Gattick

Staever and Wrest pounded up the scaffold, eager to be out of range of the catapults. Their destination was Taiga’s apartment, where she would be hidden with or without the key. Wrest’s face was set. Staever blocked out visions of Wier and Alta trapped in Eventhe’s barracks as the ceiling crumbled.

When they reached a crossroads of two covered markets, Wrest stopped him. Rank after rank of lobsters in coarse clothing, each carrying a spindly glass spear, passed before a gap between towers, unaware they were watched. Staever dragged Wrest behind an abandoned stall, wrinkling his face at the smell of rancid meat.

Field scouts ran ahead and returned with reports of no resistance. The soldiers–not just women and men in their prime, but children and the elderly–marched toward their final confrontation with Kragn.

He understood why so many had come. The report of the general’s plans forced them to break the Eye or be broken. This was their last chance to save their commune from burial under the desert.

Wrest jerked his head toward a point across the street. The soldiers were marching right underneath the outer ring of Taiga’s apartment. As they began a silent approach, a shadow flitted across the window.

It wasn’t Taiga. It was a lobster as grizzled as a sea monster, who walked like he was missing a leg.

“Gattick,” Wrest hissed.

“Come on.” Staever bolted up the ramp, forgetting to keep his footsteps light.

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Taiga Searches

The city was empty. Those lobsters who ignored the call to evacuate barricaded themselves in their homes, cudgels at the ready. They got front-row seats as the Field’s column made its way with grim purpose, and asked each other in hushed tones, Why don’t they loot? Why don’t they destroy?

Taiga’s wheezing worsened. Every few steps she had to stop and draw rattling breaths before continuing. Loose sand covered the ground, so deep in places she had to go around. She thrust her knife in front of her like a guiding star and checked every blind alley.

No matter how much of the Eye fell, she would not leave without the key. And Gattick would not leave without his money pit.

His wooden staircase was ahead, and beyond, the sweep of desert pockmarked with the Field’s rear train. Her insides seized up. One alley from the stairs, and there was a column marching in her way.

From her hiding spot, she made out two other forces splitting off to travel around either side of the hill. Gattick’s pit was inaccessible, but Taiga wouldn’t have been surprised if it was empty. A fence who made such a show of being frail and wizened could easily recover a cartload of unsold glass on his own. Gattick valued appearances–and, by now, had disappeared into the morass of refugees.

Taiga headed back into the empty Whites as fast as her dehydrated body would move. It was too late to slip past the Field. She would do as any good thief would: lie low, and wait out the danger.

She climbed her spiral tower, crossing the bridge past the rings. Moments later, when she eased her door open, a stout sword shot out and pierced her through the thorax.

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Into the Desert

With Eventhe in the rigging and Emaria at the wheel, Arcite had nothing to do but sweep with his spyglass. The army flowed around the catapults, converging on the stairways. A different mob of lobsters pooled in the dunes north of the Eye–evacuees, ragged and scared, some with children on their backs, some leading the elderly. Vehicles coasted to a stop and joined the muddle. The army circled around them. Arcite pointed this out.

“Wonderful,” Eventhe replied. “Another mob to avoid.”

“I suppose you can’t be happy so many of them survived.” Arcite looked out to the desert. “We’re halfway between. Where’s the Militia?” He swung the spyglass to point at Emaria. “Can we watch the armies kill each other?”

Emaria frowned. “That would be an uncomfortable position.”

Arcite lowered the glass. “Need me to take a turn at the wheel, princess? I’d hate for you to get fatigued.”

She was about to fire back when Eventhe silenced them both. “Evasive maneuvers, now!

Emaria’s claws froze to the wheel. “I don’t–” she stammered, “I don’t know any!”

“Into the desert! Turn!”

Emaria cranked the wheel three turns right until the rudder locked. The bow swung to landward, throwing Eventhe clear from her perch, and tipping Emaria and Arcite across the deck as their hull took three sharp hits.

The vessel collapsed on its side in a dune, dropping them all in the sand. On his back under the rail, Arcite found what had struck them.

“Glass spears…” he whispered. “They’ve made better throwers.”

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The Beginning of the End

The driftwood frames emerged from the cloud of sand and haze, six of them arrayed among the Field’s army. Lobsters loaded three of them with stones and slipped three ropes. The moving parts of the towers sprang up, launching the rocks at the south slope of the city while Arcite, transfixed, followed with his eyes.

Wrest gave Eventhe the helm. The ship rounded the hill, sucking every breath of wind, desperate to gather speed. Ahead, around the arc, Gattick’s stairway came into view, with the old glass pit beneath.

Seeing the dark vault and rickety bridge rammed something back into Staever’s memory. He hadn’t made a clean break from the Eye at all.

“I have to go back,” he said.

“Are you insane?” Arcite wailed. “How many times do I need to explain? They’ll kill you!”

Emaria turned her back on the bombardment. “You can’t. Even for the key.”

“No!” Staever shouted. “Gattick has the key, and I sent my mother looking for him. I put Mom up to this, and I’ve got to get her out safe. Plus, as much as I’d like to let the key drown, we need it.”

“Wait.” Emaria processed this. “How do you know Gattick took the key? And you sent Taiga after him?”

“I wanted her to have something to do besides await my execution. Ev, slow us down.”

“No!” said Arcite and Emaria at the same time. Emaria added, “If Taiga finds us and says Gattick stole the key, we can find him later.”

“Later?” Staever paused by the port rail, twisting to face Emaria. “When he’s got a mob of evacuees to hide behind? We’ll never see him again.” He at the stones falling across the skyline, then at the army off their stern. “This could be the end of the city. Crane and the council have no idea how to handle invasion. If Gattick gets himself buried under a pile of sand somewhere, I’m not going to be the one trying to dig out the sea-damned key!”

“I will slow down for one moment only,” Eventhe said. “I will not endanger this vessel.”

Staever prepared to jump. While he decided how he could land without cracking his shell, Wrest materialized at his side. He had one sword at his belt, and held another out to Staever. “I’m going with you.”

“No, you’re not,” Staever told him, though he slid the sword into his belt. “Wrest, I can’t ask more of any of you.”

“One year in the army says Arcite’s right,” Wrest said. “The Field wants to overrun the city. This is about me not trusting Graphus to get my brother and sister out quickly enough. It’s got nothing to do with you.”

Staever tensed on the rail. No time left to argue. “Ev, lean us over!”

Emaria hadn’t moved from his side. To his surprise, she took his claw in hers. She swallowed. “We didn’t steal a ship for you so you could die. Come back.”

“This is my city. They can’t hurt me here.” Staever hoped he sounded confident. “See you over the hill.”

Eventhe steered to port for a split second, long enough for Staever and Wrest to jump. They hit the ground together.

Wrest pointed to the nearest wooden scaffold winding up into the streets. Ahead and above, the Whites were desolate of lobsters. Without a word, the two thieves climbed towards the Eye, as the Field marched on from the south.

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The Long Signal

Every lobster knew the drill from infancy, a dance as old as the Eye. There were no palisades, because red clay rendered those useless, and no wall could have as many access points as the Eye needed. If battle came to the city, civilians, were expected to beat an orderly retreat.

It had not happened in three hundred years. The first try was not going as planned.

Kragn headed for the Pupil tower through the traffic flowing along the northern highway. The bridges over this road were so wide lobsters held markets on them. Now they huddled underneath them for shelter. A ruddy lobster, carrying a roll of dyed cloth, staggered through the shade toward a massive carriage: hitched with four keening crabs, crammed with family, and obstructing a third of the road.

“Sorry. One trip left,” the man grunted when he caught Kragn watching. Kragn took the cloth from his back and shredded it.

The lobster gawked. “That was my great-grandfather’s mat!”

“Have you forgotten the drill?” This one had slept through more than one lesson. “No valuables. No vehicles longer than two paces. Remove yourself and your family to an agreed-upon spot in the desert. It’s law for a reason.” He rapped his claw on the carriage. “If this is not out of the street when I next look, I’ll overturn it. Understood?”

“Look here. You can’t insult my family.”

“You’re endangering your family.” Kragn pressed on. “The sea will judge who’s at fault.”

From rooftops and balconies above the chaos–lobsters whipping crabs or summoning them with “come to me”s, lobsters pulling sleds or walking in dirty mobs–a few of Kragn’s yelled orders to flustered lieutenants standing in the tide. Swords drawn, the subordinates sorted out knots in the evacuation as best they could.

On a high tier under the tower, able to breathe, Kragn cursed his lack of preparedness. He’d warned the council about the attack. His scouts had brought reports of the Field’s new projectile weapons. Yet his plans had been scuttled. All because Crane and Xander chose that day to antagonize four-fifths of the population.

The council flagship moored in an arch at the base of the Pupil tower: twenty-five paces bow to stern, with a fully appointed aft cabin. Kragn boared by ladder, watching the governors file up a gangplank. As Crane stepped onto the deck, followed by Xander, one of Kragn’s soldiers appeared.

“General!” The lobster saluted. “The northern highway is too clogged for the council to depart, sir. The people of the Whites and the Iris are still backing up traffic.”

“Then we’ll delay,” Kragn said. “Forcing them aside now would condemn them.”

Crane turned on the spot, blocking the cabin door. “Kragn, do you mean to sacrifice us instead?”

“In a military situation, you will defer to my judgment, Governor.”

“Yet you have made no provisions to engage the Field in combat.”

Kragn betrayed no emotion. “If you cared for the Eye as much as you claim, you would understand it’s not built to withstand siege. We teach every child the evacuation procedure so we can counterattack while our enemy squats on his laurels.” He took his place at the helm. “A bit of looting and vandalism is a small price to pay for an advantage.”

“Looting–and vandalism–”

“I want you to know,” Kragn added, “if we lose the day, it will be your fault. You let your lackey draw the militia from the desert.”

Xander only heard one word. “Lackey?

Graphus, at the bottom of the gangplank, spoke without turning around. “The general only means we’ll have to wait and see what’s on your conscience tomorrow.”

Xander headed for Graphus, claws raised, but drew up short when Kragn stepped into his path. “In the cabin,” Kragn said, face close enough for Xander to count the scars on his thorax. “Now.”

“I plan to live to see tomorrow.” Xander tried to sound brave. “We can worry about conscience then.”

He led Crane, still quivering under the thought of his fair city vandalized, into the cabin. “The road is clearing,” Kragn called down to Graphus. “If you wish to board…”

Graphus shook his head. “I’ll be departing from the stables. Two siblings of a friend of mine are under my care. Neither of them can drive a sled.”

Kragn had always regretted Graphus not being High Governor, but never more than now. “Take care, Governor.”

“You too, General.” Graphus sped around the tower as fast as his old legs could go.

He’s well beloved. A lieutenant shoveled clay into the engine, and the grand ship’s blade began to scrape. It’s a shame he’s determined to die.

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The Field

Loose sand showered over the deck. Arcite yelped. Only Wrest didn’t move, keeping his claws on the wheel.

Arcite blew up. “What in twin mirrors–”

“Anyone see where it came from?” Staever brushed sand from his back.

“Did you see how it landed? No fire, nothing.” Arcite gesticulated at the ruined tower. “It’s unnatural.”

For the moment, the sky was clear, except for the dust coming from a low cloud on the horizon. Staever wondered if a windstorm could throw such a large stone. “Does Kragn have weapons like that?”

“There aren’t any boulders the right size nearby,” Emaria said. “You’d have to go to–”

The words caught in her throat. The realization hit Staever a second later. Even the meanest bandits could scrape red clay together. This bomb had none.

“The Field,” Emaria finished.

Staever dug in the scuppers for a set of goggles, found some on a peg, and shoved them on. “Ev, get on the sail and tell me what you see.”

Another stone flew out of the dust cloud, then another, like the wind really was tossing them. Both tore through wooden bridges on the south slope.

“I can see more projectiles,” Eventhe called down, and Staever felt a chill. He could count on his claws how many times he’d heard urgency in her voice. “We should remain under urban cover.”

“Urban cover, great.” Arcite cowered again with his claws over his head. “We lifted a condemned prisoner out from under the army. We don’t live here anymore.”

“The cloud is closing in,” Eventhe said. “There are–thousands of lobsters kicking up the dust.”

Staever half-mounted the bowsprit and focused the magnifying goggles. Enough lobsters churned up the desert to dwarf the arena riot, more than he’d ever known lived in the Field, much less fought for its army.

It was more than an invasion. It was an exodus. And the Cuttlefish were headed straight toward it.

Wrest trimmed the sail. “Wrest,” Staever said cautiously, “why are we going faster?”

“If the wind stays good, we can get out of here before they arrive.”

“Wait,” Emaria said. “We don’t know they want to attack. They might be forming a perimeter. Preparing for a siege. They could be here for any number of reasons.”

“Not a siege.” Arcite fidgeted in the corner. “They’re announcing themselves. They’re taking the city today.”

“They wouldn’t do that.” Emaria approached the bomber, a claw raised half in comfort, half in self-defence.

Arcite swatted her away. “They want the Eye! The whole thing!”

“You’re not…” Staever trailed off. Arcite’s last outburst had given him an idea. “Wrest, can we circle the hill? Put the city between us and them?”

Wrest considered. “If Kragn retreats, we’ll run right into the Militia.”

“Will Kragn retreat?”

“The question is whether it’s more likely the Field stops marching.”

Staever looked from Arcite to Emaria. Ordinarily he would have trusted her opinion foremost, but could Arcite not be acting? How would he know?

“No more gambling,” he said. “I’m declaring us officially out of luck for today. Everybody grab a pole and get ready to bank for the high desert.”

A conch from a high parapet drowned out his last words. Others answered from spiral towers around the Eye, intermittent, uneven sounds, blown by watchmen who had run in from the desert without resting. They soon took up the dreaded alarm, the long solitary burst: evacuate.

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The Cuttlefish Return

There were no last minutes left.

Sea-scripture. He found a verse. The sea is a far road, and the living may not take it. Only he on the burning raft may see what is beyond. The sea will sweep his ashes back…

Outside, the chanting became a cheer loud enough to buckle the arena walls. Guards scuttled through the stands and along the side passages, heading for the gate. Someone shouted, maybe Kragn.

A great shadow rose to fill the entryway.

The police at the entrance threw themselves aside. Xander overbalanced under the weight of the axe, and fell off the edge of the platform.

Staever raised his head to discover he was still whole, as the shadow in the gate resolved itself into a ship.

Xander picked himself up. “They’re here for the prisoner! Don’t let them near the platform!”

Under clay power, the ship’s treads dug into the arena sand. The crew, one of them whooping and hollering, began a wide turn.

The ceremonial guards for the execution had neither bows nor red clay, nor anything else they could throw. They brandished their swords, but it was like trying to attack a tidal wave. They dove for cover.

Somebody had turned a ship into a giant arrow pointed straight at Kragn’s riot-breakers. Whether it was the Cuttlefish or not, Staever didn’t intend to waste the chance. He squirmed against the knots around his claws.

His breath caught as he realized the ship was heading at him and gathering speed. Before he could free himself, it collided with the apparatus, prow pitching upward. The platform splintered: they were trying to smash Staever’s prison with the wobbling boat’s blade.

“Whoever’s on the helm, give it to Wrest!” he shouted.

The treads reversed, but the post binding his left claw was loose. He cut his right claw free, then slashed the rope off his left. Rolling off the platform, he noticed a fragment of driftwood the right length for a club, and snatched it up.

He dashed toward the ship as it rounded the outer edge–but his legs, sore from the cell, cramped, slowing him down.

As the boat headed back toward Staever, Xander strode past him, dragging the axe. Burning with adrenaline and rage, he lifted the axe over his head and hurled it at the vessel’s hull.

It found its mark. With a creak of protest, the hauler pitched sideways and came to rest, deck facing the stands. The audience screamed, racing for the exits.

Staever saw the crew–his crew–vault the gunwales with poles to relaunch. He was ten paces away, on the wrong side of Xander.

“Back them against the ship,” Xander barked. “Don’t let them get away!”

If they divide us, we’re dead. Staever willed feeling into his limbs.

Xander turned around at exactly the wrong moment. Before Staever could strike with the post, Xander locked claws around his arms. They grappled, rolling over the mock battlefield. The guards tightened their ring slowly, wary of harming Xander.

“Nice of your friends to surrender themselves,” the governor snarled. “Five executions makes a much better show.”

Xander pitched him onto his back and drew a small throwing knife from a pocket of his cloak. Staever was on his feet before Xander could get his grip right, lunging with the driftwood post. The sharp edge cut the governor across the face.

The knife flew wide. Xander gaped at the blue blood staining his claws.

“I told you,” Staever said. “You don’t get to hear my last words.”

The Guard ran to help him. Staever bolted through the gap they left, rolling as he went. A sword swung over his head, but he was faster by far than the soft honor guard. He reached the shadow of the ship before they started to pursue.

Wrest, Emaria, Arcite, and Eventhe each clutched a pole to brace the ship upright. Staever skidded in behind them. “Everyone, they’re closing in. Time to board. Wrest, will you be the last?” Wrest nodded. “Good! Push!

As the ship righted, Arcite broke from the rank and sprinted up the ladder to the clay chute on the deck. “They’re launching!” the guard captain cried, shooting a look at Xander, who clutched the gash on his face, blind to the chaos around him. “Call the soldiers! Stop them!”

“Em, get on board. Arcite, throw me your pole.” Arcite tossed the long dowel down to Staever, who swung it at the guards, whipping it back and forth to keep them out of distance. Eventhe took his cue and dislodged her own pole from the ship, beating back the circle alongside him. Emaria took her place on board.

“Close in, you shrimp!” the captain howled.

“We can’t get inside their reach!”

“They’re five-pace mooring rods! Where in sea’s name is the general?”

Brandishing his weapon, Staever ascended the ladder, while Wrest strained to hold the ship up alone. Eventhe threw her pole to the deck and followed. “They are summoning the militia,” she said. “That will be a problem. They have weapons with range.”

Staever thrust his claws over the rail and grabbed Wrest’s mooring dowel, allowing his grateful friend to clamber up with the others. “Arcite, get some clay in the engine.”

“This is the last.” Arcite tossed the lump of fuel through the tank hatch.

“Eventhe, hoist sail,” Staever sprinted to the wheel. “Emaria, when it’s up, retract the treads. We need to fill the mainsail before we clear the gate.”

The vessel jerked forward, the treads on its blade propelling the Cuttlefish across the arena. Eventhe hauled the triangular sail to its full height.

A stream of lobsters poured through the gate, blue-trimmed cloaks following one on the other. Kragn marched in their midst as they knelt and strung bows.

“Militia!” Wrest went pale.

“Bows, good choice,” Arcite commented.

He threw himself behind Staever. The others took cover. Staever ducked, claws on the wheel.

Empty of wind, the sail flapped as the ship gathered speed, each snap taunting him. Even without arrows, there were enough soldiers to tip the ship and haul them all back for execution.

Having staunched the bleeding, Xander bawled fruitless commands as they accelerated towards the scattering security detail. Ahead, Kragn watched motionless while his soldiers closed ranks over the gate.

The sail snapped again. Staever remembered his sea-scripture. The sea will sweep the ashes back, and he was not ready to pass beyond the twin mirrors, or the sea will take the ashes, and he was ready to pass beyond the twin mirrors.

More lobsters swarmed through the gate, but these ones wore no uniforms–some were armed with bits of brick or broken furniture, some unarmed but furious. The surprised soldiers fired wide. Arrows soared across the arena, scattering where the spectators had been.

“The riot!” Staever cried.

“That’s what that was?” Arcite asked, still cowering behind him.

The Whites folk wedged themselves into the soldiers, opening a path wide enough for a ship’s blade. Some soldiers clubbed about with their hilts, but others lowered their swords, unwilling to draw blood. Kragn watched, heedless of his captains calling to him for orders.

They coasted through the gate, down the ramp, into the throng. The mass of lobsters cheered loud enough to shake sand from the towers. “Staever! Staever!

Soon the scene of the riot was so distant Staever could no longer tell civilian from soldier. The sail filled with wind, and Emaria retracted the treads as the engine died. Wrest took the helm. Staever collapsed on the deck.

“I knew you would come,” he choked out, smiling broadly. “At literally the last minute, sure. With the most dangerous possible plan, fine. But I always knew!”

“I worked hard on that plan,” Emaria grumbled.

“It was brilliant.” Staever swept her up into a hug. “A thief trusts nothing but his greed and his gang. If I didn’t have you all I’d have died so many times I don’t want to count.”

“Yeah, well.” Arcite crawled by inches out of his hiding place. “Without you I’d probably be drunk somewhere right now, and, you know, not being hunted by everyone in the city Xander can afford to pay. Who could ask for more?”

He had his goggles on, for good reason. The wind was blowing in a lot of dust from the beach. Staever blinked grit from his eyes.

“I will hide us in the desert until we can decide what to do next.” Eventhe dropped from the sails, making Staever jump. “Follow my lead, and try to make no more mistakes.”

“What about Wier and Alta?” Staever asked Wrest.

“They’re with Graphus,” Wrest said, “or should be by now. I’ll go back for them when it’s safe. Maybe we all can.”

The grit was getting worse. Something, maybe a merchant fleet, was kicking up a lot. Staever wiped his eyes.

A blot passed over the sun.

“Did anybody else see that?”

Nobody had time to answer. Right beside them, a stone the size of their ship crashed into a spiral tower, reducing its top half to sand.

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A Spectacle

Staever tossed and turned through the night. Sometimes, in a daze near sleep, he tripped over something and land in the cell, awake but immobile, the walls swimming around him. Toward dawn, as he tried to blink himself awake, he had a visitor: a stately lobster in council robes, with a skeleton the same shade of red as his own.

“You’re Cyprus,” he said. “My father.”

Cyprus stared at his son, then turned to leave the dungeon. Staever followed him, brushing the bars aside like a curtain. They walked outside together, into deserted city streets.

“Don’t go.” Staever reached out. “We need you.”

But Cyprus slipped into an alley. As Staever pursued him, never gaining ground, the buildings of the empty Eye sank into the sand. Gardens died when they passed.

They reached the edge of the city. A dust devil blew up, hiding Cyprus from view. Don’t leave again, bastard, Staever tried to yell, but the words wouldn’t come. Finish something for once. Stop running–stop it–stop–

“We’ll stop when we get where we’re going.”

Jerking awake, Staever stumbled into the back wall of his cell. The jailer swung the door wide and grabbed his claw. His silent companion took the other one.

“No need for that,” Staever told him, shaking fluff out of his brain. He should have stayed awake. “I’m not going to run off.”

“We’d better do what he says,” the jailer told his companion, laughing. “He might get hostile.”

He clamped a wooden rod between Staever’s claws, forcing them uncomfortably apart, then pulled Staever along so fast he had trouble keeping his footing.

Staever grimaced. “Can’t keep the audience waiting.”

“Keep your head down outside.” The guard looked through the door, grimacing at an indistinct sound coming from beyond.

Outside the dungeon, the noise grew clear: multiple people far off, shouting. The jailers bundled Staever onto a crab-drawn wagon and slammed the back gate shut. Staever checked his options. The wall was low enough to leap, but with his claws cuffed and his mind foggy, he’d be recaptured after ten paces. But if the Cuttlefish took any more time to show up, he’d have no other choice.

The coliseum was on the far side of the Iris from the library, its grand entrance not far from the prison. The shouts swelled with more voices the closer they drew, and the jailers tensed. The one not driving drew his blade.

“What’s going on?” Staever asked.

“I said to keep your damn head down.”

As they rounded the corner, he saw the crowd.

Lobsters packed every flat surface, facing down the coliseum. They mobbed thoroughfares, trampled over gardens, rallying toward the arena. Their cries melded into one roar. Some of them shouted Staever’s name.

They’d be doing this no matter who was in the wagon. The thought sounded hollow. Usually, the only Whites-folk who got near public executions were hoping to pickpocket a rich attendee. He’d never seen a riot like this in his life, except during Xander’s crusades.

One of which Xander had just launched, to capture the lobster who had accused the council. The lobster who had offered the Whites paradise. Who was going to his death.

If any of the rioters hadn’t heard of the Clearing last night, every one of them would know by midday.

He thought about bolting when the crowd got close, but banished the idea when half the Eye Militia came into view, fanning out a bristling pike wall to keep the rabble back. Kragn, behind it, looked disgruntled enough to cross the line and join the mob.

The crabs arrived at the main gate, a path broad enough to march a squadron through. Racing jockeys or combatants in war games would enter this way, coming out directly into the center ring. Kragn barked an order. The militia parted to let the crabs through, then swiftly closed, reminding Staever of the birthing pool.

He scanned for familiar faces, pushing down his restive fear. Whatever plan Wrest came up with would require deep cover. Emaria could be anywhere, in disguse until the right moment.

The two guards unhitched the crabs from the wagon, and the talkative one led them away, giving Staever a salute. The silent one took hold of the leads and pulled the cart through the archway on his own.

Inside, the walls muffled the commotion of the chanting mob. Here the cheering of the pupil-dwellers ruled instead.

“Isn’t this funny?” Staever said to the guard, as they neared the center of the ring. “They’re all here to be seen here, right? Nobody actually enjoys public executions…”

He wanted the jailer to say something, so he would seem like a lobster and not some mechanical avatar of Xander’s hate. The good humor from the riot dropped away as he saw the platform in the center. Xander stood at its head, holding a heavy axe, while ceremonial police waved the jailer on.

The guard shoved him onto the low wooden platform and flipped him onto his back with brute strength. Xander smirked as the guard used ropes of reed to bind Staever’s claws to the corners of the platform, then unlatched the wooden pole.

Staever sank bank, taking deep breaths. The moment would not get more opportune than this. If his friends weren’t coming, the crowd could break the line of soldiers with sheer numbers. If Kragn ordered the militia to cut them down left and right, some soldiers would throw down their swords, join the riot.

I’m not going to die here. Not without seeing the Clearing.

“Good ladies and gentlemen of the fair Eye!” Xander shouted, raising his claws for silence. “You have come here today to see a thief and a traitor cut down by the swift blade of justice!”

“For the love of the sea…” one of the police muttered. Xander shot him a look before continuing.

“This Staever, the leader of a band of ruffians intent on disrupting the fair trade of glass along our thoroughfares, has attempted to turn his sights upon our ship of state. He has failed!”

Cheers from the stands. The guard who had spoken made a sign of acknowledgement and stepped over to Xander. “Problem outside, governor.”

“It can wait.” Xander gripped the oversized shell-blade. “Who’s ready to see justice served?”

The Pupil-dwellers roared. “Does the convicted have any last words?” Xander asked Staever.

“You’re a barnacle on the back of this city, Xander,” Staever said, “but I’ll choose my last words carefully. I haven’t thought too hard about these.”

Maybe I’d be more useful dead. With a martyr, they might have a chance.

“Let’s see how your wit serves you when you’re floating on a pauper’s raft.” Xander raised the blade.

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The Call Answered

Somewhere in the billowing smoke cloud, a guardsman blew three short blasts on his own conch: the signal for danger, loud enough for any approaching vessel to hear.

Every muscle in Emaria’s body tensed. The ship would have heard. But it had too much momentum to stop, and no space to turn around.

“Emaria!” someone shouted below, followed by a higher voice calling “Eventhe!”

“Up here!”

She slid down the ladder. Arcite and Wrest met her.

The newcomer vessel, the target, was smaller than any in the compound. The pilot had a steering pole out, and planted it the instant his blade crossed the edge of the ramp. His ship wheeled into a sliding turn. This brought it near enough to the mooring berths for Eventhe to leap from a deck and throw herself at the hull.

She missed the ladder, but hooked her claws into the gaps in the boards and climbed. Vaulting aboard, tossing the terrified pilot into the dirt, she grasped his pole and held on to keep the ship upright. Emaria, Wrest, and Arcite ran toward her.

Conches answered conches as the entire barracks awoke. Emaria saw them converging, armed with everything she saw in her nightmares of jobs gone wrong–shell blades, bows, red clay satchels.

Wrest was the second aboard. He raced to the wheel while Arcite measured out a piece of yellow clay. “Ready?”

“Wait for Emaria!” Arrows struck the helm. Wrest ducked behind it, flicking levers for the blade treads.

“Red clay!” the coughing swordsman shouted. “Better to blow her up!”

Lobsters flooded into the open space. Emaria was aboard before she could understand how terrified she was. “Arcite! Now!”

Arcite dropped the clay. The treads propelled the vessel with the planted pole as a pivot. When the prow pointed towards the desert, Eventhe lifted the pole, Wrest centered the wheel, and the Cuttlefish soared off down the ramp, while the red clay clusters thrown by the guards popped and fizzled like fireworks on Springtide’s Day.

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A Call From the Desert

Coughing and hacking, Wrest pulled his hood over his eyes and backed away from a cloud of opaque smoke. He and Arcite crouched together in a shadowy nook two hulls away. “What was that?” Wrest asked.

“Another trick I came up with as a lad.”

A conch note resounded, muffled by distance. Wrest heard a second from somewhere closer.

“Emaria.” Wrest checked the moon. “It’s time.”

“Come on!” Arcite said, as they broke into a run. “I wanna be on that vessel!”

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