From a distance the lifter looked empty.
It seemed no more than a shape and its shadow, wafting over the sands. But crouched low in the lifter were a man and a woman, obscured by sandy veils. A second man rode alongside it, astride a huge white Evok wearing a swinging red bridle and an elaborate tamzak saddle, the kind Evoken use.
As the hours wore on, Gilahawks swooped closer. Where there were riders, there was also food.
“They recognize this lifter," one of the veils said. She was hot beneath her garments, her thick hair caked stiff with sweat. She was long and lean, her bronze-olive skin gleaming in the hard light of Phyrnos.
“It belonged to ones that took Boyd’s ship that night. They must have been hawk traders. Must have feeding these wild ones to try and gentle them.”
“Who took Boyd’s ship?” Theo said.
“It was a girl, just passing through,” Howl said, too casually. “Had a lizard with her. They cut through camp, borrowed off Boyd's ship.”
The woman grinned at him. “‘Borrowed' off Boyd's ship, did she? Is that what the kids are calling it now? He means he took a fancy to the girl. He let them escape.”
“She was no more than a little skip of a thing! A little bad penny who never had the breaks. Boyd has plenty of ships and plenty more of where they come from. It weren't my ship, now. What’d it cost me to look the other way?”
“Spoken like a true leader,” Gill said, laughing.
"Remind me not to leave you watching my ship," Theo said.
Gill stretched and tied her hair back. “I think you know perfectly well who she was, where she was going. Probably you have some whole other life you keep from us. Wouldn’t put it past you, camarado.”
“You need to write down these stories of yours, Gillian. You’d be a rich woman instead of a grinder for me."
"Go soft! Call me a grinder!"
"Scootch over, sweets. It’s hot as kissing cloacas up here, and I’m seasick.” He jumped down from Eve and stretched out beside her. He promptly fell asleep and began to snore.
“Nearly there,” Theo said, putting his brass sextant back into its box.
“No worries, I got 'er fixed in my pin,” Howl said. He tapped his eye sleepily.
"That right?" Theo said.
“Aye, we’ll be there before the moons come up. So, this lizard Dai, he’s connected for you before?”
“Sure. He helped us on Maiden, too. Helped us come from the back and blow them out of the way. We owe him a favor, in fact.”
“This will make it two.”
“He likes being owed favors. Not to worry, he’ll cash in.”
“That’s what I worry about.”
“Look there!” Gillian said. “Is that it?”
“So it is,” Howl said, wonderingly. “How could me eye have missed it?” He whacked his head. “Damn all, that's odd.”
Theo cracked his knuckles and smugly pulled out a small flat box from one of his many pockets. "The Phodiine only let you see them if they wish it. Want a toothpick?"
The fortress reared up from the landscape like a claw reaching for the sky. Its sandy walls were reticulated with scales. Its spires were sharp as blades against the fading day. Phyrnosians dressed in water-blue robes began to flow from its gates. They rushed towards the travelers, their eyes bright and dangerous in their hoods.