From a hollow above camp, Arcite watched the Cuttlefish salt their leftovers. His life on the fringes wasn’t so bad. He was free to blow up rocks or insects, and when he could pilfer sludge, he didn’t have to share. Sometimes he descended to eat with the Cuttlefish, but the way they lured him with food like they were baiting an animal got on his nerves. More often than not he turned around halfway to the fire.
“I don’t need company,” he said. “They didn’t like me in the Eye, they don’t like me here. They won’t like me in the Clearing.”
He walked uphill from the dell with a vague idea of circling the valley, up where the grass grew in tight bunches. He could see lobsters throwing blankets out by their fires, arranging watches. Maybe he should have somebody watching his back, in case something crept out of the night to avenge the beetles he’d exploded. “Would shake things up, wouldn’t it?”
Ahead of him, as if in response, something cut at the grass.
He dodged behind a rise. The slope flattened ahead, and on it was a woman. She cut down some scrub with a sweep of her claw, then dodged around and slashed one behind her.
Arcite recognized Eventhe’s mask. His heartbeat sped up.
“It’s because she’s going to kill you if you come at her out of the shadows,” he told himself.
“Come out,” Eventhe called. “Slowly.”
He could run. But where? His space to roam was being hemmed in by lobsters.
“Stop.” Eventhe squinted as he clambered over the rise. “Arcite?”
“You were missed at the fire,” she said. “Staever wonders where you vanish to.”
“Does he need something blown up?” He wound toward her, staying out of claw range. “What brings you up here?”
“Training.” She shifted into her stance. Without breaking eye contact, she cut a stalk in half.
Arcite shuffled backward. “Looks…good.”
“I must stay in form.”
“Why? Makes sense, but…what’s out here to fight?”
Another punch, directed at the dirt. “If my skills are all standing between these lobsters and chaos, I do not want them to decay.”
“Chaos?” Arcite circled the edge of Eventhe’s range. “Don’t take this wrong, but doesn’t that sound like an improvement sometimes?”
Slice. “How would I take that wrong?”
Arcite gestured at the camp. “You know, you and I, we can…can get along with decay.”
Eventhe’s claws flew faster. She intended to wind herself. “My appreciation for solitude is not the same as yours.”
“Oh, I’m learning to appreciate it. Nobody down there sees me as anything but the Field on legs. You’d think I sunk the damn city by myself.”
“And you mind?” Eventhe was panting now.
“Just means I have to go up here to have fun.” He kneaded a shrub with his foot. “It makes me mad. The Field was my home. But no, the Field could never be anyone’s home. Only radicals live there. They never eat, or sleep, or play stones, or fall in love.”
Arcite wondered for the second time what was keeping him talking. “I came to the Eye because I needed to work with clay to stay sane. Of course now everyone thinks I’m crazy. Irony.”
“The belief that people cannot change is comforting.” Sometime during his blather, Eventhe had stopped punching. “It absolves us of responsibility for our souls.”
“What about you? What were you before you changed? What’s so different about your solitude?”
Eventhe walked toward him out of her training space, leaving a near-perfect circle in the scrub. “I was a miner and a midwife. No lobster is more alone than those.”
“None? Are you sure?” Sense ran giggling from his mind.
“If you do not understand, you fail to grasp something about the birthing pools.”
“It’s not that.” He was searching for proof he could be as much of a loner as she was. “It’s the shell.”
“That conch in your room. You always put it out of the way when we go to ground there.” Instead of answering, Eventhe pruned bits from her circle. “That must have been from someone, or meant something, or…”
She stepped close enough for him to distinguish the black of her eyes from the weave of her mask. “You are in a mood to tell stories tonight, I see. Fine.”
She hadn’t walked away.
“I returned from the mines in need of work, and could find none except for the midwife guard. They often had vacancies.”
“Yeah, I bet–”
“Do not interrupt. You want stories, you will hear mine. They set me beside one of the pools with a pike in case anybody entered seeking water.” She scraped the dirt, slow and thoughtful. “Some days, someone did.”
“And you fought?” She would jump on him for interrupting again, but staying silent was taking monstrous effort.
“I stood between drying thieves and pregnant women and drove the pike at them until the others dragged them off. After a while, I discovered the pike was getting in the way.”
“A couple from a far village needed a pool. They thought they had to pay.”
“Hold on–the pools are free?”
“The council knew restricting birth rights would foster revolution. But I could not convince the farmers. I had to take the shell.” She touched the shape in her pocket. “Since then I have felt it would be unwise to lose it.”
Did everybody else understand this? “Were you wearing the mask then?”
“Yeah–I know it’s from the clay mines, and I thought your story was from there–because of the solitude…”
She spun and walked away from him. “The mines?” he told himself. “Idiot! Idiot, idiot…“
“Follow!” Eventhe called. Confused as Arcite was, his mind and legs were in total agreement. He followed.
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