The sun was setting over the high desert, lending a gold tint to the rocks. Going was slow–the lobsters insisted on crossing each bridge in groups of three–but they at length worked their way to the central wastes. After the canyonlands, they could catch up with the main group. Through his glass, Staever made out a landmark he’d seen on both maps: a scoured pillar jutting up from the landscape, which Cyprus had named Arbor Rock.
He’d had dreams about a perfect campsite marked at the rock, a grassy lowland watered by streams. West was an arm of the southern desert, another poor sand area where Turner had supplemented the crosses with the single word pits. Near Arbor Rock, he hoped, they might first find trees.
Graphus’s absence deadened them. When Staever had halfheartedly begun a speech to coax Xander’s clan to return, all of them went to his side without him needing to finish. Arcite and Eventhe walked together in the middle of the line, not speaking. Nobody had ever died for them before.
They scrambled over rocks and through passes, keeping the snaggletooth ranges on their right. The air turned cool with the first moments of dusk. The sea of grass ahead was dotted with moss-covered stones rising like islands, casting lengthening shadows from the Land and Star Moons. Staever backtracked with the sunset at his tail, and found Xander cutting across a switchback down to the field. The earlier I say this, the better.
Xander didn’t look up.
“Exciting to have some wetland ahead of us, isn’t it?” Staever mused. “I can’t wait to find out what it looks like.”
“What do you want?”
“I need to make sure you won’t pull this again.”
They passed together into the waves of grass. Xander clenched his claws.
“I have to think of everyone,” Staever went on, “and I might not be fast enough to save you next time.”
“Save me?” Xander growled. “That’s what you’re going to tell them you did?”
“That’s what happened.”
“It’s a lie.” Xander skirted a hillock. Staever hopped from the top to keep pace. “Those bridges went on into the north. All we had to do was wait out the sky demon and we would have had a clear shot to the Eye.”
“And no water. And sea knows how many casualties. What’s your point?”
“You saved nobody. You executed yet another coup.”
Staever’s better judgment told him the conversation had gone on too long, should indeed not have happened at all, since Xander was more powerless than he’d ever been. He ignored it. “Xander, I’m trying to be diplomatic. Half these people didn’t want me to let you come back with us.”
“They want somebody strong to keep them safe,” Xander looked at what had once been his clan trudging ahead. A few had lit torches. “You look strongest. For now.”
“Should I not have bothered?” Staever snapped. “What do you want, Xander? To go rebuild the Eye by yourself? Be king of a pile of dust?” He flung his arm at the highlands. “Go ahead! Nobody’s stopping you!”
He stalked off into the grass. Xander kept pace with him, a mocking grin spreading on his face. “You had such noble aspirations. But your rule isn’t turning out any different from ours. Look at your enemies–you killed one and now you want to exile another.”
Xander might as well have scalded him with water. “What did you say?”
“I saw you let go of his claw. All you did by coming to the rescue was throw the senior governor off a bridge.”
“You’re an idiot!” Staever exploded. “Who knocked out the bird?”
“The clay maniac and the psychopath in the mask. But they’re more like weapons than actual lobsters. Graphus must have been your idea.”
“Graphus asked me to let him go.”
“Of course, and the bridge asked the bird to destroy it, and water asks us to drink it.”
Stop. Nothing he says matters. Staever tried once more to speed ahead but only succeeded in stubbing his foot on a standing stones. “Funny how you care about him so much now he’s dead. You and Crane spent your whole careers screwing him over.”
“You disowned him when you took control. Don’t try to convince me you care.”
But he did. Silence followed, broken by wind whistling through grass. Graphus had used him disgracefully, but in doing so, had given him a chance to do good, sacrificing his own power to boot. If he’d only told Staever the plan…
You would have risked your life? As if. You were too much a thief.
“We were there to oppose him,” Xander went on. “There’s a reason there were seven of us. I wouldn’t expect an autocrat to understand.”
“The other four were so afraid of Crane they voted in lockstep. You were an attack dog.”
“You’re trying to goad me.”
“You’re under my rule now, so I can tell you without fear of arrest you were a gear in Crane’s machine. You were his protégé as a child, he masterminded your appointment to the vacant seat…”
“I was appointed my father’s successor, by my father!” Xander interjected. “He was a gentleman, a soldier of the Eye. He was a great man in a world you’ll never understand.”
The word father was a poor choice. Unable to resist longer, Staever slapped Xander across the face with his claw, careening him into a standing stone. “My father came from that world,” he said, “my mother told me about it, and if it hadn’t been for your high society, they might have saved us a long time ago.”
He turned, finished with the conversation. He expected Xander to follow him, but the governor stood frozen.
“My father’s name was Cyprus,” he said.
Staever went cold.
“A coincidence,” he stammered.
Xander choked out, “You know as well as I do, no two lobsters of the same generation have ever had the same name.”
He’s wrong. It’s happenstance. Maybe he’s getting sunstruck. Maybe his father used a different spelling.
“My father returned to the Pupil after his time with my mother,” he said, “but he never had another child.”
“Of course he did!” Xander shouted. “Why wouldn’t he?”
Xander was standing in the moonlight, Staever in the shadow of a stone, but the difference in light couldn’t hide how their shells were a similar red, their backs an identical curve, their eyes shot with the same fire.
“Cyprus had one child. Not two. Not a thief.” Xander’s knife slid into his claw. Staever grabbed the hilt of his sword. “You’re an enemy of the city. You spit on order. You steal everything you don’t deserve. You’re not his son.”
Xander was running, catching up with the head of the group. Staever let go of the hilt. He wanted to give chase, but he was rooted to the spot. He tried speaking the sentence aloud: “Xander is my brother.”
But he could no more accept it than Xander could accept a good thief.
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