‘And for you sir?’ the hob waitress asked him.
Taylor stared at the gilded menu in his hands, a hundred dishes that he’d never tried stared back at him. He flicked his eyes at Magnolia and she quickly ordered for him. The waitress bobbed a bow and took the menu from his hands.
The wine steward rounded the table and filled their glasses again.
‘it took you long enough to get here,’ the salmon Queen said as the scales on her hands retracted to give her the appearance of human skin. ‘Or did Yo have some sudden inspiration with your dress?’
Magnolia looked to him, smiled the slight smile she gave before she stabbed someone in the back, then laid their marriage certificate on the table.
‘I do suppose that answers the question,’ the salmon said as she stared at the certificate. ‘Flower, are you doing this to be contrary?’
His wife twitched at the Queen referring to her as a flower, then leaned forward. ‘You wanted an answer, fish, this is your answer. Whatever move I make, he’s with me.’
‘An agent has never been at the head of a Court before, not even as a prince-consort, not even of a minor Court, and your family’s Court is barely noteworthy as it is. All the magpies do is inspire fear and pity. You have no power, you have no influence, you have no governance and you have no strategy.’
‘I intend to stay a recruit,’ Magnolia said. ‘I have no wish to be a slave to my family’s Court. And I will not let any of them have the same power over me as my mother did.’
‘Your situation is unusual to say the least,’ the queen said. ‘The power split between you and your brother. It shouldn’t have happened like that. The power and the duty usually pass to a single heir, and Death can facilitate if it doesn’t happen before a warden’s death. How did the bitch finally die?’
He leaned forward to answer the question. ‘I tore her heart out.’
‘Brutal,’ the Queen said, but gave no indication of being disturbed, ‘and you gave her the heart’s blood?’
‘That explains that, then. It’s a little silly, if you think about it, but it’s the one way to forcibly take a warden’s power. It couldn’t have been everything though, that’s why your brother has some of the power.’
‘I don’t want to be queen, I don’t want to invest the time,’ Magnolia said.
‘Today I have had a spa, a dress resizing and now I’m wasting my time talking to you. Does it seem as though I invest much time in my Court?’
‘How do you do it?’
The queen looked at each of them in turn. ‘it’s easy. You set up a parliament. Retain the power, delegate the responsibility. Your family’s affairs may be in shambles, but it would take very little effort to bring it into some sort of order. Tithing and outside income for a start. The magpies, so far as I know, provide no standard service. You could tender a contract or offer services that only your kind can do. The crows charge far too much for their cab services, but no one challenges them, so their rates are paid. Your kind would also make good security guards.’
‘I can’t begin to-‘ Magnolia started.
‘You need to kill your brother if you want a chance at peace, and a chance at bringing your family under control.’
Magnolia nodded to this.
‘Kill him, and install a parliament,’ the Queen said, ‘it’s as simple as that, flower.’
‘I don’t have any friends in my family,’ she said, ‘and I won’t appoint people I don’t trust.’
This seemed to surprise the Queen. ‘You have no contacts in your family?’
He looked to Magnolia. ‘The tech,’ he said.
‘I have one brother,’ she said, ‘another recruit, which is the only reason I even know him. He’s a tech and I hardly think he would be suited to the position of Magpie Prime Minister.’
‘You shouldn’t be so quick to-‘
‘We’re combat,’ she said, ‘scholars have their uses and it’s not as leaders.’
‘Should I be expecting a Court under military rule, flower?’ the Queen asked. ‘I might have to reconsider my support if that’s your intent.’
Magnolia narrowed her eyes. ‘Support?’
‘If you align yourself with us, and promise no more wars, you’ll have the support of my Court to help you ascend to Queen, and to help bring your Court to order. We could be great allies, and to tell you the truth, flower, there aren’t a lot of Courts willing to ally themselves with you or your brother. If you intend to do anything, you need help.’
Her phone rang and she excused herself to answer it.
Magnolia looked to him. ‘Sir?’
‘The offer seems genuine,’ he said, ‘your mother made war for no reason, your brother would be worse. Her support of you makes tactical sense for her Court.’
‘This doesn’t seem like something that could be accomplished in a day,’ she said.
‘Have you considered it?’ he asked. ‘Leading the Court?’
She shook her head. ‘No, sir.’
‘You excel in whatever you try,’ he said. ‘If that’s where your duty is-‘
‘My duty is to you, sir. To you, first and always, to the Agency second, everything else is a distant third. Responsibility to my family, such as it is, never enters my mind. If I can retain the power without the responsibility, then that would be ideal. It would be a potential source of new recruits, but if I-‘ She paused and took a drink. ‘There are a few families that exist without a warden. I don’t know what complexities are involved, but it would almost seem better to have none to have power than-‘
He shook his head once and she cut herself of in mid-sentence. ‘There always needs to be someone with more power than you,’ he said. ‘Your position holds other recruits in line, Enforcers and those above hold agents in line. Those without someone more powerful to yield to are dangerous. The delusion of invincibility leads to slaughter far too easily.’
The Queen returned, and the conversation resumed.
He watched as Magnolia and the Queen spoke, delving in more political detail than he cared to absorb – at least until it he had no choice in the matter. Magnolia could lead a Court – he had no issue believing that. It was easy to imagine her leading a Court, leading an army, leading an Agency. She was capability in a short skirt.
He dropped his hand below the table and brushed a hand against her leg. Her face only changed in the subtlest of ways, but her hand covered his, and pressed it to her leg, then guided it to her thigh. He held her leg firmly, but made no movement to tease her or distract her.
Lunch disappeared from their plates in short order – the serving sizes completely dissociated from their price. Wine glasses were filled again, then a serve of the “house special” dessert was place in front of each of them. Silver plates inlaid with Tresh emeralds – which according to their far-too-verbose server changed the flavor of the food. Multi-coloured mousses sat in thumb-high mounds around the circumference of the plate, surrounded a small, clear bowl that held a mealfish. One, as their server explained, modified to taste like the signature dish of a chef that had died half a millennia ago.
The lunch had been serviceable. Meats and vegetables and sauces. Foods that were simple enough.
The fancy dessert on his plate was anything but simple. It was the kind of thing Grigori would order, It was chaotic. It was-
Magnolia moaned, and he turned to look at her. Embarrassment flushed her cheeks as she caught his gaze.
‘What colour?’ he asked as he looked at the missing mounds of mousse on the edges of her plate.
He spooned a lump of the red mousse into his mouth and swallowed. Edible. Pleasant. He gave her a slight nod, then worked on emptying the plate in short order, saving the meal fish for last. He plucked the fish from its bowl and swallowed it.
Magnolia’s hand strayed to his leg, her face neutral as she finished off her mousse.
His dog tags clinked around her neck as she leaned forward to grab her wine glass. His tags. His recruit. His Aide. His wife.
He wrung his hands on the cloth napkin in his lap, and ignored conversation as it went back to Court politics and the lack of support the families got from the major Courts.
He wanted to kiss her.
He wanted to touch her.
She was his, and she was his duty.
Words he could only allude to. Words he couldn’t say out loud. Words that were truer than anything else he knew.
He was an agent, and until he needed to be otherwise, he could act as though his duty was to the Agency. It was the only life they knew, it was the only thing they wanted. Had been the only thing they wanted.
The glimpses Wrath had given him had been mere seconds from futures that could change with the tiniest of decisions. None of them were guaranteed, and none of them were unavoidable destinies. A life within the Agency was possible – probable – but not guaranteed.
An agent’s life was one of duty, was one of duty until death. Duty couldn’t be scrubbed from their soul, it was there, even for the Fallen. Duty, however, was far less often to the Agency than the propaganda would have everyone in uniform believe.
Duty until death. He had died for the Agency. He had paid his debt. Whatever came next was with Magnolia, Agency or not.