Mister Bumblethorn slept through the morning, as he usually did, rising from his dry-as-dust bathtub just after noon. He stood in the weak light of the shaded window, his massive blue coat rumpled but still imposing. He did not even remember getting into the bathtub the night before, much less falling asleep in it. He yawned and shook out his arms. An antelope or a gazelle, tiny as a beetle, tumbled out of his coat sleeve and splatted on the floor below. Mister Bumblethorn studiously ignored this.
Bleary-eyed, he walked across his tiny apartment to rummage through the cupboards, finding no food except some stale crackers. Worse, his water flask was empty as a thimble; he held the thing upside down for a full minute and not a drop appeared, not a whiff of moisture.
Mister Bumblethorn sighed heavily. Into the blank space of his empty stomach, memories began to flow like saliva. Once, adoring folk had thrust gifts of cheese and honeycakes at him wherever he walked: through the streets of grand Abadore, through the humble thoroughfares of nameless hamlets. Fingers shaking, Mister Bumblethorn rolled himself a fat spliff of redleaf. No matter how little the peasants had, they shared their suppers with him and refused any offer of payment. Damn it, light already. After all, he was–Ah, there it was, that sweet smoke filling his mouth, translating the stream of memories into a language as meaningless to him as the clicking prayers of the insectile priests in their hive temple on Wingcleft Avenue, his old life grown as insubstantial as their flowery incense, drifting away in the wind.
Pleasantly hazy, in search of a more expansive view, Mister Bumblethorn pulled down on the windowshade, a membrane as thin as his own eyelid. At his touch, the shade twitched–and Mister Bumblethorn’s skin answered with its own shudders at the unpleasant reminder that the building he lived in was alive. Was tower-kren. The windowshade crept up and disappeared into its pouch above and Mister Bumblethorn confronted the naked window–was it an eye? Was it looking back at him? Mister Bumblethorn looked away, held his breath, tried to determine once more if the walls were breathing, were expanding and contracting rhythmically, ever so slightly. This was a game he never won, even when he was sober.
The light coming through the window was blueish, and Mister Bumblethorn felt as if he were underwater, as if any moment a fish might swim by, as if he could feel the currents tugging at his long coat, tugging so insistently that he felt dizzy and unsteady on his feet (No, Mister Bumblethorn, you are simply a little too high), so unsteady that he grabbed the window frame to hold himself in place. He raised his head in surrender and gazed out the window at the reality of the city he lived in.
Fleet City. Even near noon, the sky was lit up hardly at all, as if the pale blue sun were pouring light and light and light into a vessel so vast that there was no hope of ever filling it. Tower-kren rose up into the desolate bowl of the sky, tower-kren after tower-kren, clustered near his own building and standing far away, at the edges of Fleet City, and filling up the middle distance as well. The tower-kren shone red and scarlet, somehow snatching up enough of the meager light that they gleamed bright, their scales glittering like the segmented metal armor of–no, Mister Bumblethorn would not think of that. He looked down, to the streetworm far below, flat and black with the little yellow ridges running along its spine, blurring, from this distance, into a single line. Up and down the streetworm, the motor-kren clattered and the lamp-kren glowed and the many varied denizens of Fleet City walked or glided or skittered or swam-through-the-air.
So many strange creatures lived in this city with him. Mister Bumblethorn did not even know which were native and which were emigres like himself. He knew as little about Fleet City as possible; it was like a living book of symbols written in a language of flesh and movement, a language he could not read. The meaninglessness was a comfort to him.
Eventually, the haze receded enough that Mister Bumblethorn became aware of the hunger gnawing at his stomach, the thirst scrabbling at the back of his throat like clawed feet. He would have to go out.
He picked up his key, which was large and knobby and white. He took one last hit from his spliff, for courage. He brushed off imaginary lint from his long, dark coat.
The keyhole was dark and warm, like a deep mouth. Mister Bumblethorn rooted the key around in it, eyes carefully averted. The walls of the keyhole responded to the touch of the key, shuddering and grasping until the whole door vibrated and let out a soft, whistling sigh and swung open. The space where the door met the wall, exposed now, was red and wet. Mister Bumblethorn stepped through quickly. The door closed with a squishing sound.
Mister Bumblethorn held the key out from himself carefully, away from his coat. Something dripped from the tip.
Down on the streetworm, the air smelled of sulfur and citrus, cedar and unnamed spices. A fine spray of pink sand blew into his face. Someone called out, “Maps! Hot off the presses! Fresh maps of the latest migration!” But Mister Bumblethorn had no money: no goldbloom tea or even water. He had his blood, but the mapseller would not take that. He would have to find a florist. He scanned the moving crowd for familiar shapes. There was the two headed horse man in his fancy clothes, checking some kind of spherical instrument on a chain without pausing in his long strides. There were three of the blobby orange things with wings like rusty yellow knives, hovering above a cart selling fruit. Mister Bumblethorn looked away; something about the shape of the flying things brought bubbles of nausea to his stomach. On the other side of the streetworm, near the dark entryway of another tower-kren, which hung open like a giant’s gullet, strolled an orange-skinned woman. She must have been obscenely wealthy, for she wore a dress made of enchanted water. As she walked, the water fountained and swirled in intricate patterns over her sunset skin. Behind her trailed three tame ghosts on tethers, bobbing up and down in the wind like balloons. The ghosts were dolled up, with ribbons in their cloudy hair and rouge on their flimsy cheeks but Mister Bumblethorn knew that if some destitute (such as himself) so much as tried to squeeze a droplet of water from the fountaining dress, the ghosts would be on him like wild dogs.
Distracted, Mister Bumblethorn bumped into a stopped motor-kren. A tiny furred creature with huge eyes, standing atop the motor-kren’s smooth red shell, scolded Mister Bumblethorn with a series of clipped chirps, making an incomprehensible sign with its delicate, naked fingers. Mister Bumblethorn shook his head and backed away. He had seen such creatures before, riding on other motor-kren, but he refused to consider what this might mean or imply. In the noise and blur of the streetworm, the jostling, ever-moving, alien crowd, Mister Bumblethorn’s high had faded to a dull headache, a slight membrane between his skin and his thoughts. Slight but enough, with the chaos of the street itself. He had learned, in his time in Fleet City, that the one thing the city could be relied on to provide was an endless stream of distractions, of bewildering sensations.
By the time Mister Bumblethorn found a florist, his throat ached with thirst, his feet throbbed with each step and he was worryingly sober. He looked at the florist’s shop and it was disconcertingly familiar, a place he was returning to, a place he remembered. Or, at least, a place indistinguishable, to his eyes, from the other florist shops. There was the pavilion carved from the rocky, jeweled shell of a slumbering mound-turtle, holding a wealth of flowers of all colors and shapes and sizes which were framed by four pillars of red stone and wrapped around, on three sides, by heavy curtains rich with pattern and gloss. As Mister Bumblethorn walked up the ramshackle stone staircase beside the mound-turtle, the florist craned its long neck to peer at him.
The florist had a white head like a bird’s, with a prehensile beak. Its long neck ended in a nest of feathers, mottled grey and black and white. These feathers sat on broad, furry shoulders, on a body like a sasquatch’s. The florist had two legs, thick as tree trunks and no other visible limbs. In the center of its furry chest there was a broad, black opening like a mouth without any teeth. Protruding from this maw were six wings, plastered flat against the chest like the petals of pinwheel, alternating between white and black.
The florist clicked and squeaked at Mister Bumblethorn. It did not recognize him.
“I’m sorry, I do not speak that language,” he said.
At the sound of his voice, a cluster of dark red roses turned towards him. Mister Bumblethorn started at the sight of eyes in the center of the crimson layers of petals.
The florist tried again, this time in a voice like mournful singing arising from beneath water.
Mister Bumblethorn shook his head.
“Good day,” the florist said. “Tell me why you have sought me out, and we shall see if I can meet your desires.”
“I need to make an exchange. Blood for water.”
“Such a commonplace request,” the florist tutted. “Are you certain you have no more extravagant dreams? A mottled spywing, perhaps, to trace the steps of your unmet love through these shifting streets? A heartsblack bulb to hold your grief and nightmares till Fleet City reaches–”
“Please,” Mister Bumblethorn said, clenching his teeth. “I have no money and I am very thirsty.”
“He who drinks his wealth in haste will thirst in leisure.”
Mister Bumblethorn hated this platitude, but he did not want to risk offending the florist. As far as he understood the arcane laws of Fleet City, only florists were allowed to exchange blood for water. Water. The shape the word made in his mouth, in his throat, was a paroxysm of longing. He held out his arm and pulled up the sleeve of his great blue coat. “Just take it,” he said.
“First, your name,” the florist said.
Mister Bumblethorn stated his name.
The florist clucked and slid its head inside of the hole in its chest. The six wings fluttered gently, as if half-heartedly trying to escape. After a moment, the florist’s head re-emerged. “Our guild records indicate that you have already exchanged your blood for water twice this month. I will not take more blood from you so soon. I can’t have your death on my beak. I couldn’t afford the care and feeding of your ghost.”
Mister Bumblethorn felt as if he might faint. His tongue was like paper in his mouth. “Could you, possibly, lend or give me water? I need–”
“Have you not heard the words of the Wandering Sage? ‘To give charity is to toss poison into the mouths of children.’ But I am a reasonable birdbeast. Surely you must have something else to sell?”
Reluctantly, Mister Bumblethorn opened his coat.
There was a world inside.
The interior of Mister Bumblethorn’s coat teemed with life and movement, as if it were an intricately detailed model of a continent, brought to life and hung suspended and sideways, its own gravity still somehow intact: the rivers meandered or rushed, according to their temperament, through the miniature landscape, specks of birds flew vertically from tree to tree or wheeled above the mountain peaks, smoke drifted horizontally from pencil small chimneys on cabins and manors, people as tiny as toys worked the fields and walked the streets of towns and cities, oblivious to their strange circumstances.
On the edges of this landscape were great black maggots chewing away at trees and valleys and towns, slowly consuming the very fabric of the world. Two or three of them had grown so bloated they could no longer move; shadowy threads of webbing encased these blobs, indicating an unimaginable chrysalis might be underway. Seeing these maggots, Mister Bumblethorn could not help but remember their name: the Shadowscraw. And with this single incursion, the dam burst and out swept a flood of memories–
—rancid licorice scent of the Shadowscraw’s gummy, purple black blood—
—eyes open, nothing but darkness, head throbbing where the dragonewt’s tail had struck—
—rubbery shudders of monstrous flesh wrenching his sword back and forth—
–the Blessed Sword, aglow, white light piercing the blacks of his eyes–
–his mother’s tears, “Goodbye!”–
–the salt of the merman’s kiss–
Eventually, narrative emerged. He had been a hero. His name had been Lavender. Lavender the Swift and Sure. He had rescued a prominent mayor’s dimwitted daughter from a dragonewt, and had been summoned to Queens Hall and feted as a hero. The Snow Regent Herself had whispered thanks and praise into his ear. The next day, while he slept late, still pleasantly drunk in his slumber, word had come: the son of a governor of some farflung province had been killed by one of the Shadowscraw’s fearful servants. That night, the Queen’s Council had unveiled a convenient prophecy which declared Lavender chosen defender of the realm and rightful bearer of the Blessed Sword, a relic which had been gathering dust in a crypt for nearly four hundred years. Armed with this fearsome weapon, he had outwitted and killed hundreds upon hundreds of the minions of the Shadowscraw. He had proven victorious, at least through the first leg of his quest; he made his way to the cavern at the heart of the world, where the voice of the light which surrounded him there had said,
“Now that you have beheld the Crown of Awe, the world is yours to command. You can kill one of the Gods in this cavern and take their place for your own. Or you can don the Armor of the Sun and claim the chance to finally purge the world of the Shadowscraw’s deadly infection. Know this: if you do not so, the Shadowscraw will eat away at the world until only a rind remains. But if you fight them, only your deathblood will cleanse all their blight from this world.”
Lavender stood, filthy and exhausted, the swells of light nearly overpowering his ability to think, to receive and form words. Nonetheless, the last words echoed in his mind. This world. “This world?” he said. “There are others?”
“Oh, yes. Many worlds, like drops of drew caught in a spider’s web, like bubbles in a glass of brew wine, like links of silver in a long necklace.”
“If this world is mine to command, can I order it to leave me alone? Can I escape to another?” Motes of color, like tiny crystalline fish, rushed and twinkled through the light, echoed by rippling tinkles, like the ringing of a bell shattered across time. Was the Crown of Awe laughing?
“You are thoughtful for a warrior, Lavender Swift and Sure. You can indeed journey to another world. But you can never leave this one behind; it is bound to you, and you to it, by birth and prophecy and blood.”
Blood. He was so tired of blood, of killing, of the weight and heft of the Blessed Sword in his right hand, of the terrible burden of so many hopes invested in him, in the strength of his arms, the endurance of his heart, the swiftness and surety of his killing blows. The worst had been the little girl, her eyes blackened from the kiss of the Shadowscraw. If he did not kill her, she would screech with her tumor-tongue and call down the gnats on her town, dooming half of it to death or worse. There was no choice. But when he sliced through her tiny frame, something died or broke in him too. And the faces of her parents, afterward–he could never scrub his memory clean of them, no matter how hard he tried.
“I do not want to fight anymore,” he said. “I want to go away, go somewhere else where no one will expect me to be a hero.” A killer.
“Very well,” the light replied, and flashed white before ebbing away. When Lavender’s eyes cleared, he found that he was no longer in the cavern at the heart of the world, but in the grassy field just outside the vast honeycomb of tunnels. He stood under the night sky and laughed. “I’m free!”
And then the stars spoke to him, in the voice of the Crown of Awe, “Perhaps. But though you can leave–” with each word, a star winked out of existence “–this world must shrink to accompany you.” And then all the stars streaked down and disappeared, and then the sky itself began to shrink and fall, sweeping up mountains and islands and rivers in its night blue folds, shrinking and falling, gathering and concealing all the history of the world, all the times and travels of Lavender the Swift and Sure, the memories curling up into the places of their occurrence like roots retreating, the places themselves shrinking, the whole world falling, wrapped around by sky, until it hung from his shoulders as a long, dark, heavy coat.
He stood in the streetworms of a strange new place, a city full of shining reptilian towers. Before him, amid the clatter of the varied crowd, perched a bird with a single eye and a long lizard’s tail.
“Excuse me,” he said to the bird. “I seem to have forgotten my name. Well, everything. Would you be so kind as to tell me who I am?”
“Bumblethorn,” the bird squawked. “Bumble-thorn!” In a flurry of green and blue feathers, the bird took off.
Mister Bumblethorn took his first tentative steps in Fleet City.
Mister Bumblethorn could hardly stand to have the florist see the interior of his coat. His clothes, revealed to daylight for the first time in years, were a ragged leather breastplate and coarse wool leggings.
He looked up at the florist, at its strange, blue, bird eyes, which gave away nothing. “Please!” Mister Bumblethorn cried. “Just take something. Take this forest!” Mister Bumblethorn gestured towards the interior of his coat without looking at it. “Take these hills!” He swallowed, and his throat was so dry it felt as if one side of it was scraping against the other, rough and caved in. “Take a whole city! I don’t care, just take something and give me some blasted water.”
The florist cocked its head this way and that, and rippled the edges of its stationary wings. “But Mister Bumblethorn, it looks as if you already have some water.” The florist pointed with its beak, at the rivers running through the world inside Mister Bumblethorn’s coat.
Mister Bumblethorn felt dizzy and faint. A sudden fear stabbed through him, like a fuzzy knife. What if he collapsed, here, in front of the inscrutable florist?
“Here,” the florist said, passing him a tall cup.
Mister Bumblethorn closed his eyes and moved the cup towards the river. As his hand neared the surface of his coat, it began to tingle and felt heavier and heavier. As if the weight of an entire world were pulling down on it. As if he were falling through the sky, plummeting downwards. Vertigo spiraled behind his eyes. Then, the lips of the cup touched the rushing water of the river and his fingers slid through the wetness, and he pulled up. His arm swung back fast, propelled by momentum, and he opened his eyes with a jolt.
The shimmering scales of the tower-kren were like slippery rainbows to his eyes, which would not stop sliding down the living buildings, along the yellow lines of the streetworms, back up another tower-kren, jumping from taloned tip to taloned tip and down again. Mister Bumblethorn tore his gaze away. The still pool of water in his cup was calm, a respite. It was easy to ignore the few flecks of fish swimming through the precious liquid, it was a relief. He tipped back the cup, careful even in his state of extremity to limit his intake of water. He poured the rest into his waterpurse.
When he had finished he closed his coat with a shudder, then buttoned each button. “Are you sure,” he said, not looking at the florist, “that there’s nothing in my coat that you want to buy?”
“I deal exclusively in liquids and flowers,” the florist said.
Mister Bumblethorn wanted to shout out, “Take it! Take the whole damn thing from me! For free,” but he did not.
Now that he had water in his purse, merchants flocked to him, as if they could smell it. He needed to find some redleaf, and fast. His hands shook like branches in a furious storm, and the only safe path through his thoughts was like a sliver of a ledge around the bottomless pit which had been revealed when he opened his coat. He would not trip, would not tumble, would not allow his eyes to wander from the security of this inner wall. He recited recipes and relived the experiences of his favorite Fleet City foods–the tender, subdued sweetness of solemncakes, which only ghosts could properly make; the heady, thick brew offered for free by the insectile priests of Wingcleft Avenue; the simple savory stuffed birds sold by the catkin.
Ah, here was someone selling redleaf joints–a creature with its face on top of its head and long green tentacles dangling from the edges of its scalp like willow branches, animate and ending in tiny hands.
After he inhaled the earthy red smoke, breathing it in like the scent of a lover he had not seen in far too long, he imagined himself floating above that bottomless pit, serene. He floated through the streetworms and, despite the jostling crowds, the many-shaped appendages and bodies which brushed against him, nothing could touch him. Nothing could reach him, in his mind. The rich scents and sounds and images of the city flowed over him like water, slippery and clean. Until one caught–a green-skinned, horned being stabbing a creature of its same kind, either with a sword or a sharp metallic arm. The second being writhed in apparent pleasure as bright yellow liquid oozed from the newly opened hole in its flesh, its movement growing increasingly frenzied as the first being bent down to lick up the goo with a tongue convoluted as a flower. Seeing this, Mister Bumblethorn could not help but think of the times when he himself had stabbed his sword into the flesh of misshapen beasts and, with this thought, he plunged downwards into the abyss, like a balloon sucked in by a tornado–
–the blood of the Lice Queen pumping out of her torn open leg, her lips still smiling obscenely, the crown of white symbiotes on her otherwise bald head dancing like drunken, dying children–
–the girl, oh god the girl, how she squeaked when he sliced through her, how her chest slid from off her torso–
–scrambling, scrambling to get away, someplace safe, anywhere–torso–safe torso–
–the arms of Leonine the Archer wrapped tight around him, the scent of cinnamon and sweat, the soft touch of his long golden hair a blessed relief, like a curtain–
–the veiled faces of the Palimpcine as they chanted and scrubbed the tiles that were all that remained of their temple, as if it mattered now to restore the cleanliness of white stones, to wash away the muck–
–blood, always blood–
–blood circling down the drain in the bathtub, in the ivory bathtub of the Lord of Abadore, his first true cleanse after months and months of fighting, so that the color of his own skin came as a surprise to him, a revelation–
“Bumblethorn. Bumble-thorn!” He had not seen the bird since his first day in Fleet City. He did not know, now, if the bird was speaking to him or if “Bumblethorn” were simply its call. Before he could struggle through his dizziness to ask, another voice spoke to him.
desires to trade
sweet roast rhomba?”
The speaker peered at him with a chimpanzee’s face over a wispy body of smoke and leaves, the suggestion of a robe.
“Y-yes,” Mister Bumblethorn sputtered. “I do desire to trade.”
The roast rhomba filled his mouth with its sinewy texture and taste of smoke and pears, rooting him to the present, the pleasant pressure of food passing down his throat. He walked as he ate, buying more food each time he ran out so that he made his way back to his apartment on a wave of chewing and swallowing.
Mister Bumblethorn could not sleep that night. No matter how much redleaf he smoked, when he lay down and closed his eyes, the shapes of his past, of the world before, bobbed up and threatened to play out their scenes, which were old and new at once but most of all threatening. He tossed and he turned, imagining that he could feel the mountains and towers and trees poking into his back, the gruesome popping of peasants and lords crushed beneath him, chickens and donkeys and dragonewts, and, worst of all, the gnawing of the Shadowscraw on the bare skin of his wrists. Mister Bumblethorn shuddered and opened his eyes. He could not bear the interior of his own mind. He got up out of bed, shook his beetle-lamp awake, and set about finding a distraction. He had only one book to his name, a curious story told in pictures and words, the pages divided into boxes. In the story, there was a man with a mask and antlers who kept dying and rising again, whose flesh, if consumed, could cure almost any illness, who could use mirrors as gateways between worlds. This man was being pursued by a cabal of mechanical creations who threw razor-edged gears and who could combine and reconfigure their forms, trading body parts like articles of clothing. They chased him across worlds many and strange, despite the masked man’s continued pleas to simply be left alone. Finally, the masked man found his way to the great clock which stood at the center of all worlds like the hub of a wheel, and confronted the creator of his mechanical foes. The man or god was so old that his beard flowed throughout the clock, catching in the gears, causing time itself to glitch and stutter like a nervous child, and so lonely that he cried and cried at the sight of the masked man. The masked man gently trimmed the old man’s beard and watered the old man’s many houseplants, and they sat and drank tea together. In gratitude, the old man dismantled his mechanical creations and the masked man was finally allowed to die in peace.
Mister Bumblethorn read the book three times in a row and was halfway through his fourth read when the periwinkle light of dawn fell on the pages. He looked up. Normally, he slept through the mornings. He did not want to watch Fleet City’s migration but he stood up, as if hypnotized, and walked to the window. The room lurched to one side and Mister Bumblethorn had to grab hold of the windowframe to keep his balance. The shade flew open, an alarmed eye. Mister Bumblethorn looked out.
All across the skyline, tower-kren were rocking back and forth, uprooting themselves from the dirt, exposing boney appendages curved like fangs or claws. Soon, Mister Bumblethorn knew, the tower-kren would race across the land like obscenely tall crabs, leaving behind a pink, blowing desert and running towards places as yet unspoiled, towards the silhouette of a forest and the hint of a river that Mister Bumblethorn could just make out at the horizon. Soon, but not yet. The lamp-kren too were pulling themselves out of the pink sand, scuttling towards the waiting motor-kren and fitting their sockets together smoothly. A few inhabitants not safely holed up in their rooms within the tower-kren raced to get home in time. The mound-turtles yawned and stretched their jeweled legs and began to trudge forward. Finally, the streetworms puffed up and pulled away, rolling and squiggling across the suddenly naked sand like great black caterpillars. It was then that Mister Bumblethorn realized how much the streetworms resembled the Shadowscraw, those malignant maggots–no, he would not go back there. He scrunched his eyes closed. He curled up in his bathtub, his coat wrapped around him like blanket. He felt like a parasite: tiny, trapped within a great lumbering beast that moved with terrifying speed and carried him along. He may have chosen to come here, to Fleet City, but now that he was here, the City itself would choose where he went, and when, and how fast they would go.