The girls bid one another goodbye the next day.
Despite their reunion at Blackwattle within the week, tears were shed, and hugs dispensed. Gwen blamed it on the adolescent hormones. The girls were at an age where every emotion seemed magnified, every separation, no matter how brief, seemed touched by tragedy.
Surya left with Gwen's girls, grinning sheepishly. Tess and Melissa had their duties for the day, so Gwen had until noon to get ready and embark on the five-hour journey to reach Kwan's Kirribilli manor.
On the guest bed, she laid out her wardrobe on the bed.
It was going to be a night of consequences. She wasn't just dressing to be beguiling; she was selecting a battle garb. What she needed was something vibrant, powerful - something that suggested willful independence. Mentally, she fancied the green curtain-gown Scarlet O'Hara had worn in Gone with the Wind. When Gwen had watched the scene in technicolour 4k, it had sent shivers down her spine.
Unfortunately, she had to make do with branded dresses her dreaded 'other' mother had bought her. Chronologically, she laid out the loot from her junior years to her senior year. The collection was akin to an anthropological study of Helena's head, measured by the hem of her skirts and their narrowing waistlines.
In both worlds, she was one of those girls who had hit puberty early, long before her mind was capable of comprehending the alchemical changes taking place. When the other girls were still mewling, adorable children, she had sprouted to five-feet like a new yew. When her friends reached their growth spurt, she was a six-foot crane amongst clucking hens.
She wanted something that showed off her post-Almudj figure — not something sexual, but something elegant and aristocratic, arrogant even.
Her eyes flowed over the selection, landing upon a porcelain white one-piece inlaid with lapis-blue china. She tried it on, doubting the dress could fit. To Gwen's surprise, it did; her unfortunate, Caliban-induced anorexia allowed the tapered waistline flawlessly. The hem was precariously short, but Gwen was prepared for that too. She'd earlier purchased a comfortable pair of white spats which would serve as safety, cropped high enough on her thighs to give the illusion that she was wearing nought but the dress itself.
Pair with a pair of pumps, she inspected herself. With an additional fifteen or so centimetres from the pump, she was a veritable Brobdingnagian. To practice, she stalked through the compound to the stunned expression of NoM labourer.
In Tess' bathroom, Gwen piled her hair this way and that, finally settling on a sweeping fringe framing her face. An application of eyeliners mascara finished the look.
In the reflection, she appeared terrifyingly vivacious.
By the time Gwen had stowed her wardrobe back into the Storage Ring, Mel had returned to take Gwen to the station.
"Woa!" Mel covered her face dramatically. "That's your regalia, huh? Let me get a pic."
She returned a moment later with a Lumen-recorder and snapped images of Gwen standing beside the water feature.
"I could sell these for crystals, you know." Tess grinned. "Get em blown up and printed, put em in a magazine. What say we go halfsies?"
"You're too much!" Gwen quipped, happy to be flattered.
"Well, let's get going. Surya is going to be a happy man."
They drove to the station, where Gwen caught the midday service out to the city. As the carriage filled, the passengers were surprised to find themselves in the presence of silver screen actress. From central, the Taxi driver stole glances at her, almost causing an accident.
At Kwan's, the late afternoon sky remained a blazing ultramarine, the waters of Bateman's Bay a translucent teal. Against the bay, Gwen extended her legs perpendicular to the cab, her heels tapping the concrete. Instantly, a guard wearing a white shirt and dark tie attended her arrival.
"Ms Song." the man bowed. "The family is within. Please follow me."
Gwen told him to tip the driver for his service and the guard obliged, throwing a fifty into the cabbie's window. They were halfway up the stairs leading to the elevated foyer when Gwen heard the familiar voice of Richard coming down the stairs.
"Gwen! My word, you look a million HDMs! I had been dreaming up compliments, but you've wiped them from my mind." The young man's eyes were smiling.
Gwen left the guard for Richard, moving across the marble tiles with a tap of her needlepoint heels, drawing heads from all across the compound.
In the flood-lit corridor, Gwen appeared larger than life.
The cousins embraced; Gwen giving Richard a peck on the cheek.
"Now that you're taller than me. I feel small and emasculated," Richard confessed, returning a peck on her cheek. "Can you not walk too close? I feel both intimated and questionably aroused."
Gwen laughed and punched Richard in the arm,
"You brute!" Richard remarked, sliding an arm around her to cup her waist. "Come, let me take you in. How high are those heels? I'll have to get the Transmuters to add another inch to my shoes."
The manor was exactly as Gwen had left it the last time. Opulent and tasteless. It spoke loudly of how much money the inhabitants possessed and little of anything else. She clicked-clacked her way through the foyer and into the open living room.
"Gwen! My beautiful niece!"
A voice that could only belong to Uncle Kwan echoed across the vaulted ceiling. Unlike last time, Gwen was now prepared. This time, she had support. This time, she had a plan.
"Uncle!" Gwen left Richard and embraced Kwan. This time, the bulbous man appeared diminished by Gwen's implausibly long-legged figure.
"Have you gained weight?" Kwan lifted her, then allowed her to land.
"No more than you, Uncle."
It took a second for Kwan's ire to catch up. Gwen knew the man was conscious of his weight and hated having it mentioned.
"Come see your aunty!" Kwan deflected, his tone no longer amused, leading Gwen towards Tali.
"Did you have to say that, dear?" Tali met her a critical eye. "Has our baby bird has become a peacock?"
"Eagle," Gwen corrected her, a smile upon her lips. "Sea eagle, preferably."
Tali measured her with a sideways glance.
"You look, lovely dear." She swallowed a little bitterly. "Too lovely in fact, who'd known the little girl who'd cry because she couldn't fit into her mummy's new present would be so stunning now?"
"The dress I couldn't fit into?" Gwen spun, sensing the hem flutter and the conversation around them quieten. "This is that dress. It fits just fine now, thanks for asking."
Tali chose to change the subject.
"Dinner's a buffet, just help yourself to whatever." The woman paused. "Your mother's going to be here with her new husband and your brother. For Surya's big speech."
"Good for them." Gwen controlled the tone of her voice. "I am starving already, guess I'll help myself."
Her Aunt Tali retreated.
Richard rejoined her.
"I want to say nicely done, but that would make me a terrible son, so nicely done." He offered her a flute of bubbling champaign.
"You're a great son." Gwen took the glass and clinked Richard's own. "Who could honestly say that they are a better son than you?"
"Oh, I won't be here for much longer, a few years at most. Prince's had my military training deferred, but I'd probably do it anyway once I get to London."
Gwen raised an exquisite brow.
"You're going to a Tier 1 city?"
"Orders from above, from London, I mean. I was the dux of the School of Conjuration. It got me a one-way ticket to the real world."
"That's amazing, Richard, congratulations. I am happy for you." Gwen squeezed his arm.
"Which makes me a terrible son see, cause I can't take the old parents with me, not until I become a Magus or rack up enough Contribution Credits to open up a migration application."
"I know some of those words," Gwen admitted. Tier 1 cities, the whole ordeal was like another world that was currently beyond her.
"Nonsense, I bet you'll be moved to a Tier 1 city in no time. Which city do you fancy?"
Gwen considered it. She always dreamed of going to England, but there was also Southern China, where her father's family supposedly originated. London was the seat of Old Magic, but the Shanghai of the 00s provided incredible economic opportunities. If Gwen wanted to use her talents from the old world, that was where she needed to be.
"Shanghai, London maybe New York?" Gwen stated, unsure of her choices. "I would love it if my friends could come too."
"Yue, probably. Elvia, not so much. I believe there was a Debora too, no? That girl could only dream of your potential."
"Not Elvia?!" Gwen looked shocked.
"Decent healers are a dime a dozen in the capital cities. Elvia is a cutie, but unfortunately, nothing too special in the real world. She doesn't even have a Spirit."
Gwen was not happy to hear that. She wasn't happy at all.
"Fear not, just get her imported over once you make Magus, rack up some CCs and you're good to go. Hell, you can keep her as your pet if you honestly felt like it."
"I am not thrilled to hear that, Richard."
"Sorry, I'll shut up now. You know how it is. I get excited." Richard took a sip. "How about we get some food, meet some people?"
"Sure." Gwen took a deep breath and controlled the sense of unease rising from her chest.
At the buffet, they met with familiar faces.
"Ah, Patrick and… Derek, how lovely to see you."
Patrick spun and clicked his heels. The young man looked different. He had just started his military service, and it seemed to buff him up, make a man out of him.
"Ms Song. The greatest pleasure. You do look lovely."
Gwen allowed Patrick to mime kissing her hand. She didn't curtsey but instead shook his hand afterwards, feeling the sweat in his clammy palms.
Beside her, Derek's eyes had almost fallen out of his sockets. They were staring intently at Gwen's long, white legs. His face gave the expression of someone struggling to look away and failing.
"Derek, Gwen is speaking to you. Don't be droll," Richard reprimanded, sounding like a dog had just shat on his front lawn.
"Sorry, Richard." Derek's gaze returned to eye level. "Hi, I am Derek."
"I know— it's good to see you again, Derek." Gwen shook his hand as well, watching the man's face burn a salmon pink. With the height afforded by her pumps, she towered over Derek and Patrick.
"To your health." Richard tipped his glass towards them.
The four of them clinked flutes. Derek mumbled an alibi and quickly excused himself, retreating somewhere with fewer eyes to brood over the unpleasant encounter.
Patrick stayed on. This time, he was making a good impression of himself, making casual small talk about Prince's recent activities and some interesting tidbits of his military training. Thanks to his father's position at Suncorp and effort of his own, he will be conducting his military training in an Arial Mage Wing stationed near Barrington.
Other young men and women came and joined them, offering congratulations to Richard to marvel at Gwen's svelte cousin.
"How come you're not at Lilith's?" A peppy young woman with a permed blonde bob chirped, covetously measuring Gwen's sculpted face.
"I was a late bloomer," Gwen replied jovially. "I came into my awakening late."
"Still." The girl looked around conspiratorially. "You're Richard's cousin, and you're beautiful and talented, so how come we've never seen you around?"
"Digging a little deep there, Piggy." Richard coughed.
"Peggy." the girl puffed out her cheeks. "Petunia Wallace, pleased to meet you, Gwen."
"Pleasure." Gwen shook her hand.
"You're welcome at Lilith's anytime. I am on the SRC board, so I can show you around the grounds if you like."
"I might just take you up on that offer someday soon, Petunia." Gwen flashed a winsome smile, watching her face light up with pleasure.
Smalltalk followed. The girls hit it off nicely and exchanged details on their Message Devices. Halfway, Gwen noticed a perceptible dimming of the hall's conversation volume.
Even Petunia stopped speaking when Gwen paused to stare at the entrance of the foyer.
Her mother had arrived.
At the entrance to the rear deck stood Helena Huang, the daughter of the House of Huang. It was the first time that Gwen had seen her in the company of her new husband— an older man, tall and mature and old fashioned. There was Percy too, next to them, cringingly dressed in an ivory tuxedo.
Percy looked taller by at least an inch since Gwen last saw him half a year ago. She wanted to go and greet him immediately but refrained when her mother's eyes held her in place. The last time they had met was at the Principal's office, and she had fried her mother with a Shocking Grasp.
Gwen's jaws clenched. Through force of will, she made her body relax, assuring herself that the night was long and Surya would soon be out to put an end to the matter.
But her mother did not approach.
For the next hour, Helena did not even look her way.
Gwen felt butterflies. She fought down a bout of anxiety, annoyed at the immediate delay of her confrontation. Her mother's cult of personality was powerful, and she still wasn't immune.
Gwen watched her mother kissing Kwan and Tali and then Richard. She watched her mother kiss an endless number of people, most of whom she did not know.
"There's your daughter," Richard declared much too loudly for polite conversation. "Right over there, look. Lets me point her out to you. Hi Gwen!"
Gwen waved back.
Helena's facade was one of annoyance. A chortle escaped Gwen's nose. She had to turn and hide her mirth when Richard made a face.
Kwan shot Richard a warning. Aunt Tali didn't care, in her eyes, Richard was her faultless first-born. He could burn the house down, and she would love him unconditionally.
"So that's my step-daughter, the infamous Gwen Song." A deep and resonate voice rang out. Gwen's step-father appeared to be a man accustomed to having orders followed. Having saved his wife from awkwardness, Helena's husband made his way across the floor toward Gwen.
The man was impressive, Gwen had to admit. He was a Clint-Eastwood type of bloke, broad in the shoulder, well-muscled for his age. She recalled that Morye once complained loudly and sulkily that her new step-father was a retired Colonel and an Earthen Enchanter. Presently, the man worked for Sydney's Frontier Militia as a consultant. Helena had met him at another one of Kwan's parties.
Gwen found it remarkable that even with her statuesque attire, the man still stared down at her. But it made sense. Her mother was only a little shorter than herself. One of Helena's favourite gripes was that, when she had been married to Morye, she had been too embarrassed to overshadow her meter-seventy husband.
"Tang Hu, but you can call me Mr Hu." Tang paused for effect, "Or Father, if you prefer."
When she registered "Father" coming from the man's lips, Gwen almost spat her juice in Tang's face.
Tang looked displeased, his stoic face contorted with scrutiny. He measured her with his eyes and shook his head. "Helena told me you were out of control, a wild child. Just look at what you're wearing. You're still a young girl, Gwen, act like one."
Gwen wanted to throw the glass of sparkling juice in his face. This dress was bought and gifted by Helena! She had mocked her when she couldn't fit into it! Knowing or otherwise, the hypocrisy was astounding.
Not only was this Tang taking possession of her; he was also sanctimonious!
She had to deal with men like Tang before in McKinsey, men with big-dick, cock and bull attitudes. She knew how to deal with men like that. You had to castrate them from the get-go.
"Oh, I would love to have a strong hand to guide me, sure." Gwen lowered her eyes demurely, seemingly taken aback. "I've been living by myself, after all, no discipline, no rules, doing whatever I wanted. Sometimes, I feel so lost."
Her passivity seemed to have tickled Tang's expectations. He was a simple man when it came to it. There was little wonder Helena had him tied around her finger, playing him like a fiddle.
"Mr Hu, I mean Tang, I heard that you are a remarkably powerful Enchanter, is that true?"
"Indeed," Tang replied confidently. "I am tier 5 myself, tier 4 Abjuration as my supplementary, I am an armourer by trade."
"Oh." Gwen made an expression of disappointment. "Just tier 5?"
Tang furrowed his brows with vexation.
"My Opa, he's kind enough to take me in at the moment, you know, I hope mother had told you. He's a tier 7 Enchanter, Tier 6 Transmuter, Fire specialisation. He only takes commissions from the Tower though, so I am sure he's not that famous."
Tang's face darkened.
"I have the utmost respect for Master Huang." He intoned flatly.
"Then he would be rather upset if you wanted to be my father. A step-father who is only mid-tier. I mean, what would be the benefit?"
A silken silence engendered.
Somewhere, someone snickered.
"You should watch your attitude, young lady."
Tang was not used to back-talk, Gwen could see that. He was unused to someone who threw shade, much less, in his eyes, from a wee of a teenage girl. Why look at her, he could snap her in half with his bare hands.
But Gwen also knew that Tang wasn't her enemy. He was being used by her mother, just as she had been.
"Yes, you're right, Mr Hu. I am afraid we started on the wrong foot. My mother has that effect." Gwen extended a hand. "It's nice to meet you."
The sudden change seemed to catch Tang off guard.
He shook Gwen's hand, noting the firmness of her shake, the way her delicate fingers fitted into his calloused palm with confidence.
"Nice to meet you, Gwen." Tang packed away his attitude.
"No need, I am to blame entirely." Gwen leaned in and touched his forearm, flashing him a winning grin. "You learn to grow up fast when you live alone."
"You're a strange young woman."
"All women are strange, Mr Hu."
Inwardly, Gwen breathed out. She had embarrassed people like Tang before, in public where they would lose their temper and make a fool of themselves. Tang deserved better.
She observed her mother, who had been watching grimly from the living room. When Tang parted, her mother's face lost some of its lustre. Helena stilled possessed no desire to speak to Gwen.
Likely, Gwen suspected, her mother was waiting to see what Surya had to say.
"HELLO! HELLO! Everyone!"
The crowd's attention turned towards the second floor.
Surya stood against the bannister rail, surveying his domain like an old king.
As regal as the old Mage looked, Gwen secretly knew the truth - Surya probably had just finished his later afternoon nap after a too hearty meal.
The Huang family lifted their chins to regard their progenitor, each with expressions mixed with awe, wonder, paranoia and contempt.
Surya Huang, Patriarch, Magus, Master Enchanter-Fabricator of the Tower Oceania, now addressed the crowd.