“Well?” Surya’s face flushed with anticipation. “Out with it!”
“I am... untrained,” Gwen said slowly.
"But... you can see a Conjuration Sigil in your Cognisance meditation?"
Surya's skeletal frame began to shake like a seismic fault on the verge of eruption. The man was understandably excited that his line would produce a Magus, perhaps a Magister.
"Grandfather..." Gwen touched Surya's wrists carefully. He better not be having a heart attack, she thought. That would be a disaster.
When Surya's eyes refocused, they had an intensity reserved only for his most celebrated erotic sculptures.
"Does your mother know?"
Gwen shook her head.
"Do you want her to know?"
Gwen shook her head.
Her neck was beginning to strain.
"Alright. Why's he here?" Surya pursed his thick lips, turning his eyes toward Percy. Gwen too, followed Surya's eyes to see her brother, realising that he had just heard their entire conversation.
Oh dear, now the cat's out of the bag. Gwen slapped herself mentally. Percy had an uncanny ability to be invisible when he wanted to. He must have developed it to evade their mother.
"Percy." Surya's voice took on a hard, obsidian edge. "Look at me, boy."
Percy looked up at Gwen and Surya. As a Selective High School student, his intelligence was without doubt. From his expression, they could see that he understood his sister had dropped a Fireball in the water, and now he was drenched by the blowback.
Beside Percy, Gwen wondered just how profoundly her brother understood her circumstances.
"Yes?" Percy piped up, his voice croaking.
"You tell no one about this," Surya intoned with absolute seriousness. "I hear one word out of your mother or father about Gwen's Conjuration talent, and you're disowned. You have my word as your Patriarch, do you understand?"
Gwen winced, hoping that his brother didn't take their grandfather's threat too unkindly. If Percy indeed were a smart kid, he would know the reason all their resources were pledged toward him was due to Gwen's incompetence. Now that Gwen was a dual-element, dual-school caster, the question of inheritance would arguably be up in the air.
"Good. Leave us now. Mel! Tess!"
Surya called out for the twins.
"Yes, Master?" Tess was now properly attired. "More drinks?"
"No. Take Percy and show him around the compound. I need to talk to Gwen in private."
"Sure thing, Percy, come on, let Aunt Tess show you something cool..."
Percy shot Gwen and Surya a worried look.
"Go," Surya commanded.
Percy dejectedly followed.
"I'll keep an eye on him," Surya muttered in a disgruntled tone. "He's more like Kwan than any of us, I think. You can hear the little cogs turning in his head."
"It's alright, Grandfather." Gwen's gaze lingered on her brother until he was out of sight. "Percy's a good kid at heart."
"Maybe drop a Lesser Geas on the boy?" Surya persisted, "He's young, might survive it yet."
"That won't be necessary, Grandfather."
"Call me Opa," Surya suddenly declared. "Its how we say grandfather in the old country. My grandfather loved to hear me say it."
"Opa!" Gwen uttered adoringly, allowing the O to linger on her tongue before pushing out the P with honeyed sweetness.
Surya shook with pleasure, the smile on his face split from ear to ear.
"What a wonderful word," Surya confessed with tenderness. "Your mother kept you away from me, and your father was too afraid to visit. To think that I have three grandchildren and you are the first to call me Opa."
Surya then scratched his head, unsure of how to proceed further. Certainly, he felt no love for the grandson used to coax him into giving up more money, but Gwen's unexpected presence was refreshing and delightful.
Gwen responded by leaning over and wrapping her long arms around her grandfather, burying his face in her blue cotton dress. His skeletal frame felt like a bone rack wearing his skin; the vitality within somehow surviving time's fierce embrace. He patted her back awkwardly. Unlike the rest of his body, his fingers were hard and steady, the hands of an artist and craftsman.
"Come with me." He began to walk briskly. "Let me show you the Workshop."
They proceeded across the elevated deck, passing Percy and the sisters. Percy looked as though he was sleepwalking, disinterestedly nodding at each sculpture introduced by Tess and Melissa, having lost all fascination for flailing breasts and perky bottoms.
The Enchantment Workshop sat on the east wing of the estate. Gwen noted with interest the protection glyphs surrounding the premise. Their glow was visible even in daylight.
"Precious materials attract unsavoury attention," Surya noted her concern. "I am frankly shocked that you carried the chromatic scale on your person."
Gwen felt a sudden permeation of cold perspiration. Like an idiot, she had wandered around town with an invaluable object.
Surya invoked an unlocking glyph. The doors opened, revealing a textbook workshop covered with tools and hundreds of drawers built into row upon row of shelving. Gwen further noted that even the interior had many wards in place.
"My sanctum," Surya said proudly, spreading his hands.
He gestured for her to take a seat on one of the stools.
"Who's your Instructor?"
"No," Surya scoffed. "Your real Instructor."
"I can't tell you, Opa," Gwen replied apologetically.
"Secrets huh? I love secrets." Surya scratched his rough white beard thoughtfully. "I say you're under magical compulsion, not a surprise, considering your talent and the origin of that scale. Care to play a game?"
"Just nod or shake."
"Is he a man?"
"Is he a Magus?"
"That's all I need to know," Surya smiled and took a deep breath. "My granddaughter, apprentice to one of the Ten."
Gwen's eyes widened.
"What? A senior Mage can't teach you shit, and your master's not a Magus. There are only three women Magisters in Oceania's Cabal. Do you think Magisters grow on trees? How many non-military Magisters do you think are in Sydney? You can count them on your hands, you know."
Surya tapped the oaken table beside him.
"Blaire, Walken, Lin, Ferris, Gonne, Kilroy, Uther..."
Gwen tried to keep her poker face intact.
"Kilroy huh? That old dog! Thinks he can have my cute granddaughter! He's dreaming!"
Sweat beaded on Gwen's forehead.
"You're good." Surya laughed heartily, "for a noni, you got a nice poker face, but you can't trick someone like me. Your pupils dilated when I said his name, don't underestimate the eyes of a master Enchanter!"
"You're amazing Opa." Gwen had to admit, that was both impressive and dangerous. Hopefully, her Opa's astute mind wouldn't trigger her Geas and squash her head like a melon in a vice.
"Yeah, yeah, flattery will get you everywhere." Surya snorted, pleased with himself. "Let's get down to business."
"Please do, Opa."
"So..." Surya continued. "For crafting a unique, tier 6 item, I charge about this much."
He showed her a figure by raising six fingers.
Gwen froze. She can't afford that.
"Do you want to pay in instalments?"
"Opa..." Gwen forced a smile to her face, realising suddenly what her grandfather had done. The sly old fox. He had deflated her negotiatory momentum by pivoting to their loving relationship as Opa and granddaughter! Now she was on the back foot! Should she remind him that any other Enchanter would love to work on the Scale? That would be awkward; they just hugged. She really should have clinched the deal right there and then.
"Opa you know I am penniless."
"Opa isn't a charity!" Surya grinned, enjoying Gwen's squirming, his demeanour full of sadistic satisfaction.
Oh, that's how you want to play it huh? Gwen chuckled internally. If the old man wanted to play mind games, that was fine with her.
Meanwhile, her Opa continued unabated.
"Opa has costs too you know, I need mithril from black zones, enchanted gold from the Grey Market, specialised blade tips forged by tier 7 Transmuters..."
"Opa..." Gwen purred, the plosive 'p' lingering in the air.
Her Opa gulped.
Gwen leaned forward on her tippy toes, one hand strategically placed between her thighs to pull her dress tightly around her shapely legs, her off-hand pressed against her chest as though she was short of breath and deathly afraid. Still seated, she shifted her balance, mounting the workshop stool to swing her legs to one side. Her lips parted in distress, her eyes working up a mote of moisture.
"Opa... I have no money... I don't want to sell my body to Uncle's friends..."
A bolt of lightning struck Surya full in the chest, setting his cynical husk of a heart ablaze with pathos.
"Don't... even joke about that." Surya coughed as Gwen smacked his back to ease his recovery. Gwen retrieved a glass of water for the old man.
"You're a piece of work, grandchild." Surya swallowed, clearing his throat.
Their eyes met.
"Hee hee hee, ha ha ha!" Surya exploded into roaring laughter; he hasn't felt so enthralled in years. The elation was liberating, as though a constriction around his chest had been removed; an irritating kidney stone passed at last.
"Alright, alright." He patted Gwen's hand, taking from her fingers the chromatic scale. "I'll do this thing for you pro bono, just this once!"
"Thanks, Opa!" Gwen gave him another hug.
A second into their joyous reunion, Gwen felt the old man pat her buttocks. Rather than flinging the old man from her like a spider, she hugged him with all her might.
"Arrrgh!" Surya cried out. "Can't breath!"
Gwen released the old man from her deadly koala-embrace.
"Can't take a joke, sheesh..." Surya moved to one side of the workshop, placing the scale into a heavily warded draw.
"Gonna take a good three-four month, I am afraid," he informed her. "Are you going to join the Sydney Inter-High Tournament? I should be able to finish it before then."
Gwen watched as Surya withdrew a wooden ring box, casually tossing it towards her.
"Collateral for the Material, its a small Storage Ring, about four litres of space, operation Glyph is inscribed inside the box."
Gwen held the box in her hand, her heart throbbing with jubilance.
"Opa, you don't have to..."
"Nonsense!" He battered a hand at her. "You're on Team Opa now, and Opa is very generous."
Gwen's lips split to reveal pearly white teeth; a smile so entrancing as to make Surya falter, wondering how the hell his crude daughter could have given birth to something so elegant.
“What’s this Inter-High Tournament?” Gwen asked quizzically.
“A cross-school competition,” Surya replied. “Don’t tell me your school hasn't enrolled you.”
“We’re a public school...”
“You go to a public school?”
Surya was speechless.
“Your talent is wasted In Blackwattle,” he critiqued as a matter of fact. “You mentioned you needed money right?”
"Want to beg and live on the charity of others?" Surya raised an eyebrow.
Gwen shook her head.
“Good. You should enter the Tournament then. The prize for the inter-high Championship is 900 HDM Crystals.”
Gwen held her breath. That's enough to see her through university, maybe even enough to start an investment or two.
“Split amongst your team of course. Addition prizes exist for other criterions such as control, versatility, power, defence, MVP, and so on.”
“I don’t think my school can enter...” Gwen said sceptically. Surely someone would have mentioned it otherwise.
“Bosh! Any school can enter if they pass the preliminaries, only the selective schools and a few private academies are seeded.”
Gwen took note but otherwise said nothing. The decision wasn’t hers to make. It wasn’t as if Surya or Gwen could register her school against their Principal's will.
"Do you have a team?"
"I have a Tier 4 Fire Evoker and a Tier 2 hybrid healer, as well as... a Tier 3 Earth Transmuter..."
Surya's raised a critical brow.
"A healer huh? That could be a real game changer. In that case, I reckon you need an Illusionist. Hardly anyone's got True Seeing at the lower tiers. Of course, the mundane thing to do is to get an Abjurer..."
"I don't believe we have any good illusionists at school-" Gwen interjected.
"Shame, see if you can dig one up. Do you know how rare it is to find a healer at your level? Until your Cleric is out of mana, your team can ignore minor injuries. The Questing component should be a cinch."
"I'll consider it Opa."
Surya said nothing more.
They toured around the workshop after that. Gwen's Grandfather showed her some of the projects he was currently working on. A mundane Ring of Water Breathing, a collection of Ioun Stones still in the progress of being inscribed, a pair of Slippers that allowed one to fasten one's feet to surfaces like a spider.
"Enchantment is using crystals to create, hopefully, something worth more crystals than the ingredients you expended," Surya explained. "The higher the tier, the higher the turnover."
"What's your best recipe Opa?" Gwen asked innocently.
"You got any more secrets to trade?"
Gwen smiled and said nothing.
"Then you can wait to find out."
With that, they exited the Workshop.
"You want to stay for the night?" Surya asked, "I can have the sisters cook something nice."
"That won't be necessary Opa," Gwen answered sweetly. "I need to head back to the dorm."
"You board with two other girls" Surya enquired. "Is there much privacy?"
"No, not at all."
"Mind if I come and see how you're all living?"
"I am joking of course."
"I suspected as much, Opa."
The duo chuckled awkwardly.
"I better take Percy home before it gets too dark, we still need to travel to the station."
"Of course. It was good to meet my cute Cucu Perempuan."
They hugged one more time, with Gwen wary of her Grandfather's wandering hands.
"Model for me sometimes," he said.
"I'd love to," Gwen replied as Percy was brought out.
"Remember what I told you, Percy," Surya noted sternly. "And tell your mother to leave Gwen alone."
"Yes Grandpa," Percy replied. He can't believe he wasted a day doing nothing, and now he had attracted the ire of a crazy old codger.
Melissa then drove the siblings to the countryside station, where the final city-bound train was due to depart in half an hour.
Surya watched the car disappear into the distance, smiling and cackling to himself. Numerous amusing ideas ran their course through the twisted channels of his deviant mind, but for now, he had a Message to deliver.
He drew a glyph in the air. A Message spell fired off beside his ear.
"Surya? It's been a while, old friend. What's the matter?" Henry Kilroy, head of the Ten, answered the Message. The Magister's tone, however, was one of bemusement. Surya knew better than to Message his private glyph unless it was something urgent.
"Henry old boy, you owe me big time."
"Oh really? I think you still owe me for ripping me off, old friend. I still can't believe I paid you forty HDMs for that sculpture. I asked for something suitable for the lobby, not something to make the guards blush."
"Oh I am not talking about that," Surya fired back. "I want to know what you did to hook your teeth into my cute Cucu Perempuan."
"Is... is that a Magical Creature of some kind? The Tower collects dozens of the damn summons very month, how would I know which one's yours?"
"My Cucu Perempuan, ya old fart! My granddaughter!"
"You don't have a granddaughter you senile old fool."
"So much for your tree-ring endemic memory! Surely you know my Gwen? Dark hair, hazel eyes, long legs."
"... I cannot confirm nor deny awareness of this Gwen Song."
"Come on, old mate, she's my cute Cucu Perempuan; I am serious here."
"By your oath as a Magus."
"By the Credo, if I have to."
"Well, well..." The Magister fell silent. "I still don't believe it. How did an ugly rock cod like you give birth to a rainbow trout?"
"It's called good genetics, Henry, you should try it sometimes."
"I got my Apprentices; kids are beyond me."
"Well, who gave you permission to take mine?"
"Why so salty? I still think you're lying. We've known each other for how long now? When's the last time you mentioned a granddaughter?"
"It's a long story... Listen, I want to know more about her, what's her deal, what are your plans."
"How much do you know?"
"I know she's a dual-school and dual-element, and I know she brought me a bloody Mythical tier Serpent Scale..."
"Jesus, Surya." Henry's voice rose an octave. "You could have cracked her head open like an egg! How much did she tell you?"
"Nothing at all."
"She's got Greater Geas attached to her Astral Body."
"Look, its a long story. What're you doing now?" Henry asked.
"Nothing more important than my cute Cucu Perempuan. Why? What are you thinking?"
"I'll clear my schedule. Can you come in?"
"Alright, ya better not have done anything else to her, you deathless old dog..."
On the train, Gwen sat in silence with her brother Percy. Her brother had not spoken to her at all during the two-hour long trip. Instead, he preferred to answer in grunts and gestures, finding intense interest in the scenery flying past the window.
"Suit yourself," Gwen replied sulkily. The carriage was empty, so she produced the wooden box from Surya. By now, Gwen had memorised the glyph for activation, wearing the Storage Ring on her right ring finger. She waved her hand across the box.
She repeated the process a dozen times, testing its quirks. From observation, the absorption had a maximum distance of a few centimetres. Within, items stowed within the ring's pocket dimension remained in stasis.
Four litres. It was a modest space, but it was enough for many things: crystals, I.D, cosmetics, light clothing, an extra pair of shoes.
As the train pulled closer to the city, more passengers boarded. Gwen rested her hand subtly, hiding the fact that she was wearing close to a hundred HDMs on her right ring finger. She caught a glance from Percy, his eyes green with envy, and fought down an impulse to give him the Storage Ring.
It was strange how things were playing out so similarly between her new and old world. In her past life, Percy likewise went to a Selective School, surpassing Gwen academically. When Gwen's success accumulated, he grew increasingly distant. When Percy started his own family, he had cut her from his life entirely. It was saddening even now to think that though every member of her family were all alive; they all went their separate ways. Her mother left the country with her new husband. Her father lived his own life with his young bride. Their grandfather she never heard from again. Her brother never called.
When the train pulled into Forrestville, Gwen alighted with her brother, who left without a word. After switching to the inner city line, she leaned her head against the window pane, then lost herself in the dull thrum of locomotion.