Some die for beauty.
Some die for the truth.
Gwen died trying to be polite.
Her innate reaction was to unleash a hysterical cackle, to strike the table with her palms, laughing until her stomach was in stitches.
But Gwen held back.
Anyone who could act and say whatever they wanted in front of Guo was an asset Gwen wished to preserve. Who knew if one day Tao may become a helpful speakerphone, even if all she needed from him was a few words, in the right place, at the right time? So he called her the "H" word— feasibly, could Tao have meant it endearingly? It was no skin off her nose to ignore the insult.
"I am your cousin. Gwen Song," she answered, standing from her seat to shake his hand.
Having delivered his shocking entrance, Tao staggered towards the table.
"I got chu, Fam." Tao threw her a gang sign.
She shook his fingers.
Gwen couldn't help but notice the young man's palm was slick and a little sticky.
Guo's fury no less scalding than the bun Gwen ate in prison. Red-faced, the patriarch waited until his blood pressure had returned to a manageable level before he introduced Gwen and Morye to the latecomers.
There was an audible gasp from Nen, whose eyes grew as round as quail eggs.
You didn't notice?! Gwen stared at her aunty. Nen pushed back her chair, ran toward Morye, embraced him, and began rubbing her hands all over his face, raining a series of pecks on his grizzled cheeks.
"Oh, I've missed you! We all thought you died!"
Morye withstood the assault quietly and graciously, slumping back as though he was trying to survive a summer squall.
With the greetings over, the banquet was finally ready. At the head of the table sat the patriarch with their children's matriarch, Nen sat on the left and the two sons on the right. Beside Nen was her daughter, Mina, who still glared at Gwen, and then it was Tao.
Tao eyed the food a few times before his eyes moved onto Gwen, running over her mandarin dress like a dog panting over a steak. It wasn't so much as lecherous as it was comical, for the young man sported a prison-type hair cut, and his two watery, sleep-deprived eyes resembled poached eggs sitting on a pancake-flat face. On second thought, Gwen realised, it wasn't that Tao was leering at her, but that he could not help himself. His libidinous intent was attributed entirely to the unfortunate structure of his unpropitious face. His back, she noticed as well, was hunched, his chest sunken. Had he sustained some injury in the past? Gwen wondered, her eyes moving from his torso up toward his face, where his bruised eye throbbed.
"Which hood you from?" Tao's head bobbed when he spoke, giving the impression of a nervous but also impatient chicken.
"I am from Sydney."
"Whoa! You from the Frontier, dawg? That's hardcore, yo, Props."
"One second, Tao." Gwen turned toward her uncle. "Uncle Jun, I don't speak Chinese, so— is Tao's 'vernacular' 'for real' or is my Ioun Stone acting up?"
"Oi!" Tao protested. "That's how mah B-Boys roll, dawg. Don't hate the playa!"
Jun cringed as well. "He is er… 'for real', as they say."
"Well, I am happy to have met you, Tao." Gwen extended a white hand to pat Tao on the arm, spreading a little intimacy to break the ice.
Tao stared at her slender fingers.
"I thought you bumpkins are all farmers and shit, ya know?" He took her hand and studied it. "Why you all dolled up and shit? I reckon if you put on a party dress, you'll make Mina look like a bitch, haha!"
"Brother!" Mina snapped at her brother, her pretty face screwing up into a scowl. "Be rude again, and I'll grow you an extra set of wisdom teeth."
The older of the siblings instantly shrivelled.
"Hi, I am Gwen." Gwen turned to Mina and likewise offered her hand.
Mina stared at her hand.
"Hello." Mina did not take it but instead threw her shade under her voluminous lashes, her doll-like, porcelain face taking on an aloof expression.
Gwen retracted her hand and turned to look at Morye, who was enjoying a little schadenfreude of his own. Jun, meanwhile, looked as though he was already exhausted by his nephew and niece's shameful display.
"It's good to see you're all getting along so well," Nen announced suddenly, oblivious to the fire. "Family should stick together! Hai, I am so happy you're back to life! I never believed it for a moment when they said you died."
Morye fired back a smile as false as water, which Nen riposted with absolute earnestness. The radiant demeanour she put up made her father wince.
"ENOUGH!" Her grandfather growled. Guo was very fond, or so it appears, of listening and watching in deathly silence before suddenly making an announcement. "Start eating!"
And they did, despite Gwen being deathly afraid of the dishes. Her aunty Nen overzealously filled her bowl with bits and pieces of each exotic item, forcing Gwen to grit her teeth and embark on an alien Epicurean adventure.
As the dinner progressed, Guo sat like a lord surveying his domain, his eyes moving from Gwen to the others, to her father and back to Gwen again. As Guo absentmindedly chewed through each dish, she could almost hear the gears turning inside his head; little cogs clinking into place as loops and hooks interconnected plots and projections.
"Try this, dear; it's good for your Mana pool." Nen passed Gwen a bowl of "brain" that resembled tofu. Elvia likes Tofu; Gwen thought, therefore, she likes tofu. Eat the Tofu.
"Thank you, Aunty."
There were a hundred questions Gwen wanted to ask her father, but she would have to wait until after their soft interrogation by Guo. Beside Morye, Jun spoke patiently and meticulously, asking his brother about life in Sydney, asking how he survived without access to the Clan's resources.
"I get by, you know? I guess the gift of not using any Salt magic was that I got to have kids, although the curse was that I got to have kids." Morye shot Gwen a glance.
"Ha, you got me there." Jun chewed on his rice with a vacant expression. From her observations, Jun was the type to want kids. On the car trip, he had told her that when Morye disappeared, and it fell to him to continue to the line, he'd found out that he was infertile. To heal his lifeforce would mean giving up his talents for a decade, which wasn't an option.
Her babulya seemed to be in conversation with her grandfather; their lips moved without sound, exchanging words which evaded her best attempts at eavesdropping.
Mina, meanwhile, fiddled with what appeared to be a data slate, half distractedly going about dinner without engaging with anyone at the table.
Without a single person to converse with, Gwen turned to Tao, who was digging through the dishes like a man who had just survived a famine.
"So, cousin, who gave you that black eye?"
"Sum wankstas." Tao hissed while chewing on a pork-trotter.
"Details, perhaps? Surely a man such as yourself would have given as good as you received."
"You talk like Babulya," Tao observed offhandedly.
"Right." Gwen forced herself to calm. "So, tell me about the fight."
Tao dropped the trotter and looked for a tart.
With a mouth still full of crumbs, he began to regale his tale in great detail.
"So, there was this motherfucker from the Lin Clan who wanted to fuck with my crew. My boys and I were like, hanging out n' chilling, minding our own business at the M, right. Then this prick shows up, and he's like, 'What brings you out here?" and I am like, 'What's it to you, Fuck Face?' Then he's like, 'Clean up your mouth, Tao.' Then I am like, 'Go fuck ya self.'"
"Oh, my." Gwen listened with rapt fascination, a captive audience to Tao's Homeric epic.
"Dat Lin fucker's a real tool, you know, the bitch-face dared to turn away from me. Like WHO DA FUCK turns away in a fight? So I am like, 'Bitch, take mah 'Ray of Frost!' And I nailed 'em right at the back of his fucking neck, hahaha."
"Go on. Then what happened?"
"The fuck you think happened, bitch? He turns around, and he's all like fired up and shit. Motherfucker's from a good bloodline, you know? I am like, 'Aw shit!' and he's like, 'Yeah, you little shit,' and I am like 'Bros! protect me!' and my bros are all like 'protect Peaches!'"
"Bitch, you even listening? I am Peaches! Tao is Chinese for Peach, alright?"
"Okay, Peaches. Go on."
"Anyway, this Lin bitch right, he's about to fuck me up, you know. He's all fluffed and shit, fucking university wanker. Anyway, I am like, 'Bro. You want to fuck me up! Come at me. You know who my Dad is?' and he's like, 'What the fuck, are you mentally disabled? We went to junior school together. Our Dads golf on Sundays!' Then I am like, 'Fuck you!' That's when he hit me with his mother fucking hands, man! The fucker knew we're not allowed to duel in public spaces, so he beat me like an NoM!"
"With his bare hands, you say?"
"Motherfucker beat me like a slab of char-siu, bitch."
"When did he stop?"
Tao, A.K.A Peaches looked around the table before replying quietly.
"When he fucking got tired, I guess?"
"Security doesn't like to meddle with the military's kids," Morye explained, likely from experience. "No spells, no trouble."
Gwen turned to the rest of the table to see if anyone just experienced the Epic of Peaches in the same manner as she just did.
"It grows on you, doesn't it," Jun said after a moment. "Sometimes I miss it even."
"You the best, Uncle Jun! YOOO!"
Gwen turned to look at Guo.
"He is not Song," he announced after a few unkind moments. "Thank the ancestors."
"Tao is errr… disinherited," Jun added helpfully.
"That's hardly fair!" Nen protested, her face unhappy and adorable at once. "Peaches needs all the help he can get!"
"Can you all keep the volume down?" Mina interjected suddenly. "I am trying to have a conversation here."
That was when Gwen noticed that Mina had a subtle glow flickering beside her ear.
She was on a "Message" with someone this entire time?! Gwen looked around for a device but couldn't find one. Was the girl a Diviner? No, she gave off the aura of a Healer, and there was that strange perfume hanging about her as well, was it an ability, or was it a gadget?
"Mina is... also not in line," Jun added. "At least until they prove themselves."
Percy, you lucky bastard. Gwen noted silently to herself. If Percy could be half as obedient as these two living examples of filial piety, then he had it in the bag.
Dinner proceeded for another half an hour, after which the servants brought bowls of water which they used to sanitise their hands. A palate cleanser of herbs in a slightly syrupy soup was the last dish, after which the banquet ended.
"Gwen, Hai, Jun, in the meeting chamber, now. Nen, look after your children."
Those whose names were called stood to attention.
Gwen felt her stomach make a little topsy-turvy tumble.
This was her second chance.
There would not be a third.
The meeting chamber was a conference room on the side of the main dining area.
Grandfather sat at the head. Babulya sat beside him.
Jun sat to the side. Nen was missing, though Gwen had a suspicion that her air-headed aunty was likely terrible at keeping secrets, which would explain her absence.
Gwen and Morye stood in the middle.
Four giant pillars held up the room, each painted in dark crimson. Above them, a plaque read "Righteous Heart… One…"
"Which one of you would like to speak first?" Grandfather broke the silence.
"I will." Morye raised a hand.
"Gwen, take a seat while your father speaks." Babulya pointed to a chair beside Jun.
Her father gathered his thoughts while Gwen patted down her dress to prevent it from riding upward. The skirt portion of the dress was pleated, but the mandarin-style torso pulled at the hem.
"Before I began," Morye announced to his parents. "Allow me to apologise. Father, and especially Mother— I am sorry."
Morye paused for effect.
"I am sorry I faked my death at the Battle of Hunan."
Gwen baulked, her hazel orbs sparkling with astonishment and disbelief. Her father had said that he 'killed' someone he shouldn't have, but so far, there was no indication of who he had murdered. So the man he 'killed' was himself?
"Is inheriting the clan such an impossible task?" Guo's voice was frustrated fury simmering under a surface of forced calm.
"It is," Morye announced. "Father, neither of us can be euphemistic, so let me say it once more. I have no desire to inherit the Clan and act as its head. I just wish to be myself, do what I want. As you should know, I am not a man given to duty. I maintained that when we fought about it so many years ago, and I maintain it now."
"A Mage's talent does not belong to himself alone." Her grandfather gripped the knob of his chair.
"Which is why in my escapade, I never relied on the gift of Yin and the bloodline of the Song," Morye pointed out. "When I survived in Sydney, I did so entirely on the Water element, which I performed at a reduced Affinity, and my self-taught Abjuration."
"You are a Magus now?" Babulya looked up. "This is wonderful news."
"Well, unintentionally, maybe." Morye shrugged. "My point is, I was perfectly happy there, using my powers to survive, untethered to all of this."
"Tell me about your life in Sydney, how you have lived in these twenty-odd years," Klavdiya said, glowing with the happiness that her useless son had unwittingly become a Magus.
"Alright. After my escape, I arrived on a freighter under the pseudonym Morye, which means ocean…"
"In Russian, I know," Klavdiya replied warmly. "Dear, please go on."
Morye spoke plainly of his experiences, but much of it Gwen either already knew or had guessed at in the past. Her father had worked hard to join a vocational college in Sydney, got a scholarship to Sydney University through that, then met her mother. They fell in love, had children, then divorced due to differences in life's philosophies. When pressed, Morye stated that Gwen's mother had found out about Morye's powers and wanted a better life, a life of prestige, but Morye refused, and so they came to blows. Likewise, he looked after his two children until they graduated junior high and Awakened to their abilities.
"Is this true, Gwen?" Babulya asked Gwen to confirm Morye's story.
Her father's story was "true" because she didn't want to say it was "false" for fear of his life. Morye's tale was also missing the hundred or so times he cheated on her mother. Moreover, that was that fuck up when Gwen came home feeling suicidal after her rebirth, only to find Morye had invited a girlfriend over to celebrate Gwen moving out of the house. Likewise, in the year since, he's completely let her go.
But she wanted her dad to owe her one.
"I had not known want, gone hungry, or felt unsafe during the time we grew up," Gwen said carefully, avoiding looking at Morye. "He is a good father, better than what many could hope for."
"So you can be responsible!" Babulya happily declared to Morye. "Hai, why not reconsider your Father's proposal? It's only right that the firstborn son inherits."
"It's death." Morye shook his head. "I wanted life."
"Insolent ingrate!" Guo's expression looked as though he wanted to give Morye another sound thrashing.
"Now, now." Babulya calmed her grandfather by rubbing his chest to ease his congested fury. "Hai, regardless of whether you listen to your father, I think we all deserve an apology, don't you think?"
Morye took a deep breath.
Gwen watched as her father carefully walked in front of the two old folks and dropped to his knees.
"Mamulya, Baba, I am sorry for my selfishness and the pain that it has caused you for these past twenty years. Please accept my apology."
He then touched his head to the ground and kowtowed, repeating the ritual three times before standing back up.
"Thank you, dear." Babulya reached out and cupped his face with her hand. "You must have suffered a lot in the tier 2 city, no? All those Mermen and Saurians, Kangaroos even, constant attacks, never knowing peace."
Sydney was safe! Gwen wanted to yell. Morye spent the entire time chasing skirts and pissing off my mother! But how could she blab when her grandmother was melting even the cynical heart of her stone-faced grandfather?
"You have no regrets?" Gwen's grandfather asked her father wistfully. "None at all?"
Morye's expression looked tragic and self-aggrandising.
"What is regret when I had no choice?"
The room took on an oppressive silence.
Each side took a moment to digest Morye's philosophical declaration.
"Hai, go and sit," her grandfather told Morye. "Gwen, it is now your turn."
Gwen conditioned her nerves and pulled herself from the hardwood chair. As she passed Morye, their eyes met, and her father gave her a reassuring nod.
She took her place in the centre.
A severe mental pressure descended upon her, numbing her scalp and setting her skin to crawl.
Gwen took a deep breath, savouring her final few seconds.
There was no holding back this time, no playing dumb to try and see how they react. Gwen's grandfather was in no mood to play silly buggers with cock and bull; her grandmother was likewise expecting the gospel truth.
So how should she proceed to lead the conversation? She needed to distract them somehow, unbalance them, get them on the back foot; even if she was pushed to confess her secrets, it must be on 'her' terms.
"I am going to show you something. Is that okay?" Gwen stepped back and retreated a safe distance.
Her grandfather nodded.
Babulya's eyes sparkled.
Jun leaned forward with an alert expression of expectation.
Morye groaned softly under his breath.
The lightning marten landed with a flash and examined its surroundings with its electric blue pupils. It spotted the old couple at the end of the row and made a flourishing turn onto its stomach, exposing its belly before dropping to the floor and rolling back and forth adorably. It was now an old hand at this game.
"Oh, how precious!" Babulya noted. "What an intelligent Familiar!"
"This is Ariel; he is a Lightning Element Familiar I acquired when I had just awoken to my powers."
Babulya retrieved an LDM crystal from thin-air and threw it towards Ariel, who caught it mid-arc in its teeth, puffing up its cheeks for maximum cuteness before landing deftly.
"Now this…" Gwen took a deep breath. "... is Caliban!"
Don't be a spider! Don't be a spider! Gwen prayed to the Elder Gods. Snake! Snake! Snake!
A slit opened in the fabric between the Void and the Material Plane, ejecting Caliban like an abortive dark tumour. The Lovecraftian thing uncoiled itself into a tenebrous centipede with its slimy, translucent carapace, a multitude of skittering legs emerging from its fleshy torso like bony fingers.
"It's not dangerous!" Gwen announced quickly. "Caliban is entirely under my command!"
Her babulya had on an unruffled expression that suggested she'd seen worse. Her grandfather gripped the arms of his chair so tightly that Gwen wondered if the man would tear the handles off.
Jun had darted between his parents the moment the thing appeared, an incantation upon his lips, ready to visit terrible destruction upon Gwen should she attempt to harm her grandparents. When no hostility materialised, he awkwardly returned to his seat.
Caliban sniffed the air before lowering its head and coiling around Gwen's feet. Its centipede form was immense, just over two meters in length and as thick as her thighs at its centre. Its many legs skittered over her shoes and her white thighs until it could gain purchase with the help of her arms in scaling her dress. Gwen held the upper section of the netherworld monstrosity as one would cradle a long-bodied cat, showing off its faceless head and the mandibles there.
"This is Caliban," she said with a quavering voice. "It is my other Familiar, from the Void element."
Gwen stroked the terrifying, tenebrous thing, causing it to purr with a series of wild clicking. Ariel, not to be beaten, finished its crystal and began doing laps around her other leg.
"Caliban has an... unique ability." Gwen felt her heart catch in her throat. "When Caliban consumes an enemy, it can sometimes take on their shape. Additionally, I gain some the Affinities of the Mages it consumes, though I don't know exactly how."
The room fell silent as the last words left her mouth.
Her grandfather turned to his wife.
"A Calamity," he said audibly.
Calamity? Gwen's ears perked up, a sheen of cold sweat drenching her back. That doesn't seem like a reasonable reaction at all. Had she made yet another mistake?
"No," Her grandmother retorted, moving her luminous eyes slowly until she met Guo's cold black orbs. "A boon."
Boon is good. Gwen repeated babulya's words across her lips. More boon, please.
"How did you come about this talent then?" Her grandfather turned back to Gwen, his tone less antagonistic than she had imagined. "Tell me from the start, from your moment of Awakening."
The breath that Gwen had been holding released. Below, her legs felt like two long strings of failing spaghetti. With a silent command, she retrieved Caliban and Ariel, returning them to her pocket dimension.
"I will, Grandfather," she began. "My awakening took place about a year and a half ago, in September, at a school called Blackwattle…"
Mindful of any pitfalls in her narrative, Gwen began to recount the past year and a half of her life with as much truth as she could conveniently deliver. She omitted the secret of her twin-soul, of her otherworldly wisdom and her strange, quizzical transportation into this world from her old one— but told the truth of her Awakening, first as a Generalist, then as a Lightning Evoker, then their adventure in the Royal National.
"That was the first time I met the Rainbow Serpent, a mythical existence by the name of Almudj…"
She told them of what happened on the Field Trip, of Debora, of the Rainbow Serpent, of what had happened to her when the Mage known as Edgar had tried to take her body and soul.
"Father later killed that Mage, or so I was told…"
"Hai, you did this?"
"I did." Her father did not deny the kill.
Guo nodded, evidently pleased.
"That was when I finally met my Master, Henry Kilroy, the Lord Magister of Sydney Tower…"
Gwen then told them of her training under Henry, Alesia and Gunther, of her growing kinship. She regaled her story about Blackheath, the slavers, and the first time Caliban took within itself the lives of the innocent Mages who kept prisoners there. Of Gunther rescuing her in the eleventh hour and cleansing the place with his radiant fire.
"You keep austere company, my child." Her babulya interjected as Gwen spoke of Gunther and the Tower.
"The Morning Star," Guo intoned, none too happy with the revelation. "I know of this man."
"Not to mention Deathless Henry himself," Grandmother added. "But, all men die. Am I presuming too much to say that you had a hand in that as well?"
Gwen felt her voice falter when her babulya struck the nail right on the head.
"It's fine, child. Continue."
"Grandfather, the next part of my story is going to reveal some of my late Master's secrets. May I ask that you keep this revelation in confidence?"
"You have it," her grandfather intoned seriously. From his expression, Gwen could read that he had imagined the girl's past to be shallow, but they were in deep waters now, and the depth of Gwen's life descend well into the murk.
"I am going to tell you about the Mage who is responsible for the fall of Sydney," Gwen began. "I am speaking of Elizabeth Winsted Sobel, the wife of my master, Henry Kilroy— a Void Mage like myself."
Gwen then spoke of Mark Chandler, his ploys involving his sister, and about Elizabeth and her madness, fleshing out the rationale of her failure at Blackheath. She told them about her subsequent training for the Inter-high, of what her Master had said about the Sea of Flames and how she would be protected by fame and notoriety when the time was ripe to expose her powers to the world.
"A wise and bold choice. How great the mind of this Henry Kilroy must be," her grandmother intoned, deeply impressed. "It would have certainly worked, you know. I can most assuredly imagine how the Mageocracy would react if Kilroy threw the weight of his influence behind you."
"He 'is' dead?" Guo interrupted her with a hint of steel.
"Yes. My Master is no more," Gwen affirmed grievously.
She then told them of her first match at Rosebay, of how Elizabeth must have found and ambushed Henry, of the Mermen invasion that followed. She explained the Tower's downfall, of how Debora was Faceless, and of her moment of crisis when she was about to be consumed by a skin-changer.
"Then my amulet released all the energies it had gathered from Almudj…"
Gwen retrieved the Kirin amulet from beneath her mandarin blouse and placed it upon her palm for all to see.
"You gave the Kirin amulet to a daughter?" Guo turned to Morye incredulously. "What about your son?"
"She needed it more than Percy."
Suddenly, Guo's face twisted into something terrifying.
Jun reached beneath his shirt and took out a familiar flash of jade.
It was another piece of greenstone carved in the shape of a Kirin, though his one arced its back in a way opposite to Gwen's. When placed together, both Kirins formed the semi-circle halves of the yin and yang symbol.
"Would you like to have it returned?" Gwen asked immediately, holding out the amulet. She had no desire to forsake her precious item, of course; it was her ticket to harvesting Creature Cores! But Gwen knew how these 'things' usually went. In a contest for something where one was bound to lose, there was no advantage in avarice. Instead, it was wiser to take the moral high road and appear superior to the thing itself to create future opportunities for barter.
"You are free to keep it." Surprisingly, it was Jun who spoke, cutting off her grandfather before he could announce a decree. "The amulet has followed the streams of fate and chance and anchored itself to you. Who is to say that it would bring the same boon when forced upon another?"
Her grandfather swallowed his following words like a man forcing down a hardboiled egg, attracting another bout of chest rubbing from her grandmother.
"Tell me more about this Sobel woman," Guo said finally, trying to distract his seething disapproval.
Gwen repeated what she knew about Elizabeth in reasonable detail, emphasising that her Master's only fault was his falsely placed faith in her 'death' so many years ago. She then told them about the disappearance of her friends, Elvia and Yue, into the Grot and her mission to retrieve them from Singapore.
"… and that's about all I know," Gwen confessed. "That and you already know about Caliban's particular physique."
"Is the Morning Star going to try and retrieve you?" her grandfather inquired, scratching his chin.
"Assuredly," Gwen replied. "We are Brother and Sister-in-craft, Alesia included. I'd wager Gunther would be working on a plan as we speak."
Gwen raised her hand, where three rings sparkled.
"The Storage Ring is from Surya, my maternal grandfather. The Evasion Ring is from Magister Ferris, of Sydney Tower. The Contingency Ring is from Gunther; it was his own."
Her grandfather's face lost some of its colours, though whether from regret she could not know. After all, the Scarlet Sorceress was no slouch, and Gunther Shultz was a different creature entirely.
Gwen studied her grandfather as he tapped the chair with his fingers, his expression growing harder by the minute. Hopefully, the man wasn't thinking of killing her and burying her corpse.
"I would like to know your mind on this, Klavdiya," Guo murmured.
Her grandmother gave her a kind look of approval, then spoke. "You can keep a lid on the stew, Guo, but for how long would it simmer before it boiled over? Her old Master knew the reality of her situation far better than you. Don't fight her siblings. Leave the girl to her own devices. Leave her to me if you are disinclined. You are going to be preoccupied with your grandson, no? What about his retrieval?"
"If the Morning Star is aware, I do not think Wei and Jung can succeed," Guo confessed.
"Why not approach this with diplomacy?" Her grandmother asked. "What's the harm? Shanghai isn't at war with Sydney. Far from it, we trade with the Australians."
Gwen waited patiently while the two elders conversed. She repressed her body's natural desire to sway and shift, standing to attention with focused intent, awaiting summary judgment from her patriarch and matriarch.
"Gwen," it was her grandmother who addressed her.
"You will stay in Shanghai for the time being until matters of your status, your wellbeing, and the future of your education can be arranged."
"Yes, Babulya," Gwen concurred. Under the circumstances, that was the best she could hope for, at least until Gunther called.
Klavdiya raised an elegant eyebrow.
"That's it? No questions? No requests?"
"May I ask for a favour then?"
"Can I contact my friends in Sydney?"
"You speak of the girl Apprentice to the Scarlet Sorceress?" It was her grandfather who spoke this time.
"Yes, she is my dearest and closest friend."
His brows furrowed.
"They are still in transit as far as I am aware," Her grandfather intoned. "You will be permitted to contact your friends in time, but not now. Is that clear?"
"Yessir," Gwen replied rigidly.
"Father, may I make a suggestion?" This time, it was Jun who spoke.
"Jun, go ahead." Klavdiya gave her second son a motherly smile, which Jun returned wholeheartedly. The exchange made Morye cringe, which made Gwen want to roll her eyes.
"If you want Gwen out of your hair for a few days," Jun began. "There's the gathering of the Houses happening on Hengsha Island in three days. Mina and Tao have to attend. I thought that this year, maybe we can bring Gwen and see how she performs."
Gwen's ears perked up.
Hengsha Island? Gathering? Houses? Performance?
What does all that mean?
"Bah, a stupid gathering of little princes and princesses," Morye interrupted them. "I don't know about throwing Gwen into the mix. Although she has seen some action out on the Frontier, her proficiency at 'holding back' is mediocre at best. If she fries or tries to consume one of those kids…"
"She'll be fine." Jun's eyes sparkled. "Babulya is lending us her grand-niece, Petra."
"I don't know who that is," Morye shrugged.
"Oh, ho ho." Jun shook his head, grinning. "She is a monster."
He turned to Klavdiya.
"What do you think, Babulya? I think Gwen will get along with Petra."
Four pairs of eyes turned to Gwen, who swallowed nervously.
"Gwen," Klavdiya asked gently. "Would you like to stay with Grandfather, or would you like to see a bit of the Shanghai countryside? Specifically, one of the Orange Zone training grounds?"
"Hengsha, please!" Gwen answered a little too eagerly, drawing a grunt from her grandfather.
"Then it's settled!" Jun clapped his hands. "In the meanwhile, why don't you get acquainted with Mina and Tao? They are both your seniors, Tao by two years and Mina one. Get them to show you the city, see some of its sights. It'll be fun to get to know your cousins."
Gwen thought about Shanghai-Barbie and her motor-mouth brother.
Arguably, things could be worse.
She could be spending the weekend with Guo.
"Okay!" Gwen agreed to her uncle's suggestion. She had to wait five or more days until Yue and Elvia arrived in Sydney. What's the worst that could happen?