Chapter Sixty-Four – An Explanation
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Chapter Sixty-Four - An Explanation

Clin and I found a cheap inn outside of the city walls, not too far from the industrial district, in a part of the town they called the Outwall. The inn was called that too—the Outwall Inn. A dingy place, cracks in the walls and rusted mecha gantries in the back that looked like they hadn’t served much in a while.

“So,” I asked as I started to shut Rusty down. “How did things go with the major?”

“Major Gary Cooper,” Clin said, “is an ass.”

I laughed as I pulled my arms out of the control gauntlets. “Is he? Didn’t take your warning seriously?”

“If he had, I wouldn’t have been in and out in under twenty minutes. Oh, he listened to me initially--while reading that letter, mind--but he cut me off and told me there would be no war with the gnomes.”

“He sounded certain?”

“Yes, the sort of certainty that gets people killed. I can’t stand his sort. There has never been a war, therefore there can’t be one. It’s so foolish.”

I shoved Rusty’s door open, then leapt down, my rifle bumping against my back. I wouldn’t be caught unarmed again, not if I could avoid it. Clin took off his robes and shrugged into the leather jacket I’d gotten for him, then donned his hat. Not much of a disguise, but it would be that much less of a trail for the gnomes to follow.

We slipped into the inn. It was weird, but I felt there was a storm coming. Something in the air stank of thunder and lightning. I paused before entering the inn, eyes skyward and searching for the distant roil of clouds, but there were only a few columns of smoke from the nearest factories.

I shifted my shoulders and moved in.

Clin got us a single room, even if there were a few open and free. It was safe, we both reasoned. The bath I ordered was all for me though.

The innkeep even had someone who could clean my clothes in a hurry, though it cost a couple more silvers for them to start working right away.

The evening passed quietly. Clin read from a book he found, and I cleaned my guns out while the inn did the same for my clothes. I slid into clothes that were actually clean for a change. Made me feel like a whole new person.

Clin took his own bath, but I’d tuned out the world by then. Hitting the pillows was enough to take me out of it for a while.

I woke up when Clin climbed into the bed next to me, but he was being quiet and he didn’t take any of the covers, so I let him live.

Time passed in a blink, as it so often did when there was a week’s worth of sleep to catch up on. Between one blink and the next, the light outside the inn’s little window went from the dark indigo of late night to the overpowering cerulean of early morning.

I stretched, then blinked some more as I noticed that I’d moved over a bit and was nearly snuggled up against the spot of warmth that was next to me.

Clin didn’t seem to notice as I rolled away, then sat up on the edge of the bed.

There was none of that. I was a professional, dammit.

Slipping my boots and belt on, I got ready for the day, then moved downstairs for a leisurely breakfast. The inn had a small kitchen where--for a few copper--I could get some gristle and eggs and a few well-fried handfuls of potatoes. They had coffee too, a black, brackish juice so hot and acrid it could have been weaponized. I was sure it would at least melt the paint off a modern warmech. Did its job waking me up.

I was finishing up when Clin walked downstairs and ordered his own meal. He sat nearby, and we barely traded more than a few words. Flatbluffs, I discovered, had several newspapers, and Clin was eager to read through one of them, even though it was mostly just ads and some articles that required more context than I had to figure out.

I didn’t know what it meant that the Cistern fee had returned to the same amount as it had been three months prior.

“Nothing about the gnomes,” Clin said as he flipped past the first couple of pages.

I nod. “Too bad you can’t do like you did in the Shadow Heights.”

Clin froze, his fork, which he’d been using to idly poke at his eggs, hovering over his breakfast. He looked up, then turned my way. “Why can’t we?” he asked.

I considered it. There was nothing stopping us, except for not knowing the city all that well, and maybe some difficulties affording things, but it was entirely possible we could buy a half-page spread. “Huh,” I said.

Clin jumped up and ran to the front desk where a flustered innkeep gave him a pen and some paper. He returned and cleared the table before him.

I started picking away at his hashbrowns while he thought. “We can’t write something too obvious. We don’t want to lie directly. But... but we can lay out the clues, all the facts, and let people draw their own conclusions.”

“So, do we start with the invasion of Daggerwren?”

“Yes... no, we can go earlier. The deal we made in the Shadow Heights, well, that I made. The reason they’re after me. We state outright that the gnomes are trying to buy a thermo-atomic storm bomb from the elves. If it reaches my homeland, it will put pressure on them.”

“That could take weeks,” I said.

“A war is a long game,” Clin said. “Getting the people here angry and pointing fingers in the right direction early could save a lot of lives later. After that... Daggerwren and the goblins, then the Sandpiercer. I’m sure Mister Elam will corroborate it. It’s in the best interest for the West Cinder Railway Union.”

“Could cause a lot of trouble, or it might get as much attention as, uh.” I raised the newspaper a little and stared at one of the ads. “Aunt Jen’s Hair and Body Wash.”

Clin huffed. “Yes, you’re right. But this only costs a few silvers and a few hours. That’s a small price to pay, I think. It just needs to reach the right ears.”

“Eyes. It’s a newspaper; you don’t listen to it.”

The elf sighed. “Give me a few moments—I need to pen something that seems reasonable. We don’t want this to look like some madman’s ramblings.”

I raised my hands in surrender, then pulled Clin’s plate closer and picked off the last of his gristle. It was nice and chewy, just the way cheap meat should be.

Clin wrote a few things down, then scratched them out before starting over, but once he had an idea down, his pen flew across the page and he soon had something approaching a script laid out.

By the time he and his breakfast were done, the hour was passing the early morning and approaching the early afternoon. “We’d best get a move on. In a couple of hours the sun will be at its hottest,” I said.

Clin gathered everything up in a hurry. “Yes, you’re probably right. Let me just grab some directions to the newspaper office. The… Undying Herald.”

I nodded along and stepped out ahead of Clin. No one had messed with Rusty overnight, not that I could tell, so I booted the old mech up while I waited, and when Clin arrived it only took a minute to start moving again.

Flatbluff’s one and only newspaper had its office situated right up against the walls. Likely not an enviable place for a business, but I figured it was doing well enough if it was still running. I parked Rusty off to the side of the road, and if anyone had any problems with how much space we were taking up, they didn’t voice their complaints. Having guns bigger than most people did that.

“Make it quick,” I told Clin. “We need to get going, grab the next train out of this place.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Clin said.

I waited for him in the mech, eyes roving across the busy streets. There were lots of people here, more of them on any given street than in some entire camps I’d stumbled across in the Vastness. One block had more homes, and likely more people living in those homes, than entire villages in the desert.

They were soft folk, fatter and rotund with water, but I couldn’t rightly hold that against them.

It just showed how prospering required a certain kind of environment.

No wonder the gnomes wanted to move out of their rocky home.

Clin returned, and while he wasn’t smiling, I could feel the smug joy radiating from him. “All done? Right, let’s get going.”

***

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