Tian followed the agent’s scent out of Madchester and up into Manchester, across the park and to a pub. He pushed open the door – not seeing the agent that had invaded the court, just a local and a recruit holding a conversation with a dartboard whilst munching on chips.
‘I don’t serve goblins in here!’ the barman called. ‘Go drink out of a feckin’ trough!’
He ignored the barman and turned to the local agent. ‘Where’d he go?’
‘Back to the colony, back home. He got what he needed, if you want something, you talk to me, Tate.’ Hearing the name made his heart skip another beat. The agent turned to the barman. ‘We’ll be taking the back room, and for gods’ sake bring me some chips. And another pint. Make it two.’ He looked across to his recruit. ‘You alright to stay out here, Milla?’ The girl nodded, then sat quietly at one of the tables. ‘So, do you want to talk or not, Tate?’
He shivered. ‘Are you going to kill me?’
‘So far as I know, I can’t kill with my voice. C’mon.’ The agent lifted his half-empty drink and walked through the pub to a tiny room, with an unlit candle. ‘So, what do you want?’
‘Who’re you?’
‘And who’s Tate?’
‘You are.’
‘My name’s-’
‘No it’s not.’ The agent took a drink. ‘It’s the name they gave you, but it’s not your name.’
‘I’m an agent?’
‘You used to be. Then, you broke all three rules in one fell swoop and became the wretched thing you are now.’
‘Why-? How-?’
‘You’re a Madchester jester, you work it out.’
Two more pints were deposited on the table. ‘Chips are coming,’ the barman said before walking away.
‘There was a story thief-’
‘Not just a story thief, Tate. Thieves can’t take our stories in the regular fashion – the events can be undone, but we still retain the memories. The thief took her memories, but you…I’d assume your Queen had something to do with it. Everything to do with it.’
‘Well, you weren’t that much of an arse to just betray us for no reason. You had your reasons. And some thought they were damn good ones.’
‘Does that include you?’
The agent shook his head. ‘No, mate, sorry. I’m one of those suckers who likes the rules. Love doesn’t make it ok for you-’
‘I can’t…I can’t remember anything. I know there’s something missing, but I can’t even get flashes.’
‘Nothing I can do to help. Nothing any of us can do. If we were anywhere else, I’ve have to bring you in, but you’re in Manchester, so you’re lucky.’
‘What would happen if you brought me in?’
‘Tired of serving the Court?’
‘Tired of being in the dark.’
Williams rested his elbows on the table and stared at his hands. ‘We’d interrogate you. You know exactly how, goblin or not, you can’t have forgotten about that.’
‘I can’t remember it, but I know about it.’
Williams curled his fingers in and rested his chin on balled fists. ‘Then we’d recycle you. If there’s enough agent left in you to recycle you, else we’d just gas you into nothingness.’
‘So if I come back, it’s a death sentence?’
‘You broke the rules, mate. All of them. There’s really nothing we can do.’
He scratched his sideburns. ‘I just wish I could remember something, to know if it was worth it, I mean-’
‘You were an agent, Tate.’
‘And that means?’
‘You never do anything without a damn good reason. Duty. It’s our curse.’ The chips were deposited on the table, along with a bottle of tomato sauce. A fifty-pound note appeared between Williams’ fingers and he handed it over, then seemingly as an afterthought, a further twenty. ‘For Milla’s tab,’ he said, ‘I assume she’s devastating your crisp supply.’ The barman nodded, pocketed the money, then left them in peace.
‘Your curse?’ he pushed, not wanting the agent to lose his train of thought.
Williams stared at his hands again. ‘Our curse, Tate. If you still know what we’re capable of, then a part of you is still an agent. That means you’re still bound to your duty.’
‘My only duty is to the Court, so much as it is. I’m at my Queen’s beck and call, nothing much is required of me.’
‘Then who does your loyalty lie with? Who would you lay your life on the line for? Who would you risk everything for?’
‘I’m a bloody goblin, there’s no-one, there’s-’
‘You’re not a damn goblin, it’s just the most degrading form she could gift to you. Now, who does your duty lie with?’
‘Ryan went in there to speak to Prest. How did you even know he was there?’
‘Think of me as her sponsor,’ he said as he snagged a chip. ‘Ungrateful bitch that she is.’
‘You took her to the Court?’ Williams asked, eyebrows raised. ‘I didn’t realise Madchester employed people with enough healing talents to cure a bullet to the chest.’
‘As a rule, we don’t. We’re not one of the violent courts, we don’t have bullets to deal with on a daily basis. We’re not the Agency, we like our people to live.’
‘Stop sprouting propaganda that you know is bullshit and tell me how Prest lived.’
‘Me. It was me.’
‘You called on the Ladies?’
‘Just the one. Life. She let me give Eeny a bit of myself. Now I feel like an even bigger part’s missing, and all I have to show for it is a loud-mouthed bitch. Probably should have left her to become a corpse.’
‘Then your duty is to her?’
He shook his head. ‘She’s just Eeny, of course it isn’t. She’s useful to the Court, and getting shot is a lousy way to die.’
‘You fractured your own life, think about that, Tate! There must have been a reason you did it.’
‘I wasn’t thinking! She was gonna die at my feet, it was the only thing I could do.’
‘Would you do it for Madhe? Don’t think, just answer!’
‘Would you do it for me?’
‘Why the fuck would I?’
‘Who else would you do it for?’
‘Then why’d you do it for her?!’
‘I just did!’
He shook his head and pushed himself back from the table, taking a step toward the door. Williams shifted in front of him and pressed a hand to his head.
‘This is neutral ground!’
‘Don’t tempt me, Tate,’ Williams said, his voice low and serious. ‘Just sit back down and listen to me.’
‘You wouldn’t fucking dare, Agent. You wouldn’t fucking dare.’
A photo appeared in Williams’ hand. ‘This is Eda Yates. This is who Agent Tate swore his duty to. This is who made him give up the Agency. She’s the reason you’re a goblin.’
The hair was different. The clothes were different. The expression on her face was different, none of her spite was evident. But…all the same, it was her. ‘Eeny?’
‘Eda Yates. Enid Prest. No matter how far removed you are, it seems your duty is still to her.’
He pushed Williams away and sank back down into his chair, clutching the photo. ‘I need- I… Eeny? I…’
‘Steady on. Take a minute to let it sink in.’
‘This is mad.’
‘Says the bloke employed by the Wonderland crew.’
‘Believe it or not.’
‘Agents torture with truth, or so the saying goes.’
‘So Tate, what are you going to do?’
‘Get drunk, insult Man United and let justice take its course.’
‘A thief took her story, you can’t undo it, not that you’d want to.’
‘You didn’t pick Madchester for laughs, mate.’
Williams lifted his beer, took a sip and stared at him over the rim. ‘Are you going to tell her?’
‘And what would I say?’ he said, poking at the cooling chips. ‘In another life we were lovers, wanna date me again? She thinks I’m annoying and worthless, and she blames me for getting her stuck in Madchester. Half the time, she sprouts that she’d rather die than be stuck there.’
‘Well, I think Ryan will have scared that out of her.’
Williams recruit coughed to announce her presence. ‘Billy…I think we’re due back. If I’ve got my timezones right.’
‘Milla, we were only away for a few minutes, did you adjust your watch?’
‘I need to know the real time! And now I dun know if I set it back right! What if-’ A panicked look crossed her face, then it subsided. ‘No, no, silly thought, this is the wrong watch for that…’
He looked up at Williams. ‘I don’t even want to know.’
Williams shrugged and dropped another fifty on the table. ‘Go back to your queen.’
‘Court isn’t until tonight.’
Williams required a jacket and shrugged it on. ‘I wasn’t talking about Madhe, Tate. Keep the photo. It might help.’
He stared at the photo. ‘A-’ He swallowed and looked up. ‘Agent?’
‘I know what you want,’ Williams said as he smoothed out his recruit’s hair. ‘But you need to ask for it.’
‘Can I have a photo of m- I mean, can I have a photo of Tate?’
A second photo appeared on the table and an unfamiliar face stared back at him. ‘Stay in Manchester,’ Williams said. ‘I think you’re scum for breaking the rules, but I don’t want to be the one to bring you in. Just stay the hell out of Hyde. Please?’
He shrugged, mesmerised by the photo.
‘And can you say hi to my sister, please?’ the recruit asked, before hiding behind her agent. ‘She thinks she’s the queen of the bees,’ the small voice continued.
He looked down to the photos. ‘Sure, consider it repaying the favour.’