City of Flowers
Iris fights the urge to scratch the area where her shoulder meets Blumen, lest she reveal herself to her new travelling companions; a brown haired girl with goggles dangling around her neck, and a white haired person hiding under layers and layers of cloth. Iris has already forgotten both of their names, but it does not matter when she rarely speaks to them anyway. The person is too busy tugging at rusted levers and pressing pedals, and the girl is far too engrossed with her keyboards and screens to speak. On the rare occasion that Iris does walk past the girl, she catches a line of overtly flowery prose, seeped in adjectives and glazed with semicolons.
The Blumen twitches under Iris' mantle. Her lifeforce is not enough to sustain him—yes, her Blumen friend confirms, he is a he—and already he yearns for sweet sunlight. She does not blame him, because everytime she closes her own eyes she sees limp bodies dance at the corners of her vision, hears the sound of bone and flesh tearing apart like paper.
She was a liability, the Blumen explains. Now that he has been grafted onto her arm, he is able to speak with Iris as he pleases—and he pleases very, very often. I couldn't let them take you.
"It'd be better if they did," Iris mutters under her breath.
You don't know what they'll do to you. You've no clue.
She clenches her fist, then her jaw, then releases them both at the same time. She has already been over this song and dance with the Blumen, has already expelled most of her anger and fear. And now she sits in the corner of a rickety Tongue-Wagon on its way to the wall, and she is not sure if it'll even hold until then. She’s not even sure if she’ll still be there by then, or she’s planning to live out the rest of her fugitive life hopping from Wagon to Wagon instead of directly leaving New England.
Everything that has gone wrong, has gone incredibly, incredibly wrong.
She thinks about her mother, how she'll come home from work to an empty house with all the lights switched off. She'd wanted to see her; the Blumen had advised otherwise, had talked her down from mania and set her heading towards the tunnels. She does not know why or how the Blumen knows the exact layout of the underground city, but he knows which paths to take and which alleys end in brick walls.
Slouched against the confines of the Wagon, Iris struggles to hold back a sob.
Conveniently, the Blumen says nothing. And the Tongues are too busy working on their art.
Wake up, or it’ll be the death of us both.
Stirring, heavy breathing—a heart punching at the confines of her ribcage. Her eyelashes are heavy with dried tears, but Iris forces them open anyway. The Wagon rattles, then stops. The driver curses.
"Koal?" asks the girl, looking up from her keyboard. "Why'd we stop?"
The driver—Koal, Iris assumes—yanks down on a lever above their head. A box lights up, then extends that light towards a flat, white screen. It takes a while for Iris' eyes to adjust to the sudden influx of light, but when she does she sees an image on that very same board.
An image of several black-hooded enforcer dogs, with bulky gunbatons strapped to their backs and silver armor peeking from underneath their cloaks.
"Is the projector just hung up on our last tussle with these guys?" The girl hunches back over her keyboard and begins to type again. "I thought Fern said this way was clear."
Fern. Blood pounds through Iris’ veins from her Blumen arm, blood that is not wholly hers.
"You say tussle, but I remember punching the Wagon into third gear and hightailing it out of there. Hardly a tussle, Petri." Koal peers into a glassy keyhole above their steering wheel, then turns back to Iris. "They're there, alright. You know anything about this, uplander?"
The girl at the computer—Petri—stifles a snort. "They don't tell uplanders anything about Fontanelle. She probably knows less than us."
You can't let them see you, the Blumen says, bristling under her mantle. They know your face. They know who you are.
When Iris realises that she hasn't responded to either of the Tongue-Settlers for a while now, she splutters and casts her eyes frantically between the projection, her two travelling companions, then the projection again.
Something flashes in Koal's visible eye. "Right. Alright." They kick away the patterned rug at the centre of the Wagon, revealing a metal hatch. Another kick, and the hatch opens up and outwards, revealing a sealed compartment filled with wooden crates.
They shove Iris towards the hatch. "In, in."
A strange revulsion settles in the pit of Iris' stomach, but before she can voice her concern, the hatch clicks shut. She is alone in the darkness.
Then, the sound of iron against iron, scraping and clicking. An angry demand from an enforcer; the hatch is too tightly sealed for Iris' to separate words from noise.
"I fucked up," Iris chokes out, her eyes wet. "Can you hear me? They're going to die, and it's going to be my fault."
She expects an angry retort, but for once the Blumen is silent. It's just her in the darkness, a lowly drop of water in an ocean of black.
"What should I do?" she asks, her voice hardly above a whisper. Her hand grazes over her phone, but without vision she cannot feel anybody's thoughts.
They are going to take me, Iris thinks, but she doesnt know for certain if it's her thoughts or the Blumen's.
I'm done for.
They are going to take me.
They are going to take me to room eight-four-six-C to torture me to take me back and they will rip apart my skull to put it back together again—
She blinks, tries to shake her head to clear it, but suddenly she is strapped to a cold surface by the forehead, and the least she can do is move her eyes. The room is no longer dark, but a stark white—bright enough to blind the blind. Clean, sharp tools rest on a bench next to her shoulder. A gloved hand is holding a pair of scissors; it tests the blades, open, shut. Open, shut.
She strains to see who the hands belong to, but the body and face are blurred, twisted; it's as if she is staring into a rippling pool.
"Everyone knows why the Republic of America failed," a voice speaks, echoey and hollow. Tired. "They issued too-obvious curfews, outright outlawed the freedom of speech. That's why everyone rebelled. But we're going to do better. We start with small things; take away the words like perambulate and paean, tell them to use walk and song. Automate everything, control the way they express themselves. We chip away at the block. We carve the people like statues…"
"—and there's no space for soldiers like you in our new world. I'm sorry, gentlemen, but you've been relieved of your—"
"We can't kill them."
"They won't die."
Memories flash by in fragments, memories that are not entirely her own. They are dizzyingly blinding, and the moment Iris thinks she has a grasp on one, it slips by, fading into another.
Suddenly, the hatch opens again. Light spills in, and Iris clamours out, desperately gasping for air. A hand closes around her own, and she slaps it away, afraid of the touch, afraid of the sensation of skin on skin.
She is not sure of what has just happened.
“Woah. Woah.” Petri raises both of her hands. “They’re gone, okay? We talked them away. You can trust us, alright? Koal, tell her she can trust us. We’re settlers, we’re not gonna rat her out to the dogs.”
Koal remains silent, their eyes wide. Iris follows their line of sight and winces. She pulls her cloak over the Blumen, but the damage has already been done.
Petri stumbles back. "Holy shit… is that—your arm—!"
"Listen, Iris," Koal begins, tugging down their turtleneck to reveal their visage. "We're Tongues. We're probably the most open-minded people left on the continent. We can—and will—help you get to where you need to go. But you need to tell us what we're getting into, because we need to be prepared. You need to trust us, Iris."
Iris stares at the two, then dips her chin.
She tells her story in excruciating detail. She begins from her first encounter with the daemon, to her fateful meeting with the Blumen, and finally of the visions she saw. Of the war torn landscape, of bleeding fungi and metal scrap yards. She does not spare the details of her attempted capture either. Midway through her story, Koal gets up and uses a small metal box to light what appears to be a stove and nods back, to indicate that they are still listening.
By the time Iris has finished recounting, the Wagon has arrived in a small cul-de-sac by an abandoned shopping district. The sun has dipped below the horizon, and other Wagons camp nearby. Golden light spills from their tinted windows. Some Tongue-Settlers wander about the ruins with flashlights in hand, picking the rubble for unsold knickknacks. One of them holds a shard of patterned ceramic to the sky like he is appraising a rare jewel. The act is odd, but Iris finds comfort in the Tongue's fascination with the Age of Metal.
Lilja had been right. Maybe she did belong with the Tongues.
At first, neither Koal nor Petri respond to her story. The former is stirring spices into minced beef; the latter is still watching with her arms between her thighs.
Then Petri asks, "So your arm can talk?"
Iris nods, and the girl's eyes begin to shine.
"Is it saying anything right now? Does it say things about us? Does it know where it came from, and—oh, oh! How old is it?"
Koal drops a pot of mince onto the ground in front of them, along with several plates of sliced bread. "I assume the answers to those last two questions are "I don't know," considering just how loaded they are."
Iris watches the two Settlers slather the mince onto the bread before she helps herself to dinner. The bread is stale, hard—the mince tastes faintly of tin.
"It—he rarely talks about you two," Iris mumbles between bites. "Most of the time he's just…silent. Sometimes, I think his thoughts trickle into mine. I don't think he means to do it on purpose."
The rest of the dinner is silent, broken only by the occasional sound of a ladle scraping against the pot. Iris offers to help Koal wash the dishes. The water that flows out of the tap is cool and mellow; she fights the urge to splash it onto her face.
Instead she says, "Thank you."
"No worries, friend. The enemy of my enemy is my friend—in this case, we've both got a bone to pick with the dogs." Koal shoots her a quick smile.
Another bout of silence. Iris struggles to find another topic to fill the void. "To tell you the truth, I… don't know where I'm supposed to go now."
A laugh. "Don't we all?"
"No, it's different," she snaps, then immediately regrets it. "I—I mean, it's just that I'm being hunted by all of these strangers, and I can't even go back home to see my mum and for all I know, she thinks I'm dead."
Koal rubs at a plate. Their eyes dart briefly towards Petri, then back again. "Some Tongues don't exactly come from sugar and spice either. I meant it."
"It's fine, it's not like uplander media paints us like that. It's a good thing they see us as useless art-obsessed hippies. For me, it makes the part about being a fugitive stand out less."
She remembers the man who had held the shard of ceramic up to the light. "Are all Tongues fugitives?"
"No. Petri… she's got a genuine eye for the arts. She came from academia, actually. Before the board ripped every art course from the curriculum."
"That was five years ago. Petri doesn't…"
"Look like she's any older than twenty? You're right. She isn’t." Koal's hands freeze, and their eyes grow misty. "She skipped almost all of elementary schooling and some of high school. She was that good, that passionate at the arts, be it history, social studies, anything that had anything to do with writing essays." They glance back at Petri, now click-clacking away at her keyboard again. "Guess New England had other plans for her."
"She didn't fit in anymore," Iris finishes.
Koal glances over to her.
She regrets her outburst. "Uh, I mean—"
They turn back and slot a plate into the rack. "And you're right. We don't fit in. Now, we're Tongues.”
The sun fully sinks below the horizon, and the ruins are painted a deep blue. Iris asks, “And what about you?”
“You implied you were a fugitive. What’s your story?”
A grin plays at the corner of their lips. “Let’s just say I messed with the wrong people, at the wrong time. I shouldn't've even made it out of that mess alive.” They slot in the last plate, and the dishes are done. “But Fern saved me. Now I owe her.”
Her arm pounds again. Fern, says the Blumen, his voice raspy as if strained by stress. This Fern—the name, I remember it. Fern. Where?
“Fern?” pushes Iris.
“The Queen of Queries.” Koal tosses something towards Iris; her Blumen arm moves of its own accord and catches it for her. “The Master of Tongues. Our patron deity, I suppose, if you could call her that.”
Iris examines the object—a faceted brass medallion with a heart inscribed into its surface. “She’s not real? Er—sorry, not physically—”
“She’s real. We pray to her anyway. She does things that simply aren’t possible, and nobody knows how. But they happen.”
We have to see her. The Blumen’s vines tighten around the medallion. I don’t know why, but this Fern… I think she knows a lot more about me than she should. Where I come from, why all I remember is a war nobody knows happened.
Silence. Iris doesn't respond at first.
I know you're scared. You'd rather lie low, I get that. But I can protect you from any harm that comes our way.
This Fern, she can help us. I know it—she can help you. Do you want to be attached to me forever?
Finally, Iris fixes Koal with a sturdy look.
“Can you tell us where this Fern is?”