Theo and Isela were not the only newcomers to camp. Two new families had stopped over for the night, bringing half a dozen lovely daughters with them. Catfish Blitchridge stood twirling his mustaches. He was talking to the prettiest, a buttery blonde with a good laugh. She was laughing now.
“So that’s a "salty dog", huh?", he said. "Honey," he said, “why drink an imitation when you can have the real thing?”
“What’s your name?” His mustaches hung like white whips down over his button up. They twitched when he smiled.
“I am called Mercy,” she said.
“I hope you have it, madam.”
“Mr. Blitchridge,”she said, “is that man really your captain? He doesn’t look like any captain I’ve ever seen.”
“Well,” Catfish said, hooking his thumbs in his pants, “If he says jump and all bodies jump, he’s all bodies’ captain, ain’t he?”
“You have a kind of crooked poetry,” Mercy said. “I think I like you.” She leaned back on her heels, deciding. “And who is captain of your heart, sir?”
“Well, milady, at the moment...”
She laughed and went away, returning to the safety of her sisters. He could see her repeating what he'd said. He stood waiting for her to return with a report on his cleverness.
But the girl stayed where she was, skillfully avoiding his eyes. Well, that was fine. There were plenty of things about Mercy he was happy to look at.
Jacques and Martine crouched by their fire with a thin young man. His face was peppered with stubborn attempts at facial hair. He knelt beside the flames, a rolled bandanna holding his damp, lank hair out of his face. He was stabbing at the jellylike body of a Uquelycra, which was turning slowly on its spit. "Huh," he said. "Can't tell if it's done. It doesn’t change color or anything."
“Let’s just use the Cato,” said Martine, exasperated. “It should have been steamed, anyway.”
“You miss the point, Martine,” Jacques said. "It's supposed to be fun. Coyote’s having fun."
"Uh," Coyote said. He shifted his squat from one heel to another, his bony legs flexing like a cricket's. "Tons," he said. “So?”
"This isn’t such a bad place. We could stay here. It’s not like the Phyrnosians are using the desert. Not for much, anyway."
Martine looked out at the horizon. "Hard to say. It's early days. But I can't help wondering what else might be out there. Why stay put, when we might find something truly marvelous?"
"Because we need permission," Coyote said. They didn't look at him. "Don't we? We need permission from the Phyrnosians. Or they'll destroy us if they find us in their territories."
"So Howl says," Jacques said. “But you can’t believe everything he says. Suppose a man has ulterior motives.”
“Like wanting us to follow him around like daft fucking kittens, that’s what.”
“Have you already forgotten what happened on Maiden?" Martine said. "And those people had the Phyrnosians’ blessing to be there. These aliens can't be trusted.”
“You see who led that raid?" Jacques said. She shook her head. "It was Eriphet.”
“How many albino monotremes are there?”
“Does Howl know?”
“Maybe not yet.”