around him. “Call the soldiers! Stop them!”
“Em, get on board. Arcite, throw me your pole.” Arcite tossed the long dowel down to Staever, who swung it at the guards, whipping it back and forth to keep them out of distance. Eventhe took his cue and dislodged her own pole from the ship, beating back the circle alongside him. Emaria took her place on board.
“Close in, you shrimp!” the captain howled.
“We can’t get inside their reach!”
“They’re five-pace mooring rods! Where in sea’s name is the general?”
Brandishing his weapon, Staever ascended the ladder, while Wrest strained to hold the ship up alone. Eventhe threw her pole to the deck and followed. “They are summoning the militia,” she said. “That will be a problem. They have weapons with range.”
Staever thrust his claws over the rail and grabbed Wrest’s mooring dowel, allowing his grateful friend to clamber up with the others. “Arcite, get some clay in the engine.”
“This is the last.” Arcite tossed the lump of fuel through the tank hatch.
“Eventhe, hoist sail,” Staever sprinted to the wheel. “Emaria, when it’s up, retract the treads. We need to fill the mainsail before we clear the gate.”
The vessel jerked forward, the treads on its blade propelling the Cuttlefish across the arena. Eventhe hauled the triangular sail to its full height.
A stream of lobsters poured through the gate, blue-trimmed cloaks following one on the other. Kragn marched in their midst as they knelt and strung bows.
“Militia!” Wrest went pale.
“Bows, good choice,” Arcite commented.
He threw himself behind Staever. The others took cover. Staever ducked, claws on the wheel.
Empty of wind, the sail flapped as the ship gathered speed, each snap taunting him. Even without arrows, there were enough soldiers to tip the ship and haul them all back for execution.
Having staunched the bleeding, Xander bawled fruitless commands as they accelerated towards the scattering security detail. Ahead, Kragn watched motionless while his soldiers closed ranks over the gate.
The sail snapped again. Staever remembered his sea-scripture. The sea will sweep the ashes back, and he was not ready to pass beyond the twin mirrors, or the sea will take the ashes, and he was ready to pass beyond the twin mirrors.
More lobsters swarmed through the gate, but these ones wore no uniforms–some were armed with bits of brick or broken furniture, some unarmed but furious. The surprised soldiers fired wide. Arrows soared across the arena, scattering where the spectators had been.
“The riot!” Staever cried.
“That’s what that was?” Arcite asked, still cowering behind him.
The Whites folk wedged themselves into the soldiers, opening a path wide enough for a ship’s blade. Some soldiers clubbed about with their hilts, but others lowered their swords, unwilling to draw blood. Kragn watched, heedless of his captains calling to him for orders.
They coasted through the gate, down the ramp, into the throng. The mass of lobsters cheered loud enough to shake sand from the towers. “Staever! Staever!”
Soon the scene of the riot was so distant Staever could no longer tell civilian from soldier. The sail filled with wind, and Emaria retracted the treads as the engine died. Wrest took the helm. Staever collapsed on the deck.
“I knew you would come,” he choked out, smiling broadly. “At literally the last minute, sure. With the most dangerous possible plan, fine. But I always knew!”
“I worked hard on that plan,” Emaria grumbled.
“It was brilliant.” Staever swept her up into a hug. “A thief trusts nothing but his greed and his gang. If I didn’t have you all I’d have died so many times I don’t want to count.”
“Yeah, well.” Arcite crawled by inches out of his hiding place. “Without you I’d probably be drunk somewhere right now, and, you know, not being hunted by everyone in the city Xander can afford to pay. Who could ask for more?”
He had his goggles on, for good reason. The wind was blowing in a lot of dust from the beach. Staever blinked grit from his eyes.
“I will hide us in the desert until we can decide what to do next.” Eventhe dropped from the sails, making Staever jump. “Follow my lead, and try to make no more mistakes.”
“What about Wier and Alta?” Staever asked Wrest.
“They’re with Graphus,” Wrest said, “or should be by now. I’ll go back for them when it’s safe. Maybe we all can.”
The grit was getting worse. Something, maybe a merchant fleet, was kicking up a lot. Staever wiped his eyes.
A blot passed over the sun.
“Did anybody else see that?”
Nobody had time to answer. Right beside them, a stone the size of their ship crashed into a spiral tower, reducing its top half to sand.
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