Gwen slept restlessly in her new spartan room, tossing and turning, irritated by the rough cotton sheets and the stolid air. When morning came, she vowed to upgrade her accommodation with thread-counted linen duvets and cooling glyphs. She was, after all, a woman of means now; there was no point denying herself life's simple pleasures.
When she again dug into the rough linen for a catnap, a knock came from the door.
It was her grandmother.
"Babulya, one second!"
She emerged a few minutes later in a bare-shouldered maxi that ran the length of her body until it reached her ankles. A simple belt tapered the fabric around Gwen's waist, allowing the pleated folds to adhere to her hips. Her long hair formed a tightly knotted ponytail.
"Good morning, dear," Babulya's voice was soft and comforting. "Come, much to do today. We're going to get you checked up and registered. But first, the most important meal of the day."
When they arrived at the banquet hall, a dozen and more people were present— her grandfather, babulya, herself, aunt Nen, and a host of the house's staff, mostly in military uniforms, were busy chowing down on sticks of fried dough and slurping on rice congee.
"Good morning, Grandfather. Good morning everyone."
Guo nodded, then continued slurping piping hot porridge.
It was another culture shock. People here spoke when they ate, ate when they chatted, drank soup with their mouth full of rice, and luxuriously slurped, chewed and swallowed whenever the chance presented itself.
Gwen found a place to sit and took some congee and golden dough from a communal basket. The pairing side dish was a strange-looking egg sliced in half.
"Egg of Mandarine Duck, salted in brine," Babulya pointed out when Gwen gave the strange, oily yellow core a curious poke. "Very rich in mana and nutrients. Do try it."
Not wanting to disappoint, Gwen retrieved the yolk and placed it in her mouth. It was salty, fishy, semi-raw and tasted strongly of egg that had gone slightly off. She quickly drank some congee to wash the taste from her mouth, politely vocalising a few appreciative slurps so that she fitted in with the noisy crowd.
"How do you feel?" Babulya asked, her wizened eyes blinking expectantly.
"I feel… fullness? Vital?" Gwen marvelled at the unexpected satiation of her Astral Body. "What's in this porridge?"
"It's called the Congee of Eight Treasures." Her Babulya chuckled. "Frontier cuisine, especially western cuisine, doesn't have ready access to produce harvested in the Wildlands. As someone unused to the food here, you will quickly absorb the additional mana boosts offered by the rarer ingredients, though it will take a few years of fine dining to catch up to Mina and Tao."
Gwen nodded, though she didn't think that she would have less mana capacity than the people here. Was there a numeric capacity for measuring such a thing? She felt no reason to withhold her curiosity.
"Babulya, how do I know what my Mana capacity is?"
"You will have your answer soon, dear." Klavdiya pushed over another bowl. "Eat."
Gwen wolfed down another bowl. With her Void-assisted appetite, she was a girl who could eat the world. After a third bowl, her abdomen could be kindly described as having a food baby.
With breakfast done, Klavdiya led Gwen outside, where a dark sedan with military plates awaited them.
"Second Army PLA," Klavdiya informed the driver, then reclined in the large leather seat. Compared to herself, her Babulya was dressed in a cotton mandarine jacket. She appeared very prim and proper, though in a way that projected humbleness.
"Ma'am!" The driver saluted smartly, starting the vehicle.
The interior of the saloon was roomy and spacious. Gwen noticed that when the door closed, it cut off almost all sound from the outside.
"Can you tell me about where we are going?" Gwen inquired.
"An army hospital," Klavdiya repeated as the car gently took off. "Your babulya happens to be one of the seven directors."
Gwen's lips puckered to form a little "O".
"It's not much to boast, dear. There are not many of us left these days from the original members in the '50s. A few dozen families, that's about it. Any one of us who desired a position like this would have been offered one eventually, assuming we're in the right field, of course."
"Babulya, can you tell me more about yourself and grandfather?" Gwen inquired carefully. "If it's too intrusive, you don't have to."
"No, I'd love to tell it," Klavdiya replied kindly. "What do you want to know?"
"Well." Gwen tried to think of a delicate way to phrase it. "Is Yeye a spy of some sort? A secret agent?"
"Ha! He's not a Grey Ghost if that's what you were suspecting." Klavdiya quietly laughed to herself. "He has quite a few titles. What do you know about the PLA?"
"Nothing," Gwen confessed. It wasn't as though she had a Bachelor of Political Science or Asian Studies.
"Then I'll keep it simple." Babulya patted her hand assuringly. "Your Grandfather is a commissioned secretary under the Ministry of National Defence, meaning he's something of an intelligence big-wig, about three rungs from the top. He is also the Deputy Secretary of Internal Security and Anti-Reconnaissance Division, which means he has to sign off, though not plan or execute, missions involving counter-intelligence. Finally, his actual job is being the Chairman of the Confidential Communications Committee, which serves as one of twenty-four counsels for the Secretariat Committee, the governing body of the Communist Party of China here in Shanghai."
Gwen nodded, then shook her head, then nodded again. Klavdiya may as well be speaking Russian.
Sensing Gwen's confusion, her Babulya tried to think of an appropriate analogy.
"He specialises in counter-intelligence and internal security," Klavdiya added after shaking her head, distilling Guo's position to its lowest common denominator.
"Okay," Gwen nodded emphatically. "This may sound rather presumptuous of me, but if Grandfather is that power, then do we have any enemies? Several of the youngsters seem less than friendly towards Tao and Mina. If I had to say, fight them— I wish to know who I need to—not fight."
Klavdiya chuckled to herself, stifling a laugh. "What a bloodthirsty little minx you are, Gwen. Nothing for you to worry about dear, Guo is not a factionist. Just remember a few golden rules."
"Should you be so inclined to duel. No killing. No maiming. No permanent injury. AND that applies to NoMs as well. We are not the Mageocracy, after all."
"Which means?" Gwen contemplated a bothersome hypothetical situation. "No Void Magic?"
"Yes, No VOID, at least until you can control it with absolute confidence. If you inflict a mortal injury on someone with Void, expect their family to be beating down our door, demanding to put you in the military court."
"But I CAN use it, assuming I use it safely?"
"I would avoid using it in a non-official capacity, dear." Klavdiya's eyes were full of kindness. "Are you so eager to show the world your skills?"
"I don't know," Gwen confessed.
"That's alright. Use it when you have to. There are not many like you, and none with access to both Yin and Yang elements, but you need not fear for yourself. The Tower exists to protect talented Mages like yourself, be it our Tower or theirs."
Klavdiya chortled. "Unless you wish to be a rogue Mage, you will automatically become a Tower Mage, although the choice of PLA or the Pudong Tower is up to you, certainly your grandfather would want you to join the PLA, but that would mean committing resources and support, which he will not do."
"Why is that?" Gwen asked quietly. What was wrong with investing in herself?
"Why?" Klavdiya patted her thighs, causing Gwen to blush mightily. "You lack the yaytsa to inherit! But your brother Percy does!"
Gwen's babulya cackled to herself heartily, enjoying the moment as Gwen grew flustered.
As for Gwen, she could only chew on her lip.
A woman can't inherit and can't pass on the family name, so they're not worth spending resources? What bullshit! She fumed. In a way, she understood the logic but felt repulsed by the misogyny.
"Why fret, dear." Klavdiya squeezed her hand. "You are the Apprentice of Henry Kilroy, are you not? The Sister-in-craft of the Morning Star! Why would you care if Guo Song to try and limit your horizons? If it's a matter of resources, did you not make three thousand HDMs in a single night? Are you incapable of making more?"
"You're right," she replied after a moment of contemplation. Her babulya was correct; she was pedantic and greedy. "Thanks for putting that into perspective, Babulya."
The interior lights kicked in as the exterior of the car dimmed. They were now entering a superstructure that spanned across a pentagrammic array of highways and underground passes. A few lumen globes grew in gradual brightness until their faces were just visible.
Outside, Gwen deduced that they were traversing through a tunnel network.
A glowing green sign indicated an underground entrance for staff. The sedan slowed, then pulled into a circular parking bay guarded by olive uniformed guards with combat wands strapped to their thighs.
Granddaughter and grandmother alighted the vehicle, where Klavdiya received another round of salutes before being escorted toward the lift.
The levitation platform penetrated several strata before it broke through to the surface, allowing Gwen to finally take in the entirety of the structure they were now entering.
The Second PLA Army Experimental Hospital was a superstructure overlooking a byway of five roads that met within its interior. It contained a Military Hospital, a Civilian Hospital, a Veteran's Hospice, a Recuperation Ward, and most importantly, housed the PLA Medical Research and Development Division.
Beyond the superstructure sat a profusion of NoM apartments and their underground commercial districts, crowding the horizon like a meadow of brilliant tomato stakes. Below the two women, the multitudes of milling people looked like termites swarming a perforated stump.
Gwen grew nervous when Klavdiya led her into an intimidating laboratory.
It was stark white, sterile in every aspect— white walls, with shapeless opaque lights embedded into a featureless, white ceiling. White, polyurethane-like surfaces made up white tables and benchtops, underneath which was a profusion of stainless steel made up chairs and tables, trolleys and dollies. The machinery was likewise a combination of ceramic white on brushed galvanised steel.
"I appropriated the lab for a few hours, for your privacy," her Babulya assured her. "You will need to put on a hospital gown; there's one in the cupboard there. It's just you and me, so help yourself."
"Can I keep my inners?" Gwen inquired, hoping the answer was yes.
"No." Klavdiya shook her head. "Don't be shy. The equipment is designed to work without interference. However, you can keep your rings on. They shouldn't be a problem. For future reference, you would have to remove items possessing body-enhancing, regeneration, or obfuscation capabilities."
Gwen changed behind a screen, emerging a moment later a little colder. The XL gown was still too miserly for her tall body, but the XXL would have been too loose for her shoulders, leaving most of her flank exposed.
"Very good." Klavdiya pointed to a platform and told Gwen to stand between what looked like two magnetic prongs, one pointed at her head, the other at her abdomen. "Relax."
There was a thrum as something thrust against her diaphragm and her belly. Gwen felt a wave of permeating mana penetrate her body.
On an off-side screen about waist height, a three-dimensional illusion of Gwen materialised. It was life-like, though transparent. Upon closer inspection, Gwen realised that it was a projection of her astral form overlaid with her physical body.
"This is a sonogram projection." Klavdiya tapped a few Glyphs that only she could see, her expression the very face of professionalism. "Now we can get to work."
Gwen attended her Babulya as she incanted arcane invocations beyond Gwen's knowledge, watching Klavdiya's fingers dance across runes and glyphs both visible and ethereal, a few of which she recognised from her grandfather's workshop.
"So, let me explain." Klavdiya directed Gwen to another platform, where she became backlit by a blinding sheet of bright perspex humming with Positive Energy. "Do you know how magical healing works?"
"No." Gwen felt she was saying that a lot these days. "Well, I know the theory, but I have a feeling the Frontier left a lot of details out."
"Oh, you poor kitten!" Klavdiya gave Gwen a motherly hug, her small stature and Gwen's hospital gown making the encounter more intimate than necessary. On Gwen's end, receiving the doting affection of her matriarch was strangely jarring. Klavdiya wasn't her mother, but she gave off an effect far kinder than any embrace Helena had ever delivered.
"Magical healing is not a substitute for natural healing," Klavdiya spoke as they separated, sternly taking her by one arm. "At least without supreme knowledge of the human body and its anatomy down to the structure of the cells."
She enlarged the illusory Gwen's body with a flick of her wrist, where red lines ran through her imaginary form like spider web fissures.
"Look at these," Klavdiya pointed out. "These are fault lines where new and old flesh has fused."
"They are what we call Positive scarring, meaning that the imperfect regeneration of your flesh has grown cancerous."
"C-Cancer!" Gwen blurted out. "No!"
"Your injuries are extensive." Klavdiya clicked her tongue. "In the battle with the Skin Changer, you must have lost a significant portion of your organs and a considerable section of your lower muscle mass, as well.'
"I… I have CANCER?" Gwen tried to wrap her mind around the news. After all the bullshit she had gone through, and she now has cancer?
"Why? What's wrong?" Klavdiya looked at her granddaughter strangely. "That's what happens when you overheal."
Gwen's eyes grew misty with despair.
Klavdiya regarded her panicked granddaughter wordlessly. "Lie down; this is going to itch."
Gwen laid down on the white linen examination table, blank with the dire news.
Klavdiya tapped a few Glyphs. A few mechanical injectors pierced her quivering flesh with their precious cargo of alchemical solutions.
A gentle warmth suffused Gwen, turning her skin translucent with a carefully controlled array of Positive Energy that seemed to permeate every pore.
"There— it's done."
"What's done?" Gwen felt suddenly and inexplicably healed.
"Your cancer." Klavdiya slapped her granddaughter on the thighs.
"Oh?" Gwen suddenly felt quite stupid.
"A lesson to be learned," her babulya continued. "Avoid excessive healing in the field. With each healing spell you receive, your body's resistance to the spell grows, and the chance of malignancy increases. If you subject yourself to too many low-level healing spells, there may be irreversible damage to your body that not even tier 7 spells can restore. There's a reason Frontier Combat Mages have unusually short lifespans, though the rarity of upper-tier healers in those parts of the world is to blame, I suppose."
Gwen inclined her head.
"They never told us," she said wistfully, thinking of all the times those around her casually treated every other minor injury with blasts of positive energy or chugged healing potions like it was raspberry cordial.
"Why would they? It's not as though anyone could refuse magical healing. Does the Frontier even have facilities for the NoMs, for the natural and mundane restoration of the body? Do you know how much resources that would take?"
Gwen shook her head. She wondered if Elvia knew or if her friend had been too much of an Acolyte to be told such a secret of the trade. Her Master and siblings probably knew as well but thought little of it since they could arguably access high-level healing, which meant Gwen would have received this treatment sooner or later. In the end, despite the convenience of magic, it still boiled down to a stratified society of the rich with access to the best medicare, while the poor were left straddling their battered bodies unto the grave.
"Gwen." Her grandmother sensed her doubt.
Gwen turned to regard her babulya, seeing the older woman's eyes grow damp with care and concern.
"Your Path, my dear granddaughter, will be a Path of Conflict."
Gwen felt the sagacity of her grandmother's words soothing the turbulent anxiety haunting her since her troubled conversation with Gunther.
"Think of all the fighting you will be doing, Granddaughter: the wolves, the lions and tigers, the hyenas, the foxes and the jackals; you will fight the Monsters across the land, air and sea, the Demi-humans who will think you a threat. You are going to fight allies. You may even fight family."
The last word made Gwen wince unpleasantly.
"If you want to attain what Magus Shultz and de Botton expects of you, of what I imagine you expect for yourself, then the road ahead is a never-ending path of what the Buddhists call Asura, the Path of Violent Reckoning. There will be no rest. No solace, not even when you're spent and bloody and desire nothing more. With your talent, your blood, you will become a locus of envy, jealousy, wrath and lust. Can you understand that?"
Gwen replied that she did.
She had survived the Mermen incursion.
She had lost loved ones to conspiracy.
She had killed and murdered.
A year and a half ago, she would have quoted back Shakespeare, but what she had experienced had gone far beyond the realm of make-belief.
"That came out far more seriously than I expected." Klavdiya apologised. "To get carried away at my age…"
"Babulya, your advice is very sound," Gwen confessed.
"I am glad to hear it, dear." Klavdiya took Gwen's hand and guided her from the Healing Table. "Now, for some volumetric measurements of your current abilities. That's why we're here, after all."
A yellow-jacketed folder materialised on the stainless steel surface of an examination table, indicating the presence of a built-in spatial storage system. Klavdiya retrieved Gwen's portfolio from the envelope and scanned the numbers.
"Miao did an extensive survey with your biometrics." Her babulya placed the file onto the table for Gwen's purview. The Comprehend Language of her Ioun Stone did its best to translate the medical jargon, but much of it remained a jumble.
Gwen moved onto another set of machinery. This time, the mechanism resembled a chest extension station at the gymnasium. Klavdiya instructed Gwen to place her hands on the handlebars, arching herself over an L-shaped bench.
"Okay, we're going to take the average of three attempts," Klavdiya informed her. "The Spectrometer is to get a volumetric reading of your Mana Pool."
"What do I do?" Gwen's ears perked up.
"Channel for ten seconds, as much as you can. Three Times. The machine operates much like the Awakening Stones. It will send a guiding mote into your astral body to generate a statistical representation of your capabilities. Just relax and remember to let the mote return to the machine."
The Spectrometer began to thrum.
"Ready? Three. Two. One. Channel."
Gwen gathered her focus and imagined herself pushing the mana in her body outward, much in the same way that Mana Shields manifested. Around her, astral energy poured from the aether, gushing through her mana channels. Where her palm touched the handlebars, she could feel a mote of Divination invade her Astral Form before quickly disappearing.
Klavdiya watched the indicator rise and fall as though it crested upon a moving wavelength.
"Calm yourself," she advised. "Long, sustained manifestation."
Gwen tried again.
Then performed the same exercise a third time.
"How's it looking?" Gwen asked her grandmother eagerly.
"About 132 VMI, that stands for Volumetric Mana Index."
"How does it measure up, I mean," Gwen rephrased her question coyly.
"What do you think?"
"About average?" Gwen tested the waters.
"Ha!" Klavdiya chuckled.
"You're teasing me!" Gwen nagged her grandmother winsomely, both keen and curious to find out.
"Alright, it's impressive."
"How impressive?" Gwen pushed for clarification.
"Well, to give you some perspective. Tao is sitting around 60 VMI, Mina about 65 VMI. The boy you fought, Frederick Lin, should be sitting about 70 VMI. I don't know about your father, but Jun is a marvel at 440 VMI. Your grandfather hasn't been in combat for some time, and his last checkup was 280 VMI. The requirement for an intermediate Mage to gain employment under the Shanghai Towers is 90 VMI. What do you think that means?"
Gwen crunched the numbers. "Why is mine so high?" she inquired, a dreaded hypothesis forming within her mind.
"I am sure you have an idea, dear." Klavdiya patted Gwen on the cheeks.
It was true then.
Assuming her meagre diet of semi-magical and mostly mundane produce, she should be sitting around 40 VMI after a year and a half of training. What this meant was that she had an excess of 90 VMI that Caliban had acquired. The junior Mages at Blackheath would have provided 5 to 10 each, while Faceless likely supplied the lion's share.
When her late Master was teaching her tier 4 Conjurations, she had felt that her pool was insufficient to sustain all of her Conjuration effects concurrently. Yet, during that Bout with Lok, she had only just broken a sweat after almost four minutes of sustained firing from her Orb, Cloud, and Summon Familiar. Furthermore, she had noticed that her non-newtonian shield had felt extraordinarily dense. Lok's Earthen Spears had only just cracked her outer shell.
Now she knew why.
"I am curious as to why I've never heard of VMI in the Frontier," Gwen asked.
"It is forbidden to export Magitech to the Frontier, dear," her grandmother answered patiently. "But the Frontier does fine without it. Spellcraft itself isn't an exact thing, strange as that may sound."
"I see. What else?" Gwen was beginning to realise why Richard desired to be out of the Frontier so eagerly.
"Affinity!" Klavdiya took Gwen to another station, one holding a large crystal ball that resembled an Awakening Orb. "Hand on the stone, channel Elemental Lighting thrice, then we'll reset for Void."
"Alright," Gwen placed both hands on the stone and waited for Klavdiya's command.
"Three. Two. One. Channel."
The stone crackled with an electrical discharge.
The stone flared.
"Once more. Good."
A shunt of mana belonging to the Enchantment school cleared the crystal ball, returning it to its crystal clarity.
"Now for Void, as much as you're able. If you feel faint or weak, just let me know. I shall have a Restoration held in reserve."
Gwen took a deep breath. It had been some time since she had hollowed herself out channelling the Void.
"Ready? Three. Two. One!"
Gwen's face paled as the surge of Void matter pushed past the threshold of safety provided by Amuldj's blessing. She felt her vitality ebb away as dark motes of blackness filled the Awakening Crystal, filling it with a maelstrom of elemental entropy.
"Restoration!" A contraflow of carefully attuned positive energy flooded into Gwen's body, repairing and mending the parts of her physique weakened by the inundation of Negative Energy. "Can you manage one more time, dear?"
Gwen focused her mind and again performed the feat, feeling herself weaken as her vitality waned. Her face became pallid and pale, her skin slimy and grey with the sweat of exertion. It took all of her conviction just to stand upright.
Her grandmother liberally exhausted her mana on Gwen. Even half-conscious, Gwen baulked, knowing that each casting of Greater Restoration consumed almost a dozen HDMs worth of rarified components.
"4.45 for Lightning," Klavdiya jotted down the figures carefully. "I am surprised to say that your Void is 4.03."
Gwen had felt that her Affinity with the Void had increased significantly but hadn't expected it to almost double from taking in a single Faceless and an elementally ambivalent centipede.
"So, you are sitting effectively at Void 4, Lightning 4, both impressive statistics."
"How do I..."
"...Measure up? Above average, though for the fact that you possess two Elements, I would venture to say that you are already beyond reasonable comparison. After all, the number of Mages who currently possess two pure-strain elements number no more than a dozen in Shanghai. There are a few young ones as well, but certainly, your kind makes for a rare breed."
"There're others like me?" Gwen wondered aloud.
"Not exactly." Klavdiya tapped the table. "I recall a Clan Mage, Fei Ling Yi, the First Disciple of the Kunlun Clan, who wielded both Air and Ice. The Twin Element talent is a rare occurrence that happens once every so often in the inheriting branch. However, it has been a decade since the Kunlun Clan disappeared. As for you…"
Gwen's babulya presented her palms in exasperation.
"I don't think I've never heard of someone awakening in oppositional twin elements. It goes against all our current Astral Theory. If you ever choose that discipline in University, you would understand. It is not too uncommon for siblings, or even twins, to awaken in oppositional elements, for creation favours a dichotomous pairing, in Yin and Yang, Water and Fire, Earth and Air."
"So I am a curio," Gwen stated quietly.
"Don't fret. You have us and your brother-in-craft," Klavdiya assured her. "Although, if you want to volunteer, your Babulya is more than keen to take a poke around in your Astral Body. Would you like to know how you came about?"
"Sure," Gwen nodded. "There's one more machine, so another test?"
Klavdiya directed Gwen into the final machine. The Glyphs were familiar to her, for she had seen them many times under Henry's instructive tutelage at the Sydney Tower.
"This is… a Cognisance Chamber?"
"More or less," Klavdiya helped Gwen into the harness, a soft leather strap that wrapped around her wrists and waist. "It'll give us some insight into your body's affinity for the different schools of magic."
"I think I know what I am proficient in already," Gwen volunteered.
"Nonetheless, we need to issue a transcript," Klavdiya informed her. "Why do you think we're here? The tests are not for satiating our curiosity, dear; this is so you can apply for University!"
"Oh? Oh!" Gwen realised the penultimate goal of their exercise. She had hidden her abilities for so long that it felt more natural not knowing her Affinities and talents. "Babulya. Thank you for doing this for me."
"Well, the numbers speak for themselves. I am just jotting in the details." Klavdiya smiled benevolently at Gwen and gave her a squeeze on the arm. "Relax, you don't have to do anything. Just keep your arms and legs inside the oscillator when it spins."
The tubular mechanism that held Gwen began to hum, filling the air with Divination energy. Another set of arms bearing a Diviner device began to circle her body.
A set of scripts poured from the console.
"Alright, let's see here," Klavdiya poured over the list. Her eyes became wide with wonder. "Goodness gracious!"
Gwen craned her neck. She wanted to see as well.
Klavdiya read it out one by one.
"This reads like I had crammed four Mages into the same machine," Klavdiya marvelled, puckering her lips thoughtfully. "Five schools, Gwen. I don't know what to say."
"It's Caliban," Gwen explained. It appeared that she couldn't just pad her Affinity with corpses. Her Transmutation had been less than tier 1 previously, and after digesting Faceless, a minimum Tier 6 Transmuter, Gwen had only an increase of .5 in her efficacy. For her, the more Affinity she absorbed, the less effective her "Consumption" effect became.
"But your Conjuration and Evocation seem to be a double Awakening," Klavdiya pointed out. "That and you possess twin, oppositional Elements."
"What does that portend?" Gwen implored her grandmother.
Klavdiya's eyes fell upon her.
Gwen's heart skipped a beat. Did her Babulya suspect? Could she know about the Twin-Soul?
"I suspect…" Klavdiya began.
"That you may have had a fraternal-dizygotic twin that died in the womb, and I suspect that your body, while an embryo, likely absorbed her," Klavdiya's hypothesised was thankfully based on her decades of Medical-arcana experience.
"That would also explain the Yin and Yang," her Babulya offered expertly, her voice growing with confidence. "I am sure of it, though we would need to conduct extensive tests on yourself and your mother, to be sure."
"I don't think she'd agree to that," Gwen pointed out.
"Nor do I wish to proceed," her Babulya shook her head. "Speaking of your mother. Do you think she and Morye could get together? Having a divorced spouse here in Shanghai always complicates one's social standing. The major families, the Clans, the Houses, the state itself, is very particular about the family unit and viability of one's bloodline."
"Not a chance, not to mention Mother has a new husband."
Klavdiya's expression grew instantly cold.
"What, Hai not good enough for her?"
Gwen glanced downward, finding sudden interest in the sterile floors. She would preferably not contribute to the momentum of their current conversation.
"Well, at any rate, we are almost done." Klavdiya carefully labelled and filled in each document. "Lastly, I need some of your blood."
She produced a syringe and six small vials. Gwen winced and extended her arm, from which her Babulya painlessly and professionally withdrew six ruby-red vessels of sanguineous fluid.
"These will be sent to the Tower to generate your Visa and Passport, Academic ID, Public Practice of Magic Licence, and Adventuring Permit. Remember, Gwen— Astral attunement is your best identification. No one can pretend to be you, not even a Skin Changer— unless they can consume your Astral Body."
Gwen shivered at the thought.
"Thank you, Babulya," she replied earnestly, realising the sheer amount of red tape that Klavdiya had just circumvented for her. From the moment these documents entered into the system, she would become an official citizen of Shanghai, no longer a vagrant hobo from the Frontier who had wandered into town. "I don't know what I would do without you."
"It's alright, dear, just make sure you make us proud." Klavdiya smiled gently and uttered an incantation that seemed to drain the life from all the machines. "I dare say that we've spent the better part of the day here. You kids still have to leave for Hengsha Island tomorrow. I am sure your Grandfather is receiving the newest members of the family as we speak."
Gwen felt a sudden palpitation of the heart. "Percy is here?! Richard too?"
As if on cue, a crimson Message spell bloomed like a lotus beside their ears.
"Speak of the old devil," Klavdiya chuckled. "Guo?"
"I am taking the two of them home now." Guo's familiar voice came through the Message. "Are you done?"
"Just finished," Klavdiya replied sweetly.
"Good." Guo's voice was much softer when speaking to his wife. "I'll see you soon."
"I desire a kiss, dearest," Klavdiya suddenly demanded of the stoic old man, watching Gwen trying to stifle a giggle. She winked.
There was a moment of futile internal struggle.
"Muah!" A puckering sound came from the other side of the Message.
The two women broke out into uncontrollable giggles as the Message abruptly ended. Gwen and babushka tittered, then cackled, then finally broke into uproarious mirth until they held their stomachs.
"Alright, alright," Klavdiya urged Gwen to change into a demure attire. "Let's go see this heir of ours."
Gwen picked herself up from the floor.
Percy! She felt her heart aglow with warmth. And Richard!