9am, Friday, Hyde
7pm, Friday, Brisbane
‘You see that tree there?’
‘What tree where?’ Stef asked as she looked up from her coffee, then adjusted her sunglasses so she had a better view of the park.
‘That big one over there,’ Milla said. ‘The one that looks like a good climbing tree.’
She made at teasing face at Milla. ‘You’re still describing half of the trees in the park.’
‘Miss Agent, is one of these trees not like the other?’
‘You mean the one that’s a nymph?’
‘Yeah,’ Milla said, unwrapping a sandwich, ‘that would be the one.’
‘You could have just said that in the first place,’ she said, ‘I do have these nifty little tooltips.’
‘You could have just guessed which one I was talking about – you really should, actually,’ the recruit said, ‘it’ll make you a lot better in emergencies.’
‘You know I’m new at this,’ she elbowed Milla, ‘and this isn’t an emergency.’
‘Yeah,’ Milla said, ‘but the rest of the world doesn’t know you’re new at this, so you’ve got to be an agent as much as you can, it’s all a game of catch up, and I think you’ve got all the running start that you’re going to get.’
‘What’s this about the tree anyway?’
‘It’s our way into Madchester,’ Milla said. ‘I didn’t want to pick one of the boring entrances. She’s an ex-resident, she stayed until her mind cleared of madness, so now she stays as a door guardian to repay the kindness done to her.’
‘Is this going to be weird?’
The recruit grinned and jumped from the bench. ‘Oh, Agent, you should know by now, everything in this world is weird.’
‘Not…everything,’ Stef said, ‘okay, most things, but not everything.’
Milla ran across the park. ‘Quick, while there’s no muggles watching!’ She ran across the park after the recruit, who knocked on the tree’s trunk three times. ‘Hold your breath,’ Milla said, and pinched her nose.
The tree yawned, split open, and swallowed both of them without trouble. The smell of wet bark, earth, and a garden in summertime assaulted her senses. They were pushed through a tunnel, the sides pushing in on them on all sides, and then, without much ceremony, they were dropped to a packed earth floor.
‘See, that’s much more exciting than taking the stairs,’ Milla said with a grin.
‘Did we,’ she asked as she brushed leaves from her uniform, ‘just get eaten by a fscking tree?’
‘Sort of,’ Milla said. She lifted a camping lantern from a rack, then clicked it on. ‘This way.’
‘Okies,’ Stef said, and followed.
The short tunnel soon gave way to a much more open area, one rounded by food carts and information desks. ‘This looks like my local court,’ Stef said, a second look backing up her first impression.
‘The public areas sorta function the same way. This is the waiting room,’ Milla said, ‘not everyone comes every week like me, not everyone knows where to go, and sometimes, you have to schedule time in if a bunch of people want to see the same person. She popped the locks on her briefcase and retrieved a red card. ‘But s’ok, I’ve got an express card.’ The recruit grabbed her hand. ‘Come on, this way.’ They made it through the much shorter, “express” line soon enough, and Milla declined the use of a guide, with a whispered comment about the booth operator being new, rather than someone she recognised.
‘Cindy’s back through here,’ Milla said. ‘But the restaurant is this way, we’ll grab her some food, then we’ll go see her.’
‘Wait,’ Stef said, grabbing Milla’s hand. ‘Why don’t you go see her. ‘I can go grab the food.’ She smiled. ‘I’m pretty good at following basic instructions.’
Milla stopped fidgeting, and gave her a grateful look. ‘Are- Are you sure?’
‘Of course,’ Stef said. ‘It’s only a little favour. You said we were friends after all, what’s a little favour between friends.’
Milla bounced forward and gave her a hug, Milla’s briefcase whacking her painfully in the back. ‘Thank you.’ She broke away and pointed. ‘The restaurants are all free. The closest one is down that way. No yellow dishes, she’s allergic to shellfish. Ask for takeout.’ Milla blushed. ‘But I guess that’s kind of obvious. Extra dessert if you can. She feeds it to her bees. She’s in room twelve of Ash Block. If you get lost, ask someone. There’s always a guard or courtier around. And they’re employed to be helpful.’ Milla hugged her again. ‘You sure you don’t mind?’
‘I don’t mind,’ Stef said. ‘Now go see your sister.’
Milla nodded, and walked away, her suitcase bouncing at her side.
Stef followed the corridor that Milla had indicated, which was no problem for the first hundred metres or so, as there were twists, but no turns, no choices to be made. That temporary peace ended when the hall split into three wide tunnels. One of them, thankfully, had a symbol of a crossed knife and fork – that had to be the restaurant.
The knife and fork symbol reoccurred every ten metres or so, assuring her that she was going the right way, as did the small trickle of people heading in the same direction, most of them talking about food, and what the Friday food choices there usually were.
The restaurant was huge, with enough cafeteria-styled seating to seat a couple of hundred people – with additional seating in the form of large wooden circles that hung suspended from the ceiling, holding doll-sized furniture for fairies choosing to dine at a height that didn’t take up as much space.
There were serving areas on all three sides of the room, with the wall to her left holding additional folding chairs, cutlery, convenience items like napkins and straws.
What do I do?
Go with the flow.
She followed the closest group of people – following the locals, after all, had worked well enough for Harry when trying to find his way to Platform 9 3/4. Each member of the group in front of her grabbed a tray, so she did as they did, and followed them to the first serving station.
Each serving station had both plates and small plastic boxes containing serves of food. The boxes were all different colours – handy charts in a multitude of languages advised what the colours meant – most warned of particular allergies or food preparation techniques, letting all the Madchester citizens know what was safe to eat.
She avoided the yellow containers – of which she only saw three different food options, and piled a generous number of options onto her tray before deciding that enough lunch to make her arms hurt was probably enough lunch to fill a stomach.
Stef turned, and made her way back to the door near the wall, hoping for something to put the food in, and found a rack of blended plastic bags, each bag entirely covered in logos, a small line of text noting that each logo was of a business that donated to the Court. She piled the plastic containers in, followed them with some one-use bamboo cutlery and napkins, then mad her way past the crowd at the door, and back into the tunnel.
Okay. Um. Which way do I go?
Ash Block, she said Ash Block.
It would help if there were any signs…
Do you even know what an ash tree looks like?
That is so far from the point.
Try retracing your steps, Spyder, that’s always a good place to start.
‘Come on feet,’ she murmured, and took the path to the left, trusting in her agenty sense of direction to help her find the right path.