Sound had died in that time, Marlowe explained, and the desert folk had dug deep. The nomads rewrote their traditions or they disappeared. Things had made roost in the desert. You heard them coming or you were taken apart. Out in the open the sound leeched out of everything until even your footsteps were dead. So walls were tugged from the dunes overnight to keep noise in: you can see so many cathedrals, here, and that’s why they have no denomination, because they are just structural. Although some of the architects took the opportunity to beseech their gods.

Ode slumped down in a seat across from them. She slid a decanter to the centre of the table. ‘Your mouth,’ she said, ‘is an unflushable toilet.’

Weary-looking people joked and ate in every corner of the watch house. A handful chainmailed and their shoulders wrapped in the city's yellow tapering cloak, the rest a noise of colour & rough fashion from far off places. This latter, the grime of travel worn deep into their armour and the creases of their faces, far outnumbered the former. Mercenaries and citizen-hopefuls the city paid to fill the ranks, Marlowe would later learn. Two such watch-folk hovered over himself, Ode and the executioner, hands resting on the hilts of their swords. The table was spread with dust.

‘Well, more likely,’ the executioner rumbled, ‘these plains was meadowed before.’ He pointed a sausage finger and twirled the air with it. Then he intoned with a queer rhythm: ‘And it dried up! And they prosp'rous grass-ed cities caged theyselfs in when the dust came on.’

Marlowe cast an annoyed look at the executioner. ‘Is there a reason,’ he said, ‘you won’t tell me your name?’

‘Take no for an answer, my overcurious friend.’

Ode rapped the table with bitten-short fingernails. ‘Things made roost,’ she said, echoing Marlowe’s story with a glare, ‘in your reason. You understand the crisis was attrition.’ She plucked up her decanter and swilled it around in front of them. ‘Why overcomplicate it? I am not impressed. Our new friends—’ she meant their escorts, one of whom, listening, narrowed his eyes and tensed ‘—certainly know better. Deaf folk can’t go on in a desert. Who needs a fairytale monster?’ She rolled the decanter around on the hard wood. Marlowe watched the wine swirl. It was almost black. ‘They died the old fashioned way.’

The haruspex shrugged. ‘That's based on determined research and eyewitness testimony, I assume.’

He reached for the decanter, but Ode snatched it away and poured some for herself. ‘Was it the drunkard, or the maniac that eyewitnessed your pifflish shit?' She held the wine up to the light. 'Our caravan,’ she said, squinting, ‘is laid up in a spot called Shambler & Company, which seems hellish.’ She closed her one eye and orbited the glass under her nose. ‘But not disreputable. It’s what we can afford. I spoke to its mistress. She was not an idiot, and also not the mean sort of clever. Storage was reasonably priced.’ She sipped the wine, frowned, and emptied her glass back into the decanter.

One of the escorts laid a hand on her shoulder. She went furiously still. He said: ‘Your guide is arriving.’ His accent was thick, and he delivered it in a rough murmur. Marlowe had to strain to understand him over the watch-house burble. A tall cowled figure stood, he now noticed, just outside, looking straight at them.

Although the escort’s hand remained on her shoulder, Ode relaxed and caught the executioner’s eye. She shook the decanter. ‘You?’

The executioner fended off the wine with an upraised hand. ‘I’d sooner piss in it,’ he said.

‘I should want some,’ said Marlowe.

You,’ Ode said, shoving the decanter into the hands of the other escort, ‘are about to perform some surgery.’