Even with a medium Storage Ring, Gwen couldn't fit everything.
Babulya had told them that they needn’t pack so hastily, but Gwen felt no desire to meet Percy and Guo in the morning and put on a charade of congeniality. She had proposed to find a hotel or a motel for a short-term stay while they shopped for lodging, but Mina’s passionate proposition persuaded her to take up a vacant apartment owned by the Wangs.
“I am serious. It's empty right now. Just finished renovating, feel free to use it.”
“It’s too much,” Gwen replied out of politeness. It wasn't as though they would be homeless. She had enough HDMs to last herself and Richard for half a year, assuming no unforeseen expenses. It was the choice of others to give charity, but Gwen knew better than to overextend generosity.
“We’ll take you up on it,” Richard answered in her stead, as straightforward as ever. “Charge us the going rate. We’re not broke, at least not yet. It'll make Gwen's pride easier to swallow.”
Mina chortled as her cousin's complexion took on a pink glow. Richard had a habit of drawing blood with every word.
Babulya tried again to convince Gwen and Richard to stay, but Gwen politely refused, hugging her grandmother tightly and kissing her on the forehead.
"It's alright, Babulya. I am feeling fine. Moving out is something that has to be done. It changes nothing between us."
In the end, the Wang siblings called ahead for housekeeping to clean the place while Gwen and Richard packed with the help of Mina and Tao’s Storage Rings.
Klavdiya embraced Gwen again at the threshold of the Song estate when all was said and done.
“Gwen, promise me you’ll come back,” she pleaded with her. “Your Grandfather is a stubborn old horse, but he’ll come around one day.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Gwen replied enigmatically. “But Babulya, we still have our shopping date, and I’ll come and see you at work. We'll be spending time together again. Please allow me a week or so to settle into the new place.”
“Alright dear, I am sorry for what happened,” her babulya replied with a tone of weary melancholy.
“Take care of yourself, Gwen.” Jun shook her hand, then shook Richard’s. “Take care of her, Richard.”
“I will,” Richard answered affirmatively.
“Another one before we go?” Morye seemed intoxicated with the father-daughterly rapport he'd built with Gwen in the last few minutes. Was it because Gwen was following in his proud footsteps of giving Guo the finger? He felt far closer to the girl than he had in years.
“I suppose another one couldn't hurt.” Gwen indulged herself again and hugged her father, touching his cheeks affectionately with a light peck.
“I’ll be around, just call if you need help.” Her father's voice had a hint of guilt to it, a rare case of sentimentality for Morye.
Jun looked on with such envy that Gwen couldn’t help but indulge her uncle as well, though his beard stabbed her lips painfully and irritated her cheeks terribly.
“Kids, be well.” Morye waved at them as they loaded into the Wang’s enormous SUV. Nen and her husband had left already after the frosty dinner, so it was just the children and the chauffeur travelling to the vacant apartment.
“Til we meet again!” The group of young Mages waved at the adults.
Klavdiya, Jun and Morye watched as the dark vehicle pulled away from the compound.
Klavdiya sighed dejectedly.
“They’ll be fine, Mama.” Morye patted his pockets for a cigarette, then sighed with as much disappointment as his mother. He’d forgotten that they had made him quit smoking; whenever he recalled that fact, it felt as though worms slithered under his skin.
“I concur.” Jun patted his brother’s shoulders. “You got one heck of a daughter, Brother.”
“Well, I did raise her myself,” Morye boasted proudly.
Klavdiya turned to Morye with her amber eyes glowing with criticism.
“…” Morye swallowed his next boast.
“So, no send-off from Percy, huh?” Jun remarked.
“That boy takes after his mother,” Morye declared miserably.
Klavdiya's eyes bore into Morye like two amber crystals digging into his skin.
“…” Morye breathed out with a long, drawn-out breath. “But I suppose I am responsible as well. I was negligent in teaching him. Sorry, Ma.”
The three of them stood listening to the sound of frog-song lifting from the rock garden just outside the compound.
“I am tired,” their mother spoke into the night, then shook her head softly. “Good night, boys.”
“Goodnight.” Morye bowed slightly.
“Goodnight, Ma'am. I’ll be going back to the barracks.” Jun inclined his head as well.
The trio took one last look at the vehicle just disappearing beyond the main boulevard, then went their separate ways into the uncertain shadows of the Song compound.
* * *
“You sure you’re alright?” Mina held Gwen’s cold hands as the car cruised down the Second Orbital Ring Road. “Your fingers are like icicles.”
“I am holding up,” Gwen replied, one of her hands unconsciously moving toward her chest. “All the adrenaline is draining out of me, that’s all.”
“The Kirin Amulet…” Richard observed Gwen repeatedly feeling the space between her breasts. “You never did clarify what it did.”
“It's a little hard to explain, but you've all seen it in action, so I'll try my best.” Gwen anecdotally informed her companions of what she had discerned, listing each instance in which the amulet acted on her behalf. “Then during the Mermen Crisis in Sydney, it drew power from a Mythic serpent’s egg, then fended off a Faceless shapeshifter by releasing the serpent’s essence.”
“You’re gonna have to tell us about that sometime,” Mina remarked. "Mermen? Shapeshifters? Mythic beasts? Your life sounds like someone wrote a Vid-cast episode. Are you really the same age as we are?"
“Who knows, what if I told you I was a wise old Changeling?”
"Ha!" Mina chortled. "As if!"
Gwen smirked weakly at Mina. Telling the story of her time in Sydney sent her memories wandering back to another time. To think that she once had a Geas planted in her by Henry that prevented her speaking to anyone about Almudj. The remembrance triggered a prickling heartache to trouble her chest. She became aware of a masochistic desire to feel the old Geas restraining her Astral Soul. Such an agony would act as proof that her Master was alive, that if she recounted of Almudj, her rare and kind mentor would at once know of her disloyalty. It was like what Joni Mitchell had sung about, 'That you don't know what you've got. Till it's gone.' Who'd have thought tireless days of agonising training would become the sweetest memories she possessed of the magnificent old man?
But her Master was gone now, murdered barely a month ago.
A month? Gwen realised with shocked horror. Had it only been a month? It felt more like a lifetime. The loss of the Amulet was upsetting, but how could it compare to the loss of her Master? She would instead take this offer of life's lemons in stride, and see it as a cost of liberation.
"Whatever its loss will cost you, I’ll ask Master give you a check up when we start looking into your Void abilities,” Petra intoned besides Gwen. “From the time we were together in Hengsha, I'd say it did a hell lot more than absorb essences from dead monsters. I hope you don't mind me saying so, Gwen, but I think you're going to regret letting that thing go."
"It's just a thing, in the end." Gwen defended her decision. "I am here, that's all that matters."
"I support her decision," Richard intoned besides the girls. "It was a ball and chain as much as it was useful. On the Frontier, we don't get to see many Magic Items, so we've learned not to rely on them overmuch. Most of us go into battle with a bandoleer of potions, that's it."
“Now that's God's Truth,” Gwen castigated her rural origins depreciatively. “We don’t get no Magic Items out there in the Outback. Just Roos and Emus, and Aurochs. So many Aurochs. Which we wrangle with our bare hands.”
“You joke now,” Petra sighed and wrapped an arm around Gwen's shoulders. “No matter. Keep up the tough cowgirl facade. My only concern is that you continued to hit the coursework. Whatever the heck the amulet did for you, you can do better for yourself. I said I’d make a Mage out of you and I mean it!”
"Thanks, Pats," Gwen cooed. "You're worth ten Kirin amulets."
Gwen then rested her head on Petra’s shoulder. It was tiresome playing the mature one all the time. She was happy that she got to experience being the younger sibling as well. That's what second-lives were all about, wasn't it?
Petra nodded before turning away, her face made rosy by Gwen’s earnest affection.
Tao napped on the rear-most seat of the seven-seater SUV. Here was a man who could ruin the mood of anything.
Some thirty minutes later and closer to midnight, they arrived at a set of newly build serviced apartments some fifteen minutes walk from the Bund.
Gwen sucked in the chilling night air as they exited the SUV. A vacant apartment?! Gwen grimaced. Mina's gesture of charity turned out to be a two-bedder suite at the Shanghai-Bund Waldorf.
The apartment itself was a small investment property consisting of two generous bedrooms, furnished with two queen-sized beds and decked out with decadent luxuries. Its shared living room possessed floor to ceiling glass overlooking the Bund and the Huangpu river.
The NoM personnel stationed below had dusted the premise, filled the toiletries and changed the sheets before the young Mages arrived. If Gwen desired, there was also a 24-hour kitchen, anytime room service, a masseuse, and laundry services.
“We’ll start looking for a place tomorrow,” Gwen informed them immediately, feeling her crystals becoming lighter with the passing of each moment.
“My recommendation is to stay on campus,” Petra advised sagely, her eyes scanning the ultra-luxury critically. “Assuming there are vacancies, LCSS students should have no issues getting approval. Of course, the admin's slow as molasses, and you might have to be enrolled first, but I am sure they’ll make an exception for scholarship recipients.”
“Thanks, Pats, I’ll swing by first thing in the morning.”
“You’re always welcome to stay here,” Mina reminded Gwen of her generosity. "It's a little far, I know, but it's cheap and clean."
“Nonetheless, I’ll need to see Pats almost daily, and I’d like to try out the campus life.” Gwen met her cousin's imploring eyes with tenderness. She felt a little dirty for euphemistically omitting the fact that there was no way she and Richard could afford a place like this long-term. “Thanks, Mina, I appreciate your offer, and I won't forget your kindness.”
“Don’t mention it.” Mina searched her cousin's face and found her answer in the way Gwen sat on the edge of the couch, looking as though lying back into the plush pillow might incur an extra cost.
“Yeah, it’s our Dad’s anyway, he said to- Ow!” Tao hissed at his sister.
“Peaches, shut up.” Mina viciously pinched her brother in the ribs, her face reddening immensely.
Gwen maintained her sweet mien and said nothing. One should not look a gift horse in the mouth, even if she had no intention of taking it for a ride. Not to mention this was the prancing pony kind that she could not possibly bestride.
Gwen's items were sorted and stowed here and there as the five made small talk about the surrounding area and its conveniences.
The conversation softly dwindled, and then died.
“Yo! You guys wanna have some Xiao-ye?” Tao spoke up suddenly. “There’s five of us, and we’re five minutes away from Huahai Road, perfect for some Hotpot!”
“Hotpot?” Gwen's ears perked up. She had heard of the famous steam-boat dish before and seen her colleagues enjoy it in Sydney, though she had never personally participated.
“Oh yeah man, bitch’n peppers and melt your asshole chillies in a pot! You then dunk in some prime cuts of lamb and auroch, Wildland vegetables and mushrooms; it’s the SHIT dawg!”
“I am game.” Petra’s anticipation suggested she was an old hand at the spice game.
“Count me in, I love spicy food,” Richard added. “I’ve had it a few times in Australia as well, though I doubt it was authentic.”
“So much for my beauty sleep, guess I’ll take morning class off tomorrow.” Mina played with her hair. “Gwen?”
Gwen pictured a mountain of ingredients sitting next to a famously steaming hotpot.
“Alright! Let’s do it!”
* * *
“I KANT FEL MY MOUTH.”
Gwen moaned as she sipped her warm beer.
“MY TUNG ISH NUMB.”
When they first started, the reddish, peppery soup had felt mild. An hour into the meal, the soup became lava. Besides a dozen empty plates, Gwen was learning a painful lesson in overestimating her ability to consume spice. What her companions had said was a medium level of spice was for her, suicide by Fireball.
It was now approaching 3 AM. Gwen was surprised that she didn’t feel sleepy at all. Was it the spices overstimulating her palate? She wondered. Or the boisterous company? It was likely both.
She regarded her companions.
Tao was on his sixth beer but remained entirely lucid, loudly speaking as he recounted stories with his gang of wannabe Rappers.
Mina appeared demure and petite, her coiled hair framing her small face as she sat primly, her slim thighs tucked across the low stool in a way that drew the eye. Her style of eating was as delicate as her appearance, cooking only vegetables and little bowls of handmade noodles.
Richard was a carnivore through and through, seemingly unaffected by the river of the molten pepper oil. He clinked beers with Tao often, surprising Gwen with the ease to which he got along with the boisterous Illusionist.
Beside the bubbling cauldron, Gwen made a striking pair with Petra as the girls huffed and puffed through every piece of chilli laden lamb, beef, tofu, fish ball, mushroom and bamboo that came their way.
"Double, double pepper and trouble;
Chilli burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny fish,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Slice of lamb and ball of beef!"
Gwen chanted jokingly as more exotic ingredients arrived.
She omitted the next line though. It was 'tongue of dog.'
Slowly, Gwen fell into a chilli coma.
The boss, a hard-boiled veteran of many a nightstand health inspections, was so impressed with the imposing presence of these young Mages that he couldn’t help but provide them with ingredients far fresher than his usual fare.
In the meanwhile, Gwen, a little drunk on beery emotions and feeling uncharacteristically liberal, spoke of her life in Australia, of her high school, of her meeting with Alesia, with Henry and Gunther. Petra, noting the sensitivity of their topic, provided some privacy by shielding the five of them within a Scramble incantation so that to others, it sounded as though they were speaking in tongues.
“Wow, Henry Kilroy…” Mina made a face. “I’ve read that name in one of my textbooks. To think he was still around.”
“And Lizzy Sobel… that bitch is stone cold. Like, FRIGID,” Tao became enthralled when Gwen roughly told the events at Rosebay, redacting her narrative where necessary. “She shanked her pimp, just like that huh?”
“I want to meet this Elvia of yours,” Mina mentioned after Gwen's story concluded. "She sounds like such a cutie."
“I wanna meet dis Yue.” Tao was more so fascinated by the bombastic fire mage.
She’d probably beat you senseless, Gwen tried to imagine the fateful meeting of Tao and Yue. Would they get along? After the initial beating, they probably would. Gwen had to confess that there was a charm about Tao that one appreciated after acquiring a particular taste.
“That Debora as well, poor girl.” Mina chewed absent-mindedly on some noodles. “Can’t believe she was skin-changed for so long and no one noticed.”
“We have Skin-Changers as well,” Petra appended. “Though magical impersonation is illegal. The maximum penalty for identity theft under the PLA is summary execution or permanent stasis.”
"They do summary executions here?"
"Oh yes, there's Vid-Casts even." Petra shrugged.
Petra's nonchalance made Gwen shiver a little at the PLA’s idea of ‘corrective’ punishment. Back home, Australia had borrowed its system from the Britannic Mageocracy and so, generally favoured rehabilitative imprisonment.
“Well, now you know my story, and why I need this Scholarship, as well as the Inter-University Comp.” Gwen returned to sipping her beer. The chilli was SO GOOD, but it was SO SPICY. Her guts felt as though Vulcan had opened a forge in the pit of her stomach. She would be feeling it in a few hours, Gwen was sure, maybe it was time to call it a night.
“Accolades for freedom, huh?” Petra wrapped another piece of lamb around her chopsticks expertly, swishing it back and forth in the hellish soup of floating garlic and Sichuan peppers. “It’s a good plan, I think It’ll work, but you’ve got quite a bit of balancing to do.”
“I am a good juggler,” Gwen replied.
“If you want the Pudong Tower to recognise you, getting your Magus’ accreditation will help immensely,” Mina informed her helpfully. “That and do their bidding and participate in their Tower activities from Fudan T2. Most of the Instructors there are Pudong alumni.”
“I can confirm that,” Petra declared, starting on another piece of lamb. “Master Wen worked for a while for Pudong too, though she’s well received in the PLA Tower as well. She’s made a pact to not discriminate in her work.”
“Speaking of work, I’ll be doing some part-time work over the next few weeks. At least until university starts,” Richard interjected, turning toward Gwen. “I was going to tell you earlier. But you know, stuff happened, we got kicked out and were minutes away from being vagrants.”
“What kind of work?” Mina asked curiously.
“Light Utility-stuff, mostly construction and escort. It’s close, just up the Yangtze. Babulya set me up with a few of her old colleagues who needed a good Water Mage.”
“Pays well?” Gwen asked.
“Well enough.” Richard grinned. “Enough to keep myself lodged and fed, with spare left over for training.”
“Alright,” Gwen didn’t pursue the matter. Richard had his pride as well. It wasn’t as though he was going to mooch off her the entire time they studied together. “Congrats on getting a job.”
“Cheers,” Richard raised a beer. "I'll leave finding our new home to you."
Tao met Richard halfway and swigged his sixth stout.
The boy can drink! Gwen couldn’t help but marvel at her skinny cousin who measured barely past five-foot-six. Sobriety appeared to be an unforeseen, hidden talent of Tao’s, she thought to herself. The Illusionist must have a bladder like iron.
The group continued to talk until Mina accidentally fell asleep. She rested her head on Gwen’s shoulder for a moment and then began snoring gently, triggering a round of laughter from her extended family.
“We better pack it up.” Richard finished off the last of his bottle. Tao agreed heartily and slammed his seventh. Gwen and Petra picked up the sleepy Mina between then and took them toward the direction where the Wangs’ had parked their SUV.
Petra Messaged for a cab and told Gwen to come to the Lab after 2 PM. From there they can go and see the Campus Administration, get their student card pre-registered, and see if the university is willing to fast-track her dorm application.
Richard noted that he'd likely need to be away for his job, but Petra assured them that the university should already be in possession of all their biometric and academic transcripts. As a favour for Scholarship students, Fudan should be more than willing to bend some minor red tape.
Waving the others goodbye, Gwen and Richard returned to the apartment, where Gwen melted under the luxurious multi-headed shower system. She then found a set of cotton robes and slipped into the silky embrace of luxury.
"Gwen?" Richard appeared at the threshold of her bedroom. "Why'd you really let the amulet go? Did you do it for Percy? Was it babulya?"
His cousin hugged a plush pillow closer to her chest as she sat city-gazing near the panoramic windowsill, her long white legs pale against the thick glass panes and their refracted light. Her hair rested damply across her shoulders, where a few droplets of water beaded on one exposed shoulder. Below her, the shimmering mirage of the Bund below beckoned.
"Goodnight, Richard," she replied.
* * *
Gwen woke around 11 AM.
Richard was gone. He’d left a note reminding her to wear her Message device. Additionally, he had left her two hard-boiled eggs.
Gwen hefted the eggs in one hand. They felt more like billiard balls in weight and shape, informing her that either these were Wildland eggs or the hen was the size of a small horse.
She cracked one, and a sweet aroma of creamy egg-yolk filled the room. After last night’s flaming turmoils, her stomach lining could use some fortifying.
Lacking access to her full wardrobe, Gwen dug through the first layer of the neatly piled cloth in her Storage Ring and put on a dark easy-Sunday dress with white bands accenting the hem and collar. The attire was minimalist and straightforward, reaching a few inches above her knees without being excessively breezy. She commended her decision to put self-cleaning enchantments on her wedge sandals and readied her face to meet the brave new world ahead. It was, after all, her first day in Shanghai as a free woman.
Drawing a glyph on the door, she locked the apartment after washing the dishes and setting the bed, then ventured out toward Fudan.
She took the No. 10 subway until she reached University Boulevard.
It was easy to orientate herself once she was out in the vicinity of Wujiaochang because that was where her babulya worked. To her right, she could see the enormous superstructure of the PLA Second Army Experimental Hospital just looming on the horizon, and to her left, she could see the top of the two mock-Towers atop the Guanghua building peeking over the numberless apartments.
As it was only noon, Gwen figured that she could walk to Fudan, get to know the area and find her bearings. The district beside Fudan was a redeveloped region of knock-down and rebuilt apartments rezoned for education and private residences.
Her path toward Fudan therefore, alternated between manicured greens on well kept median strips, to barely accessible pools of construction waste hidden with bits of wood and slabs of haphazard concrete. Gwen praised again her choice of investing her shoes with the ability to evade grime and dust. Her wedges-sandals were open-toed, and she grimaced at the thought of stepping into muddy puddles and having the fetid water invade the space between her feet and her sole.
“Spare some change, Miss?” a voice croaked out beside her.
Gwen almost jumped at the sight of a man who’d suddenly emerged from the darkness between two alleyways marked for demolition.
He was a NoM, that much was obvious. If the man had been a Mage, Gwen might have felt his presence. He posed no danger either, Gwen observed, else her Divination would have pinged her spine. If the encounter had been anywhere and any other time, Gwen would have ignored the hobo. For sure, she had just done just that in her old life both in old and new Sydney. But this was her first day out in Shanghai as a woman of means, and she fancied herself in an inquisitive mood.
“I could spare some, sure,” Gwen stopped beside the dim alleyway. Above, in big red writing, a slogan read something to the effect of, “Peaceful Removal of Old Structure for Safety - We Welcome NEW Birth of Civil District.”
The man seemed just as surprised as Gwen when she took note of his existence. The girl was a Mage, that much was evident to him, and she was a foreigner to boot. His eyes were followed her lithe white legs until they reached her hazel eyes, feeling lost for words.
“Donation for… the poor?” the old man repeated. He had the look of someone wracking his brain for something intelligible to say but was too shocked to find his tongue. “They took my home… I- I am so hungry…”
To Gwen, the NoM looked to be in bad shape. The old battler had bruises on his face, and he sat, half cowering, on what looked like a dolly, like the ones used for furniture removal.
Gwen materialised a few LDMs, as well as the comically large egg she had saved from breakfast.
“Here, Sir,” she said kindly, kneeling down to give the man her offer of charity. The hobo’s eyes widened when he realised that she was giving him weighted shards of mana crystals.
Then Gwen felt the presence of Mages turning the corner.
“Hey! What do are you doing!” a voice barked across the dilapidated space of the deconstruction zone. Gwen quickly recovered herself and eased out her dress. She cursed herself for her curiosity, for the tone of the incoming voice sounded far from friendly. Whatever happens, she had better not be late for Petra.
The trio who by now had moved to confront her dressed in blue-navy cargo pants and sky-blue shirts, with a white Naval officer's cap embossed with Shanghai’s skyline. The leading officer was short and middle-aged, while his two companion cadets looked as though they were fresh on the job.
Gwen stiffened as they approached.
“Hao! I told you not to return here!” the middle-aged officer cursed with an acerbic tone of annoyance. It would appear that she was not the target of their ire.
“We’re sorry if you were harassed, Miss!” the two young men bowed. “It will not happen again! If you would like to make a report on this incident, we are happy to be of service!”
“Oh no, it’s quite alright.” Gwen put up her hands and back-peddled, confronted by the Chengguan's eagerness to be model guardians of the city’s civil community.
The older man continued to admonish the NoM beggar for violating a string of the city’s rules Gwen had never heard off before, everything from ‘No soliciting money,’ to ‘No Loitering around Construction Zones.’
“But… here is my home!” The man wailed. “I lived here for thirty years!”
“You HAVE A NEW HOME!” the officer shouted at him, sending a string of spittle flying toward the man like dandruff. “GO HOME, HAO! In the name of Mao! Red Stars! You're such a typical NoM…”
“Does the man not have a home?” Gwen asked out of curiosity. “The man said he was homeless.”
“They 'are' provided new homes, Miss,” one of the young men answered her with eyes aglow with devotion, his voice breathlessly earnest. “We’re new patrol officers for this area, by the way. I am Officer Lee, and this is Officer Kuu. That there is our boss, Sergeant Li.”
“To answer your question, Miss,” the one called Kuu replied anxiously. “The residents here are moved to the more rural areas where the city has built a whole new apartment-city for them.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” Gwen replied carefully. She could see from the NoM’s distress that wherever his new home may be, the man had no desire to leave the old Hutongs.
"Are you a student, Miss?"
"From Fudan, yes."
“Hao! I am warning you. Move it!” the sergeant barked, finally out of patience.
“No! Please. LI! My home is here! We grew up here together! You can’t just demolish the place! My father and his father lived here! Your Grandmother too!”
“Yuu! Lee! With me!” Officer Li growled. "Let's get this eyesore out of the way."
The two officers apologised profusely to Gwen and requested that she leave the premise.
Gwen complied and walked some distance away before she heard the sound of painful grunting and the noise of something scribbling and struggling, pressed against the pavement.
“Miss!” a voice called out behind her.
Gwen turned to see Lee running toward her. The young Chengguan bowed again before opening his hands, revealing four LDM crystal chips.
“These are yours, I believe.” The young man met Gwen's eyes expectantly. “Once again, allow me to apologise for the harassment you had to endure.”
Gwen took the LDMs and uncertainly thanked the young officer.
“At your service, Miss.” The young man saluted before turning and running back to assist what Gwen could only assume was the forced removal of the beggar from his old home.
Gwen felt the weight of the LDMs in her hand for a moment then stowed them away in her ring. She took a deep breath, then thought of Petra's appointment. The emotions she felt slowly filtered away as she hasted her pace.
The construction zone ended once she cleared the old district and reached University Road, where a new block of glass and concrete apartments began. Above, twenty-four storeys of privately owned apartments loomed over the sycamore trees lining the boulevard, while below a riot of students and staff shifted through the innumerable choices available for lunch.
University Boulevard seemed packed to the rafters. There was everything here: A bakery with Elven-woodland decor sold shortcakes stood next to Texan smokehouses made to look like 60s roller-cafes, Japanese sushi-trains and Korean stone bowls competed for space, joined by geographically aligned Chinese food, six different hot-pot joints, and just as many milk-tea outlets. Tempted by the delicate scent of butter and eggs, Gwen ended up wasting another ten or so minutes purchasing two boxes of Lembas as a gift for Petra and Magister Wen.
She arrived a few minutes before the agreed upon time, meeting Petra at the door. The girls exchanged cheeks, stowed Gwen’s gift of buttery Lembas, then made for the Administration building.