‘You’ve never been here, have you?’ the hob asked as he casually swiped a hurricane lamp from a passing howler. ‘For an angel, you’ve got very little fae-stink on you.’
Ryan said nothing.
‘Did I hear you ask for four guards? Who you worried for?’
‘It’s for peace of mind,’ he said. It was a nice neutral answer that didn’t really answer the fae’s question, but he wasn’t there to answer questions, he was there to get answers.
A short courtier with pointy ears appeared in front of them, wielding a clipboard. ‘You guys were cuter when you had wings, now who’d you want to see? If they’re asleep, you’re out of luck, you’ll have to come back. I’d rather chance a scary angel than wake someone here.’
‘Enid Prest.’
‘She’s in the restaurant,’ she replied, tucking her pen behind her ear. ‘You can take him to the bridge room, we’re still finding guards.’ She threw a handful of glitter at him, then bounced off down the dark corridor. He coughed and expelled some of the shiny dust, then batted at his suit, not wanting to appear…shiny in front of a traitor he wanted to murder. And it was plain, simple murder that he wanted to commit.
There were some people that the world could do without. There were some people whose deaths would tie up loose ends and bring resolution. She had been a traitor, and Stef had paid the price. One life for another, it was a simple equation. Such a simple equation. But this was Court, it was neutral ground, and he could no break that. If he broke it, they would break him, and the wrath of Madchester was one to be feared.
‘Bridge room?’ he asked after following the hob silently down half a dozen twisting corridors.
This brought a smile to the hob’s face. ‘Wait and see.’
The “bridge room” was down at the end of a very long, narrow corridor. The door was old, and required the both of them to open it, however, once inside, he forgot himself for a moment.
There was grass beneath his feet, real grass, and above him was an alien sky – silvery ships twirled overhead, diving around great floating airships. They walked up the grassy rise in front of them and were given view of a marvelous alien vista – a massive bridge, half the size of his city, stretched across the ocean in front of him. Skyscrapers shot up from it, and huge cruise ships glided across the water beneath it.
‘Bridge room,’ the hob said simply and sat at a table that hadn’t been there a moment ago. He pulled a pipe from a pocket and lit it with the snap of fingers.
He shook his head and turned to the fae. ‘What is this?’
‘Bridge room,’ the hob repeated.
He sat at the table. ‘Is it imagined, or-’
‘It was the dying dream of a starchild, you can learn a lot from them if you don’t summarily execute them all.’ He let this pass without comment. ‘It was their world. It’s all scenery though, you can’t touch it, only what we’re sitting on is real. For a given value of real.’
‘Which mirrorfall was this?’
The hob sniffed the air. ‘Before your time, young one.’ The heavy door creaked and four tall guards filed in, standing around the table. ‘The restaurant is halfway across Madchester, your mark will take a few minutes. If she doesn’t run.’
He drove his hands deep into his pockets and began to clear some old cached data, just so that his mind was less cluttered – and other than conversing with a hob, there was nothing to do. He stared at the amazing bridge city as files returned to the collective unconscious. It was amazing, likely a relative-plus-three civilisation, yet it had fallen just as easily as any more primitive planet. There wasn’t any place that one could hide from a mirrorfall, there was no sanctuary when your world ended.
‘Agent Ryan.’
The voice was neutral and familiar, and he wanted nothing more then to turn and rip her throat out. It was a simple enough move, a grip and a pull, and if he timed it right, he could do it before any of the guards could pierce him with their halberds.
He balled his hands into fists, short nails digging holes into his palms. He rose from the table and turned to face his former recruit.
‘There’s no need,’ he said, ‘to act innocent.’
Some of the feigned innocence dropped from her face. ‘You know I had a history with the Court, you knew it before I did.’
He wished her dead, but she stayed standing. ‘You’re a traitor.’
She balled her hands into fists. ‘Well, come on then, let’s have it out, you bastard!’
‘He can’t do anything to you, Eeny,’ the all-too-tall goblin following her said. ‘Court rules. This is neutral ground.’
‘Fuck the Court, you know what he is.’ She turned back to him, hatred burning through her expression. ‘It’s my words against hers, and you’re going to believe your whore, aren’t you?’
He laughed, then closed the distance between them before the guards could react. ‘Do you really think the only thing we can rely on is the word of one mortal over another?’ He lifted a hand toward her face, and felt a grin cross his face as the “goblin” pulled her back.
‘Don’t you fucking dare!’ the “goblin” shouted. ‘You won’t walk out of here if you do that.’
The guards clustered around, but made no move to restrain him. He kept his hand raised, poised to attack her if his supply of self-control ran short.
‘You’re gonna slap me?’ Enid asked incredulously. ‘Oh, how macho.’
He looked to the “goblin”. ‘Tell her.’
‘You ever see Star Trek, Eeny? The mindmeld thing the Vulcans do?’
His ex-recruit gave a nod.
‘Imagine something so much more powerful. He’d know for sure that you’re a traitor. He’d know everything you planned to do, and every other time you’d betrayed them for favour with fae, or with Court. He could know your plans, your hopes, your dreams, and it would hurt.’ The goblin paused for a moment. ‘It hurts them, because its not something they’re supposed to do, can’t do, until the direst of circumstances. It’s the one power the gods gave them so that everyone can remember that in comparison to them, mortals are just pathetic. They can use it to destroy you. To make you eternally scared. To take away your ability to understand, or to be understood. They can take away your ability to say “I love you” or “that hurts”. Angels are scary motherfuckers, never forget that.’
‘You should know Tate,’ he said.
‘What did you call me?’ the goblin asked.
‘Tate,’ he snapped at the goblin. ‘I called you Tate, that’s your name. Or it was, before you forgot your duty and became an indentured pet.’ The goblin ran. He turned to Enid. ‘Sit,’ he ordered. The girl sat, and the guards relaxed a little.
‘So long as you can’t do anything to me,’ she said, ‘I may as well tell you I never liked you, like, less than Taylor, at least with him, you know where you stand. You, I mean, we half-expected you to snap at any moment and mow us all down with an AK-47.’
He ignored this. ‘To state the obvious, you’re black-listed.’
‘Pull out your Glock and end me or piss off, lists don’t mean much down here.’
‘Is your alliance with Madchester now?’
‘My preference generally lies with not getting shot.’ She gave an obscene hand gesture. ‘Pass that onto the bitch that plugged me in the chest.’
‘She’s dead.’
‘So very, very sorry,’ she said, sarcasm dripping from her voice. ‘There’s plenty of whores here, use one of them instead. You were sleeping with her, right? That’s the only reason you let a geek into the squad?’
‘She’s dead, and it’s your fault.’
‘So go find another fuckbuddy.’
Neutral ground or not, the urge to reach across the table and choke the life from her was becoming overwhelming. He fought it, and fixed an unblinking gaze on her. ‘Have you asked for sanctuary here?’
‘I haven’t asked for shit.’
‘In the interests of being fair, not that you deserve it, you’d best beg the queen for it. Now.’
‘And if I don’t?’
‘Then I’ll be within my rights to drag you from here, take you back to the surface, shoot you dead and leave your corpse to rot in Manchester. Something I would very much like to do.’ He let this sink in for a moment. ‘You may find that to be the easier option.’
‘You fucker.’
‘If you take sanctuary, you have to abide by it. You are only allowed in Madchester territory, if you step out, you’re fair game. You’re black-listed, so depending on who it is, it could be shoot on sight, or brought in for interrogation…’
‘I’ll save you the trouble of the second. I did it all for the rewards. Simple as. No higher calling, no belief system. Favours, power and pay checks, they make the world spin. Being a goody-goody isn’t fun, and you don’t earn favours with the people that actually count.’
‘You think that’s the only thing we’d ask you?’
‘Agents don’t scare me.’
‘I can tell, by the amount of time you’ve apparently been spending with one.’
This gave her pause, then she pulled a cigarette from her pocket. ‘There’s freaks and geeks here, but no suits, don’t know where you’re getting your info. Did I really used to work for you?’
‘It would seem not. So which is it to be?’
‘What, like I’d agree to execution?’
He leaned over the table. ‘You’ll only be safe within the bounds of Madchester. And you’re only human, you can’t see the barriers, you can’t remember every path, every safe building, which side of the street you have to walk on.’
‘And you can’t follow me every minute of every day.’
‘I don’t need to. There are local agents, there are local recruits, there are…third-parties. We’re not Solstice, we have no problem working with fey. It may even be a case of a gray-lister taking case of a problem on the black-list. You’ll have reason to remember why people fear what lurks in the shadows.’
‘Besides fapping perverts and agents, there’s nothing in the shadows that can’t be cured with a few bullets or a bribe.’
‘You’re no longer a recruit, you can’t require bullets. You can’t require a gun. You won’t have access to our doctors.’
‘I survived one bullet, I think I can deal.’
‘Bullets, perhaps, but not the reapers.’
‘Death doesn’t kill people, stop trying to scare me.’
‘I didn’t say Death. I said the reapers.’
This made her falter. ‘I don’t-’
‘Ask your “goblin” he said with a sneer.
‘So that’s it, marked for death, no rehabilitation? No second chance?’
He shrugged. ‘You aren’t worth it.’
He stood, and walked from the beautiful room, through the twisting halls of Madchester and up the stairs into the daylight.
Williams and his recruit sat on a bench opposite the stairs, the agent stood and walked over to him. ‘Come on, there’s a pub down the street.’
‘That won’t-’
‘You’re in my territory, trust the local, would ya?’
Resignedly, he followed the agent down the street toward a barely-open pub, the nervous recruit skipping beside him, swinging her briefcase like a toy. ‘Did…’ she began to ask, but ran to catch up with Williams.
The barman, chalk in hand as he scratched the specials onto the blackboard, waved them inside, abandoned the board and slipped behind the bar. ‘You I know what to get,’ he said to Williams, ‘but what about your friend?’
‘You come here a lot?’ he asked Williams as the barman poured a dark beer.
‘Only on days ending in “y” the man said as he placed the beer on the counter. Sars, love?’ he asked of Milla. She nodded nervously and munched on another apple.
‘What do you drink, Ryan?’
‘Scotch,’ he said after a long moment.
‘Make it a double,’ Williams said, ‘he’s just been you-know-where.’
The barman poured his drink, then one for himself. ‘Can’t help feeling like I should throw salt over my shoulder or something.’
‘Your establishment is two hundred metres from an entrance, if it bothers you so, why not relocate?’ he asked as he appraised the drink.
‘It’s not that,’ he said as he poured himself another drink. ‘It’s that so many come here. It’s like living across from an orphanage, or a pound, all that pain and not being able to do anything about it. Sad thing is, for most of them, it’s probably the best place in the world.’
He gulped down the scotch. ‘I was going to break neutral ground,’ he said to Williams. ‘I just wanted to…’
‘Everyone’s wanted to break neutral ground at one time or another,’ he said. ‘But we know better than to do it.’
He shook his head. ‘I need to head back. I can’t do anything else here.’