The Glass Thief--by oracle93, Chapters 12-15, Fantasy

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The Glass Thief--by oracle93, Chapters 12-15, Fantasy

Post  oracle93 on Fri Mar 30, 2012 5:17 pm

When Staever and his gang of lobster thieves--second-in-command Wrest, lookout and strategist Emaria, demolitions expert Arcite and martial artist Eventhe--hijack a land vessel hauling precious glass to the wealthy center of The Eye, they expect to once again fence the loot to the crooked Gattick and call it a job well done. What they don't expect is to discover an ancient key that could hold the power to save their dying seaside city. Staever knows that the lobsters of The Eye must make a pilgrimage back to the homeland they lost centuries ago; he also knows, however, that when the slums know him as an outlaw and his only allies are his mother and an out-of-favor governor, his chances of saving his people are slim at best. But if there's one thing Staever and his gang can do, it's think on their feet--and although he's in the crosshairs of a conniving politician and his brutal enforcer, this thief's day may be about to dawn...

Sweeping from a high desert, across a barren wasteland spanned by graceful bridges, and into the swamps and forests of a land known only to legend, The Glass Thief is a tale of treason, swashbuckling adventure, despicable villains, historical power, romance, action, humor, and fear. By the end, a continent--and a world--will be forever changed.

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When we last left Staever and his thief allies, their petition to save the Eye had just been rejected by the council. Now, they've got to do what they do best: go rogue...

CHAPTER 12

“You know this place can’t last much longer, ma’am.”

The watering system of The Eye was centered around an artificial aquifer, dug to let seawater flow downhill to a reservoir beneath the city, from which it would be pumped up into pools across The Eye. The Whites were last priority, but the few watering holes had become social hubs over time, and every one was crowded to the brim with clamoring merchants, squabbling families being led to the water lines by fathers or mothers, and the odd sea-priest, chanting a hymn of protection over the pool and all who bathed in it. It was a favored spot for the thieves as well, though most White-dwellers knew all the tricks of a pickpocket.

“This hole is drying up; look, it’s already at less than half capacity. If you follow the key—“

The woman, carrying two young babies on her back, slapped Arcite across the face. Recoiling, the thief rubbed his eye.

“If you think I’ll be conned, you’d best think again!” the woman said, before scuttling off, grumbling, “I live in the Whites, I’ve seen it all before.”

Arcite blinked and considered cutting a line to cool off. Eventhe sidled up behind him. “Your charm needs work,” she said.

“I don’t see you out working the social magic.”

“I am not suited to this work,” she said. “This is very far from my reflections.”

“Hey, you almost confided in me there,” Arcite smiled. “Want to try some more?”

Eventhe glared. “You are impertinent.”

The bustling throng was beginning to back up behind them, and Arcite felt light shoves trying to move them on. He grabbed Eventhe’s claw and led her over to a quieter spot by the walls of the water plaza, then jumped away before she could react. “Do you think we have a chance?” he asked.

“Staever understands very little,” Eventhe said. “He is a fool to believe that the world is changed at the individual unit. This plan will never succeed.”

“I get the feeling you don’t respect the guy.”

“He has done nothing to earn it.”

“Yeah, well, um—hey, Ev,” Arcite lit up, “do you want to go for a walk? Just stroll around the water plaza and pretend to be two normal lobsters for a little while?”

Eventhe frowned. “I fail to see the appeal.”

“Well of course you don’t, you’ve never tried.” He set off along the circular trail, staying to the right to avoid oncoming foot traffic. “Don’t jump or anything. Just walk.”

Eventhe fell into step beside him, and they walked for several steps in silence, their legs scuffling against the sand. The humidity pressed over the whole scene, and Arcite was soon panting. Eventhe, unaffected, did not slow down.

“So, tell me about the mines,” he said, when he had caught up again.

“There is nothing to tell,” Eventhe replied, though her claws flew to her mask. “The work was dangerous and dull. I was only in it to hone my skills. I left as soon as I could.”

“I see a story there,” Arcite told her. “There’s always something to tell. Did you—“

She stopped him in her tracks. “I have an idea.”

“About what?”

“The work we are supposed to be doing.”

“I told you, Ev, the sweet-talking is Staever’s department.”

Arcite kept walking, mindful of the lobsters behind him. Undeterred, Eventhe scuttled in a circle to face him as she walked backwards.

“The idea involved red clay. I assume you have some.”

Arcite almost jumped. “Always,” he replied.

“With small quantities, is it possible to burn permanent marks into sand?”

“Absolutely, with the right proportion. Which I know.”

Eventhe pointed up the sheer surface of a lighthouse, in which a flame burned at night to illuminate the streets. It was etched with intersecting grooves that led all the way to the top.

“I will carry you to the top of that tower,” she told him, “and you will burn the image of the key into the top.”

“Now you’re talking!”

“The people must have a flag.” Eventhe’s smile was so faint it inspired only anxiety. Without another word, she launched herself upward out of the crowd and, amidst the gasps and the childrens’ screams of fear and delight, latched onto the side of the lighthouse, sweeping Arcite up in her grip. Arcite, who wore goggles everywhere whether on a job or not, dropped them over his eyes with one claw while holding on for his life with the other. He furiously scraped red clay out of the satchel near his tail. Eventhe was hauling them both farther from the ground, straining to keep the weight of two lobsters aloft.

“Hey!” Against his better judgment, Arcite looked down and saw two heavyset lobsters muscling their way through the crowd of startled onlookers. Each of them bore a single wavy line on their back, the mark of the lowest grunts of the council guard. Behind them, a third lobster shrouded in a cloak and hood was trying to get closer. “Watchmen,” he whispered to Eventhe. “Can you hurry it up?”

“This is already faster than my body can—“ she broke off her sentence and swung towards a higher claw-hold, scraping them both against the tower and slamming Arcite’s clay into the parapet.

Eventhe made no sound, and Arcite could manage nothing but a broken gasp as the burst of energy hurled them backwards from the lighthouse, kicking and struggling with the air in one useless mass. They both shut their eyes, and Arcite felt Eventhe’s grip tighten around him.

The ground did not come rushing up to meet them, and when Arcite revived from his state of adrenaline it was to find himself splashing in the pool, spluttering even as he drank in the cool water. He felt first relief, then embarrassment, then the need to get out of the pool before he used up too much of the water that was now more precious than glass.

On the walkway, the two guardsmen were waiting at the head of the stunned and silent populace. Eventhe was already standing still in front of them, having exhausted the lengths of her dialogue. “Hey, guys,” he choked a laugh, “there’s a great explanation—“

“What the hell do you two think you’re doing?” snarled the smaller guard. “Unauthorized access to a city building, illegal red clay possession, disturbing the peace, endangering the citizenry—“

“—there’ll be jail for this,” said the other, relishing the notion.

Arcite tried to exchange a glance with Eventhe, but she was not receptive. In a dire situation, he was glad she was hard to scare.

“Look, I’m sure we can work something out,” he said to the guards, trying his best not to plead.

“Work what out?” The smaller guard was scowling, uncomfortably close to Arcite’s face. “If you’re talking sentences—“

“I think this will change your mind.” All the lobsters but Eventhe wheeled to see the black-shrouded figure approaching from the lighthouse’s base. He produced a satchel not unlike Arcite’s red clay container—his former red clay container, he thought with a pang. The lobster in black handed it to one guard, who gasped before handing it to the other and hopping from side to side. “We’ll forget this happened, then?”

Both guards gave over to gratuitous nodding, then hurried away with perfunctory reminders to the other lobsters to go about their business, the contents of the bag rattling.

“Yeah, just keep on dying of thirst,” Arcite muttered. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the lobster who had saved them standing with Eventhe, and headed sidelong over to them.

“The power of wood pieces in this city is truly disgusting,” Eventhe was saying to the black-clad figure, who seemed to be nodding in agreement. Something tired showed in his motions, a demeanor worn down by constant grinding from life and the world.

“Ah,” said Arcite, cutting in front of her, “what she meant to say was thanks for saving us. I know I wouldn’t have.”

“You two do look like vagabonds,” the lobster laughed, and raised his hood so that Arcite and Eventhe, but nobody else, could see him.

At last, Eventhe met Arcite’s eye. She had been caught off guard for the first time in years.

“It’s nothing I don’t have experience with,” Graphus said, dropping his hood again. “I believe you two know Staever?”

CHAPTER 13

Staever pushed aside the woven curtain that separated his room from the rest of the street, throwing shafts of light on the loose sand swirling through the room, and held it in place to let Wrest pass through. As Staever followed him out, he looked around to remind himself why he spent so little time there. The house was an alcove dug out of a street wall in the Whites—a scheme designed by council engineers to create fast and cheap housing—and was a cluttered mess of salvaged furniture and food storage. Staever retreated there only when circumstances were dire or payment was late.

“I tell you, Wrest, the black-market life’s got to be better than this,” he said to his friend, as they stepped onto the pebbled street. “Someday, huh?”

“Just you wait, Staev,” Wrest replied cheerfully. “When Gattick’s payment comes through, things’ll be different. We’ll all stay in one of those high-class hotels, the first night we have it.”

“Sure, if they’ll let Ev sleep on the roof or something.” Staever sighed. “Even we can’t live on four thousand pieces for too long anymore. What’s the world coming to, when even money can’t save us now?”

He finished as Wrest turned away to see Alta shoving her way through the crowd, dragging Wier by one of his legs. The street was rarely busy, but flying rumors of increased council patrols on the main roads had sent many of the lobsters scurrying for cover. On this road, four lobsters were able to walk abreast if they sacrificed comfort, and Alta and Wier were taking up most of the space, dragging each other back and forth in wide arcs.

“Ow! Alta, let go, I can—OW!” Wier slapped his sister’s claw away and skittered off, nearly bumping into Wrest. He brightened when he saw him. “Hi, big brother,” he said.

Wrest lifted Wier off the ground with one claw, and the boy flailed his legs, trying to walk on the air. He grabbed Alta with the other and held them face-to-face. “Are you two playing nice?” he scowled.

Staever laughed, but as Wrest put his siblings down and they went at each other again, he was distracted by a green streak, in the corner of his eye. Over in a tiny but vacant alcove opposite them, the masked Graphus was signaling with his rare Last Isles handkerchief. Staever nudged Wrest and they pushed towards Graphus, the young lobsters trailing them.

“It’s good to see you, Staever,” the governor said, when they were apart from the throng.

“I’m pretty glad you’re here too, Governor,” Staever replied. “This is Wrest, his brother Wier, and his sister Alta.”

Wier waved energetically until Alta jabbed him and he assumed an extravagantly prim pose. Graphus smiled. “Are you a traveller as well, Wrest?”

“Erm, a military man, actually, sir,” Wrest stammered. “On leave for the moment. Enjoying some peace and quiet with the family, sir.”

“At ease,” Graphus said, and Wrest blew out his cheeks.

“Is it true, Governor—“

“Graphus,“ the governor cut in.

“Right, Graphus,” Staever leaned in closer and dropped his voice. “Is it true that the police are on the warpath?”

Graphus’s smile vanished and he nodded slowly. “They’d never dare venture here, of course, but Xander knows something is up. He’s persuaded Crane to give him full command of the police, and now he’s combing the city, looking for dissidents.”

For a moment, Staever could see the fire that lit within the councilman during the injustices at the meeting—the countenance of a warrior enraged at wrongs he could not right with a shell blade. But then it died, and Staever saw the face and soul of a tired old man.

“I was able to pay off that little adventure your gang perpetuated at the water hole—“ Staever looked down, turning red, “—but I can’t do that forever. And neither can we stay here.” He looked out at the merchants dragging their wares behind them, the families carrying children on their backs, the muggers looking for an easy target. “We are all of us, in this city, born dying,” he said. “I would have left years ago, before the irrigation tunnels collapsed. But it was never my decision.”

“We have the key,” Wrest said, hoping to lift Graphus’s spirits. He walked forward and pressed it awkwardly into the governor’s claw. Graphus turned it over and over, examining it in different lights, marveling like a child at the play of sparkles over the ancient gold.

“You say you have a plan?” Staever began.

Alta walked up beside him. “Isn’t this what you needed us for?”

Graphus met her eyes, and she stared back. “You’ll be my missionaries,” he said.

Staever and Wrest exchanged glances. Since they had been children, neither had put much stock in sea-worship.

Graphus continued. “Carry it through the street. Take turns holding onto it; keep it out of sight, but make sure as many people see it as possible. Whenever somebody looks at it, explain to them what it means. Tell them,” his words were lost in a fit of coughing, so like the miners in Eventhe’s hovel that Staever was worried. “Tell them it’s salvation. You’ll know how to explain it.”

Wrest nodded in understanding, but Staever glared. “That’s your plan?” he said. “Go on another soapbox in the crowd? What do you think that will do!? If your council rejects a petition the will of the people means nothing!”

“It means everything!” Graphus shot back. “Without the will of the people, what is the council? A roomful of bickering old men and their hangers-on. You are the power. I’ve always known this. Crane has never understood.”

“Xander’s police are the power,” Staever muttered, “and your little plan puts Wrest and his family in danger. I’ll have no part of it.”

“That’s a pity,” Graphus said, and Staever was annoyed to see him smile. “Wrest seems to welcome danger.”

Incredulous, Staever spun around to see the backs of his friend and the two children riding away into the crowd, with a familiar glint clutched in Wier’s claw. Staever cursed and raced after them, pushing opposite the flow of bodies. Graphus pulled his mask back on and, chuckling to himself, headed off in the other direction, stopping a ragged young man to tell him of the key.

By the time Staever caught up to Wrest, he was already deep in conversation with a haggard farmer and his wife, while Wier and Alta worked on his brood of children. Staever stepped in to interrupt, but stopped when he saw the looks on the faces of the desert lobsters. The farmer was laughing gaily, and clasped Wrest’s claw in both of his, shaking it hard. His equally dirtied wife was less exuberant, but simply sank down among her young and closed her eyes, as though a meditator in the winds of the desert. In mid-stride, Staever turned away.

As he wandered with the flow of the crowd, directionless, he was stopped by a trio of thieves he knew from scraps on the highways. They gathered around him, congratulating him on telling it to the council like it was, and pushed and shoved one another to buy him a sludge-bath. They were hardscrabble men with little time for speeches, but Staever pointed out the key, and the silence that followed led him to think he could get a word in edgewise.

The five missionaries continued on that way, each working a different area of the market, though Wrest still refused to let his brother and sister out of his sight. Graphus seemed undeterred by either the size of a group nor the class of lobster to whom he spoke; Wrest, not trusting his personability, sought out larger groups.

“How’s it going?” Staever asked Wrest as they passed each other, both nodding encouragement.

“Good,” Wrest said. “You got a strategy?”

“Yeah, I’m going for the merchants. They’re the ones that talk. I’ll get them working for me.”

“Remember when we were thieves?” Wrest asked suddenly, and Staever caught a hint of sorrow in his friend’s eyes, the same age as his yet so much older. He tried to laugh.

“Yeah, that was nice,” he said. “I’ll tell you what. When we all get to the Glade, the very first thing we’ll do is rip off some glass, okay? Just like old times.”

From then on Staever stopped every merchant that passed in front of his hovel; and the occasional two or three that stopped to listen were worth every one that pushed him aside and walked away grumbling. A yellow-clay dealer, who had forced Staever into listening to his pitch before the thief could say a word, was now listening with detached interest as Staever described the glories of the Glade, which, for the sake of his speech, he had decided to call Crustopolis.

He chanced to look up, and caught a speeding glimmer in the corner of his eye, which he pulled back from the clay dealer to follow. It was the shine of the key, and he looked for Wrest underneath it; when his bulky grey form was not visible, he checked for one of the little ones. He couldn’t distinguish the lobster carrying it until he saw Wrest tearing after him, throwing aside his new converts as the lobster holding the key vanished up a ledge and into a high alley where Wrest was immanueverable. His friend, the gentle soldier, slammed his claw into the wall and dropped down to weep.

Staever would later recall that he’d had no time to acknowledge what had happened. For just as he had begun to consider that the key had been stolen, that he had dropped his thief’s guard long enough to be ripped off himself, the yellow clay merchant laid down his wares—red clay he’d spat into—and slammed the blunt end of a shell dagger into Staever’s skull. “Wrest—get the kids—“ were the last words he could manage, as a police vessel materialized from nowhere and his world sank into haze, with the unmistakable form of Xander the last image before his eyes.

CHAPTER 14

The cloud of dust hovered, diaphanous and barely visible against the sky of late noon. General Kragn lowered the sonic spyglass—a shell fitted with both a lens and sounding chambers to allow distant echolocation—from his eye and wondered if the desert was not toying with his mind. He made a rapid sweep for other mirages, knowing that in the western half of the continent they always appeared in groups. To one side of his watchtower lay the sea; to the other, the forbidden expanse, where no sensible and humane general would order his grubbiest footsoldiers. Kragn’s heart swelled as he thought of his ancestors, coming to The Eye by the route that no lobster would tread again. Crisscrossing the Eye’s territory were the boundary lines of farms, the broad ribbons of roads and the occasional gash on the face of the world from a collapsed irrigation channel. And still, the cloud of dust hovered.

Though its foundation was at sea level, Kragn’s watchtower rose as high as any point on the dome of the city; and as he descended the spiral staircase, he had plenty of time to come to terms with what he had seen. He passed through the arch at the bottom, his claw resting on the blade at his waist, determined to meet it head-on.

The young colonel was waiting at the bottom, where Kragn had told him to stay. “Did you verify the reports, General?” he asked, after Kragn had put him at ease. His smart uniform was streaked with the grit of a desert patrol.

“As closely as I could,” Kragn replied, walking past the officer, who followed cautiously.

“You truly believe that—“ Kragn halted in the road, facing the Eye, and the colonel nearly walked into the general’s formidable bulk.

“Colonel, there are two people whose judgment I never question. One is my scout, and the other is myself. At the moment both of these people are certain that the Field is preparing a pre-emptive attack.”

“Our troops are already marshaled—“

Still not looking at the colonel, Kragn stopped behind a wooden rig to which he had hitched his stately sled. The two crabs tied to it dug nervously at the ground as Kragn produced two pieces of flint from the satchel on his cloak. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “The rebels are no longer defenseless. Somehow they found out that we were going to strike, and now our luxury of time is gone.”

The colonel was dithering beside the sled, hoping to be offered a lift along the grueling road back to the city. “Do you assess, general, that the Field is capable of doing any serious damage to us?”

Kragn glared back, and the colonel knew he had lost all chance of a ride. “I have dispatched the scout who saw the rebels massing to the council, asking for authorization to push up the invasion date,” the general replied. “I agree with Crane. Any measure that will ensure the safety of this city is the correct course of action.”

With that, he struck the two flint rocks together over the back of each crab, jolting them to life in turn. Issuing eerie, keening screams, they tore off along the thoroughfare, leaving the young colonel coughing and gritty-eyed in his wake.

A scout in a suit of desert camouflage flagged Kragn down as he reached the outer limits of council patrols. The boy had hitched a lift with a pair of surly police and was breathless by the time he reached Kragn, who drew his crabs to a skidding halt. Though wheezing from thirst, he delivered his report of the council’s decision: Crane required the military for a show of force to be held at the execution of a known thief, of whom he intended to make an example. Kragn roared loudly enough to startle his steeds and sped up the ramp into the city.

CHAPTER 15

The dungeons beneath the foundations of the arena had been cleared of all prisoners by Crane’s personal order, with everyone but the thief transported to jails in the Whites or, if they had enough wood in their pockets, turned onto the streets. Outside the small prison, which consisted of a torch-lit hallway running between ten cells with bars on all sides save the back wall, the guards were vigilantly following the strict command to let no visitors inside. The old woman, however, seemed innocent enough to the tired jailers, and the small piece of glass she handed each of them didn’t hurt her case—though both looked like they had been broken off ornamental furniture.

Once inside, Taiga pulled off her veil to breathe easier in the air, made smoky from the dying torches. She made her way quickly toward the left-hand cell at the end of the hall, the filthiest of all from lack of use. Staever lay on his back, head resting on his claws, taking up more than half the cell’s floor space.

“Hi, Mom,” he said, warily rising. “How are you?”

“I—“ Taiga was stymied by a fit of dry coughing. “I just broke my only glass window to bribe a guard to let me visit my condemned son. Other than that I’m fine.”

Staever smiled weakly. “Nice to see you still yourself. So you heard?”

“Dammit, Staever, why did you have to do this?” Taiga dropped to rest on the floor. “Why did you have to go and mess around with these people!?”

Staever had been ready to see his mother angry, but was caught off guard by the cracks in her voice as she struggled to keep her sobs from pushing through. He couldn’t meet her eye. Not knowing what else to do, he flipped over and awkwardly turned himself around to face her. “Mom—“

She cut him off. “You knew it would be a sham trial. You knew execution is the only way it could possibly have turned out. Did they even bother telling you what you’re charged with?”

“High treason,” Staever said.

Taiga rapped the part of Staever’s face she could reach through the bars. Staever recoiled, cramming against the back wall and straightening again.

“Stop saying that like it’s such a swashbuckling adventure!” she commanded. “You’ve no chance of a reprieve. Crane has no concept of justice. He just wants to give the people a show.”

Staever looked down, his eyes watering. “I don’t deserve a pardon, Mom. High treason is exactly what I did. If I have to overthrow the council to save the city, then—“

“You won’t be overthrowing anyone, Staever, because they’re going to kill you!”

“Mom, I’m not worried. My gang is coming for me. Wrest would choke a sea monster for me, knowing I’d do the same for him. A good thief can—“

“A good thief can stay out of sight, and keep to what he needs to survive!” Taiga shouted, and Staever tried to blink tears away. “A good thief doesn’t go around thinking he can change things that can’t be changed! A good thief wouldn’t scare his mother—wouldn’t make her see him in a dungeon—“

She at last allowed a heave to overcome her words, and Staever clasped his mother’s claw and whispered words of hollow comfort. “I’m scared,” she managed. “Being scared for you is different. It’s worse.”

“I know,” Staever replied. “But you made me a thief. Neither of us would have it any other way.”

“It’s funny,” Taiga sniffed. “When I rescued Cyprus, he seemed to think we lived a life of romance too.”

Though Staever usually wasn’t interested in his mother’s memories of his father, he tolerated them now, as he knew she was changing the subject to help her calm down amid the situation.

“I showed him the grit of the back streets, and the second-story escape routes, and the places we would lie for hours when council patrols got hot. Everything I showed you when you were little. The difference is you got hooked, and he ran away.” She sighed, and tried to smile. “I dearly wish it had been the other way around.”

“Well, if he could still think it was romantic after you had to pull him away from a mob of muggers, you’re not changing my mind about the guy. He’s nobody I’d ever want to trade places with.”

Taiga squeezed Staever’s claw again; when he let go and opened it, he was holding a pale leaf. Grinning broadly, he broke off a piece and crushed it over his head. “The salve—thanks, Mom! How did you know?”

“I figured they’d hit you somewhere. I thought it was the least I could do.” She stood up. “If you need anything else—“

“Yeah,” Staever interrupted, “Don’t go to the arena tomorrow. Whatever happens, it won’t help you to watch.”

She scowled at him. “And what am I supposed to do—just pace the house and wait for news? I’d go insane! If anything, I’d rather be helping.”

Staever mulled it over. Finally he said, “Okay. Here’s something you could do.”

“Anything.”

“Go find Gattick.”

Taiga inclined her head. “The fence?”

“Yeah. I’ve lost something, and I’m pretty sure he’s got it. You’ll know it when you see it.”

“Right,” Taiga said, and Staever was relieved to see her looking more composed. “Don’t ever forget, Staever. A good thief can trust his gang with his life.” She turned and headed back down the passage through the dungeon, coughing every few steps with alarming intensity. “I’ll be waiting on word from the Cuttlefish,” she rasped, pulling the veil back over her head.

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Is Staever doomed to execution? Can Wrest do anything to save him? Can Taiga track down the key in time? A new post is coming up soon!

oracle93

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