The desert cities shut their gates when the red clouds rolled in over the dunes. Mountainous billows of sand scaled their walls, used their streets as veins, and buckled the roofs of the lower classes. Watchmen were enmoated in their towers. So the man on the ramparts explained when the heretics came in their caravan.
Marlowe batted the canvas aside, finished shoving his button shirt into his sand-stained pants, and dropped out of the wagon to get a piece of the argument. The executioner, whose name he'd never learned, loped past him toward where Ode stood. She was shouting up at that louse there on the ramparts. Strictly shouted, did Ode.
Trudging toward her, Marlowe yanked off a glove and waggled it like a fish until the last grains of sand shook free.
'And thank you for having made room!' she called, cupping both hands to her mouth. Her hair made her stern features seem ablaze. 'We have, you'll find: food! timber! a certified medical professional! These are the things you need, aren't they, you daft shit?'
Ode heard the executioner tromping through the sand towards her and she flicked at her ear as though a fly was there. The executioner halted. He muttered: 'You should lie more carefully.'
'When we're inside,' said Marlowe, knocking on the tall man's arm, 'it won't matter.' The executioner turned like an old stone door and frowned down at him.
'Your work is slag to me. A great old slag.' He hunched over and feebly gripped an invisible cane, then straightened again. 'I meant what I said, eh? But if you are reckless with the watchmen I'll be run out, they'll run me out. They are wary here. In-dis-criminatory.' He punctuated this last word by poking out the syllables on Marlowe's chest. 'I will be lumped in. With you. Like garbage.'
'Then very well tell your commander!' Ode yelled. The two men looked over: the figure on the ramparts began barking a reply but Ode cut him off. 'You will say it is Marlowe the fucking magnificent! You'll say, here he is! Great god-damn Marlowe to surgeon your ungrateful wounded!'
'Ho,' said Marlowe. Beside him, the executioner swore. 'Ho there, Ode—'
There was no stopping her. 'What a spit you are!' she tumbled on. 'In his mercy God brings you a salve at the nadir of your enplagued-ness and you turn Him away!'
'He is gone, Ode. Hopefully not to get his captain,' Marlowe added, 'because we should leave. Ode, I am not a surgeon.'
She slouched, huffing. She turned her cyclops gaze on Marlowe. A sweat-yellowed bandage encircled her head, stained by a scratchy ink drawing of an eye where it covered her ruined one. 'Do I tell you how to do your job, haruspex? Leave the words and such to me.' Her eye flitted to the executioner. 'Where is your shirt?'
'What use is one?'
'It is very hot,' agreed Marlowe.
'Its use,' she replied, 'is found in not appearing like what you are, which is a stump-brained misbegot whose back's had an affair with the whip.' Unbuckling her waterskin, Ode pulled a mouthful out of it then splashed a little on her face. She tossed the bottle in an unexpected snap of movement, but Marlowe caught it by the strap and, entirely by accident, didn't drop it.
'Make yourselves in some way presentable,' Ode growled, wiping her face and slicking back her unruly mop. Mostly she only managed to smear some of the dirt around. 'I aim to sleep in a bed at least once more before I take what's mine.'