Not Home, Not Safe

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The engineer Staever had blinded with foam advanced, blank-faced. Staever drew his blade and swung to sever the engineer’s limb.

His sword bounced off without leaving a dent. No wonder he didn’t take our weapons. These are not lobsters.

Emaria had her blade out. Eventhe sprang backwards onto the table. Turner hadn’t moved. The two engineers were still blocking the only way out.

They have to have a weak spot. Nobody’s immune to swords.

He cut low, hoping to catch the engineer in the underbelly. The silent lobster stamped on his arm and kicked him in the face, launching him into the opposite wall. He staggered, spitting blood, and slumped back to the floor. Lights exploded in his eyes. He’d lost his grip on the sword.

Eventhe was keeping the second engineer at bay from the table. The shadow of the first appeared over him. Staever braced for his shell to split in two.

“Hey!”

He blinked away the spots. Emaria pointed her sword at the massive lobster, who paused, calculating the greater threat.

“Em, no!” Bracing against the wall, Staever hauled himself to his feet, snatching up his blade. “Two lobsters with swords! You’re too damn rational to know who to kill!”

For a moment, he thought he’d found a weakness. That lasted for as long as it took for Turner to leap onto the table and hurl Eventhe into the other engineer.

Turner moved with terrible grace, a perfect machine. The momentum of his jump flowed smoothly into his claws as he leapt to the floor and, without pausing, shoved Emaria through the ocean window.

The glass shattered, singing in harmony with the storm. Emaria disappeared.

NO!” As the engineer turned back to him, Staever slashed across his face, blade windmilling. He would cut until he saw blood–when he saw Emaria again, safe at the bottom, he could tell her their weakness, she’d be happy to know…

The engineer punched downward, and Staever backed away, keeping Turner in his sights. Eventhe was by the eastern wall, the other engineer not breaking stride against her. Turner watched them both, amused.

“Ev, come on!” Staever ordered. “We’re getting out of here!”

Eventhe blocked a shot with two claws, sliding back. Staever pulled her toward the exit stairs. Lightning flashed in the sea window.

“If you go to her,” said Turner, “you may not return.”

Staever hesitated. Eventhe didn’t. She led him, bolting down the stairs, slamming the trapdoor shut before an engineer ran headlong into it.

Staever reached the bottom of the stairs, then looked back. Eventhe hadn’t run further. Her antennae pressed against the door. She made a Cuttlefish sign: overhearing intel.

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We Are Lobsters

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From his perch atop a beached cruiser, Wrest saw the beach in panorama, from the river mouth, churning as it ran among pools of silt into the sea, to the Clearing, whose towers taunted him. We tricked you, they sang. You thought this was your new home, but it’s nothing but a wall to die against.

He’d acquired a new shell sword, the longest and heaviest greatblade left in the armory. Soldiers ran to and fro with shovels, digging bulwarks before the city. Civilians moved the fleet up the beach, never taking their eyes off the ocean.

“Don’t they know they’ve blown their surprise?”

Wrest glanced at the lobster below. Thesal was a purer soldier than Wrest would ever be. The claw he rested on the hull was pockmarked by grafts, and several more bristled over his shell. Wrest winced to looked at them–Staever had screamed like a crayfish getting branded, and he only got the one.

“They don’t need to surprise us,” Wrest said. “They want us to know they’re here.”

“They wanted to talk, they could have done it at the Eye.”

“That was a rapidly unfolding situation. Even they’d agree it went badly.”

Thesal spat into the sand. “Rattling sabres over a table can work. But if it were me, I’d have charged already.”

Soon, the fleet was stacked atop the sand hills northwest of the city. Nothing but dunes and soldiers lay between ocean and Clearing. The loyalists who had turned against Kragn–mostly volunteers of the Militia–had armed up at Alta’s outburst, donning heavy-woven thorax armor and binding spears across their backs. Each of them brought men and women from their clan, with pikes fashioned from ship driftwood.

When Wrest asked how the soldiers had convinced their fellows to fight, Alta looked down. “They said they’ll die if they don’t.”

They were likely to die anyway, but he wasn’t about to tell his sister.

Wrest wasn’t sure what to make of his army. The last time they’d fought anything as a unit was the battle with the Field. Since then, they’d been manipulated by Kragn, forced to fight their comrades, and split up in the haphazard launching of the fleet. In the Eye, most of them had gone home to simple lives after serving their shift at the garrison. Still others had been recruited that afternoon.

He’d been a general for four hours and was already committing the cardinal sin: he couldn’t bear to lose one of them. He’d do everything in his power to bring about a parley.

“Thesal, take three hundred. Tell Corin to do the same. Anybody you don’t pull is with me.”

Thesal saluted and stalked off as Wier and Alta scurried up. “Resources?” Wrest asked.

Weir took a deep breath. “We found a few funny-looking vehicles near the ocean. They have clay engines, but they aren’t boats.”

“Do they still run?”

“Nobody wanted to try. They’re kinda old.”

“We might be able to crash them and make more obstacles,” Wrest said. “How about stuff from the camp?”

“Ten arrows per archer, more if we’re willing to shoot broken ones. Enough red clay for half a platoon of bombers,” Alta rattled off.

“Yellow clay?”

“Some in the engines of the not-ship thingies, but we can’t open them.”

“Forget it. Blades?”

“One for three of five fighters, but some got broken like the arrows. There are some glass spears, and clubs.”

Fighting manatees with clubs. Wrest closed his eyes and breathed in. “Tell the arms masters to choose randomly who gets what. It’s the only way to be fair.”

Wier frowned. “Shouldn’t the best fighters get the swords?”

“Good idea. We’ll ask the manatees to wait while we hold trials. Now I have one more job for you two.” He gave Alta his claw, pulled her onto the perch with him, and did the same for Wier, then knelt low. “After you go to the armory, I need you to gather all the children from the clans. Once you have them all–all–take them back up the river.”

“Their families are hiding in the ships,” Alta said.

“The ships might not be safe. I want you to get them as far from the sea as possible. Understand?”

“The sea is supposed to watch out for us,” Wier looked out at the water. “That’s what Staever says.”

“It’s not going to. We’re on our own.” If he spoke any more, his voice would break down. A heave would wrack his whole body. Betray him. “I trust you both. You faced Kragn.” He touched his chin to the top of Wier’s head, then Alta’s. “You’re strong, and smart, and brave. You can keep them safe.”

Wier nodded, clumsily saluted, and jumped off to find the armory. Alta remained for a second longer, something hanging that neither of them would say, then dashed away after her brother. Wrest stood, shaking, until he lost them in the rank and file.

Corin and Thesal returned. As ordered, they’d divided the militia, taking three hundred each and leaving four hundred for Wrest. The soldiers sat in forlorn armies, weapons limp at their sides.

Wrest raised a claw to shield his eyes from the drizzle. This was no force to fight manatees. He’d have to talk to them, though Wier and Alta may have been gone forever, though he had a dim view of his ability to survive until midnight.

He could at least make a better speech than Staever.

He thought about every trial they’d faced: the Field, the watercraft, Kragn.

“Soldiers!” he spoke into his conch. They turned to him.

Wrest paced on the hull. “You know what you’re up against. The manatees will come out in spheres of water, bringing everything they’ve got. They’re determined to annihilate us.”

They didn’t break and run. Maybe they were too waterlogged.

“This isn’t going to go the way they want it to. Because for all the time they’ve been sitting and waiting to catch us in a trap, we’ve been getting stronger. Too strong to roll over and die for them.”

A few shouted back at him.

“They may know a few tricks with their coral, but they don’t have what we have.” He pointed to the towers of the Clearing. “A home. A way of life.” He pointed to the line of children filing up the beach. “Ones we love, to give everything for.”

The words came easily. “This is our whole world! Our past, and our future! Will we let them trample on it?”

More shouted this time. “No!”

“Are they going to prove Kragn right? Do the biggest weapons always win?”

“No!”

“Exactly right!” Wrest bellowed. “We will drive them under the ocean, tonight, because we are lobsters!”

He repeated it until the army took up the cheer. A flash of lightning and rumble of thunder punctuated the rising cry.

“We are lobsters! We are lobsters!”

While they chanted, he shoved everything deep into his mind, filling his world with the step-by-step of command.

“We are lobsters! We are lobsters!”

“The enemy’s objective is to destroy the city.” Wrest jumped down, inspecting the ranks his colonels were drawing up. “Thesal will lead the first army to the walls, and prevent them from reaching the Clearing at all costs. I will form the main line of defense and fall on them as they come through the dunes. Corin will circle north with the third army to cut off their retreat. So get moving! Second army, muster one hundred paces east of the fleet! See the rest of you on the other side of the mirrors!”

The real plan was still to come. He checked the sea, but couldn’t make out the still patches. No manatee had surfaced.

“Wrest!” came a voice behind him. Wrest turned. He knew the ragged lobster approaching.

“What do you want, Crane?”

Crane wore the rags of traveling cloak, and, to Wrest’s surprise, a shell-blade at his abdomen. The weapon lottery, unlike everything else, had gone in Crane’s favor.

“I want to lead an assault,” he said.

“There are only three armies.”

“I don’t want an army,” Crane pleaded. “A small force. Some little task.”

“Begging won’t help. It’s done.” There had been a time when Wrest would have relished the chance to humiliate Crane, but now, with doom on the horizon and his grief threatening to break his facade, Crane looked humiliated enough. He started to walk away.

“Please.” Crane caught. “Those are my people back there in the ships. I have to defend them.”

“You have a sword. Use it.”

“I cannot fight! My only skill is command. I was a lieutenant once, Wrest. I won’t be dead weight.”

“I can’t give you a command. I’m sorry.” Wrest considered for a moment. He recalled he did have a job for a soldier, and here was a soldier desperate for a job. “There’s one thing you can do. Do you know the ship I sailed on the river? With Staever and the others?”

“I could find it.”

“The manatees’ weapons–the two whole ones and the one Kragn broke–are in the hold. Bring them here, but hang back from me. When I make this signal,” he demonstrated, “bring them forward.”

He expected some noise about being treated as a footman. Crane made none.

“Afterward, I release you from the second army. If you want to defend a city, go join Thesal by the walls.”

Crane’s head bobbed. “I understand. Thank you, Wrest.” He strode off for the fleet with speed unbefitting his aging legs, while Wrest returned to other matters.

His four hundred were armed in five loose lines. Wrest made his way to the first, and waited for the manatees to move. If they don’t come soon, I’ll hold my breath and go to them.

“General Wrest!” called out several voices, while others said, “Dead ahead!” and others “Manatee!”

A solitary perfect sphere glided through the sheets of rain toward him, with a dark shape inside working two luminescent corals. No anger, Wrest repeatd. No fear.

The manatee stopped on a dune. Wrest slogged to scale another, facing the manatee across a puddle of rainwater.

“I am General Wrest of the–Clearing Militia.” He felt lucid. Hope was bracing.

“Do you know why we have come?” The manatee’s words were rounded and precise, neither formal nor warm. He must have studied to talk to us.

Wrest kept stiff, unsure how the manatee would interpret movement. “You want to avenge the theft of your weapons. The one who took them is dead.”

“Death is not an end. Nothing leaves this world, while the ocean still rolls.”

Does he want to trade verses? Time for Wrest’s countermove. He signaled Crane.

Nobody came running up the dune. The soldiers looked around, trying to see who Wrest was signaling. Wrest fumbled with his spyglass, but no direction revealed Crane.

“Attacking now would be unwise,” the manatee cautioned. “You know what we’re capable of.”

Wrest swiveled back around. “That wasn’t for an attack.” He was glad none of his soldiers could hear him. It was decidedly uninspiring. “I want to return what was stolen. Would you leave us in peace, if you had your weapons back?”

“There were three,” said the manatee.

You could have said yes or no. Wrest wiped off his lens of his glass. This time, he saw a tattered cloak hastening to where he stood.

Relief made him light. “We’re bringing them now,” he told the manatee. “Nobody needs to die today.”

Crane stopped at the edge of the dune, claws stretched wide, like a supplicant. In the left, he held two broken halves of a staff; in the right, a single intact weapon.

Wrest bounded down the dune and knocked Crane over. They scrambled in the sand to right themselves, the manatee’s gaze searing into them. “Where’s the third one?”

“I don’t know.” Shaking, Crane thrust the staves on Wrest. “I searched the entire hold. These were all I found.”

“Crane!” Wrest seized either side of Crane’s head. “Where’s the third weapon?”

“Enough,” the manatee’s voice rang clear through the storm. “Your word lacks value, Commander Wrest. We did not build these staffs so you could hide them away to subjugate other tribes.”

“Then what are they for?” Wrest threw Crane aside and scrambled back to a level with the manatee, slipping up wet sand. “Please, tell us. We can help you find the missing one.“

“The awakening.” The manatee turned around. “Without every staff, it will come to pass. You have brought grave danger by breaking one. Now you force us to take the last.”

His sphere departed behind a sheet of rain. Detachedly, Wrest saw himself and the entire camp through the envoy’s eyes: all one, like every manatee, united in scheming against the heralds under the sea. They think they’re doing the world a favor.

Spheres rose out of the sea, craft after craft emerging through the breaking tide. Each contained the shadowy figure of a manatee, a glowing piece of coral in one flipper, an unfamiliar weapon in the other. He said this wasn’t what the wands were for. Does that mean they won’t use them on us?

It didn’t matter. One way or another, this was his last fight. Wier and Alta were gone. Staever, Emaria, Arcite, and Eventhe were oblivious in the city. He would never see them again.

The struggle within Wrest ceased. The battle-lust rose. He no longer cared who or what he destroyed.

“Lobsters,” he shouted, “forward!”

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The Architect

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At the top of the tower, where long glass windows overlooked sea and city, the Architect’s men served them drinks.

Staever, Emaria, and Eventhe stuck close around one side of a table, perched on reed mats, with Turner opposite against the city window. His kind eyes hadn’t left them since his hulking aide poured the hot foam.

Let me do the talking, Staever had signed to Eventhe and Emaria as Turner had led them up endless flights of stairs.

“I know the history,” Emaria said under her breath.

“You know Turner,” Staever hissed. “This is some drifter who thinks he’s Turner.”

The others in the tower, whom he called his engineers, accepted him without question. He had enough talent to mimic the Architect’s schematics. But beyond this, what did he have to prove he wasn’t lying, or mad?

Maybe they all went crazy together. Contagious insanity depopulated the Clearing.

Two engineers took up positions in the corners. Staever had seen more on the lower levels. He’d yet to hear one speak, or make an expression. Unlike the old man, who was merely suspicious, the engineers downright unnerved him.

Turner dipped a claw in his mug of foam. “You don’t believe me.”

“Sorry?” Staever willed his features under control.

“It’s understandable.”

Three drinks sat untouched in front of them. Emaria spoke up. “I don’t mean to…offend you, sir. But Turner was a hero from the old days. I can’t accept that–he–is here.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to,” Turner said. “I only wish for you to listen to my story. You will not regret it.”

Staever had never seen a lobster perk up as quickly as Emaria did then. For a second she resembled Alta. Whether or not this was the man responsible for the Clearing’s final glory and ruin, he had a history unrecorded in the Iris Library. Staever understood how wrongheaded he’d been, expecting to do any of the talking with Emaria present.

“Tell the story,” Staever said. “We’ll decide if it’s true.”

“This is not a story of truth, but of trust,” Turner answered. “Your trust, tested alongside my truth. None of us are innocent.”

“Do not cloud the issue,” Eventhe told him. “You are the one who destroyed the Clearing, or you are a liar, or a madman. You will earn our trust.”

The old lobster did not seem offended. “Engineers, some privacy?”

“Downstairs,” one said. The two departed in single file.

When the room was clear, Turner drained his mug. “When yellow clay first drifted into the harbor, the king was desperate to get rid of it. His court was terrified of pollution, even after one of his advisors applied the clay, and reported feeling better than she had in her life.”

“They thought it was red clay with a blemish,” Emaria said. “They threw it away as fast as it washed ashore.”

“How could you know of this?” Turner’s brow furrowed. “Have records survived outside the walls?”

Emaria opened her mouth, but Staever cut across her. “Your story first. Ours will come.”

Turner sighed. “That king’s successor was as stubborn as her brother. By the time her son was on the throne, I was an old man, working away with sand and coral, denied my true passion. I went to court every day to beg his attention, but to no avail.” He dug for liquid left in the corners of his mug. “So I took my secrets to his enemy faction. He was forced to accept my help, lest he lose control of the city. The day my workers first harvested yellow clay for the good of the Clearing was the greatest day of my life.”

“It must have been awful,” Staever said.

“Awful?” Turner’s head snapped to face him. “I’m sorry, I never asked your name…”

“Staever.”

“Staever. Did I hear you wrong?”

“I don’t mean then.” Staever felt he was trying to sail backwards. Creeping into the city and ending up at somebody’s dinner table was enough to tie anyone’s tongue. “Later. When it went bad.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Turner said, “but I’d rather you stop interrupting. It throws me off. This was more than two hundred years ago, and even my memory is not infallible.”

“I never meant–please, keep going.” If this lobster wasn’t Turner, he was playing the role well enough to command respect. He hadn’t expected to remind himself more than once that Turner was dead.

But why hadn’t he known what Staever meant?

“Yellow clay,” Turner went on, “surpassed coral within years. A city that took a millennium to build doubled its size in decades. We needed it, too. As the clay made fatal injuries into trifles, the population exploded.” He gazed behind Staever, out into the sea where the waves were growing. “We discovered deposits underwater, and started blasting…the manatees took umbrage, but we no longer needed their trade. Then came the Great Dam.”

“Nobody names it that way.” Eventhe was coiled to leap across the table and strangle their host, Turner or otherwise. Staever didn’t doubt she’d do it.

“Ev,” he said, “go downstairs and check on Arcite.”

“My concern is here,” she replied with a hint of contempt.

“Your concern is downstairs. I’m still your employer. I gave you an order.”

Eventhe stormed from the room. Emaria, Staever, and the old man were alone now. An engineer entered, lit the four braziers, and left.

“I didn’t mind,” Turner said with a smile. “A good host should be slow to anger.”

“Eventhe has no love for clay,” Staever explained. “And some skill at starting fights.”

Turner nodded, thankfully not asking why Eventhe had been there in the first place. “The greatest clay deposit in the ocean was in our own harbor, and the Dam allowed us to harvest it while disregarding tides, storms, and manatees together. We were unstoppable.”

Emaria had an answer to her question about Turner’s monopoly. Turner hadn’t thought in those terms whatsoever.

“Soon after, the changes began.”

Staever perked up.

“The lobsters treated by yellow clay complained of an aversion to water. When they went to the sea or the forum pools, a potent revulsion overcame them– a powerful dread and hatred. The worst victims couldn’t leave their homes.”

His face turned grave. “Some died. They lashed out at caregivers bringing them water. They dried out, believing themselves safe.”

“We never heard of this,” Emaria said. “I only knew people thought the water was contaminated. Even the sea.”

“Interesting,” Turner said. “Many came to fear yellow clay so much they would not drink water in which it had been mined. That ruled out most of the Clearing’s irrigation. Though I entreated them to stay, lobsters abandoned the city–individuals, families, then whole clans.”

He interlocked his claws. “I must ask you again where you read of this. Without the Clearing, who keeps records?”

He doesn’t know about the Eye. Though it unnerved him to be locked into a bargain, Staever said, “We’ll explain once you finish. I promise.”

“What did you tell the ones who walked away?” Emaria asked. “Didn’t they have a point? If yellow clay was drying people out…”

“Not everybody!” Turner exclaimed. “Only the ones who didn’t understand.”

“What do you mean?”

“Once they became patients, doctors prescribed water, not clay.” Turner leaned over the table. “But yellow clay eliminates the need for water.”

Madness. But he remembered he was talking to a vagrant who was pretending to be three hundred years old.

“Are you certain?” Emaria asked. “Medicine can’t replace a body’s basic needs. There’d be nothing left to heal.”

“Nothing left?” Turner rose. Staever shuffled away a bit. “Sufficient yellow clay flawlessly regenerates any part of the body. When the body is healthy, the clay is free to go further: creaking joints, aging muscles, a slowing mind…”

The air in the room grew heavy, the old lobster’s presence weighing on Staever. Was he facing Alta’s long-gone hero? Was it so implausible, after the journey they’d made, to meet him?

“Dear lady…the consequence is immortality.”

If this is Turner, what else has to be true? His engineers had left the gate unlocked, maintained the city–for a few dozen lobsters to sit on the largest reserve of yellow clay in the known world, like fish guarding a clutch of eggs.

“Chief Architect…” he said. “Tell me something.”

“Gladly,” Turner replied, “Once you keep your end of the bargain. I’ve told you a great deal, and enjoyed the telling, but I wish to know where you came from.”

Emaria caught Staever’s eye, reminding him he was designated liar. I did ask to do the talking.

“The Clearing dwarfs every city we built after,” he said, adding grains of truth. “We’ve gone back to being nomads, like in the oldest days. We camp around water, and when they dry up, when the food gets scarce, we move on.”

“Why are you the first in two hundred years to return to me?”

Staever took a long sip of cold foam to buy time. “The others are afraid, but we wanted to know if the stories were true. They tried to frighten us about the Clearing. About you.”

Turner sat back. “Then the Eye was a failure?”

It took a moment for the words to register. Staever’s gut clenched. Their faces must have been open books. “I, ah, I’m not sure what you’re talking about–“

“Some lobsters who left took great cargos of yellow clay. They considered my work repulsive, but recognized the clay’s power. They chattered of a new sort of order. I saw the prints for the fortress they planned–a ridiculous mountain with themselves at the top.” He interlaced his claws again in a manner Staever was quickly learning to dislike.

Emaria laid a claw on his back. “Couldn’t we tell him?”

It might not have been. The Architect could describe the shape of Staever’s entire life. Why was there a council, a Militia, Pupil-dwellers interbreeding their way to becoming a different species? Why did the glass treasury guarantee driftwood pieces, if Graphus needed Whites thieves to keep it solvent? Why was there a Cuttlefish Gang, a Staever the Traveller?

He touched Emaria’s claw and nodded. I’m the liar. You’re the truth-teller.

Emaria said, “We come from the Eye.”

“I suspected as much.” Turner’s face revealed nothing.

“Some things we said were true,” she pointed out. “The Eye is gone. It was a cesspool from the start, poor, dangerous, drying out. They couldn’t build near the shore because of the winds and tides and bad sand. The irrigation kept failing, so there was never enough water. Now there’s nothing left.”

Turner relaxed. “I am your host. There is no reason for us to lie to each other.”

“Then–maybe–you could tell us why they built where they did?” Emaria asked. “There’s a whole coastline of deserts.”

“It was the waters,” Turner said. “The ocean to the north was more palatable to those who had absorbed yellow clay. A bit of water in the body reversed the process of immortality. The new nobles summoned lobsters who feared for their families, and promised canals to make the desert bloom. A new order from nothing.”

It all could have been avoided. Staever had never hated the system from which he stole more. If refugees from the Clearing hadn’t hijacked the Eye, would he have become a thief?

Probably. I stole before Graphus came along. But that was when he and Wrest had robbed passers-by in dark alleys. The injustice of the Eye had given him purpose, which only made him sicker. The outline of his shell-graft itched.

“Come to think of it,” he said to mask his swallowing the news, “I always wondered what kind of eye the city was named after. I’ve seen sketches of it from above. It looks nothing like a lobster’s eye.”

“You’re astute,” Turner told him. “The prints my engineers brought me showed a manatee’s eye. These lobsters idolized manatees, for reasons I can’t fathom. The sea-dwellers have never built anything resembling a complex society.”

“They were organized enough to attack us,” Staever said.

Turner left his seat at the table to regard the Clearing through the cityward window. “The Eye was destroyed?”

Emaria nodded. “By the manatees. Unprovoked,” she added, perhaps trying to get him on their side. “We brought others here, so they could prosper, like they used to.”

“How?” Turner asked.

“Sorry?”

“How did you get a whole city to follow you?” he repeated.

“A…a key.” Emaria shot a look at Staever.

Turner swiveled around. “Do you have it with you?”

“No,” Staever jumped in. The change in Turner’s tone troubled him. “But it doesn’t do anything. Why does it matter?”

“Is that your question?”

Staever considered, then shook his head. The other was more important. If he asked it right, it could tell them everything.

Turner waved a claw to Emaria. “You said you sought to prosper.”

“I said…with the sea nearby…”

“Wait,” Staever blurted out, “my question.”

Turner glowered at him. “If you recall it, of course.”

Suddenly it didn’t matter whether Turner was real or not. He and his engineers held the city–along with the beliefs that had poisoned it years ago. If they tried to move in without permission, the silent lobsters could deny the hundred thousand any peace. But one question, the one mystery of all that truly made no sense, might reveal the Architect’s mind. Then they could make a deal.

“Why did you build the Great South Wall?”

A flicker of confusion crossed Turner’s face before his glare returned. “I didn’t.”

He’s telling the truth. That’s the first thing he hasn’t taken credit for. “Who did?”

“I don’t know. I first encountered it when bringing materials north for another project. I could pass it, but none of my supplies could. Until I discovered how to lower it.”

“The winch? With the big wheel?”

“I imagine it was my enemies in the Eye.” Turner looked back through the city window as Staever, apprehension pooling within him, recalled he could easily be counted among Turner’s enemies. “They must have believed I was going to attack them, but why would I?”

He paced. Staever and Emaria stood rooted to the table.

“My friends, you have my apologies, if you’ve come to trade. There is nothing you have the Clearing requires. We have our forum, our harbor, our beautiful trees. Yellow clay makes the towers soar. Yellow clay makes this city a beacon to every corner of the sea. Those unready for the future fled long ago, far away, to build themselves their own punishment. And so soon, this place shall be ready to awaken.”

“Awaken?” Staever found the strength to stand. Emaria did the same. Turner didn’t move.

“Now you strangers arrive,” Turner said, “from the Eye, which lasted, I admit, longer than I predicted. You are no different from those the doctors let dry out. You chose to die of thirst rather than accept yellow clay.”

“It’s been two hundred years, Turner,” Staever said. “We’re asking you to live alongside us–”

“I have fought you my whole life, with one face or another,” Turner interrupted. “Doubters. Skeptics. Quick to judge. Slow to risk. Your world cannot accommodate me.” He advanced around the table. “You lied to me, concealed the homeless rabble you brought to my door. Now you ask to reignite a feud I won long ago.”

“Thank you for your hospitality.” Staever took Emaria’s claw and guided her toward the stairs. “If you don’t mind…”

“Wait.” Emaria broke away. “Turner, there must be an arrangement you can live with.”

“My terms won’t change,” Turner said. “If your people consent to augment themselves with yellow clay, I will allow them to enter.”

“What if we don’t?” Staever halted by the stairs. “You and your engineers can have Turner’s Clearing. My people will take the coral half. We don’t have to bother each other.”

“If I must enforce my decree, I will. I cannot allow mortals to live inside my walls.”

“We don’t want a war,” Emaria said.

“Let’s not speak hastily,” Staever whispered to her. “He isn’t Kragn. We have an army. He can’t have more than fifty.”

“We have an army at half strength, and enemies unaccounted for,” she told him firmly, “and we are here to talk.”

“Listen to her,” Turner said, and Staever swore. “If you press battle, my forces will annihilate you.”

“What forces?” Turner was deluded, yet Emaria agreed. Did she want to hear his story that badly?

Turner inclined his head. Staever jumped away from the stairwell as two engineers ascended. One of them carried a thrashing Eventhe, pinning both her arms with a single claw.

“The engineers were a motley lot, once,” Turner said as Staever gaped, “but they have evolved into the perfect workers. I speak for them all they require.”

Staever’s head swam. Eventhe couldn’t be captured–she would have died first. Kragn and half the council Police could attest.

Who are they? Where’s Arcite? Had the engineers shaken off blasts from the wand?

Only then, questioning the use of a thousand fighters and a superweapon against fifty lobsters, did he accept Turner as real.

The Architect spoke. “Search them for the key.”

The engineer not holding Eventhe patted Staever’s and Emaria’s cloaks and satchels. He stepped back, claws empty.

Turner shrugged. “The awakening is too soon to bother with you. My engineers can cut through your army like water through sand. Join us, or be gone.”

“Sorry, Turner.” Staever’s voice shook. “You aren’t awake. You’re still dreaming.”

“Wait!” Emaria shouted. The engineers blocked the exit. “Tell me about awakening. I want to know.”

“But there is little I can make you understand.” The Architect sounded like a disappointed father. “Engineers. Kill them.”

Rain began to batter the roof: every streak on the windows outlined separately against the dark city and the raging sea. Fear, or rage, or desire to protect his people, might have made Staever do it. Or the fulfillment of the prophecy he’d made to himself through Cyprus, the paradoxical calm of one’s worst fears. He’d never know.

He seized Eventhe’s untouched mug of foam, and threw the liquid in her captor’s eyes. The engineer lost focus on Eventhe, clutching his eyes in pantomime. Eventhe loosed her claws, rolled free, and struck.

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The Silent Ocean

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After the first raindrops, Wrest climbed a dune to see what the weather was planning. The clouds cast a pall as they marched, drizzling legions darkening the sand.

The second thing he’d learned about rain, after discovering it was real, was that nothing about it was good for battle. It chilled reflexes, cut visibility, and forced soldiers to fight in a muddy soup.

He caught himself. Why am I thinking about battle? There’s been no threat. But Staever feared the Clearing, and since Staever had trusted his suspicions of Kragn, he had to return the favor.

He’d formed his forces up in loose lines to defend the ships and civilians. Anybody attacking from the city would be forced into the maze of dunes, freezing in thorax-deep water.

Someone was approaching from the crowd of lobsters by the fleet. He squinted to see his little bother. “Get inside a ship, Wier. You don’t want to be out in this.”

“It tastes better than river water though,” Wier said. “Alta sent me to get you. She’s down by the shore.”

Wrest tensed. She saw a whale, that’s all. “What does she need?”

“Something about the sea. I told her to come herself…”

“Wier!” Wrest raced to his brother. “What did Alta see?”

Wier came back to himself. “Alta said parts of the sea were standing still. I didn’t get it.”

“Oh, sea. Rocks? Or reefs?”

“No,” Wier was growing afraid. “Little circles of water.“

Wrest was racing across the dunes before Wier finished. “Sea,” he murmured. “Land Moon, Star Moon, whoever’s listening. Let it not be true.”

Alta was squinting out toward the horizon when he arrived. Fifty paces out from the beach, parts of the ocean had become as placid as ornamental baths. The tide rolled past them.

More appeared as Wrest and Alta watched: ponderous, cautious. As new ones arrived, the ones in front advanced into the shallows, rising to form perfect spheres.

No rush. They have all the time in the world.

He ran, Alta on his heels, tearing back towards the camp.

“Make a scene,” he told his sister. “Get Wier to help. Get everyone’s attention. Tell them to get everything away from the water.”

Alta charged into the midst of the fleet, hollering and waving her claws. Wrest crossed three rows of emplacements his soldiers were digging, nearly barreling into Wier at the last one.

“Manatees!” he cried out. More voices joined his. “Manatees in the ocean, massing to attack!”

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Stolen Fire

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Arcite broke the silence. “How did this happen?”

“How else?” Staever said. “Turner the Architect.” The name tasted like ash. Turner was infuriating out of proportion to his heroics. His Great Wall was as deadly as it was worthless, his bridges pure insanity, his treatment of the Clearing unjustifiable–but yellow clay had saved lives, given homes to those who had none.

Not enough. Never enough for this. Staever shut his eyes.

Between heaves, Eventhe coughed, “Every mine–in the Eye–could not produce this much.”

“Why dam the harbor?” Emaria asked. “All he did was make clay as cheap as water for the city. He ended his own monopoly.”

“To keep the manatees out?” Arcite suggested. “He must have been blasting on their turf. I’ve known manatees to get testy.”

“Then store the product on land,” Emaria countered. “Manatees have ways around dams.”

“There’s only one way it makes sense,” Staever said. A weak wind blew downhill, not helping the smell. “Turner didn’t care who else got their claws on the clay. He needed more. For more bridges to nowhere, and more walls across places nobody’s attacking from. Sea damn it,” he yanked the map out and threw it at his feet, “the bastard never had a reason!”

He’d wanted to say this since the bridges, but had envisioned himself feeling better afterward. Sheepishly, he picked up the map.

The pictures running together on the gate, Turner’s deeds piling up in a portrait of madness, answered his question. Yellow clay made the world twice as large, lives twice as long. It put the Architect beyond reproach.

One by one, they turned away. The harbor was fearful. It filled Staever with the impression of something forced into the world that never should have existed. Even knowing what it had done to the Clearing, he’d never thought of yellow clay as evil or good. But if it was a tool, taking the shape of its user, Turner had used it abominably.

They headed uphill, following the curve of the sea to where the harbor ended in a sheer cliff without safe port. Staircases were never far if the path got too steep, and soon King’s Clearing spread out below them. Staever could see all the way to the gate they’d entered through.

Something vanished over a step two staircases away.

Eventhe was beside him. “Did you–”

“Yes.”

Arcite and Emaria froze. “Staever,” Emaria asked, “is that what you saw earlier?”

“It is.” The figure had been heading into Turner’s Clearing.

“What do we do?”

“Keep quiet, for starters.” Every leaf had become an eye watching their tiny group. “Then get out. We’ll come back with soldiers.”

“We can’t invade based on one shadow,” Emaria objected as softly as she could. “It could have been an animal.”

“I agree.” Eventhe did not bother to whisper. “Though it could have been more than an animal. More than a lobster. Perhaps the army would be wasted.”

“Is that possible?” Staever asked.

“Anything is possible. We know nothing.”

Staever spoke more bravely than he felt. “Then I guess we’d talk to it. But not alone.”

“Better it should kill us than all our soldiers.”

“Will you stop talking like that?”

“Arcite, what do you…” Emaria caught sight of Arcite pointing at alleys and staircases something hidden under his cloak. “What’s that?”

“What’s what?” He drew the cloak tighter.

“Under your cloak.”

“My shell. It’s something lobsters have so their organs don’t flop all over the place.”

Staever rolled his eyes. “The thing in your claw.

“Which claw?“

Emaria grabbed at the exposed end, yanking it from under the cloak and into the light. Arcite hooked his claw into the other edge. They tugged back and forth, legs scratching and skidding. “Let go!” Arcite shouted. “Give it back!”

Staever caught his breath. They held a manatee wand.

“Arcite,” he said slowly, “where did you get that?”

“From the ship. Back at the landing,” Arcite said. “Listen, before you start telling me how dangerous–”

“Dangerous!” Staever could have laughed. “It’s far from dangerous. It doesn’t fire unless you want it to.”

“Great. I’ll take point.”

“Did you listen to what I told Kragn?” Emaria still held one end–the firing end. Staever raced up and tried to ease it out of their claws, but neither let go, trapping them in a tense triangle.

“Those weapons destroyed the Eye.” Emaria didn’t appear to care what was pointing at her mouth: it wasn’t her first time. “Did you stop to wonder why Wrest stashed them?”

“To match the manatees. In case they show up again.”

“To give them back!” Staever exclaimed as loud as he was willing.

“Kragn shot that plan when he broke one.”

“We could have explained. The manatees built them to break, they would have listened. They aren’t violent.”

“Aren’t violent?” Agitated, Staever and Emaria both raised their claws and tried to hush Arcite. “Were we watching the same tidal wave? Did you forget who was in the city when they turned it into muck? Both my parents bit it before the manatees had their chance, but I lost everybody I was born with! They brought everyone, and everyone died!”

Staever’s grip on the wand slackened. In the months since losing the Eye, he’d never mourned for the Field.

“How did you get me talking about that?” Arcite went on. “Something in the Clearing probably wants to kill us, we’re stuck on the other side of the city from help, I’m the only one who brought any real firepower, and I’m getting lectured?”

Eventhe moved close and brushed Staever aside. “All of you. Let go.”

She eased the weapon free, a small but powerful jerk none of them could resist.

“This will not be a fight for weapons,” she said, “nor should it be. We are not invaders.”

“Wonderful.” Arcite seemed more sullen than angry, for which Staever blessed Eventhe. “If your talk goes wrong, who’s going to mop it up?”

“Not you,” Staever told him. “Eventhe, when we get there, give him back the wand. Arcite, you’re going to stand guard outside…wherever we end up.”

“You’re gonna regret not bringing me. Who’s to say they’ll even know what the wand’s for?”

“Let’s get back to keeping our damn voices down.”

“You’re not listening–“

“Arcite.” Emaria approached him. Eventhe’s words of pacification had worked on her as well. “If you’re not coming in, I want you to–you’ll need to take this.”

She was offering the key. “Is that supposed to impress me?” Arcite glowered. “I saw the gate. It’s useless.”

“You know one thing it isn’t for: opening the gate,” Emaria said. “Until we know what it is for, it’ll be safest with you.”

Arcite took the key, turning it over. Emaria had cut deep.

“If anybody can figure out what it’s for, it’s you,” Staever said, not feeling charitable toward Arcite or the key. “I’ll take point. Ev, keep the wand and watch behind.”

“I will not use it.”

“I want to know where it is at all times. Em, Arc, eyes on the city. If anybody sees anything moving, alert the others.”

“Where are we going?” Arcite asked. “Back to the gate, right?”

Staever shook his head. “Ev’s right. This is not an invasion. If that–” he gestured ahead “–is anything more than a stray beetle, we’ll have to learn to coexist.”

Emaria asked, “So where are going?”

“It went to Turner’s Clearing. We’ll follow. Quickly.” The sky had been clear when they reached the harbor, but clouds had moved in while they traversed the cliff, low-lying and dark. “It’s looking like rain.”

Staever headed toward the stairway where the shadow escaped. The others kept close, watching every angle.

They made slow progress. Staever took every turn of the clifftop path with extreme caution, mindful of hostile corners or doorways. Whenever someone startled at imagined motion, the others did as well, until the first one to jump–usually Arcite, almost as often Staever–gave an all-clear. None of them had energy left to notice beauty.

Several flights up, they came upon a tower on the cliff, one bare side a lobster-width away from the edge. The other faced a boulevard running toward the land gate. The hill had blocked his view, but the tower commanded attention from any street level with it. He counted eight stories.

It was also old. Sidling around the base, Emaria pointed out vestiges of thousand-year-old compression, patched over as techniques improved.

Not a single building in the Clearing hadn’t suffered degradation, but the tower walls hardly sagged. Somebody was attending to it regularly, and not stray shrimp.

“Staever,” Emaria said, rounding the foundation, “you’d better look at this.”

An icy claw clamped over Staever’s heart. He followed Emaria past a pair of simple wooden doors.

On the north side was a hitching post, with a crab tied to it.

It keened softly at him, munching a pile of feed scattered out before it. A double-wide sled leaned against the wall next to it. He approached.

The crab was unperturbed. Domesticated. Used to lobsters. Someone tied it up. The icy claw began to twist.

“Islanders,” he said to the gang, “or bandits.”

Arcite took his post. Eventhe gave him the weapon, whispering something as he shifted from leg to leg, looking hungry. “Could be digging yellow stuff out of the harbor, I guess.”

With Emaria and Eventhe guarding the rear, Staever pushed open one wooden door.

The ground floor was unfurnished, except for one table in the center of the room, piled so high with weed-scrolls Staever could not make out its surface. While the others checked the corners, he rolled open one scroll: a schematic of a dam in white charcoal, buzzing with marginalia.

A voice came from the stairs.

“You have an interest in my work.” Gravelly, age-worn, but strong. Staever looked up into the stranger’s face.

It was not a bandit, or a Last Isler, or a soldier. It was a face familiar through a fog of the mind, half-remembered from lost tales.

The icy claw cut down. Or from a carving on a gate.

The strange lobster reached the table.

“I am Turner. The Chief Architect.”

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The Empty City

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Possibilities chased each other through Staever’s mind. We never needed the key. Somebody’s beaten us here. The ideas wrestled, grasped at each others’ tails. Was there more than one key? Were they all useless?

He knew what Emaria or Graphus would say: It doesn’t need to open anything. It’s a beacon to follow, not a magic sword.

But he’d been counting on magic. If the Last King hadn’t sealed the walls, what made the poisonous Clearing of two centuries ago different from the ruined Clearing today?

Emaria held the key out. The metal still shone like perfect glass, but the gleam looked an awful lot like mockery now.

The wind picked up, blowing sand through the sliver in the gate. The gap was wide enough for one of them to fit at a time. Staever turned to the others. “Door’s open. Let’s go in.”

Checking his sword in his belt, he strode through the opening.

Crossing the threshold changed the atmosphere, like he’d broken the surface of the ocean, heading down. The city in his first glance was a specter, an ethereal tomb. Then color revealed itself: black, white, and gold sand, blue and green pearl threading over towers.

The smell of brine saturated the Clearing. The ocean was everywhere, in the wash of the tides sounding up closed stairways, in the salt stinging his eyes. Bits of shell adorned every arch and doorway. Monk-shelters, marked with ancient letters, mimicked hollow reefs or the shells of clams.

He was walking on a mosaic tiling of shells. The others’ legs clattered as they stepped through behind him. The plaza beyond the gateway was as broad as three watering-hole squares from the Eye, as far across as two. Wooden structures, some more intact than others, littered the edges, old commercial stands. Glass and metal inlays four and five stories to stone roofs.

“It’s not too late to loot the place and run…” Arcite began. Eventhe shushed him. Staever watched, but nothing moved in the square.

“This must have been prime real estate,” he said. “Who used it?”

“Clay miners, probably.” Emaria examined a tall row of crab-hitching posts. “Workers on Turner’s deep-sea blastings wrote about this square.”

Eventhe spat on the mosaic floor. Staever wanted to tell her not to, that this was their home now, but couldn’t form the words. The Clearing was a celestial mirage he could no more see as home than a dead soldier could become his father.

He ordered them onward. The sun was high, and he had until nightfall before he needed a new military commander.

“What’s on the opposite side of the city from here?” he asked as they headed toward a street leading away from the gate.

“Everything ends in the harbor,” Emaria answered. “All the waterfront behind the walls was part of some wharf or another.”

“Sounds like one damned impressive port,” Arcite said.

“Lobsters from all the islands in the world came to trade here. Clay, coral, seaweed, sludge, driftwood, glass, in vessels that never made landfall. The manatees went through the harbor as well.”

“What happened to them? Most people from the Eye went their whole lives without meeting a Last Isler.”

“The trade dried up when people discovered the Eye had nothing to give.” Emaria studied the ground. “The islands closed themselves off. The Eye made the whole world smaller.”

“The harbor it is, then.” The quiet made Staever uneasy about standing still. “Everybody keep a straight heading. Do not wander off.”

For all the awesome shadows its towers cast, the street was sagging in disrepair. Staever felt again the sense of the past calling him in. He could picture merchants crying to be heard over sea-priests in the doorways of the devotional houses, announcing the times of that day’s tides.

Their street ended in a smaller circle, from which one flight of stairs led up, another down. A verse came to him: In times of trouble, seek the sea. The sea shelters and nourishes. But…the rest escaped him. He led them down, toward the sound of waves.

The Cuttlefish passed between porticos onto a wider avenue, thick with trees scattered all over the street. Even without gardeners, fed only by rains, they were still green. Every corner of the Clearing testified to the wilderness the Forest King had known so well. There was variety enough to render all vegetation north of the South Wall hardly worth mentioning: trees like obelisks, whose trunks and bases needed their own courtyards; flecked and winding trees in thickets; leafy trees shading entire streets and needled trees zigzagging across the avenues like rows of drunken soldiers. The buildings grew between them, the trees around the buildings. They were the city.

“Boralus was a genius,” he said, hushed, like they were in a chapel.

Emaria replied, “He said these trees are the shadows of greater trees. Some trees dwarf whole cities.”

“I’d like to see them.” Staever’ wish was crushed by the silence.

“Am I the only one seeing this?” Arcite lingered some distance behind. “Someone tell me if I’m still sane.”

“You don’t want me to answer that.“

An alcove recessed into a villa, thickly planted with trees blooming pink and white. Staever had forgotten it was late summer, the season of ripe kelp. He repented his retort when he saw what Arcite saw: a path through the vegetation led to a tunnel angled into the ground. Staever stopped short of poking his head in. From what he could see, it grew wider as it descended.

He went to Arcite. “You’re seeing a big hole, right?”

“Right.”

“Nope. Not crazy.”

“Could I look?” Emaria was still whispering, refusing to disturb the place. They parted to let her through. “Have you read Andol, from the fourth century?”

“No,” Staever admitted. “Does he mention this?”

“Yes. Or maybe.” Emaria’s words echoed back from the tunnel. “He was an explorer. He references these things called urchin tunnels, comparing them to things on the islands he visits, but never describing what they are. It didn’t occur to me he was talking about common Clearing knowledge.”

“What are they for?”

“Getting around without running into buildings. They should all led into a hub, where you can find a way to anywhere else in the city. If I could…” She took a step into the opening.

“Wait! We need to find out what’s in there,” visions attacked him, lobsters with four claws and no eyes, a dark parallel city, “but not today. We didn’t bring any light.”

Arcite opened his mouth. “Don’t,” Staever warned. “Your torches always explode.”

“That…makes sense.” Emaria backed away from the tunnel and rejoined the group, crestfallen. “We have enough to do.”

“Right after we make sure topside is safe, you’ll be the first one down.”

Emaria looked mollified, though she cast a last wistful look at the garden.

The more they walked, the harder it was to forget how long the city had sat empty. Decrepitude warped every building. One shop had collapsed, dumping furniture from a home above it onto the ground: a bed, a sofa, a pair of wooden figurines, lobster and manatee, scratched by playful claws. Lanterns had fallen from lighthouses. Tattered reed ribbons flapped in tree branches. They had to climb over several bridges lying in the road. One spire had toppled off its base into another, exposing a weakly glowing shard of coral and creating a precarious arch they made haste through.

“We’ll need a lot of workers to fix this place up,” Staever said. “Can’t forget we live here now.”

“All right, welcome home.” Arcite juggled the toy manatee around one claw. “But what do we know about this place? Half is built according to whatever looked prettiest and the other half looks like they let a shrimp loose in the desert and threw a tower wherever it pissed. Not to mention the gate was supposed to be locked.”

Staever paused, halfway across a bridge over a dry channel. Something far up the road caught his eye.

It must have been Arcite’s words affecting him, but for a second he’d seen movement far down the boulevard. “Did anybody see that?”

Emaria asked, “See what?”

“Never mind.” He turned back toward the harbor. “One of the trees moving funny in the wind.”

The half of the city in tiers, Emaria explained, which had existed before Turner’s construction boom, was called King’s Clearing. “Up where we came in is the trade district. Legitimate business in the storefronts, black market in the alleys.”

“Black market?” Staever asked, then pinched himself. Of course there had been crime in the Clearing. Arcite had been naïve to think the Cuttlefish could go out of business.

They descended to a lower tier and reached an open plaza bigger than the gateway square. The floor was bone tile, scoured and stained by centuries, interspersed with islands of grass and trees and room-sized empty basins connected to the water channels. To a lobster from the Eye, where marketplaces clung to bridges or squatted in dingy alleys, it was disorienting.

“A forum,” Emaria said. “If you couldn’t get a room for your shop, you’d set up here. You could meet friends, settle arguments, convince the people you deserved to be the king’s advisor. There used to be water in those channels.”

“You could ask to be an advisor?”

“Not directly. But the king was expected to have an advisor representing the people, or he’d have trouble with the workforce.”

“How often was that reality?” Eventhe asked.

“Some kings did better than others,” Emaria admitted.

Around the edge of the forum, low-slung palaces put Staever in mind of the Iris Library. Each had many entrances and exits, and many windows. One, on the seaward end, boasted a broad porch raised above the floor on a staircase.

“What do you make of those?” he asked Emaria.

“Public buildings.” Emaria followed his gaze. “That looks like a stage. The writers are vague about the forum. They assumed everyone reading would know.”

“Good guess. Libraries, hospitals, temples. Let’s say the big one was the king’s palace.”

Emaria smiled. “He had a palace closer to the water. But he could have held court there.”

“Let us know when you pull things out of your tail, m’lady.” Arcite pointed at a random hall. “That’s the tavern. Expensive. Fine sludge.”

Past the forum, the Clearing sloped more steeply toward the sea. The streets were ill-defined, houses facing each other at angles. Staever had to drag Emaria away from one built on a slope so sharp it had a ground-level entrance on four floors, then went back for Arcite, who was marveling about how easily it would slide into the harbor.

The scent and music of the sea grew stronger. Atop a set of stairs leading to the waterline, Eventhe clamped both claws over her mask and doubled over retching.

The port spread out below, its water roiling with yellow rot. They looked on the harbor in horror, overwhelmed by the toxic stench. Every tale was true: yellow clay spread along a dam built across the horizon, seeping towards the Clearing in gobs. The beating heart of the city, blasted into a pit mine, plugged up by sand with no water anywhere.

Staever remembered the rest of the verse. Draw you then back from the sea, for the lobster which takes too much finds despair.

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And thanks to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

The Clearing

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At dawn on the fourth day, the mist rose on the Clearing.

Staever guided the ship at a crawl while Emaria scanned for sandbars. Eventhe backed up her watch from the rigging, exchanging words with Emaria about the riverbed. When someone drifted near King Crab, Wrest asked for reports on every ship they couldn’t see. He didn’t learn much.

Staever had been on duty since the Land Moon set. He something to ask Wrest, but the million tasks of ship life had kept them apart. As he considered lashing the helm, Emaria and Eventhe both called out.

His skeleton clenched. “Sandbar?”

“No danger,” Eventhe answered. “We have seen a large shape on the southern bank.”

Arcite, Wier, Alta, and Wrest ran to the rail, Wrest standing back when the boat started to tip. Staever didn’t know right away what he was looking at. He’d only ever seen one city.

Over a few minutes, the sun burned away the morning mist. The shadow wrought itself into lighthouses and towers of sand.

“No way.” Arcite looked up at Eventhe. Wier and Alta leaned so far over the rail Wrest had to pull them back. “The Clearing,” Emaria said. “That’s the Clearing.”

Decks came into view around them, packed with jubilant lobsters shouting and throwing wood pieces into the river. But something was off. The towers had order and symmetry, but the more of them that passed, the more they seemed thrown across the ground like a clawful of sand.

“Em, is something off to you?”

She glanced at him, sensing his concern, but Eventhe answered first.

“These buildings were constructed with yellow clay. It has a vile stench.”

“Turner’s building boom,” Emaria mused. “Why bother planning when you can build a lighthouse with material you found on the beach?”

Eventhe pulled Arcite into the rigging for a better look: a long distance up, but a motion of absolute trust. Staever hadn’t seen them at night for three days.

“If this is the clay city, there must be a coral city as well,” Staever said. Visibility was not long enough to reveal the sea, but the air was tangy with salt.

“You might be right.” Wrest pointed southeast.

The Clearing fell into a kind of order as King Crab sailed backward through time. First they reached the western end of the walls, three stories high: Great South Walls of sand. Behind them, imbalanced roofs and spires marched along tiers, descending toward the water. Some had larger tops than bottoms, or wings suspended over chasms. Second floors stood on stilts without first floors, third floors without second floors hung from walls.

“The architecture is impossible,” Wrest said. “If that’s really sand.”

“That’s coral,” Emaria explained. “One type of it. Some Clearing philosophers wrote about other kinds, but this is the only one manatees ever gave us.”

“What about the kind they grew in gardens in the Eye?”

“Shallow-water stuff. Purely ornamental.”

“So it’s not sand?” Wier bent over the rail. He poked his sister, but Alta was too enthralled to speak.

“It’s sand. The coral defies gravity. But it also confers gravity-defying properties on anything it’s built around, to a certain distance. The Clearing lobsters used it to subvert all rules of architecture, and the manatees…”

If sand could be made to hover, water could be made to fly.

That led him to the other strangest thing about the Clearing. “There’s no center.”

“Sorry?” Emaria asked.

“Everything about the Eye had a center. Here, there’s no Pupil. No Iris or Whites. The anchor is the sea.”

“There was no need for a Pupil.” Emaria gave an excited hop. “The lobsters who brought yellow clay north didn’t just control the government. They controlled the city to the roots. They built it around themselves, from the moment we started compressing northern sand.”

“Did us a favor, too,” Arcite’s voice floated from above. “Made it easy to tell who to rob. How in sea’s name do we do that here?”

Emaria shaded her eyes as the fog fled. “It changes so suddenly. You could pinpoint the year.”

Back at the helm, Staever noticed vessels turning right. He signalled for Eventhe to strike the topsail, while Wrest and Wier drove poles into the riverbed.

“The whole fleet’s making landfall?” Staever asked.

“By the looks of it, boss,” Arcite said. “While you all were staring, we hit a perfect beach.” He gestured to where the fleet’s largest boats sat dry-docked on a bank of rolling sand. Smaller vessels forged past them until they too ran softly aground.

“I’m taking us in. We need to be first on the beach.”

“What’s the rush?”

“I don’t want anybody in the city, is the rush. Nobody goes through the gates until we’ve seen inside.”

Their blade scuffed sand. The bowsprit pointed over a field of dunes, past the fleet’s landfall, to the gates of the Clearing–distant, towering–beyond a long sandy beach.

“I thought there would be more trees,” Wrest said.

“That’s inside,” Alta waved him off. “They had to bring the soil in from farther south. The waves have been pounding this beach too long.”

Staever piloted King Crab until it would sail no further, then let it tilt. They hit a dune, so high the deck hardly slanted. The beach was larger than the wood before the South Wall, and truly empty, similar to the Eye’s high desert.

Until he examined the sand. Alta scampered down and up the ladder to bring them samples. It was fine enough for one or ten grains alone to disappear from sight, softer than the gossamer southern grass. The rough grit of the north couldn’t have been more different.

As each ship tipped to rest on the chain of hills, lobsters leapt down to run in circles, reveling in freedom from their cramped vessels. Clans gathered in the shade of the fleet. Nobody tried for the city. The walk to the walls was long, and though a few crabs had survived on stable ships, they needed time to learn the shifting sands. The remnants of the Militia held back the most daring lobsters, gently reminding them the holders of the key had to go first.

Staever jumped down. The sand was warm, and the ocean crashed far off, sharpening the smell of salt. A band of sunlight glimmered through the last mists. Water. Life. Home.

The Cuttlefish followed him to the ground. Eventhe furled the last square sail, then disembarked beside Arcite, who protested as she tried to help him walk. “It was three days ago. I’m fine.”

Staever touched cold metal. Emaria was pressing the key into his claw. He didn’t need to ask how she’d saved it. She learned everything I taught her, and more.

Emaria said, “They’re waiting on you.”

Staever borrowed her conch, and strode forward. A quarter of them would be able to hear him, and they would get the message to the rest. He hoped.

“Everyone!” he shouted, emerging from the maze of ships. The crowd rippled as people–merchants and sea-priests, engineers and farmers, lords and criminals–turned. He clambered onto the big cruiser, and flashed sunlight from the key.

“We’re home, but we’re not safe,” he began. The lobsters began to mutter. Don’t show fear, he scolded himself. At least one can tell how scared you are.

“The Clearing looks intact, but it’s been abandoned for centuries. Anything could lurk behind those walls–unstable masonry, old clay. The Last King shaking his claw at us.” Nobody laughed. “We’re not going to move in until I can be certain it’s safe.”

The crowd was turning sour–did he expect them to sit outside with the Clearing within reach? “There will be plenty to do out here. There’s bound to be insects and weeds all over the place, if we’re willing to look. Clan leaders, send out gatherers. Eat from stores in the holds if you need. The soldiers will remain here to guard you, under Wrest.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wrest start. His heart sank. There had been no chance on the boat to get him alone.

“Myself, Emaria, Eventhe, and Arcite will enter the city and scout for trouble. We’ll return by nightfall.”

The crowd dissolved to bustle and talk amongst themselves. Wrest accosted Staever at the prow of the luxury cruiser. “I don’t want to command.”

“Wrest, you’ve got to understand, I didn’t have a chance to ask you. There’s nobody else.”

Wrest counted along his arm. “There’s Corin, Thesal…”

“Career soldiers. They’d touch too many nerves right now. You’re the only Militiaman they trust.”

“I’m not a Militiaman.” Wrest averted his eyes.

“I know you’re scared. I’m scared too.” Staever dropped to a whisper and pointed at the Clearing. “You already know I’m afraid to go in there. But I’m terrified it’s going to still be unlivable beyond that gate. Toxic. The point is–what I’m getting at–“ he sighed. “I’ll face my fear, if you do.”

Over the years since Wrest had returned to the Eye, Staever had listened to every permutation of his dream of the ship, the bomb, the screams. Sometimes he was on the Field vessel. Some nights he was where he’d been in real life, on the gunnery platform, throwing red clay. And rarely–surely now– he saw himself instead of Kragn, ordering a cowed and helpless soldier to hurl fireball after fireball, rending the Field ship to pieces.

“You remembered.” Wrest was facing away from him, half-shaded by the prow. “You remembered killing Xander. I wouldn’t have. I don’t know if I killed, or who, or how many.” He looked back at Staever. “That’s what I can do. The dream never meant I was scared of Kragn. The dream means I’m scared of myself.”

“One day,” Staever implored. “You can trust yourself until dark.”

Wrest turned away.

“Until dark,” he said. “For one trip in. Then I’m never going back.”

“We’ll be out before you know it.” Staever waited, but Wrest was walking away, somewhere else already.

Arcite, Emaria, and Eventhe waited at the base of a dune a quarter of the way to the gates. When Staever passed, they followed. The Clearing filled the silence like a monster, daring them to come close, its shadows inviting. Come and steal my secrets, if you’re real thieves.

“Everyone stay alert,” Staever said. “If there’s a seal, we’ll hit it soon.”

Emaria came up beside him. He gave her back the key.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“It’s yours. Your research. Your quest.”

The minutes dragged. Halfway now. The gates loomed, wood wrought through with glimmering metal threads. Arcite and Eventhe outpaced them, sniffing out the defenses. Neither liked to be ambushed.

In the shadow of the walls, what he’d taken for cracks and weathering in the gates turned out to be story carvings, like on the Glass Gate or a Khalis door. It was a stately progression until the bottom right corner, where the several late additions crammed into a tiny space. These showed lobsters raising glorious towers at the behest of a solitary man who radiated authority.

“Turner,” Staever said. The tree, mountain, and river glyphs capped off the story.

Emaria squinted at the end of the sequence. “There he is discovering the three uses. And rebuking a group of manatees, sending away their coral. Then he’s standing by the throne of the Last King.”

Staever followed the story backward through time, away from Turner. “There’s Khalis at the top.”

Eventhe and Arcite were closing in on the base of the gates.

“I recognize him discovering sand compression,” he said to Emaria, “but what’s the one before it?”

“A lesser-known adventure. Khalis was said to be the last lobster to have seen a true Tree.” She pointed to the middle of the door on the left. “Boralus–”

“–the Forest King.”

“How did you know?”

“Seaweed epics,” Staever answered. “And that endless song with the weird pause every verse.”

“He’s the one who planted the trees, and gave the city its name.”

“What was it named before?”

“Twenty different things. Nobody agreed. Above Khalis, though…”

While most of the carvings featured lobsters, with crabs, shrimp, crayfish, manatees, and scattered whales, the earliest carvings were dominated by an enormous and singular creature. Staever thought he saw an air demon, but it changed in the next picture to the shape of a squid. These carvings were bolder than the ones after them. In fact–though it would mean somebody had seriously misplanned a door–they appeared newer.

Scuffling in the sand disturbed him: Eventhe and Arcite doubling back. Eventhe said at once, “Something is wrong.”

“A barrier?” Staever’s heart sped up. Time for the key.

“It’s, well–” Arcite gave up.

Trailed by Emaria, Staever hurried through the shadow of the gates, until he was past where any barrier would have been. Close enough to touch the wood and iron.

Close enough to see the gate was already open.

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

Arcite and Eventhe

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It was warm on deck, but Arcite couldn’t get comfortable anywhere. He reclined against the mainmast, raising uncomfortable memories of the strange pellet bomb. He could only describe its effects as making him want to drink the entire sea and throw it up simultaneously.

He would have to talk to Eventhe. His blunder had been monstrous: he hadn’t dealt with the Militia for her at all. He’d been drunk on being needed. Another sludge bath.

Watching the stars, too lazy to roll over, he had the poorly-timed epiphany that he didn’t understand words. He’d defected, turned glass thief, fought Kragn and a bird without talking. Most things he said could be thrown out.

Now words were his only chance. Eventhe was standing lookout in the bow. Through her mask, the lights on other ships must have resembled a fleet of low-flying stars.

He paced toward her. She turned around.

Her mask was off.

She was not beautiful. Her face was a scarred mass, her eyes and mouth only suggestions. The accident had rearranged her.

Then Arcite had a second epiphany: he loved Eventhe. It was the only way he could stand to look at such an image of pain.

“If you ever again take my safety onto your back,” she said, “I will not give you a second chance.”

“Does,” his voice squeaked like a child’s, “that mean you’re giving me one now?”

She crossed the deck. Her arms wrapped around him, her breath warm on his thorax. The taut strength of her body flowed into him, and he clasped her in return, their heartbeats pounding on each others’ chests.

“You saved my life,” he whispered, as the world shrunk to a square pace of deck. “I never knew how much trouble I was in.”

“You would have saved mine. As foolish as you were, I cannot overlook that.”

“I don’t know if I would have, though. There were times when it wasn’t for you. When I only wanted power.”

“No.” She pulled away, their claws still resting on each others’ necks. “You are good, Arcite. You may not often feel it. But you are.”

He pulled her closer. Their faces touched. Lobsters embraced each other freely, but in passion tended to pull away, until a touch so soft was the highest expression. Arcite shivered, nerves afire: this lobster who could punch demons and reckon distances to the pace and spend hours alone in a desert without getting bored wanted him.

“Ev, when I’m with you…it’s the only time I don’t feel like a weapon.”

She didn’t answer. He wondered if he’d spoken for her.

The fleet traveled farther on, into the night.

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.

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!

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

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.

Also, 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!

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.

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.