Shael

“Wrest?” the lobster asked. Wrest relaxed infinitesimally. He’d been hoping for this one.

“Hello, Shael. It’s been a while.”

“I’ll say it has!” Shael shook Wrest’s claws, one after the other. “You know, now we can say things like this, I wanted to tell you I’m proud to know a thief. My war buddy, second to Staever himself!”

Wrest cased the room. Kragn’s bed held nothing useful, but the platform from which Shael had gotten up was half-strewn with weed-paper.

Captain Kragn had kept a meticulous log. If General Kragn kept up his habits, he’d left it out to complete after his midnight rounds.

“I was worried about you for a while,” Shael said. “You dropped off the map after we shipped home. I used to drink with some of the guys from our boat, but you…”

“Couldn’t afford it. I went back to my family.” Wrest moved toward the bed. If Shael got suspicious, he could say he wanted to rest.

“Don’t tell me they messed with your pay, too. My last term, they garnished me for damage to my armor. They should have compensated me for making me wear equipment that flimsy.”

As Wrest wandered another couple of paces, Shael asked “Hey…why didn’t you ever re-enlist?”

Shael was Kragn’s man. Wrest would not be able to explain to him how the army had made him fear being alone with himself. “Honorable discharge.”

“Right. The patrol boat incident.”

“Had to keep me quiet.” Wrest’s voice caught.

Shael laid a claw on Wrest’s back. “No reason to dredge up ancient history. You followed orders. Nobody could ask for more.”

“They were innocents, Shael!” I’ve had this memory already. He had to stay focused on the desk, only a few paces away. “For a few Field casualties we sacrificed a hundred lobsters from the Eye.”

“You don’t have to go over it. I have the nightmares too.”

“They aren’t nightmares for me. They come in the day.”

Shael turned away. Whether or not he understood didn’t matter. The weeds were in claw’s reach.

“I can see why you went back to crime,” Shael said.

“Staever and I were going to be thieves since we were little. I shouldn’t have given that up. Turns out it’s more honorable.”

“Hey now. There are good and bad soldiers, there are good and bad thieves. I’m honorable, right?”

A sheath of seaweed lay under a pile of scraps. “You’ve got honor coming through your shell. The world needs a dozen more of you.”

He pretended to trip, and jostled the desk, scattering the weeds. “Sorry!” he cried out, and bent down to rearrange them.

“I do that all the time.” Shael moved forward. “Let me help out. I know where he likes things.”

Wrest waved a claw. “It’s my mess. Look busy in case Kragn walks in.”

Perplexed, Shael returned to his post. The moment his back turned, Wrest dug through the sheath to the leaves marked with the days before the fall of the Eye. He cut a few at random, returned the rest to the heap, and placed it all back on the desk.

“All clean. I should go, Shael.”

“Of course,” Shael said. “Take care of yourself, Wrest. You’re doing everything you can to keep us safe.”

“Thank you.” Wrest stepped into the night, wishing their conversation had meant what Shael thought it had–two old friends catching up, nobody in danger, no-one stealing anything.

He tucked the pages of the personal journal of General Kragn into his waistband, touching them all the way back, like prayer.

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The Shell

From a hollow above camp, Arcite watched the Cuttlefish salt their leftovers. His life on the fringes wasn’t so bad. He was free to blow up rocks or insects, and when he could pilfer sludge, he didn’t have to share. Sometimes he descended to eat with the Cuttlefish, but the way they lured him with food like they were baiting an animal got on his nerves. More often than not he turned around halfway to the fire.

“I don’t need company,” he said. “They didn’t like me in the Eye, they don’t like me here. They won’t like me in the Clearing.”

He walked uphill from the dell with a vague idea of circling the valley, up where the grass grew in tight bunches. He could see lobsters throwing blankets out by their fires, arranging watches. Maybe he should have somebody watching his back, in case something crept out of the night to avenge the beetles he’d exploded. “Would shake things up, wouldn’t it?”

Ahead of him, as if in response, something cut at the grass.

He dodged behind a rise. The slope flattened ahead, and on it was a woman. She cut down some scrub with a sweep of her claw, then dodged around and slashed one behind her.

Arcite recognized Eventhe’s mask. His heartbeat sped up.

“It’s because she’s going to kill you if you come at her out of the shadows,” he told himself.

“Come out,” Eventhe called. “Slowly.”

He could run. But where? His space to roam was being hemmed in by lobsters.

“Stop.” Eventhe squinted as he clambered over the rise. “Arcite?”

He nodded.

“You were missed at the fire,” she said. “Staever wonders where you vanish to.”

“Does he need something blown up?” He wound toward her, staying out of claw range. “What brings you up here?”

“Training.” She shifted into her stance. Without breaking eye contact, she cut a stalk in half.

Arcite shuffled backward. “Looks…good.”

“I must stay in form.”

“Why? Makes sense, but…what’s out here to fight?”

Another punch, directed at the dirt. “If my skills are all standing between these lobsters and chaos, I do not want them to decay.”

“Chaos?” Arcite circled the edge of Eventhe’s range. “Don’t take this wrong, but doesn’t that sound like an improvement sometimes?”

Slice. “How would I take that wrong?”

Arcite gestured at the camp. “You know, you and I, we can…can get along with decay.”

Eventhe’s claws flew faster. She intended to wind herself. “My appreciation for solitude is not the same as yours.”

“Oh, I’m learning to appreciate it. Nobody down there sees me as anything but the Field on legs. You’d think I sunk the damn city by myself.”

“And you mind?” Eventhe was panting now.

“Just means I have to go up here to have fun.” He kneaded a shrub with his foot. “It makes me mad. The Field was my home. But no, the Field could never be anyone’s home. Only radicals live there. They never eat, or sleep, or play stones, or fall in love.”

Arcite wondered for the second time what was keeping him talking. “I came to the Eye because I needed to work with clay to stay sane. Of course now everyone thinks I’m crazy. Irony.”

“The belief that people cannot change is comforting.” Sometime during his blather, Eventhe had stopped punching. “It absolves us of responsibility for our souls.”

“What about you? What were you before you changed? What’s so different about your solitude?”

Eventhe walked toward him out of her training space, leaving a near-perfect circle in the scrub. “I was a miner and a midwife. No lobster is more alone than those.”

“None? Are you sure?” Sense ran giggling from his mind.

“If you do not understand, you fail to grasp something about the birthing pools.”

“It’s not that.” He was searching for proof he could be as much of a loner as she was. “It’s the shell.”

“The shell?”

“That conch in your room. You always put it out of the way when we go to ground there.” Instead of answering, Eventhe pruned bits from her circle. “That must have been from someone, or meant something, or…”

She stepped close enough for him to distinguish the black of her eyes from the weave of her mask. “You are in a mood to tell stories tonight, I see. Fine.”

She hadn’t walked away.

“I returned from the mines in need of work, and could find none except for the midwife guard. They often had vacancies.”

“Yeah, I bet–”

“Do not interrupt. You want stories, you will hear mine. They set me beside one of the pools with a pike in case anybody entered seeking water.” She scraped the dirt, slow and thoughtful. “Some days, someone did.”

“And you fought?” She would jump on him for interrupting again, but staying silent was taking monstrous effort.

“I stood between drying thieves and pregnant women and drove the pike at them until the others dragged them off. After a while, I discovered the pike was getting in the way.”

“And…the shell?”

“A couple from a far village needed a pool. They thought they had to pay.”

“Hold on–the pools are free?”

“The council knew restricting birth rights would foster revolution. But I could not convince the farmers. I had to take the shell.” She touched the shape in her pocket. “Since then I have felt it would be unwise to lose it.”

Did everybody else understand this? “Were you wearing the mask then?”

“The mask?”

“Yeah–I know it’s from the clay mines, and I thought your story was from there–because of the solitude…”

She spun and walked away from him. “The mines?” he told himself. “Idiot! Idiot, idiot…“

“Follow!” Eventhe called. Confused as Arcite was, his mind and legs were in total agreement. He followed.

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Night Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Invincible Staever

Noon the next day, as Staever watched the column from an overlook, his thoughts returned to rain. The sky was blue, limitless, and empty.

A scratch came from the rocky path to his perch. His instinct kicked in and he spun to leap at whatever came over the crest. His mind conjured herds of savage crawfish and flocks of winged demons.

Two heads bobbed into view: Wrest and Emaria. Staever relaxed.

“How did you get up here?” he asked.

“Saw your tracks on the slope,” Wrest said. “Emaria said you’d be up here brooding.”

Staever cocked a brow. “I don’t brood. And you two shouldn’t be up here. It isn’t safe.”

Emaria interrupted. “Can I tell you something?”

“Anything,” he said, guardedly.

“I know this is…out of character, for me, but…you’re thinking too much.”

Staever agreed: this couldn’t be Emaria talking. Either she’d been replaced by an impostor, or Wrest had begged her to rehearse something. “Should I stop making decisions? Or quit reading the map you gave me?”

“No, the map is fine, but–”

Wrest jumped in. “You’ve had your head in weed-scrolls the whole journey, obsessing. It’s not like you.”

“You know what’s not like me? Leading a hundred thousand lobsters on a long march to nowhere.” Words poured out of him. Blood rose behind his eyes. “I have no idea what is and isn’t like me anymore. I have so many souls riding on me there’s no room left for me. What if something comes off that peak and carries someone off, and I could have read about how to kill it? What if a family dries out while I’m not paying attention? What if someone decides they want my job?”

He was shouting by the time he caught Wrest and Emaria signing to each other. “Sorry, am I messing up your script?”

“We listened to you,” Emaria said. “Listen to us. We’re worried. You’re so busy looking for danger you don’t notice we’re actually getting somewhere.”

“We’ve lost people–”

“We’re moving a city,” Wrest said. “People die in cities. The best commanders don’t come back with everybody. Even Kragn lost a few soldiers when that ridge went loose.”

Emaria took up the thread. “People died on the council’s watch. You care a lot more than they ever did.”

“Who’s to say they didn’t?” Staever slumped. “We never heard what they talked about in those back rooms. Maybe what they did in the Eye is what caring looks like.”

“See, now I know you’re talking out of your tail,” Wrest said, but his expression was uncertain. In the Eye, they’d been paid because the Pupil-dwellers were evil: it had done no good to question that. Now Staever had altogether too much leisure to ponder Crane’s mindset.

Emaria touched his claw. “There’s caring, Staever, and there’s what you’re doing right now.”

“Obsessing,” Wrest reminded.

“If you want to know who’s right, look at the governors,” Emaria said. “Crane’s holed up in the flagship, not speaking to anybody, and Xander is begging thieves for a job. While you…”

“Wait, he’s talked to you as well?” Xander had approached him several times–asking for a clan, a wagon, anything at all to push around.

Emaria went on like she hadn’t heard his question. “While you are beloved throughout the camp.”

Staever could have talked longer about Xander suffering, but then Emaria’s words sunk in. “You’re joking.”

“You should hear how they talk,” Wrest said. “Alta said an old lady thinks Xander’s axe bounced off you. My favorite story is the one where you summoned the manatees yourself to cleanse the Eye of injustice.”

“What, they think I destroyed the city?”

“No, usually they betray you. You scare them off by calling a sandstorm to fill their hovercraft.”

Creaks of wheels and strains of conversation emanated from the column. It was already more than half gone: he recognized the Flagship, which traveled near the rear.

“I waited too long.” He hurried down the path, checking once to see if Wrest and Emaria were behind. “Come to me!” His crab thundered up the slope, trailing its sled. He cracked the reins, and sped off past the column, racing toward the head.

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Graphus’s Penance

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

“I did what I had to,” he murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Tale of a River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You monsters! She’s dying!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staever faltered. That was his plan.

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

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

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

“You mean a canal?” asked one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old couple looked at him expectantly.

“I suppose I can wait,” he finished.

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

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

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

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The Forbidden Highlands

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

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

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

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

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

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Blue Monk and King Crab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you rather they didn’t listen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is pre-Eye.”

“I noticed. Check the signature.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Emaria muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Hunt

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

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

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

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

“Your finely honed listening skills?” Arcite suggested.

“Nobody asked you,” Eryle said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does anybody else feel–”

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

“Like you’re in a watering pool?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe the valley could send a cloud of sludge next.

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

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

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

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

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

Not yet, anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

“The beetle…”

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

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The End of Part 1

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