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Iron Quill (Ivory): The Campfire

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In a few weeks these badlands foothills would have been another boomtown, flooded with soulstones from the vein the prospectors had found, stones moving downstream and scrip moving upstream, and everyone eager to stand in the crossfire and get rich. And we'd have been the lords of it, managers and mayors and sheriffs, making everything happen, the town founders.

It was a solid, prosperous vein, and the foothills were close enough to the river for quick inexpensive transport back to Malifaux City. They sent us in to found a mining town -- ditch-diggers and engineers, dock-workers and foremen, carpenters and dynamite-men, and every one of us loaded with weapons to keep nature at bay. Where there was wealth there was danger.

We were settling in quickly to become a new town together. On our first night after broking and laying down foundations, we gathered outside our tents and built a fire there. If we were going to start this thing together, we might as well learn who were were jumping in with.

The dock-worker brought out a generous bottle of honey-whiskey liqueur, laced up with well-knotted rope to carry easier. He told us his mother back home made it for him.


I know most people want to head home, but not me, and not my Momma. She raised me well on those dying mud swamps back home, taught me how to survive on the water. Malifaux was a step up from home: just as dangerous, but a lot wealthier. She lives off the land as she can, but without Father there to sell pelts, she's falling further behind every year. She'll do fine here, though, living along the docks, maybe set up her still and sell to the miners. I'm writing a letter to her now, you know, telling her everything I've seen to her. Every night I write half a page more, sometimes two pages, for near ten months now. Postage back Earthside is a lot cheaper for one long letter than a lot of little ones, but soon I'll be able to sign the letter and say, Momma, here's your train ticket, you'll love it here, come on out to your new home.


We all cheered for his Momma, because that honey-malt was fine: sweet and rich, full of flavor and kick in equal measure. You could put it over ice and make a dessert fit for the Governor, it was so sweet, but that would be an awfully drunk Governor.

We all shouted at the dynamite man when he tried to take a swig, telling him it was a sipping drink. He apologized and went back to his tent, and brought out a wheel of good hard cheese to make it up to us.

That drink caught me by surprise. Where I was growing up, you made your booze out of a stolen cheese cloth and whatever rotten fruit you could find, and you learned to choke it down fast. I wound up in a prison ranch Earthside. Never you mind what they say I did, it was the local sheriff Earthside trying to get back at me for making him look bad. I worked in the dairy there, stacking wheels of cheese made from the Holsteins. Eventually they needed more food for prison labor Malifaux side, so they filed the papers and moved me across the Breach, kicking and screaming that I didn't want to go. But I kept working anyway, because it was better than the lash. When the terror tots got to the dairy cows, they didn't have use for a cheesemaker anymore, so they moved me out to the mines to work me to death. I'd learned how to survive that before: learn a trade worth more than what my tired old back could produce. I talked the dynamite man into making me his apprentice. Demand went up so much, soon enough I managed to buy my freedom. I figure a contract like this will be even better -- I wish you all luck, but I'm going to sell my shares as soon as I can and buy a ticket back Earthside. Start a dairy farm of my own. Meanwhile, if you all like this cheese, I say we get some goats out here and make more.

Someone else had found some rum, so we were passing around two bottles now, one to sip and one to slug. Cheese, too, and the foreman broke out the tack rations. It was getting to be a feast.

Nobody really expected the enchanter to join in the conversation. She'd spent all day with her machines, setting up spidery mining equipment, keeping the grime of the wilderness off her with parasols and canopies and frocks and gloves. Enchanters seem to come in two stripes: grease-handed Union men, and delicate-handed intellectuals. She was definitely the second sort. She seemed to be unmarried, and had probably spent a lot of time fending off roughneck courtiers if she was doing jobs like this. More than anything, though, she just gave off a feeling that she was something better than us. So we all were just stunned when she stepped down from her weird metal shell-wagon and joined us around the fire. She even shared a nibble of cheese and a sip of the drambouie, and gave proper compliments for each, and then her own tale.

I suppose we've all left things behind Earthside, haven't we? I am sorry, I don't mean to intrude, but I hope we'll be working well together and I fear I have been working all day to keep my own schedule, as I'm sure we all have with these dreadfully fast timetables, and I hope to make a chance to make all your acquaintances here while we can rest. I'm doubly sorry -- I had hoped to have my clockwork pastry chef deployed by this evening, but, well, I suppose the poet Burns said it better than I could: The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley. I am here in exile, too. I studied at University Earthside, one of the few ladies they were convinced to admit. Confidentially, and I don't mean to boast, but I believe my research was quite promising. I thought perhaps I was ready to defend my doctoral thesis regarding certain methods of heating a treated Soulstone for superior automata. Before I submitted my draft, though, my own professor published my work as his own. I could prove nothing. When I protested, I was expelled as a plagiarist. Such is the price to a woman too proud, and it is a hard fall from the heights of the Ivory Tower. Not another college would deign to accept a ruined woman, and so now I am condemned to study in the field, hoping to discover another useful principle that might bring prestige enough that I can reclaim my place. I do not intend to stay here long, but I promise you this: while I am here, I will gladly lend my work, to keeping you all as safe as I can. I am grateful for your protection and your comradery, and just as grateful for the privacy that I hope you will continue to afford me. We are all in this charter together, if only to find our own ways out and, perhaps, home.

None of us knew quite what to say, but it was a kind enough gesture, and maybe we hoped she might have meant it. She looked around as if to ask us who was next.

I stood up at the same time as the engineer, both clearing our throats to tell our story next. I gestured politely to cede the stage, and sat to listen and compose my own story.

I learned the principles of mathematics from watching engineers. I learned to copy their ways, their shapes, their ideas. I was not formally trained and I have no pedigree, but I have always been curious, and always admired the resourcefulness of your mining towns. No, please, remain seated. You are such a strange people. You tell me that you each want to go home, back Earthside. You should have done so sooner. Relax in your seats, let your hands warm from the fire's glow, here under the stars. You have shared your tales and now it is my turn. I was woven from deception and sorrow, and my ever-shifting flesh is the land's primal magic. Do you understand? I am grateful that you offer me so much to learn in your tales and lessons. They will not be forgotten, even when the ashes of this camp are gone. I have killed your kind twice before, in service of the land, but those were mere parasites. Your hearts are something better; your hopes are richer. Please, continue to watch the smoke dance. Hear only my words. I do not wish to ruin this beautiful campfire. Be at peace here. I will come to you, one by one around the circle, sharp as a razor, soft as breath. Rest here. You have earned it. Watch the fire and remember your noble histories, and wait for gentle freedom.

His voice -- its voice -- was like waves on a shore, so relaxing. We all watched the fires, and we all felt ready to let go of our pains. It whispered to each of us our names, our stories. It swore to us that it would not forget our tales.

And when it was done, there was nothing left. Our camp and our bodies, all of us, were consumed in fire as it had promised. Even the constructs were melted to slag and covered in ashes.

And now I am the only one remaining, because I hold one regret: I never had the chance to tell my own Earthside story around the fire. And so I remain here in this place, until someone will hear my tale.

No, stay, please!

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