Staever felt heavy as a brick, empty of emotion, and perhaps Emaria could tell. He sighed. “What now?”

“You must subvert the council, while they’re as confused as everyone else,” Graphus said. “You’ll need their power to avoid another Eye.”

He spoke as though the manatees had been a phase in his plan. Something else dawned on Staever. Bring them three at a time if you have to.

Staever climbed a dune, facing the plain where the lobsters gathered. He could see and smell enough refugees to know how many lobsters a hundred thousand meant. They sat with their families, gathering driftwood or breaking sleds to build burial rafts. Staever made a note to send runners to tell them not to do that. They would need the sleds.

“All of them,” he called down to Graphus. “We’d have to take all of them to the Clearing. It can’t be done.”

“They’ll build the same dry city as before, while they die in the open. Thirst. Wind. Bandits. Another Eye would end life on this continent.”

“How are we going to water them all?” Staever hopped down. “What about food for when there’s no water? What about shelter?”

“What about the Forbidden Expanse?” Wrest put in.

“I keep saying it wouldn’t get that name accidentally,” Staever agreed, “and–Graphus–will you quit saying you? How is any of this up to me?”

Over the dunes, a hundred thousand dumbstruck lobsters murmured a low rumble. Graphus stared at Staever, Emaria at Graphus, and Wrest at everyone. Wier and Alta couldn’t take their eyes off the ruined Eye.

“You have to lead them,” Graphus said, though his tone was dark, strangely apprehensive.

“A condemned glass thief with bad luck?” Taiga and Graphus’s words pounded inside of Staever’s skull. “Wrest commanded a platoon. You ran a city, as best you could. Half the crowd would be more qualified.”

“Did they criticize the council to their faces? Did they go under the axe for it? Who else could start a riot like you did?”

“I didn’t start that riot. We did, with the petition, and by showing the key around…”

“…which was your idea,” Emaria finished, addressing Graphus.

The governor bowed his head. “Staever, there’s something I have to tell you.”

Staever, Wrest, and Emaria moved together without meaning to.

“When I recognized you at council, I knew you were in trouble. You were unmasked, using your real names, and your proposal was too audacious for Crane to ignore. Not only would he never agree, he would order you dealt with, especially if Xander had his say.”

“I wanted them to trust us…” Emaria lapsed into silence. Something empty was starting to grip Staever.

“I went out my study window, chased after you, and set up that scene in the garden. Then I called you all to Foerhant’s lighthouse.”

“You sent us on a mission,” Staever said. “To get power from the people, instead of the council.”

“I sent you to spread your message…and so Xander’s guards would find you.”

Everything slid into place.

“You set me up!” Staever lunged at Graphus’s throat, claws outstretched. Wrest held him back with a vice grip.

“To be a hero, a rallying point!” Graphus pleaded. “To raise the Whites to your cause. I never planned for you to come so close to the axe.”

“What did you expect?” Staever snarled as Wrest tightened his grasp. “Crane would rap me on the head and tell me not to do it again?”

“I expected what happened. The Cuttlefish came to save you.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Staever growled, scraping his throat hoarse. As his friend made another monumental bid to strangle Graphus, Wrest lifted Staever’s legs off the sand, leaving him on his back against Wrest’s bulk.

“You put me in danger!” he shouted. “You put my gang in danger! All five of us could have died in the coliseum, but who cares? You’d have your riot either way!”

The weight of Taiga’s death, of the Field and the manatees, fueled his rage, until he was no longer even speaking words. Graphus didn’t lift a claw to defend himself. At long last he went quiet, the flame of passion burning itself out.

Wrest laid him back on the ground. Staever found something had replaced his lust for violence, something cold and personal. “Your plan worked, but you made one mistake,” he told Graphus. “I’m the hero, you’re right. The people will follow me. Not you. I’ll take every damn one of them to the Clearing. And nobody–ever again–will manipulate me.”

He spun and walked back up the dune, motioning for Wrest and Emaria to follow. They did so mutely. Alta and Wier went with them. Graphus went to the crabs, but, haunted by the memory of his whip, they shied away.

“You’re right,” he said, “Never again.” Except for one last time. His lie, in the end, did not matter as much as telling the truth at the right time.

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.

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