When Dovetail the automaton left Skymoore to find a precious opal for one of Odd & Ends’ customers, they brought with them two books borrowed from Skymoore’s forbidden library (Flora and Fauna, Real and Imagined, of Solkin’s Colder Climates and Basic Interaction in Modern Civilization for Dummies), the clothes on their back (the shirt, slacks, and smock that they wore to work), and Tedmund the living frog-shaped coinpurse who carried Dovetail’s savings (which were moderate, giving that Dovetail had only started getting paid recently but that they also had no need for food). They knew the nearest place to find a precious opal would be in the Frostlands and they were certain they could come across the nearest town, purchase one, and return to Skymoore within an hour, maybe two.
Now, Dovetail had never left Skymoore before, and after their five hour walk to the nearest trading outpost, The Skirts, they were beginning to suspect this would take longer than planned. At The Skirts, Dovetail paid a robust, mute sectum more than strictly necessary for passage on his thick-furred Snowvine-drawn carriage to the Frostlands.
Over the course of their four-hour journey, halfway through which the carriage was traded for a small sled in the back when they reached the snow, Dovetail read through the entirety of their two books. They hoped dearly that there were books where they were going; ever since Nestor taught them to read, they had been quite voracious. For the remainder of their journey, the Sectum listened patiently to Dovetail’s effusive summary of everything they now knew about Snowvines. After a controlled mining explosion deep within a cave they passed failed to startle the driver, Dovetail began to suspect they were deaf as well. Undeterred, they began signing to him in PSSL (Pan-Species Sign Language) and continued talking to the Snowvines because they simply loved to talk. They loved it so much they talked all the way to their stop without taking a breath. When at last they reached their destination, Dovetail was momentarily sad, before realizing that their first time in a city all alone would provide ample opportunity for talking. More excited than ever, Dovetail thanked the Snowvine and their driver, and ran excitedly into the city of Openhearth.
Openhearth was quaint and cozy, despite its size, located on the edge of the Frostlands and containing more than eighty percent of the region’s population (fifteen of the remaining twenty lived in small villages throughout, four and a half percent was made up of the frost elves scattered throughout the lands, and the remainder was made up of a guy named Dennis, his cousin Torence, and Torence’s friends, who were trying to set up an extreme sporting event to prove to their parents that they were worth something).
Most buildings were made of grey stones, with white puffs of smoke from ever-burning fires venting out of their chimneys. People often ran or walked hurriedly from place to place, because it was very, very cold most of the time. The bulletin board at the center of town, which displayed the weather, only ever said three things: “Freezing,” “Cold,” or “Snowing.” Sometimes (oftentimes, even) it said “Freezing Cold and Snowing.”
Half a day to the north and east of town, there lay a frozen lake, at the center of which was an island of orange stone. The island primarily consisted of a stout hill, within which resided a deep and bountiful mineral mine, and atop which sat the Sunwood Cottage, so called for the hue of the logs that comprised it and the surname of the family that owned it. The Sunwoods owned the island and the mines, and it was a lucrative business upon which Openhearth was founded.
That was over a century ago.
Today, the island was covered in a thick block of the region’s famous unmelting Eternitice, half a mile from the center in all directions. It was the duty of Ewevan Sunwood, a forest giant and heir to his family’s dwindling fortune and estate, to carve out enough ice to free the island from its prison. He made his trade in the removal and repurposing of ice as cubes for the cooling of beverages. As one could imagine, this was not a lucrative trade in Openhearth, but it kept him fed, and it brought him closer to his goal by inches each day.
It was this preoccupation that brought Dovetail to his proverbial doorstep the day after they’d arrived in Openhearth. It only took six lengthy conversations and a few silvered feathers from Tedmund to get sent Ewevan’s way. They found him at dawn’s first light preparing for his day at the lake’s edge, where a shallow tunnel had been carved out of the ice. He wore a thick fur vest and a hat made from stone. Beside him was a sled full of empty trays and a collapsible working table where he kept chisels and picks.
“Salutations!” said Dovetail as they approached. It was clear from the giant’s expression as he looked up from sharpening his pickaxe that he neither wanted nor expected any company. “I heard from the clown’s yolk – townsfolk – that you might require resistance with your mining operation!”
The giant placed his tools down gently and approached Dovetail, making small craters in the snow as he walked. He squatted, so as to be at eye level with the automaton, and tilted his head curiously. “What in all the lands are you supposed to be? A man – or are you a woman – made from metal?”
“Recently I have found the male/female bender dichotomy to be reductive.”
“That was the least of my question,” the giant said. “Now if you’ll excuse me, squatting like this hurts, and I am wasting valuable time.”
“Wait!” Dovetail cried, “I need an opal from the mine!”
“Come back in a few months” the giant grumbled, “you can buy all the gems you could ever need.”
“Let me help you!” said Dovetail.
“No,” said Ewevan.
“We can do it faster that way!” said Dovetail.
“No,” said Ewevan.
“I can keep you company!” said Dovetail.
“Definitely not,” said Ewevan, who then said nothing else despite Dovetail’s insistent pleas.
Never defeated or deterred, Dovetail returned to Openhearth. One of the chapters in Basic Interaction in Modern Civilization for Dummies was all about job acquisition; it suggested that one should dress for the job they wished they had. Dovetail concluded, then, that Ewevan did not want them because they were dressed like a shop clerk. The following morning, Dovetail made the trek back to the frozen lake once again, having spent a considerable portion of their savings commissioning a sculptor to make them a stone hat and purchasing an expensive faux fur coat to go with it.
Ewevan wasn’t excited to see Dovetail. He looked frustrated as he struggled to repair a broken tread on the bottom of his sled, and the automaton’s presence did nothing to elevate his mood. “I thought I told you I wasn’t interested, small metal child.”
“But iambic!” Dovetail said. “Or rather, I am! I can fix that sled up, slickity rick! Lickity…split. Is that right? Why would I lick it?”
“You wouldn’t,” Ewevan said, “and you won’t. I can’t hardly pay you, selling ice out here in the Frostlands hardly feeds one.”
“I don’t need fed,” Dovetail said, “and I don’t need much pay. But if you work with me, we’ll carve twice the rice and it’ll be twice as ice!”
Ewevan didn’t respond to Dovetail. He only set back to work and brooded quietly. This time Dovetail did not return to Openhearth. Instead, they walked just far enough away from the lake that he could still see the giant, and covered themselves and Tedmund in snow, so that someone casually glancing their way would see only more white in an endless sea of snow, and they watched Ewevan work.
For it followed logically to Dovetail that if dressing for the job they wanted was not enough, they should simply do the job they want. After sunset, Dovetail made their way to the abandoned workstation where Ewevan left his tools overnight. Many of them had grown rusted from lack of attention and overwork. Using the polish and techniques that Nestor used to maintain Dovetail, the automaton was able to restore the oversized chisels and picks to a sheen Ewevan could be proud of.
Then, using the techniques they had seen the giant employ throughout the day, Dovetail set to work picking chunks out of the ice, then carving it into smaller pieces which they stored in Tedmund’s nearly empty mouth. It was profoundly slow-going, given the unexpectedly resilient nature of the ice and the unhelpfully heavy equipment. By the time the sun rose, Dovetail hadn’t even made enough ice cubes to fill the small frog.
And yet, Ewevan gave an approving laugh as he approached the scene, sled of ice trays in tow. “So that’s how it’s going to be, is it metal man?”
“My name is Dovetail,” said Dovetail.
The giant crossed his arms. “You even cleaned my tools. Why?”
“Because I made a promise that I would get an opal.”
He gestured vaguely into the great expanse of white in every direction. “I guarantee you there are more precious opals out there. Maybe even nicer ones. Certainly easier to acquire ones.”
“But it looks like you need help.”
From the break in his doubtful, uncertain look, Dovetail got the impression that they were the first person to offer. “It’ll take a full season. And the ice is my problem; it’s my responsibility to clear it.”
“It’ll be faster with two of us!” Dovetail insisted. “And resides, that’s what friends author – are for.”
“We’re friends now, are we?”
“After we spend a season chiseling this ice, I respect so!”
There was an unmistakable flash of amusement in the giant’s eyes even as the rest of his face remained unexpressive. “Come on then, Birdbeak,” he said, “let’s get you some proper tools.”
Elated, Dovetail ran ahead of the giant, leading the way toward Openheart with Tedmund in tow.
Over the next few weeks, things fell into a routine of slow, repetitive progress. Dovetail didn’t mind the pace; Ewevan was quiet, but patient, as the automaton enthusiastically chattered about Skymoore or Nestor or some book they were reading throughout each and every one of their shifts. They missed Nestor, with whom every day was a new adventure, but it felt good to be independent. And there was a pleasant rhythm to the monotony.
A break in the rhythm came one day when Dovetail spied an unexpected drop of orange on the white canvas surrounding them. It was accompanied by a shimmer in the air – steam, Dovetail excitedly realized. That could only be a sign of the East Dolpine Emberabbit, melting and boiling the snow as it hopped through the Frostlands. Dovetail recalled reading that they assembled in the Frostlands once a year for their annual skirmish with the migratory the Six-Eyed Midigaridini.
Sure enough, more and larger splotches of orange began to arrive in the distance, heading north to their destination. It occurred to Dovetail that if they could just approach and befriend one, it would do wonders for their ice-melting project. According to Flora and Fauna, Real and Imagined, of Solkin’s Colder Climates, a good scratch on the bridge of an Emberabbit’s nose would earn the creature’s loyalty for life.
Gently, Dovetail removed their coat and hat, and tip-toed their way through toward the Inferno (as groups of emberabbits are called). It became harder and harder to see distinct shapes the closer Dovetail got to the cloud of steam that surrounded the blots of orange, as condensation clung to their crystalline eyes and heated their insides as it seeped through their joints.
The rabbits seemed unperturbed by Dovetail’s presence as the creatures arranged themselves in a circular formation, chittering orders and hopping about in the rapidly thinning snow. Dovetail leaned slowly beside the nearest blurry blot and reached carefully for its nose…
…only to touch a red-hot cotton tail, scalding enough to singe even metal skin. Dovetail recoiled as the rabbit turned around and lunged at them, tiny jaw angrily snapping. It got a good grip on their arm and refused to let go, whisps of fire leaping through its clenched teeth. The heat and crunch of the metal stung, but this was the perfect vantage for Dovetail to scratch the rabbit’s nose with their other hand. The emberabbit’s eyes began to droop as it grew weak with contentment, loosening its grip and falling into Dovetail’s cradling arms.
As the steam began to clear and Dovetail rubbed their eyes, they noticed red and blue streaks in the rabbit’s fur, marking it as the Inferno’s alpha. The other rabbits had surrounded Dovetail threateningly, but a sharp purring sound from the leader had everyone standing at attention. Where Dovetail walked, they followed; and when Dovetail excitedly skipped back to the lake, emberabbits excitedly hopped in tow.
“What in Sol’s name have you got there?” Ewevan called out as they approached. The ground shook. “Sorry,” Ewevan whisper-yelled, “didn’t mean to be so loud.”
The ground shook again, and Ewevan said something too soft to hear. Again, it rumbled. The giant stayed quiet now as the automaton shuffled uncertainly and the rabbits looked about in panic.
Between Dovetail and Ewevan, the snow began to flow in on itself like a whirlpool as a hole opened up in the ground and an enormous, scaled worm emerged from below.
The emberabbit wriggled fiercely in Dovetail’s arms, but the automaton held tightly and cooed reassurances. Not having it at all, the rabbit released a volatile geyser of flame from its mouth. Dovetail dropped the animal and staggered back as the entire flock hurried away in the direction of a more manageable conflict.
The worm revved back at first, the sharp teeth of its circular mouth threateningly displayed, before it leaned forward to lie on its belly. Dovetail dove out of its way as it arranged itself on the path that had been melted by the rabbits. There was a frightful pause as everyone assessed the situation, Dovetail hunkering down in the snow and Ewevan raising his chisel above his head like a sword.
Then the worm opened its mouth, and a dozen people stumbled out of it; thick-skinned elves, minotaur, and dragonkin. They were dressed mostly in hides and tree leather, with one notable exception. He was a young Dragonkin, short and broad of stature, sporting a sleek cape, sharp pauldrons, and a impressive gauntlets. His face was narrow, sleek, handsome, and confident as he stepped out of the massive creature covered in slime. If being damp in the cool climate bothered him, it did not show.
“Hail and well met, friends!” he called. “I am Malleus Silverscale.” Indeed, among his many white scales was one on his forehead which was unmistakably silver. “These are my traveling companions, Batheron Wormtamer, G’rankil’riskiten Wyrmtamer, Majorge dil Stillbreeze, and others whose names I do not know but have nevertheless become dear to me during our travels. Whom do I have the pleasure of meeting?”
(“My name’s Deyena, Mr. Silverscale,” said an elf, “and I think it might be ‘who.’”)
“Dovetail!” said Dovetail, “and this windy-ritual is Ewevan. We’re ice miners!”
“Ice miners!” cried Malleus. “In the Frostlands! Have you ever heard of something so delightful? We ought to journey westward more often!
“Dovetail, Ewevan, could you point my companions and I in the direction of Skymoore? We’ve an errand and an interest in that most peculiar of cities.”
Dovetail pointed south and east, toward their home. “Go that way for a few hours and then go up, about a mile. You’re gonna love Skymoore! Gosh, just pointing at it is making me homesick!”
“A citizen of Skymoore?” asked Malleus. “Now that’s a rarity! Nobody every leaves Skymoore, I hear. Are the rumors true, perky metal person, that they eat people there?”
Dovetail stepped back, aghast. “Eat people? We only send people whose bodies are willingly donated to the cannibal boarding home, like any drivel sized society.”
The travelers shared wary glances. “And surely there is proper safety railing up there, correct?”
Dovetail tilted their head curiously. “That would obstruct our view of the mountains.”
“…right, stay away from the sides then,” Malleus murmured.
“I heard you got a singing rug in the library that’ll bite your toes off!” said Deyena.
“She only sings during the no-reading hour,” Dovetail countered defensively. “And her voice is magnificent!”
Malleus cleared his throat. “Well, if Skymoore is so lovely as you say, why don’t you return with us? We could use someone who knows the area.”
The more Dovetail thought about their home, the more tempting such an offer sounded. They thought of the dwarf Boundless Imagination, to whom they promised an opal, and wondered if they would mind if Dovetail took a quick break. But then they thought of Ewevan, who worked out here alone all day, every day by his lonesome. Their mind wandered to the pious Keel dal Everwind, who claimed Dovetail had no soul or will of their own. Lastly, they thought of Nestor, and how proud he must be if they returned to Skymoore with opal in hand.
Dovetail shook their head. “I’ve got blob libations here in the Frostlands. To others, and to myself.”
Malleus squinted a little as he parsed their meaning, then nodded knowingly. “Well, can’t fault a soul for fulfilling their blob libations. Farewell, friends.”
A number of Malleus’s crew began pointing and murmuring about something in the distance; a small fleet of sleds drawn by long-limbed, blindingly fast equestrian mammals.
Malleus whistled. “Got Wintonsan fastrunners going, too, I see.”
“And Dol Belvargavan nobility, looks like,” said a minotaur, looking up at a handful of colorful buoyant carriages drawn by griffins, descending from above the clouds.
“Wow!” said Dovetail. “Nobody ever visits Skymoore!”
“Normally we keep our distance, true,” Malleus said, “but recently a missive has been sent across the continent, the first ever diplomatic message from Skymoore. Cities and kingdoms across the land are sending emissaries to see what it is all about. And curious travelers are journeying to see if the message speaks the truth.”
Dovetail racked their minds for diplomats in Skymoore who might send such a message. There were the Windomeres and the Darkholmes, and other rich families, but surely they wouldn’t risk the consequences of inviting strangers to the city. It could be a secret organization, they supposed, like the ornithologists or the jugglers guild, but that didn’t ring true, either.
“Who sent the message?” they asked finally.
The automaton didn’t have ears, but if they had, they wouldn’t have been able to believe them.