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The next morning, Gwen couldn’t help herself and snuck a peek at the Maid’s room in the pantry. Sure enough, built into the kitchen was a pantry door, and behind that door was the food storage - and a room with a single bed, a lumen globe on the wall, a chair and a small cabinet built into the wall.

“Greetings, young Miss.”

Gwen turned around and saw the Maid with her face full of wariness, wondering why the guest was so interested in her quarters. The woman was in her thirties, plain-faced, but had an intelligent look about her dark eyes.

“Miss, erm…”

“Lei,” the woman replied. “The young master and mistress call me Ah-lei.”

Bloody oath, the woman even has a pet name, Gwen thought to herself. She quickly scanned the woman: clean, braided hair, a simple linen shirt and pants, and comfortable cotton shoes that wouldn't leave streaks on the polished floor.

“Sorry, Lei, I was intruding.” Gwen collected her feelings, then dipped her head apologetically. “I am Gwen Song, by the way, Mayuree’s friend and classmate.”

A look of recognition registered in the woman’s face. She then bowed deeply, arching her back until she was doubled over.

“Please take care of the young Miss!”

“I will. I’ll do my best.” Gwen gingerly sidestepped and allowed the woman to pass, feeling guilty that she had intruded on what little privacy the woman enjoyed. A servant that lives in the pantry, Gwen couldn't help but be impressed again. Forget the Sirius Estate, not even Downton Abbey had their servants sleep in the pantry.

With the small, inconsequential episode over, Gwen settled down at the open kitchen-dining overlooking the campus for breakfast with the siblings.

Mayuree remained on edge, sitting with Gwen and Petra rather than with her brother. While Marong engaged in what seemed like his most favourite thing in the world - chain smoking enigmatically.

As the girl tried to eat their breakfast, Marong watched them like a hawk, as if reading their body language. He pulled out a cigarette and lit the tip with a snap of his finger, then puffed away, surrounding himself in a circle of smoke that thankfully, never quite reached across the table. It was as though an invisible tendril was pulling the grey-white particles back toward the man.

“Impressive." Petra pushed her plate away and levelled her eyes at Marong. "I assume that's a Smoke Mephit. I think I have heard of you. The infamous Poof and Puff of Peking fame, right? What are you doing here in Fudan?”

“PUFFT!”

Gwen felt a gulp of milk raid her sinus as she choked on her flat white. Lei quickly brought her a towel, which she used to drain the coffee from her nose.

“Petra!” she scolded her straight-talking cousin. She knew Petra had no chill, but this ignorant, repulsive display was too much even for Gwen. The Russians were known for it too, even in her own world. “That’s horrible; you can’t… you can’t call people the P word in polite conversation!”

“Sorry Marong, Petra didn’t mean it,” Gwen apologised profusely. “We have nothing against that sort of thing. It’s not a choice, after all. Everyone is ‘born this way’, am I right?”

Petra turned to look at her flustered cousin with incomprehension. Sometimes, Gwen did the queerest things. She was overtly polite to NoMs; she raised strange questions about Tier 1 society. Gwen seemed to have little episodes like these when she went off on some tangent only she could understand.

Marong followed Gwen's gaze until his eyes fell on his cigarette.

“Started when I was 14.” The Smoke Mage crossed his legs cooly, taking a luxurious drag, playing the fag across his lips. “No, I don't mind the moniker. That’s what they call me.”

“That’s horrible!” Gwen felt the utmost sympathy for the poor man. Lineage might be paramount to a Mage's household, but to think that such a public display of discrimination could seem so nonchalant.

“What’s wrong with Puff?” Petra said the P world out loud again, apparently missing the point.

Marong exhaled. Smoke coiled around his torso, then formed into the likeness of a vaguely humanoid sprite. It was an impish looking thing, resembling a skeletal goblin with wings, anorexic and indistinct in the haze that surrounded it.

“This is Poof,” Marong introduced his spirit. “He's not very friendly; we can dispense with the pleasantries. I am not a Conjurer, so I am afraid you won't be able to interact with it either. Smoke Mephits are infamously skittish.”

PUFF. Gwen cursed her ears, or perhaps her Translation Ioun Stone; or both. Puff as in parfait, not as in Queen. Poof as in vanish, like smoke.

“Brother is number three in the family,” Mayuree explained, seeing Gwen's inability to follow Marong and Petra's conversation. “He was on the Peking Inter-University Team in 98.”

“Oh?! Do tell.” Gwen turned to the man with renewed interest. "There's more than meets the eye!"

“We lost.” Marong shrugged. “I didn’t have Poof with me then, nor the moniker.”

He tapped his cigarette.

“We could speak some more if you like. Over dinner, perhaps-”

"Gwen needs to study," Petra interjected, her voice cutting the dialogue like a keen scimitar.

Gwen swore she could see the glass table vibrate in tune with Petra’s boiling Mineral-charged mana.

“On that note, we better go,” Gwen advised the siblings. “I have lessons with Magister Wen.”

“I’ll see you out.” Mayuree quickly left the table to accompany the two girls.

Petra and Marong exchanged another glance, her Husky-blue eyes meeting a haze of distinct smoke that masked his face behind blue tendrils.

"She's busy. We're busy," Petra announced each syllable audibly, stressing her vowels.

"Nothing would please me more." Marong crushed the cigarette in his hand and reached for his coffee.

"Ciao."


* * *


Gwen's’ tuition under Petra continued for another fortnight. Gwen self-studied in the lab during the morning, receiving lessons from Magister Wen or Petra alternatively during the week, then participated in a minimum of two sessions of data-gathering and fact-finding.

With a growing sense of foreshadowing which Gwen thought best kept to herself, at least for now, the immense feeling of satiation gained from using Caliban’s Consume did not fade nor falter with repetition. Each time, the experience was as vivid as the first, though Gwen was beginning to be able to differentiate the different creatures fed to it by Magus Kumiko. It would seem that Magical Beasts of the mammalian kind, provided a sort of fuzzy satisfaction that was akin to being bathed in a hot spring. Xeno creatures, such as an occasional insectile thing the Summoning Circle pulled through, provided a bitter aftertaste, a kind of iron on the tongue that felt as though she had swallowed something ichorous. At any rate, the sustained euphoria lasted for a few hours, easing her casting of additional Void Spells.

With additional trials, the inquisitive foursome furthermore found that a consistent casting of Consume spread across every few days kept Gwen's vitality and health at a status quo. In sharp contrast to her prior experience with the Void, Gwen no longer felt her physical body diminished by its usage. Combined with the nourishing effect of Almudj’s druidic essence, her eyes remained bright, her complexion smooth, and her limbs shapely and supple; entirely withstanding the punishing demand of the Negative energies involved. Once a pattern was established and Caliban regularly fed, Gwen felt herself at peak physical fitness, despite only engaging a nightly jog with Petra, and sometimes Richard, around the safety of the B1 compound.

Magister Wen was immensely pleased that Gwen could now sustain her health and noted it down as a milestone victory for Gwen’s development as a viable Void Mage.

But Gwen didn’t just study and train for two weeks straight.

The first weekend, Gwen invited her babulya over to the new apartment. They sat for hours talking about recent developments. Klavdiya informed Gwen that she was in constant contact with Magister Wen, who had provided her with any changes in Gwen’s biometric data.

“Feeding Caliban Magical Creatures might not be a long-term solution, but it's a decent short-term solution, for now,” her babulya comforted Gwen. “Remember, as your affinity grows, so will your efficiency in converting vitality and mana into Void spells. Maybe one day, you will find that lesser spells would cost little to no vitality.”

Gwen was inclined to agree. Elizabeth Sobel seemed to rip through mid to high tier spells unceasingly without even breaking a sweat. If Gwen were to cast three tier 4 Spells consecutively; she would immediately start feeling the signature vertigo that came with Negative Energy drain. If she persisted in using her magic without a source of positive energy or restoration, she would begin to feel faint by the fifth or sixth spell. Her maximum allowance, as recorded by Magister Wen, was five tier 4 Incantations within five seconds of one another.

“Which means I need to seek out Void-beings attuned to the element and try to have Caliban Consume it,” Gwen followed her babulya’s line of logic. “Not sure where there’ll be Void-spawn though. I think the centipede that Caliban ran into had a smidgeon of Negative energy; it was a carrion eater for sure. Maybe I could attempt a Consume on something with Negative Energy…”

“No, stay away from anything involving the Negative Plane,” she advised sternly. “Even if you should survive it without incident, the PLA would not take it kindly. The Undead up north and to the West remain the greatest threat to the State, and the PLA Tower would hardly be expected to sit on its hands if it turns out you can tap into the Plane of Negative Energy."

"Gwen, I know Void is a rare element, and its nature is not conducive to simply ‘exist’ somewhere, that’s true,” her babulya noted sagaciously. “But that is why you need to go and adventure, see the world. When the semester begins, go check-in with the Tower, see if there is any information on whereabouts where Void-energies manifest. That would be your best bet.”

“Not to mention, without the forbidden art of the Yin-Yang Daoshi, or the Necromancer, you would likely deteriorate as soon as the element floods your body,” Klavdiya continued. “It is, after all, the antithesis of life. It’s a miracle in itself that your control over the Void, for one reason or another, appears to have limited impact on your health. Guo's family trait with Salt was a talent tempered by centuries of natural selection. We can assume that those within the blood-line with too much affinity for the Negative would have become sterile, or died, never passing on their lineage.”

“We’ve had Void Mages before as well, but…” Klavdiya shook her head. “None survived more than a few years past their Awakening. Which is why you’re a subject of such interest, Gwen. To the CCP, you might only be one insignificant acolyte for now, not enough for them to start pulling whiskers and clash heads with the Pudong Tower, but for Fudan, for the study of Spellcraft - the data we glean from your experiences might mean the survival of future Void Mages. Young Mages like yourself, who could learn to live with their talents. Your milestones are their touchstones, do you understand?”

Gwen nodded solemnly. She hadn’t thought of that before.

She found herself possessing renewed respect for babulya and Magister Wen.

* * *

The second matter which Gwen resolved was something that had nagged her mind incessantly since Percy arrived in Shanghai.

Her mother, Helena Song.

A loose end she wanted to resolve, ideally put behind her, at least for now.

From babulya, she had received the address for her mother's new abode. A Mage-only gated community just on the south side of Shanghai, nearing the scenic region of the Hongqiao district, past the Third Orbital Highway.

Petra had wanted to go with Gwen, but she was preoccupied with an errand from Magister Wen. Richard as well had travelled out from Shanghai towards Suzhou, where he was now heavily involved in the waterworks operation that dominated the Civilian news-cycle. The Water Conjurer had only returned home to sup with Gwen once this week, promising that things would settle into a more reasonable pattern once the Semester started. When they last spoke, Richard's expression looked wane, and he had puffy bags under each eye, but he appeared otherwise happy and fulfilled.

In the end, it surprised Gwen that it was Mayuree of all people who accompanied her, tempting Gwen to finally agree when she offered the loan of her private chauffeur and the comfort of a massive Maybach-sedan whose interior looked as though a dozen Aurochs were sacrificed on the altar of upholstery.

Gwen had to admit there was vanity powering her decision as well. She wanted to show her mother her success since their separation. It would be a cathartic experience, something that Gwen felt she owed to the old Gwen, whose thoughts and feelings she could now rarely detect. It would be a cleansing, a scouring of the past so she can move forward without baggage.

When the Maybach pulled into the driveway of the compound, it received the reception Gwen intended to elicit.

The Hu Clan was well-to-do, but they were bait-fish to the House of M. It was the equivalent of comparing a thriving farming community to Monsanto. The Hu’s mainly dealt with military contracts and mass fabrication, while Mayuree's people dealt in the trade of rare and unusual magical creatures, magic items, magical beings, and even Mages themselves.

When Gwen extended her long legs from the back seat, her hand held by the impeccable chauffeur, she realised the accidental genius of her bringing Mayuree. It wasn’t so much that the Hu marvelled at the car - it was the embossed, stylised M discretely mounded into the bonnet and the side carriage.

Having a girlfriend accompany her also sent a good signal. With Mayuree's demure, adherent body language, it was clear that Gwen was a close acquaintance of the auspicious merchant house, an ally; not something that would send tongues wagging, like the mistress of a young master or a haughty plaything.

Her mother wasn’t among those who greeted her, but her stepfather was.

Tang looked older, far more tired than he did in Sydney. Where the man had reminded Gwen of a Chinese Clint Eastwood, he had grown visibly frailer and now had a softness to his demeanour expression that suggested he was no longer in a position of power or influence. The man had been proud and outspoken; now he just seemed tired. Losing three decades of one's fortune and place in the span of a week could do that to anyone. If Tang had lost his position in the Hu Clan, Gwen realised warily; it also meant her mother was in misery.

Now knowing her mother's present circumstance, Gwen regretted her choice of battle dress.

She had explicitly chosen an elegant, twist-dyed split-thigh maxi in cobalt, obsidian and emerald that emphasised her eyes, which she had thickly lined to bring out her vivid iris. As she sauntered, the dress flowed from her upper body, baring her shoulders and showing off her collarbones. Though sheer, the chiffon fabric was otherwise modestly taped to her elongated figure. Her hair, a waterfall-plait, was styled with help from Mayuree’s Maid, who proved an able hand at helping her young, ditsy Mistress appear presentable.

She had chosen the look after consulting with her Fu-er-dai companion, who had assured her that she looked the very picture of a Covergirl on the upper crust fashion Mags. Gwen seemed mature and elegant, but most importantly, she appeared aloof and out of reach.

But there was no turning back now.

It wasn't as though she could apologise and return in sweatpants and tracks to attempt a more homely encounter.

Fawned over by the Hu’s family members, Gwen and Mayuree entered the manor’s foyers, moving toward the East Wing, where the side-branch of the family resided in their temporary residence. It was a temporary abode, with simple fixtures and none of the opulence of the main house.

She found her mother waiting for her in an open living room overlooking a small garden area. The french windows of the European style manor filled the room with light, but the ambient glimmer against her mother's silhouette only made the woman feel less significant against the vista.

Helena had gotten her wish. She was in a tier 1 city now, but what did that mean? What did her mother gain by it?

Gwen felt that her mother had become so enamoured with the idea of becoming a citizen of a world she dreamt of entering, that now she’d gotten here, she had no idea what to do with herself.

She could read the paralytic ambivalence in her mother's body language.

Her mother’s vibrancy seemed to have become muted, her vivacious fire doused by living under the roof of a family far more auspicious, wealthy, and powerful than her own. Gwen knew her mother. She loved, craved, thrived and nourished herself on drama, but what dramatics dared she engender under the roof of the Hu's main house?

“Gwen,” Helena intoned softly. “You’re here.”

Two pairs of hazel eyes, near identical in their hue and complexity of colour, met one another across the open space of the living room.

Helena critically regarded Gwen’s peacocking of the success she had wrung from the detritus of circumstance, and couldn’t help but allow a touch of forlorn disappointment to touch her lips. Gwen was her daughter in more ways than one; the girl was without mercy in her mockery. Oh, how her daughter must laugh at her now. How father and daughter must be cackling with glee! Morye must have reconciled with his father and mother, no doubt. When Magus Shultz, Master of the Sydney Tower, spoke of the true origins of her erstwhile husband, Helena had felt such a sickness as to make her dizzy. It was with a lingering hope that she allowed Percy to go, but her son had only contacted her once since he'd arrived.

Watching her mother’s face run through changing shades of complexion, Gwen felt no satisfaction.

She felt instead the guilt one felt when stepping on an injured animal. The immoderate makeup, the overdone hair, the dress that attended Gwen's figure like a cascade of colour; all of it now seemed childish and vindictive.

“Mother.” Gwen curtsied. “How have you been?”

“I am well.” Helena's lips curled, but it didn’t take a Mind Reading to see that her smile did not reach her eyes.

Mayuree introduced herself, and Helena dipped her head.

The three then stood in silence, Gwen waiting for Helena to speak, and Helena for Gwen to begin; with Mayuree enduring the agonising standoff while holding her breath.

Somewhere outside, there was also the Hu family, probably wondering why the room was entirely silent.

“I have a Scholarship to Fudan, in full,” Gwen said at last. She was here. She may as well deliver her piece, do her part.

“That's nice,” Helena spoke, but Gwen could detect her mother’s breath quickening, seeing the small vein below her mother’s jaw throb with an invigorated cadence.

“I have also left the House of Song,” Gwen intoned without any particular emotion. “Grandfather asked me to forfeit any right to inherit to make way for Percy. I gave Percy the Kirin Amulet, a Song heirloom that Dad gave me.”

Helena’s eyes lingered on her daughter in disbelief, then considerably softened.

“I then told them that I am cutting off all ties to the Song’s inheritance. I said that I would do nothing to interfere and that they should expect nothing from me in the future.”

Helena’s throat moved as she swallowed.

“I am my own woman now, Mother. I am just me. Gwen. I belong to myself.”

Helena moved her mouth a few times as if to speak, but in truth, she knew not what to say. What could she say? The words that came from Gwen’s mouth were strange to her, outlandish even, meaning less than the verbs and nouns that formulated them. Helena herself had not been born with exceptional talent, but she was beautiful - Gods, she was beautiful then. Men fawned over her, fell over their feet. But out of all her gallants, she chose Morye. She’d elected a man with a rare talent, a man she’d thought she could love. A man to make her life better. There was passion, of course, and there was love, as fleeting as it was, but most of all there was desire. There had been aspiration and expectation, then disappointment, and now regret.

It was her choice to abandon them.

It was she who chose Tang Hu, an admirer she knew from the past. A man of the moment. A man who now possessed the things she desired. A man who spoke softly to her and cared for her.

As she observed her daughter, it seemed as though the girl was drifting further and furtherer away.

It was a displacement that was difficult to measure, even harder to put into words. What advise, what critique, what deriding comeback, could an Acolyte offer a Magus? The difference was too significant, too displaced, too metaphysical.

Her own woman?
Helena had never been her own woman.
She was her father's daughter. She was the perfect girlfriend. She was Morye's wife; now she belonged to the Clan of Hu.

How could the summer insect know of the winter’s furious rages?

So she remained silent, watching, observing her daughter drift into the distance.

Who was this stranger? She realised after a while, listening to Gwen recounting the events of her life since arriving in Shanghai. The curve of her face seemed familiar, the hue of her eyes, the thinness of her lips. There was nothing of her daughter that she could recognise. Where was the frightened, insecure little girl that clung to her side and pressed her face against Helena’s bosoms? Where was the quivering little thing that shivered at every critique and ran to her room in tears, shuddering and shaking? There was no loathing she could sense from the Gwen in front of her. No emotions strong enough to register on her face. Nothing to stir Helena’s insides.

“… Singapore had a few close calls…”

Her daughter was right, Helena realised.

“… I had no choice but to help out cousin Tao. He’s a strange young man, but I think he grows on you after a while…”

Gwen was herself.

“…Babulya, that’s my grandmother, took me to the Second PLA Hospital…”

Unattached, untethered, uninvolved. Gwen was her own woman.

“… We managed to pull through with enough CCs to win the bonus…”

Helena felt at a loss for words. What else was there left to say?

“… That was when I knew that I had gotten the Scholarship, but unfortunately, Grandfather became suspicious that I was after the inheritance, that I would make Percy look bad…”

"Mother!"

Helena peered up at Gwen with a dazed expression.

“Here, Mother. It's for you. A token of appreciation for Gwen Song’s childhood. For whatever happy memories you did leave her, limited they may be.”

Helena woke with a start.
Why did she just refer to herself in the third person? She looked up at her daughter, but her gaze became drawn to the item left on the table.

A sudden luminance overtook the ambient light of the room.

A crystalline cube with an attached note. A piece of fruit with white-jade flesh quivered within.

“Goodbye, mother. I've left instructions on top.”

Then Gwen Song, the fruit of her ten months labour, left.


* * *


“Why?” Mayuree asked once they returned to the car.

“I owe her,” Gwen replied.

“Because she’s your mother?” Mayuree was immensely confused by it all.

“Because she is my mother.” Gwen nodded. “Now we are in the clear, in so far as I am concerned. That fruit should be good for a decade at least, right?”

“You needed that fruit though, didn’t you?” Mayuree recalled Gwen mentioning that the Vitae Fruit supplemented the growth of her emerald mana. Mayuree wasn’t clear on the details, but she hypothesised that she would think twice if she were in Gwen's limited, material condition.

“You told me there were diminishing returns, and I’ve already had two," Gwen returned Mayuree's question with a statement of her own.

“I also said I’d find you an Alchemist-Enchanter…”

“It's just as well then, that I’ve got one left,” Gwen assured her companion. “It’ll do.”

“So… that’s it?” Mayuree regarded Gwen in a new light. She hadn’t thought that her choice of friend and companion could be so decisive. No matter what kind of person this Helena was, she was still Gwen’s mother, right? How could a girl turn her back on her closest kin with such audacity and determination? It was unthinkable. Was there some story there Gwen refused to tell? Some painful memory that ached when touched and bled when pried? Was it abuse? Betrayal? Was it something unforgivable?

“You think that I am cold, right? Mia?” Gwen tilted her head toward Mayuree inquisitively.

The diminutive Diviner inclined her head ever so slightly.

“Would you believe me if I told you that I barely know the woman? That she’s my mother only in a biological sense? That I feel no more connection to her than a character of fiction? That all that tethered me to her was a sentiment that had long since waned?”

Mayuree shook her head. She did not understand.

“That’s alright.” Gwen reached over and pinched her cheeks, still adorably adorned with baby fat.

Mayuree allowed Gwen the pleasure, feeling her fingers cold as ice against her flesh.

Retracting her hands, Gwen leaned back into the thick leather of the ultra-luxury saloon and closed her eyes, hiding her face from her companion. She realised she should have used waterproof liners.

“Wake me when we’re home.”

 

 

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Wutosama

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

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