Noon the next day, as Staever watched the column from an overlook, his thoughts returned to rain. The sky was blue, limitless, and empty.
A scratch came from the rocky path to his perch. His instinct kicked in and he spun to leap at whatever came over the crest. His mind conjured herds of savage crawfish and flocks of winged demons.
Two heads bobbed into view: Wrest and Emaria. Staever relaxed.
“How did you get up here?” he asked.
“Saw your tracks on the slope,” Wrest said. “Emaria said you’d be up here brooding.”
Staever cocked a brow. “I don’t brood. And you two shouldn’t be up here. It isn’t safe.”
Emaria interrupted. “Can I tell you something?”
“Anything,” he said, guardedly.
“I know this is…out of character, for me, but…you’re thinking too much.”
Staever agreed: this couldn’t be Emaria talking. Either she’d been replaced by an impostor, or Wrest had begged her to rehearse something. “Should I stop making decisions? Or quit reading the map you gave me?”
“No, the map is fine, but–”
Wrest jumped in. “You’ve had your head in weed-scrolls the whole journey, obsessing. It’s not like you.”
“You know what’s not like me? Leading a hundred thousand lobsters on a long march to nowhere.” Words poured out of him. Blood rose behind his eyes. “I have no idea what is and isn’t like me anymore. I have so many souls riding on me there’s no room left for me. What if something comes off that peak and carries someone off, and I could have read about how to kill it? What if a family dries out while I’m not paying attention? What if someone decides they want my job?”
He was shouting by the time he caught Wrest and Emaria signing to each other. “Sorry, am I messing up your script?”
“We listened to you,” Emaria said. “Listen to us. We’re worried. You’re so busy looking for danger you don’t notice we’re actually getting somewhere.”
“We’ve lost people–”
“We’re moving a city,” Wrest said. “People die in cities. The best commanders don’t come back with everybody. Even Kragn lost a few soldiers when that ridge went loose.”
Emaria took up the thread. “People died on the council’s watch. You care a lot more than they ever did.”
“Who’s to say they didn’t?” Staever slumped. “We never heard what they talked about in those back rooms. Maybe what they did in the Eye is what caring looks like.”
“See, now I know you’re talking out of your tail,” Wrest said, but his expression was uncertain. In the Eye, they’d been paid because the Pupil-dwellers were evil: it had done no good to question that. Now Staever had altogether too much leisure to ponder Crane’s mindset.
Emaria touched his claw. “There’s caring, Staever, and there’s what you’re doing right now.”
“Obsessing,” Wrest reminded.
“If you want to know who’s right, look at the governors,” Emaria said. “Crane’s holed up in the flagship, not speaking to anybody, and Xander is begging thieves for a job. While you…”
“Wait, he’s talked to you as well?” Xander had approached him several times–asking for a clan, a wagon, anything at all to push around.
Emaria went on like she hadn’t heard his question. “While you are beloved throughout the camp.”
Staever could have talked longer about Xander suffering, but then Emaria’s words sunk in. “You’re joking.”
“You should hear how they talk,” Wrest said. “Alta said an old lady thinks Xander’s axe bounced off you. My favorite story is the one where you summoned the manatees yourself to cleanse the Eye of injustice.”
“What, they think I destroyed the city?”
“No, usually they betray you. You scare them off by calling a sandstorm to fill their hovercraft.”
Creaks of wheels and strains of conversation emanated from the column. It was already more than half gone: he recognized the Flagship, which traveled near the rear.
“I waited too long.” He hurried down the path, checking once to see if Wrest and Emaria were behind. “Come to me!” His crab thundered up the slope, trailing its sled. He cracked the reins, and sped off past the column, racing toward the head.
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