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Guo’s study was usually illuminated by two Everlasting-Lights that could be turned on and off with an incantatory gesture. Perhaps wishing to create a solemn mood, only one of the lights was now activated, drawing deep shadows across the room, casting a chiaroscuro sliver across the spartan redwood furniture, accentuating Guo’s impassive bearing.

Klavdiya had by now admonished all feelings of mirth from her face, jubilant only minutes ago, and took her seat by his side. When Guo made a conciliatory gesture by moving a hand toward her, she stared at him starkly and placed her hands across her lap. Sighing, Guo retreated his hand and focused on the two grandchildren in front of them.

Gwen and Percy lined themselves up before the two elderly sovereigns of the House of Song and awaited their decree.

A servant ventured carefully into the room and presented two jars of tea served in white-blue porcelain. Guo took a sip, cupping one hand over the saucer while the other worked the loose leaves with the lid.

Gwen opened her mouth to speak, but a rapid series of blinks from her babulya settled her back down into silence. Now was perhaps, she realised, not the best time to flaunt her way with words.

“Allow me to congratulate you on your acceptance into Fudan,” her grandfather began. “Well done.”

“Thank you, grandfather,” Gwen replied stiffly. She wasn’t going to relax just because of a few kind words. There was no way Guo separated her from the family just so that he could congratulate her in private. Gwen eased her nerves with the knowledge that he couldn't interrogate her here, not like the way he did in that MSS prison, certainly not in front of her grandmother.

“Gwen. I want to ask you a question, and I want you to respond earnestly.”

“I shall, grandfather.”

“Gwen Song,” her grandfather’s voice dropped an octave lower. “What do you think of Percy inheriting the House of Song?”

“Guo!” Klavdiya felt her worst suspicions confirmed by the obtrusive question from her husband. She had felt it the moment she had handed the letter of acceptance to Gwen during the celebratory banquet.

As an old married couple for almost four decades now, Klavdiya knew that her husband was a brooder, a stoic man who kept his feelings buried and to himself. He never spoke when the need for action had not risen, and when he felt the need to act, he rarely spoke before acting. It was a trait that served him well as one of the hound masters of the CCP, more so as the Chairman of the Confidential Communications Committee.

By that same virtue, Guo had always respected her actions, allowed her the freedom to act as she saw fit. Her husband was a laconic man who seldom professed his love but made her know in other ways that her absence diminished him. He had been a Frontierman, a first-son who chose to leave the sanctuary of his isolated village in Hebei. Her family had been dead set against her marriage to a Chinese man, much less a 'farmer', but Klavdiya was no less strong and determined than Guo. During that difficult time, he had been just a soldier-turned-PLA Administrator, while she was a White Russian heiress. Then the PLA won a sweeping victory across China, and they caught the crest of that rising power. Children were had, promotions were taken, homes were built.

Then their troubles began.

When Hai disappeared, Guo became wrecked with grief. When they then realised that the body they found was not their first-born son, but some doppelgänger he had used to escape, Guo became tyrannically upset. It was as though something had broke inside the uncomplicated man she once knew. Guo's tempers became tempestuous, his reputation in the House turned from respect, to fear, to aversion. But Klavdiya held his hand and ensured that he did not stray too far, and life went on.

Then came the news, some years and a failed marriage later, that Jun was sterile. As talented as the boy was, his rare affinity exacted a terrible cost from his body, one that could not be healed by spells, items, nor Demi-human rituals. They consulted the Magi of the PLA, Grand Marshall Sun, and the austere presence of the God-like man had informed them that a Greater Wish might suffice. It was a hopeful answer, Guo and Klavdiya conceded, but a wishful one. No Mage would dream of begging a Magi to make a crooked deal with the supernatural Djinn, not to mention they had to request a foreign Magi to intercede on their behalf.

Her tortured husband then became bitter and removed, distracted even in the years since, placing his entire being into his work. She had tried to reason with him, perhaps accepting the Wang’s son as an heir, but he lamented the fact that he could never return to his Hebei village and speak with the ancestors again. Under the direction of Song Guo, the lineage of Song Ying Xing, a family with four hundred years of history, had come to an end. Guo was the one who had left the village to join the PLA; he was the one who told his parents that the House would thrive. Now he must return to visit those ghostly halls and tell them that the family line would end with Jun, that after another half-century, a century at most, there would be no more Songs left in the world.

She felt his pain, but she could not share his burden.

But, fate was a funny thing.

The MSS came through with a report that Hai was in Singapore.
And Guo received the news that he had a grandson, extracted from Gwen.
A grandson who had inherited the family talent, the rarified affinity for Salt.

Guo’s happiness was beyond comprehension! It was as though all the expressions that had gone from his face returned at once. He didn't know whether to cry or laugh, resigning himself to the muttering utterance of, "Thank Mao… thank Mao… I can now face the ancestors.”

Klavdiya hadn't worried that Guo would demand Gwen's excommunication from the house, or that he would have attempted to stifle her education in Shanghai, because of their pact with the Morning Star. She was confident that her husband wasn't a man to renegade on such a deal.

But there was a problem. One in which Klavdiya counted herself accountable. A stickler that Klavdiya had impulsively denied Guo when he had attempted to rectify the matter.

The Song's had an inheritance. A Kirin Amulet.

Two pieces of a whole.

Yin and Yang.

Crafted from the core of a Celestial Kirin, one of the four Heavenly-Beast archetypes of the old Dynasties, worshipped as Gods before the PLA dispensed with all that nonsense. For Guo, the amulet was an inheritance from father to son, passed down the centuries until it reached his hands. When he had two sons, both with rare talents for dangerous magic, he had the two halves of the amulet made into separate pendants.

Jun had the Yang half.

Hai had the Yin half.

Gwen had inherited her amulet from Hai, given to her out of kindness, passed from father to daughter.

When Guo had desired that Gwen should give up the amulet and deliver it to her brother, Klavdiya had told Jun to intervene. If her mulish husband listened to anyone, it was his younger son, the pride and joy of the House of Song. As anticipated, Guo couldn't embarrass his son in front of the granddaughter, and so the matter remained in the air.

Why should Gwen be the one left in the cold? Why should the girl be marginalised under some irrelevant, ancient prejudice? Why should the boy, enjoying all the privileges of her husband’s boundless devotion, take even the last vestige of his father’s inheritance away from his sister? The girl had been tortured, abandoned, and left distressed and afraid. She had committed no crime and deserved no punishment. Had not Klavdiya herself abandoned her family to be with Guo? Why was he joyous and blithe then, and full of high-sentence now? The amulet was Gwen's keepsake from her Hai; it wasn't Guo's to give or take.

When she had read her granddaughter's report, her survival of the Sydney Mermen invasion, her possible connection to the deceased Henry Kilroy, and her rationale for risking life and limb in Singapore; Klavdiya’s heart melted.

Gwen was a good girl. She would become a fantastic Mage. She deserved better.

Enough was enough, Klavdiya had felt, and so ensured Gwen could keep the amulet. The boy would not need its blessings until he had children of his own, and that would be many years yet. By then, the family relations would have mellowed, the girl made to understand, and then the passing of the Amulet from sister to brother could be well worth the symbolic and pragmatic act.

In the days since; Gwen had proven herself again and again.

The show of force at the Bund, among the darling youth of Shanghai.
A sterling performance at Hengsha Island.
Her wondrous affinity with her peers, even the prideful Petra and the obnoxious Tao Wang, filled Klavdiya with high hopes for the future.
The further revelation of her intimate relationship to the Morning Star and the Scarlet Sorceress made her all the more precious. The loyalty and devotion of her friends in Australia spoke more of Gwen's character than any report.

So Klavdiya called in a few more favours.

And Gwen exceeded her expectation yet again.
There were jubilation and celebration.

But not so for her husband.

She should have known, but Guo and herself had seldom seen each other since the grandson's arrival. They may have their differences, but they were joined at the hip and tethered by the heart for over four decades.

The moment Guo opened his mouth, it all became clear.
Gwen's affirming flame was so bright that ‘his boy’ was barely perceptible; Percy was a shivering candle beside the furious discharge of Gwen's blinding lightning.
Her husband was afraid that his heir would be irrelevant.

Did Gwen desire to be his heir?
Guo didn't seem to care when she countered his proposal.

Klavdiya could only chalk it down to paranoia, a cleft of fear and insecurity left by Hai's absence, her son's irresponsibility. Father and son could have talked, there would have been some bloodletting, but the matter would have settled.

But her husband was not a man prone to being swayed.

Over the decades, her husband had proved himself ten times over. He was there during the Blight of 83', then he stayed on the Front with her during the Breach of 92'. He forsook promotions to remain with her in Shanghai, relinquishing the call of power in Beijing. Perhaps, Klavdiya mused, it was because he was born under the zodiac of the Horse. His elemental year was metal as well, a metal horse - as stubborn as they come, rusted in his ways.

She had loved him for it, but this time, she loathed him for it.

For Guo, it was better to have a mediocre house lead by a Song, then a House as bright as the rising sun, lead by a woman whose surname could change at any given moment.

Klavdiya sighed.

As a medical practitioner, she knew well the way of karma. All men die. All Houses fade. All empires fall.

She did not wish to fight her husband. They were too old for that. She could not neuter his raison-d’être, not after Hai's escapade and Jun's dissolved marriage. She couldn't enforce that cruelty upon her misguided man anew; she felt far too much compassion for Guo to do that.

She could only hope that one day, Gwen would remember them as her family, one that chose poorly - and not her adversaries.

* * *

After the first glance, Guo felt it best not to meet his wife's eyes until the matter had reached its conclusion.

It had all happened far too fast for Guo to comprehend.

Barely three weeks ago, his men brought in a bedraggled girl half drunk with the dizzying aftermath of long-range teleportation, knees weak, vomit on her dress already, and laid her into the confines of a glass prison.

Under the hard light of a Cognisance Chamber, the girl professed to be his granddaughter, the progeny of Hai, his wayward son who had fled Shanghai almost twenty years ago, before revealing herself to be the single most talented Mage Guo had ever seen. Her wife then caught wind of the girl's existence, and he conceded her entry into his home.

Not more than forty-eight hours later, the girl returned from some Mao-forsaken nightclub, having trounced the Lins and shamed the Fung family, soiling herself with currency! Crystals by the fistful! Behaving as though she were some village waif who had never seen money, flaunting her skills in an underground fighting ring for all to see.

Then before Guo could give her a sound thrashing to remind her of dignity and place, of the discipline her father had utterly neglected; he received a Vid-Cast routed from central, explicitly demanding his attention. After apologising to his superior, he was put face to face with a militant, well-built gweilo accompanied by a livid gweilo woman wearing far too much red.

Klavdiya had to take his hand and calm his infernal temper. That damned scarlet woman's first words were to threaten him! Him! A Committee Secretary!

"Imprison Gwen again, and I'll burn your fucking House down to the ground!"

Guo had thought he was hallucinating. Even now the memory of the woman's voice grated his ears, made his blood boil. But for his wife, he would have thrown Gwen Song back into the Sky Prison.

As it turned out, he couldn't even if he wanted to. Gwen was no longer a nobody body-snatched from Singapore. The call had validated all her claims and then some. She was a direct Disciple of a Magister, one of the Ten, the Lord Mage of Oceania, first among equals. An equivalent under the CCP would have been a Marshall of the Army or one of the twenty-four Secretariats of the State serving under the Supreme Leader of the Party. Sydney might be a Frontier town, but Henry Kilroy was a founder! A Magister among Magisters!

Guo could only find peace of mind in knowing that the man was dead.

If the Magister had lived and he had taken Gwen the way he did, it would have caused an international incident. The pot would boil over, and heads would have rolled.

Thankfully, Gunther Shultz removed the offending woman in red, followed by an apology on her behalf.

Guo then sat down with the Morning Star to discuss his wayward granddaughter.

"I do not wish to make things difficult for either of us, Secretary Song," the man had said. The implication was obvious. The gweilo Magus had indicated he 'chose' to smooth things over, meaning he could 'choose' not to.

But against the Morning Star, Guo kept his cool. He knew better than to lose his head over a blatant attempt to goad his ire. Like him, Shultz was a man who trafficked in power and kept company with conspiracy.

So they talked, speaking in riddles, vocalising charades and bargaining with enigmatic implications. Guo found that against all the odds, he liked the man. They were the same, despite their different Masters. They were military men put into enviable positions by deed and not by connections; they were both men of competence, and by that extension, they could find a compromise.

They soon reached an agreement.

Gunther would convince the mother to release Percy Song into his care.
In return, Guo promised to see Gwen through university, one of the top two that could access the International University Competition, and supply her with shelter, aid and care so long as she remained in Shanghai. Finally, at her education's end, she would be free to venture out of the city, unmolested by the CCP.

Guo couldn't guarantee that final detail, of course, but agreed to perform what was within his power. If Gwen were to excel to excess, to draw the eye of the CCP by her own accord, that would be out of Guo's control.

The deal was sealed, his heir delivered; he had thought that was the end of it.

Gwen Song would leave after three, at most five years, and all would be well within his world.

But there remained a fishbone in his throat. The girl still had his Amulet. More accurately, Gwen had Hai's half of the Kirin Amulet. Guo had wanted it returned earlier, their position made more transparent, both pragmatically and symbolically.

But of course, the girl's capacity for trouble again exceeded all his expectations.

Her party returned from the Clan gathering in Hensha as victors! Somehow, together with the water Mage from the mother's baseless bastard clan, two nincompoops from the Wangs, and Klavdiya's niece, they had secured the champion pole position, exceeded the last record by almost two hundred CCs!

Guo, of course, knew why she had won. The girl was using the Kirin amulet to sooth the life energies of the dying creatures as they expired.
Stupid girl! She had no idea what she was doing! The amulet was worth far more than some fetish that ensured the survival of Creature Cores. The foolish child was using an heirloom device, an artifice from the dynastic eras for something as stupid as currency and material gathering.

The girl would never learn to use the amulet's full capacity. He would not teach it to her, and Jun would not dare.

Return it was thus, the rational thing to do. But his wife was watching, thus Guo bided his time.

Then enquiries about his granddaughter flooded his channels at work.
Gwen Song had suddenly become the name on the Clans' lips!

"Guo! You've been hiding a gem from us!" His colleague from the Politburo joked with him. "You should let her out into society, old man. Ha! We're long past hiding our granddaughters; this isn't the old society, you know."

Even his superior, the Secretary of the Internal Affairs Committee, had mentioned her.

"What is this I hear about a Void Mage in your family?" From the Message came the voice of a woman Guo respected and admired as a colleague and a patriot, and it grated his ears to hear her speak of his estranged granddaughter. "Mind bringing her in for a tour? We can maybe help her out."

He declined their offers.

He had made a deal with Gunther Shultz. There was no going back on that now; the gain was too uncertain, the cost too prohibitive. There were too many unknowns for Guo to turn on the girl, not that he would have done such a thing. There was her mother, there were her sister and brother-in-craft, there was Percy, but most of all there was his wife. She had taken a liking to the girl, a far greater fondness than he found comfortable; with a word she had usurped from him the duty of protecting and overseeing the girl until her graduation.

"I'll ask around at the University," she told him. "See if they're willing to take her on."

Then there was the banquet, and here they are.

The girl had been in Shanghai three weeks, Guo reminded himself.
It took her THREE weeks. It was dizzying to think what the girl had achieved, with or without his wife's unwavering support.

She fought into the inner circle of the progenies of politics and prosperity. She impressed the scions of the Clans. She made herself known in the Pudong Tower. She acquired the lauded full-scholarship prize awarded to only six students per annum in Fudan.

But that wasn't the worst of it.

They loved her.
His family loved her.
Jun adored her for reasons he could not begin to understand.
His wife pulled in favours she had held for decades to help the girl.
The Wangs, the damned Wangs who could never see eye to eye with him, whom Guo had counted on to become a staunch ally to Percy, fawned over the girl as though she was one of their own.
Even his wife's niece, whose talents impressed even him, treated her as though a sister.
Klavidya stated that even Jiang Luo, Guo's old rival, had sworn mountains high and rivers swift, to take care of the damned girl.

THREE WEEKS.

That was what frightened Guo.

He couldn't understand it.
Her achievements were inconceivable.
An improbable emotion grew from a tingling in his spine into a shuddering quake that rendered his confidence.

Could he be - wrong?
Was it a mistake to make Percy the heir?
No! Guo told himself.
How could his wife be right? The girl was a menace; she felt nothing for the House of Song. She was too steeped in the ways of the West. She could never understand it, risk her life or be willing to die for the greater good of others so that the House persisted.

Watching the girl standing starkly in the ambient light, Guo felt his resolve rally. He was right. He had to be. It was time to retrieve what was Percy's. It was time to return to his heir, his birthright. It was time to draw the line.

* * *


"Guo!"

Guo hardened his resolve and pushed forward with his plan.

“As I was saying… what do you think, Gwen?” Guo persisted. "About our designs for Percy?"

Besides her grandfather, his wife was mum.

The ominous tension caused Gwen to stiffen further, so much that she could feel cramps developing throughout her diaphragm and abdomen.

Gwen looked towards her brother, who dared not meet her eyes.

“I am overjoyed that he could inherit your austere position, in time,” Gwen stated loudly, feeling the taste of formality on her tongue foreign and disquieting. Had they grown that far apart already? She couldn't help but wonder. Or more accurately, was it accurate to say that she had never gotten closer to Guo at all? They remained just strangers, or perhaps, less than strangers, despite the dinners, the breakfasts, the greetings and the occasional critique.

“So you give your support." Guo reclined in his chair, touching a finger to his temple. "I wonder then... "

The patriarch's next words caught her off guard like a jagged Salt Strike.

“What would you say, if I wanted you to become the Matriarch of the House of Song? Would you like to become the inheriting member? Replace your brother?”

Percy stiffened as though his grandfather had struck him with one of Gwen’s Lighting Bolts. Gwen, likewise, felt her movements petrify.

It was a test. That much was self-evident, but the offer still made Gwen dizzy with unbidden projections of the future. Did she want to inherit, to become master and lord of the House of Song? Gwen intellectually acknowledged that she had no desire, no want, nor need to take the role from Percy, but it didn’t mean that her blood wasn’t boiling and her face had not taken on a glowering, presumptuous pink shade. Her body, her subconscious Id, was hailing the prospect with all its submerged heart.

Guo's question hung in the air until Gwen could force her lips to move.

“You jest, Grandfather,” she replied carefully. “At any rate, I have no desire to inherit. It is not my place nor my inclination.”

“A fine declaration,” Guo stated stoically, allowing the syllables to ring emptily across the vaulted ceiling of the Meeting Room.

Percy looked as though he was already rocking back and forth from the rollercoaster of emotions and expectations. When he looked up again at his sister, his eyes had taken on a cast of doubtful wariness. Gwen could see the germination of a seed planted the day she ceased to be a toy in blood and became a Mage in her own right. There was Opa’s decision to give her what was left of his inheritance, leaving her the estate. There was the fact that while he struggled to be recognised by Prince’s, Gwen had already become intimate with the mightiest echelons of the Tower’s highest powers. There was the unforeseen kidnapping, all because Gwen had blurted out Percy’s name to Guo, and now there was this.

Was she a terrible sister?
Gwen wasn't a good sister.

In her past life, her brother had earnt the highest accolades, studied at the best school, attended the best university, gotten the job he always wanted and after all that; kept a cordial relationship with the family. She envied him. Even when Gwen finally carved out her corner of the world, she felt harassed by small, nibbling resentments that never entirely left her alone. For all her care of him in his youth, they were just acquaintances in the end. Something she regretted deeply.

She was vaguely aware, somewhere in her profound introspection, that her Grandfather was making his case known.

“The House of Song… originated from the late Yuan Dynasty, when the people of Hebei rose up to contest the Mongol rule… there had been many branching sects since, but our house remained as guardians of the home front…”

Some things paralleled even across parallel worlds.
The cost of individual agency, the burden of wanting things your way, the equal and opposite reaction that comes from resisting external compulsions.

What was the cost of that liberty? How does one measure the boon and bane of dispossessing those whose bond of blood with her was as thick as molasses? They said that one couldn't choose kin, that this was what made the covenant of the womb more sacred than any other union, but what water did that hold with Gwen? She wasn't even from this world!

In this one, in this world where rhino-sharks swam through the earth and schoolgirls conjured Lovecraftian monsters; should she elect to make the same mistake?

What mistake? Gwen's snide conscience riposted.

If this world was indeed a place where might makes right, her Path of Asura paved with rough reckoning, what help could she be to Percy if she relented on something he would not keep with his natural talent? Should not the boy fight her for the privilege, rise from the ashes? If she should forfeit him the opportunity, as though handing out a piece of reluctant charity, how would that secure his position?

In front of Gwen, Guo continued unabated.

“When the Manchurians finally broke the Ming’s back, the House chose to go underground, fighting the oppressors in another form… the village was rebuilt not once, but fourteen times! It was the darkest period of the Song’s history… Song Kai volunteered for the dangerous mission…”

The offer to keep pace and peace with her grandfather was tempting, but she wasn't going to let him ride roughshod over her. The man will have his ways; she had to give her grandmother that much, but then she would be untethered.

She had just become accustomed to Shanghai and yet, here was the hard reality of it. Here was not her home. They did not share the same values. Her world was across the ocean, beyond the reefs. Her world was slowly rebuilding. It was weak and underdeveloped, and it tittered on the edge of destruction - but it was home. There were Gunther and Alesia, Yue and one day again, Elvia. There were Opa and the rest of the people who’d called her 'hon' 'darl' and 'mate', meaning every word.

And Shanghai?
After the tea and the ices, the bouts and the Dungeons, the banquets and the dumplings; she was still the stranger in a strange land.

In front of her, Guo's story was reaching a climax.

“… the village behind! It was a decision that shocked them all, those who had survived the Japanese internment had their spirits broken…"

"I met your grandmother during those dark days, but night soon turned to day. The Communist party finally united China in 1949, sweeping aside the Magical Creatures, the Demi-humans, and most importantly, the foreign devils who thought themselves…”

Gwen blinked, resuming awareness of her surroundings.

“… which is why I hope, you could come to understand why Percy is such an important part of the Song’s legacy.”

Gwen recollected Guo's story.

Ming dynasty?
Manchurians?
The Japanese?
An old village rotting away in Hebei.
She could intellectually understand her Grandfather’s position, but how was she supposed to find inspiration or rapport? Did he expect her to swell with filial piety? Burst from a bout of patriotism? Cry out with fear at the antics of the Japanese? Weep when finally Maozhidong's army pushed into Shanghai and razed the Japanese occupation to the ground?

The man had good cause - so much purpose that it flooded the levies.
His unassailable cause was of such pith and moment that they might as well be the warmth of the sun shining upon a blighted land starved for light. They trumped her wants, dispelled her desires, negated her needs.

Legacy indeed! Gwen bit her lower lip. She must endure, for Klavdiya's sake. She promised.

“Gwen?” her babulya beckoned.

Gwen met her grandmother’s soft eyes apologetically. She loved her to bits. Whatever happens now, she would never blame the woman who’d shown her such kindness and unreserved support.

“Sorry, I am listening. Please go on.” Gwen bowed her head. “What would you like me to do, Grandfather?”

Guo felt the air of disappointment radiate from his wife, feeling his heart dragged through a field of splintered bones. He had to end this quick. A long-agony is no counterpart to swift suffering. It was time for this charade to end.

“I shall be plain then.” Guo changed his tone. “I request the return of the Kirin Amulet. I also wish for you to renounce your candidacy as heir to the House of Hebei Song, the descendants of Song Ying Xing.”

Gwen allowed the words to filter through her mind.

She nodded quietly.

She undid her ribbon tie and retrieved the amulet, still flushed with her body warmth, from the space just above her breasts. The half-amulet glinted in the low light of the lumen globes, its jade glowing faintly with an inner light, as though its marbled patterns were vessels of blood.

Guo continued to speak.

“There are uses for the amulet which are only known to the inheriting member of the family. Hai had never learned it; he was too young when he left. Jun has learnt it, but he will no longer be the inheritor. Percy, on the other hand, could very well become a beneficiary of the amulet’s boon. I am going to be very plain, grandchild. You will not learn its secrets. You will not access its greatest gift.”

"Guo!" Klavdiya stopped her husband. "Get on with it."

“What now?” Gwen felt a strange calm; she felt like she was watching herself from the third person.

“Give the Kirin Amulet to Percy, then say you renounce your entitlement.”

The Kirin Amulet. The reason why they won the competition. The ease by which she could maim Magical Creatures up close to harvest their cores. The trinket was the source of her future income, her unnatural confidence, her surety for success, her horn of plenty.

“Alright.”

There was no need for hysterics, no call for drama. What good would that do her now? It wasn't as though she hadn't seen the day coming. She was letting go of something, but then Guo was letting go of something too.

"I, Gwen Song, daughter of Hai Song and Helena Huang, renounce my entitlement to inherit the House of Song."

Then Gwen added on a little bitterly, a piece of her mind.

"I will forthwith remove myself from this House. I will not return to the house unbidden. I shall not participate in its activities. I will not intercede in Percy's career or his position as heir in any way, shape or form."

Gwen hooked her fingers under the red string tied to the amulet. The pendant had not left her body since the day her father gave it to her. It had warded off Faceless at the eleventh hour, saving her life. It had received Almudj's blessing, though she was thankful that Almudj's mana was spirit-bonded to her, and not stuck in some trinket.

She felt her breath quicken as she lifted it from her neck. There was an emptiness there, in the space between her breasts. It felt as though she had removed a piece of her flesh.

“Percy, come here,” she said to her brother.

“Sis, I…” Percy looked as though he wanted to refuse, but Gwen knew her brother better than that. He was an ambitious pup. Percy had always thought himself destined for greatness. It was delusional even to imagine her brother possessing the gall to say no. His grandfather had just confronted his sister and acted against the best efforts of their grandmother. To deny Gwen’s surrender would be to jeopardise everything: the sunk cost of Klavdiya's wrath, Guo's machination, her choice, his predestined purpose.

Percy moved his hand mechanically toward her, as though the offending appendage did not belong to him but someone else. Gwen allowed the red strings to loosen before hanging it over her brother's neck.

Her brother felt the heat of his sister’s body still lingering on the jade as he enclosed a hand around the jewel.

“Thank you,” he muttered softly, wetting his parched lips.

Gwen forced her hand to move away from her chest and rest beside her thighs. She allowed her breath to return to is usual cadence. Staring straight ahead, Gwen gawked, still stunned, at Guo’s feet, at an old pair of cotton-flats, the kind that farmers wore in the early days. She felt Percy parting from her, his careful and apprehensive body language an apt metaphor for their precarious bond as brother and sister.

“I am glad you and I could see eye to eye.” Her grandfather observed the proceeding. “If you wish to move away, I am more than happy to provide-”

“Guo, I’ll take it from here.” It was her babulya who intervened, cutting off her husband mid-sentence. She left the seat and walked towards Gwen to take her hand. “Come with me, dear. We’ll talk.”

“Alright, Babulya.” Gwen lifted her head to glimpse Guo one last time.

Her grandfather’s face remained impassive, its stoic rigidity unchanging from the moment they entered. She could see both the desire for distance and immense relief in his eyes.

“Goodnight, Grandfather,” Gwen coaxed her voice to retain its usual timbre. She then turned to her brother. “I hope you take care of that thing, Percy.”

Percy said something as well, but Gwen was already being escorted from the room by her grandmother. The two of them passed the central garden, where Jun and her father, Morye, was waiting for them.

"We heard a few words from here..." Morye began. "Well, it doesn't take a Diviner to guess what-"

“Jun, Hai, the training room.” Their babulya silenced him before motioning for Gwen's now-defunct bedroom.

“Yes, Ma’am.”
“Alright, Mama.”

Before Gwen could consolidate her wits, she was back in the training hall, adjacent to her room.

Richard was there already. He looked to be packing.

“So.” He looked up expectantly. “When do we move out?”

“Richard…” Gwen wasn’t sure how to be the bearer of bad news. Now that she was out of that room, her mind felt like a swollen mess. It was though someone had left weet-bix in the milk of her mind for too long and now it was a sodden log of emotions, insults and indignations all threatening to spill.

“Richard!” Morye broke the awkward silence. “Good to see you. How are your parents?”

“In a Refugee Camp, Sir,” Richard replied. “They lost everything during the attack. You were there.”

“…” Morye retracted his hand. “Right, of course.”

“They’re doing better now, waiting on some CCs for their immigration grants.”

“Ah? That’s good to hear,” Morye replied awkwardly. He just wanted to dispel the awkwardness, not to start a philosophical debate. Morye then turned to Gwen.

“Look, don't worry about the old man, alright? Fuck him. Why do you think I left? You got me still, right?”

“…” Gwen looked at her father’s boisterous face. Was the man trying to cheer her up? Rely on him? Gwen was too exhausted to fight him. She understood the sentiment, and so she nodded.

“Hai! Don’t speak about your father like that!” Klavdiya chided him.

“Sorry, Ma.” Morye sighed. He turned to face Gwen. “Anyway, I am sorry about Percy. I didn’t teach that boy well. Takes after your mother, I'd say. Obsessed with the rat race. I was a negligent dad.”

He then opened his arm towards Gwen expansively.

“So er... You wanna have a wail?”

“I am not a child, Dad,” Gwen retorted churlishly. Somehow, her father’s come-what-may attitude made her feel better about the whole ordeal. “I’ll be fine. I am just a little… upset.”

“Don’t be shy! Come on!” Morye urged. “Right in here! Both arms!”

With her babulya watching expectantly, Gwen resigned herself to the unexpected filial indulgence.

She allowed her father’s arms to envelop her as she walked into his embrace, feeling his hands stretch across her shoulder and waist. Her father’s face came closer to her face, his stubble stabbing into her cheek. She felt the heat of his body beneath his casual shirt and smelt a little hint of cologne and B.O. It reminded her of Forrestville, of living with her father both in this world and her old one. The daily struggle to get her out of bed. The alternating breakfast duty. The mixing of their laundry which drove her up the wall. The time her father gave her a birthday gift, and it was a six-pack of Bonds underwear. She had found out a week later while wearing a pair that it was originally intended for one of his girlfriends.

“Thanks, Dad.” Gwen pulled herself away, feeling a little dubious about her judgment of her father. She didn’t feel any different about the ordeal she had just undergone, but her smouldering resentment became blunted, as so to speak.

“Red Stars, I wish I had a daughter,” Jun said beside them, his eyes green with envy. “That was beautiful.”

“You don’t know the half of it.” Morye punched his brother in the arm. “That was a highlight for sure. Most of the time its just Gwen screaming at me at the top of her lungs.”

“So, what’s the deal?” Richard had brought nothing with him when he came. All he had was a few day’s changes of clothes and some assorted toiletries Gwen had bought him. He stashed the backpack against the wall and faced the family expectantly. "Gwen, I'll go where ever you go."

“Gwen, how are you feeling?” her babulya asked worriedly.

“I am fine.” Gwen allowed her grandmother to touch her cheek; her voice then became firmer. “I am good. I can deal with it. I AM dealing with it.”

“Please don’t feel too strongly towards your grandfather. He’s a stubborn old man, but he's acting out of fear and stubbornness and not malice.”

“I know that.” Gwen squeezed her grandmother’s hands. “I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel any resentment, but I understand how and why it happened. I don’t fault Grandfather for being who he is.”

Her babulya sighed deeply.

“I hope you mean that, Gwen.” She patted her shoulder. “It would make me very happy if you do.”

“I do mean it.” Gwen was beyond glad that she had the wisdom of age to face the crisis; had she been her sixteen-year-old self, a nineties adolescent, she would have bawled out her eyes; throw a tantrum of denial, paint her bedroom black; accusing the world of being cruel and uncaring. Now at least, she could face facts with the maturity of one tempered by reality, she would bend and flex, but she would not break.

“Sorry for intruding.”

There was a knock on the training hall’s door.

It was Petra, Mina and Tao.

"Sorry for intruding," Petra spoke first. "I had a Clairvoyance-cube on me so..."

“Shit, Gwen! So it's really going down? Are you getting kicked out? That's fucked up dawg! G-Hommie is NOT cool man! NOT COOL!”

Petra pushed past her indignant cousin and gave Gwen a big hug.

“Don’t worry, cousin,” Petra intoned seriously. “Your scholarship, your position at the school, your future. These are all your own. Nothing can take them away from you. Just look at me! Away from my parents since fifteen, I survived just fine! You and I, we can be of great help to each other!”

“Thanks, Pats.” Gwen felt her depression dispel further. Petra’s hair smelled like her lab, but right now, it may as well be blessed incense.

“Gwen!”

Lea burst from Richard and joined the huddle, careful not to wet the two girls.

“Oh, Mao…” Mina rolled her eyes but relented in the end, joining the triplet array to form a foursome of bodies rocking back and forth. "You wanna stay with me for a while? I got a spare room close to Fudan, and a couch for Richard, that or you can stay with us at the estate."

Tao wanted to join in, but Richard took him by the arm.

“Give them some space,” he said to his distant cousin. “This is something that girls can do that we can’t because we are stoic men who check our emotions at the door. Also, if you joined right now, I think Mina and Petra will kick your ass.”

“Right, thanks, dawg.” Tao felt his heart warmed by the huddle, toasty and comfortable. "That's beautiful, man."

Klavdiya watched the three girls and one spirit with an expression that was bittersweet.

“Regretting your decision not to fight Dad?” Jun asked beside her.

“You know me best,” Klavdiya comforted herself by taking her son’s arm inside her elbows. “Do you think young Percy can ever attain this? Gwen's with us for what, two, three weeks? The girl has a talent that’s far beyond magic. The House of Song would have flourished under her.”

“She's not one to forget her brother,” Jun pointed out kindly. He hugged his mother close and felt her disappointment like a blade stabbing into his torso. He lowered his voice. “Mother, perhaps I could…”

“No, you mustn’t.” Klavdiya shook her head and squeezed Jun’s hand. “You need it; it’s too dangerous otherwise. Wait until she's older- assuming she wants children of her own.”

“I’ll have it ready for her.” Jun touched his mother’s hair thoughtfully. Perhaps if he hadn't used the amulet so soon, they wouldn’t be in this predicament.

Morye watched his brother’s confidence with their mother and felt trapped within a tortured world of his own making. The guilt in his chest felt as though all the collected tar from his two decades of tobacco addiction was coming out all at once.

“Oh, I can’t breath!” Gwen begged the girls to relent. Giggling, the other three parted, with Lea returning to Richard’s body.

“Feeling better?” Petra smiled that dazzling smile of hers.

“Never better.” Gwen couldn’t help but be infected by the jovial air that had replaced the solemnity only a moment ago.

“Don’t be a stranger!” Mina quipped with her usual confidence.

A stranger, Gwen mused. Only a moment ago she had fancied herself a stranger. Yet here she was, proven wrong no less than half an hour later. It was a strange land alright, but she wasn’t a stranger here, there was abundant evidence of that now.

Gwen stepped back and surveyed the friends and family that she had gained by coming here to Shanghai.

Babulya, Petra, Mina, Tao, Uncle Jun, her father and finally Richard.

As they say, the home was where the heart was. If the Songs would not have her, then she would build a place of her own; a home, a House, a demesne, a Tower!

“Thank you all!” she bowed deeply toward them, feeling an unfathomable satisfaction filling her heart. “Thank you for supporting me!”

 

 

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A note from Wutosama

Welcome to Shanghai arc done 

next - training Arc at Uni! 

That was a double-chapter


About the author

Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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