The River of Night

Presenting the beginning of Act III! Don’t forget to vote for The Glass Thief on Top Web Fiction so we can bring in more readers. Click the link to vote, then enjoy the chapter!

Wrest found a barrel of tar in the hold, and the siblings spent the afternoon belowdecks, Alta and Wrest hammering and sealing while Wier snuck glances through the hole punched by Kragn’s bowsprit. Staever labored toward the head of the fleet. The boats with engines switched to sails and used their yellow clay to patch up injuries, but sailing didn’t prove easy. The vessels the seaweed farmers used should have been steadiest, but they couldn’t stop hitting other even after the rapids flattened out. It took an hour to evacuate one collision, and another half-hour to ferry the passengers to their cousins’ boats.

“Seen any other trouble?” Staever asked a middle-aged couple he and Emaria were helping off a hulk he wouldn’t have ridden down the street.

“Luxury cruiser ran aground.” The woman patted Emaria’s claw in thanks. “A bit upstream.”

Staever rubbed his eyes. How had he missed that? “Arcite, give me back the helm. Tell Ev we’re tacking.”

“Upstream? Through whitewater?” Arcite’s daze had long worn off. “Haven’t you almost died enough times today?”

“No need,” the weed-farmer woman said. “Some big ship–”

“Miners, it was,” said the husband.

“–hooked up ropes and pulled them out. The rich folk patched the leak right up.”

Staever would have been happy, were it not for the voice that badgered him whenever he remembered he ruled a moving city. “We should still check…”

“Let them go.” Emaria knit her brow. “You don’t need to baby the whole Eye.”

Her words stung. Staever took too long to retort. He settled for nudging the farmers into the cabin and kicking Arcite off the helm.

“I’m getting the hang of it!” Arcite made an adjustment. As they rolled to port, something heavy slid into a bulkhead, followed by a storm of muffled cursing from Wrest.

Staever sighed. “I’m here to relieve you.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Ev, need any help?” Staever pried Arcite’s claws from the wooden wheel. Emaria had worn grooves into it.

“I do.” Eventhe dropped a coil of rope onto Arcite’s head. “Hold that until I need it.”

Arcite somehow managed to get his legs tangled. “When will you need it?”

“I will tell you.”

She sprang farther aloft. Arcite plopped onto the deck, muttering that ships should stay on land.

They spoke only what they needed to work the boat. Eventhe went hours without touching the deck, while Emaria reread their maps as though there an epic were written between the crude glyphs of mountains and monsoons. Arcite took to lying in the prow and spotting every ship ahead–“three little ones together,” “whole bunch under sail.” Whenever Staever, who saw everything at the same time he did, told him to stop, Arcite argued with so much passion he dropped the issue.

They sniped at each other to avoid asking how many had been left behind when the Wall exploded, or how many of Kragn’s soldiers survived, or how few loyal fighters they had left. Staever had seen so many narrow escapes he wasn’t sure he deserved to be alive. They’d set out to save the Eye, and people from the Eye had died. Nor was he innocent.

They dropped the weeders off at the ninth hour. By the tenth, Wrest pronounced King Crab riverworthy, and dug a sack of gnat strips from the dry part of the hold. Staever took his meal at the helm. Steering with one claw, watching sunset spill across the water, he began to coax into his mind the possibility he was safe. Around him, lobsters changed watches and settled in for lookout duty. Their floating voices, the wind in sails–even the lapping of the river that had chewed up Magnam and Kragn soothed him, allowed in a peace he’d never granted himself, even before he went to war.

The Clearing is not home, and it is not safe.

He jumped. Wrest was standing behind him. “Sorry. I thought you saw me.”

“No offense, but the sunlight’s prettier than you.” Couldn’t the memory have waited ten minutes? “How’s the fleet doing?”

“They’ve learned to stop hitting the sides. Plus, the river’s wide and looks like a mirror in every direction. We can maybe relax.”

“Until it gets so damn placid the wind dies.” Letting go, he tethered the helm and exhaled. “What’s everyone else doing?”

“Emaria is below with Wier and Alta. Apparently there are some scrolls aboard. Arcite and Eventhe are…”

Eventhe was coiled on the upper yardarm, while Arcite huddled behind the cabin. “…doing…” Wrest gestured, “…that.”

A star winked to life in the Lesser Mirror as its twin appeared deep in the river. King Crab held its course to point of light. “They’ll handle it, right?” he asked. “If anything bad happens?”

“That’s the spirit,” Wrest said, and guided his friend into the cabin.

Emaria was burning a bit of yellow clay in a bone box with an open top, trying to chase the damp from the part of the room that had spent time underwater. It was only half-failing. The dim glow illuminated curved walls lined with the ship’s ribs, crates full of weed-scrolls, sacks of food, bolts of canvas. Bilgewater sloshed under the soles.

Alta and Wier stretched out together on a bundled-up spare sail, sleeping like stones. Emaria sat over them, sifting through scrolls with a frustrated look.

Her expression softened as Staever and Wrest descended. “I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier,” she said to Staever, as he shifted a barrel to make room. “It was…I was…”

“Still not sure you survived this morning?” The only gap he could find in the cargo wedged him right next to her. She made as much space as she could. “Me neither. If Kragn had caught onto the fleet trick a little sooner, or if someone had started tossing red clay around…and the winch was too easy.”

“Yeah, there are lots of ways we could have died,” Wrest interrupted, “but remember, there are plenty of great ways we could have survived. A freak flood washes away the loyalists. Kragn’s boys all get food poisoning.”

“Air demons coming back and eating all their side,” Emaria put in, then giggled. Staever grinned for two seconds before he realized they expected him to contribute.

“I killed Xander,” he said.

Wrest faded so fast that Staever regretted his words at once. “It was war. Nobody would have done differently.”

“Em didn’t kill.”

She twitched beside him. “I didn’t have to. I was lucky.”

Wrest had killed Gattick, and done far worse, done things Staever would never understand. One day, when his friend could speak of the Ocean Patrol without shaking, Staever would tell him he couldn’t stop imagining Xander crawling, severed, half-alive. But not tonight.

Tonight there was another problem. Whenever he let his guard down, Cyprus’s prophecy muscled in.

“Wrest’s right,” Emaria said. “We’re alive. We won. It’s time to start acting like it.”

His smile must have looked as false as it felt. In the weak yellow light of the torch, his friends watched him with grave concern.

He decided to tell them about Cyprus.

They didn’t move until he finished. Afterward, Wrest was first to speak. “This isn’t like you, Staever. Prophetic dreams. Destiny and fate. You always said the ocean isn’t interested in the future.”

“And that those things don’t apply to thieves,” Emaria added.

“It wasn’t the ocean. It was me.” Staever sat back. “I created what I saw in that pit. I have no idea what Cyprus looked like. Everything he said was reflecting from me, which means–” The phrase caught in his throat. “I’m scared of the Clearing.”

“What could he have meant, though?” Emaria asked. Staever was grateful to her for not questioning the vision. Perhaps he was giving voice to her fears along with his own. “The water’s still poisoned? Or the key doesn’t work?”

“It already has.” Wrest nudged his way into a berth beside Wier, who muttered in his sleep. “It got us here.”

“Forget it. I’m sorry I brought it up,” Staever said, too flippantly. “We can’t go back. Either the Clearing is home, or we knock it down and build a whole new sandcastle.”

Emaria had more questions, but Wrest took Staever’s hint and jumped on a chance to change the subject. “Staever, there’s something I’ve wanted to know. When went into the camps telling everybody what to do when we hit the Wall…why didn’t the army know?”

“I didn’t tell them.”

“Why not, though? They weren’t all behind Kragn.”

“Loyal or not, they might have told him. You didn’t trust Kragn. So I cut him out of the loop.”

There was nothing else to say, but that wasn’t important.

Staever and Emaria could not stretch out without laying out beside each other in the small alcove. She ended up on top of one of his claws, while he had to drape the other over her to fit. He expected her to object, but she didn’t.

The clay lamp burned down. He thought she was asleep, until she whispered, “I wasn’t ready.”

“Huh?”

“When I was in front of the wall, and Kragn was about to shoot me, I kept thinking I wasn’t ready. I wanted more time.”

Not being able to see her face was odd. “Too much left to know? Too many books unread?”

“I needed to stay alive so I could see it was worth something. I can’t explain it. I couldn’t stand to die before I saw the Clearing.”

He found her claw and squeezed it, then shifted his weight away, worried he’d crossed a line. She didn’t appear to notice.

The Clearing is not home, and it is not safe.

“It’ll be all right, with you there,” he told her. But she’d fallen asleep.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Glass Thief. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

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The River

With today’s installment, Part II of The Glass Thief comes to a close! Tune in this Saturday for the opening of the third and final part. In the meantime, I’m going to be doing some work to spruce up the serial’s web presence and hopefully get some new readers hooked as we go into Act III.

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Staever forced his numb limbs to react. Every pace he squirmed along the pole, Magnam pulled back. Wrest, Wier, and Alta pulled against Magnam, leaving Staever claw’s-reach above the river’s fury.

A white flash flickered along with a symphony of explosive cracks. Emaria bent double against the wheel, and Eventhe lost her grip on the yardarm. A shockwave rammed its way down the river, kicking water before it, raising screams as the fleet blinked against the light.

Arcite moaned, “Some idiot…dropped a torch.”

Upriver, a column of smoke bloomed into the sky. What forest remained was burning.

The flash lanced Magnam’s eyes. He faltered.

Wrest gave the pole a tremendous heave upward. Magnam reached over the flagship’s rail to wrench it back. When he gripped, Wrest dragged him off the deck.

Facing the whitewater, Staever began to work his way the last few paces. King Crab pitched and rolled. Wier lost his balance, clutching at the mast. Swells buffeted the rudder. Emaria dug gouges in the wheel keeping the helm straight.

Staever let go when he crossed the rail, landing on the boards. Magnam hooked the pole with his legs.

Wrest shoved the mooring pole back into the gap between ships. Finding himself over empty space, Magnam stopped struggling, instead staring wide-eyes.

“Keep your claws off my sister.” Wrest dropped the pole in the river.

For a second Magnam spun in a circle as his claw battered the waves. Then he disappeared, a final gulp for air strangled by the rapids.

Kragn piloted the Flagship right over his colonel’s body. The distance between him and King Crab diminished. “Sea damn you, Kragn, you’ve lost!” Staever shouted. “Somebody blew up your army!”

The rushing water drowned out Kragn’s reply. His hull closed on them. Looking at the dead governors, Staever’s resolve weakened. That’s us. Thieves and councilmen, makes no difference. Kragn’s like the sea. He takes us all.

Eventhe was out of sail. King Crab simply couldn’t gather as much momentum. If he’d gotten to choose a vessel for this, Staever wouldn’t have gone with the floating library.

Kragn’s bowsprit rammed their stern, caving in a hole wide enough to look through. Staever crawled aft to examine it. The river not been bucking them like a bag of gravel–much more and water would sluice through the gap.

Emaria looked ill. Staever ran to help at the helm. “Got any more ideas?” she asked. “Or are we letting him tear us to pieces?”

“What happened to the clay engine?” He took the wheel opposite her. The chaos on the river heightened his senses, slowed every move and word. “If we turn on the propeller we could motor out of here. Make him chase us around.”

Arcite was no longer lying where Eventhe laid him. He say against the mast, awareness flickering about his eyes. “Won’t work…”

Kragn backed gracefully. “What do you mean it won’t work?” Staever asked.

“Ask…the Lady. Her…piece of dung boat…engine taking on water. Felt it dying.”

Whitewater pitched the stern. Wrest, shepherding Wier and Alta below, gripped the cabin door to stay steady. “Could that happen to him too?”

“Watch him.” Arcite nodded at the Flagship. “He’s holding back…could go faster than he is. Doesn’t need clay.”

If Arcite wasn’t going to help, Staever wished he’d at least stay unconscious. “You’re saying we can get smashed by the river or smashed by–”

Another blow cut him off. Then came the sound of water, sloshing inside the hold.

Wrest and the siblings grabbed buckets from the scuppers. Kragn spun the wheel with the deftness of a lifelong helmsman. He was dancing with King Crab, taking them apart piece by piece. All the time, the fleet drifted closer, defenseless for the council Flagship to pick off at will.

“I have…another idea.”

Down below, Wier, Alta, and Wrest bailed frantically. Eventhe tumbled to the edge of the yardarm, catching herself as the deck listed aft.

“I need…one good shot!” Arcite held onto the mainmast as his back started to slide. Kragn floated over the spray–with blood on his claws, with all the time in the world.

Staever locked eyes with Arcite. “Tell me what to do.”

“Get me near that boat.” With one feeble claw, Arcite lowered his goggles.

The wheel wrenched Staever’s claws as Emaria braved the tilting deck to help Arcite up. Eventhe made fast her lines. “Can you hit him from here?”

“Need to see his eyes.”

Staever swung the wheel hard. Emaria planted her legs to hold Arcite up. Though the stern was damaged and half-submerged, the rudder caught water. The stern circled, throwing their broadside in front of Kragn’s prow, placing him and Arcite face to face.

Arcite drew three pellets from one of his pockets. When the shadow of Kragn’s bowsprit fell on him, he threw the first. It landed on the Flagship’s foredeck and poured forth thick white smoke. Bewildered, Kragn let go of the helm, swatting it from his eyes. Arcite threw the second as the river twisted the flagship to parallel King Crab.

“What are those?” Staever asked.

Arcite grinned. “Trick I came up with in the Field.”

Kragn opened his mouth, and swallowed a gob of noxious smoke. Words dissolved in a coughing fit. He could not see to steer. The whitewater spun the Flagship like a top.

“The shipyard…” Emaria kept Arcite upright so he could throw the third smoke bomb. “You’ve had these the whole time.”

When the smoke exploded, Kragn vanished in the cloud. He turned hard to starboard, then harder to port, on a heading to nowhere.

Only a grind of rock tearing through wood told Staever when the council Flagship, with its living passenger and four vengeful souls, met its end on a gnarled spear of stone.

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Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Xander Alone

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The wood was quiet. Xander gave up tugging at his leg. Turning the wheel caused more pain no matter what direction he tried. He tried to cut himself free, but gagged before the blade his bone.

Kragn’s soldiers milled around. He begged help from several, but only strangled cries came out, as though in screaming he’d forgotten how to speak.

A bomb, they’d said. A whole field mined with red clay. Absent-mindedly, Xander scraped a strip from the dirt, then scratched it, ignited it.

The Eye had gone ahead of him. He would never see the Clearing. Staever had taken everything.

No, not everything. The thief hadn’t taken Xander’s death.

The soldiers weren’t looking. He dropped the flame into the gash in the ground.

Emaria…think well of me.

The world went white.

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King Crab Flies

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A mooring pole skimmed over the knolls. Somebody shouted: “Staever! Grab hold!”

“Wrest,” he croaked, “how many times are you going to save my life?”

He grabbed the dowel before his face, and flew.

The forest floor plummeted away and his insides lurched through his mouth. Suspended, he worked his way along the wood, gripping with his legs. He would be nauseated in a minute. Wrest, Wier, and Alta braced the rod and swung Staever astern, lifting him over the treetops.

His weight dragged the siblings aft. He dropped so swiftly he nearly lost his grip. His tail skimmed the grass, then the grass disappeared, replaced by the surface of the lowered Wall. Arcite’s clay satchel lay on the stone.

Emaria threw a lump of yellow clay into the hatch. Eventhe dropped from the rigging to keep Arcite from sliding. Wrest shouted “Pull him in!”

The treads rocketed off a bank, and they hit water.

The fire died on impact, taking the smoke with it. Staever glimpsed a torrent of water crashing into a crag with high sides. If we can dodge trees we can steer through that.

The fleet took to the river, every boat finding its balance, every captain their voice. A cargo jumper hit the gulch, wavered as the water sucked it into the narrow channel, then nearly grazed the basalt spires flanking the river, before straightening. The captains of the biggest ships gritted their teeth. Time to adapt, quickly.

Staever touched the water and convulsed with shock. Compared to this, the river before the grate was placid. He gripped the pole with supernatural effort, as Wrest pulled him in claw over claw.

Something behind him caught the pole.

A monstrous splash resounded through the canyon, reflecting shock on Wrest’s face. The siblings’ attention was glued behind Staever’s back. Staever looked too, and regretted it.

Magnam, claw locked around the other end of the dowel, stood at the prow of the lavish, powerful, state-of-the-art council Flagship. General Kragn manned the helm. Four governors lay dead at his feet.

King Crab took them all into the gulch.

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Starboard

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Eventhe swung between yardarms for a closer view. “The portal is twenty-three paces ahead, Staever nineteen, two points off the starboard bow.”

Emaria wrestled with the helm. Judging King Crab as responsive had been hasty: she pulled starboard, threatening to sideswipe half the Great South Wall. Emaria overadjusted, panicked, and overadjusted the other way. Tree branches scratched the hull. Wrest, Alta, and Wier shoved the pole further off the starboard side.

“Staever is three points off starboard!” Eventhe announced. “Whatever you are going to do, do it now!”

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Staever Doesn’t Fail

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The ships were large as mountains to Staever, skimming on their blades, hardly touching the ground. Those in the lead must have been halfway to the Clearing by now. His spirit soared, exalting in the speed of the monsters, graceful as air demons: I did it! I saved them!

He’d barely saved everyone from drying out, had been powerless against Kragn’s coup, had at times had no idea where he was leading everybody. None of it meant anything. He hadn’t gone in vain into the camps every night.

Fear of being left behind brought him back to earth. He shouted, but the scrape of blades and the hollering of skippers and passengers drowned his words. When the wind died, engines flared up, and his situation grew more hopeless still. Staggering toward the gap in the Wall, muscles burning, he conjured a vague notion of throwing himself in front of a ship and force it to notice him. After all this, still running down ships.

Only a few remained to waylay. One–small, lightly crewed–was more promising than the others, though its ribs were on fire.

In fact, it looked familiar.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Glass Thief. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Run for the Clearing

A twofer today to apologize for my missing Wednesday.

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The fleet sat coiled, a crab tied up for too long. Mooring poles bit the earth, heaving ships backward. Engineers retracted treads, or primed their engines with scraps of yellow clay. The council flagship was backing fastest, reversing like a mark backing out of a dark Whites alley.

Emaria waited under King Crab, exposed to arrows every time she stole a glance at the Wall. She thought part of it might have dropped below the rest.

Wrest shouted from the riverbank for the defectors to regroup at the ships. A pair of lobsters stumbled out of the bushes–Eventhe, dragging a lolling Arcite, brushing his legs on the ground.

It wasn’t her imagination. Part of the Wall was falling away.

“Look!” she shouted into her conch. “The wall is moving!”

A wide section was receding into the ground. Stones cracked along hidden seams with booming complaints before vanishing under the field. The lower it sank, the more it looked as though part of the Great South Wall had never been built. Lobsters sheltering on decks got a view beyond the gaping hole to the river.

Water sparkled in the sunlight, like a sky full of stars. It was the third mirror. Sea, sky, and river.

Soldiers ran headlong over the hills, pursued by their former brothers. Magnam strode at the forefront, hewing down resistance, ordering his soldiers to strike flint to torches. “Light the ships. Burn them in their holds.”

“The river! They’re coming!” Emaria’s throat was hoarse. “Run for the Clearing!”

When one goes, you all go.

That wasn’t quite how it began. All but King Crab left at once.

Ships of every size, shape, and purpose skimmed toward the Wall. The big ones went wide, seeking paths clear of trees, while the small ones wove between them. Hunting skiffs, long-distance yachts, and mining haulers cruised alongside the two-skate palaces. Emaria saw Crane hauling a line on an eight-pace pleasure craft, saw wealthy captains take charge of vessels crowded with White-dwellers, saw Magnam and his torch-bearers scampering like beetles from oncoming blades. Everyone caught the wind.

The first wave reached the Wall before it finished lowering. The defter small boats raised their prows, slipped right over, and coasted into the river to become watercraft. The heavier ships had to circle for second passes. Those sitting moored got swarmed by defected soldiers, who packed their decks to escape Magnam’s onslaught. Wrest’s few were in the mass with the others now, but where was Wrest?

Now the Wall was open, where was Staever?

Eventhe and Arcite reached King Crab. Emaria raced to help Arcite up.

“I cannot make him respond.” Eventhe clambered aboard and rushed to catch Arcite before his legs gave way. “He is hardly breathing.“

“Trim the sails. That’s what you can do for him now.” Emaria whipped around–half of Kragn’s flank was chasing Wrest out of the trees. “Hurry! The Militia’s coming!”

“I know!” Wrest altered his course. The soldiers flooded in behind him, meeting the main force. Like a confluence of canals, the Eye Militia–less those who had rebelled against Kragn–reformed.

“Take the ships!” Kragn ordered as they swept along. “Kill whoever you must. Magnam, with me.”

When Wrest boarded, Emaria pointed to the cabin, where Wier and Alta peeked out with two manatee wands. Verifying they were real, Wrest coughed, “Blade’s fine. Checked on the way up.”

“Have you seen Staever?”

“Probably still by the wall. He won’t get here in time.”

“We have to wait.”

“We can’t wait anymore. We’ll pick him up.”

“They are close.” Eventhe dropped from the yardarm, depriving Emaria of her last chance to stall. Half a dozen soldiers broke from Kragn and streamed toward King Crab. One held a red clay torch.

You trusted Staever, and he came through, and now you’re betraying him. All to save Wrest, who went to Kragn.

“Cast off!” Emaria cried.

Wrest put a claw on the tread lever while Alta, Wier, and Eventhe kicked away the mooring poles.

The ship did not move.

“Three freaking moons!” Wrest hauled in the rope ladder. “The breeze went foul!”

“Arcite.” Emaria looked to Eventhe. “We have to ask him. Nobody else can start the engine.”

“I have tried everything,” Eventhe cradled Arcite’s head.

The soldier with the clay thrust it into the hull. As the flames caught, and Emaria smelled singed wood, the six scattered. “Sea damn it,” she said, remembering they were riding a library. “Wier, Alta, get water! Bottom of the hold!”

Then came the faintest of mumblings. Arcite spoke so only Eventhe could hear.

“Get the yellow clay…”

“Emaria,” Eventhe related, “yellow clay!”

She beat a path to the hatch, saw a canister behind its snarl of levers, flung it open. Smoke stung her eyes. “Already here, what else?”

“First lever to compress…third to…combust.”

Eventhe flicked the levers without asking Emaria.

“Two lumps…” Arcite whispered, “…one now, one at the wall…”

“One lump now, one at the wall!” Eventhe laid Arcite’s head onto the deck. “We are going to the river. We will save you there.”

“Fire’s below the waterline, but not for long,” Wrest reported. Belowdecks, a barrel of water thudded onto its side.

Emaria dropped an orb of yellow clay into the engine. The treads lurched forward.

They rode with the back end of the fleet, the slowest glass-gatherers and light-load fishers. Time after time, Kragn’s army charged vessels moments too late. Civilians and defectors jabbed them with mooring poles and clubs, dropping them to the grass.

Kragn himself had vanished. Missing him was worse than seeing him, but between dodging trees on the helm and looking for Staever, Emaria could spare no attention.

Alta came out of the cabin, babbling through a mouth covered with part of a wet cloak. “We can’t get the water barrel up the ladder and Wier’s keeping the fire back but the books…”

Wrest rifled in the scuppers and dug out the longest mooring pole, meant for deep sand. “Help me with this. Wier, you too, behind me!”

Emaria swerved around a tree, then slalomed back between another two. A trough in the land caught their blade and saved them from falling, and Emaria spun the wheel back to center. King Crab had always responded easily. She smelled smoke again, and promised the ship, soon, a bit farther, something important first…

“Do you see Staever?” she called.

“No,” Wrest replied. Eventhe, back up the mast, said, “Yes! By the winch!”

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Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Brother

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Once upon a time, Staever had been part of a gang of thieves who used explosives to cripple their marks on the highway. Those bombs of Arcite’s were the only thing nearly as loud as whatever he was doing to the Great South Wall. The wheel spun while masonry growled in deep, resonant response, an eternal conversation.

“Aaargh!”

His claw flew off the winch as Xander, swordless, lunged inside his guard. Suddenly he could reach no part of the governor with his sword–but the wheel, without him, had caught its own momentum, which Xander groped to arrest…

Staever brought up as many legs as he could and kicked Xander under his belly. They grappled, pummeling eyes, faces, bodies.

They rolled over, face to face. Xander seized Staever’s sword claw, inching the point down.

“You…will never take anything from me again…”

“Do it then…” Staever gasped, “kill me…brother…”

Xander’s face contorted into a mask of rage.

“I…am…no…thief’s…brother!”

Staever threw him into the wheel.

The impact jarred Xander’s bones. Before he could get up, the wheel spun a final quarter-turn, the spokes jumped, and the winch clamped down on Xander’s back leg.

Xander screamed: his brother, shrieking like a desperate animal, scrabbling at the ground.

“Call for help,” Staever said. “One of Kragn’s men will come. I…” After all they’d done to each other, there was nothing left to say. “I’m sorry.”

He headed for the opening in the Great South Wall, screams following him, until Xander’s throat went dry.

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Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

No Good Day to Die

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The arrows ceased flying. The children, trembling in the blood-soaked glade, held the weapon straight. One soldier asked, “General? What should we do?”

“Cease fire!” Kragn’s fighters lowered their bows. Wrest left Arcite, running to guard his brother and sister.

Emaria crouched behind a tree with Eventhe, her bow ready but her quiver light. “If Wrest doesn’t kill him, I’m going to shoot him.”

“And sever his army’s leash?” Eventhe pushed the bow down. “These are his most trusted companions. You would only provoke them.”

I’d probably miss anyway. But sitting paces from Kragn with an instrument of death in her hands made her claws itch to fire. The children were stronger than she was.

Silence gripped the wood. Kragn took his time approaching Wier and Alta. Wrest held his ground in front of them, a mountain with a sword.

A new sound cut the hush: swiftly dropping cloth, the unfurling sails of a landship. Several more followed the first. The fleet’s new crew was preparing for their signal.

“We need to get to the ships,” she told Eventhe. “Nobody’s guarding them.”

“We must abandon the fleet. Staever has not lowered the Wall.”

“He will.” To say it enough times would make it real. She was aware she was doing this, but still it might work.

“Arcite is wounded.” Eventhe pointed to where Wrest had laid the demolitionist. “You go to the ships. I will follow.”

She fled. Alone behind the tree, Emaria saw Kragn draw up five paced from Wier, Alta, and Wrest. “Give me my weapon.”

“Stop shooting the ships,” Wier told him.

“The consequences if I don’t?”

“I said, stop shooting!”

I said, back up your threat. What will you do if I resume fire?”

“We’ll blow you up!” Wier stabbed the end of the weapon into the grass. “The whole field is a bomb.”

“So young,” Kragn closed another pace. Wrest leveled his blade. “And you call yourself ready for death.”

“Kragn,” Wrest warned, “I will kill you if you touch them.”

“A funny thing to say when they’re determined to kill us all. Wouldn’t you rather save yourselves?”

“Don’t come closer!” Tears stung the corners of Wier’s eyes.

Alta’s claw twitched at the firing knob, but went no further. Her arms went limp. The front end jumped out of the grass, presenting itself to Kragn.

“Wise choice,” Kragn reached for the staff. “It’s no great thing to die.”

“Wier, Alta, run!” Wrest cried.

The two bolted as Wrest lunged in. Though the general’s blade had been, it appeared out of nowhere to parry.

“Fire at will!” Kragn commanded. Wrest’s attacks hardly registered–the big thief was enraged, attacking without thought. Kragn was back in control.

He’s buying time. I can open a way out.

Half a minute’s run took her to the fleet, Wier and Alta ahead the whole way. More lobsters pressed against the hulls than she ever thought they’d left the Eye with: clamoring, fighting for space, leaning over the rains to help each other on board.

I’ve been talking to them, Staever had said. But not all of them. Right?

The loyalists on the field, led by Magnam, kept pushing; the defectors’ tails brushed the ships. Emaria ushered Alta and Wier back about King Crab. Trepidation at the manatee weapon on the deck had led everyone to save her ship for last, meaning it remained empty. Her conch was lying by the staff.

“Everyone!” she said into it. Lobsters turned to her. “There’s space for all of you. Fill every vessel to the eyestalks. We will get out of here safely.”

“What about the Council Flagship?” someone nearby asked. “The governors sealed all the doors.”

“Break them down! There are more of you than there are of them!” The problems we could have avoided if people had realized that earlier.

“What about yours?” an elderly shipbuilder piped up. “Throw the weapon away so it won’t burn down…”

Wrest, Staever, Eventhe, and Arcite were in the wood. She couldn’t leave them, so neither could King Crab. “This ship needs to leave last. If you’re followed, we’re the diversion.”

“Followed where? We can’t back, and the Wall’s still in the way.”

Emaria took a deep breath. The fleet was thousands of lobsters strong, all sitting crayfish for Magnam to carve up. She couldn’t tell their skippers to wait while their families huddled in dark holds and arrows pounded the driftwood.

“If Magnam gets here,” she said, “back them. But keep your sails up. That wall won’t be there for long.”

Her audience turned away. Empty sails whistled and snapped in a fresh breeze. Staever, I’m trusting you more than I’ve trusted anything in my life.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Glass Thief. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Fated Nuisance

This is a reminder to vote for The Glass Thief on Top Web Fiction so we can bring in more readers. Click the link to vote, then enjoy the chapter!

Also, this is going to be the only update this week, as I’m traveling for a post-4th of July weekend adventure. Back to regular schedule next Wednesday!

Xander flung his sword arm up and caught Staever across the legs. Staever’s world pitched. He banged something hard on a tree, shuddering his thorax. He dodged Xander’s blade, which lodged in the bark, letting Staever bolt for the winch.

Xander dove and wrapped his abdomen in a death grip. Staever stabbed wildly behind him, missing by a pace. The flat of Xander’s blade slid under Staever’s stomach, its edge gliding near bone, not quite reaching. “Going to hold on forever?”

“Forever,” Xander’s mouth twisted in a grin. “Cross the sea, I’ll follow you. You’re my destiny, Staever. My fated nuisance.”

Using his hilt this time, Staever hit hard, loosening Xander’s grip. He scampered three paces, hooked his free claw onto a spoke of the wheel, and pulled.

It resisted. Nobody had turned it for ten lifetimes. Staever threw his whole weight onto the wheel, reciting: Each action is a plank in a vessel to sail the waves of chance…

The spoke shifted. From underground came the clicks and creaks of a slumbering machine waking.

He turned it only an eighth of a circle before Xander was on him again, threatening to skewer him on the wheel. They changed places. Guarding the winch, Xander kept him at bay with the point of his blade.

Staever howled. “Let me finish and you can kill me all you want!”

“Oh, no.” They fought in the sunlight and shade, washed with glow from the tall wheel. “You don’t get to be the hero this time. No manatees or monsoons sweeping in to save you. This time you fail everyone.”

Staever feinted, caught Xander’s blade with his sword arm bent across his body, then hooked it with his own and tried to disarm. It worked. Xander’s blade flew from his claw and spun down toward the river. Transfixed, Xander watched it fly.

The winch moved easily. Staever had ground centuries of dust from its joints. He spun it a full circle, then two, as Turner’s ancient system raised a grind of stone on stone.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Glass Thief. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.