By now Gwen was familiar with the scenery on the Second and Third Orbital Highway. As the city centre shrunk into the distance, giant billboards empowered with Illusion gave way to humbler ones, just as commercials transformed into state propaganda. Curiously, one could almost estimate the distance from Shanghai proper by the frequency and vernacular of the long red banners spanning the six-lane girth of the Fourth Orbital.
“Happy Community - CCP and You - Hand in Hand.”
"Joy in Labour - Prosperity in Harmony."
"Hard Work - Happiness - Peace - Socialism."
There was a poetic simplicity in the increasingly stupefying slogan. Gwen reckoned that given the number of times she had been distracted enough to read the damn things, she was likely already subconsciously subscribed.
“Four hours to Hangzhou,” Jun stated cooly. She could see from the ease and pleasure on his face that her uncle loved driving. She loved it too, during the rare occasion that she could be away from home, her favourite thing to do was a long drive. There was freedom in distance, open skies, and the road moving under one’s feet, the trees whizzing by, the cattle lowing on the hill.
There were no cows here though. The countryside was entirely utilised for the growing of grain. Before the duo spread an endlessly vast vista of green, yellow and brown, which Gwen assumed was a symptom of crop rotation.
“Jiangnan is the rice bowl of Shanghai.” Her uncle caught her staring glassily at the emerald expanse. “Biggest aquaculture region in the world. Shanghai eats surprisingly little of it, most of the grain is exported to Frontier cities.”
“The Frontier can’t hold its own?”
“Expecting NoMs to defend their farms against Riven Merfolk, Jueyuan and Goblinoids, do you? Take up pitchforks and carry large sticks? Even armed and trained NoM Militias have to be supported by Mages. Without buffs, how can a NoM fight monsters? There're far more NoMs than Mages here.”
Her uncle had a point, but still, Gwen gazed toward the fields sullenly. Was the Frontier useful only as cannon fodder and resource collection? There are fifty million souls spread across the outer reaches of Shanghai!
They travelled without speaking for a short while, the stuttering breeze prolonging the contemplative silence.
Despite the cooling glyphs blowing cold air, Jun's topless Jeep meant the dark interior leather heated up considerably. Gwen's Boots of Flying became increasingly stifling until she felt her skin slipping against the suede lining. When she noticed a dribble of sweat pooling against the leather, she had to unlace and let her thighs breath.
“Those are meant for flying, not fashion, just take em off if you have to.” Her uncle’s expression was unreadable behind his sunglasses, though the slight curve to his thin lips suggested he remained in a jovial mood.
Gwen pushed the seat back and wiggled free of her boots, feeling the draft buffet her stifled dermis.
“Sunblock.” Her uncle tossed over a tube. “We’re outside the city. There’s no mana miasma; you’ll get burned.”
Gwen gingerly applied the ointment with her fingers while Jun continued to speak. With her Druidic Essence, it was unlikely, although as an Australian, she knew the sun's torturous abuse all too well.
“We’re going to see some very interesting things on our trip,” Jun continued. “Here’s our projected itinerary. We’re going to see your father in Hangzhou first. He’s working with the local militia at the moment, helping to clear the land for more aquaculture.”
“Then, we’re going to detour toward the Anhui Frontier. We’ll be meeting the garrison stationed there, then leave for the Huangshan region controlled by the Yinglong on foot.”
“Once we’re away, we’re going to be cut off from the cities. No Message spells, not even with Long-Range Devices. Don’t worry; your Contingency Ring should still function without fail. It's keyed to the Tower's beacons via a whole other system.”
“You knew about my-” Gwen glanced toward the nondescript iron band on her finger.
“Of course, you think the Pudong Tower is going to let you out, just like that?” Jun chuckled. “If myself, mother, and grandfather had not vouched for you on the PLA front as well, the authorities would have never agreed with Pudong to let you out of the city.”
“Grandfather?” Gwen paused in her application of sunscreen and looked toward Jun.
“Yes. Your grandfather -look, I know you guys are not fond of each other. But father's not an entirely disagreeable man,” Jun explained. “He’s a conservative. Being risk adverse comes with the job and the title. Subtle and steady are the watchwords of the MSS. You; are anything but subtle.”
“He's also suspicious and paranoid,” Gwen added reflexively.
“Well, I can’t argue with that.” Jun shrugged his shoulders. “There’s a reason why the Ministry, as well as my branch, Internal Security, tend to be iron-handed. Maybe one day you'll see. People are not nice in general, Gwen. Least of all to those not in their immediate circle.”
“Sure, it'll be a lesson. The word from Professor Ma is that you’re hoping for a demesne of your own?”
“I am?” Gwen ran her palm down to her ankles, then up again, lathering the cream. She was reminded of the academic essay she had written for Ma. Certainly, she appeared to have ‘big’ ideas.
“I suppose- WOA What is that!"
Gwen became distracted by an enormous buffalo, or at least what she thought was a water-buffalo. It was well over 3 meters tall by her reckoning, almost 6 meters from head to tail. A boy was steering it through a length of rope tied to a nose ring.
Jun ignored her outburst.
“You ever read Mozi’s Analects of ‘Fa’?” Jun asked after the buffalo disappeared in the distance.
Gwen had heard of the name, though she couldn’t say if she knew or understood the Mohist school of philosophy. Asian Studies was an elective, after all, one that was worth only three out of six credit potential points. She had been advised to take it because 'We're in the Asian Century now!'
“He’s the pioneer of Chinese Legalism, isn’t he?”
“I guess these days we would call him a Magi, but yes, he was the Sage King of Xia’s advisor, a Mage-Scholar. He spent his entire life fighting the rise of Confucian philosophy, but when the Qin Dynasty collapsed, his works were burned. I guess we’re lucky that some of his compositions survived. Rather than obedience, he believed that human society should emphasise self-restraint, self-reflection and authenticity. He advocated ‘Ai’ universal love, as early as 420 BC, long before the west came up with any concept on democracy or human rights.”
“What happened to him?”
“The Confucian Sage-Kings had him tied to a brass pole, then stacked it with coals until…”
“Alright.” Gwen felt her skin writhe.
“Do you want to help the NoMs, Gwen? Improve their lot?”
“I do,” she replied without much thought. “At least, I believe I can do better than people like Choi.”
Jun glanced at her, then snorted, a derisive chuckle escaped his lips.
“I am serious!” Gwen shot back cattily, her hazel eyes full of controversy.
“Back to what we were talking about before.” Jun kept his eyes on the road. “Here's a question for our future Secretariat Song. Mozi argued that the natural state of man is one of “Lī”, rationality or propriety. His student, Hanfei, famously appropriated his master’s teachings to mean that all men were beings of ‘Lì’ meaning profit or self-gain. What do you believe, Gwen?”
Gwen thought of Niccolò Machiavelli, wondering if this world had a ‘Magister’ from the 15th century who tried to suck up to the Lorenzo Medici. Machiavelli had believed that goodness in man never existed, that in politics as in life, it was every man for himself. For the cynical scholar, the moment a human being was born, they selfishly lusted for the nourishing milk of their mother's teet. The greater world was merely the macrocosm projection of this instinctual microcosm. Powerful men desired society to nourish them, and them only.
“I suppose its easier to say people are greedy,” she replied. “There’s altruism though, right?”
“Of course,” Jun replied. “Though altruism is a luxury for those with power and excess. I think the Demi-humans are much more honest than us in this regard.”
“You’ll see,” Jun again responded mysteriously. “You’ll come away from this trip with more than just a Lightning Spirit, I hope.”
"In that case, I’ll keep my eyes peeled,” Gwen promised, wondering what her uncle had in store. She was confident that Jun wouldn’t just drop her into a pit of snakes to teach her that ‘not all snakes are poisonous.’
As the distance wore on, Gwen's thoughts turned to that of Hai, her father. What was he doing now? Was he safe? The last time she’d spoken to Morye-AKA-Hai he had appeared almost ragged with tiredness. What kind of horrid, torturous existence had he been subjected to?
* * *
The aquaculture landscape eventually ended after what seemed like hours, with the sighting of mountainous buffalos becoming more frequent as the road tapered. From the twelve-lane two-way freeway, the road narrowed into a four-lane rural strip.
When they reached their final checkpoint, a troop of PLA guards examined Jun’s papers, regarding Gwen with interest as she hid her legs with a towel.
“Did you see that girl?” One of the guards turned to the other, starstruck by the rare encounter. “Mao, I could die a happy man.”
“Do you know who that is?” the sergeant chided his subordinate.
“You’ve seen him on the Vid-caster. That’s Jun Song, the Ash Bringer.”
“Oh,” the guard watched the Jeep until it passed around a corner.
“Yeah, some bureaucrat is going to get fucked. I remember he transferred to Internal Security. Haha!”
“Hahaha!” the Corporal laughed as well, but within his head was the branded vision of the girl's gleaming white legs. “Sarge! Permission to be excused… I er… got the runs.”
* * *
Hangzhou, a Frontier city of the Jiangnan geo-block, was a satellite region attached to Shanghai.
Together with Anhui, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang, the three Frontier regions formed the Green Zone immediately south of the Yangtze River, creating a fertile delta known widely as the ‘rice bowl’ of China. The region had been occupied by humans since antiquity, having remained in Human possession for over four millennia. During the Han Dynasty, it famously formed the nation of Wu during the Three Kingdoms. In the 1204 AD Mongolian invasion, it was the last part of China to fall to the Demi-human Incursion from the Northern Steppes. Later, the Ming Dynasty had Nanjing as its temporary capital. Three centuries later, the Qing Dynasty sacked the region when it came into power. Despite its historical turmoil, however, the temperate climate, the scarcity of Demi-humans, the lack of predatory Magical Monsters and a wealth of ley-lines made the region quintessential to Shanghai's continued prosperity.
After the Cultural Revolution, the region expanded. When the bureaucrat-leader Deng Xiaoping, the ‘paramount leader’ of the CCP after the death of its founder-Magi, Mao, opened the country to the international Tower system, the regions switched to the international Frontier standard.
At the south-western extremity of Jiangnan was the Anhui Frontier.
Anhui, inclusive of the ‘Yellow Mountain’ of Huangshan, was boarder line Black Zone, though the apathy of the mountain’s Yinglong made it categorically closer to a Purple Zone - an area with intelligent creatures who saw humans as a food source.
Before one reached Anhui, three human cities made up Shanghai's Western Frontier. Wuxi to the north-west, Suzhou to the west, and Hangzhou to the south-west.
Wuxi, known for its beautiful Taihu north, sat beside an Orange Zone - a zone suitable for human occupation but prone to the formation and habitation of intelligent Magical Creatures and Demi-humans who saw humanity as competitors, but not a food source.
South of Wuxi was Suzhou, and then Hangzhou.
Most famously, it was Hangzhou and Suzhou which gave birth to the aphorism, ‘where there is heaven above, there is Su-Hang below.’ Suzhou was celebrated for its canals and beautiful architecture such as temples and gardens from as early as the 4th century AD.
Hangzhou meanwhile, was likewise an ancient and cultured city, a place famous for producing famous poets and ancient Kenshi.
To Gwen's surprise, her uncle began to hum a short poem as they passed by a picturesque estuary upon which a pagoda-home was attached.
“The river flows beneath a stone bridge-
One listens to the pattering rain,
Dreaming of soft willows.”
Her Ioun Stone took its best shot.
According to Jun, romantic verbosity was the common disease of all those who came to the land of silk and willows. The northern Emperors often said that the Jiangnan was a 'womb' whose tepid weather, flowing streams and pale women milled away the ambition of northerner kings.
From their vantage point, the city of Hangzhou stood tall and gleaming in the distance, mirage-like in the haze of the Jiangnan summer. Their Jeep had pulled into what Gwen could only describe as an idyllic landscape-painting produced in the late Song Dynasty.
Compared to the ancient and venerable architecture of the siheyuan, the concrete parking bay outside the riverside garden home was jarring to the extreme.
“We’re here.” Jun popped the locks and invited Gwen to disembark.
“We’re where?” Gwen put on a pair of runners, stretching her languished body.
“Your father’s temporary abode, so I am told.” Jun’s expression was one of surprise and delight as well, his eyes scanned the whitewashed walls of the siheyuan, marvelling at the ancient lichen-covered terracotta. The door was deeply set into the covered porch, the eaves opulently inscribed with weather-beaten lacquer. “Mao, this place is as incredible as I recall.”
“Have you been here before?”
“Once, a long time ago. We were both fresh out of military school. It belonged to the local Magistrate back then. He's probably the District Official now.” Jun approached the door, lifted the brass knocker, then tapped it a few times gingerly. Gwen meanwhile, inspected the Chinese-watercress and lotuses growing in the ‘moat’ surrounding the impressive facade of the homestead. There was always something soothing and wonderful about the lotus flower that soothed the viewer’s mind with its gentle arrangement of pastel carmine.
The door opened a sliver.
“Young Master Song,” an elderly Chinese man greeted them. “Please, the side door. We are expecting you.”
The servant’s entrance? Gwen had at first believed themselves victims of a conspiracy. When they reached the ‘side’ however, she could see that it was a modern door with a mechanical lock. From its well-worn step, she deduced that this was more likely the ‘usual’ entrance used by the venerable home’s residents.
Inside was a small rock garden which led to a gallery, where the duo was politely asked to switch to inside shoes. The old man patiently waited on them, neither introducing himself nor greeting them formally.
The ‘quadrangle garden terrace’ was more aptly a ‘six’-heyuan. The decor was exquisite, with an eye-straining volume of detail painted into the alfresco murals of cranes in flight. The compound was likewise enormous; the corridors endlessly extensive, while the galleries and gangways looped through river-stone outcroppings and slow-moving pools of bean-green water spotted with lotuses. When Gwen came to a ledge, she saw a school of florid koi lazily combing the surface for fallen seeds and insects.
When finally they came to a central pavilion circled on all sides with water, she caught sight of two figures lounging on cushioned benches. There was a stained mahogany coffee table by the wayside, upon which a pot brewed gently. An assortment of fruits and flowers had been laid out on the low table; silk shawls had been hung up here and there to filter the harsh sunlight.
The scenery was exotic beyond measure; a silk-screen painting where life imitated art.
All that was missing was the gentle plucking of a guzheng.
“Beautiful,” Gwen muttered. “What’re we here to see?”
“Hai…” Jun paused beside Gwen. There was a sharp intake of breath. “Great Leader's Ghost, what are you doing?”
Gwen caught herself mid-stride. Uncle Jun wasn't one to use Mao's name in vain without meaningful agitation.
Jun swore again before he began moving.
As they came closer, Gwen saw what Jun had seen.
“Fuck a duck!” Gwen swore under her breath, following Jun’s cue, her mouth felt suddenly full of ash. “Jesus Dad, you gotta be shitting me.”
She wasn’t sure if her uncle understood the slang, but the sentiment was conveyed.
Morye, AKA Hai Song, the No.1 son of the House of Song, lounged in the lulling arms of a woman who may as well be liquid.
Hai looked well, far better than when she had seen him at the last family dinner before University began. His complexion, which had been peeling and cracked, had by now been restored. He was topless, a sight which made Gwen want to gag, his well-formed musculature was nude but for a robe which hung from his shoulders. When her eyes dared drop lower, she thanked the Gods that her father had pants on, though the glimmering silk left nothing to the imagination.
Gwen resisted the urge to stab her eyes with two chopsticks so that she could pull them from her bloody sockets and feed them to the koi.
She shifted her attention to the woman.
A young woman.
The most salient part of her was her pale-petal lips set upon her flawlessly white face. Next were her eyes; two long slits tipped with wings that made them seem overlarge and juvenile; a style preferred by women of the region. She was feminine beyond measure, radiating an air of motherliness, her body as soft as a swaying willow.
Her heart-achingly beautiful face sat atop an elegantly arched neck, below which two narrow collarbones met in harmonious alabaster. Her arms enveloped Hai in a secure embrace, wrapping around his face and neck. Hai’s head was rested on the snowy-globes of her breasts, which were doubly superior to Gwen’s endowments. Beneath a silk mermaid dress, a pair of white feet with red nails playfully hung over the gold-trimmed lip of the embroiled cushions.
Hai took notice of his brother and his daughter.
“Gwen!” Hai shot up as though someone had jammed a wand up his bung-hole.
The woman lost her balance; her father instantly turned and caught his lover by the waist, helping her to stand. When they both recovered, Hai’s face was scored by rouge. Besides him, the woman’s white face was petal-pink.
“S-sorry!” Her voice was both soft and demure. “Hai said you wouldn’t be here until the evening!”
The servant who had brought them abruptly turned and left, shooting Hai a dirty and disgusted look.
“Hai, what in the world?” Jun’s voice sounded just like their father’s. He faced the girl. “Qin, is that you? Xiao-Qin right? Qin Liu?”
“I… I am,” the woman became flustered. For a second Gwen wondered if she was going to leap from the pavilion into the water to escape Jun’s scrutiny. “It’s a pleasure to meet you again, Second-Brother Jun.”
“Hi, I am Gwen.” Gwen extended a hand. “Gwen Song.”
“Hello, I am Qin Liu,” the girl reached out uncertainly, then shook Gwen’s fingers. Gods! Gwen's fingetips touched Qin's flawlessly skin, the woman’s hands felt boneless and tiny; she was as tender as a water-peach!
“Yes, very good.” He regarded Gwen distractedly. “This is Gwen, my daughter.”
Jun still appeared to be in shock.
“Little-Qin? Qinnie? How did you find Hai? When he told me to come here, I had thought it a coincidence. Hai, shouldn’t you be at the base? Why aren’t you at the base?!”
“Well, Qin’s father’s the District Secretary now, so…” Hai smiled innocently.
“Father is NOT going to be pleased, Brother,” Jun warned him.
“Oh, he’ll have his plate full.” Hai’s laughter had a touch of insanity to it.
“Why?” Jun became immediately suspicious. “What did you do?”
Qin’s face looked as though she had became intoxicated.
Jun’s paranoia kicked into gear.
Gwen felt her scalp grow ice-cold.
Uncle and niece shifted their gaze from Qin to Hai, then back again. Gwen wondered if Divination had a guy called Murphy who laid down some laws.
“Can we speak in private?” Hai motioned with his hand toward a farther pavilion.
“I am sorry, Qinnie,” Jun switched over what Gwen assumed to be a pet name to maintain amiability. “Can you give us a minute?”
The girl nodded, she had been fascinated by the sandstone floor the whole while.
The two men walked a few corridors away, then began an animated conversation, with Jun striking his temples and wildly gesticulating as Hai shrugged and chuckled. The reaction seemed to set Jun off into an even wilder display.
Gwen rigidly turned to Qin.
“So er…” Gwen tried to think of something to say. In the past, she had always ignored her father’s girlfriends. She didn’t mind playing the cold, bitchy daughter; it wasn’t as though he kept the same woman for longer than a few months. “How long have you guys been together?”
“About three months.” Qin’s lips barely moved.
Gwen nodded in what she hoped was a friendly manner. She inspected her father and her uncle in the distance, then caught Qin studying her face.
“You’re very beautiful,” Qin observed; her voice more than a little sour. “Your mother must be very beautiful too.”
Gwen wondered if there was a correct response here. Thinking of her absentee mother and her father’s feeling though, she chose diplomacy.
“You’re a sight to behold yourself,” she returned the compliment. Then, with a measured tone devoid of criticism, she asked the most pivotal question on her mind. “How old are you? You don’t look a day over twenty!”
The compliment appeared to have pleased her father's latest squeeze.
“I am thirty-two!” Qin intoned proudly.
Gwen breathed out a sigh of tremendous relief. She felt more cathartic than when Choi had finally breathed his last. Thank fuck! She cried internally. Thank the Gods that her father wasn’t a total cradle raider.
“You’re a healer?” Coming closer, Gwen sensed a familiar aura of gentle vitality, not too dissimilar from Elvia’s, though far less intense for the fact that Qin was more sensuous than adorable.
“Yes, I am a Cleric.” Qin nodded, allowing a lock of hair to fall over her face. “I was assigned to work with Hai at first, and then things happened…”
I bet they did. Gwen thought numbly.
“So, are the two of you going out?” Gwen decided to do her mother a solid and gather some data. When she’d last heard, Helena had been doing well with her Fabricator husband, who had taken up a new position thanks to some new contracts their House had established with the House of M.
“Oh no, we’re not going out.” Qin shook her head vigorously.
A casual fling then?
“YOU WHAT!” Jun’s voice could be heard from far away. “YOU IDIOT! MAO’S BALLS! You're insane!”
Gwen turned to Qin, who responded by placing a hand on her abdomen in a matronly manner.
White noise filled Gwen's mind.
OH FUCK NO! NO! NO! NO! SHIT-SHIT-SHIT!
No.3? After Percy, they're going to have a sibling?
“We’re engaged!” Qin reached out and pulled Gwen closer so that her hands were held captive. “We’re going to have a baby!”
There was a ring on the woman's ring-finger; a simple metal band.
Gwen felt too tired even to swear internally.
Qin smelled like peach blossoms, she noticed distractedly.
“Oh, Gwen!” Qin pulled herself from Gwen, then took up her hands and held them close to her lips to be kissed. Her eyes were feverish like the eyes of a woman who'd been praying for salvation all her life; then one day, God answered.
“Yes?” Gwen gave her the most capable smile she was able to muster, hoping it didn’t look too forceful.
“Gwen!” Qin said seriously, her eyes glassy and happy. “You may call me Mother, but I would prefer Sister...”
Gwen embraced the woman.
Her fucking eyes!
The woman was intensity and a half!
Why, oh, why did her father have to stick his dick in crazy? Was it for the thrill? Why was his pullout game so weak? Why was someone with an astronomical Salt affinity fucking so fertile? How was that fair to uncle Jun?
She turned her head to regard her father, her own hazel orbs despondent with despair and defeat.
Beside Hai, Jun was oscillating with impotent anger from head to toe.
Hai winked at Gwen happily.
"I told you, she's fine. Just look at her!" Hai boasted to his brother. "You think I'd fall for some hellcat like Helena again? Ha! Not on your life, brother!"
I should set Caliban on him. Gwen thought seriously.
Wen would love it if she returned with new data.
Her father was tier 6 Transmutation, right?
Maybe she could hit tier 3 in one fell swoop?