“Doesn’t this guy ever have to eat?”
Riss glanced up at the sound of Torcha’s voice. The younger woman stared down at the galania’s back, watching as it dragged itself–and their wagon–step after ponderous step. Presently they sat upon the pilot’s bench, Adal taking a much-needed rest.
He’d shown Riss the ropes when it came to manipulating the harness and controlling the lizard. The task had turned out to be far, far easier than she imagined. Compared to a horse, the galania was practically an automat. It walked in a straight line as directed, responded well to the yank of the reins when necessary. And when the harness was eased off its shoulders and further down its back, its central buckles undone, the thing just went to sleep.
It was honestly kind of eerie, like the water-powered automats in some nobles’ palaces. Shut off the water and they just died. Pull back the harness and hood its eyes and the lizard just stopped.
Then again, in this heat she couldn’t blame it. The further south they drove, the hotter and drier the climate turned. The swampy lowlands had dried away to repetitive, rolling hills, their yellowed grass crying out for rain. The tree cover thinned too. The last time they’d stopped to fill up on water, Riss had hit the sad excuse of a trading post beside the well and bought herself a broad-brimmed straw hat. The next time they’d passed through a village, she’d bought a loosely-woven cotton robe and boy she was longing for it now. But whomever sat on the pilot’s bench and the guard’s perch had to stay armored, just in case. The last thing they wanted to do was truss themselves up like a pretty, easy meal for highwaymen.
They could handle any trouble the road threw at them. Riss was certain of that. But there was wisdom in not inviting trouble to be handled.
She recalled Adal’s little lecture about the galania, choosing to pass on only a small sliver of that wisdom to Torcha.
“If you feed them something properly large, they only have to eat every five or six days,” Riss explained. “If we don’t stable him up before then, we’ll have to hope we get lucky and find a big enough deer.” She glanced down at the lizard, pensive. “Or two.”
Torcha didn’t seem comforted by this. She regarded the galania with fresh suspicion.
“Trust me,” Riss promised. “It’ll become evident when he gets hungry.”
“Remind me not to walk in front of him,” Torcha said. “We’re close enough to five days that I don’t trust the fucker.”
They were four days out of Adelheim now. All the horrors and dredged-up emotions of that strange, discomfiting mission felt further away with geographic distance. It all felt like some nightmare, the real intense kind that stuck with you but mercifully began to blur with time, its details melting away.
Now Riss and her crew were just another pack of assholes on a wagon. The ordinariness of it pleased her. Freed of all that strangeness and its complicated solutions and its murky moralities and deals-with-devils, she could get back to doing what she did best.
“Huh.” Torcha again, this time sounding interested in something. “Wishes.”
Riss blinked and tipped up the brim of her hat, peering past the frayed straw edges toward a sun-bleached wooden sign nailed at eyeball-height to a nearby tree trunk.
WISHES, it read.
A smaller sign below it was painted with an arrow, pointing rightwards off the main road.
Riss peered further into the distance, noting a T-intersection up ahead. The mysterious path toward WISHES looked well-worn, intentionally widened for wagon passage. Originally gravel, grass had begun to overtake it, sprouting in withered little yellow-orange clumps up through the rocks.
As they neared the crossroads, a second sign promised WISHES but also VITTLES, along with another imploring painted arrow.
With the immediacy of a mother who could predict her child’s tantrums, Riss knew what Torcha was about to say.
“No,” she said preemptively.
“Oh come on.” Torcha stuck out her tongue. “We’re down to half a barrel of water and it’s too hot to go hunting.”
“Yes,” said Riss. “But I’m not thrilled about the wishes. Some roadside scam artist set this place up to skim australs off idiot travelers, you know.”
“So if we stop here, we’re the idiots.”
But a quick survey of the wagon’s occupants overruled her caution. Fine, Riss thought. Let them buy overpriced crap or get their fortunes told or whatever crud this place is peddling. Perhaps they were blowing off steam, still venting pressure valves that the swamp had twisted too tight. Who was she to argue with that?
Wagon ride? Boring.
Shit-pit watering holes by the roadside? Boring.
Nothing to look at but the inside of the wagon and a bunch of grass? Boring.
If nothing else, the word wishes promised something unique. Even if it turned out to be stupid. This was the entirety of Torcha’s justification. That was all she needed.
So when she hopped free of the wagon and sized up the raggedy lean-tos and squat little shacks before her, she couldn’t help but be disappointed. A sign welcomed them to Wishes in both common and Sunnish.
“Fucksake,” Torcha muttered, shoving her hands in her pockets. “Wishes is just the name of the town.” She felt hoodwinked. The urge to kick something passed fleetingly through her foot, but she held off because the only things in kicking range were their wagon and Adalgis.
The town of Wishes–if it even deserved the title–was backed up into a dry yellow hillside. It looked scavenged from spare parts. Every structure was so brittle, dry, and washed-out that it sort of blended into the background. It made Torcha feel like she was squinting through her eyelashes when she looked at it. She’d hoped there might have at least been a hokey fortune-teller or some nomad caravan selling trinkets for good luck, but that didn’t seem to be the case.
“Well,” said Riss, trying to console her, “we still need food. Maybe they’ll have something tasty.”
“That’s a good point,” Torcha said. She sighed, looking back over her shoulder to where Calay and Gaz were clambering down out of the wagon. They both looked half-asleep.
“Gonna see if they’ve got a mirror,” Gaz said. “My hair’s getting all bushy.” Torcha squinted at him, giving him a once-over. His hair was maybe half an inch long on the sides. Maybe.
“I’ll tag along,” she said, stepping up into the giant man’s personal space. “Maybe there’ll be a junk shop worth nosing through.”
“Sounds good.” Gaz strode off toward the only human in sight, an old woman stooped over a washboard, laboring hard with her hands submerged in her bucket.
“Well aren’t you two thick as thieves,” Calay said, stalking along on Torcha’s other side.
Torcha shrugged her pocket-bound hands at him, flapping out the sides of her coat. “What, you jealous or something?”
Something was up with those two. She hadn’t putted in because it wasn’t her business, but something had upset Calay’s apple cart. Free from the pressing danger of the swamp and their reliance on his otherworldly talents, Torcha saw the man for what he was: kind of moody and weirdly sensitive.
But all the same, she didn’t want him miserable. So when his response to her was a tiny scowl, she gave him a smile and freed up a hand, grabbing at his sleeve.
“Come on,” she said, yanking at his good arm. “You’ll regret it if you don’t come with us.”
Calay, looking confused, pulled his hat down and allowed himself to be led along. “Is that supposed to be a threat?”
Torcha laughed, waving to the old woman as Gaz began to chat her up.
“Not a threat,” she said. “I mean we’ll probably find something fantastic and you’ll spend the rest of the day sulking ‘cause you missed out.”
Calay didn’t like missing out on things, or feeling like anything was happening that escaped his notice. Torcha had felt that, felt it hard, a yank through her guts like she’d been harpooned with it back when… back when the… when the thing she had trouble putting into words had happened. For all the calm he tried to wear, it was a put-on. An act. He was a turbulent, volatile soul.
“Mhm,” was all he said back at her.
The old woman pointed out the town’s various fixtures to Gaz: the general store, which was a dilapidated single-room building with a chicken coop built into the side. The “inn,” which was in fact a single room in the back of her own home. And then there was the thing that sparked Torcha’s interest: the bazaar. She used that word specifically. A hardpack yard stuffed with tents where various wandering sorts plied their trade.
“What’s the difference between a bazaar and a market again?” Gaz asked as they walked across the crunchy grass toward the collection of patchwork tents.
“How far west you are,” said Calay. “Far as I can tell that’s it.”
The bazaar wasn’t crowded. There were only a half-dozen tents, but each one had distinct, interesting fabric that caught Torcha’s eye. One was a soft-tanned leather that felt like deer velvet when she touched it. Gaz and Calay discovered one sold medicinal tinctures and that swallowed their attention whole. Torcha kept wandering, poking her head into a tent packed with crates of wine and then one that was stuffed to the brim with assorted knick-knacks.
The knick-knack tent hadn’t been packed down in some time. It had sat in this place long enough that dust had gathered on its struts and many of its wares. It reminded her of the Rummage Shop of her childhood, the free-for-all trading post on the outskirts of town where you could barter just about anything provided you could prove it had even vague material value.
The tent appeared to be unmanned, so Torcha let herself explore. The first thing to catch her eye was a collection of small potted plants. Each little pot of red-orange clay was home to a single stem, tall and graceful. A few were blossoming, their flowers pale pink and purple. She liked them, but carrying one around on a wagon was impractical. So she then turned to the wall-hangings, leafing through a few and dislodging great mushroom clouds of dust.
Technically-speaking, they were well woven. But all they had on them was pictures of guys on horseback stabbing boars and shooting deer and that kind of shit. Snooze. Torcha flipped through them like the pages of a book she couldn’t be bothered reading all the way, then let them hang limp.
Finally, she spotted something interesting–really interesting–all the way down on a bottom shelf. It was so dull with dust that her eye might have passed right over it if not for random chance. Sidestepping the sunken ceiling of the tent, she crouched down and lifted the wooden thing off its sad, bottom shelf home: a small three-quarter size guitar, the type for children who were just learning or travelers.
Rubbing her sleeve over its lightweight wooden body, she swept away the dust until its grey-brown became a brown-gold. The wood was old and unpolished, but it shone when she stepped into the light. Further dusting revealed a subtle sunburst pattern lacquered onto the back and around the sound-hole. The neck had simple but eye-catching mother of pearl inlays, little shiny triangles that marked the frets.
Torcha plucked one of the withered gut strings. The note that twanged out was sad, dry, and out of tune.
That didn’t matter. She wanted it immediately.
She didn’t know how to play guitar and up until that moment had never felt the inclination. That didn’t matter either.