‘Don’t forget your crown.’
That’s the second time he’s said that, Spyder, he’s very politely trying to get your attention.
And I’m very impolitely ignoring him.
Do you want him to ground you?
Does it mean I get to go home?
Stef looked back at Ryan and the wooden box containing the crown. She counted to a polite three, then turned away and resumed peeking through the clear sections of the anteroom’s stained glass doors. The anteroom was a nice touch – somewhere for them to escape if the crowd – big, big, big crowd – got too much, or there needed to be private conversation at any point.
Mags, Taylor and Grigori had ditched immediately and gone out into the crowd. Yo had wandered off to see hoity-toity friends and Patty and Magic Mike had been too excited to hide in the anteroom.
‘Dear one,’ Hook said as the silver hook touched her shoulder, ‘should you think about joining the crowd?’
She stared at her HUD, and the time read twenty-seven minutes – twelve longer than she’d expected to be able to procrastinate. She turned away from the door, walked across the soft carpet of the room, and sat on the arm of the couch next to Ryan. ‘Princess me, then.’
Ryan lifted the crown from the box, and carefully placed it on her head, avoiding the mask and the hair clip. She dug her nails into her thighs, and counted to ten to make sure that such a concentration of pretty frippery didn’t constitute critical mass of pretty frippery and explode her head.
Curt hooked his arm through hers. ‘And the first words out of your mouth are going to be “I’m not ready”. We know, we all know, newbie, but it’s your gala, you have to at least make an appearance before the speeches.’
‘How long until the speeches?’
He checked his phone. ‘Seventy-five minutes until the Queen’s address, then the rest will be during the banquet, and you can ignore those for food.’
‘…is it seventy-four minutes now?’
He held up his phone. ‘Sync your HUD.’
She sighed, but did as he suggested. ‘Now it’s seventy-four minutes,’ she said.
Ryan gave her a quick hug. ‘Just do your best, young lady.’
‘You go first.’
‘As you wish.’
‘Wishes are what got me into this mess!’ she said, then smirked.
Ryan gave her a perfectly narcy smile, then left the room with the redhead.
‘You next, Captain.’
‘As you say.’
With a flourish, he left the room.
She leaned against Curt. ‘I’m not ready.’
‘I know.’
‘It’s what’s expected, but-‘
He leaned down, and kissed her cheek. ‘I’ll be by your side the whole night, and you don’t have to talk to anyone you don’t want to, that’s what the mask is for, remember?’
She clung to his arm. ‘Drag me out, or I’m not coming.’
He kissed her cheek again, then dragged her from the anteroom.
‘Let’s get a drink, ok? It’s really easy, for formal events, everything is colour-coded by the stem of the glass. Blue stems for water, sparkling or clear. Green stems for alcoholic drinks. Purple stems for mocktails.’
She looked at the glasses of the hushed crowd as they walked past. ‘Orange?’
‘Fruit drinks.’
‘Don’t touch red.’
‘If it’s red it’s dead?’
‘Red stems indicate drinks with various-‘ he looked thoughtful for a moment. ‘Stimulants. For- Well, think about where you are. And don’t say “for acting like royalty?”.’
‘More if you’re gonna visit a place like Carmichel’s?’
‘Pretty much, newbie.’
They found the bar, and the crowd parted for them. He ordered two “Tages” and the drinks were presented immediately, in glasses with purple stems.
She sipped at it, it tasted oddly of marshmallow and clover.
‘You like?’
She nodded. ‘And I want you to keep giving me weird drinks all night.’
‘Yes ma’am.’
A man in a grey suit walked up to her side, ordered a drink, then stood quietly with his left hand turned palm-up.
Curt leaned in close. ‘You do remember that from Rier’s orientation, right?’
‘…you want me to say yes.’
‘He’s asking permission to speak. I’d also like you to notice the lapel pin,’ Curt said, his voice strained and excited at the same time.
She looked at the fairy’s suit and saw a small gold magic lamp.
Genius, it’s the Genie logo?
Fairy Steve Jobs?
Take your mask off and greet him.
She lifted a hand to her face and pulled the mask away – a small miracle ensuring that the crown didn’t fall, and her hair didn’t suddenly come loose from the clip and attack the other gala invitees. ‘You can- er- speak,’ she said, trying to sound competent.
‘Baron von Smartypants,’ he said with a straight face, ‘it’s a pleasure to meet you.’
And what is wrong with my brain now?
Don’t look at me, Spyder.
The last time I tried that, I thought my eyes were going to get stuck looking at my sockets!
Erm. The Baron?
She looked back to the fairy. ‘Sorry, I didn’t catch your name?’
‘Yes you did, Agent,’ the Baron said with a smile. ‘Would you like the story behind it?’
‘Is it a good story?’ she asked, her mouth faster than her brain.
‘If you like the Lost, which, judging by tonight, you do. Please, my entourage is holding some seats for us.’
She followed the fairy, her reflection catching in the metallic edges of his wings. It was unnatural colouration – not the natural silver colouring that some wings had, which was often more clear sections with a silvery sheen, this was replacement-silver, metal inlaid into the wing itself, for fashion or due to injury.
The Baron’s people had dibsed a small circular couch an a low, round table. They all moved aside as the Baron sat, two waiters appearing with trays of mixed, fancy-looking snacks.
Horsey doves.
You could pronounce it at four, but you still insisted on horsey doves.
If you’d been around, you would have made me say it properly.
No…I think I’m part of whatever part of your brain came up with horsey doves. It was childishly endearing, and you used it as a distraction. It was clever.
It was evil.
One does not preclude the other.
‘I’m surprised you don’t know the story,’ the Baron said.
‘I’ve only been trolling around on the fairy internet for a couple of months, there’s only so much information I can absorb at once. Unfortunately.’
The Baron munched on a tiny sausage, then nodded. ‘Your charity for tonight is the Lost. You’re not the only one here who owes them a lot.’
‘You’re Lost?’ she asked.
‘I’ve been Found for a long time. I was, in fact, a Foundling. My parents for whatever reason, abandoned me as a child, as I was lucky enough to be found by a Seeker. The Lost try not to take in many orphans, their resources, as you know, are stretched beyond their capability already, but the Seeker saw it fit to raise me within the Court, rather than to give me over to fairy authorities. I was raised by their community, and played on the edges of other’s fantasies, until it was time for me to return to-‘ He paused. ‘Return to what seems like such an ordinary world after living among the Lost. It was my choice, don’t think that I was ejected, but I wanted to help, and I had more than a few ideas on how to make money. Half the people in this room have at least one of my products on or in their person.’
She poked Curt’s arm, and he stiffened. ‘He does.’
‘The Lost rely on charity, just like Madchester, but there are fewer measures in place for governments to tithe to the Lost than the Mad. Whilst the Mad are often seen as the best public-serving of the major Courts, it’s really only those that have needed their services that realise how invaluable the Lost are. I give to them, but I’m just one man. Galas like this, and a person of your stature naming them as their charity, that will do a lot to help. There will be children alive this year solely because of tonight.’
‘It’s other people’s charity, not mine.’
‘Give yourself credit, Agent.’
She sipped on the drink. ‘That- Um-‘
‘Didn’t explain my name?’
She gave a little nod.
‘I know, but I wanted to thank you for your charity. My name is another charity effort. I set a donation goal, and if it was met, I would change my name to a name pulled from a hat for a decade. I have three years remaining as Baron von Smartypants, though I am growing fond of it.’ He handed her a card. ‘Make an appointment for when you have free time, I thought I’d let you pick out some products, rather than sending a gift basket. Would you mind if I got a photo?’
‘Sure.’ She stood, and posed with the fairy, while his entourage took photos from a half dozen Genie phones. ‘Now could you me a favour?’
‘It is your gala, Agent,’ the Baron said.
‘Could you give my boyfriend an autograph?’
The Baron seemed to actually look at Curt for the first time. ‘I do apologise, I thought he was just your attendant.’
Curt mumbled something inaudible, and passed across his phone. The Baron played with his phone for a while, then passed it back. ‘Autograph, and no roaming charges for a year as my apology.’
‘Thank you,’ Curt said, still quieter than normal.
The Baron stood and left, his people following.
‘Fanboy,’ she said, elbowing him in the ribs.
‘Shut up, newbie.’ He stared at his phone for a moment. ‘I’m surprised you weren’t more-‘ he shrugged. ‘He’s an uber-nerd, shouldn’t you have been blabbing away in LOLcat?’
She shrugged. ‘Turing’s my god, so everyone sort of pales in comparison to him.’ She flipped the card over and over. ‘But we got some free stuff, maybe we can get more?’
‘But you got sick of gift baskets.’
‘Yeah, but I’m supposed to be mingling, right?’ She finished off the glass of Tage. ‘Let’s head outside, and see if we get stopped along the way.’
He stood and offered her a hand. ‘Mask, newbie.’
She slipped the mask back into place, and took his hand.
* * *
‘You can still tell she’s Lost.’
Hook turned towards the voice and gave a low bow. ‘My Queen.’
Madhe stepped up the balcony beside him, and leaned against the richly stained wood. ‘Keep your voice down, Captain, I’m wanting to avoid notice.’
‘You could illusion yourself away, my Queen.’
‘I could,’ she said, and sipped from a gold-rimmed glass. ‘But that takes the game out of it.’
He watched as she stopped to watch a troll dancing with an animated statue. ‘She’s finding herself.’
Madhe nodded. ‘She’s almost making eye contact with people other than the boy on her arm.’
He turned away from the Madchester’s Queen and watched the girl weave through the crowd, her silver mask reflecting the colours of the gala around her. ‘I never could have imagined this for her.’
Madhe smiled. ‘It’s far higher than many from our Courts rise.’
‘Either of us could have taken her.Your Court always has room, and I- No. I suppose it would have had to have been you.’
‘She rejected you, Captain, through no fault of your own.’
He dug the point of his hook into the wood. ‘I still could have taken her.’
Madhe put a hand on his arm. ‘Things have worked out for the best, and you have others to care for.’
‘You have an entire Court, my Queen, and you remember a chance meeting.’
‘I’m a god, Captain, remembering is easy, forgetting is harder.’
He raised his glass to her. ‘To celebration, then.’