Stef brushed cookie crumbs off the required Agency-wiki pages on goblins and looked up. ‘Um?’
‘Thanks for this, but–’ She swallowed the rest of the cookie. ‘What’s the deal with the Court and what’s going on now? I’ll tackle this stuff on my own,’ she said, poking at the folder, ‘but learning stuff in context is more likely to stick.’
‘I’m kinda smart,’ she said. ‘You can try to explain it.’
‘Okay. You as a civilian. You’re subject to local government, state government, and federal government, right?’
‘It’s more complicated for fae.’
‘I’m never going to be able to explain anything if you interrupt me all the time.’
‘Why is it “Fairyland” and not, yanno, “Faerie”? It’s a fairly traditional term, and it must have come from somewhere.’
He took one hand off the wheel to press against his face. ‘Has anyone explained how Fairyland works yet? What’s it actually like?’
‘I was assuming parasite dimension?’
‘The techs say “plane”, which I guess will work for you. It’s a copy of earth as we see it, but–’
Fairyland’s the Emerald Dream. Cool. That explains some stuff.
‘Trekkie, you don’t have to explain how alternate planes work to me.’
‘Stop calling me–’
‘So what do I call you, then?’
‘Did you forget my name?’
She turned to look at him. ‘I could call you “The Lizard”, but you’re not all that scaly. Can you require scales?’
He made a displeased noise and turned another corner. ‘Fairyland is Faerie, but–’ He tilted his head from side to side for a moment. ‘Faerie-Australia is Fairyland. Since “Faerie” the place is the general and is a homophone for “fairy” the race, we tend to use “Fairyland”, since we rarely, if ever, have reasons to visit other parts of Faerie for Agency business.’
‘See?’ she said. ‘That really wasn’t that hard.’
He made a non-committal noise. ‘Do you actually want me to answer your question now?’
‘To start with,’ he said. ‘In Fairyland, there’s only two levels of government – local and federal, so you’ve got all your applicable laws and such from them. We won’t go into parts of Faerie, because frankly, I don’t know anything about them. Over the top of these is Kings’ Law. The Court of Kings writes the laws that all fae have to adhere to, and it’s so convoluted and outdated that it seems like it’s getting pulled from someone’s arse most of the time.’
She failed to suppress a giggle.
‘Most of these laws don’t play into everyday life for fae, but they exist, so it’s worth remembering. So, local, federal, and Kings’ – keeping up?’
‘Law stuff, unfortunately, is really easy for me to comprehend.’
He gave her a quizzical look.
She shrugged and straightened her tie. ‘Genius, remember? Everything’s easy for me to comprehend.’
‘Layered into all of this is the other Courts. We can get into them later, but you’ve got major, minor, and local. Major courts almost act as their own cities; minor ones tend to be specific, like for each type of fae. Magnolia? She’s a magpie. There’s a magpie court and so on. Local ones are what’s important right now.’
‘Local courts take the place of local governments outside of Fairyland. They’re basically the local support groups for all the fae living in human society. They help with transitioning from living with fae to living with humans, do “Act like a human” classes, provide all kinds of backup for things you wouldn’t think of, like job references and legal advice. They help with getting IDs and bank accounts, all that kind of thing.’
He pulled into a parking lot of a large white building. There were faded marks in the paint where signs had been. A dozen other cars stood in the lot.
‘Okay, this is just like the restaurant,’ she said as they got out of the car. ‘Do fae always have to hide in crappy places?’
‘It’s just social engineering, newbie,’ he said as he opened the boot. ‘Better-looking buildings attract more attention. Besides, this is only skin-deep; it’s really impressive inside.’
‘You could still recruit me,’ the goblin said as he bounced out of the boot.
‘No,’ Curt said.
They walked to the door, and she heard cameras tracking their movements. ‘Paranoid,’ she said. ‘I approve.’
A tall, broad man with a face made of stone stood as bouncer at the door. ‘Agents,’ he said. ‘What’s your business?’
Curt pointed down at the goblin. ‘One for sanctuary, two for lunch.’
The stone-faced man looked down at the goblin, then waved them into the lobby. There was a small reception area to the left, a bank of public phones to the right, and two security gates leading further into the building, each manned by two guards. The goblin was escorted to the receptionist on the left, a short, squat man with green hair.
Curt waved her over to one of the other receptionists – a woman with white-as-snow, white-as-printer-paper skin. ‘Get out your ID,’ he said. He smiled at the woman. ‘Two lounge passes, please.’
They handed across their IDs, which were scrutinised, scanned, then handed back. Two passes on lanyards were spat out from a small chute on their side of the counter. Curt lifted them both, then handed one to Stef.
‘Thank you,’ he said to the receptionist.
‘Last chance,’ the goblin said as he sat on the counter, tapping at a goblin-sized tablet computer.
Curt didn’t even bother to answer the goblin that time and walked through the security gate to the left. The guard barely looked at their passes before waving them through.
‘That was kinda easy, don’t you think?’
He shrugged, and they walked down some stairs. ‘We’re recruits, in uniform, with ID that passes inspection – that’s a lot of hurdles to pass, so it’s unlikely that we’re a threat. If we did try something, those guards would suddenly show you how passive they aren’t, and any damage we managed would have to be taken care of by the Agency, since we were imitating Agency personnel.’
‘The Agency is responsible, even if they’re not?’
‘Agency IDs aren’t the easiest thing to fake, so there’s always the possibility of collaboration in people’s minds, plus it’s part of the “cooperation with the community” thing.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘We let people use us like bitches for a bit of good PR.’
‘So what are we…?’
Her mouth lost the ability to form words, and her feet forgot how to walk.
The area was set up like an airport – a food court surrounded by small stores.
Easily a few hundred fae strolled through the area, eating, talking, window-shopping, or – in the case of one – crying on the floor having a tantrum.
Curt smiled down at her. ‘Question answered, newbie?’
She continued to stare.
He tugged on her shirtsleeve. ‘Come on. Let’s grab a seat.’
Her eyes bugged out as she stared at the myriad of different fae. There were fairies and nymphs and ones she could guess were gnomes or dwarves, but then there were a dozen more that she couldn’t even start to identify. Creatures eight feet tall, with square heads and limbs so spindly they looked as though they would blow away at the slightest breeze. Four-legged fae with skin like silver that seemed to vanish if there was enough light on them.
Fae that exuded thin wisps of smoke from rows of blackened holes in their arms.
Lines of wiggly metallic ribbon flowed across the floor. She stared, unsure if it was sentient, pet, or art.
She walked, waiting to wake up, and sat, nearly missing the red chair. ‘Oh – oh my god.’
She stared for a moment longer, then tore her eyes away from the incredible scene in front of her. ‘Huh?’
Curt hung his jacket over the back of the chair opposite her. ‘Have you got a preference for–’ He stopped. ‘You trust me to pick the food?’
She managed a quick, bobble-headed nod, then went back to staring at the fae.
Stef wrapped her feet around the legs of the chair, anchoring herself to reality. The paper crinkled in her pocket, and she slumped against the table. She pulled the crumpled flyer from her pocket, rested her chin against the cool plastic of the table, and unfolded the paper.
Several copies of her dummy email address had been torn off – potential customers that may have already fired off queries and were waiting for answers.
She folded the flyer into quarters, then crumpled it again, shoving it back into her pocket.
It had been arrogance to think she’d be allowed to stay. Wilful ignorance of her history, of her situation.
She lifted her eyes and scanned the food court, spotting Curt returning with a tray of food. His continued existence proved that the Agency negotiated with terrorists. It didn’t follow that the same was true for criminals.
Neutral. She had to be neutral. She closed her eyes and willed her face not to show any emotion, then sat up as he placed the tray on the table.
‘I did not get enough sleep last night.’ She stared down at the food. ‘I told you that.’
‘You’re going to have to go to bed at a regular time,’ he said as he began to divide up the foot. A burger and fries for each of them – the fries sprinkled with herbs and salt – then there were two bowls. One contained squares covered in brown sauce, and the other held thin green chips.
‘Famous Fry’s,’ he said, holding up his fries and pointing at the logo. ‘It’s another easy entry into fae food. Plus they’re cheap enough that I should be able to claim it back on petty cash.’ He unwrapped his burger and smiled. ‘Else you can owe me one.’
She unwrapped the burger, and looked at the “F” toasted into the top of the bun. ‘Did your require: money stop working?’
‘You can’t require fae currency,’ he said. ‘Eat up. We’ve got stuff to do.’
‘So how do I get fae cash?’
‘You’ve only been here two days. You can wait a week or so, don’t you think?’
‘I’m not being catty; I’m being realistic.‘
She waved her hands. ‘No, no.’ She stared down at her food. ‘Curiosity killed the cat. And stuff.’
He shoved the bowl of squares at her. ‘Try the brikni, but don’t get sauce all over your uniform, okay?’
She lifted one of the squares and tentatively nommed on it. It had the consistency of pastry, like a savory baklava. The sauce was…somehow nondescript, almost tasting like a half-dozen things. She swallowed, and sucked the sauce from her fingers before reaching for a serviette. ‘Not bad,’ she said with a shrug. ‘What are the green things?’
‘Aole. You eat those after a meal.’
‘Why only one serving?’ she asked. ‘You got two of everything else.’
‘I’m not giving you a gold star for stating the obvious.’
She bit into her burger, and she watched helplessly as a slice of tomato slid from the back of her burger and onto her uniform pants. She shook her leg, and the tomato fell onto the ground. Curt, nomming on his own burger, didn’t seem to notice.
‘It’s a fae thing,’ he said. ‘Some dishes are designed to be shared, so even for fast food places, they default to a larger serving so you only have to buy one per table.’
She nodded and went back to eating.
After a moment, he pulled out his phone and began to play with it.
Stef finished the burger, crumpling the paper, imagining that it was her flyer, and tossed it back onto the tray. The fries were thickly cut, some heavily seasoned, some free of flavour altogether. She smirked at the idea of underpaid fae fast food workers; some things were apparently universal.
Curt grabbed at a few of the green chips, then gave her a slight wave to get her attention.
She wiped salty hands on the legs of her pants. ‘Hmm?’
He laid a bank card on the table in front of her. ‘I need about twenty minutes before we head back. So long as you promise not to do anything too–’ – he paused – ‘too extreme or to just sit around gawking, you can take my card and spend twenty, okay?’
‘Anything I can help with?’
He smirked. ‘Nah, I’ll be fine.’
Stef grabbed the card and slipped it into her pocket. ‘Do I need a PIN or anything?’
He shook his head. ‘Nah.’ He pointed at a row of shops. ‘You should try those first. They’re full of nerdy stuff.’
She nodded and watched as he grabbed his jacket and walked off down the concourse.
She ate another brikni square, sucking the sauce from her fingers before she reached into the bowl of aole chips. She lifted one, wondering if the green was nature-green or radiation-green, and bit into it.
It was…refreshing. Like some unholy child of mint and eucalyptus, an industrial-strength palate cleaner.
She haphazardly threw all of the trash onto the tray, then emptied it into the bin. She brushed her hand over her pockets, ensuring that both the bank card and the crumpled flyer were still in their proper places, then stepped out of the tiled food court area and onto the thin, tough carpet of the concourse.
A few fae looked at her, either because her eyes wouldn’t stop trying to escape her skull at the sight of each new race, or because she was wearing an Agency uniform.
She moved through the sea of people and pressed flat against the glass wall of one of the stores.
Get a hold of yourself.
A remote-control-sized car zoomed past her feet, carrying half a dozen misick. She smiled and watched them weave in and out between the larger fae.
I’m really trying.
She peeled herself away from the wall and turned to look at the store. It sold alcohol and wines, if the window display was to be believed. Tiny bottles – some in plain and familiar shapes, others more artistic – lined shelves. The next store sold flowers in a million different colours, and some seemingly made of glass or metal or stone.
The next one was a toy store, and she nearly stepped on tiny child trying to get into the store. She apologised as the child’s parents glared at her. She backed away, and continued down the concourse. Toys could wait.
Doughnuts. Cake. Four different clothing stores. Something that was either some kind of church or a lecture hall.
A candy store, with a false front designed to look like a gingerbread house, called her like a siren. She watched the flow of foot traffic for a moment, and then stepped into the store, carefully avoiding bumping into – or stepping on – any fae.
The store was tiny, cramped and full of people.
She picked up one of the small self-service bags and tucked her arms as close to her body as she could, trying to make room. On the surface, the store was surprisingly normal – dozens of different kinds of candy in clear containers, even more kinds on shelves.
A train circled around near the roof of the store, carrying tiny, tiny, doll-sized fae.
Stef passed jelly beans, flavoured jubes, and boiled sweets – there was no point in going into a fae candy store to buy things that could be required.
Is that what heaven is like?
For you? No, there’s no coffee.
She found silver-shelled chocolates that were shaped like butterflies and shovelled some into her paper bag.
Wings. Not butterflies.
She took another look at them.
The bag slowly filled, and then she moved to the counter.
The counter was a glass case, the kind that usually contained the more expensive chocolates. It held a swimming pool of dark, melted chocolate, with several Barbie-sized fairies swimming in it.
Occasionally, one would jump out and run across blocks of other chocolate – white, red, purple, and blue, leaving chocolatey footprints, before jumping back into the pool.
Stef paid for her chocolate, then found a bench outside.
Curt appeared a few minutes later. ‘I should have made a bet,’ he said. ‘Knew you’d go for something sweet. Ready to head back?’
She nodded, swallowed her mouthful of sugar, and proffered the bag.
He grabbed some candy and walked off into the crowd.
She picked one of the silver-shelled chocolates from the bag and popped it into her mouth, the sugar doing a lot to offset the feeling of dread.
They passed a row of bins, each begging her to throw the flyer away, to forget it existed, and just to redact all the relevant information. Fresh start. Clean slate.
I can’t do that. I can’t lie to him.
She pressed her hand against her pocket, ensuring the flyer was still there.
She swallowed and dug into the bag again. Sugar was good at holding back tears.
[table id=15 /]
Stef brushed cookie crumbs off the required Agency-wiki pages on goblins and looked up. ‘Um?’