There was a rumble behind him, and he stepped out of the way of a carriage drawn by two huge yellow horses with long muzzles. The cart was roughly spherical, of a silver dulled long in the desert. In the centre was an opening covered by rich purple curtains. Only a hand was visible, clutching the fabric, as though the owner was undecided about pulling the curtain back. Jay heard raised voices coming from within, as it rolled past with spoked wheels the size of uppity mole-eyed clerks. A woman’s voice and a man’s; it was the woman’s hand, and it withdrew.
Jay saw he was back on the thoroughfare. He could just make out the rest house and the bar – Buha’s Tap & Griller – up ahead. That was another interesting thing: just like spoken words that immediately translated themselves into his thoughts, the words written on these signs were not any language he could recognise, nor alphabet, and yet . . . there they were, in plain English in his brain.
Griller. That meant meat, and meat meant food. He might only have four jackals to his name (his mind seemed unwilling or unable to call up an exchange rate, but then he supposed one would have little purpose here), but maybe Sav would lend him some money, at least for one half-decent meal. He figured that even though she might have been a . . . mercenary kind of girl, if you tried often enough the mercurial sometimes granted you boons, and surely a wilderness woman like her would know what it was like to go hungry.
Hungry? I’m starving. He suddenly felt lightheaded, feeling himself sway. He put out a hand on the side of a building to catch himself. When had he last eaten? A lifetime ago? When had Old Jay (as he had started to name the last owner of this body, and the imprints and voices left behind) last eaten?
He entered Buha’s. Sal was there, and she scowled at him when she saw him approach. ‘Yes?’ she said.
‘Hello again. You work here too, huh? Is Sav about?’
He sighed and sat down on a bar stool. ‘What can I get to eat, for four jackals?’
Sal turned her back on him. When she turned again, she had a wooden bowl that she placed in front of him. He looked in it. It was empty.
Sal dropped a spoon in the bowl. ‘Better than nothing, in fact. Nothing is what you deserve. For four jackals. Instead, you get a good bowl full of clean hearty air.’ She dropped a spoon in the bowl. ‘Eat up your air. Don’t let it go to waste.’
Jay looked forlornly down at the bowl. He stirred the spoon, while Sal shook her head slowly at him. He got to his feet. ‘I need to find Sav. It’s an emergency.’
‘You need her to buy you some food.’
‘Well, she’s not here.’
‘Any idea where she might be?’
‘No. She left town.’
‘What? What do you mean she left town?’
‘She left town,’ Sal repeated.
‘But . . . she said she’d be here today.’
‘And you believed her?’ Sal arched her brow. ‘She’s not much interested in keeping pets, not if they need looking after. And not if they’re always trying to hump her leg.’
‘Great,’ Jay said. ‘Just great.’ Sal looked at him without pity, folding her arms. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘I mean . . . I’m sorry. For how I was with you, that time. Times? I don’t remem- I mean, I’m just sorry.’
Sal sniffed and took the bowl from him. ‘Savvi was right, you have changed.’
‘For the better, I hope?’
‘That remains to be seen. Could hardly have got much worse.’
Jay smiled. ‘Fair enough. I’m gonna go and see what I can get in this town for four jackals.’
He left the bar and headed further along the thoroughfare. The fruit of the stalls he had passed earlier did not encourage him; too much of that and he’d get the runs. He needed something substantial – bread or meat, ideally. There was a whole host of smells on the breeze, familiar and foreign, but after a hundred yards his nose picked up on the right one, and he followed it.
A stall selling what looked like bread. The loaves were cut into ovals and cylinders, and even spheres, and it looked rather soft and spongey, but the smell was good. The vendor – male or female? Or both? Neither? – had four breasts like shelves on the chest, and a black-and-white beard that was forked in all directions. The eyes were big and lidless and without irises.
‘Good morning, Rathian!’ the vendor said, in a high, squirrely voice, clasping two four-fingered hands together. ‘What good crust can I offer such a warrior like yourself on this fine hour?’
‘Um,’ Jay said, taking his hand out his pocket. ‘What can I get for four jackals?’
‘A host of loaf, Rathian!’ the vendor cried, arms sweeping the assortment of breads.
‘Oh, good. What do you recommend?’
The vendor picked up a big ball of bread, spotted orange. ‘A sunbursted loaf for a sunbursted man! A handsome Rathian, with such beautiful patterns! Four jackals, just for you!’
‘Thank you,’ Jay said, raising his eyes and handing over the coins. The vendor placed the bread in his hands as though it were the sword of Excalibur.
‘Treat it well, eat it well!’ called the vendor as Jay, thanking him once more, hurried off, munching into it as he left. It was soft, but it was very good, and with a bit of a . . . kick, too. It was bread-and-not-bread, just like so much else he had encountered: both known and not known.
He stopped at the side of the street, leaning against a wall, his mouth full, his jaw working avidly away. On the other side of the thoroughfare a grey-whiskered man in a tall black hat and red cravat was inspecting some trinkets from a stall. They flashed in the light of the sun as the man turned them over in his hands. Beside him was an attractive younger woman, in her early twenties perhaps. Her back was against the stall, and she looked around as she talked off-and-on with the man. By the age differences, and the familiarity and manner that existed between the two, Jay guessed that the older man was her father.
He couldn’t take his eyes off her. Truth be told, she wasn’t another Sav. With Sav he always felt like he shouldn’t be looking at her, that her appearance drew the male (and any other) gaze, much against its will, and it turned men like him – not me, Old Jay – no, you too fella, don’t kid yourself, you too – into, well, walking in dumb reverie: you had to make sure you kept your lips closed so as not to drool. Sav commanded attention from everybody, and rode all over anybody who gave it. Hmm, ridden by Savvi, now there’s a happy thought . . .
This girl was another matter. She wasn’t classically beautiful, not in that statuesque, instantly stunning way. But to Jay she was pretty, that kind of pretty where it wasn’t clear how others saw her, and who knew if she might only affect a handful, or him and him alone. Her hair was the colour of sand and sunset; a beach blonde kissed by ruddy swathes that seemed to move as she did. Her skin the colour of pinkened milk. She had a loose green dress on, wrapped around a body that was short and just shy of festively plump. Jay mentally slapped himself for the phrase.
Her eyes roamed the street, seeming to float all over before quickly darting to him. He looked away, but couldn’t help but look back up a few seconds later. She still had eyes on him. He was relieved to see she was smiling, in that quizzical do-I-know-you?-not-that-I-much-mind-you-looking way. He grinned back, really trying to avoid looking sleazy. She turned and gave her father a big hug, and then –
Oh god, she’s walking over. Finish your mouthful finish your mouthful.
Good for you, now fuck her and be done with it.
‘Hello,’ she said. ‘I saw you staring.’
Jay swallowed. ‘I’m sorry. I . . . couldn’t . . . didn’t mean to . . . I mean, hello.’
She laughed, and Jay couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard such a lovely sound. She had blue-green eyes like a tropical lagoon and they creased at the corners when she smiled. Old Jay was busy making being-sick noises.
‘Relax,’ she said. ‘For someone who looks the way you do, you’re awfully . . .’ She hesitated.
‘You said it, not me!’ She looks so happy when she talks. Why didn’t I ever look that happy? She seemed to be waiting for him to say something, and when a couple of seconds of silence had passed, they both laughed.
‘Good, is it?’ she said, nodding to the loaf of bread Jay was holding with a series of big bite marks in it.
‘Aha, yeah. I was starving. I only had four jackals on me.’
‘Well, that won’t do.’ She gave him that curious look again. ‘Tell you what, if you throw that thing away, I’ll buy you a proper meal and a drink.’
‘Oh, no, I couldn’t accept that. Besides, I can’t just throw away good food!’
‘Of course you can. Plus, I insist. My father is boring me to tears, and most of the people in this town . . .’ She trailed off with an ominous tone. ‘But you. Well, I’m not sure about you. How you look and how you act are at odds.’
‘I’m not sure about me either. But you don’t need to spend money on me.’
‘Oh, stop talking.’ She smiled again, and he felt another sense of weight, another burst of warmth in him – higher up this time. ‘You can either gnaw on your loaf in the street like a beggar, or we can both go for a meal and a drink. Besides, you’re not putting me out one bit. Check this out.’ She reached into her dress and pulled out a wad of red-and-white notes from her cleavage.
‘That’s a lot of money,’ Jay said.
‘It’s a nice amount.’ She fanned her face with it.
‘Ain’t you afraid of getting robbed?’
‘My father wouldn’t like that. He’s quite the shot with his pistol, and he has some tough friends. Besides,’ she patted the top line of her dress. ‘It was hidden.’
‘First place I’d look,’ Jay said, immediately regretting it. I’d never have said something like that. It’s this body. It’s Old Jay making himself known.
No. Old Jay doesn’t live here anymore. It’s just you shaping yourself. Filling out in a new environment. A room, a house, catacombs . . . Swords and guns on the walls, bloodstains on the floorboards, and naked women on furs.
He hadn’t apologised, as he should have; he’d punctuated the line with a grin, and it must have worked, for the girl was laughing. With him or at him, it didn’t really matter.
‘I’m sure it would be,’ she said, still smiling, her eyes so perfectly creased. Part of him wanted to tickle her, just to keep it going, to push her smiles and laughter further and further.
‘Alright,’ he said at last. ‘Thank you. It would be my pleasure. I’ll owe you.’
‘The pleasure will be all mine,’ she replied. ‘And yes, yes you will.’
They started walking. ‘Do you need to tell your father you’re heading off with a stranger?’
‘I’m a big girl,’ she said simply.
‘Let’s go here,’ Jay said, as they approached Buha’s Bar & Griller.
‘You read my mind.’
‘I haven’t asked you your name.’
‘That’s right, you haven’t. It’s -’
‘Alexia!’ The man in the tall hat had run after them, panting slightly. ‘Alexia, my dear, I have been robbed!’
The girl clapped her hands to her face. ‘Father, no! Are you sure?’
‘It is as I have said. I am short changed, considerably so.’
‘Can you remember when you last had it?’
‘In the carriage, my dear. I swear, if that scoundrel Jerrens took it -’
‘Jerrens is a good man, father. You know he wouldn’t. Perhaps you should ask around everywhere you were from leaving the carriage up to now. Start with the rest house. Maybe you dropped it and somebody has handed it in.’
‘Perhaps. I will do that now, I think. If I have lost it for good then . . . no harm done.’ He sighed. ‘It is just vexing. I seem to have been losing money as of late. I fear I am growing old.’ The man seemed to only just notice Jay, and he raised his brow. ‘And who is your friend?’
‘Do not judge on looks, father. He is a close friend of Cam, and I have met him before, back in Stoneswell.’
‘Then I say how do you do to him,’ the man bowed stiffly. ‘And now I must busy myself accounting for fallen money. Likely the wind has it now, if not ruffians. I will see you back at the rest house.’ He tipped his hat to Jay and departed, his long legs carrying him briskly along the thoroughfare.
‘That’s unfortunate,’ Jay said.
‘It is, isn’t it,’ Alexia said, fanning herself with the money once more, which had magically slipped away during the conversation.
Jay’s eyes widened. ‘You stole it.’
Alexia yawned. ‘Oh, come on. He’s got far too much money for one man.’
‘But he’s your father.’
‘And you’re not. Don’t be boring. Let’s go eat until we’re sick.’ She pushed open the door to Buha’s. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘What’s your name?’
‘I’m Jay. Jay Wulf.’ The name came naturally to his lips, without hesitation.
‘Pleased to meet you Jay.’