The hallways of Madchester were cool stone, giving the appearance of the lower levels of a castle. They were underground, they had to be – she doubted that the quick-travel via tree-ingestion had somehow shot them into the sky.
It was far from oppressive though, as there were bright windows every few metres, allowing what purported to be natural light in, even if that authenticity was born from artificiality – the “windows” were memory-glass inserts, showing views of a hundred different places on Earth, and views that were either Faerie, or alien worlds.

Her short jaunt into Fairyland, her attempt to fake her death and rid Ryan of the responsibility of her had been useful in several ways – it had allowed her unfettered access to the Faerie internet, which they called the Connect, and even if the advertising for her free connection had apologised for the speed, whatever slowdown there was due to it being a public network hadn’t been noticeable.
And the first thing she’d researched after taking up residence in the area of the local court assigned for the homeless had been the strange displays next to where she’d decided to sit. At first, she had thought they were screens of some kind – Fairy technology, from what she was seeing, could run circles around what was commonly available for humans – even outmatching a lot of the tradeshow demos and “you can only buy this if you’re rich” options.
But after several hours of watching various scenes play out, and feeling – actually feeling – the warmth of the evil daystar streaming through the screen, she’d researched them – a feat made easy, as there was a manufacturer’s logo stamped on the bottom right-hand corner of each pane.
It was called memory glass, and it was something like a magic photograph. The glass, like old photographic plates, was treated with a unique mix of science and magic – all formulae and further explanations were either proprietary or hidden behind paywalls, whereupon a memory – or two or three – were imprinted for later projection.
And Madchester apparently made the highest-quality memory glass, and they had cornered the market on Starchild/leech glass – as the Court was a common sanctuary for those from other worlds.
She paused in front of a pane showing the white cliffs of Dover, and she felt the chill of the stormy day the pane showed as she reached her fingers towards it.
It had been bright and sunny when she’d visited the cliffs with her parents, but it had been one of those rare good days – where Stef and Stephanie had been in a careful alignment, almost allowing her to enjoy the day without putting up too much of a mask for her parents.
Her parents had barely noticed her, and she’d been free to be almost herself, except when Mother had called her for lunch, and whatever joy Stef had been feeling in the exploration and the low-key adventure had been replaced with her act as the doll-sweet and doll-simple blandness of Stephanie, the false facet that her mother expected.
You didn’t have a choice.
She slumped against the wall, and traced her fingers over the storm-grey seas. Stef pulled her fingers to her lips and kissed them, unsurprised when she tasted sweet sea salt.
‘Was I always crazy?’ she murmured as she looked into the memory glass.
I mean, what kid, what little kid manages themselves as two distinct personalities?
‘Any child that needs to survive.’
Stop externalising.
Um. Spyder. That wasn’t me.
Stef pulled her fingers away from the pane and swept them through her hair as she turned, looking for the source of the voice.
A tall, beautiful woman stood there. She wore a riot of red and yellow, velvets and vinyls mixing with abandon in a combination that shouldn’t have worked, yet for her it did. A huge red jewel hung from her neck, on a gold chain that fell to her chest.
A guard stood beside her, long silver hair tied back, a sheathed halberd in her hand.
‘I’m sorry,’ the well-dressed woman said. ‘But I felt the need to cut loose your train of thought.’
What’s your gut telling you?
Power had a watermark. Every member of her family wielded power to one degree or another – from the minor noble, to the industrial magnates, to her foolish cousins who redlined their Maseratis’ engines to prove themselves to their friends.
There was a way that people with power, true, undeniable, unquestioned power carried themselves.
And the woman in front of her – her hair in loose, carefree waves, her skin deep, rich brown, stood as though she owned the world.
Sted immediately dropped a curtesy, which became a kneel, her head bowed over her upright knee. ‘Queen Madhe, I presume,’ she said, letting the fullness of her mother’s accent colour her voice. ‘Agent Mimosa. I apologise if I was in your way.’
‘Please rise, Agent,’ Queen Madhe said, seeming to acknowledge, not dismiss, the courtesy and the curtesy. Another sign of power – it was a movie trope for the really rich and powerful to brush off manners and rituals as unimportant, as a shard of the past with no place in the modern day.
Those who truly ruled the world knew there was no harm in a little deference.
‘Now,’ Queen Madhe said, ‘Stef, Spyder, you should-’ The Queen stopped as Stef made a small squeaking noise. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, sounding genuinely sorry. ‘Would you prefer I address the amalgam? It’s impossible to know what to do, upon meeting for the first time, not that this is the first time we’ve met, but at that time, you were not as you are now.’
Okay, that is a shit-tonne to unpack from one sentence.
You probably shouldn’t swear around mind-readers, genius.
Thank god I’m not a sexual person. Or I’d be thinking about boobs.
Spyder. Stop thinking about boobs.
She felt a blush crawling across her face.
Queen Madhe stepped forward, and her mind seemed to quieten. Her face showed amusement, and her eyes twinkled kindly. ‘Georgeanna,’ she said to the guard, ‘would you mind taking my fellow monarch’s lunch to her? The Queen of Bees can be found in Ash Block.’
The guard’s lips twisted into a smile. ‘We’re nowhere near Ash Block, my Queen.’
‘I got lost,’ Stef said, and began looking around for the tree that had brought her and Milla into Madchester – being swallowed up by the earth seemed like a fantastic option, in light of her current embarrassing circumstances.
Way to fail, Agent.
Madhe gave her a kind smile. ‘You would be surprised how many agents get lost without their internal maps to guide them. In any case,’ Madhe said, offering her hand, which Stef took, ‘the best way to know where you’re going is to go there.’ Madhe linked their arms. ‘After all, isn’t that why agents patrol their cities, so that they can know the best paths for their feet to take?’
‘I suppose so,’ Stef said, staring at the floor.
‘As I was saying, Agent,’ Madhe said as they started to walk. ‘You are far from a unique case, in whatever manner that you would think of yourself. My Court, and the Court that pays me fealty whilst their sovereign slumbers-’ Madhe looked down at her, seeming to sense her confusion. ‘The Lost, dear Agent. The same tragedy that took a number of the Agency’s directors also took the sovereign of the Lost. Whilst he is indisposed, they call me Queen.’ She nodded, seemingly to herself. ‘It does make sense, so I’ve allowed it, of the major Courts, we are the two that exist purely to benefit others. We also provide the Lost a measure of protection that stops others from attempting to move in on their territories.’
The fact that she was walking arm-in-arm with a monarch – the physical contact with a stranger somehow not bothering her – had definitely not escaped her notice. ‘Queen Madhe, was there something I can-’
Madhe stopped walking, turned to Stef, reached out, and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. ‘I felt as though I could be some assistance to you, little amalgam. I also like to see how those that might have been mine turned out without the safety of my Court.’
Stef swallowed. ‘Please, you’re going to have to- I don’t like not having context for what I hear.’
They continued to walk, and as they did, stone became soft grass, and the sky overhead-
Stef paused and looked around, the scene becoming very familiar as she looked at the trees – trees that had fallen to create a path to a lake. A lake on a world that no longer existed.
‘Is this-’ she looked around, trying to make sure she wasn’t mistaken. ‘This is Dajulveed,’ she said, starting to sound more sure of herself. ‘Is this how you make memory glass?’
‘This is a vista we do not have,’ Madhe said as she started to walk towards the lake. ‘I am interested in buying it.’
Madhe sat on the beach that led into the lake, apparently without a care as to what it did to her gown. She motioned, and Stef sat, careful with her posture, overlaying the image of her mother to the situation, to ensure that she was as close to perfect as possible.
‘Children who grow up in a home without love,’ Madhe said, ‘so many of them do as you do. They suppress and they cut away parts of themselves. They mould themselves towards the expectations of those around them, so that life is less painful.’
Madhe looked towards the lake, and two little girls appeared. Two little- Stef and Stephanie. Stef, the name she’d always wanted, the sound…sounding just right to her ears. Stef was wielding her mutilated, Island of Doctor Moreau toys – the Ken doll augmented with teddy bear parts; and the Barbies she’d changed to be representations of herself and her mother. Queen Charlie, a doll version of her mother that was far more receptive of her inquisitive daughter.
Stephanie, on the other hand, sat quietly in a green velvet dress, her hair scraped down and braided, as perfect as any store-bought doll, her eyes as dead as she’d always felt when being what her mother had wanted.
‘You were able to keep some of yourself,’ Madhe said, ‘I would encourage you to be proud of that. For those that cannot, and entirely inhabit their masks, I have nothing but sorrow. I hope there is someone who weeps for who they could have been.’
The projected image, or sim, or whatever it was, of little!Stef, stood, and came to sit in Stef’s lap. She gasped, her arms automatically moving to hold the image of her younger self, as little!Stef continued to play with her dolls, unaware of Stef or Madhe.
‘Was I always crazy?’ she asked, staring down at little!Stef’s hair. ‘The fact that I could do this so easily, then became-’ She took one hand away from little!Stef and made the “cuckoo-crazy-bananas” finger wiggle beside her head. ‘I was two people who grew up to be a schizophrenic mess. Maybe I-’
‘You were always going to be as you are,’ Madhe said, ‘but this,’ she said, indicating to the doll!Stephanie, ‘this was just you protecting yourself as much as you could. The sadness, and the strife in your mind, for some, that’s just how they are.’
Stef looked out over the lake, unsure of what to say next.
The weight of little!Stef disappeared from her lap, and she relaxed her arms, and began to trace patterns in the sand.
‘You do know, it the dissociation bothers you, you have the power to rectify that.’ Stef looked at Madhe, who gestured towards her heart. ‘I can feel mirror, even from this distance. One wish, and you could be whoever you wish.’
This time, Stef let the silence hang longer.
‘It’s not as though I haven’t thought about it,’ she said, not mincing words, nor trying to disguise the strange mix of grief and determination in her voice. ‘That’s the wish of every crazy person cogent enough to know they’re crazy, right? To be normal. To not- Not- Not be crazy.’
Not want to hurt themselves. Not want to die. To be able to hold a conversation without getting lost in the middle.
‘So what is stopping you, Spyder? What do you say, Stef?’
I’m here to back her up. That is my function. That is my raison d’etre.
‘You’re a fracture of a personality,’ Madhe said, ‘you don’t have a function. You do, however, have an opinion.’
Of course I do. And it’s my opinion that I am secondary. I serve at her pleasure. I am her sensible. I am what grew up when she couldn’t.
Stef brushed tears away.
‘Little amalgam,’ Madhe said. ‘If it causes you sorrow, what is stopping you?’
Stef brushed her hands against her knees, ridding her palms of the grains of sand that had stuck there.
‘Because I know who I am,’ she said, meeting the Queen’s eye. ‘I hate myself, but I don’t want to be anyone else. I am myself, and I don’t know who I’d be if I wasn’t. All of me, the sadness, and the disconnect in my mind, that’s all me. If I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t know how to function.’
I rely on her. I need her.
I’m not going anywhere, Spyder.
‘I think part of me froze,’ she said, trying to put it into words. ‘You know, like arrested development, but…not in totality. I had to grow up. I had to, because there was no one to look after me, and if I’d stayed a child, then I would have been helpless. And at the same time, I couldn’t handle it. I can’t handle the world. I can’t handle anything. Some part of me grew up, I’ve been looking after myself, even if I’m one step removed from myself.’
Madhe smiled. ‘I like people like yourself, little amalgam. Where the pieces form a whole greater than the sum of their parts. It’s resilience, and I respect that.’
‘You said this wasn’t- Wasn’t the first time we’d met.’
‘You were in a hospital. I met with a man masquerading as a pirate, and discussed where you would be best housed.’ Madhe smiled. ‘But you’ve always been more Lost than Mad. We could have cared for you, but I am not sure if you would have been as happy as you are now.’
‘I’m afraid of being happy.’
‘That, Agent, is also far more common than you would expect.’
Stef felt her words catch in her throat for a moment, her mouth flopping open to gape at the faerie queen. ‘I,’ she stammered, trying to recover. ‘I didn’t expect you to say that.’
‘Think of my kingdom, think of my subjects. Happiness is a resource so tenuous that sometimes it almost feels better not to have it, than to have it and lose it.’
‘So what’s the answer?’ she asked, trying desperately not to sound like an impertinent child.
Madhe laughed, and the air twinkled around her. ‘Every life is bespoke. Spyder. Stef. You should know that. The meaning of life for one person is completely irrelevant to the next.’
‘I’ve just- I’ve just gained so much. I have someone who wants to call me family. Someone who wants to make sure I’m okay. I have people who might become friends. And all of that is so precious and so terrifying that I’m terrified of losing it all.’
‘And you might,’ Madhe said. ‘Unless you surrender yourself to an oubliette, there are dangers and accidents that could take away every element of the life that is being built around you. You could lose your father. You could lose your friends. You could lose yourself.’
Stef pulled her knees to her chest.
‘I want to be happy.’
‘I want to be happy.’
‘I want to be happy.’
There were hands on her shoulders. She looked to her left, and saw the self she thought of as Spyder. The self that she knew she was, despite the voice in her head, buoying her from complete uselessness. A faded, torn black shirt. Cargo pants, pockets stuffed with USB drives. A mustard stain on her cheek.
To her right was Stef. The person she knew, deep down, she was capable of being, even if she never would be. Stef’s suit was pristine – for once, she looked like she could stand side-by-side with Ryan and Curt and not look hopelessly out of place. Her hair was tidy, clipped back and Agent-y perfect.
Both of her selves smiled at her, then disappeared.
Madhe nodded, then stood. ‘I suppose we should talk about a price for this memory.’
Stef pushed herself to her feet. ‘I will accept a fair price, and trust you to name that price.’
Madhe nodded. ‘I believe I can do that, Agent.’ The illusion of Dajulveed faded out, and the sound of bees faded in. Where the edge of the lake had been was a daybed holding a woman that had to be Cindy, bees forming a halo around her head; whilst Milla sat on the ground in front of her, reading a book.
‘Go to your friend, Agent,’ Madhe said, then faded from view.
Stef stepped forward, and Milla stood at the sound of her footsteps. She was crying, but looked happy. Stef stepped forward, closing the distance, and pulled her new friend into a hug. ‘Come on,’ she said gently, ‘I think we could both use some sugar and some dumb movies.’