Arshan. Fucking. Yo.
Magnolia fidgeted with her dress while they waited for the limousine. It wasn’t late, they were early. Even if it wasn’t a combat situation, it paid to be early. The dress was simple, something she’d copied, not something she’d put together herself. Plain, short, no frills or lace or other frivolities. Nothing to make it look as though she’d tried to be a designer. In the face of Yo, pretending to be a designer would be tantamount to blasphemy.
Arshan. Fucking. Yo.
Part of her hoped for a sudden emergency, an attack on the blue phoenix, a tactical nuke deployed against an Agency – not theirs of course, maybe Sydney, just something drastic enough to put them back on duty.
Arshan. Fucking. Yo.
She pulled on the hem of her dress again.
‘You’re nervous,’ Taylor rumbled.
She leaned back against him. A rock. A hard place. An anchor so she stopped acting like a nervous child on the first day at a new school. ‘Excited, sir.’
One of his hands slid up her back to rub at her shoulder. ‘Nervous, recruit. Don’t argue with me.’
His other hand went to her shoulders. ‘Why?’
‘Magnolia,’ he growled.
‘His designs are amazing,’ she said. ‘Inspired. Magical. I did a stint at a sexporium as a greeter, and what I was given to wear was a knockoff of one of his designs. I thought it was gorgeous, even though it was just some cheap, badly-handled replica. In between customers, I used to browse his site, and just fell in love with what he did with clothes.’ She felt her cheeks flush. ‘Sorry, sir.’
‘Don’t apologise.’ His arms wrapped around her. ‘I like the way you look.’
‘I could require exact replicas of his collections, but I didn’t want to. I don’t mind copying anything else, but I didn’t want another fake. Wanted to wait until I could afford a piece for real. Being a recruit got in the way of that, other things became more important. I’ve wanted any mass-produced piece, but instead I get something designed for me. Consider me overwhelmed.’
The limousine appeared at the top of the next hill.
‘He’s almost two hundred,’ she said, ‘every new piece he creates could be his last. My piece could be the swansong in his collection.’
The limousine pulled to a silent stop in front of them, and the driver stepped out to open the doors for them.
She stepped into the car, and found a fairy woman in a flat black suit smiling at her. ‘Utsa, Utsa Adaine,’ the woman said as she extended a hand, ‘we spoke on the phone.’
She smiled at the gorgeous fairy woman as she settled onto one of the wide seats. ‘Of course.’
Taylor moved in beside her and the door was closed, locking them in the roomy, air-conditioned compartment.
‘Consider me his advance assistant,’ Utsa said. ‘May I?’ she asked as she held up a scanner. ‘I took your measurements on the phone, I know, but we measure seven times before we cut once.’
She leaned forward, and let herself be bathed in the light of the small scanner. After a moment, Utsa smiled, and tapped a few things onto the tablet computer in her lap.
The limousine pulled away from the curb, and Utsa opened a flat glass panel to reveal a small bar. She removed a small bottle and two glasses. ‘Unicorn,’ she said as she set the glasses onto the small table between them. ‘There’s other options if you want, but I’ve been informed it’s a very good year. Mister Yo killed the beast himself, and the bottles only go to those he creates unique pieces for.’
She gave a small nod, and the Utsa poured the bottle evenly between the two glasses.
Taylor lifted the glasses, and handed one to her.
‘It’s also my pleasure to inform you that for the duration of your visit, I’m free for use by the both of you.’ She smiled, then looked to Taylor. ‘The design and fitting process can be rather lengthy, Agent. If I’m not suitable, then-‘
‘Won’t be necessary,’ Taylor said.
‘As you say, sir,’ Utsa said. She looked back to her tablet computer. ‘On the phone, you gave your preferences as black and white, has that changed?’
She shook her head.
‘Mister Yo has several preliminary designs already, ma’am, but he’ll work with you to create whatever you want.’
She smiled. ‘I’d be happy with one of his morri sets,’ she said, ‘Whatever he designs will be fine.’
Taylor rumbled beside her, and she looked up to see the question on his face.
‘A morri set, sir,’ she said. ‘The traditional set is a ring and a bag, though there’s been a trend of allowing the ring’s jewel to be set into any piece of jewellery. They’re generally limited edition sets-’ She paused, not wanting to overwhelm him with the complexities of it. ‘The jewels use a number of techniques, but essentially they capture the mood of a season, a person or an event. For example, using a morri set from summer fifteen years ago will allow you to experience the mood of that season. With people, it’s generally done to celebrate the passing of an accomplished actor or political figure. The cheaper ones are more general, or use simple imagery within the jewels in the ring in the bag, rather than the full but limited sensory manipulation of Yo’s sets, and of designers like him.’
Taylor leaned back against the plush chair, a thoughtful look on his face. After a moment, he looked back to her. ‘Combat applications?’
‘I can look into it, sir,’ she said with a smile.
Utsa removed a silver-set amber jewel from around her neck and passed it across. ‘This is one,’ the fairy said as she offered it. ‘This is one never available to the public, it’s a reward for twenty years’ service from Mister Yo.’
She took another look at the fairy. ‘You don’t look old enough to have earned it.’
‘I’m not,’ Utsa said, ‘it was my mother’s, she worked for Mister Yo for her whole life, she passed this to me after she retired, and I have his blessing to wear it. I do look forward to earning my own though.’
She took the jewel from the fairy, and felt the need to work on her schedules until sunset.
‘It’s a captured memory from the opening of his first store, back when he was no one, a franchisee of mass-produced goods.’
She held onto the jewel for a moment, then passed it to Taylor. He lifted the jewel to his brown eyes, stared into it, then handed it back to the fairy. He looked back to her. ‘Combat applications,’ he said again, almost smiling this time.
Utsa put the jewel back in place, and looked to her tablet. ‘Mister Yo was disappointed that it wasn’t Agent Mimosa herself that took up the offer.’
‘Mimosa’s not- Not the most fashion-conscious of beings. I do honestly expect her to attend in her uniform. Hopefully a clean one, but I would hedge my bets.’
‘You must be very close though,’ Utsa said, ‘if she gave this opportunity to you.’
She shook her head. ‘No, not really. We’re not even friends.’
Utsa gave her a curious look, then covered it with professional disinterest. ‘You’ll have your initial discussion with Mister Yo, then we’ve booked you in for lunch, then you’ll return for another fitting and any final notes, then we’ll be done for the day. There’s a hotel booking should you wish to stay the night, else this car will take you to the stairs of your choice.’
She looked to Taylor, imagined the gratis hotel room, and the new space to explore and fuck in. A night free of any possible interruptions from the Agency, a night just to spend by themselves. She smiled at the selfish, sexy thoughts, buried them under duty, then looked back to the fairy. ‘I would imagine we’ll need a car.’
The hour’s drive into the city was quiet, but comfortable. Utsa asked more questions, and she was glad to answer – as the fairy woman answered all of her questions about Yo in return.
The limousine pulled into a parking garage of a slick-looking complex, and they travelled up to the thirtieth floor in an open glass box of an elevator.
The doors to Yo’s studio were sleek black pieces of glass, with his signature engraved in gold on each of them. She held her breath, and felt her heart skip a beat as Utsa pushed the doors wide.
Arshan Yo stood there, and she almost curtseyed. He wore a suit of his own design – lines cleaner and finer than anything required by the Agency.
He stepped forward, lifted her hand and kissed it. ‘You’re right on time, welcome Miss Magnolia, welcome Agent Taylor.’
A fairy in a purple dress brought champagne, and Yo raised his glass in a toast. ‘To still being alive,’ he said with a smile. ‘Let’s get started then, shall we?’ Yo looked to his tablet computer. ‘Question first. How large is Mimosa’s head? Since it’s you I’m fitting, they never supplied me with her measurements.’
Taylor lifted his hands and held them at what she was sure were the correct measurements for Mimosa’s bulbous head.
Yo stared for a minute, then waved Taylor under a spotlight near a mirror, where a rough holographic sphere appeared. ‘If you wouldn’t mind, agent?’
Taylor gave a grunt and shaped the light between his hands until it was accurate, his thumbs seeming to almost unconsciously drive in where her eye sockets would be. She smiled – the experiment’s stress tests had come in handy for once.
He gave an affirmative grunt to the fairy. ‘This is accurate.’
The fairy looked to the tablet, then back up to the floating ball of light. ‘Are you sure? It seems-‘
Taylor gave another grunt. ‘It’s disproportionate to her body.’
‘Well, if you’re sure,’ Yo said. ‘I’ve designed a mask for her, do you know if any others have sent in masks?’
She shook her head. ‘I haven’t been keeping track of her gifts.’
Yo stared at her for a moment. ‘The mask is central to the night though, I’d have thought as her friend-‘
‘I’m not her friend.’ The sound seemed to seep out of the room with the confession. ‘We barely have a relationship at all, and the one we do have is-‘ She searched for an accurate word. ‘Antagonistic.’
Yo sipped from a small glass. ‘Go on.’
‘That’s all. I honestly think she may have given me this opportunity because I’m the only person she knows who wears a dress.’
The fairy smiled. ‘Fifty years ago, I think I would have been insulted. Now I’m just amused. Do you know who I am, at least?’
‘I do. I’ve been a fan since the last Dawning June collection.’
‘That collection was trite and derivate of my earlier work,’ he said, stabbing his finger at the tablet.
Her heart sank into her boots. If it had been a combat situation, it would have called for a tactical retreat. Social situations, however, didn’t allow for such decisive movements.
Yo looked up and smiled. ‘It was also my favourite of the June collections.’ He looked to Taylor. ‘Have a seat, agent, this will take a while. Has Utsa already made herself available?’
Taylor gave an affirmative grunt.
‘Utsa, take him to the guest longue.’
Taylor looked at her, gave her a slight nod, then allowed the fairy woman to lead him away.
Yo crooked an arm to her. ‘This way. And what do your friends call you, Magnolia?’
‘Magnolia’s fine,’ she said.
‘Never Noli?’ he asked. ‘Good name, a bit boyish for you though. Lia? Li?’
‘Maggie as a child,’ she said as he closed the door to a large, well-lit room. ‘But I well and truly outgrew it.’
‘Very well. Off with your clothes, Magnolia,’ Yo said.
She stripped off her dress, and hung it on a hanger, leaving only her chemise between her and the world, then sat on one of the red chaise longues and began to unlace her knee-high boots.
He opened a wall panel and pulled out a rack of a dozen black and white dresses.
She stared, her boot laces forgotten for a moment. ‘Are those-‘
‘Just prototypes,’ he said, ‘I only had a photo and measurements to go on.’
He handed her the first one – a simple, primarily black dress with a trail of delicate feather designs spilling down the back. ‘I feel like I owe you an apology,’ she said as she stepped into the dress. ‘As much as I want this, I’m all too aware I wasn’t your first choice.’
‘Everyone is courting the girl who saved the world,’ he said, ‘I knew I had no guarantee of her even seeing my gift, I should imagine your Agency is inundated,’ he said as he buttoned up the back of the dress. ‘Having a design go to her gala is just as good, and it’s nice to work with someone who appreciates my work.’ He stepped away. ‘There, have a look.’
She focused on the mirror in front of her. The dress was elegant, sexy, beautiful. ‘It’s perfect.’
‘You might need to get your eyes checked,’ he said. ‘It’s not right.’
‘You aren’t walking out of here with anything less than the perfect dress,’ he said. ‘Let’s try the next one.’
He unbuttoned the dress and tossed it to the floor. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said as he saw her looking down at it. ‘Night after the gala, I guarantee black and white will be all the rage, and all of these rejects will sell for a hundred times what they usually would. I may finally retire,’ he said. ‘I’ve said this to my last five clients, but this might be my last dress.’
The next three dresses were discarded as well each “less perfect than the last” according to the fairy.
He pressed a button on the wall and a pair of twin hobs entered the room to clean away the prototypes. Once the dresses were removed, they returned with a tray of refreshments.
They sat on the facing chaises and ate the dainty-looking cakes.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘Magnolia,’ Yo said as he poured a richly coloured purple liquid from the jug. ‘A dozen prototypes is nothing.’
‘I have to ask,’ she said after they ate in silence for a moment, ‘did you start to design anything for Mimosa?’
‘I did.’ He lifted his glass. ‘Do you want to see it?’
She gave him a small nod, and walked to the other side of the room and popped open a small, hidden wall panel. A rail extended, holding a single, blue dress. Swatches of fabric in a dozen different blues hung across it like a bandolier, and there were chalk marks everywhere – unlike the finished prototypes she’d been trying, this was something barely past the initial concept.
She followed the chalk lines with her eyes and the small cuts. If it had been finished, it would have been beautiful. Completely unsuitable for Mimosa, but beautiful.
She fingered the swatches, and felt a tingle as she touched one. ‘Tabitha silk?’
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘and stitching on the brocade done with unicorn hair.’
She shook her head. ‘Tabitha silk would have been a bad call.’
‘She hates being touched, a fabric that stimulates the skin would have driven her crazier.’
‘I thought you weren’t friends,’ Yo said as he made a few more chalk marks on the fabric.
‘We’re not. Doesn’t mean I don’t know anything about her,’ she said, keeping her voice even. “It’s a tactical advantage” danced on the tip of her tongue, but better judgement kept the sentence locked away.
A tactical advantage. A tactical advantage to be used on an enemy. A subtle, bitchy, passive-aggressive way of proving how fragile the experiment was. Brushing against her in the elevator, brushing against her in the conference room, making sure to touch her hand when grabbing paperwork. A flinch or a shudder, every single time.
Stupid worthless experiment. Stupid worthless experiment that had given mirror to save her life. Stupid worthless experiment that had saved the world. It was so hard not to think of her as the enemy. As an obstacle. As something that shouldn’t exist. A walking circumvention of duty and the rules.
She pushed the confusion aside, and smiled as she saw the glass slippers. ‘Also a bad idea.’
‘What’s wrong with a bit of fairy tale?’ Yo asked as he pushed the rail back in and closed the hidden panel.
‘She’d probably shatter them and bleed out at her own gala.’
Yo smirked. ‘That would not have been the best advertisement. Come on, let’s try the next one.’
An hour later, all of the remaining prototypes lay on the floor.
‘Why don’t you tell me what you want?’ Yo said as he relaxed on the chaise longue opposite her. ‘Nothing will work unless it’s what you want.’
She looked at the pile of silks he’d thrown to the floor, and felt pangs of guilt. ‘But they’re all so-‘
‘Bah,’ he snapped, his stylus running across the tablet in his lap. ‘Magnolia, you tell me what you want.’
‘Anything that you-‘
‘You’re not going to ask, are you?’ The old man pushed himself to his feet and turned the screen to face her. ‘How about something fit for a queen?’
The rough pen strokes coalesced as the dress took shape in her mind.
‘Well, at least I’ve managed to stun you into silence.’
‘I’m not a damned queen,’ she said, the weak protest in her voice didn’t even sound convincing to her own ears.
‘I should hope not,’ Yo said as lights streamed down on her from the ceiling. Black lines hovered, half visible to her as he circled her – a holographic wire frame of the dress on his tablet. The lines slipped and changed as he made adjustments on his computer. ‘Your mother was damned, I suppose, even if you do nothing, you’ll do a better job that she did.’
‘You know who I am?’
‘Anyone who pays enough attention to Court politics knows who you are. Not that a lot care about the magpies, but the situation is drawing attention – it’s unusual for a family to have no warden for this long.’
Panels of white appeared to fill in the black lines surrounding her as the rough dress shape started to take shape.
‘I don’t care about the family,’ she said, ‘I’ve never wanted anything to do with them.’
‘Is the alternative better?’
‘Mordred is a psychopath,’ she said as Yo returned to the chaise to sketch at the drawing more. ‘He could be worse than my mother.’
‘Spin around for me.’
She lifted her arms and slowly turned.
‘He wants the crown, I’m assuming?’
She gave a shrug of naked shoulders. ‘He sent his lawyer to threaten and bargain for it. Offered me safety if I gave up my portion of the warden’s powers.’
‘Negotiations were cut short when he killed an agent,’ she said. ‘And I’ve got no wish to reopen them.’
‘So you’re a coward.’
She took a moment to process the voice, and the words. It wasn’t Yo, it was a woman’s voice.
She turned towards the sound of the voice, and saw a woman standing at the back of the room, behind Yo’s chaise lounge, a stare of disapproval on her face that would have made combat recruits wince.
Fish. The woman was a fish. Scales ran up her neck in delicate, deliberate patterns.
‘Coward,’ the woman said again.
She automatically reached for a weapon, but felt nothing but the chemise covering her body and immediately began to look around the room.
‘Miss Magnolia,’ Yo said as he rose from the chaise. ‘Have you had the pleasure?’
She stared at the fish and shook her head.
Arshan took her hand and lead her over to the fish, the wireframe hologram disappearing as soon as she’d moved out from under the lights.. ‘Miss Magnolia, this is Queen Marguerite Hat-Stewart.’
She barely held in a scoff. ‘Hat?’
The queen arched an eyebrow. ‘And you bear little resemblance to the flower, about as little resemblance as you do to your mother.’
‘Yes, magpie, of course. If you intend to be queen, you need to be better at spotting the characteristics of your fellow families.’
‘I have no intention of-’
‘Your family is suffering because there is no warden, so you need to take the crown or abdicate and let your brother take it.’
‘I won’t give him the power.’
‘Then you’ve got no choice but to become queen.’
‘I am nineteen fucking years old, and I have a life at the Agency. I have neither the experience nor the inclination to lead a family I have been ostracised from and that has done nothing but hurt me.’
‘And that’s why you should be queen.’
‘Sorry bitch, what?’
The salmon queen smiled. ‘I was fifteen when I was given the position, don’t hide behind your age. Ignorance can be-’
‘I never said I was ignorant.’
The queen moved past her and sat on Yo’s chaise. ‘Do you want my advice or not, flower?’
‘I don’t need it, fish. I have no interest in-’
‘You can have the power without the responsibility.’
She stared at the fish for a moment, then relaxed her posture a little. ‘I’m listening.’
‘Then we should talk.’ She looked to the fairy. ‘Do you have enough to work with?’
Yo nodded. ‘I should have something more concrete for you to see when you get back from lunch. Do you want me to combine the lunch reservations into a private room?’
‘I think that should be suitable,’ the queen said. ‘You should get dressed, flower.’
She set a neutral expression on her face, and retrieved her simple, required dress from the rack.
‘A question first,’ the Queen said, staring as she dressed. ‘The agent. Is he just a lover, or is he something more to you?’
‘How is that relevant?’
‘If you intend to be queen, Magnolia, it’s very relevant.’
‘Paraphrasing yourself doesn’t answer the question,’ Taylor said.
She snapped her head up as she slipped on her boots, and saw him standing in the doorway. ‘Sir-‘
‘The walls are thin,’ he said. He looked to the queen. ‘Why is it relevant?’
The queen smiled at him. ‘You are an impressive-looking agent. You’re good arm candy if nothing else. Still – are you for fun or for the long-term?’
She wanted to smack the royal fish, to make her swallow the words, to take back the question. The future, let alone plans for the future hadn’t been something they’d discussed. It wasn’t just some fling, but trying to put it into words would be pushing him. Unbreakable as he was, she couldn’t chance talking about something that aimed at a vulnerability he wasn’t used to.
She didn’t want to push him away.
Unbidden, she looked to him, traitorous eyes looking into his when she should have focused on the fish.
Perhaps, sometimes there was justification for cannibalism.
Taylor said nothing.
The Queen sighed. ‘It is important because it changes how you will be perceived. There has never been an agent as a prince-consort of a Court. It would be something new.’
A demurely-dressed young man entered the room and handed her a phone. ‘I’ll see you two at the restaurant, and please, flower, keep an open mind.’ She pressed the phone to her ear, then followed the young man out.
She swung her arms in front of her, half-dance, half-imagined kata, and took deep breaths to comfort herself.
‘Prince-consort,’ Taylor said.
She looked up to him. ‘Sir-‘
‘I saw that.’
Apologies died on her tongue. ‘What?’
‘I saw that.’
She let confusion cross her face. ‘Forgive me sir, saw what? Saw it where?’
‘Wrath showed me possibilities of the future. That was one of them.’
‘I don’t want to be queen. No. I don’t want to be my mother. If the fish is right and power is possible without the responsibility, then I’m willing to listen. I will not sacrifice being a recruit for something I don’t want, but if I can have both, then it’s something I will consider. But that is no demand on you, sir.’ She sat on the chaise and began to lace her boots. ‘The future isn’t something we’ve discussed, sir. I am grateful for what we have now, and I’m not going to-‘
‘Avoidance of a topic benefits no one,’ he stated. ‘Talk.’
‘These aren’t decisions I can make for us, sir. What do you want from this? From us?’
‘That goes without saying sir, but as to label, and official statuses-‘
‘Marriage,’ he said flatly.
She focused on tying her laces. ‘That’s one possibility, sir.’
‘What do you want, Magnolia?’
She stood and looked at him. ‘Simplicity. I don’t want change. I want-‘
‘Constancy,’ he supplied. ‘Security. Status quo.’
‘Pretty much, sir. Adaptability in a fight is necessary, I’m less capable when it comes to my own affairs though.’
‘I do not envisage this to be a temporary state.’ His arms wrapped around her. ‘And I have no issue with official recognition of that.’
Her heart fluttered at the possible implications of his words. ‘Sir-‘
‘You are my constant, Magnolia, everything else is secondary to that.’ He fished his dog tags out from his shirt and lifted them over his head. ‘It will take death to separate us, and even that we’ll fight. Your duty is to me and mine is to you.’ He slipped the dog tag’s warm chain over her head and used it to pull her close. ‘And I have no issue informing the world of that.’
Her heart hammered in her chest. ‘Are you asking-?’
‘Yes, Magnolia, I am.’
She leaned up and kissed him.
‘Say yes,’ he said, ‘and it’s not an order.’
Tears rolled down her cheeks. ‘Yes.’
There was an eruption of cheers, and she spun, looking for an attack. The entire staff was watching them, and clapping.
Taylor growled, and she heard herself laugh. He growled louder, and after a few more shouts of congratulations, the staff disbanded, leaving only Yo.
‘If this was a ploy for an affirmation ceremony dress,’ the fairy said with a smile, ‘it worked.’
She gave him a confused look.
‘There’s only been three proposals in this studio,’ he said, ‘I figure it’s the least I can do. Let me use a bit of colour this time? I’ll re-purpose one of the vintage May designs.’
‘But we’re not-’ She looked to Taylor. ‘Sir, we’re-’ The look on his face surprised her. ‘Sir?’
‘Grigori,’ he said as he rubbed his temple. ‘Has informed me repeatedly that should this come to pass, that I had to allow him to host an affirmation ceremony, or else.’
‘Or else what?’
He shrugged. ‘Just that. Or else. He hasn’t found a threat yet that works, I’ve encouraged him to keep trying.’
‘That settles it,’ Yo said. ‘Now go lunch with the queen, I’ll see you back here in a few hours.’
‘Where’s the closest administrative office?’ Taylor asked the fairy.
Her heart floated and her body followed suit. Her feet lost contact with the floor for a moment before she focused and regained her footing and her hold on her commander. Her- Her fiancée. Her one-form-away-from husband.
Proposal to marriage in half an hour, twenty minutes if the lines were short. Very efficient. Very appropriate.
She clutched at the dog tags around her neck, and leaned against him, her feet losing contact with the floor again.
‘End of the block, turn left, follow the green directional line, can’t miss it.’ Yo smiled. ‘You want to do this now?’
Taylor looked to her and she nodded.
He ran a hand down her arm, and they walked from the studio.