The interview took place within the westside Tower, '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 as to avoid unwanted attention, succeeding thanks to the salience of the haughty group walking in front of them.
After a quarter of an hour, the group entered the Hall of Brilliance.
Gwen marvelled at the conjunction of Deco-cum-Orientalist decor.
At the forecourt's centre, a white marble plaque read “Fudan University” in Chinese pictograms, beneath which was the same in English. The atrium of the Hall was spacious and aerated, favouring a square-in-square design which created an aesthetically pleasing symmetry. Nine lumen-lit square blocks made up the nine-meter high ceiling, at the centre of which was an extended Day Light array diffusing a soft radiance. Three-by-three both above and below, the equal-distant segments formed the auspicious number ‘nine’, said to the be the number of Heavenly Dragons and the symbol of Chinese Emperors.
“This way.” One of the Proctors led them toward the Levitation mountings.
Ellen had by now returned to the Dean. Gwen and Richard trailed behind the gaggle of talkative students, 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 in total, each enough to hold at least twenty individuals. As they filed into the elevator, Gwen found herself pressed against the mirrored walls.
“Wow, you are tall. So tall aww!”
Aww? Gwen looked downward.
A babyfaced Asian girl was an inch across from her chest, looking up at Gwen's face with an expression of earnest admiration. In her modest heels, Gwen stood a good head taller than the diminutive student, who resembled a petite idol. Gwen couldn't help but notice that the girl looked far younger than her probable age. She should be sixteen-seventeen, or even older, but her liquid eyes, small button nose and tiny frame gave her the appearance of an early teen. Faced with the endearing little Mage, Gwen was reminded of Elvia and wondered when she could see her angelic face again.
“Hello,” Gwen greeted the girl. “I am Gwen Song.”
“I know,” the girl beamed. “I saw you at the trial.”
“What’s your name?”
“Hi Mayuree.” Gwen put on the friendliest smile she could muster.
“Your monster is amazing,” Mayuree continued. “What do you feed it?”
Gwen felt felicitous that the girl was more curious than frightened of Caliban. Such was the calibre of Mages when in Fudan! She mused about saying something jovial like ‘cuties like you’, but decided against the mischievous impulse. Mayuree's olive skin was as flawless as a newborn babe; her face adorably adorned with pudgy baby fat.
“Are you a healer?” Gwen asked.
“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 Ice Mage. She was only an inch taller than Mayuree, petite and pallor, with a slight blue tinge to her hair and eyes, her skin glowed ethereally under the lift's lumen globes.
“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.
“Kitty Liang.” The Ice Mage faltered under the pressure of Gwen’s intense hazel eyes, her face taking on a hint of colour.
“It’s nice to meet you, Kitty.”
Kitty turned slightly away from Gwen and pulled her hoody over her face.
Gwen turned to Richard, who was enjoying the show immensely.
“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 his liberal jest. She turned to the crowd. “Richard is joking! Joking! It’s a joke! Caliban doesn't eat Mages!”
Gwen wished she could say something like 'Caliban doesn't eat people, I eat people,' but that sounded wrong both in truth and as an euphemism. Her precise problem was that like Richard said, Caliban DID eat people. In fact, it had consumed six up to date, not counting the NoMs at Blackheath.
Not being able to convince herself, Gwen could hardly expect to convince an audience who'd seen Caliban swallow a lion-goat-snake first hand.
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, 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. “There will be no such danger, I assure you!”
“I should think so!” The Proctor gave her a strange, 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. “RICHARD!”
* * *
The waiting room compounded the awkwardness.
The others now actively avoided her, averting her questions and refusing to look her in the eye. Only the Mayuree girl stuck on like an odour, waiting on her every word.
Defeated, Gwen resolved to stare at the ceiling, too upset to strike up a conversation with Richard. 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.
Gwen closed her eyes and tried to enter a meditative mindset.
She could feel Ariel’s playful empathy demanding to be released so it could bolt up and down the long corridor from which they came. There was also that ambient craving that emanated from Caliban, now more pronounced than ever, a pang of hunger that Gwen knew no mortal food could ever satiate.
She considered Caliban’s Gila-form.
That faceless mien. The bulbous body. The long, gorilla-like arms and the scythe-like claws and the hind legs that pistoned as it lumbered. The lamprey’s mouth that dribbled grey goo as it purred; the massive girth that loomed over her. Gwen had to admit, Caliban had become a frightening existence.
She’d always thought of Caliban as a dog, but with each new consumption, the once innocent pup was fast approaching the uncanny valley of self-awareness. If she should consume a sapient, sentient, intelligent Magical-being, would Caliban gain a mind of its own? How could 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 them was 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.
Not a heart-warming prospect by any means.
She would have to improve her Conjuration to bring Caliban under her beck and call. Unlike Lea or Sufina, the hungering creature of the nether-dark was too instinctual, too dangerous to indulge. Should it overpower her control and become loose into the world, it would be unstoppable without exacting a terrible cost.
What would happen if someone killed Caliban? Not merely banishing it, but destroying its very existence. She would lose him 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!” Gwen answered.
“You may enter.”
Gwen bowed and made for the door to the interviewer’s office.
"Good luck!" Mayuree called out as Gwen waved back absentmindedly.
The interview room's interior was as she had expected, 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 position 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 that spoke of comfort over style.
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.
The Provost of the General College, Professor James Ma, was a NoM!
Gwen’s better judgment floundered. How could a NoM be in such a position?
She applied herself to appear placid and professional as the man introduced himself. The Chinese 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 confidently. She sat poised in her chair, her white legs scissored over professionally, her back arched in an aesthetically pleasing way, her arms resting comfortably across her skirt. Her expression was expectant and anticipatory, eager, but also at ease.
“…” Liwen glanced briefly at Gwen’s application form. She had to wonder if the girl was really from the Frontier. The young sorceress possessed far too much tact and dignity for commoner from a farming outpost. Had she been tutored? But according to the Dean, the girl had only found out about the interview engagement hours ago. Liwen felt that it would be supremely satisfying to dig through the girl's head for some history.
“I would like you to offer a postulated solution to a real-life problem. Is that alright?”
“Please do,” Gwen replied confidently.
“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, north-east 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. In February, one of our outposts, consisting mostly of NoMs civilian and mining staff, was raided by the savages. 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 Outpost fell is undetermined. You are the Combat Flight’s Captain, leader of the response team. 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 is your way forward? Please clarify your answer.”
Gwen considered Liwen's real-life anecdote.
Regional conflict over land and resource.
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 recommendations to improve components of her client's business!
There was no time to do her homework, and there was no Google to help her, she would have to rely on her memory. She must draw a satisfactory answer from parallels in her old world.
Quick! Gwen urged herself. Think!
“Is there a time frame in which I must act?” Gwen enquired, 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.” Liwen 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.
Imperialistic forces invading native lands?
It was the typical colonial history of the known world!
Hostage exchange... Regional conflict...
Parallels... parallells... parallels...
A superior militant force.
A Guerilla force with strong ties to the land.
Africa? Middle-East? Gaza? Israel!
She had it!
“Very well.” Gwen took a deep breath. “I choose to negotiate with the Centaurs in the mine and stall for time. In the 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 I will repeatedly offer them the option of a prisoner exchange, multiple prisoners for each hostage. I will provide terms to each of the members of the tribe, seek to isolate their decision making by demanding collective bargaining, creating divisions through pardoning those who surrender first."
Liwen awaited the half-second in which it took for the inscriptions on her slate to settle.
“A very interesting 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.”
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.”
“Yes,” Gwen affirmed quickly, wondering if some protocol had been breached by her lack of doublespeak. Should she have said that the citizens gave their lives for the betterment of the state?
“That is all I wish to know.” Liwen 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. It was a staple interview question. Why do you want to work here? Where do you see yourself in five years? What can you contribute to our establishment? There was no need to hide anything from these folks. 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. “I would become so powerful that my enemies dread the prospect of raising their fingers toward me. I would be such a vexing nightmare that the best outcome for all parties would be leaving the interests of me and my allies well alone.”
“That’s just 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! My greatness will be executed concurrently with remorse!”
The interviewers felt lost for words. What was the girl saying?
Her logic, her rationale, was ridiculous and unheard of, and yet they 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. It was difficult to believe the bright-eyed adolescent in front of him was sixteen.
“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 there is much I can do for Fudan, I believe you will agree, more than Fudan can do for me. 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 the truth.”
The examiners became reticent. Within the room, there was only the sound of their collective breaths.
“My question is finished.” Gillian Kilmer leaned back in his seat, surprised to find a sheen of icy perspiration covering his back.
“My question then.” Provost Ma regarded Gwen critically. “My one is also hypothetical.”
“Please.” Gwen dipped her chin elegantly, the cadence of her breath returning to its usual pace after that 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 speed and succinctness 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.”
“Your prior assessment was the correct one.” Provost Ma seemed stunned by Gwen’s ‘candidness’. "What had transpired was close enough to your hypothesis. Your vehemence is noted, however.”
“Such is the world we live in, Sir,” Gwen said sadly, her face flushed for honestly delivering an unpopular truth. Even now her spine was tingling 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." She smiled at Richard, her earlier annoyance dispelled by the psychological stress of the viva voce.
“Richard Huang, are you ready to proceed?” The Proctor motioned for Richard to enter.
“I shall return.” Richard 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?”
“Well,” Gwen suppressed her voice. “I got a question on Centaurs, on myself, and on 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 to be an inheriting member of the Clan. 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 minded though, Gwen declared to herself. She had babulya; she had Gunther and Alesia, she had Richard. She had Elvia and Yue and Opa in Sydney. A girl could ask for no more.
“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! Awesome!" the Mage said happily. "So, where did you find that big bad Caliban?!”
Ears extended around the room.
“Find it?” Gwen blinked. “Caliban came with my Familiar spell.”
“Woa! 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, it was more accurate to say that a worm-snake the size of a dog fell into her lap, Gwen mused. As for being a Samaritan in a past life, she'd rather not dwell on that.
As for big-bad bam-bam Caliban, it had come a mighty long way since her tier 1 Conjuration days. The current Caliban could probably eat a hundred original Calibans without breaking a sweat, or grey-goo.
Mayuree persisted in making small talk until Gwen's jaws were sore.
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 unchanging, 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 cuckoo.”
“He seems like a perfectly fine 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. Personally, I think the 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.” Liwen placed a hand on the Provost’s shoulders. “Are we accorded for two to one for Richard Huang?”
James Ma, Provost of the General College, sunk back into his seat.
“My vote remains unchanged.”
“Fine, on the matter of the Void Girl?”
“This is a show trial anyway,” Ma said 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?” Liwen 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.”
“I 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, now for our Para-Elementalist…”
* * *
“Do we go home now?” Gwen asked the Proctor.
“Indeed, we will be in contact,” the elder Mage replied. “We hope to see you in Fudan again, very soon.”
With nothing more left on the agenda, Gwen asked Richard if he wanted to browse the campus.
“Sure.” he nodded. “I am interested.”
As the duo turned to leave, they became 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 and Deng and 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? She’d promised Mina that she’d take her! Oh shit! She’d forgotten all about it.
“Can I bring a friend?” Gwen asked if Mayuree could get them in, all the easier than trying to find the place herself.
“Sure, Richard can come,” 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 glyph?” Richard asked.
“Grrrr-reat!” Mayuree’s face became well flushed with expectation and excitement. “Give me your address; I’ll send a car over to pick you up!”
A private car? Was the little girl a big shot? 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 in the hour they had spent talking to one another, Mayuree seemed like the sort of girl who knew everyone, a helpful ally to have for her future at Fudan.
“That’s too much, how about here?” Gwen suggested modestly. “We live pretty far from the Second Orbital Ring. Pick us up near the front gate perhaps? 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 Backies! Don't leave me hanging!"
They watched her skip back to her group to explain her success. The group turned to regard Gwen and Richard with evident dismay.
Arguably, Gwen could have just gone by herself, but now that she had committed, she reasoned that it would be far less conspicuous if she went with a group from Fudan, ideally a group of big-wig’s children. She could hide behind their flamboyant fashion and avoid complication should someone become curious about herself and Richard. Safety in numbers, right?
“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 looked toward Mayuree with a thoughtful expression.
"Richard?" Gwen repeated herself. "Something wrong?"
"Not really," Richard's reply was full of assurance. "I am sure it'll be a blast."