The bus ran to city center, but I got off at Southwark, right beyond where the old city walls used to stand. I wanted to walk in, feel the cobbles and concrete beneath my feet, the hum of the underground filtering up through the ground.
I'd spent time in the Southwark Projects, growing up. Locals called it Trogtown. The developers had drained the Dark Swamp, and set up red-brick tenements on the new-cleared land, but none of the lizardmen had really moved on. Street-level was all shops and markets, scalesmiths and bins of mealyworms and baby eels, black bricks of dried swamp tea. There were restaurants there where you'd never hear a word of Mannish, and people still counted in eights, and broodmothers warned their hatchlings not to cross the the Four-Fingered Hand. I kept to the main drag, where the sidewalks were broad enough for a couple trogs to walk abreast, and the traffic light enough I didn't have to fear getting squished.
Past the wooden gate into Feyville, I took a glance down an alley and saw a halfbreed in fishnets getting spitroasted. The more adventurous working girls like to work the boundaries; they charge kink prices and there's always a punter willing to fork it over for a little cross-species strange. Feyville was even more familiar than Southwark, the old Elves' Quarter where the bulldozed the Enchanted Forest, acid rain-stained marble buildings standing in the shadow of pitted modern concrete monsters. The roots of the old tree spirits ran deep, still springing up in the crack of every sidewalk, tunneling beneath the streets, strands of alfweed covering entire buildings. You couldn't run a car down any of the sidestreets, and the main roads only kept clean enough for the bus to run because the council sends a 10-man team down to keep it clear every month. With flamethrowers.
I took a turn off at the Blessed Isle, a roundabout that's claimed more lives from gang violence than automobile crashes, let the sounds and smells of the city start to sink in as I counted the blocks. Opium and fresh tar, sandalwood and cinnamon drifted down from kitchens and up from dens, different dialects coming down to me, more emotion than words: a mother berating a child, a noisy couple making love, two junkies in an alley, fighting over a screaming cat as the crude altar they'd erected started to heat up. A lot of Feyville had factories, back before the human mages broke the Ban on elfwork, now broken up into apartments. I took a moment to admire two female elves snogging in the shadow of a doorway. Darkweaver tribe, by their coloring. They'd have been clapped in cold iron and sold as the lowest-class slaves for that back in the Elflands.
I came at last to an almost human street - what used to be the entrance to the human district, back before the humans moved out. Schtroumpfs squatted in most of the buildings, mostly the French-speaking ones, "the blue pest." There were more stories about them than I knew, and I never could tell if any of them were true except for how the kids would hunt them down - the females as cheap pornography, the little blue goddesses a model of the humanoid figure with hourglass proportions; the males mostly to smash their bodies between two bricks and see their heads pop off. I knew those were true because that's what we'd done as kids, when I'd run with the pack at eleven or twelve.
My feet and the smell of fresh sawdust brought me to a set of stairs leading down into the earth, marked by the image of a gold coin and a closed hand - the sign of the Bribe Refused.
As in earlier days, I went down the worn, creaking steps into the earth, treading finally on fine curls of soft young wood and spruce needles, letting my eyes adjust to the mix of glowing fungus and strands of blinking Christmas tree lights strung up to the rafters, hanging strands of flowers covering the smell of cheap ale and vomit. No ragged cheer ensued, but my stool was empty, and the barman only saw me, nodded and set out a glass and a bottle. I took my time walking up to it, and the regulars all met me by name as I came up.
The bottle was grimmalk, which is made and bottled in the city, water fed from the old elf-springs that feed into the reservoir, brewed in the Down Below where the dwarfs have kept the same wooden girders for the past 500 years, because the yeast grows on the hardwood and ferments the batch, and distilled over on Bluejohn Street, where the lines run right beneath the building, and aged in Harwood in the smuggler tunnels used during the last Great War of Men. It was the city in the glass, and the first taste was like fresh asphalt laid on a summer day, and beneath it something loamy and old that left the throat dry and gasping for another sip.
It was the city itself welcoming me home.