Qin ‘Qinnie’ Liu settled her step-daughter and brother-in-law into the guests' suite while she and Hai returned to the bedroom to get changed. As much as their Emperor Moth silk-robes suited the decor, parading around braless was hardly going to make an authoritarian impression on their 'elder' daughter.
There was a son as well, wasn't there? Qin wasn't fussed. According to Hai, the mother was a Frontier woman, some local labourer's daughter. When Hai had been banished to the Frontier, he must have been heartbroken and weak-willed, that was why a man as great as he fell for a low hanging fruit.
Her father, the District Secretary, would soon be home for dinner. The old man had been in a good mood as soon as he heard that the Ash Bringer himself was going to visit their humble, millennia-old abode, though he was less than thrilled to hear that Qin's groom had invited his daughter.
“I’ll be next door.” Hai kissed her expertly, sliding a hand onto her waist as their lips met for the third time. Having never had another man, her lover’s kiss felt like hot brands, causing her heart to quicken. Qin crossed her legs. She guessed they were both feeling it; she hoped their eldest didn't catch them out, not that she cared what the girl thought.
“Not here!” Qin chided the man of her dreams. “The servants will talk.”
“Let them talk!” Hai laughed. She loved that about Hai; he was so confident, all the time.
For now, the two of them had to live in different rooms. Qin’s father would not have the two of them under one roof until they were married. She was sure that her father knew that Hai had taken her weeks ago, first when they were together on an outing to the waters of Taihu, then again and again when the old man had been away. The servants gossipped like anything. When Hai becomes the young master, he would have to exert some discipline.
Even so, father had pretended not to know.
His 'Mienzi' wouldn't be able to take it.
Parting from Hai, she opened the door to her room.
One of the problems of living in a venerable siheyuan was that any modern decor ruined the atmosphere. The open roof was chalked matt-black, offset by the wine-red lacquer of the beams. The windows were glass, though a subtle Illusion kept the facade faithful to its original paper-screen aesthetic. Qin's bedroom was spartan by the standard of the 21st century, consisting of several chests and cupboards, a double bed, and an area where she could sit and sip tea. Beside the window, she could engage in reading or meditation while listening to the sound of flowing water.
There was another room a short way to the side, an old storage section; it was there that Qin now went. The alcove wasn't a secret by any means, though Hai hadn't seen it yet. She wanted to keep it a surprise for their wedding night.
Several semi-permeant Dancing Lights lit the small shrine which she had built within its alcove.
Atop a table with several blocks of pinkish-salt, was a leather bound book full of newspaper clippings from two decades ago.
In the middle of the room was a life-sized wall-scroll silk painting.
It depicted a young man, handsome and chiselled, encased in a pinkish-layer of crystalline armour that resembled articulated plate mail. The young man within the image was smiling gently, his eyes dark and gleaming, full of confidence and intelligence.
It was here that Qin felt at peace.
Here was where she could calm her mind and dispel the dread of finally meeting Hai’s daughter.
She had no idea if Hai's eldest child was willing to see her as a mother.
The girl herself was frightfully beautiful and uniquely talented.
Her hand fell to her abdomen.
She was with child.
As the Head Physician of the Anhui regional hospital, she knew every inch of her body, inside and out. There was life engendered there, a life that belonged to her and the man she loved.
After all these years of waiting, hoping; despair and then desire, she would give birth to a child.
Her father would have an heir.
The Clan of Liu, First of those who called Jiangnan their home, would have an heir!
* * *
Gwen and Jun sat stunned in the guest room, sipping tea and staring blankly over the vista of the artificial lake. A pair of swallows alighted on the eaves; they regarded the two humans sullenly basking below it, then flew away amidst a bell-beat of wings.
“I still can’t believe it,” Gwen said at last. “Why are we here again?”
“Your father said he wanted to surprise you,” Jun replied miserably. “Maybe we should have gone straight to Huangshan.”
"Bloody oath, we should have. No disagreement there."
Jun patted his jacket for a cigarette, tried his Storage Ring, then remembered he'd promised his mother.
"Qin is..." Jun's expression looked as though he was trying to grasp at some distant memory. "... a childhood associate. I am fairly sure we were both in our late teens when our father spent a summer working with hers. We would have met no more than once or twice. I wonder why she's so obsessed with Hai. A childish infatuation? I seem to recall Qin's mother died when she was very young."
A psychological complex then? Hai just happened to scratch an itch? Gwen was herself no stranger to mental-complexes. The human psyche remained infinitely obscure and mysterious. Though man could collide atoms at sub-light speeds to create new matter, they struggled to fathom the depth of human depravity, insecurities and paranoia.
The two of them sighed together, the tranquil view of heavenly Jiangnan mocking their unsettled hearts.
“We’re both sorry.”
"I feel sorry for Babulya."
"Have you ever seen mother angry, Gwen?"
The two sipped the high-grade Tisane provided by their new in-laws.
A jade dragonfly alighted on a lotus.
Golden Cicadas heralded the stifling summer.
* * *
The dinner banquet was fit for twelve, though the table only sat five.
Gwen, Jun, Hai, Qin and her father; five visible attendants and a dozen that came and went, attended the banquet.
The District Secretary of Hangzhou was no paper tiger like Secretariat Choi. He was the bonafide no.1 chair in the region, a ‘Central Office’ man directly responsible for overseeing the administration of the region. As Hangzhou was one of the most central rice bowl regions of the entire Chinese food-economy, his position as acting official between the CCP governing branch and the local Frontier’s provincial government made him supremely influential on both ends.
“How fares Guo? I heard your father had dislodged a few notable names from the ranks in recent weeks,” Sumei Liu, Gwen’s new grandfather-in-law, was putting on a friendly face for his guests.
There was no doubt what they were here to discuss.
The man was sounding out Jun, who was Guo’s most regarded progeny, testing the temperature of the water. What Sumei and Jun were doing was an etiquette Gwen internally inferred as the ‘Waltz of words', a sort of ritualistic social decorum the big-wigs in the CCP had mastered. It was the ability to say something and demand something, without ever saying anything.
“He’s very pleased with the MSS’s recent progress,” Jun replied carefully. “You’ve heard about the incident regarding the late Secretariat Choi, yes?”
“Oh yes, public execution on CCVC-1,” the Patriarch Liu raised an eyebrow. “Messy business, that one, who’d have thought the man was so depraved. We went to the same academy, you know. He had always been the quiet one. You know what they say though, watch out for the quiet ones. The dog that bites doesn't bark.”
“It's over though. Father’s schedule’s open, thanks to that,” Jun remarked offhandedly. “I kept telling him to take a break. The family could revisit Jiangnan. It’ll do him and mother good. You know how she loves the Su-Hang.”
“It’s a beautiful season, a bit hot though. Still, the flowers are out; plenty of fresh produce to sample. Does your family have a place to stay? I have an abundance of room here.”
"Hangzhou's fine. He'll be eager to see an old friend, I am sure. Mother misses Hai as well."
Gwen listened to the conversation, mesmerised by the subtlety of it all.
“So, you’re Hai’s daughter.”
Unexpectedly, the conversation had shifted to her without warning. She had no idea what had passed between the two men, but it felt as though an agreement had been engendered.
“Uncle.” Gwen inclined her head respectfully.
“You’re a lucky man, Hai. Your daughter will marry well, I am sure,” Sumei remarked coldly. Hai had been playing footsies under the table with Qin and was caught off guard. Sumei's expression darkened.
Taking the razor-filled compliment, Gwen shot her father a glance of annoyance. The least he could do was stomach a few razors for her.
“How old are you, Gwen?”
“Almost a fully grown woman! Have you any request for your hand?”
“No, Sir.” Gwen felt ire rising to her cheeks. What kind of small talk was this? Was the man hoping that she could be fucked off somewhere so that they wouldn't have to 'take care' of an unmarried daughter? Why the fuck would she want to live here in the first place? Your daughter gets to have her fairytale, fuck the others?
She wondered if insulting the Sumei would put a dent in her father's new marriage prospects, but the thought of the innocent child in Qin's belly doused her fury. The flush of her cheeks, however, betrayed her intentions.
“We’re on our way to training, Secretary Liu,” Jun interjected. “Gwen is a very talented sorceress; the Tower expects very good things from her in the future.”
Gwen noted that Jun had failed to mention which Tower.
“Oh, are you a Salt Mage as well, Gwen?” Sumei seemed surprised that a Gweilo girl had inherited the Song family trait. “Your grandfather must be very proud.”
“I am…” Gwen glanced at her uncle. Jun dipped his head subtly.
“I am a Void Mage, Sir…”
Sumei Liu looked toward Jun. The Ash Bringer nodded.
Sumei’s superior expression dropped like a slab of caesar stone plonked into the placid surface of Taihu. Beside Hai, Qin’s face became ashen. Hai had told her that Gwen’s mother was an overly attached, overbearing nobody from Australia, whom he had divorced almost a decade ago. They barely talked and were more often at loggerheads than not.
If Gwen was indeed a Lightning and Void Mage, what did that make her Mother, a woman capable of engendering a dual-elementalist prodigy?
How could sweet little Qin compare to that?
“Hai,” Sumei’s voice dropped by at least two octaves. “Explain yourself.”
Hai looked as though raked over by hot coals.
“Gwen is a special girl,” he replied carefully. “Her abilities are… a product of chance.”
“He’s telling the truth.” Despite his clear annoyance and misgivings, Jun came to his brother’s rescue. “Helena comes from an Enchanter’s family, but she’s a Fire Evoker. She’s remarried now too, who knows, she might even have more children.”
That much was true. Gwen had not contacted her mother since the gift of the Vitae Fruit. Assuming it made her a decade younger, it wasn't impossible that Gwen might be looking at a pair of half-siblings by next year.
Qin collapsed against Hai’s arms. Sumei ground his teeth unpleasantly, while the corner of Jun’s eyes twitched. Gwen felt such sympathy for her mother that for a moment, she had forgotten about Helena's faults.
“Fine.” Sumei sipped his rice wine. He had ordered a three-decade old bottle of Maotai opened for the occasion.
Gwen tried a sip; the spirit almost gave her a coughing fit. When she did manage to swallow the crystal-clear liquid though, it was the smoothest thimble of fire she had ever consumed.
“So, Qin, how did you and father meet?”
“It’s Qīn,” Qīn's father corrected her pronunciation. “Like the guzheng harp. Though I guess in the future, you would have to call her mother.”
Gwen’s expression was unreadable, her facial muscles channelling Guo’s impassivity. Perhaps as a show of future amiability, or possibly in response to her deliverance from a former wife's shadow, Qīn persisted in providing Gwen with the proper context for her rediscovery of her father.
“Our fathers’ are acquainted with one another,” Jun chimed in helpfully, thawing the glacial atmosphere. “We trained near Fuyang when it was still an Orange Zone. It was 83’, I think. We were both stationed at the Huangshan outpost.”
“Yes, I remember it fondly.” Sumei’s face grew softer with the remembrance. “The two of you were busy making a name for yourself. The Song boys, rising stars of the PLA.”
“I was just a little girl then.” Qīn’s milky complexion grew warmer, her eyes dark and liquid. Meek and feminine, she was the sort of woman who made men straighten their spines when in her presence. “We were on a boating trip through Taihu. Some Riven Merfolk had slipped through the Barrier Shields. Our boat was attacked. At first, we were okay; our teacher did her best to fend them off. Then one of the Merfolk scuttled our ferry…”
It was with great fortune then that Hai, Jun, and a troop of fresh Cadets were on border patrol. The girl’s instructor had sent out an SOS, and they had been the first to respond.
“Hai was incredible. He came down from the heavens just like that and turned the surface of the water into sheets of solid pink-salt. Hai looked so amazing in his crystal armour, just like a Tian-Jiang! We all thought a land deity had answered our calls for help!"
Qīn's impassioned articulation made Gwen think of those Harlem priests; those wholly animated ones who believed the hype of every word issued forth from their lips. She'd seen that sort of fervour before, especially during product seminars, like those for new iPhones.
Jun shifted toward Gwen, then leaned in until his lips were an inch from her lobes.
“While the others and I were busy fighting the Merfolk. Hai went to save them of his own volition. Our protocol states that saving civilians is secondary to the extermination of intruders. To be honest, I think the girls would have been fine. Their teacher was a Water Mage. If someone drowned under her watch, that would have been a spectacle in itself."
“Was the teacher…”
“Yeah, she was a real beauty…”
“… for sure. Brother was bow-legged when he returned after curfew. Received a week's confinement for his dereliction.”
Gwen’s head felt groggy as she turned back to Qīn’s ‘Astounding Tale’. Fucking Morye Song, she grumbled, Hai was a tale as old as time and as base as instinct. Goats and Monkeys!
“I couldn’t forget him, the man who saved my life!” Qīn continued. Qīn's father’s eyes glazed over. He had heard the story a thousand times. “I was heartbroken when I heard that Hai passed away on the Front, so I vowed never to marry! In my heart, I already belonged to Hai Song!”
Gwen felt a pricking of her thumbs.
Something evil this way c-
No, she told herself, there had been far too much of that. That was the whole problem.
When she glanced downward, she saw goosebumps puckering all over her pale legs.
A premonition of Divination? She wondered. That was new.
“So imagine my delight and surprise when I went to work a few months ago at the Hangzhou Military Hospital, and guess who I saw?!”
“My father?” Gwen answered the rhetorical question politely, feigning interest.
“Yes! HAI! Oh, Mao! I was so happy I burst into tears right there in the hospital. To think he was alive! Thank the ancestors! They must be looking down on us from the heavenly court!”
“Or turning in their graves,” Sumei muttered unpleasantly under his breath. "We better not be accused of Necromancy."
Qīn appeared not to notice her father’s foul mood. She continued the tale with her bird-song voice, trilling against the tempestuous tension in the room. By her account, Gwen's father didn't know who she was at first but wasn't opposed to giving her a chance. Qīn had thus gotten to enact her childhood dreams from ground zero.
“… that was when he professed his love! It was very romantic, so Western! We were in the middle of the lake, the very place where he saved me! How fortuitous was that?! It was fate, I tell you. I broke down and wept like a child, oh…”
True to her words, Qīn broke down and began to weep like a child.
Gwen and Jun sat as though dumb statues, joined by Qīn’s father, whose face was full of sympathy and doting forgiveness.
Hai laughed happily, hugged Qīn to his chest, then kissed her on the forehead.
Sumei looked as though someone stabbed him in the liver, twisted the knife, then spat in his face.
“Try the fish,” Qīn’s father said after a few seconds of uncomfortable silence. “It’s a speciality here, the Vinegar Sturgeon of the West Lake has the most tender flesh of any fish in China.”
The ingredients in their banquet were indeed something else. Au naturale and entirely different from the semi-processed food in the city, each bite seemed to contain within the flesh some form of elemental mana or subtle vitality. If a Mage could feast on these ingredients daily, an impressive growth was assured.
Dinner was thus concluded, the finishing dish was Swallow’s Nest in Wildland Osmanthus and Heart of Pear, a dessert and a palate cleanser.
Sumei insisted that Gwen and Jun should sleep over in the guest rooms, but the pair had already booked a hotel room in Hangzhou. At any rate, they were both in silent agreement that the sight of Hai and Qīn hot in the heat of their steamy passion was too much for their mental health.
“Alright, but you’re welcome to stay anytime.”
Sumei materialised a glyphed plaque, then handed it to Jun.
“My authorisation for entering the Purple Zone. Have it confirmed by the Commander there when you reach Anhui.”
“Thank you, Sir. I appreciate the trouble.”
“It’s no trouble.” Sumei regarded Jun thoughtfully. “We will be troubling you. I think. When do you expect to be back?”
“A month at most, Sir.”
“I see.” Sumei sipped his tea thoughtfully. “Qīn needs to be accounted before… things begin to show.”
Qīn hid her face against Hai’s chest.
“I will speak to mother tonight. I expect you will get a call from father tomorrow.”
“Good.” Secretary Liu’s bearing alternated between that of a father, and a District official of the highest order. “Our houses joined, will become greater than either. There will be great things for this child. Your father has no heir nominated, yes? Boy or Girl - this will be a good thing for all of us. For both of our Houses.”
Gwen kept her mouth shut.
Jun’s face was unreadable as the two men shook.
Gwen shifted her orbs with great deliberation toward Hai, who did not at all take notice of her alarm. He was busy sweet-talking his new bride, making her giggle and laugh, the very picture of a perfect fiance.
* * *
Hangzhou CBD was an hour away from the Liu’s lakeside estate.
The city’s centre had been re-developed, through much of the surrounding landscape and cityscape kept its dynastic facade. Rather than neat rows of street lights, the city’s suburban sprawl floated on dark water, lit by Dancing Lanterns, forming a mirage-like reverie of floating reflections.
Hangzhou's reputation as the city of 'lake and fishes’ was a misnomer; the city was instead built on a network of estuaries; famous for its canals, not large masses of water. The unique inland penetration of seasonal streams, however, resulted in many pseudo ‘lakes’ of various sizes, which then gave the city the illusion of being situated on the water.
At ten to ten, uncle and niece arrived at a hotel that was neither lavish nor modest. A modern building, it was one of the taller establishments in the city, offering a view of the city’s north, beyond which one could see a shimmering sheet of light illuminating a massive body of water in the far distance.
“Aqua-farming operation.” Jun indicated to the Taihu’s surface. “Big quasi-magical fishery.”
“What’s the plan from here on out?” Gwen spread her toes, allowing the cold, conditioned air to infuse her moisture drenched skin. She felt as though she had perspired non-stop the entire drive from the Liu Estate.
Jun looked already exhausted.
“Originally, I was going to request for Hai to join us in the city. We can try out some of the local delicacies, go for a tour of the lake for a day, then visit the Administration Office. We were going to see Secretary Liu. He had to authorise our visit into Huangshan.” Jun pulled up a cantilever chair and fell into it heavily. “Now, I propose we go straight into the mountains.”
“Sounds good to me,” Gwen agreed. “Regarding Dad?”
“I’ll call mother now. Why don’t you get ready for bed? We’ll leave at 0600. I’ll inform the base we’re on the way.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Gwen felt unbound sympathy for her uncle as he hunched over and Messaged Gwen’s grandmother.
“Wei? Mother? Yeah, it's me, Jun. Can you hear? Okay, yeah… look, er… I met Hai today…”
Gwen entered the bathroom, turned the lock, then laid out her pyjamas and intimates. She took a cold shower, the only activity that could provide solace against the clinging humidity, then dried her hair, tying it into a loose ponytail for sleeping.
When she emerged in a silk bathrobe and a white face mask, Jun almost spat out the tea he’d made for himself.
“Not going to say I’ve never seen a facial mask before,” Jun replied self-depreciatively. “But that scared the ghost out of me! Did you know the Banshees we get up north sometimes wear the faces of their victims, just like that?”
Was her uncle unused to the feminine company? Gwen wondered. Jun had shown no interest in men, so she could only assume that her uncle was the sort of guy who valued his independence. She reminded herself that her uncle was infertile. If one was infertile, did that impact one’s libido? If the Ash element’s negative drain took away the victim’s desires and passions, as it had done to Lulu’s Huashan uncle, how did it impact Jun, its wielder? If her hunger for vitality and ‘essence’ was anything to go by, the influence should have been considerable.
Jun caught himself staring and diverted his gaze elsewhere.
“I’ve spoken to mother. She will sort it out with father.” He rested his mug against the glass worktable. “You finished?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Great. Lights out at 00:00. Don't wait for me.”
Gwen slipped into the rough sheets, glad that she’d brought her silk robe. She listened distractedly to the sound of the shower next door, thinking of what creatures they would soon be encountering. When the opportunity arose, she had asked her Bestiary instructor, Hufei Chen, about the variety of Dragon-spawn commonly found within its demesne.
“It’s easier to go from the top down.” Chen had taken her line of questioning as innocent curiosity. After all, dragons were very rare and very interesting and charismatic creatures, especially to the Chinese. “One simply needs to follow the food chain. We mentioned before that dragons, intelligent or otherwise, thrive on two core instincts, eating and fucking. Let’s say a dragon goes to a mountain and takes over one of the peaks. The first thing it's going to do is to kill is the alpha Magical Creature there. If it’s a buck or a bull, it’ll likely kill it. Occasionally, it might fuck it-”
“Wait-“ Gwen stopped the instructor. “Dragons can be gay?”
“No!” Chen gave her a dirty, disgusted look. “Ignorant child! Dragons are protandrous hermaphrodites. You can’t just presume a dragon’s sexuality, Gwen.”
“… sorry.” Gwen waited for the Instructor to continue.
“As I said, sometimes, when Dragons see a creature they like, or they think is useful, they might mate with it. The Kunlun Range, for example, is full of pseudodragons because the original alpha there was an enormous wyvern. There are draconic thunder-birds as well, amongst a dozen other species - the Shenglong ain’t fussy.”
“So anyway, as I was saying. Start from the top. The biggest thing that used to live in those mountains is going to be the basic template of whatever draconic-alpha you’re likely to run across. Then go down the food chain. Rocs and Wyverns tend to feature a lot, after that, downgrade to terrestrial hunters like bears and wolves. It might not sound like much, but when you consider that the draconic blood empowers these spawns to live for up to a millennia, and all they do from day to day is eat and fuck, fuck and eat…”
“I see.” Gwen stopped her instructor there. “I get the picture.”
When Jun emerged from the bathroom in short and a tee-shirt, his niece was already fast asleep. He gazed over her perfectly symmetrical face paternally, then quietly laid himself to bed on the second single.
His right hand moved to encompass the Kirin Stone. After quietly invoking mystical incantations, his weary soul rested.
Tomorrow was going to be another long day.