When the girls had finally returned to the dorm, they were greeted at the door by Rawson.
“I heard the good news."
“Thanks, Mister Rawson.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Rawson snorted at Yue’s abbreviated intimacy.
“That being said - Gwen, the Principal wants to see you. Can you head over now? It's urgent.”
“Oh?” Gwen's chest tightened ominously. “Any idea what it's about?”
“Alright, I better get going then.”
"Want us to come with?"
"Naw, she'll be right."
Gwen waved her peers goodbye, then made for the campus just a block away.
The afternoon sun diffused itself against the horizon, skimming across the ultramarine Sydney sky. Despite the chirping cicadas, Gwen felt goosebumps all over her skin.
This meeting can't bode well. Gwen thought to herself. She had learnt to trust her feelings in her past life, and she had seldom been proven wrong.
The door to the Principal’s office yawned open after Gwen knocked and was told to come in.
An excessive dosage of Chanel No.5 drowned her olfactory senses.
OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT... No, no, no! Her body was already engaging its Pavlovian override. Every hair stood on Gwen’s head, her arms and legs gaining the density of lead. For a moment, Gwen pondered the possibility of fleeing, never to return.
“Come on in, Miss Song,” the Principal's none too friendly voice announced.
Gwen opened the door the rest of the way and met the heavily mascaraed eyes of her mother fluttering in that excessive manner Helena had mastered.
“Hello, Mother.” She managed to squeeze a greeting out between gritted teeth, compelling a smile that struggled to reach her eyes.
Her mother turned her body ostentatiously, twisting in the leather chair like a midday TV reveal. Immediately, Gwen could feel the heat rising on her face and her heart-rate rocket.
Sweet Jesus, what was her mother wearing?!
Helena had on a cream dress practically glued onto her outrageous body. Her cleavage was so exaggerated as to be almost exploding from their hapless containment, threatening to spill with every movement. She briefly recalled that her mother had called this ‘the tension of the moment,’ and then had laughed that her 'poor' daughter was ‘incapable’.
Principle Bartlett already looked like he had been turned on the spit by her mother for a good hour or so, his face was a mask of false sympathy and barely contained irritation.
Helena rose from her seat, her athletic legs stretching the fabric to their utmost limits.
Her mother leaned in for that cheek to cheek kiss. Gwen's spine mechanically bent to meet her almost by reflex, serving as an apt metaphor for her current condition.
This body remained beholden to the old Gwen's mother, Gwen thought to herself: a volatile cocktail of dopamine and adrenaline, fueling what was probably Stockholm Syndrome.
The peck on the cheeks made Principle Bartlett instantly uncomfortable; his wane smile faded altogether.
Her mother regarded Gwen.
“Sloppy and ugly,” Helena announced suddenly, and Gwen felt her mind go blank.
It was like she was watching the whole thing unfold from behind a glass cage, where her conscious mind was trying to beat down the panes to regain control of her rebellious body.
Her mother’s hands moved over Gwen’s uniform, straightening her blouse, tucking the edges into her skirt, furthermore hiking it an inch higher and revealing a bit more of Gwen’s long legs. She flipped over one wayward collar which had recoiled earlier, and pulled on her tie tightly, dextrously re-tying the knot to form a perfect cravat. Gwen’s shoes were not near polished enough, but there was nothing Helena could do about that now.
Helena admired her work.
“I am sorry you had to suffer such a slouch of a student,” Helena remarked with a little too much emotion in her voice.
“It’s fine. It’s fine…” Bartlett waved his hand dismissively.
Helena retook her seat. Gwen stood beside her stiffly.
I need to get out of here before this body goes hysterical. Gwen thought, her legs threatening to give out from the tension. As much as she willed it, however, her body refused to budge.
“So, Gwen dearest…” her mother cooed. She liked her assonance long and sensual. “Why was I not informed?”
“I- In...." her tongue was stuck in a barb wire snare.
“Informed me that you were a rare and wondrous Quasi-Elementalist, hmm?” Her mother’s voice took on a higher note, “One of the best in the school your Principle said…”
“Mother…” Gwen had a dozen explanations, but all her concentration was spent trying to suppress her tears from spilling. The back of her throat was a mess of taut muscles. “I… Er… I… wanted to…”
Oh for fuck’s sake! Gwen’s rational mind screamed and raved.
“Now now, Mrs Huang.” Bartlett tried to regain some control of the situation. It was self-evident by now that his student did not desire her mother's company. “Gwen has her reasons I am sure, but let me remind you before you challenge her decision, that the Tower has guaranteed the right for any Acolyte to live and study independently from their family.”
Bartlett’s words made Helena’s eyes narrow, giving her irises the look of a tigress eyeing down an audacious prey. The smokey makeup brought out the green in her eyes and made them far more intimidating than they usually appeared.
“I could hardly hope to infringe on Gwen’s decisions,” Helena spoke in a way that made Bartlett sweat. “That's why I am here in person.”
She turned again, exposing herself a little dangerously before drawing from the floor a handbag. From within she produced what appeared to be a letter. The envelope was gold trimmed, embossed with a crown on its frontage. Bartlett’s brows furrowed and realised why this damned woman had made herself appear before him in person.
“Lilith's College for Girls.” He breathed out with a defeated look.
“Yes, I see you recognise the crest,” her mother intoned.
She opened the envelope, withdrew a tri-folded letter made of thick, scented paper, then began to read out loud in that husky voice of hers.
“We cordially invite Mrs Gwen Song, daughter of Helena Huang and Morye Song, eldest Grand Daughter of Magus Huang, Magus, Senior Enchanter, to attend the college for the duration of her academic career until graduation… ”
Helena stopped reading.
“You know what this means,” she roasted Bartlett with a tone of incontestable fact.
“What… what does it mean?” Gwen asked weakly beside them.
“It means…” Bartlett's voice softened “It means that I should recommend your retraction from our school so that you may begin your attendance at Lilith's College for girls in February.”
“Why?” Now Gwen was beginning to feel genuine panic. Leave the school? Matters were escalating far beyond her wildest imagination.
Bartlett’s appeared as one crucified by his conscience.
“One of the best facilities in Sydney, in Australia, Gwen. The most talented instructors. Endless resources that we cannot possibly begin to provide…”
“I don’t care about that…” Gwen muttered.
“Don’t be such a sulking child…” her mother scolded her.
Helena pinched her.
THE BITCH PINCHED HER!
Gwen was aghast - but her body responded with the paralytic haplessness of a frog being stung by a hissing viper.
“Of course it matters.”
“Gwen, I am not forcing you to make a decision,” Bartlett continued. “But it is in my duty as your educator to tell you that this is a turning point.”
“Gwen…” Bartlett continued. “If you graduate from Lilith's, you could be exempt from military service. What's more, you are guaranteed to attend University. If you were to graduate magna cum laude, you could be sent to a tier 1 city! You could live your adult life in London, or New York, or Shanghai!”
Exempt from Military Service? Go to a Capital city?
That was something none of her friends ever consider seriously. To live in the tier 2 cities of humanity had three certainties: death, taxes, and military service, all within the Frontier. The government propaganda had made it very clear that no one was exempt.
“Miss Song…” The Principle seemed obliged to show her the whole hog, his tone becoming more solemn than before. “Think of it Gwen, to be able to live safely in the capitals of Spellcraft. You don’t have to risk your life for gainful employment or live under the shadow of an invasion. You could perhaps ascend to a position we could only dream of, become a Magus, perhaps a Magister!”
The Principal's face was red with excitement now; even Helena was breathless at the prospect. Life in a Tier 1 city, in the absolute safety of the White Zones, was something those who lived on the Frontiers dreamt of constantly.
“You could then attend the best Universities in the world. Cambridge, Oxford, Fudan. I can’t advise you to stay, Gwen… I can’t.”
Gwen shuddered. Leave Blackwattle? Her immediate thoughts were of Yue and Elvia, who had worked so hard with her to achieve their enviable positions.
Yue, whose bluster made her laugh and who helped her through that terrible ordeal, who stood by her side when she was feeling suicidal and hopeless. Elvia, her little angel, her faery who brought solace to her heart and studied hard to heal her wounds.
Now her mother, her damned mother, came in here thinking she knew best, trying to take away from her the happiness that she had worked so hard to build for her self.
But Gwen could not deny the truth that was behind Bartlett's words.
Would she have said no, half a year prior?
Would she have said no if she awoke to the talent and power she possessed but a year earlier and was therefore naturally slated for a school like Lilith's?
The answer was No.
She would have welcomed Lilith's with open arms!
Both Gwens within her: the logical, rational, mature-minded Gwen who was pragmatic and realistic, as well as the teenager she had never known; the alone and vulnerable and terrified child - screamed for her to accept.
Bartlett and Helena watched Gwen standing there unmoving, her eyes downcast and staring into the middle of the mahogany table. The tick-tock of the grandfather clock reverberated across the room like mallets striking their mind.
It had been only a minute, nothing more; but Helena wasn't known for her patience. She was never one for waiting on others, and the fact that Gwen could not decide on something so SIMPLE, so OBVIOUS, grated on her nerves tremendously.
“Could you give us some privacy, Magus Bartlett?”
The Principle nodded before making for the door. It closed with a soft click, followed by the sound of a long, drawn-out breath.
Helena turned to face her daughter, standing before her still as a statue. She surveyed her scion, measuring the worth of this fruit of her loins.
Her daughter had dark, voluminous hair neither styled nor kept sufficiently conditioned, but still tumbled from her head like an inky waterfall. Gwen's face was handsome, defined, a trait of her father's. Her brows that cried out for a plucking nonetheless arched gracefully, her un-mascaraed lashes long and thick. She had a straight, aquiline nose that was graceful and tapered, with well-formed, sculpted lips that were naturally fleshy and plump. Helena loved Gwen’s eyes - they were her own. Sometimes emerald, sometimes amber, hazel under the dim light. Gwen's countenance was fair, a little fierce for Helena’s liking, but symmetrical and pleasing to the eye, both from afar and in close inspection. Her daughter possessed a swan's neck that was long and graceful, extending from her sharp shoulder blades and ending in a shallow dimple. Gwen's shoulders were toned and a little too athletic, which would have to go, though her long arms were slender and unobtrusive. Helena's gaze fell lower and measured with dissatisfaction that her daughter would not be dazzling anyone with her unobtrusive bust, at least not without a certain amount of padded charlatanism. They were a good shape though, and there were potential in perhaps another year or two. Her eyes fell even lower to Gwen's lower limbs; these were Helena's pride and joy. Gwen had long and slender legs that made her move and walk effortless grace. They were perfect, be it her tightly formed buttocks or her rounded thighs, or her incredulously extended calves and ankles.
Helena smacked her lips enviously; she could scarcely summon the sympathy for her poor, foolish daughter, wasting her time here with these plebians.
Doesn’t she understand the weight of her talent, the gift of her otherworldly beauty?
The men who enrolled in these elite schools, their sons and their nephews, the Senators, the C.E.Os, and most importantly - the Magus and Magisters with their protégées, saw Lilith's as the source of their spouses.
They would go mad for a girl like her.
Helena knew this because she had been there. She was the top girl. SHE was going to have that life of being paired with the scion of a great house, of becoming someone of import. She could imagine it even now, the life she had missed out by impulsively marrying Gwen’s father because of a spiteful relationship with her father and brother.
But Gwen could have all that. She hated to admit it, but Gwen was better equipped than herself. Gwen was a rare Quasi-Elementalist. She was a beauty. She was born to be put on a pedestal. Didn't Gwen desire a comfortable life? She could marry into one. Was becoming the young wife of a Magister impossible? No. Not for her daughter. Not with the gift of her blood and talent.
Helena's cleavage rose and fell; her eyes sparkled like jewels.
“Gwen.” Helena’s voice was a siren's song. “You know what is good for you.”
Her mother’s hands enveloped Gwen's fingers. Helena's hands were flaming hot, Gwen’s cold and shivering.
“Please, Gwen,” she said again. “This is for your own good.”
Helena gripped her daughter’s wrists in the manner of twin shackles.
No, I am not going anywhere, you fucking bitch. Gwen screamed into her mind. Helena was nailing her to some God-forsaken cross of personal wish-fulfilment. Indignant fire rose from within her, ignited by a bolt from the blue.
MOVE IT! She commanded her sleeping body. MOVE IT, YOU USELESS WAIF!
Gwen's Evocation sigil was suddenly ablaze, sending a torrent of energy to flow through her elemental gates, blasting across the conduits in her body.
A surge of cobalt-white lightning erupted from her hands and struck her mother full in the chest. For a second, comically, Gwen thought she could see her mother’s skeleton.
As a trained Mage, Helena's body resisted Gwen's untamed lightning, even so, Helena was momentarily stunned. Below Gwen's mother, Bartlett's leather chair erupted, spurting blue-white plasma. The carpet singed as a Lichtenberg figure carved itself into the cashmere wool.
More importantly, Gwen's Letter of Acceptance burst into flames.
When Bartlett intruded into his room; what the Principal saw made him choke.
The annoying levitation-mother had been thunderstruck, her perfect hair now a mess of standing static. Her cream dress soiled by burns that had disintegrated some of the fabric. Furthermore, Barlett's antique visitor’s chair had gone the way of the dodo.
“Are… are you all alright?” Principal Bartlett enquired worriedly. That chair was one of a kind!
Gwen meanwhile was beginning to realise her monumental fuck up. Her mind had become a blazing white world of unfiltered panic. She had gotten her body back, but now she had sailed up shit creek without a paddle.
How would Helena respond? Threaten her? Sue her? Strike her down? Her mother was vain and proud and sometimes foolish, but she was no idiot. She was the most manipulative and scheming person Gwen knew by far.
“Wonderful,” her mother suddenly spoke, a little ash ejecting from her mouth.
What? Gwen realised this was not a good sign.
I concur, What? Bartlett echoed Gwen's thoughts.
“What a wonderfully channelled blast of Lightning, Gwen! Such pure, raw affinity.” Helena commended before taking her hands from her daughter’s wrists, leaving two black imprints.
Gwen looked at Bartlett, who appeared equally creeped out.
They waited for Helena to continue.
“You attacked me, dearest,” Her mother lamented sadly, her voice calm and collected. “You, an unordained Mage, a mere neophyte, attacked me, a Sanctioned Mage and your parent. Unprovoked.”
Bartlett felt his perfect beard unravel at the audacity of such an accusation.
“Now… Now, Ms Song,“ he interjected.
"Mrs Huang, Gwen is not-"
“You better shut the hell up, right now, you government plebeian!” Helena’s catty response cracked the air like a whip, her breath both fire and brimstone.
Principle Bartlett fell silent, his face turning the colour of cod liver. The woman was a mere Fire Evoker, and he was an accomplished Conjurer. If she weren't a parent - he wouldn't have minded teaching her a lesson in manners.
“Gwen,” her mother continued, smoothing out her ruined hair with her hands.
“You OWE me. Gwen Song.” She spat finally from between gnashing teeth. “If you at all want to continue your career as a Mage. You better start listening to those who care about you.”
Her mother stood, then straightened her dress, now worse for wear. She raised a hand, and from thin air materialised a cream and chequered coat.
A Ring of Storage… Principle Bartlett noted. An uncommon thing in the Frontier cities. Only the wealthy and the influential could possess such incredulous magical items. He was a Magus, a senior one at that, but not even he wore such Magical Items with such casual ease. His Ring was assigned when there was a mission; it was not a personal item. Was Helena a member of a notable House? It made no sense. Her daughter was as poor as a church mouse!
“I am leaving,” Helena declared coldly. “Lilith's or no, I expect to see you at your Uncle's manor this weekend; Kwan has requested to see you. You brought this on yourself, ungrateful child. I did my due diligence as your mother.”
Then like a departing storm, she was gone.
Gwen and her Principal met each other from across the room.
“I am sorry about the chair, Sir,” Gwen apologised, unsure of what else to say.
“Think nothing of it.” Her Principle shot her a worried look. “I’ll do what I can for you Gwen, but- ease up on the mana leaks.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Bartlett watched the girl amble dejectedly from his office before he sat in his surviving chair. He could imagine Helena holding a grudge with the tenacity of a Gila's genetic memory.
Once outside, Gwen loosened her tie, pulled out her shirt, then made her skirt comfortable.
Her uncle's Manor.
She hadn't seen uncle Kwan since the family broke up.
Her uncle’s compound was in North Sydney, not far from Kirribilli. She recalled that the place had been vast and pretentious, a brute of a building with an undeserving view of Sydney Harbour.
“Or else,” her mother had warned.
Rationally, at least for now, she had no other options, Gwen acknowledged bitterly.
She sighed, feeling more tired than ever.
It didn't take a Diviner to know her near-future was going to suck.