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Gwen ran full tilt through the side doors and into the courtyard, expecting to see an inquisitional court assembled for their Gwen-hunt, racking her over the coals for the dead Koi.

Instead, she was greeted by her babulya, seated beside a brewing pot of Maofeng Cha, the tea from Fur Peak.

“Gwen, come.”

Like a shy kitten, she made her way across the cold cobblestones. Despite sprinting for a good thirty minutes, she wasn’t at all tired. At one point, she even made a four-meter leap between two estuary banks without incident. It wasn’t anywhere near the super-human world records set by men like Bob Beamon, but it was impressive considering she was running au-naturale; while wearing peep-toe sandals. By the last stretch, she was overcome by a runner's high, where a strange euphoria, coupled with the vigorous circulation of Almudj's Essence, washed away all fatigue and anxiety. She had felt so good that she opted for a second lap around the manor, trying to capture the trigger that precipitated her chemical elation.

And so it was, almost twelve kilometres later, Gwen stood in front of her grandmother, her trembling legs perspiring in the moonlight.

“I am sorry, Babulya,” she began.

“It’s alright, child. I believe you weren’t trying to take Percy’s Amulet.”

The warmth in her voice startled Gwen. She glanced, then stared at her dear old babulya, feeling doubly guilty that she had doubted the old woman at all.

“I wasn’t,” Gwen aped her babulya's proclamation reflexively. “He was in pain, and I thought I’d help. I didn’t know that he had developed a complex about it.”

“Percy has his circumstances,” her babulya explained patiently. “Can you blame a boy for having a big sister he may never catch up to?”

“I see.” Gwen lowered her head even as she felt a secret, vindicating thrill.

The truth was often stranger than fiction.
She had suspected Percy's grievance but had doubted the extent to which her brother was under its spell.

“Well, I just wanted to make sure that you were alright.” Klavdiya took Gwen’s hand and warmed her fingers. She then patted her granddaughter's cheeks, arranged her blouse, and brushed her skort. "Can you spare an old woman a few minutes?"

"Of course Babulya, anything you need."

"Just a few minutes will suffice, dear."

Grandmother and granddaughter found a cosy spot within the private pavilion. The water below was, unfortunately, bereft of koi. Gwen sipped from the cup her grandmother passed over, awed by the Fur Tea's refreshing invigoration. Her babulya waited until she had settled before continuing.

"How are you feeling?"

"Awful," Gwen replied honestly, though the running had improved her mood drastically. "Babulya, can I say something you're not going to like?"

"Of course, dear."

"Morye, Hai, Dad - he's a terrible father. I can't stand his selfishness, and I don't want to be a part of his wedding."

Klavdiya patted her hand.

"I know that, dear."

"But I can't leave, can I?"

Her grandmother shook her head.

Gwen sighed.

"Gwen, your father is - in many ways - still childish. I am afraid Guo was too harsh on him ever since he was a boy."

"Sounds like Grandfather was too lenient," Gwen griped cattily.

"Oh, the number of times I had to heal Hai because Guo had beaten him within an inch of his life..."

Gwen winced.

"I... I don't know what to do about Hai either," her babulya confessed, her face looking as though she'd tasted a bitter lemon. "We had wanted the best for the boys, but Jun... and Hai... oh Gwen~, sometimes I wonder if things could've been simpler if we had stayed in Hubei, or if I had stayed in Harbin. But then, of course, if all of us had shirked our duties on the Front, there might not be a China left. We would have scattered into the wind, a broken family, and you, my dear child, would not have existed."

Gwen wasn't sure how to respond. She had never had a doting grandmother, much less one who was pouring her heart out.

"Your grandfather is angry, Gwen, but he is not unnecessarily hostile because of you. This business from Hai has lost him a lot of respect. Secretary Liu's daughter is no shrinking violet; I can tell you that! We could have called the whole thing off were it not for that fact that Qīn is with child. The crux of the matter lies in the undercurrent. Our family has always stayed neutral to the politics within the CCP - but with this union, we've been pulled into Liu's Faction - the conservative faction. Do you see what I mean?"

Gwen felt a sense of déjà vu, thinking of Master Kilroy and his troubles with the Factionism in Sydney. Even with his iron-fisted control over Oceania's Towers, they had to allow the Grey faction to have their organ markets, and the Militant wing to have their Purges. If her family here were to be drawn into the CCP's internal politics, what did that portend?

"That's ominous," she muttered, not entirely understanding the context, but wise enough to speculate.

"One would think so," Klavdiya agreed. "The CCP doesn't have Factions in the traditional sense, like the Tower Mages, who share different world-views. The Factions within the Party are simply power-hungry wolves banding together as much for safety as the acquisition of territory. Liu's Faction falls under the banner of General Secretary Won Liping, and they have been aggressively seeking out allies. Your grandfather's position as the Committee Chair and Secretary of the Confidential Communications Department is one that must remain neutral; he holds too many secrets of the upper echelon to belong to one Faction or another."

Jesus, Gwen muttered under her breath.
Does that mean the family may fall from grace just because her father stuck his dick in the wrong hole?

"Babulya..." Gwen wanted to help, but she didn't know how. If she was Gunther or someone like her Brother-in-craft, she could offer the family a haven in Australia. But she was just a student. "I don't know what to say."

"Guo wanted to cut ties with Liu, regardless of the child in Qīn's belly," her babulya spoke very quietly so that her voice was audible only to Gwen. "But that would put us in another dilemma; we would then be seen as a part of the Central Committee Chair, Yi Jinhua's faction."

"Bloody hell, fucking Dad..." Gwen gnashed her pearly teeth. "Sorry... "

"I hope you can understand why Guo is so quick to anger," her babulya added. "The koi, the insult, the commotion with Percy, all of it weakens his position when negotiating with Liu."

"..." Gwen couldn't accept her babulya's justification as a viable rationale. Having a fuckwit son was no reason to rag on the fool's perfectly estranged granddaughter.

"I see." Her babulya continued massaging Gwen's fingers, whose disappointment palpably communicated via the rigidity of her hands. "You are right to be upset, Gwen, I can't deny you that."

"So what does Grandfather have in mind?"

"He doesn't know either, dear."

"There are things he doesn't know?" Gwen scoffed.

"There are too many things Guo knows. He knows Secretary Liu wouldn't free us from the hook that easily; especially now that the fisherman has unexpectedly snagged a mighty sturgeon."

"He should be careful it's not a dragon underneath the water."

"If only, my dear. Nothing is ever simple when there is the temptation of power involved. Both Guo and I agree that we don't want you to be involved. It may be too late to refute your father now, but I promise things will be better from here. You won't have to do anything other than show up, walk the aisle, then sit quietly until the banquet ends."

"Okay, Babulya." Gwen squeezed the old woman's hands. Even now she was thinking of campus life and how removed it was from all this unwarranted drama. The futility of it all grated on her. She might be able to whittle down a Thunder Wyvern, but she couldn't prevent her father from marrying the 'woman of his dreams' and fucking his own family over in the process.

Or could she?

The temptation was astoundingly salient.

"What about Percy? Is he alright?"

Her babulya put on a complex expression that was difficult to read.

"Guo has set out a tightrope for Percy to walk, and your brother refuses to get off." Her grandmother took a long draught of the scalding tea. "All I can do is 'be there' to catch them in the fall, do you know what I mean?"

Gwen bit her lips with annoyance.
She understood, but her babulya's martyrdom filled her with indignity.

"You have your own life, Gwen." Her babulya brushed back a lock of hair from Gwen's grim face. "After the IIUC, whether Fudan emerges victorious or otherwise, you will enter the service of the Commonwealth Towers. You may serve yourself, or you may join a Tower Faction, as your Master had done. We will be at odds, even if not entirely, but at odds nevertheless. These days that we have enjoyed each other's company, and indeed the days to come, will all become pleasant memories as our Paths divide. As a physician, I can tell you that so long as you continue to cultivate your Druidic Essence, you will have a long and prosperous life, far longer than any of us. When you think of your youth in the far future, I want you to remember us fondly. We were absent grandparents, and in many ways, we're still incapable of being here for you; Guo and I, we're imperfect people compelled by circumstance, and I hope you can forgive us for being so selfish."

Gwen felt a convulsion of hurtful passions wrecking her chest.
Her babulya's kindness was the cruellest cut.
What could she say after that?

All she could do was hold the old woman, thinking of the alternative. Would it have been better if she had never met Klavidya? What if she had fought those officers, screamed blue murder, endangered her friends? She could have also wounded herself or drained herself to such a degree that the Contingency Ring activated. Then she could have demanded asylum from the Singapore Tower, drag in Gunther, then return to Australia.

Then what?

No Babulya.
No Petra.
No Mina and Tao.
No Mayuree.

No Uncle Jun-

The alternative prospect was too terrible to bear.

She shivered, feeling goosebumps crawl all over her body.

Her babulya noticed. Unconsciously, the old woman placed a hand on her upper thigh and channelled a mote of positive mana. Gwen's Almudj-Essence reacted, pushing the foreign element from her mana channels.

Klavdiya raised an eyebrow.

She looked as though she wanted to comment, but shook her head instead.

"Your skirt is a little too short, don't you think?"

It was a very grandmotherly thing to say.

“Oh no, Babulya, this is a pair of shorts!” Gwen rose and spun for her babulya. “It’s a skort!”

“Alright, dear.” Her grandmother chuckled. “I guess we should both go to bed. Can you think about what I've said?”

“I will.” Gwen leaned in and kissed her cheeks. "Oh yeah, I also have a gift for you, from me and Uncle Jun."

She produced ten jars of Wildland Honey straight from the hive, as well as a Beggar’s Chicken still in its clay casing.

“This is for you. The chook is from a while ago; it’s from my and Pat’s favourite joint on University Rd!”

Her grandmother opened a jar, dipped a finger into the honey, then savoured the taste of life-force contained therein.

“Thank you; this is a wondrous gift.”

“You’re going to get younger and younger, Babulya, we'll be seeing each other and having luncheons for EONS,” Gwen declared, her voice broken on the last few syllables. “Soon, aunty Nen will be wondering when she had a sister!”

The two women chuckled, each pregnant with their private thoughts.

“Good night, Gwen.”

“G’nite, Babulya.”

Gwen bowed as her grandmother left, then made for the guest rooms, where she and her uncle had stayed before. To her dismay, she was alone. Her uncle was staying in the west wing, together with the family, while Gwen - the black sheep of the Song Clan, was accommodated in the south side.

Other guests were staying as well when she returned, but as it was well past midnight, they were already behind closed doors.

Her double room felt larger without Jun; the bleak 17th-century architecture felt far older and more dilapidated now that whitewashed walls were her only companion. There wasn’t even an ensuite in the outdated design of the guest room, and she was no longer in possession of her mystical ‘goddess’ underpants.

Feeling bloated with thoughts of separation and mortality, she resolved to change out of her clothes and wipe herself down with a damp cloth. She switched over to a pair of cotton shorts and singlet, then slipped into the soft silk covers of the single-bed, the only 21st-century amenity within the room.

“Ariel~.”

The marten appeared beside her, still asleep, gently snoring as it digested the cores.

She hugged her Familiar against her chest, buried her face into its fur, then heeded the call of Hypnos.


* * *

Ayxin sat in her section of the White-Jade Palace, pondering the possibilities associated with the attire held out before her.

It was an anthropomorphic image of a cat. There were two small love hearts, one pink, and the other scarlet, on its left and right. At the bottom, just above the navel, was printed in carmine the nonsensical words ‘Hello Kitty’.

She sighed, feeling as though a set of mystical manacles held her captive. Her heart, not to mention her core, had pounded at her ribcage when her father made the offer of 'life' to the Ash Bringer.

Reaching into a pocket-space Ayxin had created to mimic the effect of the human’s Storage Rings; she produced the makeup kit that Jun’s niece had given her.

Within the self-contained box was a cheap mirror, beneath which were three brushes, one large and two small, and a tube of something called ‘mascara’, and a palette of mineral powders.

Ayxin recalled that Gwen had 'made up' a face, thinking that she would be granted an audience with her father.

How foolish these humans were, how inefficient and lacklustre that they had to use such mortal substances to ‘make up’ for what the heavens did not gift them.

Ayxin looked into the mirror, examining her not entirely 'human' face.

She blinked.

Her eyes took on the thick outline that Gwen had painstakingly drawn over a minute, not daring to move or achoo.

The effect was… interesting
Her sky-coloured pupils became more pronounced.
The winged tips and deep eye-shadow reminded her of the mountain cats that they had in the lower reaches. Did this mean Humans were attracted to felines? If so, what did they think about Demi-human Leonines?

She blinked again, cycling through the colours.
Ayxin chuckled to herself, making her lashes longer, thicker, curlier - until her face became ridiculous.

“Ayxin?”

The makeup kit snapped shut and disappeared into the pocket-space.
She turned angrily to regard her unannounced visitor.

“Father’s teeth! Did Ryxi assault you?! I wouldn't have thought he had the gall!”

Golos was likewise in his human form. Prophetically, their father had instructed both herself and Golos to ‘exercise’ their humanoid appearances; as per usual, neither of the siblings questioned the Yinglong’s wisdom.

To Golos, Ayxin’s eyes looked as though someone had punched her twice, each time perfectly in the eye-socket so that they appeared blue and black.

“I am fine, Golos.”

“But your eyes, they loo-”

“I said I AM FINE, Golos!”

“Alright, alright…”

“Why are you here?”

“Thought I'd say goodbye. Father says I will be leaving for Mandalay. For now, I am to search out Ruxin.”

“I see.”

“When are you leaving?”

“Leaving?" Ayxin raised a ridged brow.

"Hmmph!" Golos snorted.

In his human form, the Thunder Wyvern resembled a bouncer, barrel-chested and long-limbed, with a tremendous silvery beard set across wide square jaws and a butt-chin. His eyes, poorly formed by inexperience in changing his morphic field, remained reptilian and alien, with a high bone ridge where a bushy brow should be, running up either side of his temples until they formed a secondary ridge down the back of his skull.

“Why would I leave the Mount?”

Golos glanced at the shirt with the kitten.

Ayxin snatched it from the marble table and stowed it away. She was the only one who could access her pocket-dimensions. Not even their father could pry when Ayxin desired privacy.

“You're not very honest,” Golos snorted. "You in heat?"

“How’s your anus, Golos?”

“…”

“I thought as much. Get out.”

She watched as Golos swaggered elsewhere. Her half-sibling would have been more convincing if she wasn’t in the know that Golos had been having nightmares since that day. She had even heard the rumour that he’d stopped harassing creatures in his domain.

With the bullish buffoon sent away, Ayxin re-materialised the Hello Kitty T-shirt, then ran a hand over the cotton fabric.

The turmoil she felt was painful to put into words, even Draconic ones.
The Ash Bringer was a mere Human; his race short-lived and transient.

Yet, listening to the man extol his faith in his ‘niece’ the ‘Calamity’ foretold by her Father’s prophesy, she felt… longing.

That and resentment, confusion and discontentment; she couldn’t understand why a mere mortal girl, especially one so calamitous to those close to her, could receive such devotion and care from her kin, while she sat alone, loitering in a cold palace as her Father slumbered, Ryxi pruned trees and Golos rubbed ointments into his swollen anus.

Dragons were covetous beings, and Ayxin was just as much a benefactor of their bloodline’s blessing as a victim of its curse.

Not to embrace her inferior human side - Ayxin excused her mental weakness - but a girl wants what a girl wants.

Much less a Winged Dragon.


* * *


Gwen awoke to the sound of commotion from outside her room. The walls were wood and clay, while the windows were transmuted glass made to look like paper parchment. Neither provided a solid barrier against noise.

Rubbing her eyes, she opened the double doors to see what the uproar was about.

A NoM servant holding a mug of hot tea choked on his shallot-pancake as Gwen emerged barefoot in her singlet and her cotton-shorts.

The entire courtyard of the South Wing was a hive of activity, and from the cacophony, it was evident that decorative renovations were happening. NoMs were applying fresh stains to everything that could be seen, especially the faded red pillars. All around her, workmen and lesser Mages were lifting plaques and installing giant red “DOUBLE LUCKY” pictograms hung upside down on every visible window and door.

Gifting the servants and workers with another thirty seconds of eye candy, Gwen shut the door and wondered why no one had come to wake her. She checked her device and saw that it was 0900. Tossing on a tunic, she washed her face and brushed her teeth.

“Where’s everyone gone?” she asked one of the scurrying servants from the window slit.

"The family is taking breakfast in the east wing, main hall.”

“Gotcha.”

She threw on a halter-neck maxi and strapped in her wedge sandals, then followed the maid through the winding corridors until they reached the scene of a breakfast banquet.

The family, both the Songs and the Lius, were already eating.

She bowed before finding her seat at the table, intuitively seating herself beside Jun.

Breakfast consisted of fried dough and six-treasure porridge, a local speciality made from Wildland nuts and fruits, combined with the famous Jiangnan rice to form a thick gruel that warmed the stomach and filled the body with energy.

“Uncle.”

Gwen waited for a servant to fill her bowl.

“Gwen, how was your sleep?”

“Well enough,” she replied sweetly.

“Good.” Jun sipped his congee. The military man worked at the gruel, savouring every mouthful before placing the bowl conclusively onto the table. “I need to head back to the base for a week. Hai has requested that you stay here to help with the wedding. I’ll be back first thing on Sunday.”

“No buck’s party?”

“No, thank Mao.” Jun shot a glance at Guo and the Patriarch Liu. There was Qīn next to her father as well. “I don't think either of those three would have wanted to see Hai in that condition.”

Gwen chuckled uncomfortably as well.

Did Mage-world Shanghai even have strippers?
Certainly, in old-world Shanghai, the purchase of vice was merely a matter of prestige, power and wealth. She recalled an incident on ABC News when Li Tianyi, the son of a famous Chinese general, was nearly acquitted until his gang-raped and badly beaten victim made a dangerous outreach to the state media. Knowing the precarious status of NoMs in this world, Gwen had no desire to witness the debasement of women whose only worth was a pretty face.

Was her father even capable of enduring a hands-free lap dance?

On second thought, maybe it wasn't such a bad idea.
No one could blame the Song family if Hai sabotaged his own wedding, surely?

Nonetheless, the dismissal of the Buck's Party was agreeable to Gwen. Merely trying to picture her father with a whore made her want to expel the congee. Likewise, an image of Jun with some harlot hanging from his shoulder made her want to fire an affinity 6 Lightning Sphere into the table.

“I am going to miss you, Uncle Jun,” she muttered despairingly. With Jun gone, she would be left with only babulya, but her grandmother’s affections weren't Gwen's alone.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Jun announced. “I promise.”

Gwen wanted to reply with something hopeful and jovial, but a cat had stolen her tongue and ran off with it into the bush, where a saltwater croc ate it.

“There, there.” Jun patted her shoulder clumsily, awkward in his public affection.

Jun's innocence proved too much for Gwen, not even the shame of her thirty-year-old self could dispell the welling emotions ripping apart her chest like a Xenomorph. She turned and hugged him, wrapping her arms around Jun's waist, then kissed him on the cheeks.

From across the table, Hai stared at Jun, his expression one of disbelief.

Jun met his brother's eyes, then guiltily grinned.


* * *

“She’s very close to your brother,” Qīn remarked to her husband-to-be once they were in the privacy of the east wing. There were many invitations awaiing the penning of personal greetings.

“I’ll say.” Hai licked his parched lips.
His heavy-hanging eye bags indicated a shortage of restful sleep.

“You don’t suppose Gwen’s…”

"..." Hai raised a brow.

“… fonder of her Uncle than you…”

“Well, I wouldn’t know about that,” Hai grumbled defensively, scratching his nose.

“She’s growing up with or without you, Hai,” his lover advised with great sagacity. “I am worried your rare flower might be plucked by some vagabond or a scoundrel from the horrors. You of all people should know how bad it gets in Shanghai, dear.”

“Gwen’s capable of taking care of herself,” Hai muttered, thinking of the time he flew into Rosebay to save her, only to see her brutally massacring her assailant, some gloop-creature constituted of black slime, all the while in her birthday suit. Perhaps it was the innocent and hapless young men of Hangzhou who should be afraid.

“Don’t you worry, she’ll have plenty of options,” Qīn advised her husband. “I’ve got an impressive line-up of eligible bachelors for her to browse over at her leisure, not to mention her groomsmen is one in a million.”

“Look, I don’t think this is the best idea…”

“I’ve got it taken care of.” Qīn kissed his collarbone, massaging him with soothing motes of positive mana. “Don’t you worry. Just do what you do, be yourself.”

Hai could hardly tear himself away from his fiancèe's almond eyes. Here was a woman who was madly and deeply in love. What if Qīn could find a partner for Gwen, just as she had discovered him? Gwen couldn't fault her father for thinking of her happiness, surely?


* * *


Jun left as soon as breakfast wrapped up, disappearing out the door before the warmth of his hands on her back had even faded.

What remained were duties for every member of the family.

As the wedding was undertaken on short notice, many of the elderly members of the Liu Clan would be visiting friends and family with gifts and invitations. Secretary Liu himself would be visiting his associates as well, leaving the running of the Reception to Qīn.

As Qīn’s mother was unfortunately deceased, Hai’s parents, older than her father by a decade, would double-duty as her elders, receiving guests as they arrived over the next few days.

Babulya was right; the whole ordeal was a vortex of 'Guanxi' - an undertow of filial and political ties that sucked the Song's into its depth, willing or otherwise.

When it came to Gwen, her grandfather came through as promised.

A gruff, "Stay out of the way," was enough to prevent Qīn from further employing Gwen's time.

She had only one job, one that required her presence - get fitted for her bridesmaid’s dress.

It was a position she was more than happy to occupy.

“Go enjoy yourself around the city, see the sights. Go for a boat tour around the West Lake,” her father informed her. “You just came back from a gruelling trip. Unwind, relax, let out the stress. I can see you were very tense yesterday.”

Where the fuck were you yesterday? I bet you were too busy fucking your hussy! Gwen suppressed the words hammering at her lips. She was surprised no one had mentioned the koi at all, least of all her father.

“Thanks, Dad. I appreciate it.”

Hai reached out for a hug as Jun had done so before, but Gwen shirked away, leaving her father hanging.

“I’ll go see about this dress, then.”

“I’ll send Ah-Bei with you,” Qīn chimed in. Her siren's voice possessed a husky timbre mellow enough to melt the bones of any man. It was the sort of hyper-femininity Gwen could never affect, even if she tried. “He knows the city like the back of his hand.”

“Thanks, Aunty Qīn.” Gwen dipped her head.

“'Mama' will suffice, or Nīang, as we say in the Wu dialect," Qīn annunciated expertly, biting the assonance.

You’re my age, and you look like you’re in your twenties! Gwen screamed internally. I’ll call you mother over my father’s dead body.

“Thank you~ Aunty.” Gwen held her tongue.

The two women smiled at each other warmly.

Hai felt goosebumps rising all over. Was it cold in here or what? He looked around, wondering if the weather had turned.

A servant presented himself in front of Gwen, bowing deeply. It was the very same man Gwen had seen on their first meeting with Qīn.

“I am Liang Bei.” The man dipped his head.

Bei had the bearing of a man who awoke tired. Middle-aged, he looked as though the last time he had taken a break somewhere during the Purge in the 80s when the city was aflame with revolutionary zeal.

“At your pleasure, Mistress Song.”

Gwen approached the man, then shook his hand.

The act surprised both Bei and Qīn.
It wasn’t just a touch, a gesture from a superior to encourage a subordinate, it was a proper-greeting, palm to palm, applied with force and intent.

“Good to meet you, Bei. I'll be in your hands.”

Bei bowed a little deeper.

“I am at your service.”

“Father, I am off.”

“Stay out of trouble, Gwen.”

“You know I won’t!”

Then she was gone.


* * *


Bei commandeered a vehicle from the underground garage, playing both guide and chauffeur. Once inside, Gwen changed to a set of comfortable heels that matched the cobalt of her halter-maxi. If she was going to take FIVE days off from ‘life’ and 'stay out of trouble', she wanted to shop, to jog, and to experience the 'heavenly' sights around Hangzhou.

First stop, the dressmakers.

“Hangzhou is one of the best places in the world for Wildland-silk, Mistress,” Bei advised her. “We will be going to the largest silk market in the city, Fengqi Road No. 273. It is a very expensive locale! Even mundane dresses cost thousands to tens of thousands of RMB. If you wish to purchase Wildland Silks, the vendors only accept HDMs.”

“How expensive are we talking here?” Gwen packed her slippers, slipping a foot into the sky-blue pumps she’d acquired in Shanghai. It was too bad there was no Instagram. If she had been in her seventeen-year-old body with unlimited fashion funds in her old world, she would have had an entirely different career path.

“The vendors will try to rip you off, Mistress, because you are a foreigner and a Mage from another city, not to mention a young girl. Sometimes, the greedy merchants ask for many times the value, or even sell you fake products!”

“Then why are we going there?” Gwen asked quizzically.

“Because they need the Secretary's support to continue their business,” Bei informed her, his cracked lips curling on either side. “Mistress has said to spare no expense on your bridesmaid dress, so long as it is appropriate. Her only request is that you purchase in a particular shade of cream. I have the sample fabric right here.”

Gwen examined the slip, rubbing the fabric between her hands.

It was smooth beyond belief, gliding between her thumb and her forefinger without friction. The silk was the real deal; a piece of fabric that felt like cold water.

“Very nice.”

The stimuli made her recall Ayxin, whose entire garb had been spun from a silk-substance that was like mystical gossamer. At the thought of the dragon-woman, her Divination Sigil tingled.

Without formal training, her Sigil was less definitive than her daily horoscopes; not that Gwen needed premonition to know that the woman was bad news.


"Hmm..."

The vision of an anxious face engendered in her mind.
Didn't she have a Diviner on a life-line?

She dialled Mayuree, switching her Messages to private so that Bei could not overhear.

Grande Valse chimed for half a beat before the devices connected.

“Mia!”

“Gwen! Oh thank the Goddess, YOU'RE BACK!”

“My favourite Diviner! How’re things?”

“I honestly don’t know; I haven’t left the house for a week."

“Seriously?”

“Yes, I'm serious. What do you think? You have no idea how happy I am to hear from you. Are you back?”

“Sorry, not yet,” Gwen apologised. "Next time, we'll go Adventuring together."

“You bet,” Mayuree answered sweetly. “So, are you close? Are you within reach of a tier 7 Teleportation scroll?”

“Er… I am in Hangzhou.”

“Oh.”

“My father’s getting married…” Gwen took a moment to explain her situation to her Diviner companion. “I was wondering if you’re able to do an Augury for me. I want to know if the wedding is going to be a shit-show.”

“Gwen, that’s terrible!” Mayuree replied, scandalised by Gwen's shocking proclamation.

In response, Gwen detailed the context for her paranoia, then further went on to explain that she had ‘accidentally’ killed the bride’s prized koi.

“Oh, Gwennie~.” Gwen could almost see her friend scowling, clenching her jaws adorably as she grimaced. “Alright, give me a few moments.”

The Message disconnected while Gwen waited.

“Mistress, we’re here,” Bei informed her.
Indeed, the car was stationary.

Gwen apologised to Bei and asked the man to wait.

“Of course, Mistress, at your leisure.”

"So, Bei, where are you from?"

"Me?" Bei seemed surprised.

"Yeah, you've known the Liu's for long?"

"All my life, Mistress."

The two made small-talk while Gwen waited for her Diviner companion. According to her manservant, Bei's family had served Qīn's for as long as he could recall. As far as he knew, he was 'born' into servitude; a fact which depressed Gwen immensely.

‘Du-du!’

Ten minutes later, her Message Device pinged.

“Mia?”

“Hi, I am back.”

“So, how is it?”

“… it’s hard to say.”

“How hard to say, exactly,” Gwen replied, disappointed.

“Well, according to my Augury, there will be Weal and Woe on the wedding day.”

“That’s to be expected, I suppose.”

“So I tried a higher-order Divination and sought specific outcomes. Do you want to hear them? Are you in a POSITION TO KNOW?”

Mayuree’s rhetorical question reminded Gwen of what the Diviner had said before - knowing your future was like hammering the final nail in your coffin.

“Do you think I should know?”

“NO,” Mayuree answered honestly.

“…”

Gwen relented.

“Okay, I’ll deal with it myself.”

“Phew, hahaha, I wasn’t going to tell you anyway.” Mayuree's voice was relieved.

“Thanks for looking out for me, Mia.”

“So when are you expecting to be back?”

“Six, seven days at worst?”

“Alright.” Mayuree relaxed, which informed Gwen more than she had desired to know. If she were going to be in any danger, Mayuree wouldn't just sit on her hands and tell her to relax. “See you then. I can send a car to pick you up from Hangzhou if you don't have a ride back to Fudan.”

“That’s good to know.”

Indeed, if she had to be cooped up in a van with Guo and Percy, Lord knows what would happen if she started leaking dragon-fear.

“Okay, I got to go. Thanks, Mia. I’ve got some cores for you to sell as well, semi-draconic, plus a special draconic specimen. Please- PLEASE charge me the full commission! I owe you big time!”

“Nonsense, I look forward to seeing the cores! Good luck with the wedding!”

The link broke off.

“Bei? I am done."

To her embarrassment, her patient manservant was already waiting beside the passenger door.

"Alright," Gwen spoke to no one in particular. “Let’s see about this dress."

 

 

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Bonus ::  Gwen's Outfits :: 

Title Ref ::  How to Make Gravy


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Wutosama

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

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