Night Watch

It was night. Wrest clutched a red clay bomb on a deck pitching in a vast ocean. He raised his arm and threw.

The bomb spiraled over the waves, its target a ship bristling with weaponry. Except, Wrest thought as he stumbled over a shrub, it wasn’t. Its gunwales were lined with passengers screaming for mercy.

The red clay rent everything in two. The halves of the ship broke into fourths. Wrest lost control of his body, buffeted by shouts and laughter from behind him, and the screams of the lobsters lost at sea.

He jerked out of the memory. He’d reached a dell on the edge of the highland camp. Plants covered the ground, scrawnier than kelp or grain but denser on the ground. Emaria called it “grass.”

The camp was alive. Three hunting parties had returned in the afternoon, each with a catch. Somebody broke open a stash of sludge-water, and lobsters danced to music coming from many fires. Arcite brought the Cuttlefish a whole beetle, in only four or five pieces this time. Staever and Emaria managed to turn it into something edible.

For a night, they could feel safe. Who’s going to protect me?

The army formed their ring around the camp, exchanging shifts. Wrest sometimes joined in, though he would seek out a high promontory or a broad field to minimize his chances of running into Kragn. Tonight, though every inch of his skeleton told him it was an awful idea, he would risk the opposite. He didn’t know what had brought on the memory–he never did–but for once he thanked it, for reminding him why he was going to rob a general.

Kragn pitched his tent at the line, a spacious pavilion where the general slept, ate, and took visitors–though he never slept through an entire watch. Before the party at camp died, Kragn would make an inspection.

At midnight, with the Land Moon at its apex, Kragn emerged from the tent and headed toward the perimeter.

Wrest held his breath and moved in. When the general had been Captain Kragn of the Ocean Patrol, he’d considered his own safety subordinate to his men’s, posting a skeleton guard at his cabin so as not to steal lobsters from the watch. One of two people would be present in the tent. Wrest could get what he wanted from either of them.

There was a glow inside–the watch was awake. If he ran into anybody before he entered, he would talk his way out and run.

Drawing one last deep breath, he strode three paces into the tent–and saw one lobster, reading a scroll.

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The Invincible Staever

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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Graphus’s Penance

Graphus was sharing dinner with the proprietors of the Two Moths Gaming House when someone mentioned Staever was walking the camp. A moment before, he’d been marveling at the ability of the brothers to recount the worst Twelve-Stone games of their lives while lost in a desert. Now, a bit of salted clam halfway to his mouth, he forgot he was eating.

“I did what I had to,” he murmured.

“Eh?” one of the Moths asked. “Gonna finish that clam?”

“I apologize.” To cover his embarrassment, Graphus tossed the scrap his way. The man had watered less than he had. “I didn’t know I spoke out loud. I was recalling a game of my own. Capture on three different nodes, no water between them. But finish your story first.”

The Moth launched into a tangent about women he’d known in a Long Reach village. Graphus watched the camp while the brothers droned on and interrupted each other. Around where he lay, a thin plank between his body and the sun-scorched rocks, shelters packed tighter than shops around a Whites waterhole. Being from the Eye, a whole city built as a shelter from wind, lobsters knew how to handle hot siroccos from the east. Some draped cloth over posts. Some had cobbled together whole frames big enough for their families. One shelter consisted of three wagons pounded together in a triangle, and at least one of its neighbors was halfway to copying its example.

Staever appeared, catching the attention of the two women who guarded the pyramids. One of the builders grunted and went on working. The other went to Staever with a question. Graphus held his head up. If they had to encounter each other, he would not avert his eyes like a child.

“That’s him!” The hungry Moth cut across his brother’s lament for a claw band he’d dropped in the ocean. Both craned their antennae toward Staever.

I’m the reason he’s there at all, Graphus thought, as Staever made his way along a row of hovels cannibalized from a desert cruiser. I’m the reason we’re all here. Without me we’d be building another Eye.

“Don’t you know him?” one of the Moths asked.

“He used to work for me,” Graphus said. “I was going to tell you about my game…”

The Moth waved him off. “Call him over. I want to know what goes on in that guy’s head.”

“He’s a lobster who feels pain more acutely than most do.”

“Call him. He’s probably coming here anyway.”

“I can’t.” Graphus knocked the rest of the clam loaf into the sand. The Moths stared at him. “We…had a disagreement. About how to run the journey. I…”

How could he finish? Half of him expected Staever to be grateful. The other half welcomed all Staever’s hatred, the price Graphus had known beforehand.

“I doubt he’d want to see me.” He mumbled farewell to the bemused Moths.

There must be a way to do penance. Graphus beat an aimless path through the mobile torchlit shantytown. Every desert ends in the sea. The exodus had no shortage of troubles. Perhaps he could solve one.

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A Tale of a River

Days passed before Staever again relaxed his promise to never let anyone ahead of him. The lobsters were traveling through a scree field that cut their feet and left them breathless from hopping between jagged edges. Fearful the column would spread out too far, Staever called a halt with the sun still high.

A minute later, he heard a multitude of voices raised in anger. He headed toward it, skirting the sharp grey rocks. Wrest and Emaria were at the back visiting Wier and Alta, who were travelling with the clans after protesting that following Wrest everywhere involved way too much walking. He had no idea where Arcite and Eventhe were. He couldn’t count on backup.

The rubble field sprawled over a high slope. The shouting came from uphill.

“We should have taken your wagons from the start,” a male voice growled. “I bet you’ve been hoarding water since before the manatees.”

“It’s not our problem you were too stupid to bring water from the city,” replied an older female voice. “You can stand to dry out a little until we get to the Clearing.”

Oh, sea. Not good. He’d been willing to show the maps to anyone who asked, but nobody had asked. Now he understood why–they thought the Clearing was closer than it was. He couldn’t tell them the truth when they were this thirsty.

“My daughter’s sick.” The younger voice rose. “She isn’t drinking enough. We’ve blown through our reserves.”

“My mate is right. That’s not our fault.” The new male voice sounded as aged as the female. “What if our grandsons get sick next?”

“You monsters! She’s dying!”

“We’re all dying. No reason to be rash.”

A clatter of rocks, then another roar, a choking gasp, an unintelligible tirade. Staever scrambled up the rise. “Enough!”

A lobster with a green tint had his claw hooked around the aged woman’s neck, choking her. Taiga’s face flashed in his mind’s eye. Half a dozen lobsters crowded each side of the fight, one side pulling their enraged clan-mate back, the other fighting to save their matriarch.

The fight unraveled as Staever moved closer. The young militant acknowledged him first. “These people are hoarding water. Lock them up. Execute them. It’s not right.”

Staever’s throat closed up. “We don’t execute people.”

“Noble of you, not beheading us for drinking water,” the old man muttered.

He couldn’t award the water to either side, lest the other mutiny, and he doubted they’d respect his decision anyway. If he said nothing, they’d probably raid a birthing vessel.

I shouldn’t have involved myself. But he was already here.

Everyone stared at him, except the young man, who looked murderously to the old woman’s water casks.

“This isn’t the only water,” Staever said.

“Are you offering some of your own?” a man on the aggressor’s side asked.

“No, no, I don’t have any.” He’d been relying on charity to bathe himself. “Have you heard of rain?”

“Don’t tell me that’s your plan,” somebody in the back of the thirsty clan called.

Staever faltered. That was his plan.

The silence dragged on. Turning in disgust, two lobsters took up the water cart. I got them incensed enough to forget their fight. Hooray, I guess.

Then something occurred to him. There was other water on the maps.

“There’s a river,” he told the retreating lobsters. The two with the wagon kept going. Others of the thirsty clan turned.

“You mean a canal?” asked one.

“A natural canal. We’ll have to cross it to reach the Clearing, but we can drink our fill first.”

“Cross it?” asked the old man, malice replaced by confusion. “How?”

“How? Um…” He’d had a plan for this. He pinched his own leg to focus. “Sandships. Land and water vessels have the same hull, right? They’re amphibious.”

“Are you insane, boy?” the old woman asked. “Have you never ridden a ship before? Water vessels are treated for salt, land vessels for dry air. The wrong medium will pull it apart.”

“Rivers don’t have salt in the water,” Staever interjected. “Salt’s only in the sea. Rivers run into the sea, the opposite of irrigation channels. They never pick up the salt.”

“Impossible,” someone said. “Where does the water come from?”

“Underground.” Rain didn’t play with this crowd. “When we reach the river, we’ll sail into it. We have an entire fleet ready. We won’t even have to treat the hulls.”

Silence fell over the scree field. From downhill came sounds of lobsters throwing tents over frames, clan-folk breaking bits off their wagons to start fires. Nobody in either mob looked angry anymore, though plenty were mystified.

“If that’s true…” the young man began.

The old couple looked at him expectantly.

“I suppose I can wait,” he finished.

The matriarch’s face softened. “You may have a cask for your daughter, if you wish,” she said, motioning to the lobsters at the wagon. One of them brought a barrel from the bed.

Her mate turned to Staever. “Thank you for intervening, young man. You tell a fine tale.”

A fine lie. Still, if he hadn’t lied, they would have been back at each other’s throats in an instant. He headed down toward the constellation of fires, keeping the tale in mind.

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The Forbidden Highlands

In the end, they had to leave Blue Monk behind, along with Good Harvest and four other vessels. The council flagship and King Crab edged under the limit.

Wrest came up the hidden trail, fuming about time wasted on the switchbacks and nearly stepping on Staever’s three volunteers, themselves fuming about carrying around useless rope. He’d left Wier and Alta on the cliff, making sure nobody got too close to the side. Wrest helped Staever redistribute food and drying lobsters, though the captain of Good Harvest still had to drop his grain with the decaying valuables by the road.

The lobsters in the exodus needed water more than food. No matter how hard he, Wrest, and Emaria tried to spur the walkers on, their parched skeletons made it harder to rise each passing morning.

According to the weather map, the nearest monsoon track was seven days away, but the caravan could only move as fast as its slowest member. Large groups rode in vessels whose owners had turned to aid the poor. Families bore children on their backs and struggled along. With every lobster trudging at a different speed, with crabs chattering and vessels circling around the column, the exodus looked from the air to be pulsing with life as it wound along the canyon bottom. Kragn’s militia circled it, hardly visible.

Staever kept his eyes forward when he walked. First reach the rains, then the highlands. Then the rest.

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Blue Monk and King Crab

Blue Monk was an old tub with no sails and a bilge full of sand from cracks in its hull. Its owner worked on its ancient tread continually, with decreasing success. It ate an absurd amount of yellow clay.

It also carried a dozen sick lobsters in its cabin and a stockpile of grain in its hold, so Staever was going to have to usher it down a cliff.

He used his mirror to flash a signal to Wrest, who was leading a line of lobsters down the switchback ridge. Wrest waved his claws back, a response he didn’t need sign language to understand: no way on land were they getting vessels onto that trail.

Behind him, a backup of ships, wagons, and sleds stretched out of sight. Each carried water, food, or passengers he couldn’t afford to lose. Two near the front had blue streaks on their hulls, marking them as mobile birthing pools. Hard-bitten midwives guarded their decks.

Emaria was conferring with Blue Monk‘s doctor. “Em, meet me down here when you can,” Staever called. “I need your help gathering rope.”

She gave the doctor a last word of encouragement and climbed down. “Rope? We can’t haul it over this.”

“I know. I need to look like I’m doing something.” He stopped a passerby from the day’s work detail. “Grab two others and get me a rope inventory.”

“Yes, sir.” The lobster hurried off. Staever winced. “I hate when they call me that.”

“Would you rather they didn’t listen?”

“Some of them call me ‘boss.’ I like that more.”

He watched the worker corral two others from fixing a prow. The three ran along the queue to knock on cabin doors.

They would travel to the rear of the column, to the trailing ship where Eventhe kept watch for stragglers. The lobsters of the Eye had altered the landscape: rocks disturbed in rubble fields, gouges through patches of fine gravel, trails of garbage by the road. Many lobsters had left carrying housefuls of belongings. When they discovered themselves lagging behind, out went the water organs, the fine nets, the shell dishware. One night, Eventhe had reported a family of six guiltily unloading a Khalis door, leaning it against a standing stone like they expected to come back for it.

“So, you’ve bought time,” Emaria said to Staever. “Do you have a solution, short of dismantling it and rebuilding it down there?”

“That was my solution.” Nervous as they were, they both laughed.

“I’ve got a better idea.” Emaria drew out a bundle of scrolls from her pack.

The Iris Librarians rode their own wagon, an enclosed four-crab behemoth they’d kept in a stable beneath the library. The most valuable scrolls–the signed Turners, illuminated manuscripts of Clearing bards, account ledgers in the old script–never left this wagon. If disaster struck, such as the city being washed away, they didn’t want to waste time searching for the scrolls most worth saving.

However, being librarians, they’d scavenged the less valuable as well. For those scrolls, Emaria had given over space on a ship called King Crab, in exchange for unfettered access.

King Crab was as old as Blue Monk, with one crucial distinction: Emaria’s grandmother had retrofitted it, so it now belonged to Emaria. The old seneschal driving it had sought her out on the first day, begging her to take the hulk since he couldn’t locate any other relatives.

Emaria gave him the topmost scroll from the pile. “I had to talk them into letting you borrow these, but they saw the light. Since you insist on walking in front.”

Staever unrolled the scroll. It was a map, vividly enough to shame Cyprus’s monochrome diagram. The continent unfolded in greens and yellows, bounded by the blue of the all-watering sea. A band of red–the mountains where they now stood–covered the top third, sloping south. Fine black lines crisscrossed the page, weaving through the rocks and highlands.

On a beach in the southest corner stood the Clearing, its gates, palace, and walls marked within it. A featureless yellow desert filled the northwest, marked with the words poor sand.

“This is pre-Eye.”

“I noticed. Check the signature.”

It was in the ocean between the compass and a doodled whale. Emaria smiled at Staever’s awestruck expression. “You see why I had to work on the librarians.”

“It’s a Turner!” He looked up. “Why was it on King Crab?”

“Turner’s maps aren’t considered his best work. Alta will tell you.”

Holding it up to the light, Staever caught sun shining through a gash in the center. “What happened here? Cyprus has a canyon there.”

She inspected the hole. “Ah. See…I have no idea.”

Staever traced his claw along one of the black lines. The closer he looked, the better he could tell how they moved with the landscape–dodging spires and winding passes, heading south as briskly as possible. “These must be trails.”

Emaria pointed. “And this is where we are right now.”

There was a trail paces behind them, winding down a sedate slope he thought had been solid rock. Someplace his weariness and apprehension had kept him from noticing, two walls converged in just the right way to hide a valley.

“Em, this is fantastic.” He smiled broadly.

Emaria’s face colored. “Well,” she said, eyes glued to the landscape. “I’m happy to be using the boat for something.”

“Oh, yeah…” Staever’s smile vanished. “So…the old guy hasn’t turned anybody up?”

“No,” Emaria muttered.

If it had been Wrest, he wouldn’t have had to say anything–the letters from the army for his father, mother, and two brothers had each brought a silence, Wrest withdrawing to struggle with himself while Staever hushed the crying larvae that were his friend’s remaining family. But Emaria had cut herself off differently. He had no way into her grief.

He edged closer. “I’m all right,” she said harshly.

“It’s…” I’m terrible at this. “It must have been a while since you saw them…”

“Exactly. They aren’t my family. They weren’t my family. You are.”

Leaving Staever speechless, she stalked away. “Start reading that map. And fold it right when you’re finished, or it’ll crease.”

That was either the nicest thing she’s ever said, or she’s in complete denial.

Three lobsters ran up to him, laden with rope. “Should we start tying them into pulleys, sir?” asked the one in the lead.

“Good work,” Staever said. “Give it to the quartermaster on Good Harvest. We’ll need it soon enough.”

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The Hunt

Before sunrise, three hunters paced through a v-shaped valley. As Nodens, the wiry lobster on point, stowed his bow to climb through a gash dug into the great rocks, a white cloud rose from the bottom of the gap. Before the hunters could move, it had rolled over them.

“I don’t like this,” said Nodens. “Eryle! Can you hear me?”

“I can hear you fine. I can’t see you.”

“Perfect.” Nodens fidgeted with his bow. “How are we supposed to track game?”

“Your finely honed listening skills?” Arcite suggested.

“Nobody asked you,” Eryle said.

“Tighten the crescent and keep moving,” Nodens ordered. “Nobody more than three steps from anyone else. We have no idea what’s out here.”

“Rocks.” Arcite clambered through the gash. “Things that aren’t rocks.”

Eryle blocked his way. “If you saw what the army’s been killing every night, you wouldn’t be mouthing off.”

“They’ve been killing beetles. They’re scared enough to mistake them for demons.”

“You two.” Nodens reappeared. “Did I or didn’t I say keep moving?”

The fog settled over the rubbish heap of stone. The cliff faces receded on both sides as they walked. Somewhere, insects dug through the cracks to snatch at shreds of plants. Arcite walked behind Nodens, goggles pushed low over his face, trusty satchel hanging at his abdomen.

“Does anybody else feel–”

“Keep your damn voice down,” Nodens hissed. “Feel what?”

“Like you’re in a watering pool?”

Arcite shrugged off the cloak he was wrapped in. The cold bit into him, but the sensation of drinking intensified. “Try it,” he said, then pulled the cloak back over him, huddling close to stop shaking. His breath crystallized amid the larger cloud.

Eryle loosened her clothes as well, though Nodens glared at her. “It can’t be water. I know what water is.”

“We all thought we knew about the Expanse, too,” Arcite said. “Where’s the danger so far?”

Nodens counted on his legs. “Thirst, falling rocks, cliffs, wind, this stuff, and traitors.” He brandished his empty bow at Arcite. “Don’t drink it, Eryle.”

Eryle scowled. “You’re on point, Nodens, you’re not my boss. You don’t even head your clan.”

“You just said we’re all dying of thirst,” Arcite said. “Now we have a water source, and you’d rather dry out than agree with me?”

“I’d rather dry out than suffer whatever this cloud has in store. Pissing you off is a bonus. Move out, and shut up.”

It was all inevitable. Inevitable his secret would get out, inevitable nobody would listen to his side, inevitable that idiots like Nodens would blame him for destroying the city. He could have been more careful–could have run for the hills when he heard the Militia had taken Field prisoners, or better yet, tossed a big wad of red clay into the stockade and watched it burn.

“It would have been better,” he said, remembering the inside of the guarded pavilion, where Morgan and the others had cut their own throats with smuggled shell-blades. “Cleaner. Less fuss. No bad dreams.”

Maybe the valley could send a cloud of sludge next.

Small legs skittered up the precipice to his right. He wiped clean his goggles and made out a shadow, perched on a thin path along the rock. Not believing his luck–he’d never seen a beetle this large around the Eye–he reached into the satchel.

“I hear them,” Nodens whispered through the fog. “Bows ready.”

He and Eryle stretched their strings taut, but Arcite was faster. He struck a pellet of red clay with the flint in his other claw, and held it aloft for them to see.

“Arcite!” Eryle shouted. “Don’t do it!”

They didn’t understand anything. The Field banned clay because it scared them, and the Eye abused it because it pleased them. Nobody saw what Arcite saw.

Not yet, anyway.

He flung the pellet at the cliff. It struck home with a thunderous crack. Smoke poured off the precipice, twisting around the fog.

Wiping his goggles again revealed the beetle lying before him, shattered in several places. Whooping and pumping his claws in the air, he picked up his prize and turned around, coming face-to-face with Nodens. Grinning, Arcite held out his catch.

“You’ve scared away all the other game,” Nodens said. “Is this what you think hunting is?”

“Well–but–” As usual, words failed him at the worst time.

“Get back to camp.” Nodens turned his back. “We’ll finish on our own.”

“The beetle…”

“Not a bad dinner for a traitor.” The hunter gestured over the scree field toward the crag they’d entered through. “Drag it back. Find a way.”

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The End of Part 1

With that, loyal readers, the tale of Staever and the Clearing has reached the end of the first of its three acts. Join us next Wednesday for the beginning of our hero’s trials on the Forbidden Expanse. Blessings of the sea until then!

Turning of the Tide

Now for the hard part. Staever regretted storming off before taking a drink from the burst canals. Thousands of lobsters shouted his name, and he was too dry to shout back.

He wanted to limp to the sea and throw up, dig a cave, hide. But he’d given up those luxuries by appearing on the bluff.

“Listen closely!” he shouted, and quiet rippled across the camp. “We will be traveling a road nobody’s taken for hundreds of years. The journey will be long, and dangerous. We can’t afford to discount any legends about the Forbidden Expanse, not air demons, not the South Wall–” he touched the roll of paper through his satchel “–not even weather.”

“Though they could also be totally unfounded!” Staever pinched himself as Emaria took a place at the shells. Scaring them would squander a lot of precarious goodwill. “The council wouldn’t want us to know about an alternative to living under their claws. We know the Pupil-dwellers rewrote their own histories. They could have rewritten the Expanse.”

How sure are we they weren’t afraid of it too? The crowd booed the council at the right moment. He couldn’t waste what Emaria had given him.

“I’ll be navigating, so under no circumstances is anyone to take any path unless I’ve decided it’s safe. The most important thing is not to take risks, and to stay together.”

He stopped to take a breath, using it as cover to make sure they were listening. They were.

“Everybody fall in with your families and their families. Each clan is responsible for its members, and clans will remain together at all times. Those without families, or with fewer than five relatives accounted for, fall in with a larger group. No, no, not yet!” he interjected as lobsters started to mill about, chattering and shouting for their loved ones. “Wait until tomorrow. You have all night to find them.”

That pacified the shufflers, at least in the front quarter of the crowd. “I expect every able-bodied adult to hunt insects. The land’s been undisturbed for hundreds of years, so we should be able to pick off whole herds.” Emaria smiled at him, and strength flared up within him. “Water…we will find along the way. The sea’s never far away. Even in the mountains, it will provide.”

The priests cheered, but nobody else did. Too late, Staever remembered how many of them thought the Greater Mirror, the sea, was now an enemy or a tool of one. Soon, they would hear about the capabilities of manatee coral, but tonight they could trust the ocean to provide nothing but misery and death.

They may not have been wrong. Staever had little enough faith in his own plan. For the love of the sea, he was trusting Cyprus with their lives.

“Any threats, or lost walkers, fall to me and my gang: Wrest, Emaria, Arcite, Eventhe.” He pointed to each of them. “You’re scared, you’re confused, find one of us.”

A conch note in the front caught his attention. Lash was with one of the other thieves from the market, catching his breath from the alarm. He waved his claw feebly, while the other shouted, “Behind you! Xander’s coming!”

Would’ve appreciated that warning a few days ago.

Xander’s three dozen trapped them on the ridge, cutting Kragn’s weary force off both ends. The governor himself advanced toward the line of megaphones.

Before Staever could jump the slope, one of the police twisted his claws behind his back. Another lobster did the same to Emaria, while two got the drop on Wrest. Staever’s blade slipped from his belt. Arcite fumbled for a ball of clay, but Xander himself put a sword to his throat. “By the way,” he said, “we know.”

“Kill us,” Emaria said. “Let them watch you do it.”

A sharp crack punctuated her words as Eventhe slammed two Guards’ heads together. She let out a cry and ran at Xander, three steps from tearing his head off.

Around the second step, Xander pressed the blade deeper into Arcite’s neck. The bomber’s eyes rolled in his head, meeting hers, not scared but uncomprehending. Eventhe faltered midstep. Nobody went near her.

Xander dragged Arcite to an amplifier. “As commander of the council Guard, I place these five lobsters under arrest for conspiracy, treason, espionage, piracy, and theft of a ship. Throw them in the dungeons.”

A guard beside Xander said, “We don’t have dungeons anymore, sir.”

“Just–take them away!”

“Stay where you are,” said a voice from the end of the ridge. Wrest held both claws to his eyes and breathed deep.

Xander looked around.

The remains of Kragn’s army were squeezing the Cuttlefish, the governors, and Xander’s police between two advancing lines. Kragn himself strolled behind the seaward front as though pitting the Eye Militia against its own civilian security was a move he’d practiced countless times.

“Orders?” The guard beside Xander didn’t know where to point his blade.

“Split evenly and engage!” Two of the governors hurled themselves down the back of the hill, scrambling into the dark.

At each end of the bluff, swords clashed: a fresh, small group of elite council Guard against a tired and battered Militia with overwhelming numbers. Anyone’s fight. Police and soldiers tumbled down into the crowd. Whenever a Militiaman fell, some lobsters of the Eye gathered to shield them.

“Form up around me!” Xander ordered, still clinging to Arcite. “How many dead?”

“No dead, sir. Eleven prisoners.” His captain backed up to him.

“Prisoners? I hired you to fight.”

“We can’t fight the militia! You hired us from the militia!”

The guard holding Staever was trying to join the fight now, searching for a replacement to keep his prisoner under control. Staever struck him in the face, then lunged for his sword, pulling it free. He struck with the flat of the blade and sent the policeman over the edge.

Right next to him, Wrest stopped a sword with his claw, then another. Staever knew the look on his face. Best to leave him alone until things resolved. “Em?”

“Over here, with Eventhe.” He couldn’t see her. “Get Xander before he does anything stupid.”

“Anything else, you mean?”

Xander slung Arcite around like a dead insect, bellowing a new order into the conches every few seconds. Kragn passed through his army, most of whom were corralling prisoners. He lifted Arcite away from Xander, carried him to Staever, and laid him down. Arcite scuttled to hide behind Wrest.

“Staever,” Kragn said into a megaphone, “the Eye Militia would be honored to protect you on your way to the Clearing.”

The battle was over. Staever noticed all eyes were back on him. How could he not accept? It was a golden opportunity to abdicate responsibility: put the exodus in Kragn’s claws, stay on as a figurehead, give the expedition a leader that knew what he was doing.

Only Wrest, standing at Staever’s tail, gave him pause. The fire in his eyes from the fight had died.

He asked, “Could I have a minute to talk it over with my second?”

Kragn nodded, and caught Wrest’s eye. “Lieutenant Wrest.”

“General,” Wrest mumbled back, and dragged Staever off to a corner of the ridge.

“We need him,” Staever began. “I know you don’t like him–”

“Don’t like him, be damned. It’s what he can make people do that scares the piss out of me. What he made me do.”

“He’ll only have the power we give him,” Staever hissed. “We need him.”

“That’s too much power already.”

“Our list of assets on the Expanse is damn thin without an army.”

“You said yourself the whole Forbidden Expanse thing could be a lie.” Wrest watched Crane and Xander stand rigidly in the light from the soldier’s torches.

“That was Em, not me. Also, if we say yes, we can have him in eyeshot the whole way. Send him off into the desert, he’s liable to turn rogue.”

This threw Wrest. “If I can’t stop you,” said the big lobster, “you’d better be serious about it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Make Kragn fire his colonels. Or tell them all to meet with you every hightide. Put the army under your claw.”

If anybody tried to put him in command of anything else before midnight, Staever would slap all hundred thousand lobsters in turn.

“The only way this is going to work is if you’re in charge,” Wrest said. “Fine, it’s irrational. Rationality falls apart against the enemy anyway.”

The governors who had thrown themselves off the embankment had sheepishly returned. Crane and Graphus stood with them. Emaria was at the conches trying to pacify the confused crowd, while Arcite and Eventhe were avoiding each other, again. Kragn watched him and Wrest in polite silence.

“With conditions,” he said to the crowd, “we may accept Kragn’s offer.”

Kragn nodded. The Militiamen raised a cheer.

“Back to business,” Staever said. The logistics of moving thousands of lobsters across a continent grew more intimidating the darker it became. “All crab-sleds and vessels are now public property.”

The wealthy lobsters raised an uproar. He waited for it to die.

“All other possessions are still property of their owners, but we need those vehicles to carry the sick, the young, and the elderly. And yes, you’re all sick. That’s why we’re going. But I need you to ride only if you absolutely can’t walk.”

He had to leave it there, trusting the Pupil-dwellers to see the wisdom of his plan. If not, they could squeeze their ships through the mountain crags without his help.

“Tonight we organize into clans and find who needs to ride. We’ll leave at first light.” I can’t just say good night. They need to hear something else. “I know this seems scary. Dangerous. A bit ill-advised.” Emaria gave her familiar shut-up signal. “But imagine what’s waiting. Enough water for everyone for the first time in our lives.” He swallowed. “When we wake up tomorrow we’ll head through those mountains, into the highlands and down to the southern sea. If you come along…I can promise you a home.”

The crowd roared. Weary, dehydrated lobsters began chanting while he contemplated the magnitude of his lie. He couldn’t promise them anything, not even a swift death by air demon.

He looked back at his gang. At Wrest, asking Arcite what Xander meant by we know, at Emaria talking to a librarian and Eventhe retreating in the shadows. He could promise them one thing: every effort five thieves could make.

Crane approached, untying the cords of his elaborate cloak. “Take this. Save my city, if you can do better than us.”

“Keep it,” Staever replied. “It’s not wilderness gear.”

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Taking Chances

The canals ran dry before the afternoon was out. The lobsters filled every vessel they could, bathing themselves and scooping up more, but the channel weakened until nothing remained of the Eye but wet sand.

The sun was setting over the eastern sea by the time the council reappeared. North of the berm that kept the sea from spilling over was a bluff with a broad edge facing south. The governors made it their stage to address the people on the plain. Behind them, the Star Moon threw silver over the sand.

Though scripture decreed it, few people wished to send their loved ones back to the sea. It had lost its power, after all. Had been enslaved by the manatees, then sheltered them. The lobsters in camp mourned not only for their city, but for their ocean.

Instead of rafts, the monks helped them build pyres–rafts that would never touch water, bearing family members and friends killed by rocks and spears and the waterfall. As priests set the pyres alight, they formed a fleet of flames stretching for miles. The bodies would break down in the smoke and become part of the sky. The Lesser Mirror would rebuild the soul.

People accepted this. The sky had done nothing wrong. By the time Xander approached Crane, enough rafts burned to turn twilight into day.

“It’s time,” Xander said. The high governor straightened his pearl-encrusted cloak and stepped to the edge of the bluff. Servants had set up a row of conches so each would amplify the sound of the next, filling the sky with Crane’s voice. They placed several more of these apparatuses along the ridge for the other governors. Kragn and his colonels stood apart, with the remaining army massed near them. They surrounded the Field children.

“Lobsters of the Eye.” Crane checked for a reaction in the back of the camp to ensure he was being heard. The volume startled him. “Today’s attack came suddenly and without warning. We had no choice but to evacuate.”

Someone shouted back at him, amplified. “You could have fought. You could have paid them off with all the money in your star-cursed tower.”

Crane coughed. If he did not finish quickly, he would fill the pauses by staring at the lump of wet sand he’d ruled that morning. He might beg the crowd to kill him.

“We of the council are certain the manatees arrived to render aid against the invaders. That they had to destroy our city in order to cleanse the rebels is regrettable.”

“I’ve lost everything!” burst out a lobster at the front, guarding his family as though Crane might leap at them with a spear. “Everything but my wife and child. How’s that for regrettable?”

“Haven’t I lost everything as well?” Xander started towards another megaphone. Crane covered his mouth so the conches wouldn’t pick up his groan. “Isn’t my home in the Pupil gone, like yours in the Whites?”

“Iris,” shouted the agitator. “I owned a roadbuilding company. And your home may be gone, but whose are they gonna rebuild first?”

“Silence!” Xander had his police at the bottom of the hill, a few dozen lobsters he’d held back from the fighting. They advanced, menacing the crowd, but nobody moved a step.

“Go ahead and threaten me, Xander,” the roadbuilder said, “and buy your way to the top–again–if you want, but I’m taking my chances out here.” The lobsters around murmured their assent.

“Take your chances?” Crane felt hollow. What did they mean to do? There was no life without the Eye.

He’d lost the crowd. Someone was approaching the empty spot in the ranks of the council, followed by four other figures.

“Staever!” someone shouted.

Crane cringed, mind clouding with hatred, claws clenched. Standing side by side with the governors was the thief he’d sentenced to death and the four who had stormed in to rescue him.

“My men have a clear shot,” Xander whispered.

“Give the order, and they’ll tear you apart.”

The first shout set off others. The Iris and Whites cheered for Staever, gaining strength as new parts of the crowd picked it up. The rich piled atop their sleds and vessels for a better look.

The high governor’s head swam. It could not be true, yet it was–they’d lost. His council was a sink for blame. Staever had become a hero by no political maneuver more complex than lying down to die in public.

“Let me explain what chance we’re planning to take.” Staever walked up to the conch megaphones that should have been Graphus’s. From the pocket of his cloak he produced the battered metal key from his petition. Crane had hoped it had washed away.

“We will not rebuild the Eye,” he told the governors, making sure the conches carried his voice. He turned away from Crane, facing out to the refugees. “There’s another option. If you’ve heard of me, you know it. If you’ve heard of it, you’ll never settle for the Eye again.” He held the key aloft. “Anyone who wants to stay can stay. I’m going to the Clearing.”

Hundreds in the camp knew the story. When their children, their cousins, their friends asked them what Staever was on about, or who Staever was, they told the news as best they could: an ancient city, lost but now purified, existed where water was plentiful and everyone could live in harmony. The children and cousins looked at the ruins of the Eye, at the governors arguing amongst themselves, at the thieves, standing like sentinel stones.

“I’ll go,” said the one at the back of the plain with her own conch, and the dam broke.

The thousands of voices mingled, became hazy and indistinct. Every lobster assenting–“I’ll come,” “I’ll go with you,” “Me too!”–turned toward the Forbidden Expanse, its mountains jagged shadows cut out of the stars. By the time the moon had climbed another degree, Crane could no longer tell if a single lobster had not agreed to follow Staever.

“Stop this!” he bawled. “The council rules here!”

“Check again.”

Graphus strode across the hill, tapping his staff as he walked. Xander’s guards struck torches and loosened blades. Graphus raised the staff, and broke it on the ground.

Crane jerked. “This is treason.”

“You made yourself my enemy. Is it treason to take the other side?” Graphus spoke into the conches. “These people need a leader, and it’s not going to be the seven who ran them into the ground. I’m going with Staever.”

“With Staever!” a stevedore shouted back. The phrase echoed through the crowd–With Staever! With Staever!–while Crane shrank away.

So be it. He feared the mob if Staever and his friends died, but not as much as he feared the world that would come if they lived. He caught Xander’s eye, counted and recounted the three dozen police on the bluff.

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