Did I hear right? A thug shifted in front of the drill-holes, blocking Staever’s view. His graft ached where they’d pounded it. How could Kragn know?
The perimeter crew gathered with the rest of the soldiers. Staever heard scuffles from all directions as the Militia drove the clans to view him and Kragn, upon the flagship for everyone to see.
In the Eye, the meeting rotunda had been used for two purposes: legislation and trials. The flagship became the rotunda, the marsh the audience. Lobsters from the Eye knew what to do when powerful people stood above them–lie down, and wait for danger to pass.
Staever had started their journey by declaring they wouldn’t rebuild the Eye. Now Kragn was going to end it by doing exactly that.
Kragn raised his claws for quiet. Dull whacks answered roared threats from the citizens. The tumult grew as the crowd expanded, each thud making Staever gag. His guards tightened their claws, making sure he could not cover his ears.
This was the new Clearing: Kragn had not only betrayed them, his betrayal had been swift and total. And he had trusted the general, so far as to doubt Wrest.
“Graphus,” Kragn said when all was silent. “A friend to me, to us all. He was the first ally I had in my quest to build a brighter future for the Eye.”
Arcite’s voice exploded from below. “If Graphus were here he’d rip your sea-damned claws off!”
Kragn’s countenance was cold. “Guards, remove him.”
“Eventhe got away–let go of me–she’ll break your neck in your sleep–”
Someone shoved a rag into Arcite’s mouth. Staever heard nothing more.
“Graphus departed with Governor Xander’s scouting party to chart a network of bridges connecting this area to the north,” Kragn said. “Tragedy struck on the return journey.”
He knows about the bridges, but not the air demon, or he would have mentioned it by now. Kragn’s lie had to be based in truth. None of Xander’s clan objected, which meant they were either in on it or had been bullied into silence. What was more, the speech was mechanical, rehearsed to the hilt. So winning crowds is even less his strong suit than mine.
“As the party camped, our,“ Kragn touched a claw to his chest, “beloved Graphus was thrown from a cliff. I accuse the criminal Staever, who calls himself your leader.”
Staever lunged. “Nobody killed Graphus,” he shouted as the guards wrestled him back. “And I am their leader.” He faced Kragn down, jerking in his captors’ grasp. The general gave a signal, and they threw him to the deck. “You can’t silence them forever, Kragn. They’ll keep whispering about me in the night.”
“It doesn’t matter how much they like you,” Kragn growled, so only Staever could hear. His eyes reflected hills and trees and the two lingering moons. “These people care who can keep them safe and fed. There are worse things out there than me.”
“Your fabricated monsters?”
“We both know where to find real monsters.”
Kragn’s face held no triumph or superiority, only duty. “You can’t win a trial with strength,” Staever said.
“Trials are Crane’s game. This is…a cure. For their habit of following you. A tough one to break, after your stunt with the monsoon.” Kragn called through the amplifiers into the crowd. “Come forward, Xander!”
The crowd downhill from the ship parted. Staever watched a sliver of it through the starboard scuppers. His heart leapt as he saw Wrest with Shael, shifting lobsters aside as gently as he could. Xander, in his trail cloth and pack, walked behind.
Wrest had to be undercover. As for Xander, they hadn’t spoken since learning they were half-brothers. For an instant he thought Xander, who had seen everything, could help, but cold reality dawned: the only way Kragn could have known so quickly about Graphus’s murder was with a man on the inside.
“Where’s Crane?” he asked. “Let the high governor judge me.”
“The five governors are under guard in the hold, as they have been since we passed the canyon. And,” Kragn said as Xander entered the circle around the flagship, “he is a witness. I will judge you.”
What do I have to do to get a fair trial?
Xander mounted the ladder. Kragn guided him to the conches. “Speak, if you know the truth.”
“I saw Staever murder Graphus,” Xander intoned.
“You sea-damned lying bastard!” A claw like a cudgel slammed into Staever’s face. He was on the deck again, blinking lights out of his eyes.
“A demon of the air attacked us on one of the bridges.” Xander’s checks and pauses convinced better than Kragn’s.
“Xander,” Staever pleaded, “you were there. You know this isn’t true.”
“It forced us to retreat. Staever and two of his gang–the Field spy and the masked one–were in the rear with Graphus.”
“Don’t do this, brother.”
Xander broke off his speech. As the crowd murmured, he told Staever, “It was my idea.”
He turned back to the conch, leaving Staever paralyzed. I should have left him among the ruins. So many mistakes, with no way back. It was enough to convince Staever his brother and Kragn were agents of perverse destiny. He’d taken everything from Xander, and Xander would repay him in kind.
“As the other thieves fled, Staever pushed Graphus from the end of the bridge.”
“It was not an accident?”
“Graphus landed part of the bridge after the first shove. Staever could have saved him. Instead he pushed him again.”
The soldiers broke out in a chorus of boos. The citizens sounded confused. Some yelled, while others’ calls petered out into murmuring. Staever wasn’t worried about them. Kragn and Xander were too partial for anyone to buy their story. All that mattered was retaining the loyalty of the Eye.
Kragn turned east. “This is only one testimony, but the crime happened in broad daylight. Who else witnessed it?”
Silence. Staever was dislocated, watching from outside his skeleton. Kragn even asking meant…
A lobster from Xander’s clan raised his claw.
“I saw.” His deep voice resonated. “It happened like Xander said. Staever let us all get ahead, then sent his gang to keep us out of the way while he killed Graphus.”
Others followed. Four successive testimonies condemned Staever. Kragn had bribed them, or threatened them–it didn’t matter. The smallest shards of uncertainty in the walkers’ hearts would set his grisly cure in motion. Stop them from stepping up, when he gets rid of me.
“Your courage has done us a great service, Xander,” said Kragn. “Dismissed.” Xander left without looking Staever in the eye.
The crowd noise dulled. Nobody knew what to believe.
“I declare this thief to be guilty,” Kragn went on. “The sentence is exile.”
The crowd roared indistinguishably. The numbers for him and against him were masked.
“To the northwest, the vegetation turns back to desert,” Kragn told him. “You will go there. You will never return.”
The goons clutched Staever again, though he struggled. Before they could bundle him to the rail, Kragn spoke softly.
“Don’t be too angry, Staever. Esteem is an illusion. No thief can pull off a sleight of claw on this many people, for this long.”
“But your power’s real?” Staever challenged. “How long can you hold on?”
“Long enough for people to forget there was any other way.”
The soldiers pitched Staever off the ladder. The fall rattled his bones and stunned him long enough for them to leap down and haul him through the crowd, clearing a path as they went.
The citizens lay like loose sand as the Militiamen came to push them back. Whether or not Staever was guilty of the charges, they’d seen him condemned with Kragn presiding. There was no more effective way to show them how far power had shifted, how little they could gain by resisting.
In seconds Staever would be gone from his people, surrounded by Kragn’s soldiers. While hoarse militiamen shouted, “Make way for the exile!” another lobster landed with a thud beside him. Emaria’s face, battered as his must have been, pressed into the dirt. Some sensation returned to him.
“Eventhe?” he asked.
Emaria shook her head. “Gone into the outskirts.”
Staever felt a rush of gratitude. “Always outside, always hiding, thank the bloody sea. What about Arcite?”
Kragn had disembarked from the flagship and now had some advisers in a circle, all of them talking urgently. Shael, at the outside, shifted and allowed Wrest out of the ring. He backed toward Staever and said without turning, “Kragn has Arcite. They need him for something. It wasn’t clear.”
“Oh, no,” Staever said. “The Great South Wall.”
Emaria recognized the words. “What about it?”
“Kragn needs to get through. He’s going to blow it up. You can’t let him.”
The soldier holding Emaria jerked her away. Militiamen hustled Staever forward, and Wrest followed, breaking his cover to stay within earshot. “You can break him there!” Staever cried. “Don’t let him keep Arcite!”
Something hit him on the head, and darkness covered the wood.
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