Vignette

Friendly Counsel

“...and we will have enough fuel to help the Sweetwaters move the equipment to Waking, but we will need to prepare for refueling costs there.”

Everyone was listening, she supposed, even if their body language said otherwise.  She smiled to herself, and continued. It was late, and even Shale was disinterested.  But it was the duty of the matriarch to lead by example, so Momma Rabbit paused for a moment to let the others realize their minds had been drifting.  It was subtle, but as a skilled fishmonger drove their fish to the net, so she rounded up their attention once more.

Children would be children. And children indeed were the royal attendees of this summit.  Lessons passed down from mother to mother in the Rabbit family always seemed to become useful in surprising ways, she mused. 

The rest of the regents were gathered around the map of The Lands Bravado, listening with at least half an ear to her update on current events.  It was challenging enough getting the regency of the Tribes Disparate in the same room for quorum, much less keeping their attention throughout.  They would have to wait until the Summit to get the entirety of the thirteen regents in one place. For the handful she had here today, this was a necessary meeting.  An army marches on its stomach, her mother always said. “The DJs needed fuel to continue playing their part in all this.” Momma Rabbit pressed now.

At the mention of this, Shale looked up.  It was the one thing the Queen didn’t seem to understand, but Shale was in his element in this moment.  He was the most interested in these council meetings, where strength of arms did not matter as much as strength of will.  Let the Queen pursue her wars, but Shale would lead from the council chambers. Momma Rabbit smiled to herself and at him.

“We can get the RRC to fund the expedition. The Antlers have been protecting the Ox’s move south, and they can’t afford us to redirect our forces somewhere else.”  she answered in response to Shale’s unspoken question. The regent of the Ox Killers glared at her mention, but stayed quiet for now.

The Texican regent put his boots up on the table and offered a different suggestion. Her kindly eyes darkened at this willful display of bad manners.

“Maybe the Conglomerate can make an offer too.” Sam said with a drawl. “The Ja Cintos have enough connections there.  The Minister don’t like dealing with the Railroad any more than necessary. We’re all here for the Queen first, not the Commission.”  The regent of the Ja Cinto Militia surely meant well, but Momma Rabbit sighed internally at his aggressive tone.

“Sam, you know as well as I do the contracts we’ve signed.” Momma Rabbit countered. She tsked at him and brushed his feet off the table.  He sheepishly apologized, as she wiped the dirt off the map. He was a good lad, if he could only remember his manners.

“Fuck the contracts.”  The Torchlight regent’s gravely voice was barely a whisper, but when they spoke, the primitive filter on their mask made it impossible to sense any real emotion.  The Lascarian could be expected to provoke the fight further.

Another argument. This night was not getting any closer to being finished. 

The other regents acted predictably. The Ox Killers had a grudge, and their regent banged his fist on the table in support of the Torchlight’s suggestion.  The Ja Cintos would eventually back her if she could make her case, and maybe the Long Berths. The DJs of the Sweetwaters needed the work to keep the clan happy, so they would be on board when it came time for a vote.

“We trusted the sun-dwellers’ promises before. It cost us everything. Why should we continue to support them?”  the Lightbearer, for someone with such a name, spent so much of his time focused on the darkness of the past. It was frustrating. She smoothed her skirts as the others chimed in. The Torchlight regent was unnerving, but they are family too, she reminded herself.

“I say just let them deal with the Firebrands on their own. We have our own issues to solve. The storm always passes.” The Long Berth captain spoke.  They had their own problems with the Junkerpunks, to be sure.

“The Great Wheel will turn our way again, my friends. Sometimes we lead, sometimes we follow.” Words of wisdom spoke from the greasy road captain, younger than his wisdom suggested. The DJ could be counted to come to her support. Momma Rabbit smiled fondly at the Sweetwater regent. They understood the need for allies in these times.  And he was always so careful to avoid leaving the coat of dust and grime, that perpetually seemed to follow him, on her nice table.

“This was the Queen’s will, long may she reign.” she reminded them. “Her vision is what brought us all together.”

For now.”  The Ox Killer regent spoke softly, but everyone heard his words.

She gasped. The Ox Killers could be so obstinate, but the challenge was clear.  His eyes glared at Shale, and she could see the Torchlight leader nodding too.

“The Queen is with us eternally, and especially right now. Whether you like it or not. Long live the Queen.” she replied.

The Ox Killer smiled viciously. His teeth were filthy. 

Long. Live. The. Queen.” he said with a smirk, drawing out each syllable in a mocking, frustrating way

Momma Rabbit puffed up, and struggled to maintain her composure.  She readied her best stern glare and prepared to rebuke the man.

Shale broke the tie before the argument could escalate.

“I understand your hesitation, but this helps the Tribes in the future.  The Queen has seen fit to choose each of you.” He looked pointedly at the Ox Killer regent, and continued. “But it appears that I am the deciding vote.”

Shale stood up, wearily, and pointed to the map in front of them.

“The further the RRC depends on the might of the Antler tribe and all of our combined strengths of the Tribes Disparate, the more prepared we are for our eventual rise. The world is changing, and we must be prepared for that new future. Let them build their railways. Let them focus on the ruins in the Bravado camp.  We have always been about our people, the common folk, and those that have been forgotten. It is through our differences we succeed, but it is through our Queen we triumph. Long may she reign.”

Prince Shale cast his gaze around the room, and each of the regents realized the truth of his words, one by one.  Even the Torchlights and the Ox Killers. No challenge would be accepted now.

Mother Rabbit beamed at Shale.  Another argument settled. The Tribes might fight, but they each meant well.

“Long live the queen!” The regents echoed, some more readily than others.

It was enough. United for now, their voices rang into the evening, and into a new future.


A Tribes Disparate Vignette by J. Loyd

Read more about the Houses of the Tribes Disparate here.

Afternoon Tea

Her week went like this. 

Monday

Monday she met with Mrs. Robinson. The elderly woman’s hip was doing poorly and she thanked Clauthia for her bundle of willow bark by telling her to help herself to more of the peach conserves. They talked of the weather, and the Smythe’s new baby, and how the Railroad Commission was paying double for soft metal to help repair the Ox, oh, and Janine Ambrose’s garden was looking a bit untidy, and she’d had the worst toothache on Thursday so she’d brewed up a new tonic, would she like to take some? 

Tuesday

On Tuesday she followed the mariner’s march to Mr. Johanssen’s fishing shack. The spry fellow was in the middle of gutting his catch but he washed his hands and offered her a sip of hooch and they leaned against the pier and talked about the weather, and how the post was a bit late this week, and apparently there was some gossip about fires being seen in the woods at night, and his mother was feeling a bit poorly but it was likely just something she ‘et. Oh and...

“Saw a bit o’ plastic that reminded me of him yesterday - caught in my net it was.”

She stopped breathing for a minute as he fished a bit of flashy scrap from his bag.

“I was saying to Charity that your husband sure did have the brightest blue eyes I’ve ever seen. We do miss him on our Lonestar Hold’em nights.”

Her “thank you” was thick in her throat as Clauthia slipped the bit of plastic into her satchel. 

Wednesday

Wednesday was Healer’s Day. She walked to the Hallows and worked her way down the line of needy assembled. A loaf of bread here, a bit of scrap there. She emptied her pockets into their dirty and desperate hands. When her pockets were empty she rolled up her sleeves and got to work, examining wounds for infection and teeth for caries. To a select few she gave what she kept in her bag, wrapped up between layers of gauze. Ampules of medicine and tonics to dull the pain. She ignored the bit of blue flashing up from the bottom, hearing Mrs. Atrophy's chiding in her mind the way it had every day of the last three years since her world had been turned upside down. Now is the time to work, not dwell on the past. 

Thursday

Thursday she noticed one of the carts on her lane was missing.

“Is Mx. Ambrose alright?” she leaned down next to one of the ladies working the overgrown garden patch out front. “They didn’t show up to Healer’s Day this week and I wanted to check on their stitches.” 

“Oh it’s you,” the woman glanced around nervously. “I suppose they just ain’t been around much this week. Said they had some business out towards Essex.”

“Nothing serious I hope?” 

“No no. Nothing serious. ”

“Well then, have a nice day.”

Friday

Friday she checked her empty mailbox and frowned. 

She checked her other mailbox, the one that looked like a rock. There was a note from Mrs. Atrophy with the time of their meeting that evening. She twitched her black veil down over her face and strode down the hill. 

Evening fell and the Widows gathered. Some wore veils as she did, others black bands on their sleeves, while still others wore no mourning colors at all but whispered the right words as they slipped into the gathering space. 

“The post is late.” she murmured. “And Mx. Ambrose is curiously absent. Mister Lackey, get a group together and look into it.”

“Yes Miss Clauthia.” their boyish face flashed a grin in the gloom and she could hear the cracking of their knuckles as they tapped companions to aid in their hunt. 

“Now then. Who else has news?”

Saturday

Saturday the weather was good. She sat at her table near the crossroads and poured herself a cup of tea. Braves came and went, some merely to pay respects, some to offer a bit of meal or brew to take to Healer’s Day. Others leaned close and passed whispers with the cream and sugar. At each tidbit, she nodded solemnly. All news was important. All words carried their own truths - sometimes they just took a bit longer to reveal themselves. 

The noon sun rose overhead and the shouts went up from the Gauntlet. Mister Lackey strolled over to her table carrying an oversized jar under his arm. They were muddy.

“What tea do you have for me today?” she smiled at the Widower. “Or is that the ruckus I hear?”

“No, no. This is no common hooch for the masses.” Lackey placed their jar on the table. 

“Ahh, I wondered if you’d find this vintage.” She spun the clear, heavy glass, watching the contents spin slowly. 

“It was just where you’d thought it’d be.”

“And the postman?”

Lackey frowned, “I was too late for that, I’m afraid. But…” they pulled out a stack of envelopes from their bag. “I did get the mail.”

“Good boy.” Clauthia smiled, tapping one finger on the glass. “I trust Mx. Ambrose learned their lesson?”

The severed head gaped at her sightlessly. 

“Oh yes.” Mr. Lackey nodded amiably. “They sure did.”

They watched the mail-thief swirl around a moment more.

“Well, I’m off to tell the Grave Council their new tax rate for the Ambrose family.” She smoothed her skirts as she rose, tucking the pickling jar under her arm. 

“And I’m off to deliver the mail.”

Lackey tipped their hat and they parted.

Sunday

Sunday dawned warm and drizzly. Clauthia watched the delvers trudging back to their tents, hungover and poor. It had been a productive week. Tomorrow she’d visit Mrs. Robinson and thank her for the tip-off about the Ambrose’s garden. 

She sipped her tea and smiled. 


A Widows of the Lonestar Vignette by A. Garcia

Uncharted Waters

The wind was a ghost’s whisper across the water. It fluttered along the boards of the hull and streamed backwards, a swallowtail behind the thirty foot copper-clad sloop. The fishhook moon smiled up at Kel from the black water flowing past to starboard. He gave a tremulous smile back at its reflection and twisted to look forward. 

“Down to twelve feet, captain,” Arnie hoarsely whispered from the bow. Kel could see the glint of her silver rings in the moonlight as she hauled up the depth line and prepared for the next toss. He tensed his fingers around his oar and readied for what he knew was coming.

“We’re at the neck now, friends,” the skipper’s call was barely audible above the soft splash of the depthline’s charge slipping back into the channel. “I don’t need to remind you what happens if we don’t do this fast, quiet, and smart.” A jabbing finger, sharp nailed and glittering stabbed at the night-cloaked shoreline. Here the trees loomed in towards the river like hulking bodyguards ready to shoulder them out of an Essex bar. The dark obscured what Kel knew lay under their scraggly branches - long low bunkers and a prodigious amount of men with guns and arrows who would not be pleased to see them slipping by in the dead of night without paying the levy.

“Arnica, report.” 

“Nine feet.” 

A low rumbling started along the rowing benches. It was the end of the burning season and the waterways were shrinking. Much lower and The Alligator would be in danger of wallowing in the mud like its namesake. Kel’s pulse hammered in his temples, half dehydration, half adrenaline. This was his first run into the Punkerport and the marshy stink of the polluted water made him yearn for the briny tang of the open sea once more. He narrowed his eyes as a sudden flash lit the darkness.

BANG

“We’re spotted!” he yelped as a projectile whistled overhead and continued into the water beyond with a splash.

“All hands pull!” the skipper growled, and The Alligator surged forward as the oar crew stretched their backs into the thrust. Arnie’s readings at the bow came as fast as she could throw the weight now.

“By the mark, Eight and a half. Eight now,” her voice was punctuated by the whistle-shriek of bullets, and the flashes on the shore were close enough in the narrowing channel that Kel could see the faces of the shooters in the flare of the discharge. He felt a trickle of sweat tracing its way between his heaving shoulder blades but he didn’t dare pause. 

“Five degrees to port!” Arnie shouted. The captain nodded, twitching the rudder to the right - his jaw stony, eyes staring down into the dark water, trying to keep the craft in the deepest part of the channel. The shore seemed to inch by in slow motion and the range was closing. An arrow skimmed over the gunwale and buried itself in the bare mast, missing Kel’s shoulder by a hair. 

“Heave to!” a cry from the shore came crisply across the water. “Surrender your cargo and we’ll let you live.”

“Think I’d trust the word of a Long Berth?” The skipper shot back, and the crackling of firearms increased, punctuated with a few choice insults from the fighters on the shore.

“By the mark, seven!” Arnie hollered and the rowers doubled their intensity. The keel wouldn’t clear much past six feet in depth. 

And then it happened - an awful grinding sound beneath their feet and their speed slowed. They were scraping the bottom now, and in this narrowest part of the waterway, the treeline was only a few yards away on each side.

A shout, and Kel looked up to see the skipper doubling over, a dark stain spreading across his sleeve which now hung limply at his side. A body pushed past him - Arnie diving to seize the rudder and shoving the skipper down into the cockpit. 

“Kel! We need you in the water! You too, Cleat!” 

He dropped his oar into the locks and turned towards the bow. The Baywalker next to him did the same, JP tattoo dark beneath the hollows of his eyes. The grinding on the hull was louder now, reverberating through their feet and throwing him off balance as he lunged towards the prow. Arnie was muttering to herself as they went, “Told him we was too heavy with this metal. Should have taken the plastics instead I said. Not been enough rain.”

The wood of the railing was silky beneath his feet, ground smooth by years of scraping and sanding and bare feet. Kel snagged a sheet as he went, wrapping the end of the rope twice around his hand and hoping the other end was tied to something solid. He didn’t have time to check before he jumped.

The water was warmer than he expected with the sun down for hours, and the force of his jump carried him down beneath the surface, his ankles sank into the soft mud at the bottom of the channel. Kel tugged at the rope above his head and heaved himself upwards, breaking into the warm night air as Cleat slammed into the water next to him. Immediately they both began to swim, pulling the rope taut and tugging the boat through the water. It was scraping less now, with their weight offloaded, but still dragged sluggishly behind. Kel’s free hand splayed wide, the translucent webbing between his fingers and toes scooping hard into the water. He kicked with all his might, feeling the resistance of the boat pulling him backwards with the current. The shouting on the shore intensified and arrows pierced the water near them, bobbing back to the surface harmlessly.

The sky above was suddenly illuminated. The Long Berthers had lit their arrows on fire, content to haul the scrap out of the bottom of the channel after they had all burned and died. His legs were starting to cramp up from the constant kicking. 

And then miraculously the boat was surging past them. They had cleared the bar. The rowers cheered as The Alligator once more sprang into crisp motion. The swimmers drifted back along the side, hauled along by the very rope they’d been tugging. A fire arrow thudded into the hull next to Kel’s head and he splashed water on it before it could light up the tarred wood above the copper cladding. Something beneath the water brushed against his legs and he shuddered.

“Get us up!”

Hands reached over the side and hauled them upwards, depositing them as soggy lumps in the center of the boat as something smooth and scaled broke the surface of the water they’d just left. The shore was retreating once more, the crack of firearms fading into the distance. Kel dashed back to his spot and picked up his oar, resuming his rowing until Arnie shouted “Rest!” long minutes later. Panting, he collapsed forward and chugged on the waterskin beneath his seat. When he finally had a chance to look around, he realized how far they’d come. A broad lake stretched into the darkness on either side, its surface choppy with a stiffening breeze. Beneath the dark waves faint glowing shapes moved and far, far ahead there were torchlights sparkling and distant across the water. He thought he could hear off-key singing. 

“The Punkerport.” Arnie affirmed, looking up from bandaging the skipper’s arm. 

“Is it always like this?” he asked incredulously. “Getting here, I mean.”

“Not always.” Arnie shook her head with a sharp, toothy grin. “Sometimes it’s worse.”

 “Welcome to Bravado, Kel.”


A Junkerpunks Vignette by A. Garcia

Thumb On The Scales

Things were easier when I was a ranger. thought Nettie Jack Russel in the cattails and reeds that peppered a riverbed, dry and dead this far into the burning season. Her nose itched but she dared not scratch it. 

The sun was low in the sky, just a few rosy fingers caressing the horizon while the rest was so deeply blue it might’ve been purple. A few scattered clouds rolled lazily eastwards and the way the sun lit them up from underneath reminded Nettie of the brushfires she’d needed to circumvent this far into the Blastlands - only much much prettier. 

Her knees ached. She’d hidden in these reeds since the sun was so high in the sky it threatened to bake her scalp raw, shaved as it was. But what skin she did have was thick and leathery - where it wasn’t peeled back to expose muscle and bone. Nettie surreptitiously wiped her brow on a handkerchief and a few chunks came with it. 

You’d think, she monologued in the way the terribly bored tend to, that contracts would make it easier to determine who the bad guy is. It doesn’t. It makes it easier to figure who broke a deal; which is good enough for most folk these days. 

Someone laughed. Nettie froze. Her eyes, red and watery after nine hours of silent observation, flickered to the tallest man in the group whose mouth was wide and grinning. Hers pitched downward in a tight frown. 

Some forty feet from the Law Dog were a band of nerdowells she’d been tracking for the better part of a month. Bandits, these days. But when they’d worked for the Railroad Commission they’d been caught smuggling goods off of the Ox. Now the word to describe them was “breachers” and it was a Law Dog’s job to bring them in. 

This was the Viper Gang. They’d picked up the name recently after their leader survived a nasty snake bite by manifesting psionic powers and purging the stuff right out of his blood. Nettie thought it was a little stupid. No vipers in the Lonestar. 

The leader in question was one Jeremy Scales, a burly remnant fellow who looked like he might’ve been Saltwise if the dice rolled different. But life hits you hard and so the tough green plates across his face and shoulders looked more like ugly callouses gone septic. He was generally understood to be a charming psychopath - Nettie could see that in the way his crewmates followed his laughter with their own. He knew how to coach a room. 

The sun had all but disappeared behind the horizon and velvety darkness descended. The Viper Gang sat comfortably around a campfire and as the evening progressed they grew drunker. Wild and ugly tales poured out of their mouths as quickly as they filled them up again with booze. Nettie listened, diligently taking notes in the little brown journal that had lead her to this hiding place to begin with. 

Fetters make men of us, she wrote absently, without them we descend into base animalism. So cyclic is the wickedness of man that I knew these to be monsters before I preyed upon them for a night and a day. Contracts might be useless if we’re figuring some higher morality - but folks that break them generally turn out to be shitheels.

“Alright, girl.” A voice called cheerily from the camp. “Come on out now.”

At first Nettie did not register what Jeremy Scales had said. Or that he had said it to her. Until a rough hand clamped around the back of her throat and a powerful blow to the head dimmed her vision and turned her limbs to jelly. Ahh Hell. She dropped the book. 

That rough grip dragged her from her uncomfortable place among the reeds and into the firelight. She saw a few flecks of blood hit the dirt where it dripped from her scalp. She felt a sharp pain in her shoulder when the thug who hit her tossed her dangerously close to the coals. They disarmed her handily and broke her arms.

“Another cocker spaniel come to chew at my heels, eeh?” Scales mocked, kneeling in front of her. Nettie’s eyes wept from pain; bewildered. “Guess the RRC didn’t tell you, yeah? That you’re the fifth pup they’ve sent after me in half a year.” Nettie’s stomach dropped. They most certainly had not.

“Poor kid.” Scales commiserated and stood again. She noticed her book in his hand - when had it gotten there? Nettie blinked, in shock. “Good notes.” he said, flipping through it.  “But it’s too bad you called me a shitheel here at the end. I’ve got a real prideful streak in me. S’from my mother’s side.” 

Nettie gritted her teeth. She could already feel the infection reknitting the bones and muscle. If she could keep him talking long enough-

Jeremy Scales flipped his duster back, exposing a snub barreled silver shotgun. He unholstered it, took casual aim, and shot Nettie Jack Russel right in the teeth. Her body hit the ground with an unceremonious thud. 

The grim faced bandit  handed the book off to one of the thugs in his gang. This one was named ‘Handsome’. Jeremy understood this to be ironic. “Keep that.” He ordered, “And move the body. She smells like my sister.”

The last of the sun disappeared below the horizon. Scales looked up and away from the fire. His expression was mild. 

Another dead dog, he mused. How long ‘till they’re tired of this game and sic the ‘hounds? 

He’d need to finish his work before then.

A Law Dog Vignette by S. Lindley

Quota

Huckleberry leaned with arms crossed against the tree that tried and failed to provide shade to the cut that the work detail was mired in. The track they laid for the Ox was heavy; even the Irons strained under the weight of the rails and ties as they laid them down along the muddy ditch dug out by their peerage. The Law Dog’s eyes were locked on a particular digger, smaller than the rest, whose slower pace had held the work crew’s progress back from making quota for the last two weeks. Huckleberry had been told the shiftless drudge’s name, but he hadn’t cared enough to commit it to memory. Once he’d seen the dude, the burly Iron had known which way this would go. 

The waifish Remnant handled his shovel clumsily. He was too small to leverage it properly, and anyone with sense could see he didn’t belong on this detail. The Commission had been clear that the work would be demanding. The contracts had specified the length of track that would need to be laid daily. Even the conditions The Commision expected had been researched and included in the formal agreement that every one of these miserable fucks had signed or made a mark for. Some of them couldn’t read. Like as not the Breacher was among those. But Huckleberry didn’t care. His pity for them as weren’t capable of looking out for themselves was nonexistent. Their eyes had all been full of currency, and this part, the negligence for their own ability, was a consideration that hadn’t occurred to the idiots.

At some point, the Breacher felt the Blood Hound’s eyes on him. He began to look up from his work periodically , his already abysmal pace lagged even more. The piss-reek of fear wafted in the air and Huckleberry curled his lip into a snarl at the stink of it. When the Breacher saw this, he flinched, as though the expression had reached out to strike him physically. Those toiling around him didn’t seem to take notice, but neither were it they that Huckleberry had his eyes on. In fact, to all but the Breacher, Huckleberry may as well not have existed. The Law Dog let his hand slide down onto the pommel the rifle holstered on his hip and down the length of his leg, and he let the Breacher see him do it. 

A few things happened next. The Breacher’s shovel hit at the wrong angle, and the distribution of his weight caused him to slip and stumble into his neighbor; a Retrograde digging at a much more acceptable pace than the Breacher. They both tumbled to the ground, and the second man fell against a third, an Iron who had been struggling in the rear of a line of lifters carrying rail up the cut. He lost his balance and the rest of the dominoes fell, along with the rail. All because of this useless little moron. It was the moment Huckleberry had been waiting for. The one he’d known would come. The moment when the cost in time that the Breacher represented overcame the meager contribution to the project. 

Huckleberry’s rifle had cleared the holster before the rail hit the ground, and the deafening crack of the shot split the air. The Breacher’s brains splattered against the mud and the diggers and lifters in the vicinity scrambled to make distance from the fresh corpse. Their eyes turned to Huckleberry as he slid the gun back home, waiting for an explanation, or instruction. Huckleberry let that linger long enough that the cost in time for their gawking wouldn’t outweigh the value of the intended message before he spoke. 

“Y’all’s all signed your contracts. Y’all’s all had quota. And y’all’s all had termination agreed to for missin’ it. Get the fuck back to work.”

And so they did.

A Law Dog Vignette by J. Newman