The scant traffic at noon meant that Gwen and Klavdiya were home in record time.
Gwen burst through the gates and ran into the courtyard, her eyes frantically scanning for her brother and Richard.
"In the training hall, Mistress Gwen." An NoM servant indicated to the training grounds. Gwen tried to recall the sweeper's name but couldn't and so bowed, then made purposeful headway to find her kin.
As she came close, she grew aware of ripples of indeterminable mana, as familiar to her as her own, emanating from the interior. Gingerly, Gwen opened the heavy, oaken doors, sliding them to one side.
Happily, she met the expectant sight of a young man looking very much like a young Morye summoning a stream of Elemental Salt from thin air. Besides her brother were two other figures; one was her grandfather, looking stoic and stern, and the other was the welcoming sight of Richard grinning broadly at her entrance.
Gwen felt confounded by an emotion that she could hardly contain. Ignoring her grandfather's displeased scowl, she ran towards Richard and leapt at him with open arms. He caught her by the waist, and they met in midair, with Gwen wrapping her arms tightly around Richard's neck.
"Oh God, it's so good to see a familiar face!" she uttered felicitously, feeling all the tension drain from her body.
She then turned to Percy and embraced him, pushing her brother against her body like a plush toy.
"Percy! Percy! Percy! How I've missed you!" she gushed with jubilance, ruffling his hair and gifting him a sloppy kiss on the forehead.
Percy was not expecting his usually mature sister to affect such an outburst of unbidden emotion. Her brother mumbled a greeting under the threat of suffocation, then his face turning a deep crimson from the public display of affection.
Gwen then tried to get them all into a group huddle, but Percy declined. She laughed, realising her brother was at a tender age where affection and attention were loathed and loved in equal measure.
Klavdiya then came through the door, her presence as luminous as ever.
"Grandmother!" Percy walked robotically towards Gwen's babulya before bowing from the waist like a boomerang. "It is a pleasure to meet you."
"Likewise, let's take a look at you," Klavdiya replied in a matronly manner. "Raise your head, dear."
Percy did so; his dark eyes, inherited from his grandfather, studied his grandmother while Gwen watched their interaction. As with Gwen, her apparent youth seemed to catch Percy off guard. After all, her grandfather looked like a grizzled old veteran, while here was their grandmother, looking not a day past forty.
"So much of Hai in you." Klavdiya measured Percy with her eyes. "We will be spending plenty of time together in the future, dear. You may return to Guo."
"Yes, Ma'am," Percy answered stiffly before returning to the centre of the room.
"The boy has potential," Guo informed his wife satisfyingly. "He has demonstrated a strong Affinity with the Salt, and I suspect he should be a Transmuter or an Evoker, either of which should do nicely."
"Of course." Klavdiya shot her husband a knowing look. "I have Gwen's numbers as well. We'll talk later."
Gwen watched her grandparents' interaction with interest, but her primary focus was still on her brother and her cousin, united at last.
"How was the trip here? Did you feel sick after the Teleport?"
"Oh yes, very unpleasant," Richard confessed. "Felt like someone reached into my gut and jerked my appendix. Percy projectile vomited as soon as we arrived. Spectacular stuff."
"Richard!" Percy flushed.
"Well, you look fine, little man!' Gwen squeezed her brother's shoulder. "You've grown taller!"
"I want to be taller than you," Percy replied sulkily. Gwen chuckled. She understood that it was awkward to be so much shorter than one's female sibling. How could a brother maintain his masculine decorum if his sister towered over him every time they went out.
"I think you're out of luck there," Richard interjected. "Maybe Awaken as a Transmuter? You can grow as many inches as required."
Percy glared at Richard.
Gwen lightly punched her cousin in the arm. "Stop that."
"Ah— there's no sport in the kid," Richard snickered as well. "He's too easy."
"How's your family?" Gwen inquired.
"With Surya helping out, they're okay. Right now, they're waiting for me to get some Contribution Credits together."
"Seriously?" Gwen raised a critical brow.
"Yeah, I kid you not. Well, I already promised my parents I'd get them out ASAP. I think the fact that both of your parents are now in tier 1 cities set them off. After all, Kwan has always had a complex about besting your mother in life," Richard added.
"Percy, how's mum?" Gwen turned to her brother. "How pissed was she?"
Percy chose his following words carefully. "Mother says to tell you that she never wants to see you or speak to you again, not on her life."
"Oh?" Despite her prior speculation, Gwen still felt a little stung. Having overcome the previous Gwen's traumatic conditioning under Helena's history of abuse, she now felt more sympathetic toward her erstwhile mother than anything else.
"Yeah, I was there," Richard affirmed candidly. "She was pissed as anything, my God. The shriek she delivered. I thought my ears would start to bleed. She may as well be the new resonating frequency to fend off the Magical Beasts."
"Yeah, I figured." Gwen sighed.
"Percy, tell your sister how you feel about all this." Richard tapped her brother on the arm. "Tell her the truth."
Percy brushed off Richard's intrusive fingers. From the look of his sullen face, the boy wanted to remain mum.
"Your brother was up all night, fucking jubilant and whooping on about how he's going to a tier 1 city, Destiny Manifest, that kind of shit." He frowned at Percy. "He may be fourteen now, but he's as much a rebellious little shit as they come."
Unable to retort, Percy blushed a deeper shade of crimson.
"What are they talking about?" Next to them, Guo was unhappy with what his Ioun Stone managed to translate, feeling none-too-pleased that this cousin of Gwen's was heaping criticism on his new, precious grandchild.
Klavdiya patted her husband's hand.
"Richard, come here," she spoke fluent English.
"Ma'am?" Richard presented himself politely.
Klavdiya materialised a cream coloured Ioun Stone from the air.
"Put this on," she commanded, passing the Stone over to Richard.
Richard took the Stone with both hands and bowed expertly. He thanked Klavdiya with impeccable manners, then attuned the Stone without incident.
"I like this young man already." Klavdiya gave Richard a once over with her eyes. "Where did you train, Mr Huang?"
"Just Richard is fine, or Dick, even."
"I trained at Prince's, Ma'am, the Sydney branch."
"A Commonwealth Greater Public School? A fine establishment. We have a branch here in Shanghai, too, though much smaller than your European divisions. Have you completed your studies?"
"Yes, Ma'am. I was on leave and serving as a resident at the college in place of my Military Service. Before the incident, I was awaiting transfer to Europe."
"Oh, how unfortunate." Klavdiya patted Richard on the cheeks, watching his impassive face affect a pleasant smile. "What are your plans now?"
"Gwen is my plan now." Richard looked at Gwen and gave her a toothy smile. "I plan to go to university with her and serve as her second."
"You what?!" Gwen spluttered. "No! Richard, your career is more important than mine!"
"I wanted this," Richard affirmed with absolute confidence. "Not to mention, I have discussed my future in great detail with Lord Shultz."
"He hinted at a possible future Tower opening," Richard replied without any intention of withholding that bombshell. "Though we're not very compatible, I will be satisfied as long as he allows me to serve his interests and vice-versa. The Tower Master has plans for Sydney that will span decades, and I am happy to be a part of them."
"But Richard!" Gwen felt such jubilance fill her heart. It was too much. How could her cousin have so much confidence in her? She felt glad and happy but also considerably pressured, sensing the burgeoning weight of new responsibilities buckling onto her shoulders.
"A wonderful prospect," Klavdiya applauded Richard. "You have my blessing."
"Thank you, Grandmother Song." Richard bowed lavishly in the manner of European nobility.
"Oh my, that takes me back." Gwen's babulya blushed happily. "I hadn't seen anyone perform that bow in decades, not since the old days when we used to have debutant balls."
"You would have been the most beautiful debutant by far." Richard followed through without even pausing for breath. "But then again, Babulya, even now, your unfading pageant remains in bloom."
"I remember that line." Klavdiya applauded Richard. "Is that Ruminov?"
"Yes, from the Second Translation by Wessen," Richard replied.
Beside them, Guo coughed uncomfortably.
Goodness. Gwen marvelled at Richard. What a babushka killer!
"Have they got their IDs yet?" Klavdiya enquired of Guo, who nodded in response.
"Tomorrow." Her grandfather replied.
Their meeting was interrupted by a servant who waited patiently by the threshold of the Training Hall. "Masters, the table is set."
Klavdiya turned to her husband and the grandchildren.
"Well, shall we break for lunch? I am sure you boys are all starving after travelling such a long distance."
"I am indeed famished and would love to accept," Richard said politely. "You are too kind."
Gwen blinked, again impressed with Richard's high society training, something she lacked in either lifetime. Even under Henry, etiquette lesson had been forfeit for training. It was no surprise, as her Master had begun life as a commoner, while Alesia took great pleasure in beating down high society, and Gunther hated sophistry.
Klavdiya seemed immensely pleased with Richard "speaking" her kind of language. She took Richard by the arm and kept speaking to him in low tones that made Guo's face alternate between disgruntlement and vexation.
"Grandfather, are you alright?" Percy inquired carefully, wary of his grandfather's growing ire.
"I am fine, Grandson." Guo's face immediately changed into one of benevolence. The effect was so startling that Gwen felt as though she was watching a Shapeshifter change faces.
"Are you hungry?" Guo asked, his voice rich with patience. "Our banquet uses the best ingredients, just for you! We need to make up for all those years of mundane diets. I've prepared some herbal baths as well to help you with your mana conduits. We're booked in for a check-up at your grandmother's clinic too..."
"I am looking forward to it, Grandpa," Percy indulged himself with Guo's shower of attention.
"Call me Yeye." Guo chuckled happily to himself, in a world of his own. Watching it all go down, Gwen felt a little sick.
"Yeye!" Percy shamelessly delivered his flatulent flattery.
"Oh ho ho! Ah hahaha!" Guo guffawed, not at all the Commissioner of Confidential Communications but a doting old gramps. Gwen baulked. The man was laughing! She hadn't thought "Yeye" capable of expressing such human emotions. The way he stared at her had always been as though she was a strange decorative part of the house.
She felt strangely oppressed but knew better than to be greedy. She had received a second chance to know her family, and now she had Richard and Percy back with her too. Wasn't that enough?
"So, what's this Hengsha Island?" Richard asked when then entered the communal hall, where the banquet awaited them.
Gwen told him of their travel plans, briefly explaining who Mina and Tao were, then dismally failed in clarifying what the island meet up entailed.
"Babulya," Ricard announced suddenly. "Can I ask where and what is Hengsha island, and may I accompany Gwen there?"
"It's a meeting of the Shanghai Clans, mostly children from lineage families," Klavdiya explained patiently in that soft, gentle voice of hers. "As a mimicry of the International Inter-University Competition, the Clans make teams that compete for objectives. Sometimes there are even Dungeons from long gone magical or Demi races you can explore. The purpose is to get to know your peers and to give a chance for the well-established families to pick out talented candidates for the future."
"So, a marriage mixer?" Richard instantly read between the lines.
Gwen's dumpling paused in midair. "... What?"
"It's not really like that," Klavdiya confessed. "No one is going to push for anything. It's a very informal affair. Mostly young egos, duelling one another down to size, that sort of thing. Although, now that you mentioned it."
The two of them looked at Gwen, who squirmed under their gaze.
"Gwen," Klavdiya asked seriously. "Did your Frontier school teach Sexual Education?"
"I don't want to talk about this..." Gwen confessed. "How about we talk about Percy?"
Richard interjected. "Now that you mention it, I don't think her school offers that curriculum. Gwennie, I don't suppose Morye gave you the 'talk', did he? The proverbial phoenix and the dragon?"
Gwen's complexion turned the hue of pink pippins. She cringed inwardly. If only her family knew that she wasn't blushing for inexperience, but that despite being thirty in her old life, she was a virgin in this one. With her accusing eyes, she cursed Richard's bluntness. Bloody Richard!
"I'll let Jun know you're coming along," their grandmother said. "Will you protect Gwen, Richard?"
"I won't fail." Richard flashed Klavdiya a charming grin, showing just enough teeth to be winsome but also solemn enough to be serious. "You know, you are my favourite person besides Gwen, Babulya, and I mean that."
"What a delightful young man," Klavdiya muttered with pleasure. "Make sure you settle in properly, Richard. You and Gwen are sharing the Trainer's rooms."
With the matter settled, Gwen turned her attention back toward the mana-rich dumplings.
Dick— she shuddered. What a frightening babushka killer!
* * *
Once lunch was over, Gwen asked Richard to catch her up on the comings and goings of the last week or so while she was first away to Singapore, then spirited away to Shanghai. She had asked Percy if he would join them as well, but Guo dragged his heir apparent away, eager to begin the indoctrination of the newest member of the Song Clan.
Desiring privacy, the two retreated to the seclusion of the Training Hall's courtyard.
"First of all, how's everyone?" Gwen began.
"Surya is doing very well, keeping busy with the refugees." Richard read her mind, as usual. "He's called in his old war buddies, and they've expanded their camp into the adjoining properties, whose owners have decided to move to the other Australian cities while Sydney's Shields are replaced. Tess and Mel are heavily involved in the caretaking, so I guess they're flat out as well."
"Where's mother, right now?"
"She's gone to her husband's. Fabricator Hu has the main branch of his family in Shanghai."
"Oh?" She had expected her mother to be lurking somewhere in the compound and had spent lunch wondering where Helen had gone.
"Hu's a nice guy," Richard added, seeing Gwen's expression. "Your mother will be safe and happy with him. I think Helena needs someone like that to keep her in line. Let me tell you, what I heard and saw at the registrar's office is something that is going to turn me off the sound of a woman screaming for a long time."
"How bad was it?" Gwen asked.
"How bad, you say?" Richard made an expression akin to wracking his brain. "To give you some context. Your mother had been worried about her passport since the incident, obsessed even. She tried to get Surya to pull some connections, even demanding that he contact Magus Shultz. When your grandfather completely ignored her, she became intolerable."
"I am sorry, Richard." Gwen sighed apologetically.
"Eventually, Fabricator Hu contacted his family here and managed to cut them in line for an interview at the Immigration Registrar. We were there at the Processing Centre— my parents, your mother, Percy and Hu when Magus Song's men found us."
Gwen hearkened for the explosive climax.
"First, Helena was afraid when the men approached her. When they showed her their MSS identification and told her that they were taking Percy away, she turned completely white. That was when the poor bastards, Wei, I think? And Jung? Made a terrible mistake."
"What did they do?" Gwen asked curiously.
"They mentioned that your father was already in Shanghai and that he will be in contact with her."
"Oh no, they didn't!"
"Oh yeah, they did!" Richard roared with laughter. "Your mother went ballistic. Ape-shit. It was like a sonic attack! Every pair of eyes in the centre, almost a thousand people were staring at us. She was about to claw their faces out!"
Gwen cringed so hard her neck cramped.
"Then Magister Shultz's men came out of nowhere. They confronted Song's men on Helena's behalf."
"Did that go well?"
Richard shook her head, lamenting his lost sanity.
"WELL? Imagine that you're trying to avoid a public spectacle. However, every other sentence you manage to get out, there is a loud, wailing SCREECH that seems to blot out all sound—every time. EVERY DAMN TIME the two parties make a single compromise, there is another SCREECH. I believe that at one point, either of the teams would have just preferred killing your mother right there and damn the consequences."
"I am so sorry." Gwen moaned. Just trying to picture the scene was enough to transmogrify her brain into a mass of migraines.
"So after the fourth or fifth interruption, I can't remember. Magus Song and Shultz's men gave up negotiations and just called their bosses so that they could speak to one another privately."
Richard stared into the middle distance as he purged the memory from his mind. "Well, I am glad that's over. Don't ask me to recollect that ever again."
"...How's Aunty Tang and Uncle?"
"Getting along well with Surya, another reason I, or we— now that we're in this together, need to move fast. As I mentioned before, Contribution Credits."
Gwen reached out and held her cousin's hands. They felt rigid and cold in her hands.
"That's alright, Dick. I'll do what I can to help. We'll do it together. My goodness, your hands are freezing!"
"A little case of the nerves." Richard chuckled nervously. "You know, all my life, I wanted to be in a tier 1 city. Now that I am here, I am not so sure."
"You'll get used to it," Gwen promised. "Say, do you need money? I just came into a great deal of money."
"Oh? You undertook some Quests already?"
"Heehee." Gwen smiled slyly. "I got it from fleecing some rich boys at an underground fighting competition."
"You didn't!" Richard's face lit up, burst out laughing. "That's wonderful! Haha! Oh, you have to tell me all the details! How do the Mages here measure up?"
Gwen explained the Bout with a masterful retelling, detailing the Affinity of the Mages she had encountered and what she had seen so far on offer in Shanghai.
Richard breathed out.
"Good. Nothing too overpowering then, at least at our age and level." He looked immensely relieved. "That's about the same as upper tier at Prince's, for the Members of the Four Houses."
At the mention of Prince's, Gwen's ears perked up.
"You know, why DID you leave Prince's? It can't just be because of money, can it?"
Richard's shoulders sagged.
"It's a question of servitude." He chewed his lip for a moment. "After I was selected for the Four Houses and even made Praetor, I found out that for selection to a tier 1 branch, I must first declare my allegiance to a Noble House of the Commonwealth Mageocracy— something called the Militant Faction. BUT— it's essentially indentured servitude! A decade spent serving as a House Mage! Furthermore, as a Latus Genere, a side branch warden, I can't ever enter the upper echelons' inner circles. If so, what's the point? Why waste my time? I would rather be a free Mage."
"I am not sure what some of those words mean, but I'll support your decision, whatever it may be." Gwen touched her cousin's arm encouragingly, happy that he had chosen to risk his life and limb in Shanghai of all places.
She leaned over and gave him another hug.
"Speaking of which, did you bring much luggage?" Gwen pointed to her Storage Ring. "Which room's yours?"
Not surprisingly, Richard was staying in the room adjacent to her own, in the training hall. Furthermore, it was no surprise to either of them that Percy was living in the main branch of the house, possessing a bedroom with an ensuite and a separate living area all to himself. It had been Tao's room, but the rapscallion Hip-hop artist had loathed staying at Guo's residence, stating that he preferred death.
"Anyway, let me speak to Babulya. We need to get some serious necessities, trust me on this. Those rooms are going to be the death of us."
"I am in your tender hands." Richard was grinning from ear to ear. "As of this moment, I am a kept man, and you're my sugar-Gwen."
Gwen fell about laughing until her belly was in stitches; when she recovered, she hooked her arm in Richard's.
"Okay! Let's ask Babulya for permission."
The duo found their Babulya sitting inside the Master's suite, sitting with Guo and nursing a cup of tea. Gwen and Richard stopped at the threshold of the door and politely knocked.
"Come in, dear." Klavdiya invited them into the resting chamber, adjoining the master bedroom and Guo's heavily warded study.
"Babulya, may Richard and I go out to shop for some necessities? I wish to acquire some linen and some, er, feminine products."
Guo's eyes glazed over the moment Gwen mentioned the latter.
"Alright, dear, I'll get Lu to bring the sedan around. He can drive you to the commercial district."
The grandparents watched the pair withdraw.
Gwen's grandmother turned to Guo. On their table was an envelope containing the data from the morning excursion.
"Are you so determined?"
Guo possessed a face full of iron. "My decision is final!"
Klavdiya's brows furrowed, her eyes gazing at the two bodies fading from the courtyard.
"You men and your legacies!" She scoffed, her criticism stinging her husband. "There are no medicines for regret, just so that you know, dear husband!"
Guo said nothing. Instead, he stood from the chair and left his wife to fume.
Klavdiya shook her head, allowing her disappointment to drain slowly away.
"What a waste," she muttered to herself. "What hubris."
* * *
By the time Gwen and Richard returned home for dinner, they were a hundred HDMs down, and Gwen's Storage Ring became inundated with enchanted glyphs for cooling, heating, and circulating air. She had further purchased a dozen conveniences that she never knew existed, such as disposable crystal glyphs that allowed for small but complex magics like Prestidigitation for cleaning laundry.
Soon, their spartan rooms in the training hall become outfitted with new lights, wardrobes, bedside tables, new beds, and fresh linen sheets weaved with supple, flaxen silk from Wildland moths.
Gwen gave Richard a minor Storage Ring, having lost his own when he quit Prince's. She also left him a full complement of Mana, Healing, and Cure Disease and Poison potions that Gwen leftover from her trip to Singapore.
While sorting through her inventory, she rediscovered her Portable Habitat, which she would need to return to Melbourne Tower. Her intention, however, was to use it for as long as she was able. Despite the one HDM cost every twelve hours, she could have a villa all to herself, with a working kitchen and showers too, that she could manifest anywhere.
When the night finally descended, Gwen and Richard further spoke at length about their skills and their abilities, finding ways to improve their synergy should the need arise. When Gwen confessed to Richard about her current complement of Talents and Affinities, her cousin's eyes lit up with anticipation.
"Hold on!" Richard started suddenly. He left her bedroom, then returned a few seconds later with several documents.
Her cousin coughed.
"Gwen Song, congratulations on graduating from Blackwattle Bay. These are your certifications for completing secondary education at the senior level, as well as completing Preliminary Compulsory Magical Education. I am proud of you, Gwen Song."
Gwen took the certificates and stowed the lot in her ring.
Watching his impassive face, a sudden feeling of mischief overcame Gwen, who desired a little retribution for Richard's earlier performances.
"Caliban!" A slurping sound engendered, after which a hellish arachnid from the darkest depth of an Elder God's madness-addled mind materialised from a slit in space-time.
"HOLY MOTHER OF JESUS!" Richard appeared genuinely startled. Without warning, a sprout of water leapt from his body, squirting forth a frothy jetstream, engulfing Gwen and Caliban in a shower of salty brine as the spray pushed them both against the wall.
A spluttering Gwen commanded Caliban to heel, after which a bedraggled mistress and her monster sat demurely, regretting their prank.
Above Richard, Lea was as beautiful and ethereal as ever, her transparent face exquisitely sculpted, with deeply set aquamarine eyes and a high ridge-line nose. Strands of cascading water flowed from her head like a waterfall, trickling with the ambience of crystalline streams. The Undine's pellucid body was just as scandalous as Gwen recalled, for her translucent aquamarine dress left nothing to the imagination.
"Please forgive us," Lea apologised by putting together her palms. "You surprised me, is all. Here, I'll collect the water."
"No, no, it's my fault." Gwen waved her hands to say that she was fine and then produced some of the magical loot she had acquired during the day. One of these was a device for drying clothes.
Moisture drained from her sheets and her cloth, quickly drying the fabric within a radius of about a meter.
The scent of freshly laundered sheets once again permeated the room.
Two of the Glyph-stones dimmed and died, requiring replenishment from mana crystals.
"SO GOOD!" She giggled gleefully. She loved this world of magic. Goodbye, house chores! Goodbye laundry day!
"Gwen, I know you're rich now," Richard observed dryly as the moisture faded. "But you just spent 8 LDMs. Just so that you know, it costs nothing to ask the NoM servants to change and wash your sheets."
Gwen stuck out her tongue playfully.
Beside them, Caliban flailed its multiple tongues in imitation.
Lea floated over and patted the nightmarish spiderling.
"You look different," Lea commented as she tapped Caliban's carapace, giggling as Caliban's tongues tasted her wet skin. "Cali is stronger."
"Yeah, a lot has happened," Gwen replied.
Lea coiled herself around Gwen and took in her scent.
"I can still smell the mana on you, the one from before," she noted. "So ancient— May I?"
Gwen channelled a mote of Amuldj's mana to the conduits of her left arm, suffusing her fingertips with a soft green glow.
Lea placed Gwen's finger against her pale blue lips, then began to suckle.
The two young Mages' eyes grew as round as hen's eggs, their faces mutually turning a crimson shade of beetroot.
"I am leaving!" Richard took off from the bed and left the room.
"Nooooooo…" Lea left the room, taken by a reddening Richard. Unless Richard manifested his Summon Familiar formally, his humanoid familiar couldn't traverse more than a few meters from his body.
Gwen chuckled and unsummoned Caliban.
With a moan, she slid into her soft, luxurious, two-thousand thread count sheets made from the ejaculated silk of ten thousand Wildland worms. Now smothered in the lap of luxury, Gwen thanked the Gods of manchester, wiggling her body until she burrowed into the cocoon-like bed.
Tomorrow was yet another adventure.
Tomorrow, together with Mina and Tao, and this 'monstrous' Petra, they would be travelling to Hengsha Island.
But most importantly, she was no longer alone.