“I’ll burn their Manor down.” Yue was a bar away from busting a gasket.
“It’s fine… it's fine…” Gwen patted her hand. “I’ll be in and out in half a day, just showing my face.”
“Are you sure it’s going to be alright…” Elvia hugged her pillow with a face full of worries. “I’ve been to a few of these things before, but thankfully people thought I was twelve…”
“What things?” Yue became instantly suspicious.
“Nothing, just a meet and greet.” Gwen tried to pass the matter off, but Elvia was terrible at misdirection.
“EVEE, tell me everything,” Yue commanded.
Gwen tried her best to stop Elvia blurting out the truth, but Yue was relentless.
“It’s… a marriage meeting thing…” Elvia began nervously.
“Are you shitting me?” The Fire Evoker exploded as expected, making Gwen flinch. “Your stupid family is selling you off?”
“I am not going to let that happen!” Gwen promised.
“Well if you’re not back in school before we have to go to the Field Trip…” Yue spat between snarling lips. “I am going to burn the place down.”
“They have Guards in places like those,” Elvia added. “My dad has one that follows him wherever he goes as well, although Lukas is more like an Uncle. You don't want to make trouble for your mum, right, Yue?"
Yue grunted unhappily.
“Be careful alright?”
“Yeah,” Gwen answered, wishing that she could be as sure of her circumstances as Yue's intent in burning down her uncle's house.
The team practised as usual on Friday, rested, then planned out the final details on Saturday. Gwen informed Jun and Henley that she would have to visit family on Sunday, and the team promised to pack for her so that upon her return Sunday night, she would be ready to leave with the first coach on Monday.
Sheepishly, Gwen unveiled 'that' particular part of her closet, with both Elvia and Yue baulking at the excess. She had to dress to impress, that was undoubtedly a part of the deal. Something classy but cute, petite and svelte. Something that 'sold' her. Elvia and Yue bickered over her choices until Gwen picked out a china-blue sleeveless Sunday dress modelled after Ming porcelain, yet another gifted Miu Miu she couldn't afford. Yue had Elvia helped to style her hair, creating a dense, messy bun of loose coils with a loose fringe framing her face. After thickly applying mascara, Gwen's lashes gained the curvature and rigidity of scimitars. To finish, she plumped her lips with a coat of gloss.
She then opened a suitcase that she had kept on top of the cabinet, and removed from it another dazzling assortment of accessories and a half dozen pair of shoes. Yue and Elvia squealed with glee. Gwen selected a pair of wedge sandals in a shade which was pleasing when worn with the dress.
“Oh-My-God, Gwenny.” Yue could scarcely breathe. “Marry me right now.”
Elvia fiercely agreed.
“Hopefully, I won’t have to do this too often…” Gwen remarked. Even with help, it was a tremendous undertaking.
In the hallway, Gwen was met by violent gasps and the sudden sucking-in of breaths. Inside the elevator, other passengers stared, too afraid to speak. Considering the state of Sydney's public transport, Gwen gritted her teeth and called for a private Cab. Perversely, her driver kept his eyes on her far too long and almost had an accident before they made it across the Harbour Bridge.
Heart-in-mouth, passenger and driver pulled into Kirribilli after an hour.
The Cab rolled into a parking bay circulating the Manor's frontage, gaudily decorated with a gigantic statue of a sea-shelled Aphrodite in her radiant glory, ejaculating two streams of water from her nipples. As Gwen's cab pulled up at the front door, a suited, black-visored guard threw a fifty through the driver side window before opening the door for Gwen.
YES! Fifty bucks SAVED. Gwen mentally fist-pumped the air.
It was impossible to read the guard's expression behind the glasses censoring his face, so Gwen instead turned to regard the estate.
An extensive property of about two thousand square-meters, her uncle’s Manor had a harbour facing frontage. The manor was a freestanding sanctuary of exclusivity, space and opulence. The modern facade of the estate possessed four open levels bathed in natural light, with floors dressed in French oak and walls in antique-white.
“Please follow me, Ma’am,” the guard intoned with reverence, taken aback by Gwen's feminine presence. Gwen followed, noting the prevalence of dark-suited men patrolling the compound.
I guess Yue’s not burning this house down, Gwen remarked sourly. What the hell did her uncle do anyway? The bloody mansion reminded her of a mafioso movie set.
“GWEN! MY LOVELY NIECE!”
A voice like rolling thunder boomed across the hallway. Gwen stiffened as all eyes in the room shifted toward her, pinning her with their hawkish gaze.
Well shit, so much for subtlety. Gwen sighed internally.
“Uncle! I missed you so much,” she sang out thrillingly, hoping the effort was sensational enough to satisfy her uncle.
Kwan Huang was a giant of a man, made larger than life by his preference for loose polo shirts and baggy pants. Overweight and overbearing, Kwan roved and loomed wherever he went. Unlike Gwen's mother, Kwan appeared to have gained the lion’s share of the Huang's South East Asian heritage inherited from their Grandfather. The man's face was one that gave an air of benevolence, but beneath which hid a chilling ruthlessness. In the years since the family’s rise to riches, Kwan had gotten fat and bulbous: not thick in the way that white men grew heavy, with their beer-bellies, but swelling like a durian, with spikes to match.
Her uncle came on like a storm. Gwen felt his uninvited, mitt-sized hands wrap around her hips, lifting her with ease off the ground as he pressed the air from her ribcage. The upward draft caused her skirt to hoist dangerously, forcing Gwen to pat down her hem lest the audience enjoyed a free show.
When she became sufficiently disorientated by the embarrassment, he set her down facing the crowd of stickybeaked onlookers.
“Beautiful!” He bellowed, a little puffed out from the performance. “I remember doing that when you were a little girl, but you’re a young lady now, Gwen.”
“I’ve missed you, Uncle.”
Kwan then slipped an arm around her elbow and towed her behind him. In the open living room, the assembly of guests intensely scrutinised the tall blue flower bewilderingly brought into their midst.
“Helena's been hiding you from us hmm?” Kwan announced jovially. His arm was as strong as a bear's. “I heard the good news, Gwen. You don’t know how happy that makes me.”
“It’s nothing, Uncle.” Gwen tried to retrieve the arm she'd lost to a bear trap. She tried keeping up with her long striding uncle; her heels making progress both awkward and painful.
“Bosh! You are the best thing that has happened to us for a long time,” her uncle noted. “Except Richard of course, but that’s old news.”
“How is Aunty doing?”
“Well, very well. Tali's with a client at the moment, but you’ll see her soon enough. She has been asking about you nonstop since the news broke.” Kwan’s voice had a kind of projective force to it, giving Gwen the impression that he never spoke to just one person.
Soon, they seemed to have reached their first stop.
“Patrick! My boy! Come here. I want you to meet the belle of the ball!”
Gwen watched a young man saunter toward them. 'Patrick' wore a dawn-tinted shirt paired with grey, herringbone pants and brown leather oxfords.
“Kwan, is THIS the niece you were boasting? She’s stunning! Stunning I tell you!” An older man’s eyes roved up and down Gwen’s body, making her skin crawl. “Patrick, come and greet Gwen, show some of those gentlemanly manners I’ve been paying through the nose for.”
“My lady.” Patrick bowed. Gwen marvelled that his hair didn’t move a millimetre.
“Gwen.” Gwen returned a curtsy. Her mother loved curtsies.
Patrick’s eyes could have shot sparks.
“Patrick Oliver.” He offered her an arm.
Kwan’s grin extended from ear to ear.
“Not so soon!” He roared with laughter, joined by the older European businessman. “We still got the round to make. After that, you young people can get privately acquainted.”
And make the rounds they did.
Gwen met an assortment of young men anxious for her company, joined by a few girls whose eyes weren't nearly so friendly. There were younger children present too, but they were far too interested in chasing one another around the house.
“Looking a little too eager there Derrick!” Kwan roared as he and yet another older man shook and slapped one another on the back.
The young man who introduced himself as Derrick had a lean and hungry look about him that made Gwen uncomfortable. The boy wasn't bad looking, possessing a firm jaw and a compact body, brown eyes and cropped hair that screamed Military cadet. Gwen recalled that Derrick's father had stated the boy was a Cadet, no wonder Gwen's exposed skin overstimulated the repressed soldier. At any rate, it was hard to tell, but the boy did try to pull Gwen toward him when they shook, and Uncle Kwan was forced to cough discourteously, which made Derrick's father flustered and irate.
When finally all the introductions were finished, Kwan released Gwen into the middle of his spacious living room. She levelled her dress and felt the noon sun providing much-needed warmth over her bare legs.
Perhaps if Gwen were an actual teenager, she would have enjoyed the attention, the flattery, but knowing what she knew, she felt nought but self-loathing. Kwan's booming voice came from within the house.
“Gwen, a demonstration please! Your best spell!”
Gwen moved towards her uncle, who pulled her onto a dais that placed her at the centre of the middle deck.
I feel like a showroom model, Gwen reflected sardonically. Here we have my fat uncle, who I am convinced is a right bastard.
To her surprise, a series of targets appeared in the bay some thirty metres away, rising from the sea to form little dummies roughly the size and shape of a man. She looked around the room and sensed the presence of Conjuration magic.
“Gwen, your very best!” Uncle Kwan’s eyes met her own. An understanding passed between them. The display was not a request.
Well, this is why I am here. Gwen rationalised her show pony actuality. She told herself to bear with it. Delay until she can figure something out.
“Of course, Uncle,” she replied with a smile.
Gwen turned to the targets and used the refractory method taught by Alesia to ping the spatial latitude and longitude of her quarry. She opened up her Evocation conduits and allowed the familiar feeling to envelop her mana conduits.
“Guiding Bolt!” She incanted theatrically. From the blue above a bolt of purple ion struck the watery targets, dissipating into the water.
The crowd nodded with satisfaction. So it was true, the girl did possess a rare talent in high-tier lightning.
“Blast Bolt!” Gwen channelled more than half of her reserve, sending a tempest of cobalt bolts into the target, sending the water into a frenzy of emerald-white fissures. A small tsunami washed over the concrete seawall facing the property, bowling over the garden’s prized azaleas.
The assembly erupted into thunderous applause.
“Beautiful!” Uncle Kwan announced again, raising a toast to his darling niece.
A smudge of rouge appeared and faded from Gwen’s cheeks as she recovered, casting her inadvertently in a more feminine light. The applause continued for some time; without a drink to toast, Gwen curtsied once again before fleeing the platform.
Some distance away, in the privacy of the garden, she caught her breath. Her head throbbed, combining a migraine with a feeling of vertigo. Quizzically, she felt unusually hungry and parched.
“It’s good to see you.”
Gwen twirled to face the new voice and found it to be the familiar face of Kwan's wife. Aunt Tali was an unassuming looking woman of tremendous ability; said by many to be the sole reasons for the rise of House Huang. She was a shrewd businesswoman, well connected, always smiling and amiable in her memory.
There was a young man beside her. Tall like her Uncle, lean of body, clean shaven with a pair of horned-rim glasses, giving off a jovial air, as though laughing at a joke only he could comprehend. The young man was Richard Huang, the prevailing heir, the hopes and dreams of House Huang.
Gwen knew OF his cousin but had only met him twice. Richard awoke in his early teens to the School of Conjuration. Every other monthly dinner, Helena would bitterly complain that Richard was slated for greatness at Prince’s, while Gwen was a squib.
Then, after a melodramatic sigh, Helena would regard her daughter as though she was mentally disabled, shaking her head tragically. Gwen's response was to flee home and bury her head in her pillow until she water-boarded herself with tears.
Studying his cousin with intense interest, Richard opened his mouth to speak.
“Both the blonde dickhead and the depressing jarhead are from Princes.” He coolly observed. “They should be useful to you in school if you go to Lilith's, their family is well connected. Don't be surprised if they get a little handsy though. They're virgins.”
What? Gwen blinked. Were her ears deceiving her?
“Richard, be nicer to your cousin!” Aunty Tali stabbed her son in the foot with her kitten heels. “Say something nice.”
“Nice dress,” Richard replied in the same tone, then seemed to remember that he needed to say something nice about Gwen too. “Nice legs.”
“…” Aunty looked apologetically at Gwen, “Richard doesn’t hang around with many girls, Prince's is an all-boys school.”
“It’s alright aunty.” Gwen sidled closer to Richard, curious as to acquire an unexpected ally. “Do you like my dress? It's a Miu-Miu.”
She twirled before him, the hem lifting little from the centrifugal force. She watched his eyes shift up and down, his attention moving from her heels to her legs, to her waist and finally back to her eyes.
“You are stunning,” Richard stated, his demeanour slipping just a tad before correcting himself. "I like you, Cousin Gwen."
“You're certainly charming, Gwen.” Aunty nodded approvingly, her eyes feasting on her niece. “I have no idea why your mother has such impeccable taste for your dresses, but never for herself…”
Gwen chuckled. She had no idea if Aunty Tali was genuine in her speech or just playing along, but she felt far more comfortable speaking to her than to her uncle, who gave the distinct impression he was trying to hawk her to the highest bidder.
“Is mother here?” Gwen asked.
“Not on her life, no.” Tali smiled. ”Don’t mind it; you know she can’t stand these things. Half of these young men’s fathers duelled to be her fiancee back way when. There is no way she would want to meet their spouses."
“How about you, Richard?” Gwen pivoted to Richard, happy that her mother was absent. "How's life?"
“I am a Prefect,” Richard spoke in the manner of someone rattling off the weather. It was only his eyes that betrayed a keen intelligence. “I am looking forward to bigger things as well, such as the Selection for the Four Houses.”
“That’s wonderful Richard,” Gwen cooed at him. She rather liked the young man and his guileless manner of speaking.
“Richard, you better let your cousin go before someone duels you.” Aunty pointed to a half a dozen young men waiting in the gardens to speak to Gwen. “Not that anyone would stand a chance against you, ha!"
“Their abilities are subpar,” intoned Richard with the surety of a sage. “They spend too much time whoring and drinking. Gwen should beware. Maybe she should be my companion instead. What do you say, jailbait?”
“Richard!” Aunty Tali gave him another heel-in-foot.
“They make excellent social currency though.” Richard seemed unable to stop himself. “I wouldn't let them get too comfortable, but you could benefit by playing along.”
Holy shit, Richard is a wunderkind, Gwen found herself gazing upon her cousin with genuine wonder. How bloody talented do you have to be to survive an aristocratic school of assholes with a mouth like that?
Growling, Tali took Richard away, leaving Gwen alone in the garden. Within a minute, young men flocked to the pale blue rose, each one a desirous bee buzzing for her attention. Patrick was the ‘blonde’, so it seemed, and Derrick was the ‘jarhead’. Richard did indeed possess an eye for detail.
“So, my dad manages the Suncorp Energy Division.” Patrick began an exposition about his family and his connections in the manner of a man trying to hawk snake oil.
When she told them that she attended Blackwattle, the boys became flabbergasted. Small talk came and went, flitting from topics of Spellcraft to competition, politics to the latest trends. The wide range of issues made Gwen awkwardly aware of just how little she knew about the world outside Blackwattle. To these elite academy youngsters, she truly was a Frontier bumpkin.
“You must be thirsty, let me get you a drink.” Patrick volunteered.
“Thanks, Patrick.” She nodded courteously at him. "Could I trouble you for some canapès as well?"
Patrick waltzed away happily.
God, I am famished, Gwen caught a smidgen of bile in on her tongue. Hopefully, Patrick could make good on his promise.
Someone was breathing down her neck.
What the fuck? Gwen spun so quickly that when she tried to turn on her back foot, her heel caught on a wayward boot, causing her to lose her balance. Before she could recover, a pair of invasive hands cupped her waist, pulling them closer towards their owner. When Gwen finally caught herself, she found herself in the midst of being roughly manhandled by Derek, whose face was flushed with excitement, and whose hands were taking on a wandering quality.
Resist. RESIST. Gwen screamed internally. DON’T BLOW HIM UP.
She imagined herself NOT channelling mana, NOT allowing her Evocation Sigil to flare up, NOT turning Derek into a white-hot human torch.
Derek seemed pleased with his suave manoeuvre. Seeing that Gwen was unresisting and had her eyes half-closed, he assumed her a willing participant.
A wayward hand cupped her buttcheek.
Someone besides them chuckled.
Well, fuck it. Gwen reached for the offending limb.
“Whoa there, Tiger!” A piercing voice like a chorus of archangels rang out across the garden with the clarion clarity. “You must never touch a lady without her permission!”
Gwen turned to see the heartening appearance of Alesia, her instructor, striding radiantly on red stiletto heels, floating across the French oak floors like a flaming flower.
Derek withdrew his hands, looking downcast guiltily.
“Begone, Cadet, before you disappear permanently.” Alesia's rebuke snapped across Derek's face like a whip. Derek fled like a man on fire.
Patrick, who had been returning in a huff with drinks in hand, performed a sterling exemplar of an about-turn and disappeared into the house.
“My, my!” Uncle Kwan’s booming voice echoed across the room. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Boss Huang,” Alesia answered sardonically, hinting at her disdain.
“Kwan will do,” Gwen’s uncle replied. “Hell, the Scarlet Sorceress can call me whatever she wants.”
“Miss De Botton.” Aunty joined them cautiously.
“I love your propaganda Vids,” Richard joined the fray. “I am a fan.”
“Why thank you, Richard.” Alesia beamed.
Gwen remained silent, imagining herself polymorphed into a mouse.
Tali and Alesia made meaningless small talk until finally, Kwan felt offended enough to cut to the chase.
“If I may ask… what is someone of your stature doing visiting a lowly merchant like me?” Kwan asked.
Alesia looked at Gwen, who had been stunned this whole while.
“I am here for my Apprentice,” Alesia finally said.
“I am sorry?”
“Can I be your apprentice as well?”
“Not now Richard…”
“My apprentice, Gwen Song,” Alesia declared chillingly. “And I am displeased by what I have seen.”
Kwan’s face began to sweat. Aunty’s a little paler.
“You're taking on any new ones?” Richard persisted.
“Sorry dear, you’re the wrong School and the wrong element.”
“I am disappoint...” Richard looked downcast.
Conversely, Kwan was full of wariness.
“Is this official? Has Gwen given her consent?”
“Gwen?” Alesia turned to her student.
Gwen's mind was reeling. Things were going too fast for her to follow, but she knew it was now or never. Her affirmation would piss off her uncle, but seriously, she thought to herself. Fuck that guy.
“I would love nothing more than to have you as my Master,” Gwen intoned.
“Teacher, dear.” Alesia pulled Gwen closer. “Master is so old. I am too young to be a Master.”
“You can’t do this…” Kwan’s voice took on a note of warning. “You come into my house, crash my party, and take my niece…”
“Kwan…” Aunty touched her husband’s arm. “Calm yourself.”
“You… you…” Kwan seemed to be working himself up, measuring his options. Around them, Alesia could see the guards converging.
“Try me?” Alesia turned to Kwan boldly. “Are you so clean as to be immune to a good investigation Boss Huang? Does the concern of Paladin Gunther Shultz tickle your fancy?”
“Ah... er.. of course not.” Kwan deflated at the mention of Gunther Shultz.
"I thought as much. But you know what? I am not an unreasonable woman." Alesia tsked. "Here, a fair trade."
The Scarlet Sorceress drew into the folds of her dress and brought forth an envelope, one very similar to the one Gwen’s mother had possessed, embossed with a Sigil of Crown and Sword.
“A commendation for Richard for the Four Houses?” Alesia waved the envelope to and fro. "Only a few of these exist in all of Sydney."
“I would like to have a commendation,” Richard instantly replied, a hint of emotion betraying his usual countenance. "Please."
Aunty Tali intercepted her husband's rebuttal by giving him a strongly worded heel in the foot, sending Kawn away, groaning and swearing.
Tali unpacked the letter and scanned its contents.
“Deal.” She said quickly, putting the letter on her person before Alesia could change her mind. “Let them leave.”
“…and her mother?” Alesia asked.
“I’ll take care of it, for now.” Aunt Tali answered briskly. “But Gwen will have to make the call when the time comes.”
“Agreed.” Alesia extended a hand, and the two women shook. It was far easier to make a deal between rational, logical, and consenting parties. Such was the way of competent women freed from the masculine ego.
Gwen and Alesia watched the guards melt away.
“Teacher?” Gwen still couldn't believe her eyes or her ears. That was it? Was it done?
“Let's get out of here first.”
The two retreated hand-in-hand under the envious gazes of the astonished assembly.
There was a red Alfa Romeo outside, a classic Spider-class convertible with a woman's curvature.
Alesia REALLY likes the colour red. Gwen observed.
“Get in, Tiger.” Alesia popped the passenger door with a wave of her hand. “It’s a long drive back.”