‘You see that tree there?’
‘What tree where?’ Stef asked as she looked up from her coffee.
‘That big one over there,’ Milla said. ‘The one that looks like a good climbing tree.’
‘You’re still describing half of the trees in the park.’
‘Miss Agent, is one of these trees not like the other?’
‘You mean the one that’s a nymph?’
‘Yeah,’ Milla said, unwrapping a sandwich, ‘that would be the one.’
‘You could have just said that in the first place,’ she said, ‘I do have these nifty little tooltips.’
‘You could have just guessed which one I was talking about – you really should, actually,’ the recruit said, ‘it’ll make you a lot better in emergencies.’
‘You read my file,’ she said as she pitched the empty paper cup into the bin. ‘You know I’m new at this.’
‘Yeah,’ Milla said, ‘but the rest of the world doesn’t, so you’ve got to be an agent as much as you can, it’s all a game of catch up, and I think you’ve got all the running start that you’re going to get.’
‘What’s this about the tree anyway?’
‘It’s our way into Madchester,’ Milla said. ‘I didn’t want to pick on of the boring entrances. She’s an ex-resident, she stayed until her mind cleared of madness, so now she stays as a door guardian to repay the kindness done to her.’
‘Is this going to be weird?’
The recruit grinned and jumped from the bench. ‘Oh, Agent, you should know by now, everything in this world is weird.’
‘Not…everything,’ she said, ‘ok, most things, but not everything.’
Milla ran across the park. ‘Quick, while there’s no muggles watching!’ She ran across the park after the recruit, who knocked on the tree’s trunk three times. ‘Hold your breath,’ Milla said, pinching her nose.
‘Why?’
The tree yawned, split open, and swallowed both of them without trouble. The smell of wet bark, earth, and a garden in summertime assaulted her senses, along with the smell of dog poop, trash and
vinegar.
They were pushed through a tunnel, the sides pushing in on them on all sides, and then, without much ceremony, they were dropped to a packed earth floor.
‘See, that’s much more exciting than taking the stairs,’ Milla said with a grin.
‘Did we,’ she asked as she brushed leaves from her uniform, ‘just get eaten by a fscking tree?’
‘Sort of,’ Milla said, lifting a lantern. ‘This way.’
‘Okies,’ she said, and followed.
The short tunnel soon gave way to a much more open area, one rounded by food carts and information desks. ‘What is this? A transit lounge?’
‘Pretty much,’ the recruit said, ‘not everyone comes every week like me, not everyone knows where to go, and sometimes, you have to schedule time in if a bunch of people want to see the same person, so this is the waiting room. She popped the locks on her briefcase and retrieved a red card. ‘But s’ok, I’ve got an express card.’ The recruit grabbed her hand. ‘Come on, this way.’ They made it through the much shorter, “express” line soon enough, and Milla declined the use of a guide, with a whispered comment about the booth operator being new.
‘Cindy’s back through here,’ Milla said. ‘But the restaurant is this way, we’ll grab her some food, then we’ll go see her.’
‘Why don’t you go see her,’ she said, ‘I can go grab the take-out, is there a punch card or does it cost or what? Just tell me what to do, and I can grab it. I’m pretty good at following basic instructions.’
‘The restaurants are all free,’ Milla said, ‘and it’s easy, cause everyone gets the same thing, just request takeout. She’s in room twelve, in the Ash block, if you get lost, just ask someone, and they should be able to point you in the right direction.’ She hesitated for a moment. ‘Sure you don’t mind?’
‘Hey, it gets you an extra couple of minutes with your sister, and you’ve been a big help, so no problem.’
‘Thanks,’ Milla said. ‘Ok, head that way,’ she said with a point. ‘There should be red arrows at least some of the way.’
She nodded, and started down the corridor, following the red arrows, and utter lack of branching corridors for the first hundred meters, following the slow curve around past a multitude of locked doors.
The red arrows, however, ran out just before a three-way split in the path.
‘Lost?’ a voice came. She turned and saw a goblin smoking in the corner. ‘Where you headed?’
‘The, um, restaurant?’
He nodded, his shaggy hair bouncing all over the place. ‘Headed there myself,’ he said. ‘Come on, this way.’
‘Thanks,’ she said as they went down the middle corridor.
He stared at her. ‘Agency?’
She patted her vest and nodded. ‘Well, I’m not in costume.’
‘You’re not local,’ he said.
‘No, I’m here with a friend,’ she said, ‘she’s visiting someone.’
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘that explains the food run, don’t worry, it’s good today, been three times this today already. That is, Recruit, presuming you like-’
‘Agent,’ she corrected.
‘I, er, what now?’
‘Agent,’ she said, fighting the urge to blush.
‘Huh, well I’ve learned my new thing for the week,’ he said. ‘Well, Agent Whatsyourname, welcome to Madchester.’
‘Mimosa,’ she said as they entered the restaurant. Tables sat next to windows looking out on an impossible number of different views, and onto landscapes that couldn’t possibly be real.
‘Cool,’ she whispered, then turned to the goblin. ‘Thanks. I think I can find my way back.’
But he was gone.
She shrugged, and headed to the line.
‘I don’t fucking believe it.’ Had it been beating, her heart would have skipped a beat. She turned, and saw Enid, the goblin standing in front of her, stopping her from sliding out from the booth. ‘You…no fucking way you’re here.’
She turned away, replaying Ryan’s orders on loop, and joined the short line waiting for food.
‘Turn around, Recruit,’ Enid ordered from behind her.
‘It’s “Agent”,’ she hissed as she stared through the glass at cooks of a dozen different races preparing food in huge pots.
‘And how the hell is that possible?’
‘I’m just here to get food.’
Enid grabbed her shoulders and spun her. ‘Look at me!’
She looked the ex-recruit up and down, then turned back to the line.
‘Eeny, be careful, you don’t want to-’
‘Do you have any idea what you did to me?’
‘Yeah,’ she replied, ‘I aimed too low. But you’re an untouchable now, so this conversation is meaningless.’
‘How the fuck, I mean, how the fuck, were you always an agent?’
She turned and smiled at Enid. ‘Do I seem human to you?’
This stopped Enid for a moment. ‘No, but when Ryan came here to threaten, he said you were, and that you were dead.’
‘Cover stories are cover stories,’ she said. ‘Oh, take-away, please,’ she said to the tall man at the counter. ‘For one.’
‘I’m trapped here because of you!’ Enid screamed. ‘Do you have any idea what kind of a living hell it is here?’
‘Well, it must be pretty bad, people can’t even eat in peace without you screaming.’
‘It still hurts to breathe!’
‘Eeny, you need to settle, you can’t start anything.’
‘It’s not starting anything,’ the former recruit said, ‘it’s finishing something.’
‘She can’t touch you,’ the goblin said, ‘she does, and her safety here is forfeit. Just leave it be.’
‘I’m not a freak like you Tian, I hate it here!’
She accepted the bag of take-away containers. ‘Just rescind your sanctuary with the Court,’ she said as she headed for the door, ‘and you could take a shot at me.’
‘Oh you’d like that, wouldn’t you?’ Enid asked as she followed her from the restaurant. ‘It would be worth it, too,’ she said. ‘All I have to do is give up sanctuary long enough to get rid of you, then ask for it again. I can do that, right, Tian?’
‘No,’ the goblin said, ‘you give it up, you give it up for good.’
‘I’m ok with that,’ Enid said. ‘I can’t…keep being here, not when she gets to walk around. I was ok when I thought she was dead, because at least life in Madchester is better than being a corpse in the ground.’
‘You’ve got no one to blame but yourself,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘Traitors never prosper.’
‘Shut your mouth, just shut your mouth! I nearly died because of you!’
‘Dying is a good way to get your priorities in order,’ she said as she reached the three-way split, and continued up the long, arcing corridor.
She was shoved up against the wall of the corridor, the bag of food falling from her hand. She felt her gun being pulled from its holster, and a click as it was pressed the base of her skull.
‘No!’ the goblin shouted, and there was the sound of two bodies hitting the floor.
She spun and saw the goblin pinning Enid to the ground. Enid, for her part, still had the gun in her hand, and was trying to aim it.
‘You can’t do this Eeny!’ the goblin shouted. ‘Think about what you’re doing.’
‘Get the fuck off me Tian!’
‘Don’t. Do. This.’
‘She deserves to die for what she did to me. I’m trapped here!’ she flung the goblin off and scrambled to her feet, aiming the gun. ‘I give up sanc-’
‘I love you!’ the goblin shouted.
Enid spun the gun around to aim it at the goblin. ‘What did you say?’
‘I love you,’ the goblin said again.
‘What makes you think you-’
‘Why the hell do you think I saved you?’ he asked. ‘Please, don’t do this,’ he said, ‘please.’
Enid swung the gun back around. ‘I’m trapped here because of her. I-’
‘Madchester isn’t so bad, you just haven’t given it a chance.’
She stared at the odd couple, then crouched and began to pick up the spilled food. After Russia, after threats of death, after torture, somehow, a gun being waved in her general direction wasn’t that frightening anymore.
‘And you want me to give you a chance?’
‘I love you,’ the goblin said again, then began to convulse.
She took two quick steps forward, and plucked the gun from Enid’s hand as the former recruit stared at the shaking, melting goblin.
‘What were you saying about giving up sanctuary?’ she asked as she took a step back and aimed the gun.
‘I said, I give-’
The goblin…what had been a goblin, stood, and put a hand across Enid’s mouth. ‘She was saying nothing,’ he said.
She stared at the man…at the Agent, then blinked. ‘Um, what?’
Enid seemed just as perplexed. ‘Did you just get sexy?’
The agent turned to her. ‘You should go,’ he said. ‘I trust you can find your way back.’
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘Um-’
‘Go,’ he said. ‘She won’t be following you.’
‘How the fuck do you know what I’m going to do?’ Enid demanded. ‘And what the hell just happened to you?’
‘If you want to know, if you want to know everything, you let this go, right now, Enid, right now.’
She slipped the gun back into her holster, took a few steps whilst looking at the odd couple, then turned and continued down the hallway.
A woman stood near the end of the corridor. ‘Are you two all right?’ she asked. ‘I heard a bit of a commotion.’
‘I know it’s redundant to say this,’ she said as she approached the woman, ‘but this place is kind of crazy.’ She stopped, then processed what the woman had said. ‘Wait, you just said-’
The woman smiled. ‘Ash block is just down there, you’d better go, I wouldn’t deny another monarch a hot lunch.’