The combined effort of conjuring Caliban and the thrilling triumph of last night ensured that Gwen slept like the dead until midday, awakening only when her hunger caused her stomach to contract.
There was a brief moment of disorientation when she opened her eyes and found herself yet again in an unfamiliar bedroom. The return of pleasant, yesteryear memories, thankfully, returned her to the embrace of expensive linen.
Another snooze later, Gwen dressed.
The servants had retired for the day, so she helped herself to the fridge and made herself a cold sandwich of leftover roasts. Being famished, Gwen polished off the rest of the ham, washing meat down with glasses of cranberry juice.
When she finished, she found a note left for her by the kitchen counter.
"Gwen, I am heading back to Prince's. Good luck with the training. Kwan and Tali are going over to Surya's. Gramps told me to let you sleep. We'll catch up for luncheons."
Just as Gwen considered whether she should call Richard or Surya, a Message spell bloomed beside her ear.
It was Alesia.
Gwen took the Message on her device.
"Hey, Tiger! I just spoke to Master. Well done, sister! I can't believe I was away when all these terrible things happened! Are you free to catch up today?"
"Allie!" Gwen gushed. "Yes! I am free!"
"Awesome, I am dying to meet up. Also, I have your new team member with me, do you mind if I bring him?"
"A guy?" Gwen paused for a moment. She hadn't heard that their new member was going to be a guy. Wouldn't another girl give a better vibe? After all, a well-spiced team naturally included Posh, Ginger, Sporty, Baby, and Misc No.5.
"What's he like?"
"Ha, curious? He's incredibly handsome, dashing and dreamy. A real melt-your-heart kind of heartthrob."
Gwen laughed, Alesia was much too young at heart.
"He sounds like a magazine model," Gwen retorted. "Do you think he's the right fit for our group?"
"You'll have to come and see," Alesia replied mysteriously. "He's trustworthy. Completely clean. The Auckland Tower's Master owes Henry a big one and so loaned us his protege. You girls will have to play nice while he's on exchange for the next six months."
"Oh?" Gwen was very much interested now. An exchange student from another city, another country! "I'll be along shortly, where do you want to have our luncheon?"
"What do you feel like?"
"Sushi?" Gwen said the first thing that came to her mind. She had already eaten the better quarter of a leftover ham but was confident seafood should be no obstacle to her starved body. After all, meat digested in one stomach, seafood in another, dessert sat in the appendix, which serves as a reserve stomach for teenage girls. Everybody knew this.
"Great, see you at Pyrmont, we'll meet at Sokio's. I'll get us a table."
Alesia hung up, and Gwen was impressed. Even she had heard of the most expensive sashimi bar in Sydney. Gwen had vague memories of eating there once, courtesy of her mother, but only recalled eating the cheap stuff, such as the Tamago rolls. From memory, she recalled that Sokio's was booked out weeks in advance, how is Alesia hoping for a three on the first day of the New Year?
Gwen looked herself over in the mirror of the kitchen splashback. She was in no mind to change her outfit, but Alesia never showed up anywhere without dressing up.
The clock showed eleven.
Gwen changed into an unbranded long sleeves dress she had found in the country town. The fabric was coarse, but the cut was trim and minimalist, it was only forty buckaroos, but Gwen was confident she wore it like couture.
From Kirribilli, she crossed the bay via the ferry, mindful of the public.
This time, thanks to the NoMs keeping their distance, the journey was completed without incident.
It was the aura she now carried; something Henry said Senior Mages acquired after years of devotion to their craft. As the caster's Astral Soul attuned to their element, they assumed the quirks and qualities of said element, becoming akin to Demi-humans. When in public and especially among NoMs, non-magical humans innately understood that here was a being capable of crushing them like vermin.
Which suited Gwen fine; if someone groped her tooshie again, the ferry might just sink.
Some distance away, Gwen was glad to find that Pyrmont Wharf had remained unchanged from her old world. It was still a series of gentrified warehouses converted into fancy restaurants with impressively high ceilings. As it was the first day of the new year and a Friday, Alesia's preferred fine-dining establishment had patrons spilling on to the sidewalk.
Gingerly, Gwen approached the maitre d', watching the woman's eyes scanning her from cotton dress to leather sandal.
"Hello, I have a booking under Be Botton?"
The madam browsed her notebook.
"I have no appointments under a Miss de Botton." The maitre d's ruby red lips had a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "Also, I am afraid we're booked out for lunch entirely."
Retreating, Gwen found a comfortable position under a shade-cloth and waited. The cork heels of her sandals bite into her ankles uncomfortably. Cheap was cheap, Gwen sighed. Magical shoes weren't something she could currently afford.
Thankfully, she didn't have to wait long for Alesia.
In retina-searing red, Gwen saw a figure cutting through the crowd.
Alesia de Botton was radiant as always; her striking appearance made more so alluring by her dark makeup. Presently, she wore a flowing red maxi that wrapped around her peerless figure. As she walked, her dark auburn hair bounced and bobbed, her tanned legs peeping in between sheets of scarlet chiffon.
Beside Alesia, stomped an iron giant.
Gwen did not use the word giant lightly, for the young man beside her could only be described as Brobdingnagian. The Mage was a Maori; his cultural roots made evident by the ta moko across his nose and cheeks. A block of green jade hung from his muscular neck, dangling from a length of twine. Around his torso, a tight black t-shirt barely constrained the man's well-defined chest and shoulders.
Ye Gods! Gwen heard herself say. That boy has brawn for days. As the duo approached, the crowd parted as though the Red Sea before the Magi Moses.
"Gwennie!" Alesia ran the last few steps toward her, enveloping Gwen with the full momentum of her body. Gwen likewise wrapped her arms around Alesia, sinking into the soft folds of her beautiful dress. "Gods, it feels like a lifetime since I last saw you."
"It does, doesn't it."
Alesia hugged Gwen with the fierceness of a mother hen folding her wings over a long lost chick.
Finally, Alesia stepped back and introduced the seven-foot giant.
"This is Whetu Tikitiki O Taranga, your new Abjurer. Whetu, say hello to Gwen Song, the youngest future Magister this side of the Coral Sea."
"Kia ora, Gwen Song!" Whetu greeted her. To Gwen's surprise, the young man had a voice that was gentle and pleasant.
"It's lovely to meet you, Whē-tú am I saying that right?"
"Ay, you've got it down pat." Whetu's dark eyes scanned his teammate. "Youse fully beeutiful Gwen, I amejened some when very pretty, but yew blue all egg-specations."
"Aww, that's sweet, thank you, Whetu," Gwen answered. The young man was well mannered; his eyes had not wandered at all.
They shook, his hands swallowing her white fingers.
"You... understood what he's saying?" Alesia had a shocked expression.
"Whetu, are you using the stone? I can't understand a word you're saying."
"Gimme a phew sex, Miss." Whetu fiddled with a jade earring. "How's this?"
"Much better!" Alesia patted him on the shoulder. "Let's not have that pug sandwich incident again, shall we?"
Gwen laughed, did people here not understand the Kiwi accent? Was it because the cities were so geographically and socially isolated?
"On the trip over, Whtu asked for 'sex fush cockies', then 'sucks pack of hot weens'. We almost got chased out by the old lady at the ferry's canteen."
"No!" Gwen was beside herself. "It's not that bad! He asked for six fish cocktails, then a pack of hot chicken wings."
"You understood all of that?" Alesia's blue eyes were the size of almonds. "You're not wearing a Translator Ioun Stone, are you?"
"You can't?" Gwen asked in surprise. "The Kiwi's are a part of the Mageocracy; they speak English!"
"That's derogatory, Miss Gwen," Whetu declared, "The ki-wee is a sacrid and benevolent spirit of the land, and many of our tribes see them as owners of the land. I am from one of these clans, and we always speak of them with respect."
"Sorry, Whetu," Gwen apologised sweetly. "Assuming Allie can get us in there, it'll be my shout. Have you had sashimi before?"
"Not much for raw fush me-self, Miss, but I'll take you up on your company."
Across the walkway, Alesia flowed towards the maitre d' who'd been keeping an eye on the conspicuously eye-catching trio.
"Seat for three," Alesia demanded in a tone that indicated the sky was blue. "Window area."
The maitre d' visibly began to sweat. Alesia was a powerful Mage, perhaps one of the top Combat Mages in Sydney. Even if she didn't declare herself, the aura she exuded was palpable.
Thankfully, a passing floor manager knew his VIP list well enough to recognise the auburn air and flaming dress, if not Alesia's face.
"Magus de Botton!" He leapt down the stairs in twos and threes, sprinting across the lobby toward the podium. "Thank you for humbling our establishment."
The maitre d' gazed at her manager with careful inquisitiveness.
"Sophie's new. We're so sorry," The manager mirthfully scolded the junior manager. "Sophie— apologise to Miss de Botton and take them to the third floor, harbour view suite."
Sophie bowed smartly, lowering herself. "Please accept my apologies, Miss De Botton. Please, come this way."
Alesia motioned for the other two to join her. The crowd waiting in the long line said nothing.
Gwen felt ambivalent. The whole differential treatment of those who were privileged remained a bit of a stickler in her throat. Presumably, she could also receive the same regard once she was famous enough, but the mere thought of doing what Alesia had done make her scalp crawl.
The three of them were seated in a spacious private room.
Outside was a view of the harbour, with seagulls battling the dizzying heat of Sydney's summer. It was getting hotter year by year; the News had said, resulting in increased Mermen activity along the coast.
"Anata no tanoshimi no tame ni—," said the Japanese chef with a heavy accent.
The chef retrieved a struggling red snapper from its salt-water tank, pinning it to the chopping board. Gulping air, its mouth silently screamed. The fish was rare, or so the chef assured them as he filleted its still-living flesh. Once plated, its crystalline flesh laid like white jade over a bed of enchanted ice.
"This is an aboom-a-nation." Whetu uttered unhappily. "Wot are they doing to this poor fush? Why is it still moving?"
"It's to keep the flesh fresh and its mana intact." Alesia stabbed a chopstick into a slice and dipped it gingerly into the ponzu sauce. "Oh my, it's as good as I recall. Beautiful."
Gwen likewise skewered a chunk. Knowing that the fish didn't register pain the same way as humans soothed her conscience.
Watching the girls eat, Whetu finally tried a piece.
"Tastes like see." He sighed. "Poor fush."
When finally the fish ceased its death throes, Whetu's nostrils flared. Sensing the big man's unease, Gwen ventured to ask him some questions.
"So Whetu, can you tell me a bit about yourself?"
"Shure thin Miss." He made himself comfortable as possible on the tiny stool.
"Please, Whetu, just Gwen is fine."
"Alright, Gwen, what do you want to know?"
"Where are you from?"
"Auckland, east coast of the north island. My people originated from the hot springs to the south, near Turangi. Mermen raided Rotorua. Dad moved us out of the hills and into the city, where I attended high school."
"I am sorry to hear that. Are your family safe?" Gwen asked compassionately, giving him a pat on the knee.
"Most of us lived, that's good enough." Whetu shrugged stoically, shaking one leg reflexively. "We were two thousand odd when we left Rotorua, about three-quarters made it."
"How old are you, Whetu?"
"Sex-teen on sivven-teen, same as you."
"You are very tall!" Gwen marvelled. "Are all your people so stout?"
"Me brother's taller." Whetu smiled, his tattoos moving and shifting accordingly.
"How many siblings do you have?"
"Had four, three now," he replied.
"Oh, I am sorry to hear that." Gwen was taken aback by his frankness. If Sydney, with millions of souls, was considered by the tier one cities to be a frontier, she couldn't imagine how Wellington or Auckland was surviving the Demi-human incursions.
The chef reappeared with a glass tank full of writhing squid. Gwen watched with fascinated horror as he splayed a multicoloured cephalopod across the chopping board. With one deft swish, the chef degloved the creature, extracting its single bone plate. As a finishing touch, the still-living squid was placed atop a small bowl of delicate-looking rice, painting it rainbow as it danced and oozed.
"Beautiful, look at that," Alesia cooed. "I love this dish, Rainbow Dancing Squid."
Gwen and Whetu silently watched two more bowls of rainbow squid receive their carcasses. Once the performance was done, he pointed to a small teaspoon of wasabi-laced soy sauce and made the motion of pouring it over the squid.
"Here we go!" Alesia uttered with anticipation and delight. She took the teaspoon carefully and poured it over the squid. Where the rainbow had previously faded, it now burst into multicoloured hues, misting the air with an incandescent spray of colour before beginning to "dance".
"These are four HDM crystal per serve, you know," Alesia looked like she was having the time of her life. She waited until her squid had spent its last motes of vitality before mixing it in with the rice and tasting it with a look of heavenly pleasure.
Gwen looked over at Whetu, whose face was both ashen and disturbed.
"I guess we better dig in, Whetu, that's someone's weekly wage, it'd be more disrespectful to let it suffer all that for no reason."
Whetu nodded and sloshed the squid into his mouth, swallowing it without chewing.
Gwen mixed the squid into the bowl before adding the enchanting sauce, feeling no love for the macabre display.
The taste was so-so, but the vitality she felt contained within was unlike anything she had never experienced. The squid bowl was akin to a mouthful of Sufina's mead. Food like this was why wealthy Mages had better health and bigger mana pools.
With mixed feelings, Gwen and Whetu sat through the rest of the meal, watching the same chef butcher a Spiny Octopus, a jewel-like Abalone, then a live scampi the size of her arm.
Whetu protested each dish by shoving each serving the food into his mouth, swallowing without tasting.
Alesia appeared a regular, savouring each dish.
Gwen ate in silence, guiltily absorbing the vitality. She ended up eating Whetu's portion when a live Eel was grilled on hot coals, citing that torturing a Sacred River God was profane. Alesia loved the eel. As for Gwen, she was too afraid to confess that she had picked sushi.
"So, what are your abilities like, Whetu?" Gwen changed the topic.
"I am a tear 3 Abjurer." Whetu pointed a hand at the greenstone necklace that hung heavily from his neck. "I specialise in dis."
Gwen leaned in closer.
The block of greenstone glowed. When Whetu activated his innate talent, the stone changed into a stylised fishhook.
"Whoa!" Gwen did a double-take. "Is that mineral or stone?"
"It's the Pounamu their people worship, a kind of jade," Alesia butted into the conversation. "Its got above average physical and elemental resistance. With Whetu here, your team is sure to rise in the ranks."
"I'll be sure to thank the man later." Gwen grinned confidently. If Alesia was impressed with Whetu's element, then it meant he was something special.
The Japanese chef once again returned.
He thanked the diners one by one for their patronage and presented them with a gift from the restaurant for the new year, a slice of imported Shizuoka muskmelon, its redolent flesh dripping with flavour and mana.
The three of them savoured the moment, crushing the crisp melon in their mouths, feeling its energy infusing their bodies.
"Dis amazing. I feel like a verjun again," Whetu said.
"I am pretty sure you're still a virgin, Tiger, at least from what your Master told me." Alesia snickered. "Plenty of opportunities, though, your new team are all girls - beautiful, pretty, unattached girls."
"Sweet ass." Whetu swallowed his melon and gave them a thumbs up. The tattoo about his mouth somewhat resembled an impressive beard in the atmospheric lighting of the restaurant, making him look far older than his tender years.
"Gwen, you wanna take him back to the dorm?"
"Sure, are we're resuming training from the school?"
"Of course, Tiger, you can't represent Blackwattle without training at its facilities. Once you pass the prelims, the school will also serve as your home base. You guys are going to have to have home ground matches there, and away matches at the other schools."
"What about the stadium match?" Gwen asked. The notes her Master gave spoke of an arena.
"That's for the regional Top 8. Are we feeling ambitious now that Whetu is here?"
"Ah, right." Gwen made a note to do more homework as soon as possible. In a world without Google, how did anyone know anything about anything?!