Once the Dragon Mage passed the dragon-pine, she began to feel the oppressive resonance of Humanity's Shielding Stones pounding at her chest. Her core hummed unpleasantly, hinting at the violent end that awaited Ayxin should she persist in approaching the city.
So this was the infamous Shielding magic employed by the humans to keep out Demi-humans and Magical Monsters, she scoffed, displeased by the sensation. The strange frequency disrupted the flow of elemental mana within her body, giving her an impression akin to being underwater.
Ayxin circulated her spatial magic until the throbbing in her chest ceased.
Her progenitor was truly all-seeing and all-knowing.
Humanity's 'Shield' was beyond Ayxin's archaic knowledge of Human Spellcraft. But as coincidence two centuries in the making would have it, she was uniquely equipped to negate its effects.
Was that why her father had not stopped her from performing her fool's errand?
The resonance was a form of highly-attuned spatial-Abjuration magic, and Ayxin possessed the talent to defuse its disruptive foci. She felt a strange thrill, knowing that Ruxin, Golos, and even her father could be stopped once enough Shields overlapped.
With a few careful incantations, she tied off the elaborate Enchantment mandala encircling her core on all six sides.
The full force of her Draconic powers would be suppressed until she released the seal, but what prowess remained was sufficient for uprooting a small township.
As for her appearance, Ayxin conveniently assumed Jun's niece's skinny form. For one, because she had meticulously studied the girl while she bathed, trying to fathom the Ash Bringer's preferences, and the other was that they shared a minute resonance thanks to the girl utilising Ayxin's scale to temper her Draconic Essence.
Though Gwen's likeness proved no obstacle, some physical elements remained immutable, such as Ayxin's sky-blue eyes and a certain air of androgyny.
Then there was a more pragmatic reason. The only modern attire Ayxin possessed was the one the niece had gifted her. That and the "Hello Kitty" tunic, an item she dared not risk on an uncertain, covert journey.
Thus attired as Gwen's simulacrum, clad in wedge heels and a white tunic-sundress, Ayxin-Gwen approached the way-station which marked the boundary into Hangzhou. Once inside the city, her scale would guide her to Gwen and, as such, Jun.
In her pocket dimension, she had brought several treasures desirable to Humans and the old documentation she had imprinted in blood with the Human regime.
The problem was she had no idea if the same regime still ruled the Human world.
If she were wrong, she would have to negotiate with the Humans' cumbersome bureaucracy. If she was right, the contract compelled the regime to at least heed her request. Unless she were to wipe out a human settlement, there was no reason to anger the direct descendent of the Ying Long.
Having thus mused between presenting herself in an officious or private capacity, Ayxin chose the latter. She was here to see about a man, not to cause an incident. She wondered if it was possible to demand Jun Song from the city's rulers, though that may well sour her relationship with the Ash Bringer.
Empathically, if the Yinglong had offered Ayxin, his beloved vessel, to another Dragon, she would likely fight the snake spawn. Therefore, she had to take matters into her own clawed hands.
The border guards, two frail-looking humans with barely detectable innate mana, stared at her with disbelief, wondering why there was a pale-skinned gweilo girl in a sundress in the middle of a Purple Zone.
"Isn't that Miss Song, the one travelling with the Ash Bringer?"
"Didn't she pass by two days ago?"
"Maybe she went out on her own again?"
"She doesn't look like she's dressed for Questing, though."
"Don't look at me." The first shrugged. "I am not in the business of presuming what our betters do for fun. Straighten up, Corporal, here she comes!"
The girl strolled toward them, struggling to balance on her shoes.
"Here are my documents." Ayxin's eyes glowed with the subtle light of Enchantment, her tongue delivering a Draconic incantation as she held their gaze captive.
"Everything's in order, Ma'am." The first guard nodded at the handkerchief she had handed him. "It's a long way from here to the city if you're going on foot."
"I'll fly," Ayxin cooly replied.
The second guard saluted the companion of the Hero of the North.
"Where can I find the Ash Bringer?" she demanded, her voice empowered with old magic as a persistent Suggestion.
"The Liu Manor, Ma'am. The word from the top says that the Secretary is finally marrying off his daughter. The groom is Captain Song's brother. Lots of the brass will be attending, as well as the prominent local families."
"Where is this Manor?"
"West Lake, Western quarter, Ma'am. It's the largest complex there."
"Thank you, Corporal Du."
"At your service, Ma'am!"
"I wasn't here, and you saw nothing."
"Yes, Ma'am, we saw nothing."
A few minutes later, Corporal Du turned to his companion.
"Qe, do you remember Captain Song's companion?"
"The gweilo girl? Who could forget." Qe appreciatively chuckled. "She was a real looker, eh?"
"She was." Du smacked his lips. "I was just thinking of her."
"Don't know," replied Qe. "Feeling lonely?"
"You're not thinking of cheating on the old missus, are you?"
"Naw, Miss Song's the proverbial goldfish, you can look, but you can't touch!"
"What does that make your old woman then?"
"A salted carp!"
The two laughed mirthfully.
"That's a good one, comrade. Ah—slow day, eh?"
"Every day is a slow day out here, Qe." Du snorted. "We're out in the woods, Comrade. Nothing ever happens here, Purple Zone or otherwise."
"Thank Mao!" Qe glanced at the guard tower, where a superior officer might be watching but was far more likely napping or watching Vid-casts. If a Dragon-kin like that blasted wyvern breached the border, all they could do was immediately report the threat. It was the local garrison's job to take care of the trouble. They were just an isolated watchtower. "We should be so lucky, eh?"
Far from the outpost, Ayxin flew, her voluminous hair billowing behind her shoulders. The torturous shoes the girl had gifted her required more concentration to muster than the magic she had used to confound the soldiers. Also, the unergonomic angle of the heels grated on her ankles and the peep-toe tip made her pink appendages arch uncomfortably, forcing her off-balance.
Once the Dragon-Mage was away from the checkpoint, she lifted herself into the air, freeing the weight on the ball of her foot.
Upon reaching a suitable height, Ayxin accelerated, making for Hangzhou city. If she flew at a low altitude to avoid detection, the journey would take several hours.
Ayxin contemplatively hefted a handful of crystals in her hand.
She had about a hundred LDMs and a dozen HDMs.
Her cache of Human currency was solicited from a man who had accosted her, complimented her on her physical beauty, and then offered to take her to see the Ash Bringer.
Ruminating profoundly, she attempted to trace the last few hours of chaos.
When she arrived at the city's outskirts at night, she became immediately disorientated by the horrendous butchery the Humans had executed upon the once natural landscape. In her memory, Hangzhou was a beautiful city of rivers and estuaries, seated in a floodplain, surrounded by an extensive network of walls that shielded its population from Wildland Magical Beasts.
Instead, Ayxin became mortified by the sight of a human city stretching from horizon to horizon, utterly obfuscating every natural landmark, sprawled across every conceivable space, stripping out all but small tuffs of greenery from the once verdant land.
Then there was the mana miasma.
She had taken a lungful of it as soon as she reached the city proper, and the thickness of the spent mana fog almost sent her tumbling from the sky.
These Humans—they were a parasite! A blight upon the world!
She couldn't even tell where West Lake was! A concrete jungle so tightly packed stretched out in front of Ayxin that it was impossible to discern where one township ended and another began. It was as though the city centre was a fat, fleshy spider perched on the floodplain, while all around it, silk threads in the form of highways burst like an erupted cocoon across the once virgin land.
She felt stricken by unbidden nausea, unsure if it was because of the smoggy pollutants in the air or if the reality of Humanity's usurpation exceeded her wildest nightmares. As primordial beings, Dragons are given life by the Prime Material Plane. As a race, they were especially sensitive to the changes in an area's elemental composition.
No wonder humans had such short life spans! If she could persuade Jun to leave the human city, there would be hope for the Ash Mage.
Lost and heady with sickness, she alighted somewhere discrete, then made for the town centre, wondering if someone could know where the Ash Bringer was.
And that was when she met the man who deceived her.
"Of course, I know him! He's famous!" the man had announced boisterously. "Right this way, Miss, I'll give you a ride straight to his house by the West Lake."
The liar was an ugly man, apish and small; not unlike the Canhu monkey-men who inhabited Huangshan, only this one was wearing a suit.
He directed her to a vehicle, one that, to Ayxin, looked to be in bad shape. Two other young men were in the large cargo vehicle with him; both appeared shocked that their companion had not only returned but had brought Ayxin with him.
The men said nothing while the monkey-man drove, their faces remaining incredulous as they wantonly gazed at Ayxin. Skimming their minds, Ayxin affirmed that Gwen Song possessed very desirable physical traits, as she could taste the lust oozing from the men's brains.
After some time, the vehicle stopped.
Then the men told her that they were not going to West Lake.
The bold proclamation confused Ayxin, who could hardly fathom why these apish, low-life existences would deceive her. It was as ridiculous as a Merfolk offering Golos its young, only to pass it off as a joke when the Thunder Wyvern arrived, hungry and anticipating a fulfilling meal.
"Are you saying that you do not know the whereabouts of The Ash Bringer?" Ayxin asked, her voice raising an octave.
"Bitch, are you slow?"
The men laughed at her.
Ayxin laughed as well. The situation was novel indeed!
It was a refreshing experience to interact with these strange and mortal creatures in such a manner. The Dragon was rapidly learning about the duplicitous nature of Man. It was odd because when she resided among the Humans some two centuries ago, they came only in two types—dangerous or grovelling.
"Maybe she is slow…" one of the others commented.
"You are wrong," Ayxin informed the liar's companion. "I can be very fast if I want to."
The men grinned at each other.
One of them reached out to touch her thighs.
To prove her earlier point, Ayxin reached out simultaneously.
She was faster—much faster.
She plucked out the man's eyeballs, using Gwen's thin fingers as hooks, then tossed them at the screamer's wide-eyed companion, who juggled the orbs comically in abject horror.
The monkey man who'd led her here must have been uncannily intelligent because he kicked open the vehicle door and immediately fled.
"Pok!" she spat from her soft lips; the Draconic was less effective because the fleshy flaps of her human mouth impeded her enunciation.
The man froze, his face a mask of agony as every muscle obeyed Ayxin's command.
The remaining Human attempted to stab her with a metallic implement. Her flesh proved impervious, but Gwen's dress was less study than Ayxin's Draconic body.
"What… are you?" The man's eyes widened, finally realising that they were not dealing with a breathtakingly beautiful simpleton who had wandered into the wrong part of town.
"Take me to the Ash Bringer," Ayxin instilled a little Dragon Fear into her voice.
The man's eyes bulged, then made a gagging sound before hurling his last meal over the floor. Ayxin watched the yellow fluid splatter onto her shoes. A vein beneath the dermis of her temple throbbed. Now she knew she had indeed been deceived. Her Draconic Mind-Magic couldn't compel a victim to confess that which they did not know.
"Don't kill me!" the man begged. "We'll give you everything we have! All the money and crystals we've got on us!"
A Dragon never said no to crystals.
The blinded man continued to wail even as his companion searched him. The monkey man, held by command, was more compliant.
Ayxin was expediently presented with an assortment of paper and crystals.
She tossed the paper bills and kept the crystals.
With a casual backhand, she knocked the man who had vomited on her across the forehead, sinking his face into the glass pane of the vehicle. As for the liar hung by her incantation outside, she broke both of his legs with a swift kick, crumpling the man like paper. Her final assailant responded by throwing himself into a passionate and bloody series of kowtows that polluted the pavement.
Such frail beings, these Humans, Ayxin mused. There was no sport in killing them.
Leaving the men, Ayxin tried to orientate herself to no avail. The mana haze was too thick, and the elements would not heed her call. Short of wiping the Human blight from the earth, she would have to navigate as the mortals did.
When she emerged from the alleyway, another male immediately accosted her. This older man professed to be the proprietor of an eatery, the front of which she now occupied, drawing an audience.
"Mao! What happened to you?"
The man had been so surprised upon seeing her cut dress that his cigarette fell from his lips.
"I am fine, Sir," Ayxin replied. "I am looking for the Ash Bringer; if you could point me in the right direction, I shall reward you."
"The who and what?" The old man regarded her critically. "You feeling alright, Miss?"
"Jun Song, the Ash Bringer," she repeated herself. "I need to find him."
"Why are you looking for the Hero of the North?"
Ayxin considered the man's question carefully. She was in Gwen's form, so saying that she was looking for her future mate would be grossly unfair and somewhat off-putting. Dragons could be incestuous, but she was Human, for now.
"He is my Uncle," Ayxin noted as a matter of factly.
The old man raised an eyebrow, showing no indication that he believed her.
"You can't walk around here like that. It's not safe. Hooligans and hoodlums are all over the place. The PLA doesn't give a shit about the Districts."
"Please point me in the right direction. I am not afraid of bandits and brigands. I lack currency."
"I don't think they'll want your money, Miss."
"That is acceptable. I would like theirs."
An awkward silence passed.
"Look, at least come in and clean yourself."
"Not necessary, old Sir, though I thank you for offering it."
The Human snorted derisively at her dismissal, shaking his head.
"Nartok!" A burst of elemental water erupted from thin air, enveloping her body and soaking the dress. The old man's eyes grew as large as a hen's eggs. Though the elements were rarified in the NoM District, she could still summon magic through the gate within her body. It took a minute for the Water Elementals to finish their task, leaving her dress, face and hair spotless and dry.
By then, a small crowd had gathered.
"Mao! Why didn't you say you're Mage?! A Water Mage at that? Sorry for asking." The old man seemed to Ayxin to be uncharacteristically offended. There was a scent of fear that now circulated his body. The man turned to leave.
"Do you know where the Ash Bringer is?" Ayxin intoned, forcing the old man to answer her against his will.
The man's eyes glazed over.
"No, why would I know that? He's a national hero. They don't come to NoM Districts. Try the West Lake. That's where all the Mages live."
Where in this light-polluted cesspool of human habitation was West Lake?
Should she, perhaps, perform an aerial survey?
But suppose she glaringly flew through the city. In that case, she may immediately give herself away, ruining the surprise of her future meeting with Jun and informing the local authorities that they had an esteemed guest that required immediate chaperoning. In the worst case, the ruler may expel her before she can attend this 'wedding'.
Luckily, a crowd of humans was here at her beck and call.
"You people," she edged her voice with an irresistible will. "Show me the way to West Lake."
"THIS WAY!" A crowd of humans stood to attention.
Immediately, they began to walk in different directions, each supremely confident in their knowledge of where 'West Lake' may be.
Ayxin stood stunned, staring at the dispersing crowd.
What… in her progenitor's name… is wrong with these humans?!
Ayxin hadn't slept for two, maybe three days.
Dragons cultivate by sleeping. The more one slept, the more their natural prowess grew. With their limited lifespans, humans lived every day as though it was their last moment on the Material Plane.
At least, that was the impression Ayxin got when observing those she enlisted to aid her progress.
The motes of mana from the Planes grew thinner the deeper she ventured into the human territory, meaning she had to find sustenance in more mortal forms. When she got hungry, she ate, asking vendors and passersby for food, spending all her crystals. Later, the humans became upset when she could not front up the necessary currency.
Thirst was easier. There were plenty of estuaries with clear water for Ayxin to wander into and slake her thirst. Her actions always drew an audience, which Ayxin found humorous, noting with irony that the humans themselves were constitutionally too weak to enjoy the bounty of nature.
Her haughty practice lasted until she saw a child urinate into the river.
The crowd gathered around the strangely beautiful girl drinking from the stream almost simultaneously pissed and shat themselves when Ayxin endured a regret never before felt in her two centuries of life.
She then tried summoning fresh water directly from the Elemental Plane, but the water was likewise polluted by whatever the city was pumping back into the Plane. After several such occurrences, she acquired bottles of purified water.
By the second day, Ayxin had lost count of how many times these humans had tried to deceive her, lure her to strange places, and misdirect her quest. Inevitably, she left them broken and abandoned somewhere.
How quickly has human society changed in only two centuries? Ayxin reflected in dismay. When she was a child, she had never seen the outside world. She had only been taken from the interior courtyard and onto the streets when she left the household and made her journey to Huangshan. As she passed, elevated upon an elaborate palanquin, the peasants dropped to their knees in worship of Ayxin's Daoshi entourage.
After six days, her escorts had left her at the threshold of the Hundred-Thousand Terrace. That salient memory of lowered heads and stooped shoulders had thus shaped her idea of Humanity.
Even when the emissary from the humans came to see her father some five decades ago, they had lowered their heads and spoken in soft, polite tones. None dared to meet her eyes, much less demand anything of her. Of course, Ayxin knew she was borrowing her father's terror, but her prejudice remained.
Yet here, everyone glanced at her, stared at her, and watched her every move without fear. People came up to her to ask questions, followed her, and even offered her food and printed images on sheets of paper! One daring male even offered her crystal currency, blurting out that he wished to mate with her!
Of course, she wasn't in her Draconic form. But still, Ayxin was both thrilled and disgusted.
How bold the Human race had become!
She could feel the avarice and greed drooling from their psyche like a palpable slick. Was this what her father was afraid of, that the Humans were a greedy, gluttonous parasitic existence that consumed all matter within reach of their grubby digits?
When she finally reached West Lake, she felt like a year had passed, not three days. She appeared to be in a reserved area, thankfully cleared of the debris-like buildings the Humans used for habitation. Here, the resonance of the Shielding Crystal was strongest, hinting at the presence of the central station somewhere within the middle of the lake. However, the mana within the region was purer, allowing her to rest.
To the casual passerby fascinated by the exhibition, a gweilo girl had arrived at the Municipal Park, found a bench, sprawled herself on top of the stone surface, and promptly fell asleep.
"Hey, cutie, you looking for a place to sleep? How come you're not jogging today?"
Ayxin opened her eyes.
She was surrounded by Humans, about a dozen of them.
"I didn't think you were a local but, damn, who'd thought you were homeless? You need someone to take care of you."
The speaker was a Human male.
She must have slept for a whole day, judging from the pale light of the risen moon.
Rubbing her eyes to clear the mucus, she found that twelve hours of rest was not near-sufficient to dispel the mental fatigue she felt. Elemental mana here was too thin, too displaced from the Planes to cultivate. She had been tempted to surround herself with the densely packed crystals the Humans used for currency, but she knew well enough not to entice trouble.
But what was this circle of young men, and a few women, doing standing beside her?
The smell of sex was rank as her gaze swept her observers. Several of them were in heat, both the males and the females, though the heaviest stink was the acrid stench of yellow-bellied fear.
They reminded Ayxin of the scavengers on the mount, especially the crows. When the birds found an abandoned young animal, they would peck out their victim's eyes, then wait for the panicking sufferer to tire.
Fear of what?
If they were afraid of Ayxin, they would not have accosted her like this.
She traced their eyes until their line of sight converge on the speaker, who looked to be in his late twenties. The man had the bearing of an alpha male—broad-chested, well-muscled, confident, possessing a cruel, crow-like glint in the recess of his small, beady eyes. Ayxin recognised the bearing; the man was an opportunistic hunter.
"I was resting until you disturbed me," Ayxin stated the facts. "Go away."
"You don't have to sleep here." The young man grinned with an opaque expression of dangerous arousal. "I'll give you a place to stay, a warm bed and food. You'll never be cold or hungry again."
It must be because of the restrained virility of the human reproductive systems, Ayxin thought as she moved one pale leg after another from the stone bench, brushing the dust from her dress. Self-preservation, procreation, and currency seemed to be the modus operandi driving these Humans, a triplicate of natural inclinations which Ayxin, as a Dragon-kin, empathised with perfectly.
Still, the desperate display was pitiful. This particular Human's appetite was far more substantial than his ability and worth as an existence. A snake with an appetite for dragons.
Then, to her surprise, the man reached out and touched her in an overly friendly manner.
Not only that, he took her by the arm.
She stared at the fleshy appendage attaching to her limb, frowning unpleasantly. With a word, she could strip the flesh from the man's bones or command his minions to tear him to pieces with their teeth. But Ayxin would give the man a chance to redeem himself. She wasn't bloodthirsty like Ruxin or Golos; she was a pacifist.
"Do you know where the Ash Bringer is?" she demanded of the young man, throwing him a lifeline even as he stared at her chest.
The question seemed to catch the Human youths off guard. They laughed at her before the young man answered.
"I know where the man will be," the young man seemed puzzled by her fearless naivety and perplexing response. "He'll be at Liu's wedding this Sunday. It'll be the biggest event this year. His brother is marrying the only daughter of the Clan. We're family friends. Why? Are you a fan?"
"I am not a fan." Ayxin pondered what her next course of action should be. "I am a Human, like you. You are not an astute observer."
"Er..." The young man seemed less confident in his interest now.
"I am hungry." Ayxin carefully removed the young man's hand, cautiously to avoid breaking something off by accident. She still needed him if what he said was true. "Bring me some food."
Ayxin announced her desire, and her observers felt a sudden urge to bring her sustenance. It was as though her voice filled every nook and cranny of their brain.
"What would you like?"
"We can get take out."
"No! We go to Papa Lau's."
"To the Hyatt! Full banquet!"
However, the young man who had touched her seemed unaffected by her Suggestion. A small, barely visible halo faded from his head, and then her assailant stepped back, his face ashen.
"You're an M-Mind Mage!" he uttered, tongue-tied and stuttering. "Everyone! G—"
“Munthrek! Tyrtrol ve!”
Something around the young man's neck shattered, barely audible and invisible underneath his shirt.
The young man fell to his knees and performed a kowtow.
"I, Chen Pao, am at your command, Mistress."
His friends ceased their banter, stared at their leader and broke into hilarious laughter. Their voices were silenced when the young man kissed Ayxin's feet without an ounce of unwillingness.
"I desire nourishment," Ayxin commanded her newly Dominated peon.
"Right this way." Pao stood, bowed, and then opened a path for Ayxin. He turned to the rest of his companions. "The rest of you! Follow the Mistress! We are going to Louwailou! Jo, Message ahead and tell them I need a private chamber overlooking the water. Full banquet, spare no expense!"
The crew looked at each other.
"Wiilirk!" Ayxin injected Pao's followers with a jolt of motivation.
She was feeling peckish.
"I know the manager there!"
"I'll go ahead and prepare!"
"Ah-Xi, bring the car. I am taking the Mistress down to Louwailou," Pao informed his house servant through a Message device. "Bring me the limousine in my dad's garage!"
Her sycophants sat in respectful silence as Ayxin worked through a small mountain of dishes.
West Lake Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce
Shallot Stuffed Pancake
West Lake Water Shield Soup
Deep-fried Bean Curd Rolls Stuffed with Minced Tenderloin
Three 'Savoury' Soup
A pound of fried rice with freshly peeled river prawns in a white seafood sauce.
A dish, Shelled Shrimp with Dragon Well Tea, caught her interest. Pao carefully explained that the Longjing tea came from the Village of Longjing and was a Gong-Cha, or the tea drunk by the Kangxi Emperor during the Qing Dynasty, the last and final dynasty of China's tumultuous change through the 20th century.
"I may have met him. Kangxi was the snot-nosed brat who killed off his generals when he was twelve, right?" Ayxin dropped a casual truth bomb as she masticated the prawns, shell and all, savouring the herbal taste of rich, elemental water.
Her new followers weren't sure how to respond to such an audaciously made-up statement.
"Bring me that wine."
Pao passed over a thirty-year-old Maotai bottle worth well over fifty HDMs. Ayxin slugged down the delicious, crystal-clear liquid.
"Find me lodgings with clean air and water, somewhere discrete and without people. I wish to rest until the wedding."
"The wedding? Mistress?"
"You will be escorting me into the wedding."
"… yes, Mistress."
Ayxin had kept the man's mind intact. Within, a small part of Pao would have screamed and screamed, but the larger portion of his psyche was wholly besotted with her, whose every word was law and whose smallest whim was a mandate. His friends, likewise, had quickly transformed into her most ardent worshippers.
Whenever he laid eyes upon her, every cell in his body cried out to worship her presence—to fall before an existence infinitely more significant than his mortal self.
In watching her sycophants, Ayxin wondered if this was what her mother's scholar-bureaucrats of old must have felt when gazing upon their Emperor.
Ayxin examined herself in the hotel room's mirror.
She couldn't help but grudgingly agree that Gwen's figure was made for wearing these fabulous artisanal creations. Though Ryxi could command the silkworms to spin seamless tunics and shimmering shawls, the aesthetics of the White-Serpent had been firmly entrenched in the 16th century.
The problem was that Ayxin had no sense of style, and her followers could not resist the compulsion of her dominion long enough to tell her the truth. Even though her sycophants brought up dress after dress, she rejected them all, finding that none had the charm of the simple cotton shirt which Jun had gifted her during their heated exchange.
In the end, Ayxin settled on a dark green skirt and the Hello-Kitty T-shirt, imagining how surprised her Ash Bringer would be when she showed up at the wedding.
By the same measure, she couldn't attend in the guise of Jun's niece. Pao had said that the girl would be there and was, in fact, the objective of many of the young men attending.
The Dragon-Mage thus allowed her original appearance to overlay that of the Human niece, giving herself deeply set eyes, a sharper jawline, a more pronounced noble nose, and a head full of flaxen, platinum hair. For shoes, the pair Gwen had given her had been ruined by excessive use, so she had Pao find her a replacement in albino-snake leather from a place called Italy as a homage to her useless brother.
"Pao, am I beautiful?" Ayxin knew the answer but felt compelled to request an affirmation.
Pao was wearing a tuxedo-style mandarine jacket. The young man looked good, Ayxin had to admit, even if his faculties had long since been grounded down by material excess.
"OH MISTRESS, I am drunk on your distant looks and frequent smiles, sweet and real. I dream of your delicacy of complexion and symmetry of form in silken dresses embroidered with golden peacocks, riding on a silvery Kirin, dazzling in the sunshine of springs and autumns…"
Even Ayxin blushed a little at the young man's addled obsession. She recognised the poem, stolen from the Analects of Du-Fu, the Poet-Sage of the Tang Dynasty. Ayxin's father had kept a complete collection of Du's 1500-odd poems, often joking that no second copy existed outside his treasury.
"Enough," she had to stop the young man. Dufu wasn't just a sage of poetry; he was also the patron saint of whorehouses during the Tang Dynasty, overshadowing the bureaucratic and magical genius of the great Sage.
Ayxin patted the young man's head, not unlike one's affection for a large dog.
Pao wept with happiness.
"When do you think we should attend?" she enquired of her servant.
"Any time you please, Mistress. Though I would suggest soon, we must sign in our wedding gifts and be seated. My father has reminded me that I will meet with the groom's daughter and several other potential suitors. I have already rebuked him, Mistress. You are the sole object of my devotion."
"No, Pao, go meet Gwen. I shall be occupied once we are at the wedding itself. Pay no mind to me."
"You have taken good care of me in the last few days, Pao. I am not unkind. Though you may not remember me, I will reward you nonetheless."
"Your presence is reward enough, Mistress."
"Nonsense. Here, this is yours."
In Pao's outstretched hand, she deposited a ceramic pot welded shut by Enchantment. Within its pocket dimension was a supply of yearling Fur Tea, plucked at first bloom by Air Elemental Sprites. The Yinglong bartered no more than a hundred jars of the life-extending tea leaves, capable of bringing vitality to the elderly, dispelling disease and injury in the young, and temporarily infusing the drinker with motes of Draconic-vitality.
Even as Pao wept freely over his impending freedom, Ayxin turned to the mirror to examine her striking features. She had never known that with a little touch of make up, a change of colour to her eyes and a subtle shift in her bone structure; she could be so breathlessly beautiful, even in her own eyes.
"Alight, Pao, ready the car," Ayxin informed her companion. "The wedding awaits!"