Gwen had never bought alcohol in Shanghai. Bad as things had gotten, she had been too busy with new friends to desire chemically induced leisure.
Luckily, the first shopping-street she found had a local mini-mart selling booze.
She filled her basket with a six pack of Tsingtao, a bottle of what looked like soju, and a sparkling flask of peach-flavoured mystery. There was no tequila, her poison of choice, but beggars couldn't be choosers.
The store clerk, a NoM, stared at her with such intensity that he may as well tear out his eyes and toss his orbs onto her legs.
That was when Gwen realised she was still wearing her black skort, easily mistaken for a salacious minidress. When she had left the military base, she had thoughtfully tossed on something that allowed her to survive the humidity of Hangzhou. T-shirts were too casual, while dresses were too much of a hassle, especially if Gwen had to sit for long durations, perspiring into the chiffon fabric. Settling on the skort, she then found a loose blouse that she could wear over her white camisole. When Gwen wanted to relax, she could pop the shirt and feel the wind. If she wanted to go formal, the front could be buttoned up and ribbon-tied.
Her current get-up wasn’t the latter. She was open-bloused and ‘not giving a shit’. Her hair was also wild from the late-night Flight, plastered to her face, having picked up every mote of condensation rising from the West Lake.
"Can I see some I.D?" The clerk swallowed.
Gwen glared at the poor NoM. Mayhap it was the dragon-fear, or maybe she simply looked pissed off enough to skin a man alive; the clerk apologised profusely for daring to question her age.
Turning quickly and feeling ashamed for terrifying the hapless NoM, she left him the change, whatever it was.
Reminding herself of her luck with opposite-sex encounters, she then flew over the rural farmlands, where presumably No-Fly restrictions were not in play; until she found a rather attractive location on the uninhabited shore of the West Lake, dotted with lotus flowers, glimmering with muted moonlight.
She alighted on what she had thought was a floating deck, but turned out to be an enormous water-lily leaf almost four-meters across. The platform first wobbled, but quickly stabilised as Gwen lowered her centre of gravity.
When she further tested the buoyancy of the flora, she noted with wonder that it was quite literally unsinkable. The furry surface felt like carpet, not to mention hydrophobic.
Confident in the plant's ability to keep her above the tepid, weed-filled water, Gwen sat crossed legged in the lotus-position and tried to come to grips with what the hell was happening.
Breath in -
- Breath out.
It all began when her Uncle had found out about her origins.
That particular crisis turned out fine, the drama was unwarranted, and she could trust the man unconditionally. The revelation was more cathartic than it was traumatic.
Then father called.
After that, they arrived in Hangzhou, and there was the big family reunion.
She spoke to Percy, and tried to rile him up over his ‘snitching’.
It was harmless fun, and the boy seemed to take it in stride.
Then she revealed that their father had a new child on the way.
Percy freaked out.
Something happened with the Amulet.
She felt it activate - there that distinct 'tingle', just like the one her uncle manifested when the Ash Mage 'fed' on the essence captured in the Kirin Stone.
Her brother then had an asthma attack.
She tried to help.
Percy had battered her hand away.
Then she snapped at him.
“God damn it you little shit!”
Yep, that’s about right, Gwen thought to herself.
The thought was most definitely her own. Even now she felt upset over the rebuke.
“Don’t try to play with powers you can’t control! Give me the bloody thing before you kill yourself.”
Or was it?
Gwen pondered on why she had blurted such a thing.
They were doing so well, making a connection, getting along, and then the amulet had dispelled the Illusion; bringing the two of them kicking and screaming into the real world.
Percy saw her as a competitor.
And the Kirin Amulet remained a point of contention.
Feeling that she needed something to ease the kick-boxing kangaroo in her chest, she popped a bottle of Tsingtao. With Almudj’s unconditional aid, she had no idea if she could still become intoxicated. Alcohol was, after all, something that altered her chemical state, while the Essence did its best to keep her in peak physical condition, willingly or no, which was precisely the source of her incontinent 'dragon-fear'.
“This one’s for you, Uncle JUN!”
Gwen threw her head back, allowing the ice-cold fluid entry into the temple of her body. Despite the likelihood that her buzz was a placebo effect, she persisted through another bottle.
She continued her rumination.
After an unintended trespass, Percy freaked out.
Did she leak her dragon-fear then? Gwen wasn't sure. If she had, the koi would have gone nuts right below them. The fish always congregated where there were people, expecting to be fed.
She then called for help, anxious that Percy was gripping the Amulet and crying blue-murder, which brought their grandfather and Jun.
Then what happened?
The little shit snitched on her!
That fucking weasel! I ought to fry his lily ass.
A spark of electricity zinged across her vision. It must have escaped from somewhere on her person.
WOA WOA WOA! Gwen caught herself yet again.
Her Almudj-Essence was immensely agitated and with it, her thunderous lightning mana.
What the fuck was that?
Why was she uncharacteristically upset, so out of control and impulsive?
Her 'grin it and bear it' demeanour was arguably world-class.
She had been less upset when some guy grabbed her ass on the train!
She hadn’t even felt this intensity of emotion when her father pulled a whole alt-life story out of his ass, then doomed her to being stuck in Shanghai, taking her away from Yue and Elvia.
She closed her eyes and tried to mediate.
Almundj’s Essence revolved around her body, again and again, diffusing the alcohol. Gwen topped up with the soju.
Wait up, her mind clicked.
What the hell had Instructor Chen said?
It was during that conversation they had about the Dragon Cores.
“You two should learn to temper yourselves, as Quasi-Elementalist Mages, the more Lightning Affinity you possess, the keener your physiological and mental metabolisms will become. You’re temperament will worsen; you’ll find that your impulses, especially ones aligned with pride and possessiveness, will become easily agitated by stimuli.”
An irrational sense of pride and possessiveness…
Together with Wanli, the coolest Familiar Gwen had ever seen, Lu’s affinity was about 6. Around campus, Lu was famous for his arrogant manner and quick temper, though the young man seemed very much self-aware. In fact, during their first meeting, Lu had made a prideful misstep, then apologised to Instructor Chen. Assuming Wanli gave Lu at least 2, it meant his natural affinity was about 4.
SEX sexy tiers of Lightning, as Whetu would say in his Kiwi Kant.
A fair shakeup of the sauce bottle - right up there with the best of em.
Gwen chuckled to herself.
The narcissism was real, but she had to give herself credit for grinding down a tier 10 Thunder-wyvern, then fucking it in the ass with Caliban. A girl had to know her worth; there was a difference between humility and ignorance of one’s excellence. Why she ought to inform those twats at the Liu manor that-
Gwen stepped on her mental brakes before her fantasy roared down reality highway and ran someone over.
“An irrational sense of pride,” she repeated to herself, tasting the words on her tongue. “And excessive possessiveness.”
How awful, Gwen thought. Was she to become like Ayxin or Golos? Transformed into an insufferable, stuck-up, better-than-thou Machiavelli-draconian? In her old world, the sociopaths with psychopathic disregard usually got ahead. That was one of the reasons she dreamt of working for herself. She had always been prideful, else she would not have left home at sixteen. The problem now was that the face she had prepared to meet faces that she meets was cracking like poorly applied makeup.
What were the other traits that came with Elemental Affinity?
Fire Mages were irrational and quick to anger and passion - which certainly spoke loudly of Yue and Alesia.
Radiant Mages had incredible personal presence and vitality, like Gunther and Magister Lee.
Ice Mages were distant and aloof - such as the infamously frigid Kitty.
Earthen Mages underwent physical changes - like Lulan, especially with her heart of Iron Technique.
Air Mages were flighty and distracted, become physically diminished.
And Healers? Positive-Energy Mages transformed into wonderful, caring, angelic little Evees or Babulyas.
In all honesty, Gwen found her Affinity-induced PMS hard to swallow. That somehow she was not in control of how she acted and reacted to others, that her neurological wiring was reworking itself simply because she had grown more powerful, was abhorrent to her.
It made no sense that she couldn’t dig herself out of this hole. How was she going to fight her ‘Calamity’ if she couldn’t uproot something as simple as a little chemical alteration of the brain? Where there's a will, there's a way, wasn't there?
Feeling the empty space around her, she desperately desired that there was somebody she could talk to.
Someone like Yue, or Elvia - or Richard and Petra.
Perhaps emboldened by the alcohol, she punched in the glyphs and did exactly that.
Richard should be with Lulan and Kusu, Gwen recalled. They had gone Questing roughly the same time she had gone off with Jun.
"Hello? Gwen? You're back?!"
"I am back!" she replied jovially. "How's everyone."
“We're all in Nantong at the moment, though Gwen... I heard from Mina that your Father is getting remarried?!"
"YES! And guess who's a bridesmaid?! It's a ME! GWEN!"
"Bloody oath, Uncle Hai... he's such a fuckwit, it's like he can't help himself. I mean, who'd want YOU as a bridesmaid?"
"Hey! Are you saying I'll make a terrible bridesmaid?"
"It doesn't take a Diviner to now that!"
The mirth was infectious, and Gwen felt better already.
"Ah, bloody hell. Strewth... Gwen, NOT that I care about Aunt Helena or anything, but if you want someone to talk to, I am here with Lulu, Kusu and the crew. Do you mind if I put us on audible? Lulu is keen to talk to you.”
“Sure! Hi guys!”
“Miss Song, I am glad you’ve returned safely.”
“So, how was the trip?” Richard asked, perhaps wishing to divert her from becoming further depressed by the woeful wedding. "Regale us with your adventures!"
The voice of her cousin and friends worked its magic like a much-needed dose of Celexa. Gwen felt the taut tension in her body unwind as though the rack she’d been stuck on had released the screw.
“The trip was good, VERY good! We ran into all sorts of interesting Draconic animals - then ate all of them, ha! Uncle Jun was amazing! I LOVE HIM TO BITS!”
Gwen's voice took on a hysterical edge. With great gusto and flourish, she told them the same version she had narrated to her brother. As for Richard, her cousin, as well as Petra, would receive a private revision once they were reunited.
“Wonderful!” Richard’s voice bellowed across wherever the ‘crew’ was gathered. “I look forward to seeing your new affinity and Caliban’s new form.”
“Oh, his new form is terrible,” Gwen boasted guiltily, reminding herself to consult with Caliban after the call. What would a Void-stag resemble? The Thunder Stag had undoubtedly given Caliban a run for its money. Surely her Familiar would have subsumed the form of a worthy challenger.
“Caliban has yet another monstrous form?” Kusu’s voice was equal-parts anxiety and nervousness.
“Kusu, don't interrupt - so, Gwen - how was the peak of Huangshan? I've only ever seen Huashan. Is it as awe-inspiring as they say?” It was Lulan who spoke up.
“Lulu~, Huangshan was beautiful - deadly and dangerous - but also pretty as a painting…”
"That sounds wonderful. I'd love to climb Lotus Peak one day."
Assuming you don't run into a dragon! Gwen mused.
“So, Lulu, how’s working with Richard?”
“Richard is amazing,” Lulu’s response was worshipful. “I feel like such a frog in a well.”
“The siblings are BOTH doing great,” her cousin butted in jovially. “Kusu helped as well. He's our level-headed strategist.”
“I didn’t do anything worthwhile,” Kusu interjected humbly. “Those two are insane.”
“Hahaha.” Richard chuckled.
“So what did you guys do?”
As Lulan was far too drunk on happiness and excitement to tell a lucid story, Richard obliged in Lulan's stead. According to her cousin, they ventured to Nantong with his old crew to participate in the construction of Tonlv Canal, a major infrastructural project connecting Nantong to the Yellow Sea, enabling maritime trade between Seoul, Nagasaki, Qingdao, and upper Shanghai, forming a quadrangle trade-route.
Richard’s ‘party’ had initially been tasked with clearing wildlife beside the construction Mages and NoM labourers, but after Lulan started to 1-hit K.O every other river-gob they came across, the presiding official recruited the party for Purge requests across the Dayang peninsular.
With almost triple the pay and double the CCs, the party immediately made a name for themselves, with Richard acting as Abjurer and support, while Lulan served as the primary offensive damage-dealer. On the fourth day, the party managed to uncover an extensive Merfolk-warren. Before the Party official had even issued an edict, Richard’s party had cleared the entire ‘Dungeon’, bringing back a half-a-dozen cores and the head of the Merfolk Chief, a fifty-stone humanoid catfish.
"... We stood back while Lulu did her thing. I kept her Shielded, and Kusu had our backs. The other guys spent the whole time digging for cores and mining water-crystals."
"Sounds like you guys had a great time."
“Indeed it was. Smooth as butter. Anyway, we’re on break right now, on government expense, ha!” Richard boasted. “It's a state-sanctioned hotel, but the buffet is wonderful. Wish you were here, the water’s beautiful and Merfolk-free!”
“How’s Lulan dealing with the boys?” Gwen asked a critical question. As she recalled, Kusu had been very nervous.
“Hahahaha!” Richard broke into rancorous laughter.
“Richard!” Kusu complained bitterly, evidently triggered by Gwen's query and Richard's mirthful mockery.
“Lulan brought a risque swimsuit to enjoy her R&R, but Kusu has forbidden her from wearing it!”
“It shows her-”
“Kusu!” Lulan’s voice cried out shrilly. “I can wear whatever I want!”
“Gods, Kusu, it’s just a boob tube! Mate, calm your tits, not that the ones on display are yours to withhold, hahaha!”
“Arrrrgh~! Not so loud!"
The Message Device became inundated with snickering laughter.
Gwen shared in the merriment even as her chest became punctured by disappointment and resentment, a feeling worse than checking Facebook during the end of the fiscal quarter and seeing people on holidays in Santorini or Hokkaido. She felt hollowed out, as though all sensation of joy became consumed by gut-wrenching, maddening envy.
Why couldn’t she be in Nantong with Richard and Lulu, kicking ass and eating on the government’s dime, living life however she wanted?
Of course, Gwen knew the answer to her rhetorical question; it was the source of her grievous upset.
She was such an ungrateful bitch, moping about her teacup-drama when Uncle Jun risked his life to gift her with tier 6 Lightning.
With the shame of her churlish egocentrism crushing her mood, the bounty of happiness her friends provided no longer felt nourishing; instead, their carefree laughter grated her ears.
"Okay, I got to go. Thanks for the laughs, Richard, I'll Message you again later, or see you guys in a week!"
"Stay safe, Miss Song."
With the call ended, Gwen called forth Caliban and Ariel.
Her serpent and marten weighted down the discus-foliage of the water-lily.
She needed something else to cheer her up, and a little loot could do just that.
“Alright Cali, let’s see what you got.”
She took Caliban between her arms and began to squeeze, pressing the obsidian serpent against her ribcage.
Out popped the first core, then another, and another and another.
Plop! Plop! Plonk!
Thirteen Draconic-deer cores of exceptional clarity were steadily milked from Caliban, with the addition of one Merfolk core of indistinct quality.
Gwen likewise released the three carp-cores from her Ring, as well as the pangolin’s Earthen core.
The much larger orbs joined the pile of smaller cores in the middle of the lily-pad.
By her inexperienced appraisal, the deer-cores likely fetched 4 - 5000 HDMs, while the carp-cores were slightly higher at 6000. Jun had said that the sapient pangolin's core could be worth up to 25,000 to the right buyer, especially as Earthen Mages were numerous and Abjurers especially were highly sought after. She wasn't sure why there was such a price disparity, perhaps it was because the core's owner was capable of speech? It was an answer that only an experienced crafter like her Opa could give.
The fact that the small pyramid was likely worth up to 100,000 HDMs improved Gwen's mood immensely. It was like looking at a six-digit figure in one’s bank account, basking in the monitor's glow. Her breath became audible pants as she ran a finger over the stockpile, feeling a secret thrill run through her coiled body.
The moment of truth had descended.
Gwen activated her Detect Magic, then picked up the first core and ran a mote of lightning into its interior. It lit up dimly, humming with elemental lightning.
But it was without spirit.
Disappointed, she placed it into a separate pile.
The second, the third, and the forth followed.
Some cumquat sized, others a small orange - the Alpha's core was the size of a grapefruit.
It was an impressive thing of superb clarity, as potent as the Eland core which Mayuree had gifted to Ariel, likely worth a solid 8000 HDMs as well.
A mote of mana left her fingertips and made its round inside the core, projecting such a light that it was as though a Daylight spell had momentarily irradiated the lily-filled lake.
Gwen cursed her indiscretion and surveyed their surroundings.
The light faded, her night-vision returned.
She was, as far as she could tell, thankfully alone. This late at night, NoMs respected curfew, while Mage patrols would be visible from kilometres away thanks to their Day Light lanterns.
Greedily, she cupped the alpha-core and examined it.
Just a core.
SHIT. Gwen prevented herself from stomping the lily pad and sending her collection tumbling.
After all that.
After Uncle Jun risked his life for her!
Should she have killed Golos? Made Caliban consumed the bastard from inside out, heedless of the Yinglongs’ retribution? She was confident there was a core inside that wyvern she could use.
Ariel nudged the stag’s core in her hand, begging her with its big button eyes.
Gwen had known the desperate desire and the wantonness exhibited by Ariel only one other instance. It was at the Auction when Mayuree had tossed her the Eland core.
This time, Ariel's whining was even more intense, possessing such urgency that her empathic link tickled her bladder and gave her an urgent desire to visit the ladies.
Should she give the core to her Familiar though?
She could trade it away for CCs, or sell it for HDMs.
Who knew what projects in the future needed one or the other, or both?
But then again, she corrected herself, wasn’t Ariel a significant investment? Hadn’t its Eland ability helped her immensely, almost single-handedly upped her damage and strategy potential?
Until Gwen achieved a domain of her own, excessive wealth only served as a burden. Personal prowess, on the other hand, possessed linear growth potential for her safety and ambition.
Sensing her relent, Ariel cried a thankful “EEEEE!”
It bit into the core, crushing it within its jaws.
There goes at least 8,000 HDMs, maybe even 10,000 HDMs, Gwen allowed the dust to fall from her fingers, enough to pay for her entire tuition were she not a Scholarship student.
She had Babulya to thank for that.
Ariel swallowed the rest then indicated to the carp-core.
“Sure, go ahead.”
At this point, Ariel was a sunk cost; the wiser option was to commit her resources fully.
And so Ariel then treated itself to a second.
“Cali, you want in on this action?”
“Shaa!” Caliban wagged its tail.
“Alright, I guess not.”
Gwen examined the last Merfolk core.
It would be ironic if this one were pregnant with a Spirit, she mused.
A mote of mana later, she was left making a face, chewing one side of her lips contemplatively. Nope, she sighed despondently; not even Alanis Morrisette was on her side.
Having now ravaged two creature-cores, Ariel licked its chops and surveyed the rest of the loot pile.
“Oh no you don’t,” Gwen warned her gluttonous Familiar. “The rest has to be split with Uncle Jun. You got those other two because you worked for it! They're coming out of my share.”
“Alright, get back in there.”
She unsummoned her Familiar. Ariel was already getting sleepy. Whatever was in those Draconic-cores, they were very quickly inducing her Familiar to undergo another metamorphosis. Gwen wondered how long Ariel would take this time, and if she would need it in the week or so to come.
With Ariel gone and her loot failing to cough up a Spirit, she packed away the pile of assorted cores and tapped into another beer, feeling the still-cold liquor dispel the summer haze that hung over the West Lake.
Occasionally, a breeze came through, borne upon a cross-wind, lifting her hair and chilling her legs. Those moments were both rare and tranquil, allowing her to forget - if only for a moment - her grandfather's displeased face and Percy’s fearful eyes.
“Oh yeah, Caliban, what else you got?”
“Any new forms?”
“Well, let's see em.”
Drained of its stores, Caliban was back to its old tricks, taking a pound of flesh from Gwen’s body. It was fortuitous that she had earlier had a meal of Merfolk grubs. Otherwise, she would have been bereft of a significant chunk of vitality.
Standing upon the lily pad, framed by the silver of the moonlight, Caliban began to bloat, twisting into its new form. First came the stag-horns, an anticipated addition, then limbs, long and sinuous, stabbing outwards until they formed arm-thick double-jointed needles. A serpentine neck distended from Caliban’s bone-frilled skull, framed by its massive shoulders. Below, its torso tapered into a narrow waist of darkest obsidian, supported by bulging hindquarters. Upon closer inspection, Gwen noted, she could spot scales just beneath the smooth exterior of its semi-opaque obsidian dermis.
"Good boy, Calib- OH JEZ LOUISE!"
Just when she thought Caliban’s horror-filled growth spurt had ceased, it launched itself upward, sprouting two long and elegant hind legs half-a-length longer than its front limbs, likewise armed with needle-point hooves.
“Christ, Cali,” Gwen breathed in the tepid air of the West Lake. “That is not a PG-13 morphic form. What are you? Coraline’s other mother meets xenomorph wendigo?”
Like all his forms, Caliban was faceless, his skull was Draconic shaped, with a hint of the stag, but otherwise without distinguishing features.
“Where're your tentacles? Cali?”
Gwen glanced at Caliban, hoping to God that thick, prehensile tentacles wouldn't sprout from between the stag’s legs. If so, Caliban’s new power was going to be X-rated. After a public display using 'that', she would sadly miss the days when people called her the “Devourer”.
Caliban stood on its hind legs.
“Bloody hell, you can be bipedal in that form?”
Caliban's pointed hooves stabbed into the water lily’s membranes. Fully erect, her monster Familiar stood well over four meters inclusive of its sixteen-pointer. Eerily, the night became filled with the sound of slithering, accompanied by a mass of lamprey-lipped tentacles dipping low to scent her, touching her hair and cheeks.
Gwen almost had a heart attack.
Its friggin stag-horns turned into tentacles! Sixteen points - did that mean sixteen tentacles?
What would happen if she commanded it to attack?
Caliban turned, sending all of its appendages to assault the air, snapping as though each was bestowed with a life of its own. The effect was simultaneously awe-inspiring and abominable, akin to the stop-motion Medusa Gwen recalled seeing in Clash of the Titans.
So the stag horns are an AOE multi-attack? Gwen pondered the proper application of Caliban’s obscene new body.
For Gwen, the utmost terror of Caliban's new horror-stag morph was its limbs - four lances-like appendages that looked readh to do some serious puncturing. When her stag-fiend furthermore stood on its hind legs, it resembled a doubly horrifying wendigo with needles for limbs and prehensile tentacles for horns. In fact, Gwen's fingers tapped her chin thoughtfully; there were many elements to the creature that was aesthetically familiar to her.
The nuance of a Familiar’s forms was associated with a Mage's deep psyche. As such, Gwen wondered if she was digging through old literature to fuel Caliban's nightmarish appearances. If one was asked to think of a Magical Stag, wouldn’t the Forest Spirit from Princess Mononoke come to mind? Why did her creation look as though Lovecraft and Geiger had a love child? A thousand-young-cum-xenomorph Black Goat?
Retracting its tentacles and returning its horns into coral-like branches of obsidian bone, Caliban dropped to all fours and stalked toward her. The lily pad swayed as Caliban’s bulk shifted its centre of gravity, forcing Gwen to balance herself.
She recalled her Familiar, furthermore instructing it to refrain from shifting into the horror-stag unless given express consent. It was just too horrifying and too petrifying to exist in a public space. People would eventually find out, of course, but Gwen wasn’t in a position to entertain the consequences of Caliban terrorising the city in its new aberrant form. She would have to consult with Petra, or at worst, Magister Wen, regarding how to best present a Lurker-Spawn to polite society.
Her contemplative privacy was interrupted by an incoming Message.
“Gwen, where are you now?”
“I am still in Hangzhou if that’s what you mean,” Gwen answered chirpily, her mind a little groggy from the trace alcohol still in her blood.
“Where in Hangzhou exactly?”
“I am at the West Lake,” she confessed. “Enjoying the moonlight.”
“There’s no moon out tonight; it's clouded over.”
“Enjoying the darkness then.”
“Mother wants to see you. Are you coming back?”
“Yes, I am coming back.”
“Well, if you do, remember to take the servant’s entrance, the one by the carport. The side entrance door is locked.”
“It’s alright. I flew out. I’ll fly back in.”
“Bloody hell, Gwen,” Hai spat in English, switching to the Australian dialect he had acquired in his years in Oceania. “Just because there are no bleeding patrols doesn’t mean Hangzhou is a Fly-Zone! It's a major food-bowl district! What made you think you can use Flight in a place like this? Why do you think the estates all have walls?!”
“Hangzhou is a No-Fly Zone?”
“But I flew to the convenience store, and I flew to West Lake.”
“Oh God damn it,” Hai cursed. “You flew out of Secretary Liu’s house! You and the family are registered as VIPs! Of course, no one is going to intercept you! Your step-grandfather will likely cop an earful tomorrow. What else did you do? No boys, I hope?”
“No, just a few drinks.”
“You’re FLYING DRUNK?”
“Were you drinking?”
“About six-beers and a bottle of soju?”
“It was a small bottle. I’ll be home soon.”
“Walk! For God’s sake!”
“Alright! Jeez, Dad, I am not a child.”
“You’re A MINOR WHO IS DRINKING AND FLYING IN A NO FLY ZONE!" Hai hissed with impotent anger; his voice desperate and quivering. "You don’t even have a Flight licence!”
Her agitated Almudj-Essence sobered her up. Her father had a point.
“I’ll run home then. See you soon.”
Hai muttered a few grudging pleasantries, then hung up.
Huffing unhappily, Gwen packed her garbage; she might be selfish, possessive and prideful, but she wasn't a tosser.
Her late-night excursion had gone as Gwen had expected. She had given herself time to think, and she now had a general idea what was happening. As the holder of six tiers of affinity, Gwen would have to do her utmost to keep her 'Electric Blues' in check. For now, she would 'apologise' to Percy for her unintended and poorly worded expression, help her father with his wedding, and play nice with he grandfather. In one week's time, she could be back to Fudan, obligations done and dusted.
Anything to keep her babulya and uncle de-stressed and content.
Gwen slapped her cheeks with both hands.
“Come on! You can do it!”
It was time to go home and face the music.
* * *
Hai sighed, tossing his Messenger Device onto the pile of clothes on the floor.
“Hai, I am worried about Gwen.” Qīn’s breath was pleasant and ticklish against Hai’s ear. “Going out to drink at a time like this, she's going to ruin herself. Such a pretty and talented girl as well, what a shame."
“She'll be fine, dear.” Hai brushed a lock of his fiancee’s hair from her cheeks. “Gwen’s a good girl. It’s just a phase. You were young once, heck; you’re young still! Just look at those cheeks~ softer than ripe peaches!”
Qīn laughed, her voice trilling like a nightingale’s through the winding corridors of the pagoda.
Hai had thought his wife would be livid over the dead Koi. Instead, Qīn had told him that it was no big deal. What was important, his wife had stipulated, was that both Gwen and Percy were safe.
What a wonderful woman! Hai couldn't believe his ears. Had this been Helena, the decibel of her voice would have shattered the transmulated glass in the courtyard. His soul would have escaped his skull!
“You don’t think it’s a mistake asking her to be a bridesmaid, do you?” Qīn asked uncertainly. It was only natural. Any woman would want their wedding to proceed swimmingly.
“No, of course not, dear. Gwen might be in a bad mood now, but she always comes through in the end.”
“Alright, I trust you, Hai.”
“The feeling is mutual.” Hai tasted his fiancee's flushed lips, held captive by her tenderness.
"So, what do you think of my earlier proposal?"
“I think this is a wonderful opportunity for Gwen to meet some of the young men in the local bureaucracy,” Qīn continued. “I think she’ll be far less troublesome if she can settle down with someone to look after her and teach her the ways.”
“Umm...” Hai pulled away unconsciously. “I don’t know about that.”
“Is Gwen not interested in boys? Well mannered, good-looking boys from prominent families?”
“Em…” As a father, Hai wasn’t sure how to respond. He couldn’t exactly critique Gwen. In the past, he had brought hundreds of women home since Gwen was at a tender age, the girl had developed an especially hostile attitude toward men, particularly flatterers.
He was also reminded of the time she ran home yammering about a train molester. Had that been a big deal? She'd just gone to her room after. Well, it wasn't as though Gwen had lost a piece of her flesh. Sometimes, an ass grab was just an ass grab. After all, Hai himself had grabbed plenty of buttocks in his time; understanding the context was important. From what the Railcorp Officers had said, the man was likely going to gaol, an apt punishment for a man incapable of reading the situation.
“Hai, I need you to be on my side. Can you do that for me?”
Qīn nibbled his earlobes, making his whole body quiver.
“I don’t think Gwen would enjoy meeting young men like that,” he mumbled. “I don’t even know what kind of men Gwen is attracted to though. As I’ve said, we’re not the closest, ha.”
“She needs someone to ground her, Hai, just as I need you.”
Qīn ran a hand against his abdomen and injected a flush of positive energy.
“Hai?” Qīn worked her magic.
“You have my consent.” Hai pulled his fiancee’s milky body closer. “But tell the youngsters not be so pushy. Gwen doesn’t like that. She REALLY doesn’t like that. Agreed?”
“Of course, dear.” Qīn was already straddling the man of her dreams like a jockey at an El Caballo-Blanco horse show, cantering into a comfortable cadence.
“I was going to speak to Gwen." It took Hai several attempts to complete his sentence. "My father's still angry as well."
“Don't worry, Daddy will deal with Magus Guo.” Qīn sealed his lips with her own, her eyes melting into him like liquid.
“Gwen's a big girl," Hai's breathless fiancée added. "She'll be fine.”