Their final exam was an interview, which took place within the westside Tower, also known as 'T1' of the Hall of Brilliance.
Now unified as a single troop, the potential Scholarship students meandered across the campus, drawing attention from passersby as they moved. Gwen and Richard brought up the rear to avoid unwanted attention, succeeding thanks to the noise of the arrogant group in front.
After what felt like an impossibly long walk, they entered the hall. Within, Gwen marvelled at the conjunction of Deco-cum-Orientalist decor famous to Fudan.
In Chinese pictograms, an imposing marble plaque read "Fudan University" at the forecourt's centre, punctuating a spacious atrium favouring a square-in-square design of unparalleled symmetry. Above and adjacent, nine lumen-lit square blocks made up the nine-meter high ceiling, lit by a powerful Daylight array diffusing a soft radiance. From what she could see, the decor's equal-distant triple-segments formed the auspicious number 'nine', said to be the number of Heavenly Dragons and initially, a design favoured by dynastic Emperors.
"This way." One of the Proctors led them toward the Levitation mountings.
Within, the pair continued marvelling at the meticulously planned decor. From vaulted corridors came the hung visions of old Magisters now and then, gazing benevolently at the next generation of Fudan students.
There were four levitation platforms, each holding at least twenty individuals. Still, as they filed into the elevator, Gwen found herself pressed against the mirrored walls.
"Wow, you're tall. So tall!"
Gwen looked down.
A doll-faced Asian girl stood an inch across from her chest, looking up at Gwen's face with an expression of earnest admiration. In heels, Gwen stood a good head taller than the diminutive student whose youthful appearance made her seem younger. Regardless, Gwen guessed the girl should be sixteen or seventeen, with a petiteness that reminded her of Elvia, a recollection that made her instantly sad.
"Hello there," she greeted the girl. "I am Gwen Song."
"I know," the girl beamed. "I saw you at the trial."
"Ah, I am sorry then," Gwen grimaced. "What's your name?"
"Nice to meet you, Mayuree." Gwen put on the friendliest smile she could muster.
"Your monster is amazing," Mayuree continued. "What do you feed it?"
Gwen felt glad that the girl was more curious than frightened of Caliban. Maybe she was too sensitive? Such was the calibre of Mages when in Fudan! Feeling better, she mused about saying something jovial like 'cuties like you' but decided against the mischievous impulse.
"Are you a healer?" Gwen asked. The girl certainly looked young.
"Not! I am a Diviner!" Mayuree chirped. "I tell your fortune if you like. I am super accurate. All the others say so."
"Mia!" an interjecting hiss interrupted their conversation. Frowning, Gwen slightly turned her head toward the hooded figure of the elfin Ice Mage. She was only an inch taller than Mayuree. Closer, Gwen saw that the girl had a slight blue tinge to her hair and eyes and her skin glowed ethereally.
"Sorry!" Mayuree struck out her tongue charmingly.
"Hi, I am-"
"I know who you are." The Ice Mage curtly interrupted her.
"And you are?" Gwen persisted with perfect politeness.
For a moment, there was only the thrum of the levitation platform and the nervous breathing of others.
"Kitty Liang." The Ice Mage faltered under the pressure of Gwen's friendly gaze.
"It's nice to meet you, Kitty."
Kitty turned slightly away from Gwen and pulled a hood over her head. Gwen turned to Richard, who was enjoying the show immensely.
"Alright, fine. We'll let Mayuree live," he announced suddenly and audibly. "The rest we'll feed to Caliban."
There was an audible intake of breath from the junior Mages.
Gwen's cheeks turned a shade of salmon as a dozen pairs of eyes searched her face for answers.
"R-Richard!" she stammered, admonishing her cousin's ill-humour. She turned to the crowd. "He's joking! It's a joke! Caliban doesn't eat Mages!"
Or so Gwen wished. The reality was that Cali loved eating Mages. She wanted to say something like, 'Caliban doesn't eat people, I eat people,' but that was worse both in truth and as a euphemism. Her specific problem was that, as Richard said, Caliban DID eat people, six, in fact, not counting the NoMs at Blackheath.
Not able to convince herself, she could hardly expect to persuade an audience who'd seen Caliban swallow a lion-goat-snake first hand.
Soon, a semi-circle of space opened around Gwen, except for Mayuree, who seemed even more enamoured with her bluster.
Gwen glared at Richard, who had a grin split from ear to ear.
The lift opened, and the gathered Mages filed out in a hurry.
Gwen was left alone with Richard, the moon-eyed Mayuree, the ice girl, and a wary-looking Proctor.
"Please refrain from harming or eating any of your fellow students," the Proctor stated wryly. "There will be stiff penalties and even prison time if you do."
"I intend no such thing!" Gwen stammered.
"I should think so!" The Proctor gave her a stern, sideways glance before leaving their presence.
Gwen bit her lower lip as Richard sauntered out, mightily pleased with his ability to connect Gwen with the people around her.
"Grrr!" Gwen stomped after her companion, her face flushed and hot. "RICHARD!"
The intimate room compounded Gwen's awkwardness.
The others now actively avoided her, averting her questions and refusing to look her in the eye, with only the Mayuree girl stuck to her like an odour, waiting on her every word.
Defeated, Gwen tried to divert the conversation to Richard. However, her companion sat by himself in the corner, cool as a cucumber, utterly aloof in his meditations, making contact with no anyone, comfortable in his skin.
Defeated, Gwen closed her eyes and tried to enter a meditative mindset.
Within her Pocket Dimensions, she could feel Ariel's playful empathy demanding to be released so it could bolt up and down the long corridor. There was also that ambient craving emanated from Caliban, now more pronounced than ever, a pang of hunger that Gwen knew no mortal food could ever satiate.
In truth, a part of her had always thought of Caliban as a dog, but with each new consumption, the once-innocent pup was becoming more sapient and demanding. If she should consume a sapient, sentient, intelligent Magical-being then, would Caliban gain a mind of its own? If so, how would she control it then? She should be so lucky that Caliban could rationalise past its bottomless hunger and listen to her command! If not, then what awaited her would be a lynch mob. If they were to run into another Huyi Xiao, Gwen was sure that Caliban would ignore her command and make a meal out of the Abjurer. After that, of course, she would become the dire and deadly nemesis of the Clan of Xiao, and the entire wrath of a four-century-old Clan would descend upon her like a landslide. Unlike Lea or Sufina, the hungering creature of the nether-dark was too instinctual, too dangerous to indulge.
What would happen if someone killed Caliban—not merely banishing it, but destroying its very existence? She would lose Cali forever; she would lose a companion that had saved her on more than one occasion for all time to come. Gwen shuddered at the thought. That would be like losing a part of her, like a hand or an arm or leg.
"Gwen Song!" the Proctor called out.
"Present!" She answered on reflex, bowed, then made for the door to the interviewer's office.
"Good luck!" Mayuree called out, beating Richard to the punch.
The interview room's interior was almost cliched in its simplicity. Three Examiners occupied a long desk, each outfitted with a glass of water drawn from a jug. An unfolded stool was positioned in front of the table, backlit by a large horizontal window that looked out the Tower toward the Fudan courtyard.
"Please sit, Ms Song." The Proctor left Gwen alone with the coven of sorcerous examiners.
Gwen curtsied and bowed, then sat.
The first Examiner introduced himself as the Faculty Head of Advanced Spellcraft, Magister Gillian Kilmer, a grey-haired gent with a soft, gentle face, attired in an Oxford tweet jacket.
The second was a hard-faced Chinese woman, her hair tied in a tight bun that stretched the skin of her head tautly. She introduced herself as the Department Head of Abjuration, Magus Liwen Du. She had on a severe uniform from which a pair of tanned legs extended without an ounce of fat, giving her a military air.
The last Examiner came as an unbidden surprise, for the Provost of the General College, Professor James Ma, was an NoM!
Gwen felt her worldview flounder. How could an NoM be in such a powerful position?
She quickly put on her professional persona as she answered the man. The NoM professor wore a handsome mandarine jacket in the traditional style, with his quicksilver hair slicked back against his skull, accentuated by a pair of gold-rimmed glasses.
"Welcome." Liwen drew Gwen's attention with an open palm. "I will begin first."
"At your pleasure, Madam Du," Gwen replied with confidence. She sat poised in her chair—her legs scissored and tucked, with her arms resting comfortably across her skirt. Her expression was expectant and anticipatory, eager, but also at ease.
"I would like you to offer a postulated solution to a real-life problem. Is that alright?" asked Magus Du.
"Good," Magister Du continued. "Not so long ago, we experienced a regional incident, an episode regarding Frontier Demi-humans."
Gwen's ears perked up, her mind processing every word.
"It was up near the Uyghur border, northeast of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. For context, the PLA has historically engaged in skirmishes with the Centaur tribes on the Plain of Yuan since 1949. One of our outposts, consisting mostly of NoMs civilian and mining staff, was raided by the savages in February. Two Mages and a dozen NoMs, all of whom are important to the continued operation of the rare earth metal mine, were taken as hostages. The reason the Forward Operating Base fell is undetermined. In this scenario, you are the Combat Flight's Captain. You have engaged with the Centaurs scouts and routed them. However, upon reaching the mine, you find two dozen Centaur dissidents threatening to execute the hostages unless the PLA retreat from the region."
"Operation Command has given your team full authority on this mission. What would you propose to do? Please clarify your answer."
Gwen considered Liwen's real-life anecdote.
She wasn't a military officer, and she had not undergone Mandatory Military Service, but she was a survivor of the Frontier and a Merman Tide at that.
Very quickly, she scanned her mind for a solution.
And a regional conflict over land and resource.
But what the hell did she know about hostage resolutions? She wasn't a trained negotiator or a military operator. Her old-world job had been commodity R&D, offering risk-reward compensations and business solutions.
Quick! Gwen urged herself. Think!
"Is there a time frame in which I must act?" Gwen inquired, suing for time.
"Assume maximum operation time to be seven days," Liwen regarded the girl's eager eyes, surprised that an answer was forthcoming so soon. "That was the time frame given for the operation."
"Are we able to track the Centaur's tribe? Where they came from?"
"You are." Du raised a contoured brow.
"Is my team capable of neutralising the village? Overpowering any local resistance?"
Gwen ran the keywords through the filter of her long-term memory, spinning her lobes to overdrive.
Hostage exchange—Regional conflict—
It was a situation with a superior militant force set against a guerilla native resistance.
Africa? Middle-East? Gaza? Israel!
Her memories threw up the name of Gilad Shalit.
Would the parallel work?
She had no idea, but she had to try.
"Very well." Gwen took a deep breath. "I choose to negotiate with the Centaurs in the mine and stall for time. Meanwhile, if permissible, I will seek to capture double or triple the number of Centaurs' tribesmen, favouring relatives of the captors. I will then have them brought to the mine for a prisoner exchange."
"If they are unwilling?"
"To show that I am operating in good faith, I will release the wife or children of ONE of the assailants, especially someone who could challenge the authority of the captor's leadership, such as a notable warrior or second-in-command. That way, there will be a feeling of dissent between the Centaurs as those without a feeling of safety will feel maligned and isolated by those whose families are safe. Furthermore, with their family by their side, those who had experienced mercy would think twice about engaging in mutually assured destruction."
Liwen tapped her nails against her scribe-slate. "Then?"
"Then I will repeatedly offer individual warriors the option of a prisoner exchange, multiple prisoners for each hostage. I will isolate their decision making by demanding collective bargaining, creating divisions through pardoning those who surrender first."
Du made notes as she nodded. "A fascinating suggestion, Ms Song. I wonder if Desert-Fox One should have gone with your highly speculative proposal. Out of interest, what do you think was the PLA Captain's choice?"
Gwen sipped her glass of water. It didn't take a stretch of the imagination to believe that the Moscow Theatre Hostage Crisis was the go-to modus operandi of the PLA, who saw Mages and NoMs as little more than pawns. Certainly, Gwen could imagine her grandfather, Guo, making such a crude choice without so much as blinking an eye.
"You killed them all," Gwen replied with a measured tone. "The Centaurs and the Hostages—correct?"
A soundless reticence reigned.
"Officially," Liwen spoke after the moment passed, looking at Gwen with renewed interest. "The Centaurs killed the Hostages and then collapsed the mine. It was, after all, an act of Terrorism."
"Of course," Gwen affirmed quickly, wondering if her lack of doublespeak had breached some protocol. Should she have said that the citizens gave their lives to better the Party?
"That is all I wish to know." Du turned to the others. "Your turn."
"I will go next," it was Magister Kilmer who announced himself. "Gwen, I want to ask you a personal question. Can you tell me about your motivations? Why do you want to be a Magus or a Magister? Mayhap even a Meister?”
Gwen breathed out at receiving a staple interview question. As for an answer, she would be herself. It was time to rustle their wizard hats- if they had worn them.
"I am a Void Mage," Gwen began with a blatant statement of truth.
The trio nodded. The examiners had read her file already; they knew the rarity of her talent.
Gwen began to speak.
"My motivation is freedom. I want the power to be not coerced by external forces. I want to live the way I want, do the things I wish to do. I want to protect my friends and contribute meaningfully to the world on my terms. I want to preserve who I am and aim to be at all cost."
"Do you not find that desire a little… idealistic?" Gillian proposed dubiously. "Naive, even."
"Not at all." Gwen smiled at the Magister winsomely. "As I told my mentor, the late Lord Kilroy of Sydney, I wish to become a Militant Pacifist."
"A Militant Pacifist!" Liwen repeated after her. "How so? Would that not be a paradox?"
"Peace through power," Gwen retorted. "Magister Kilroy believed that peace is possible is one is so powerful that their enemies dread the prospect of rising hostilities. I likewise aim to be such a vexing nightmare for my foes, who would prefer to leave me be."
"Your peace is a euphemism for tyranny!" It was Provost Ma who spoke. "Your interest would supersede all others? Absurd!"
"My interest would be utilitarian, the greatest boon for the greatest many," Gwen shot back. "I would walk the Path of the Militant Pacifist and dispense the justice of Noblesse Oblige; I would balance power with deeds, offset violence with generosity!"
The interviewers stared at her. From their expressions, Gwen saw that her proposal was ridiculous, even if the words were thrilling to the ear.
"Are you so confident that this power would be yours?"
"Of course," Gwen went all in. "I possess Void and Lightning and FIVE Schools of Magic. What I need is the opportunity, space, and the time."
"What makes you think you can remain uncorrupted by so much power? How would you walk this tightrope without falling? Better Mages than you have lost to that temptation. Why should we invest in a future menace?" Magister Kilmer leaned forward.
"With help," Gwen replied confidently. "With my friend's help. With my family's help. With your help. With Provost Ma's help. With the University's help. With the Tower's help."
"Help…" Magister Kilmer snorted. "Comes at a cost."
"Yes." Gwen looked toward her interviewers seriously, her eyes a blaze of blue-green mana. "I am no saint. I need guidance. The Void needs guidance. Help is mutual, and I can do much for Fudan—more than Fudan can do for me. And if not Fudan, then..."
Gwen left the rest unspoken.
"Is that… a threat?" Provost Ma demanded guardedly.
"No." Gwen adjusted her hair purposefully. "That is life."
The examiners grew silent. Within the room, there was only the sound of their contemplation.
"My question is finished." Gillian Kilmer leaned back in his seat, surprised to find a sheen of icy perspiration covering his back.
"One more question then." Provost Ma regarded Gwen critically.
"Please." Gwen dipped her chin elegantly, the cadence of her breath returning to its usual pace after her last bout of passion.
"This regards a recent matter." Ma looked at Gwen seriously. "A Mage has been found exercising Transmutation experiments on NoM civilians. When discovered and caught, the Transmuter reveals she has synthesised a new way to manufacture higher-tier potions, but the price of her discovery is almost two hundred NoM, a dozen dead, the rest maimed. The Magus comes from an influential Clan, now suing for her release in exchange for publishing her findings. You are the PLA Arbitrator assigned to this case and the discoverer of the Transmuter's deeds. How do you proceed?"
Gwen didn't need a Nuremberg Doctor's trial to answer that question.
"I would publicly shame the Clan of the Transmuter and confiscate the findings for the State, then sentence the Transmuter to imprisonment for her crimes. A show trial should commence for the surviving families of the NoMs, with reparations from the Clan going to each NoM victim."
The confidence and brevity of her answer surprised them all.
"I see." Gwen's measured response did not seem to sit with Provost Ma, though the other two Mages wore pleased, concurring expressions.
"Although, if may I speak candidly?" Gwen continued.
"I believe that all life, NoM or Mage, are sacred," Gwen said seriously. "I am unsure of the legality of what the Mage has done, but in all seriousness, to dissuade such inhumanity in the future, I would personally advocate the harshest penalty, even if it should be a death sentence. But anyway—how did the real-world example play out?"
"Your prior assessment was the correct one." Provost Ma seemed stunned by Gwen's 'candidness'.
"Indeed, such is the world we live in, Sir," Gwen said sadly. Even now, her spine tingled with adrenaline. "But it doesn't make it right."
Provost Ma pushed up the rim of his glasses. The other two Mages chuckled politely.
"I have no more questions," Ma stated. "You may go."
"Thank you, Sirs and Madam. Magister and Magus. Professor," Gwen stood from the seat and curtsied and bowed once more. She turned on her heels and stalked from the chamber, her heart pounding as the tension drained from her body.
Richard hailed her outside. "Did it go well?"
Gwen honestly had no idea, but the instructors had appeared to be impressed.
"I think so. No one tried to shut me up." Gwen spoke, then shook out her over-tense body.
"Richard Huang, are you ready to proceed?" The Proctor motioned for Richard to enter.
"I shall return." Her cousin winked and entered the room.
The door to the room shut.
Gwen found a spare seat and sat. She closed her eyes and meditated.
Please be kind to my answers! She had done as best as she could. She was entirely herself, just like Dean Luo suggested.
Gwen's eyes snapped open.
Mayuree was an inch from her face, her breath sweet with sugar.
"What did they ask you?" the petite girl enquired eagerly, her big brown eyes glimmering.
"You've finished your interview?"
"Yeah, it was great!"
"Well," Gwen suppressed her voice. "I got a question on Centaurs, on myself, and NoMs."
"Ooo, I got the NoM one too!" Mayuree tittered. "Did you free the Mage?"
"… Yes," Gwen told a white lie; advertising her NoM sentimentality in public was probably not the best way forward in front of the scholarship candidates.
"Ha! I knew it! What Clan or House are you from?"
"Song," Gwen replied stoically, though that was a misnomer in itself. Gwen knew the Songs did not consider her an inheriting member of the House. In fact, from Guo's cautious aloofness, Gwen felt that he had never even thought that she might be a part of his legacy in any capacity—not that she cared. In Sydney, her real home, she had Gunther and Alesia, Elvia and Yue and Opa. Nonetheless, she felt strongly for her babulya, Uncle Jun, and Petra.
"Just… Song?" Mayuree tilted her head and came even closer.
Gwen averted Mayuree's intrusive profile. The mousy girl did not subscribe to a belief in personal space.
"Just Song," Gwen concurred.
"Okay, I am just Mayuree as well!" the Mage said happily. "So, where did you find that big bad Caliban?!"
Gwen could hear the others leaning in.
"Find it?" Gwen blinked. "Caliban came with my Familiar spell."
"Whoa! NO WAY!" Mayuree shrieked, causing Gwen's ears to ring. "A big brute like that just fell into your lap! That's SO LUCKY! You MUST have done something wonderful in a past life!"
Well, if only Mayuree knew, Gwen mused. As for being a Samaritan in a past life, she'd rather not dwell on that.
Not heeding her lack of a response, Mayuree persisted in making small talk until Gwen's jaws were sore.
Eventually, the door opened.
"All done!" Richard announced happily to the world.
"Richard!" Gwen stood from her seat, ignoring the torrent of questions stemming from Mayuree's rapidly moving mouth. "How was it? How did you go?"
"Swimmingly." Richard's mirthful expression was the same as always.
"So, what do you think?" Magus Liwen Du asked her colleagues.
"Do you mind if I speak 'candidly'?" Ma borrowed a little of Gwen's vernacular.
"Sure," Magister Gillian Kilmer gestured for Ma to go ahead.
"That Richard Huang is a psychopath," The Provost stated 'candidly'. "He's a clear and present danger. He's missing a synapse. He's dangerous."
"He seemed like an outstanding candidate to me," Liwen riposted with a twitching brow. "A little unpolished, but we can hone the edge and provide a sheath to his naked blade. That's what Fudan is for, is it not?"
"I vote in favour of Richard Huang," Gillian added after a pause. "The University needs someone who can differentiate between necessary action and mewling sentimentality."
"Did you both not listen to his Centaur subjugation proposal?" Ma stated incredulously. "The man's a monster!"
"Our monster," Gillian retorted. "He has his loyalties straight."
"He's a mad dog!" Ma insisted. "Capturing Clan women and children, torturing them before the dissidents. Sending them tongues, hoofs, organs!? Cleansing a family for every hostage killed?! How does that make us different from the Rogue Mages? From the Terrorist? From the Demi-human savages?"
"I think it would work," Liwen stated boldly. "Centaurs are highly communal creatures with a strong herd instinct. I think the PLA Tower should have taken an iron-fisted policy, now that Mr Huang has opened our eyes as to the extent we could have gone. The more I think about it, the more I like it."
"At best, we have peace and the return of hostages. At worst, we did what we did and cleansed the Upper Steppes anyway," Gillian pointed out to the Provost. "What's not to like?"
"The inhumanity of it all!" Ma blurted out passionately.
"James, calm down." Du placed a hand on the Provost's shoulders. "So, Richard Huang?"
James Ma sunk back into his seat. "My vote remains unchanged."
"Fine, on the matter of the Void Girl?"
"Can I refuse?" Ma complained grudgingly. "It's not as if the Dean would let her go. He would create a third scholarship position if we were to say no, would he not?"
"Still, what do you think?" Du asked. "Out of curiosity."
"Idealistic, naive, but I like her," Magister Kilmer stated confidently. "Strong will, clear logos, talent, looks, intelligence, Fudan could hardly ask for better."
"A little too green for my taste, too much of a dreamer," Liwen stated. "But, as Kilmer has said, that is the why Fudan exists. It is why our mock-Tower system exists. We'll hone her edge yet."
"Then vote in favour," Ma said suddenly. "I like her sense of justice. She's 'candid', too."
The two Mages smiled at their NoM compatriot.
"I thought you'd say that." Kilmer tapped his pen against the grey-stone slate. "That's three for three, then? Good, let's get a move on, shall we?"
* * *
"Do we go home now?" Gwen asked the Proctor.
"Indeed, we will be in contact," the Mage replied. "We hope to see you in Fudan again, very soon."
Gwen asked if Richard wanted to look around the campus with nothing more left on the agenda.
"Sure." Her cousin nodded. "I am interested."
As the duo turned to leave, they were once more accosted by a chipmunk-faced Diviner.
Mayuree flashed an unreadable smile that showed off her pearly white teeth.
"We were wondering…" she asked shyly. "Do you guys want to come to a super secretive and super awesome auction?! Kitty, Deng, Nathan and Kevin, and yours truly, are all going! Our box can sit ten people!"
Mayuree flashed a card embossed with a golden M.
Gwen and Richard met one another's eyes.
The Auction from the House of M? That was today? Gwen suddenly recalled something from her cousin. She had promised Mina a date, hadn't she? Gods! She had forgotten all about it.
"Can I bring a friend?" Gwen asked their petite companion.
"Sure, Richard can come as well," Mayuree beamed.
"Ah, I mean another friend. You see, I'd promised—"
"Okay! No problem!" the bubbly girl squeaked. She took Gwen's hand unbidden and swung it back and forth excitedly. "I am sure it'll be super interesting!"
"Richard?" Gwen turned to her companion to beg his confirmation.
"Sure, you got Mina's Message Glyph?" Richard asked.
"Hurray!" Mayuree's eyes twinkled, making Gwen wonder if the girl was naturally so bubbly. "Give me your address; I'll send a car over to pick you up!"
Send a car? Was the little girl the kid of a big wig? Gwen pondered the ease at which Mayuree suggested she could spare the resources to pick up strangers she just met to attend a 'super-secretive auction'. She wondered if she should change her mind and decline, but she did need new friends in Fudan, now more than ever.
"That's too much. How about we reconvene in Fudan?" Gwen suggested modestly. "Pick us up near the front gate? We're going to go for a walk and get to know the place."
"Okay! 5 PM sharp!" Mayuree chirped, letting go of Gwen's hand. "No backing out! I'll be so sad!"
They watched the girl skip back to her group to explain her success. The group turned to regard Gwen and Richard with evident dismay, particular the Ice girl, who gave Gwen a nasty look.
"How much money you got?" Richard asked. "It's an auction, after all."
"Well, I got about 3000 HDMs in the Ring," Gwen said quietly to Richard. "Think it'll be enough for something interesting or worthwhile?"
Richard was looking at Mayuree with a thoughtful expression.
"Richard?" Gwen repeated herself. "Something wrong?"
"No, not really," Richard shook his head, then patted her on the head. "Let's look around. As for the auction, I am sure it'll be a blast!"