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The divide took root as fast as lobsters could pass messages. As the Cuttlefish hurried between the confused clans, new brawls burst out at every step, joining the battle exploding in the wake of Emaria’s and Kragn’s conflicting orders.
“What’s the plan, boss?” Arcite favored his right legs, keeping apart from Eventhe.
“Make for the ships!” Staever was commanding his entire gang for the first time since Xander split off. It was intoxicating. They could do much more than survive.
“Sort of.” Kragn would have kept the ships close as a useful asset. At least they would offer shelter. At most…
“Stop!” A soldier materialized over a rise. He held two blades, mismatched, one taken from a vanquished foe. A cohort of five or six, fresh off a skirmish, dashed in behind him.
“We’re trying to get back to our clan, please…” He ladled desperation over his words.”
“Look, boys!” The soldier broke into a smile. “Staever the Traveller, and his shrimp.”
“That was your chance to prove you’re on the right side.” Staever sighed and whipped the blade from his belt, struck left, hooked it around the soldier’s. “Cuttlefish, engage!”
The thieves hadn’t waited for orders. They charged the loyalists. The soldier’s surprised parry was weak enough for Staever to jerk the blade from his claw, then crush the other with one blow, cutting bone.
The fighter clutched his claw, backing away. Wrest snapped a glass spear. Eventhe felled an archer with sharp punches to the skull. With a deep breath, Emaria scooped the bow from his back, tearing the quiver out with it.
She loosed an arrow at a soldier sneaking up behind Arcite, but the shot went wide. Arcite heard a surprised noise and whirled around, sticking a red pellet onto his assailant’s back.
“Arcite,” Staever said, through visions of fiery death, “careful with the damn–”
A pincer clamped his sword arm, twisting it a direction no arm was meant to move. His attention turned fully to agony. His belt jerked, but the metal wand was tethered tightly.
Three big soldiers came out of nowhere. Emaria and Arcite retreated, Emaria unable to land a shot, Arcite reluctant to throw bombs; rightly, but that wouldn’t save them. Two more kept Eventhe at a distance with glass pikes…
I can’t let Kragn be right. Wind left his lungs. I won’t lose because we aren’t strong enough…
A patchwork tide of lobsters of smashed into the brute, whose grip on Staever slackened. He brought his sword arm around, but the soldier was gone. The charging clan had carried him away.
“These guys were guarding my family,” said one who disentangled himself from the fight. He wore one telescoping spectacle, the mark of an Iris Library copyist. “I know you wanted to finish him, but he kept looking at my daughter…”
Staever touched him on the thorax, his claws too tense to reassure anybody. “Where else are the clans rising up?”
“Well, ah…” Staever’s gut twisted. “To tell the truth, we’re the only group moving this way. The others each have a soldier or two running with them, but there are more loyalists than defectors.”
“Damn it.” Another twinge where arm met body. The Cuttlefish were gathering again, Emaria picking arrows off the ground. Things were going to get worse. “I have a plan. Get to the ships. Tell everyone you meet to head there too. You’ll know what to do in a moment.”
The copyist brandished a serving fork. “I’ll get my family!”
Every corner of the glade rang with fighting–expanding, coming alive with the song of war. “Cuttlefish, double-time for the boats!”
Emaria protested. “We won’t help anyone hiding under ships.”
“We’re not going to hide.” They burst through leafy brush onto the fringes of camp. “We’re going to take the ships from under them.”
Everyone objected at once: there would be nowhere for a fleet of ships to go. Without losing all credibility, how could Staever explain this plan was based on a hallucination?
They reached the ships before he could answer. Stragglers peeped out at them from between vessels haphazardly moored, having been dragged across land unsuited to their skates. The squat crafts of the working class lay beside the stately Pupil pleasure cruisers. In the back, the council flagship squatted on its three blades. Staever made out the faces of all the governors but Crane, through the vents in the hull.
“Get on board!” he shouted. “Any one you want.”
“We can’t back fast enough to get away!” someone answered.
“No, don’t back!” Without a unified fleet they would be dead in the wind. “Stay safe. Wait for the signal.”
“What signal?” several lobsters asked.
“When one goes, you all go!”
The stragglers disappeared amid the ships, starting to climb. Emaria plucked her bowstring in compulsive rhythm, Eventhe shadowboxed, Wrest inspected fortifications for a last stand.
“Listen,” he said, “trust them to know what to do, all right?”
“Some of them don’t know what you look like.” Emaria wasn’t hiding panic. “How are they supposed to know to escape on the river?”
“I’ve been talking to them.”
“You told every single one of them to dump their boats into the first water we found?” Arcite sounded more impressed than incredulous.
Staever scratched his thorax. “I had a lot of time.”
“I’m not saying I don’t believe you,” Wrest said. “Just not yet.”
Emaria stole another glance at the battlefield, face whitening. “Did you tell them how to sail through solid rock?”
“There has to be a way through without destroying the wall,” Staever caught his friends’ eyes, solemnly challenging them. “Turner built the Wall to protect the southern part of the continent, not to block the Clearing off for good.”
“How do you know?” Emaria spun like a wind vane from the fight to the ships. “Did you ask him?”
Eventhe said, “He is right.”
Everyone gawked at her, even Staever. “Um. Which part?”
“There is a way through the Wall.” The shadow of a ship made Eventhe’s mask opaque. “I saw it when I was…” she shot a glance at Arcite, “climbing. It is a glowing wheel, connected to something underground.”
“Not funny.” Staever sagged. “You had me until it started glowing.”
“It is real.”
Her tone made Staever feel instantly terrible. Fledgling sense of humor notwithstanding, Eventhe knew the gravity of the situation. His greed and his gang.
Two small voices shouted from above. Two ships down, two pairs of claws waved at them from behind a rail.
Wrest laughed aloud. “You kept her safe! Well done!”
“Our guard ran off,” Wier informed them as they hurried to his prow. “What are we gonna do with our new boat?”
Emaria laid a claw on the driftwood. The children had claimed King Crab–the vessel belonging to Emaria’s family. Staever hadn’t seen it in weeks. It was as battered as the others.
“Ev, where’s this wheel?” he asked.
“Where the river flows through the stone, there is a grate.” Eventhe answered.
All he needed to do was ride the river. He strode past King Crab to a smaller boat in its shadow–a lobster-sized shell for solo fishing expeditions. “This one.”
“No!” Emaria exclaimed. “Staever, you–we can’t rush into this. You could be sailing into an ambush.”
“Em, you’ve done a great thing starting this fight.” Staever laid his claw on her back. “Now we need to finish it. Everyone push this for me.” He looked up at Wier and Alta. “The fleet is your job until they get back. Hold King Crab. Help anybody on our side who shows up.”
“You don’t sound confident at all!” Arcite waved his claw feebly at the Wall. “Let me go. I want to get Kragn. What he almost made me do…”
“You’ll get your shot,” Staever replied. “For now, the next person to object will be thrown into the river without a boat. I’m going in and I’m coming back out.” He passed the staff up to the deck. “This’ll help you.”
“But,” Alta stammered, “we can’t fire.”
“You don’t have to. Just look like you might.”
“Yeah, listen to Staever,” Wrest lifted up his intact weapon and Emaria’s two broken ones for Wier and Alta. “Do not touch any part that might fire. For the rest of your lives.”
More civilians ran for shelter every minute, and the sounds of battle grew closer. Alta interpreted them with her spyglass. The soldiers who defected had grouped up, but the loyalists were pushing them away from the Wall. Had it only been a few minutes since they disarmed Kragn?
The Cuttlefish found holds on the fishing boat and pushed. The craft slid through the grass, gathering speed.
“Turn hard around the trees!” Staever vaulted the prow and took up the only pole.
Wrest shoved mightily. Though the craft wobbled under Staever’s weight, it threaded the thick trunks unharmed. Staever caught a glimpse of the battle: the defectors’ line valiant but thin in front of the civilians, losing ground to the loyalists.
The land sloped down as he saw the river. His gut swooped–the water was swollen, running fast.
“Remember there’s no engine,” Arcite called up to him. “If you overshoot, get ready to paddle.”
Staever nodded and gripped his pole, scanning for any sign of Kragn. He saw the fight in a sequence of images, like the Glass Gate. The general was not with his line.
Wrest shouted, “you’re going in…now!”
The vessel slipped. The thieves let go. Staever clutched the sides–he barely had room to turn around. The boat rode its skate for the water…
…along the bank, from the undergrowth, soldiers cropped up everywhere. Eventhe jabbed Wrest in the side. All four were paces from one end of a firing line.
The soldiers unslung bows and notched arrows, aiming at the fleet, whose decks were packed with the people of the Eye.
Staever tried to paddle in reverse, but his pole bounced off the bottom. His second dig couldn’t find bottom at all. The river had him.
Leading the others, Wrest hurtled toward the fleet. Kragn himself was behind the line, right where Staever had put in. He must have hidden a force at the start of the fight, waiting for the defenders to get tired.
They needed an escape route more than ever. He could not fail.
The bow and Staever pointed upstream, the stern down. The small vessel wobbled as though it were being dragged past the fighting. Over his back, he saw Eventhe’s grate approaching, made of stone with wide gaps through which the river churned.
Ten paces out, a glimmer on the bank caught his eye. The pole soft mud on the riverbed. The fishing boat drifted a little. He paddled again, straining with the effort.
The boat coasted onto the bank and stuck where it landed. Far upstream, the clash of swords went on.
A great wheel poked halfway out of the ground paces ahead, with spokes long enough to fit his head through the gaps. It was, indeed, glowing. Praying his strength would be enough to turn it, that it did what Eventhe said, he headed for it.
A pair of claws seized his throat and twisted his neck left. Vile breath hissed in his face.
A lobster’s eyes narrowed in malice as mottled sun fell on his back, glinting off the gems embedded in his cloak.
“Xander,” Staever gasped.
“The gate is mine,” Xander snarled, reaching for his sword.
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