This cover was illustrated by the author.
After spending some time in Leviant, and spending a few intoxicated evenings with Badgaroom in her home for purposefully orphaned children, Threshold completed her mission to punish those children’s parents, and I decided to travel back into the city in the south.
I asked Threshold to join me.
With short travel time, Threshold and I remained quiet through most the train ride. What little we spoke was of passing places, and those words were initiated by her. Even from a distance, she could sense a place’s spirit.
She sat in the seat across from me. The train car was lined with red velvet which frayed at nearly every corner, and the wooden lining smelled of liquor stained lacquer.
The morning light cast over her bone white face. Her whiteless red eyes, which I expected to be pink in the light, only saturated into a deeper red. Each keyhole tattoo along her neck and skull seemed to devour light. Her weighty presence rubbed off on the waiters, who kept a distance.
“Six have died here,” she pointed to an incoming bar on the side of the train tracks. A few hours later, “There was a cult burning churches in this place,” she said. When I asked why there were no buildings through which the train passed, she simply said, “It was a long time ago. The soil covers the corpses, now.”
Peridot whispered to me, “She won’t enjoy this.”
Threshold did not hear her. The perks of being a god? You choose how to interact with the universe. Peridot enacted those perks often.
I didn’t answer, not wanting to cause suspicion of Peridot’s presence to Threshold. Peridot said again, “I know what you’re trying to do. But she is beyond your years, Opaline. Her soul is infected with Agglomeration more than most. Her composure is only a result of her focus being clinical and not maddening.”
I ignored her again. She flicked my ear. My ear twitched and swatted her away. I giggled as she growled. Threshold didn’t notice. Peridot then left, likely disgruntled, probably off to find another Agglomerate to check up on.
When we arrived in the city, we wasted no time. We walked down several streets flanked by pillars. Each building had its own distinct level of luxury. Half were white marble banks, a quarter insurance companies, and another quarter import and exporters. There were restaurants but more taverns and inns. This world hadn’t separated restaurants and hotels as separate businesses fully. I found that charming. The stench of automobile exhaust was not charming.
“These places fascinate me,” Threshold said.
My claws gently clicked along the sidewalk, where animal-people strode passing, and even a few humans here and there. Threshold’s feet made no noise. Many looked to her as if she were a demon, a devil, or a desperate prostitute. If only they’d be able to see that she didn’t wear makeup or facade, but that her physical form had been altered by her own soul’s unfathomable cosmic power.
I was also looked at quite funny. I suppose it was the clothing.
“I’m fascinated by rising tides,” she said. “A civilization like this, built on little magic or divinity but instead technological progress, requires labor forces and industries so enormous that most companies have work forces larger than primitive cities.” She scanned the streets. I sensed her magic winding its way through the crevices of every brick, and alleyway, and window frame, like an electric pulse sent from her very being. “Magic and religion and true divinity always breed evil. As does technology. What intrigues me is the slight difference,” she folded her hands like a wizened headmistress, “in that with divinity, and magic, and Gods-given power, there is a tangible incentive for people’s villainy. They are promised glory, and an afterlife, and hope. Technological and evolutionary means of advancement promise only personal gain in a single, finite life. . . and people spend that finite existence clawing for meaning. Clawing for something. Society grows beyond the collective and in doing so, individuals hold the power to change their tribes.”
Threshold stared long across the street, “This region’s magic is based in a cosmic religion. That religion, quite uncharacteristically, has little to do with life after death, and instead most to do with living life in the moment. Rare. That is exceedingly rare. Primitive, truthfully.”
“Do they have gods?”
“Yes. Where else would these powers come from? Badgaroom and the secondary realms?”
“Then why speak of distinguishing the worlds if, ultimately, it’s all the same?” I stopped at a street stand for what appeared to be seasoned nuts in a cone of crispy meat. I handed the gopher-woman running the pastel yellow stand some coins I found on the train. Threshold did not want one. She did not seem to eat.
I voraciously chomped into the meat cone. A lengthy, savory bite. Good. Salty. Unhealthy. But good. I chewed through my words as we marched down the hill to our destination, “This world does have its gods, then, and its religion. Even if technology sprouted first then is there ever really a world without ‘magic,’ without Creation?” I shrugged, “Every last Sphere containing a universe or world is forged by Dragons. Everything is magical, because Dragons breathe Creation, and the souls made of that Creation sometimes can wield it, too. So everything is the same.”
Terrifyingly tasty. That is how I’d describe the meat cone.
Flagrantly foul. That is how I’d describe the nuts inside the meat cone.
Munching on the meat gave my whiskers a preliminary taste of the seasoning, which reminded me of fungi spores. The nuts were buttery. Oil poured out of them between my teeth. I offered them to Threshold. She declined, deep in thought.
I sprinkled the nuts for the corvid cronies on the street and devoured the unhealthy, if not filling, meat cone. I plotted purchasing a second one on the way back. That time without any nuts.
Threshold pondered my words for a time, “Yes. But still, I do see a difference. My mind is cloudy today. These streets remind me of others like them. And I tell you, the places where technology has surpassed magic are the places where I hear the most vile of whispers. A single lightbulb dangling over a darkened pile of corpses mutilated with knives sharpened for healing, not for murder. A train colliding with a bus full of children—all of whom survive except their beloved class clown. A steam-powered ship drowns from a sea creature’s assault. Each member has enough time to pray, and hope, and stare at pictures of their beloved before they begin eating one another to survive—but none do. These spaces are different than gods smiting mortals, or animals slaying prey, or cults worshipping a devil who gives them strength. There is a cruelty brought on by technological complacency. . . a restless malevolence. Gods gift divine might, and the result are thankful, if not zealous, mortals. But evolutionary power is earned by the manufacturing of society by society itself. The product is ego.”
We came to the building. A mundane brick exterior flanked by white painted corners. Those white corners were bricked, simply painted. The unassuming building had an old wooden sign branded with homemade means, which read, Marbolee’s Jamboree—The Attic.
“This is your exciting experience?” She said. Then her eyes opened, “What is there to love in there, that so many standing here have anticipated?” She could feel it. Exactly what I thought.
The owner’s name was Marbolee, and she called the building Marbolee’s Jamboree. She was an old blind toad woman, and had been blind her entire life. I’d learned of Marbolee’s existence from a young man who I’d asked directions for in the street, who said, “If you’re in town long enough, you have to see Marbolee’s Jamboree up in the Attic.”
When Marbolee was twenty four years old, she inherited her grandfather’s old newspaper building. Left with all of the equipment, all of his riches, and loads of time, Marbolee decided that twenty four years of doing nothing was enough. She’d spent all her life being told that her blindness made it impossible for her to live, and being coddled by her grandfather and his servants.
Marbolee lived in the kitchens. Every minute of everyday as a young girl, she’d follow the scent of fresh cooked pastries, charred meat for breakfast, and fresh pressed jam. The house’s ornate wall murals, expensive wood finery, and chandeliers meant nothing to Marbolee. Only the music of whomever fiddled the piano, and the sweet, succulent scent of pastry.
She couldn’t see the colors everyone else could. But her world was far from the blackness everyone assumed. She heard music from the parlor, and smelled cakes each night so vibrant that her mind exploded with chromatic static.
When Marbolee was grown, and grandfather dead, the servants on her payroll, she paid them twice their wages and asked her team to, “Find whatever paint you can of any hue of blue or foreign orange. Any and all you can scavenge!” The cooks found themselves stomping about the city in search of paint. And though their skills would be of importance, for now they were happy to be paid far more, and cared for beyond Marbolee’s grandfather’s grumpy possibilities, and be given unconventional tasks full of flavorful fun.
They brought the paint and the brushes, mostly from all the new buildings or automobile painters around town. They’d grab leftover cans on the sidewalk or from friends’ apartment painting parties.
For a couple of years, Marbolee locked herself away in that building with all of her paint and her brushes. And she painted.
She painted every corner a new color. Every wall a fresh hue. Every floorboard and post a blissful beautiful chromatic mosaic. Marbolee couldn’t see the color. She had no idea what she painted where, or how it looked, or why she even painted one area with one can versus another.
She used the rusty, dented can for the ceiling. She used the heavier, full can for the wall. She used the tubed paints for splatter over the floor (and, unintentionally, half the printing tables).
But Marbolee had the riches, and the space galore.
Soon the cooks and bakers from her grandfather’s home transitioned to baking at her new building. And they used the old printing presses for the paper goods, take out boxes, and cheap paper mats for dine-ins. The room bathed in prismatic glory as lights bounded off the geometric walls as if trapped within a crystal. The dress of the room felt vintage—even classical—in the newsprint-wrapped goods. A wild juxtaposition so jarring that the pair of aesthetics created a home.
Marbolee could finally show the world what she’d always been able to see. Explosions of color. Illimitable life.
Marbolee told me this the last time I visited. She ran from beginning to end. I’d come late, right before closing, and remained the only customer in the shop until several hours after closing.
Marbolee told me everything.
Threshold wouldn’t need to be told a word.
The moment she stepped in that doorframe, she knew every detail, every brushstroke, and what all of it meant. We moved through the parlor and up the steps into the “Attic,” as the bakery was called.
Dozens of people sat around at the old news press tables, eating scones and donuts and other odd pastries. The thick, hot scent of a running oven stained the air, and my fur, and I hoped the smell would never leave.
I eyed Threshold. Her lip tilted the tiniest bit.
“This is lovely,” she said, not half as in awe as I expected. The compliment was an observation.
A couch in the far corner, burning under a primitive light, called and we sat down. A frog boy came hopping over and took our orders—though he remembered me from before, and brought free cookies on the house.
Marbolee was too busy to bother. She was taking orders and yelling across the room like she were half her age of eighty.
“I thought you’d have a different reaction,” I told Threshold, sinking into the comfortable, if not worn, sofa.
She eyed me in question.
I explained that I’d hoped to show her that sometimes a place isn’t evil, and that not every bit of every world carried the melancholy she so often saw. Everywhere she walked she felt the pain of any who’d walked there before. I wanted to show her something different.
“I can feel this joy, you know?” She said. Her red eyes softened. “I am not incapable. It is a decision. A choice.” She gestured to the patronage of the Attic. “There are plenty of lives consisting of simple pleasures. All experience tragedy. But some more than others. This is comfort. Beautiful? Yes. Compassionate? Yes. I once enjoyed such things. But it is difficult to justify feeling the joy, when elation is a state only possible by safety, hope, or courage.”
“Some of the happiest people I have ever met were about to ride into war,” I said. “They laughed, and smiled, and joked.”
“Yeah. . . I suppose so.”
“I cannot feel hope, or safety, or courage. I must follow the trails of tribulation, and walk the paths of bereavement. These people live in a great moment. They do not need my help. A child chained to a furnace, or a man flayed by his wife, or an uncle beheading his nephew for the throne—all three occur in the dark, deep into the night, while no one watches. All three escape. The rooms carry their memories. . . and I,” she smiled, “I catch them just when they become like these people. Comfortable. Safe. Happy.
“This place. . . it’s all static to me. It is inviting, and wonderful, but jumbled in on itself. It’s all too bright for someone so used to the dark.”
She ran her fingers through the fur on my head. There I felt her age, and wisdom, and millennia of life over mine. Like a teacher soothing a young student, or a mother setting her boy to bed.
“Thank you,” she said, “you are a good friend. This was a kind thought, and a kinder consideration.” Her lips curled upwards, “What do people do in these places. . . sit and talk? There is no agency in this place.” Then she took a bite of her scone, and I genuinely could not believe it.
“Well,” I took out my folded patchwork quilt, and all of the pieces for the game fumbled onto the coffee table. “We can play a game.” I set up the pieces on both side, explained the rules, and we sat all afternoon eating pastries and playing patchwork.
Threshold, dissatisfied with the luck of her pieces, borrowed several colorful, whimsically shaped saltshakers from a nearby table and used then to replace her pawns. She then defeated me six times in a row.
When we left the Attic, I said a hello and permanent farewell to Marbolee, and Threshold, in the street, held up a salt shaker to the sunlight.
“You took it?” I said.
She flipped me the shaker. I snatched it quicker than I expected—my own reflexes surprised me. She said, “Whenever we play, I must use my champion piece, yes?”