The Auction

10 – Chains

Curt still wasn’t sure who Francis was.  The man had been very circumspect in doling out details about himself. Whoever he was, he knew how to navigate the auction like an expert. And being on his arm was like walking through the world with a new lens.

No one looked at Francis the way they did Carmichel. There were few, if any, nods of recognition.

In most cases, that would seem to indicate that Francis was just one of Magpie’s attendants. But…the way he walked, the way he seemed to size up people and artwork with equal ease, left Curt with the distinct impression he was dealing with someone powerful. Or, at least, someone in a position to pull the strings of power.

Francis was rich. He was at least certain of that.

Money had always been one of those strange things to him. When you were a kid, you didn’t think about it . . . and he knew even having the luxury of that being his first thought showed he had some level of privilege.

If you were really poor, you knew it; if you were really rich, you knew it.

His family had owned a fruit and veg shop and had a small portfolio of rental properties. In addition to that, both of his parents had made the right kinds of investments during the nineties.

Two cars in the driveway, plenty of presents at Christmas, at least one holiday a year. But that had been…normal. It wasn’t until he’d been older that he’d started to understand that not everyone had been on interstate holidays or could get a new PlayStation game every week.

Even more recently, he’d begun to realise just how privileged he’d been.

He’d gone to see Raz after a mission to thank the tech for keeping him alive.

Raz had been flying a drone around what Curt had initially assumed to be some derelict building.

With shame becoming more and more evident on his face, Raz had explained that it had been where he’d lived before joining the Agency. That the bedsit – a term Curt had never heard before, meaning a studio so small it could basically just fit a bed and maybe a desk – had been all Raz had been able to afford on his disability pension.

The walls had been thin, the bathroom had been mouldy, and the common laundry room appliances rarely worked. Misery, incarnate in four walls.

So Raz had designated himself as the guardian angel for the tenants of the ten bedsits. Nothing big, nothing that would expose magic to the world, but that would make their lives just a bit easier.

Whenever he had the spare time, he’d fly the ibis drone around and fix whatever its little camera eyes could see. The washers and dryers worked regularly now. The mould had dried up. Cracks in the driveway that had proved dangerous for one neighbour with a walker were patched.

And always, always, he tried to make it so each tenant found at least an extra twenty bucks. Sometimes, it was delivered as a birthday card. Sometimes slipped under the door. Sometimes it would just appear in a wallet.

Not enough to change the world, but enough to change their lives.

You never knew, Raz had said, how much twenty dollars was until you needed twenty dollars.

In his mind, he and Raz were two points of “normal”, one side of the bell curve compared to someone like Carmichel.

He’d never asked Carmichel about his childhood, not directly at least. From the stories that had willingly been shared, Curt had been given the impression that Carmichel had grown up well off, but had come into more money in his adulthood.

Francis, on the other hand, seemed…If someone told him later that Francis headed a minor court himself or was the kind of guy that made it onto magazine covers, like Sacha’s parents, he wouldn’t have been surprised in the least.

There was almost a wake ahead of them as they walked. Wherever Francis wanted to step, there was always a free space. He just walked with the confidence of someone who, even in this crowd, could buy and sell someone’s entire family.

Francis brought them to a stop and gave him a sympathetic look. ‘Depending on your exact feelings about the Agency, this next one may disturb you.’

Curt followed him around a bend and-

On a very good day, his feelings about the Agency were mixed.

But the display in front of him turned his stomach.

A pair of wings, beautiful, fluffy, precisely what you’d think of if someone said “angel wings”, hung suspended by thin gold chains. They were stretched so that their full length was visible. From wingtip to wingtip, they were probably just shy of five metres, and the number of people clustered around them made it clear they were going to be a hotly-contested item.

‘Are you here to retrieve these as well?’ Francis asked, leaning in close to avoid drawing the attention of any potential bidders around them.

He remembered the wings being almost skipped past when they’d done the initial debrief of the items for sale. Even more than the actual living agent being kept as a pet, there had been a great deal of discomfort in even acknowledging the wings.

All Ryan had said on the matter was “they’re considered lost” and had made a point to the team not to bid on them.

Carmichel, afterwards, had indicated that he was going to try and find out whose wings they had been, as it would probably help close the books on one of the missing agents.

Agents taken for their wings usually didn’t survive. It wasn’t a certainty, but it was enough for the Agency to list the agent as KIA to give a family closure. If they showed up later, then it was something to be celebrated as a miracle but wasn’t something to be expected.

Wings weren’t something he was overly familiar with. His knowledge through the Solstice was that the fae sometimes called agents “angels”, but whether or not they could manifest wings was mostly a rumour amongst the people he knew.

Or that they could, but it was only important agents. Or that it was only at certain times. Or that they needed a blood sacrifice to grow them.

The last rumour was so far and so close to the truth at the same time.

Carmichel had given him a crash course, knowing that the wings would be on display. Or that they might come up in conversation, that it was better to be armed with some information rather than none.

All – or at least most – agents could manifest wings. It was something that required at least some active blue, so fallen agents couldn’t do it after they’d gone through blue withdrawal.

It was painful in a way that most of the corporate-y, advanced-science-styled magic of the Agency usually wasn’t. If they did it in a System area, it hurt like breaking bones, but they could come through it relatively unscathed.

If they did it in a blackout, though…then it became the stuff of nightmares.

In order to manifest wings away from the safety of the System, an agent’s blue cannibalised meat and bone, paying some lip service to the conservation of mass, and used the agent’s own body as raw material to convert into the feathers so beautiful that people killed for them.

It usually cost two limbs, most often both legs, as the wings would replace the lost mobility. And it was as painful as it sounded, like surgeries without anaesthesia or war-crime torture. Something you did only as a last resort.

You grew wings only when you had no other choice.

They were prized as collector’s items among a certain class of people. Either as an art piece, like Hoyt had displayed his, or – in even rarer cases – they were immediately grafted onto a recipient when cut from the back of a tortured agent.

With a bit of blue and some medical assistance, the recipient would have functional angel wings.

‘Let’s move on,’ Francis said, seeing his obvious discomfort.

Two aisles of paintings and other random objects later, he started to feel safe again. Francis droned on, describing each piece they saw, talked up its merits, and speculated on how popular it would be. After the shock of the wings, his voice was calming to listen to, even if the man couldn’t stop with the occasional flirty comment.

Francis scoffed at a painting, dismissed it as basic, and then took a moment to look at his phone. ‘The Queen wants to have dinner soon. We’ll finish this row and the next, then head back to meet the ladies.’

‘You still haven’t said what you do for Magpie,’ Curt said, feeling as though he should at least get the man’s job title from him.

‘Oh, I didn’t mean to be so mysterious. I’m her lawyer. Well, one of them; even a small court can’t be serviced by one man. I directly advise her, though, rather than handling small matters.’ Francis looked at a pair of earrings in a case and shook his head. ‘I’m surprised these are even on display.’ He looked back to Curt. ‘Should I assume that you know little about the minutiae of the interconnected legal systems of this world?’

Curt thought for a moment, trying to recall everything that he’d learned and half-learned, of conversations with Carmichel and diagrams of how everything fit together. Laws and legal stuff in Faerie seemed to be a spider-web so complex that most either tried to ignore it, or wanted to set it on fire.

‘The Court of Kings,’ he said, venturing the one fact he thought he knew, ‘top everything, right?’

‘I’ve never been topped by another Kings’ lawyer,’ Francis said with a grin, ‘but yes.’ They moved to the next exhibit. ‘The countries that make up Faerie, the Courts – local, minor, major – the traditions of each race. There are so many conflicts that can make even simple things a nightmare if you know the right precedents.’

‘But surely that’s for complex-’

‘I have a colleague who once dragged out a parking fine for six years.’


‘And as the head of a court, the Magpie Warden needs someone like me to interpret things in her favour. I’m Kings-qualified, which is rare for a human. I work hard, but the challenge makes things interesting and therefore worthwhile.’

Next, there was a statue…maybe. It was a tall, thick chunk of rock that looked like it had once had detail carved into it, but time and ill-care had worn it away.

‘Filler,’ Francis said dismissively. ‘There in case someone wants to buy something cheap.’

Next was another glass case, this one holding a large blue spiral of crystal on a simple chain. A very familiar shade of blue. It seemed to shine with an inner light, rather than just catching the light of-

‘I dislike the colour. It reminds me too much of-’

Francis’s voice fuzzed for a moment, and for a moment, there was a lightness in his head.

Drugged. He’d been drugged. And he wasn’t among friends. And-

Strong hands pushed him, making him walk, and he couldn’t muster the will to shout for help.

Petersen was- There was-

‘No,’ he whispered and wasn’t sure that the word had made it past his lips.

Something cold touched his hands, and he became aware that he was sitting. One of the servers knelt before him, a small medical bag on the floor.

The fuzz left his head, and he looked at the water in his hands.

‘Drink that,’ the server said. ‘And just relax. You’re safe, attendant. Can you answer some questions?’

Shaking, he brought the water to his lips and looked around for Francis, who had surely- Francis stood there, a worried look on his face. A worried look, not a guilty look.

‘How much have you had to drink?’ the server asked as he checked his blood pressure. ‘Any allergies or known medical issues?’

‘Just a couple of drinks,’ he said. It was more than he usually drank – nursing a single beer had become the norm – but…‘Maybe I should have something to eat.’

‘You haven’t eaten yet?’ Francis asked. ‘The Queen and I have reservations. They can add two more chairs.’ He turned, pulled his phone from his pocket, and walked away, already dialling a number.

‘Do you know your name?’ the server asked. ‘The date?’

He looked past the server and guests at the blue crystal necklace. At the very, very Agency-blue colour of it.

Neither Ryan nor Jones had really commented on it as they’d looked through the items. Carmichel hadn’t highlighted it. And yet- Here was something that had sparkled as he’d walked past, seeming to only fuck with him, with the only person in the room who had blue in his veins.

He’d need to test it again. To make sure that it hadn’t just been the sweet alcohol going to his head, but- The timing had been too good.

‘Attendant?’ the server.

He forced himself to pay attention. He nodded and greedily drank some more of the water. Whether it was magic or alcohol, his head throbbed. ‘I- Curt. Tuesday. I think I’m fine. I should have had something to eat.’ The server dropped something into his glass, which fizzed and turned the water pink. ‘Drink that. It’ll sober you up.’

‘Thank you.’

Francis returned. ‘We’ll meet the ladies on the mezzanine. I’d love to escort you.’ He offered his hand to Curt.

Curt looked to the server, who was packing away their medical bag. ‘Thank you.’

‘Of course.’

He finished the rest of the peachy-flavoured fizzy water, placed the glass on the ground next to the chair, and then accepted Francis’s hand. ‘And thank you too.’

‘My pleasure.’

He took one more look at the crystal as Francis guided him away.

In the privacy of his own mind, he allowed himself one small “fuck” so quiet that not even a mind reader would be able to hear it.

They had to figure out if the necklace was anything they needed to bid on – if it was some lost piece of Agency magic – and they had very, very little time to do it.

But first, apparently, was going to be dinner.

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