“That’s the dress she ordered?” Qīn spread the cream-coloured horror across the dining table before regarding it critically. “She'll look like a pink pancake wrapped around a stick of fried dough.”
“Yes, Mistress.” Her servant confirmed her scepticism. “Miss Gwen has said that the bridesmaid should never overshadow the bride. Her intentions are for you to take centre stage.”
Qīn shot her manservant a perplexed glance. The elderly NoM had been in her service since she was a child. Rarely had he spoken out of turn, especially in defence of someone other than herself.
“I see.” Qīn clicked her tongue thoughtfully. “It’s hideous.”
Bei lowered his head.
“And you helped her make her other purchases? The ones for her friends in Shanghai?”
Qīn chewed her lips thoughtfully, her eyes looking right through her manservant.
“Has the contingency dress arrived?”
“It has, mistress.”
The man brought out a package from his storage ring.
Qīn spread the dress before her, examining it critically.
“What do you think of the cut, the design?”
“The dress is… immodest, Mistress.”
"It's what they call fashion, Bei.”
Her usually soft eyes grew suddenly cold.
Murder her koi?!
Beguile her manservant?!
THE BRAT! Her precious, priceless koi that she'd taken care of since she was a little girl! Murdering her auspicious creatures right before her wedding, what was the girl thinking? Did she disapprove of her union with Hai that vehemently?
"You are dismissed, Bei."
Qīn watched the man disappear.
Hai was hers alone. Not the Song's, and certainly not his daughter's.
* * *
Gwen had spent the last few days exploring Hangzhou at her leisure, putting the wedding entirely behind her.
On Wednesday morning, she spent three hours watching a man materialise a life-like scene of the Qiantang River with nought but three paintbrushes and a four-colour palette of dark ink. Watching the artist at work, she became soothed by the sound of whispering willows, sinking into the softness of the fine turf covering the riverbank.
Her luncheons proved equally enterprising and adventurous. Unlike the heavily salted and sugared cuisine typical of the tier 1 city, Su-Hang dishes were more subtle, based around the plentiful resources provided by the city’s lakes and estuaries. In particular, she fell in love with a textured gloop made from West Lake Lotus Root, a richly sweet gravy possessing a fortifying vitality which offset her growing hunger significantly.
Given the freedom to explore the city proper, Gwen grew partial to jogging along the banks of the West Lake and the river. The exhaustive exercise allowed her to stretch out her limbs, while the runner’s high made her feel less anxious about the wedding ahead.
Her favourite route was the descent of the blue-hour when the crystalline water became awash with mauve and sometimes orange light as the sinking sun diffused its splendour over a dusky horizon.
A short but tranquil lull in her otherwise turbulent life.
The calm before the storm.
On Thursday, Gwen began her morning run from the Santai Yunshui monument, built to commemorate a noble scholar-bureaucrat of the Song Dynasty, detoured via the Leifeng Pagoda, then joined the walking trail encircling the West Lake Municipal Reserve.
The whole route was almost twenty kilometres of blissful greenery.
With a comfortable outfit consisting of a skort paired with a padded-bra singlet, white runners and a swishing ponytail, she powered through the hills and the dips, the byways and the waterways, the ascending steps and the mossy stepping stones.
The more she ran, the better she felt.
Her Almudj’s Essence sang out as she moved through the temperate Jiangnan waterscape, comfortably falling into the rhythmic breathing dictated by Ayxin’s scales. The more she ran, the more mastery she felt over the willful power bound within her mortal body.
As milestones fell by the wayside, she felt the mental grime gripping her consciousness flaking away, piece by piece, mote by mote, until only the feeling of fleeting distance remained.
Occasionally, a passerby or a suspicious looking fellow would call out to her, but she blasted past them without so much as a pause. On one occasion, a Mage joined her, presumably a Transmuter, and the two ran side by side until the man gave up, not wanting to damage his body for something as trivial as chasing skirt.
As the day wore on, Gwen ventured further and further into the reserve, visiting temples, sight-seeing from tall pagodas; she observed monks chanting in halls filled with the heady scent of sandalwood incense. She even caught the tail-end of a funeral procession, allowing her to watch demurely as the white-clad family filed from the grand pavilion in rows of twos, as a monk attired in saffron and gold swished a willow branch back and forth, sanctifying the path ahead.
Feeling moved by the display of human frailty, she entered the grand hall of the Lingyin Temple and lit three incense for her grandmother and her uncle, wishing for them good luck and less interesting times ahead.
Gwen noticed several pedestrians giving her strange looks as she jogged back toward the manor. There was a particular idiosyncrasy about the Chinese which had always grated on her nerves - they liked to point. In Australia, finger-wagging at someone was very rude.
In Shanghai, people had pointed, but understandably because of Ariel riding Caliban rodeo style.
Here, they could only be pointing at her because - Gwen hypothesised narcissistically - because she was tall, lithe, and attractive. If there was any saving grace, it was that the Chinese hadn't acquired the 'dog whistling' habit enjoyed by Mages and NoMs alike in her old working-class suburb of Forrestville. Not even a junior-high uniform prevented the bored men from doing God's work.
Still, Gwen felt offended enough to change her route. Along the way, she discovered a quaint ‘hole in the wall’ place selling individual Chongqing hot-pot portions and readied her body for a gut-churning experience as delicious as it was torturous.
Afterwards, she called Richard again, thinking that ‘the crew’ was likely taking time out for some R&R. She was again received with merriment and joy, becoming privy to enticing accounts of Lulan’s exploits and her soaring reputation as the 'Nantong Ripper'.
FUCK. Gwen bit her lower lip. What a cool moniker!
On Saturday, the Liu's held a rehearsal.
Four hours later, her facial muscles were frozen in place.
Jogging from the house, she avoided the riverbank and proceeded upward until she reached Zuanyuan-Fan, north of Chi-San Hill, a historic garden abandoned by the Qing invaders, then restored by the CCP as a monument to the Battle-Mages who gave their life defending the Northern Front.
The garden itself was dominated by a profusion of willows, muffling the sound of swallows jostling for territory. To Gwen's eyes, the garden was a curious, agrarian existence where ancient architecture had grown into the landscape itself. Everything about the garden was taken from natural materials. The streets were cobblestone paved with granite and shale excavated from the surrounding region. The white-washed walls of the tea-houses and shop fronts were likewise weighed down by ochre terracotta, held in place by pillars of aged wood stained with mahogany.
She felt an unexpected quickening of her Lightning mana as her Almudj’s Essence circulated, now with far greater mastery than when she’d first returned from the Yinglong's mountain.
Out of curiosity, she double-checked Ariel. The marten was still fast-asleep, cocooned by essence as a flow of Lightning channelled from her Conjuration Sigil nourished its growth. When she mentally nudged it, Ariel made an 'Eeee!', informing her that it would soon be ready for duty.
In less than twelve hours, the wedding would begin. Gwen would stand like a mannequin and be pushed to and fro by strangers directing her to sit, to stand, to hold the teacups, to pour for her father and ‘mother’, and to smile at guests.
One boon of the tedious rehearsal was that she got to meet Jun’s partner for the wedding, a mousy woman from a neighbouring House, called Jingweng Yi. Small and petite, the woman was thoroughly intimidated by Gwen's unconscious hostility, spending the entire time hiding behind Qīn. Their other bridesmaid was Qīn’s younger cousin, a girl with a hyper-feminine, doll-like mien, who immediately took offence at Gwen’s indifferent demeanour.
Jun himself was absent, as was Gwen’s partner. Luckily, as this was a Chinese wedding, the ‘best man’ had no real job other than standing beside the groom looking stoic and loyal. Most of the legwork was done by the girls, who had to escort the bride through no less than one tea ceremony, four changes of dresses, and act as her ‘door stops’ when the groom first comes to ‘welcome’ the bride into a palanquin.
The reception wasn’t at a restaurant or a hotel, such as the Hyatt Regency or the Hangzhou Four Seasons. Instead, it was held at the Liu estate, with the front doors wide open. The practice called the 'flowing water banquet' allowed anyone who wished to wish the couple well the chance to join the 'outer banquet', while the inner circle held their private function in the interior courtyard.
The sheer volume of guests frightened her, but there was no rescinding her sunk cost. She convinced herself that no matter how tedious the wedding, it would pass like a bad meal of hot pot eaten too quickly and with too much pepper-oil.
Then, she would be back to Fudan.
Back to academia.
Back to honing her six tiers of Elemental Lightning.
And finding a way to introduce horror-stag Caliban to polite society.
* * *
A day that may very well live in infamy.
Gwen hadn’t slept and had to compensate for her lack of REM with a fifteen-minute meditation. Almudj's bounty wouldn’t keep her entirely alert, but she wouldn’t just crumple in the middle of serving tea.
She dressed in slacks, then ventured toward the dresser to prepare her face.
With her flawless dermis, she needn’t apply the copious layers of concealer she had to use in the old world. She instead began with a thin layer of spot-cover, highlighted with dashes of easy-glam, dabbed in some eye-shadow paste, then used a no.2 to draw thick, voluminous wing-tips. Some contouring followed, highlighting her forehead, cheekbones, and chin. A wet-look lipstick in peach, sharpened with the aid of a pencil, completed the look.
The result was agreeable to Gwen.
Fresh but dazzling, subtle but coy.
As for hair, Gwen opted for a low-do. She tied her long hair at the three-quarter mark, then folded the knot up and inward. The result was a half-bun with curly fringes framing her face, a style which exposed her elegant neck and sharp shoulders.
At seven-sharp, she made her way across the south wing, through the central courtyard with its sprouting spectacle of dining tables.
A familiar looking triangular platform caught her attention.
"Are those Force Barriers?" Gwen stopped a servant.
"Yes Miss, there's going to be Spellcraft demonstrations after the reception."
Not a conspiracy-device then, Gwen rolled her eyes at her paranoia. Duelling was the most popular activity amongst junior Mages, as demonstrated by the fact that the largest and most popular association at her uni was the Fudan Competitive Duelling Club.
When a large coalition of Houses, Clans and notable folks had a gathering, they bragged about themselves by showing off their children.
The servant left before she could apologise for stopping her.
The groomsmen’s party was set up elsewhere, at another family estate.
The idea, Gwen gathered from the rehearsal, was that the groom would ‘arrive’ to ‘welcome’ the bride, ‘persuading’ Gwen, Jingwen, and Fei to let them through.
The weird part of it was that Hai was marrying 'into' the bride's family, which meant the palanquin would return to the main house, from where it came.
Truth be told, Gwen was tempted to ‘defend’ the door to her death.
"Over my dead body!" she would declare.
What would her father do then?
But then she would have to fight her uncle.
She was still musing when Fei, the China-doll cousin, approached with her dress.
“Gwen, you seriously going to wear this thing?”
Of course, Gwen grinned at the cousin. She had picked a burrito dress that made her look like a soggy Mexican takeaway luncheon on purpose. God knows what Qīn would do if she were to overshadow the bride in any form.
And then she pulled up something light and flimsy.
Her immediate confusion was, 'What happened to the other 80% of the fabric?'
“Aunty Qīn?” Gwen blinked innocently at the bride.
“Wear that one, Gwen.” Qīn made a guilty face. “Your original one was lost.”
“Bei slipped, and it fell into the pond.”
“Really?” Gwen felt a spark of annoyance and tried to keep it from her face. If Qīn couldn't be bothered putting any effort into a lie, why bother lying at all? Was she testing her?
“Yes, Bei was devastated.”
Gwen’s scalp crawled with phantasmal premonition. The dress wasn't excessive by Australian standards. She could easily wear it to the races, where the ladies would have nothing but praise for her excellent taste.
Yet, she couldn't help but shiver.
“Gwen - put on the dress.”
Qīn’s healer's presence pleaded with her.
The emotional blackmail was glaringly obvious. For a brief moment, Gwen fantasied throwing the dress in the pond.
But she thought of babulya, of Jun - of her father’s stupid smitten face.
And the fact that it was this woman’s wedding day.
A woman who had waited twenty years to marry the man of her dreams.
As a fellow lonesome single-lady, she had to give Qīn a chance.
She put on the dress.
Or, as it were, she slipped into half a dress.
If she was going as a wrapped burrito before, she was now wearing only the lettuce.
Qīn had picked out a knit flare-dress with a round neckline, a backless design, a full circle skirt and a weighted hem, all done up in pinkish pastel silk.
The hem was at least three inches above her knees, dangerously exposing her thighs, while her entire back was in the nuddy thanks to superficial ribbon-ties tethered to make a cute little 'H'.
Just as she was about to complain that the dress was too loose and she could have a wardrobe malfunction, the bloody fabric tightened.
A fucking magical dress.
Her evil-stepmother had spared no expense.
On the one hand, the dress was both elegant and youthful. It put Gwen's best attributes on display - her legs, her thin ankles, her toned back, her well-formed collar bones and her long neck.
On the other hand, why would Qīn go the extra mile to draw attention away from herself?
“You look like a real treat, dear.” Qīn flashed her eyes lovingly. “Here, put these on. They’re a gift from me.”
“Hermès?” Gwen stared at the golden buckle embossed with a horse-drawn Duc's carriage. “For me?”
“Yes, try them on,” Qīn mused in a friendly voice. “The shoes are self-cleaning, self-sizing, and resistant to almost all forms of wear and tear. It will also attune to your element, once you complete the ritual. The instructions are in the box, here.”
Qīn passed over an orange box.
The surreal moment caught Gwen off-guard.
Qīn had scored a critical hit on the weakest part of her psyche.
Even in her old world, the most she’d ever spent on shoes was outlet priced Jimmy Choo or Burberry's. A pair of ankle-strap Hermès sandals was over $1000! In season varieties were often well over $2000! For that price, she could be buying work-related oxfords from Louis Vitton.
It wasn’t that she couldn’t afford Hermès. It was the unbearable thought of scuffing a $2000 pair of shoes, especially ones she would only wear to parties or races once in a blue moon. She had promised herself that perhaps, in another decade, when she could comfortably retire, she would casually purchase a pair a year, the newest of the season, and cycle through them.
What would something like this cost in the Mage-world?
As a magic item crafted by one of the most esteemed ‘Artisanal Accessory' workshops in the world, what price did it command? In Australia, they had designer goods, but the products were rarely enchanted. It was like buying from the ‘budget’ section of a designer store versus purchasing from the top-shelf, in-seasons range.
“Cat got your tongue?” Qīn broke into mirthful laughter, amused by the stunned expression on Gwen’s face.
“Thank you… Aunty Qīn.” Gwen suddenly felt incredibly depraved. Had she wronged the woman? One could not look a gift of Hermès in the mouth!
She put her new shoes on and walked around in them.
The strap was calf-skin soft, and the shoes were weightlessly attached to her feet. Despite the high arch, she felt no discomfort; the heeled sandals were perfect.
“This is incredible,” Gwen blurted out, still in disbelief that she had a pair of Hermès casually gifted to her.
“We all have a pair,” Qīn informed Gwen. “Daddy got them for me from the Paris Tower. He has acquaintances there.”
As is tradition, the other girls showed off their shoes; an act which absolved some of Gwen's guilt.
Fei wore a version of her dress with ample fabric at the back, though she had a plunging neckline that showed off nothing in particular. Jingwen meanwhile, was wrapped from shoulder to knee. When the three stood together, it looked as though they had one, three-quaters, and half a dress.
“Mao, your legs are so long.” Fei chewed her lips. Qīn’s cousin was about five-foot-four, an average height for a local girl. The diminutive Jingwen was only five-foot-one and looked like a New Zealand Halfling when standing next to Gwen.
“It's the shoes.” Gwen awkwardly made herself smaller. The shoes added another four inches to her height, pushing her just over six-foot-four.
“Gwen’s standing on the far end so it won’t matter,” Qīn informed the other bridesmaids. “Come on, the men should almost be here.”
“They won’t get past us!” Fei announced readily.
“I’ll do my best,” Jingwen muttered.
“I’ll kick my dad’s ass,” Gwen declared.
The other bridesmaids fell about with laughter.
“Gwen.” Qīn took Gwen's hand, her eyes forming two smiling half-moons. “I am counting on you.”
For the shoe's sake, she better not fuck this up.
The women's collective attire was finalised with jewellery.
The bridesmaids wore crystals jewellery in sterling silver, while Qīn wore gold and diamonds.
“No bangles and necklaces for you?” Gwen asked quizzically. Qīn’s first costume was a big red number that covered her from neck to ankle, its flared sleeves begged for jewellery. A top her head was a massive headdress that for now, rested on a coffee table.
“You’ll see after the tea ceremony,” the other girls chimed in, giggling with anticipation.
Gwen opted to use her own cheap, non-enchanted jewellery she had kept since Singapore. A crystal necklace and a water-crystal bracelet. On her hands where her rings, and on her ears, she wore her two Ioun Stones, the Clarity of Thought and her Translation Stone, as earrings.
A trumpet blast outside the main house suggested that the men had arrived.
“How long?” Fei turned to her cousin.
“At least an hour.”
“Haha, no problems!”
Thus buoyed on her Hermè's High, Gwen turned away, insensible to the curling of Qīn’s crimson, sanguine lips.
* * *
The servants who had remained were all women: from teenage relatives to elderly attendants. The guests, as well as the male members of the family, were all lined up outside, ready to observe the spectacle of the groom’s party trying to break into the main house.
The blaring cacophony was emitted by a suona, a kind of miniature trumpet that made a deafening, ear tingling whining. The player must have been an Illusionist as well, for the bloody thing could be heard for miles. Together with the trumpet, a giant gong joined in the festival of noise, followed by the thunder-blast of fire-crackers created by a second and third Illusionist, filling the path with red petals for good fortune as the procession passed.
As the party alighted at the front gate, now once again shut for the occasion, Gwen could spy through the iron-wrought windows her father, Uncle Jun, a young man she’d never seen before, and a fourth someone she recalled seeing at the Liu banquet, a man in his thirties.
The groomsmen approached the gate, then knocked on the brass rings.
“I AM HERE FOR THE BRIDE!” Hai declared. "OPEN SAYS ME!"
“Why should we open the gate?” Fei retorted from behind the wooden threshold.
“For your cousin’s happiness,” Hai shot back.
“She’ll be happy, sure, but what’s in it for me?”
“I don’t suppose you’re willing to take some candy?”
“What am I, a child? I would not open the door unless you pass THREE tests to prove yourself worthy of Qīn’s hand in marriage.”
“I will accept any trial!” Hai declared expansively, oozing charisma. The crowd gathered outside began to clap, adding to the festive atmosphere.
“There are three of us, and you must defeat all three bridesmaids!”
The doors swung open, and the groom’s party filed into the outer courtyard, accompanied by almost a hundred spectators young and old.
Each of the trials had been pre-planned by the girls.
Jingwen was unexpectedly in charge of the ‘Martial Trial’.
Fei was in charge of the ‘Wisdom Trial’.
While Gwen was in charge of the ‘Trial of Love’.
Thankfully, the ominously titled festivity was just a poetry recital selected for maximum cringe as the husband-to-be professed his love for Qīn, with Gwen acting as the judge.
The Martial Trial involved knocking Qīn’s protectors into the water. With Hai and Jun, it was self-evident that the female guardians would have no chance. Nonetheless, the maiden-guards put up a good show of force, eliciting cheers as they deflected spell after spell, buoyed by Water Walking. Jingwen surprised them all with her skill and affinity as a Water-Abjurer, holding out against the Song brothers and the Liu cousin until the very end, when Hai destroyed the platform she had been using, forcing her into the watery arena. When the girls finally relented, they were greeted with thick red envelops filled with currency cards as a reward for their labour.
Watching the exhibition, Gwen wondered if she should have volunteered and if her father could break through her non-newtonian Shield before she was OOM. If Hai ran out of mana - would the wedding be off?
The trial of Wisdom was essentially a slapstick Q&A, with the bride asking questions which Hai must answer, selecting from a list of answers.
Hai thankfully got most of them right, inciting jeers and laughter every time he struggled. It was just as well that the Liu cousin was a part of his entourage, for Gwen could discern from the girl’s vantage point that Hai knew far less about Qīn than she thought he did.
Finally, it was time for the trial presided by Gwen, and she presented herself to her father with big smiles and a sheet for him to read out loud.
With her entrance, however, a hush fell over the spectators.
A few of the elderly covered the eyes of their children.
Jun’s eyes were glazed over, while Hai looked as though a frog was caught in his throat.
Was it the length of the skirt? Gwen felt a chill. She couldn’t wiggle the hem down anyhow, the bloody dress was magical and could resize itself.
She scanned the crowd.
It wasn’t the length of the skirt.
There were plenty of female guests wearing minidresses and cocktail skirts, some of their cheongsams had leg splits that were far more ‘revealing’ than her A-line ruffles.
Was it the backless part?
Did the Chinese not wear backless dresses?
But it was too late to repeal her fashion faux-pas. She was committed, and the sensibilities of attire would have to wait.
“Here you go, Dad. I could only write in English, but Qīn had it translated for you. She liked it very much when I showed it to her.”
“Gwen.” Hai averted his eyes as he took the sheet from her hands. “You are going to attract a lot of attention. Are you sure that’s wise?”
“I didn’t pick the dress.” Gwen stood half a head taller than her father in her new heels. “Aunty Qīn gave it to me.”
“She did, did she?” Hai looked away.
Gwen regarded her father. Was her old man in on this? There was palpable guilt in his body language. It was the look of a father who had suddenly realised his little girl was a woman, and that there were wolves all around them.
“Uncle Jun,” Gwen flashed her pearly whites at her uncle. She struck a pose. "What do you think?"
“Gwen, you’re breathtaking, if a little disreputable, hahaha…”
“You’re looking like a treat yourself, Uncle.”
Indeed, the Song brothers were good-looking blokes whose august appearance was improved by their suits. Hai had on a tapered Mandarine jacket in crimson silk, a riotously eye-catching colour that suited him well, while Jun was in a western three-piece suit with a red and gold embroiled vest, accentuating his broad shoulders and narrow waist. Amusedly, the two of them standing together reminded Gwen of the Hemsworth Brothers, Australia’s great export to Hollywood.
Perhaps a little comically, the third groom, as well as the Liu cousin, resembled pedestrians when standing beside the two Songs, invisible but for the corsage.
She could see from the glowing eyes of the women in the audience that her uncles were stealing hearts and winning minds.
“Come on Dad, start READING! Loud and clear!”
“Alright, alright.” Hai cleared his throat.
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of spring and winter.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and Dancing Light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as crystal mana clear.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my humanity, with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
Growing with lost years. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if heavens choose,
I SHALL BUT LOVE THEE BETTER - AFTER DEATH.”
With the final words delivered, Hai’s complexion paled.
“Hell of a speech,” he muttered, staring at Gwen nervously.
Jun likewise appeared contemplative.
“Til Death do you and aunty Qīn apart, Dad.” Gwen met her father's dark eyes with her hazel orbs. “There’s no backing out of this one. Babulya, Grandfather, the whole Song family, needs you to commit.”
Hai nodded solemnly, stunned by the promise of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s timeless sonnet. Gwen wondered if it was the beauty of the sonnet that had brought Hai to heel or the fact that he had made the promise in front of such an esteemed gathering.
The crowd was already roaring with approval for Hai’s boundless devotion.
“You PASS!” Gwen declared, embracing her father.
Hai dared not touch the naked flesh exposed by Gwen's backless dress. He settled on patting her shoulders instead.
Gwen’s attention then shifted to Jun, who nodded appreciatively at her gesture of support for the wedding and the unfortunate path ahead for the family. The better Hai could act as husband and consort to the Liu ‘heir’, the more influence he could exert over Qīn. If so, it was possible that Secretary Liu’s sway on the Songs could be mitigated somewhat. Ideally, their House could remain neutral even as they were forced to perform inconsequential favours for the Liu’s.
With the three trials over and the maid’s tasks completed, it was time to welcome the bride.
Penetrating the inner courtyard, the groomsmen dispensed copious amounts of ‘red packets’, each with arbitrary amounts of currency cards. When enough of the women in the courtyard had been ‘bribed’, Qīn was lead out by her maids amidst thunderous applause, clothed in red and gold, a humanoid tapestry of embroiled silk.
From the east wing, the palanquin made its round before the party eventually entered the west wing, where the ‘elders’ had been waiting.
Holding the train of Qīn’s dress, Gwen followed after the vermillion garbed bride with her head down. Qīn’s other two bridesmaids cleared the path as Qīn’s headdress, consisting of a heavy red-cloth, prevented her from seeing beyond her own feet.
Hai walked beside his bride, unable to touch her before the most important ceremony of the day.
As bride and groom entered the west wing, Gwen spotted her grandparents seated at the head of the ceremonial table, with Qīn’s father, Sumei Liu, standing beside them.
First came the nuptial rite, where the couple faced each other, followed by Hai removing the veil and headdress, revealing the ravishingly beautiful bride. Hai and Qīn then each received a golden goblet, tethered with red string and filled with honeyed plum-wine.
An ovation resounded across the inner courtyard as they drank from each other’s cups, followed by a crash of trumpets and gongs.
Looking away, Gwen spotted the Illusionist recording the whole thing, standing outside the crowd, manipulating incantations with his fingers like a puppeteer. The convenience of magic impressed Gwen to no end. Wedding photographers in this world had it so much easier! There were no guests with iPhones trying to be amateur photogs, and no danger of backing away for the perfect shot only to step on the flower-girl, trip, then break their wrist trying to protect equipment and toddler.
In front of and below the elders, bride and groom knelt on cushions placed under their knees by the bridesmaids while a servant brought a jug of tea with a dozen cups for Gwen to hold.
The almost newlyweds knelt on both knees as tea was poured by bridesmaid no.1 and carefully passed to Hai and Qīn via bridesmaid no.2.
Guo and Klavdiya were the first to receive the honours, being the eldest and the parents of the groom.
“Do us proud, Hai.” Guo patted Hai on the shoulders. “You have no idea how long I have waited for this day. I am truly happy for you.”
“Thank you, father.” Hai bowed deeply.
“Welcome to the family, daughter.” Klavdiya was glowing with positive energy as she spoke, filling the room with warmth. Qīn regarded her mother-in-law with tearful eyes, perhaps thinking of her deceased parent, then sobbed as she received the old woman's benediction.
“Here, this is for you.”
Gwen’s babulya slipped a heavy gold bangle onto Qīn’s wrist, then furthermore gifted her with a pair of diamond and ruby earrings in mithril. Gwen could tell the earrings were enchanted but knew not enough about Magic Items to say what they were.
The next to receive the tea ceremony was Secretary Liu and his sister, serving as Qīn’s ‘mother’. The tea was exchanged, words of wisdom were given, and more gold was given to Qīn.
Another set of Liu’s relatives followed.
And finally, the eldest member of the Clan of Liu, an ancient Magus aged a hundred and twelve, gave her his benediction, followed by yet another heavy-gold bangle.
Gwen wasn’t sure if the Liu’s were showing off or what, but Guo looked less than pleased when Qīn tried to rise and was almost taken off balance by the three or four kilograms of gold and mithril she now carried on her person.
By now it was almost 4 PM.
Between the waiting, the games, the ceremonies and the gifting, Gwen had been attending to Qīn for almost eight hours. She had eaten copious amounts of gut-filling fried dough for breakfast, but without Kimiko’s nourishing weekly feeding of Caliban, her hunger grew increasingly more urgent. If she couldn’t get something in her stomach soon, everything around her might start to look like food.
The reception, thankfully, was immediately upon them, after which Gwen was free to eat the night away. It was the western portion of the wedding, with an MC introducing the bridesmaids and their groomsmen. From the looks of it, she had been paired with the unassuming Liu cousin, a companion Gwen didn’t mind at all as the man was apparently in his thirties.
As expected, being the ‘third’ bridesmaid, Gwen was the first to take to the stage. Purposefully strutting across the pavement, she walked arm in arm with the Liu cousin into the courtyard.
By now they were losing daylight, but that was precisely the magic of the banquet. Sparing no expense, Secretary Liu had purchased thousands of Floating Lanterns, embroidered individually with silhouettes of good fortune and pictographs for luck and happiness, in every shade and colour. These then floated above the wedding reception, swaying gently, forming the most spectacular outdoor wedding Gwen had ever seen, casting the entire inner courtyard in mystical, ambient light.
As they entered the banquet, the Liu cousin placed a hand against the small of her back. The man’s hand was heavy, trembling, hot and sweaty.
“Sorry,” his unassuming voice was filled with tension.
“Is something wrong? Are you feeling alright?” Gwen leaned in closer.
The man shirked away, sweating profusely.
“I am fine. Please, let’s finish the walk. I am afraid your attire is a little too scandalous.”
So that’s why the man kept averting his eyes.
Gwen didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. At least the guy was a good sport. A man who knew better than to entertain improper thoughts for Qīn’s daughter-in-law.
“It’s alright, I understand,” Gwen replied sweetly, giving credit where credit was due.
As the two made their rounds, Gwen felt a tingling on her neck, where the scale was buried at the base of her hair. She scanned the audience quizzically, unable to locate the source of the resonance.
What she did receive, however, was tumultuous acclaim from a group of young men all lined up like ducks waiting to be fed, applauding her as though she had just completed a runway. Amongst the group was one young man appearing as though his eyes had fallen out of their sockets. The exaggerated gesture made her break out with a broad and friendly smile.
Placing one foot before the other, she strutted with the best of em.
On the way, she spotted her cousins seated by the ‘junior’ section far from the bridal table. Gwen wanted to run over and embrace Petra, but she still had at least two more hours of bridesmaid duties to execute. After finally completing their circuit, her guilty companion abandoned her on the maid’s side of the bridal table.
The moment Gwen's buttocks touched the soft, padded chair, the tension drained from her taut body. Her designer shoes, despite their wonderful craftsmanship, were not meant for nine hours of walking and standing. With meticulous subtlety, she circulated her Almudj’s Essence, feeling her mana channels bathed in the healing essence’s restorative embrace, relieving the knotted muscles in her feet. Beauty was pain, and as much as she loved those shoes, a day standing on tippy-toes was torture.
The others were soon seated, as were the bride and groom.
Plates of food, steaming famously, entered the banquet.
A plate of Peking Roast Duck Crepe arrived.
What? She blinked. Snatching up the crepe and finishing it with two bites.
WHERE WAS THE REST OF THE DUCK?
The other tables had a WHOLE DUCK!
She looked at her companions, who nibbled at their food, careful not to ruin their makeup.
Gwen dabbed the hoisin sauce from her lips.
The next dish arrived.
One small bowl of shark-fin soup, barely two ladles-full.
WHY DO THE OTHER TABLES GET A WHOLE GOD DAMN WINTER-MELON FILLED WITH SOUP?
She was so hungry she could cry.
Uncle Jun was no help because she would have to leave her seat to beg him, not to mention she had no desire to eat his share of the food. By the same measure, she couldn’t just leap from the platform and demand one of the guest table hand over their duck, could she? They were barely touching it!
The next dish, and the next, and the next arrived.
One cut of Australian-Auroch in mandarin sauce.
Two stuffed crystal-prawns.
Half an East-Sea Coral-Lobster tail in ginger and shallot, with one mouthful of noodles.
Watching the others eat with meticulous slowness, she wanted to reach over with her chopsticks and steal the meal from their bowls. The cuisine was delicious, and that made it all the worse, that there was food and as far as the eye could see made it feel as though a Void was opening inside of her.
Jingwen, the quiet Abjurer, dropped her chopstick.
“I’ll get it.”
Both of them reached down.
When their heads came up, Gwen noticed Jingwen was sweating. Her face was flushed, and she was panting slightly.
“Are you alright?” Gwen poured the woman a glass of water.
“I am fine.” The poor girl squirmed, likely suffering from dehydration from all the talking and the walking she had to do. She looked as though she had a heat-stroke.
“Hang in there!” Gwen encouraged the Abjurer.
But the gentle-woman was looking over at Jun with a glazed expression, an act which immediately soured Gwen's opinion of the whore.
Her Divination pinged.
The scale at the back of her neck bristled.
Gwen scanned the banquet alarmingly, looking for a face she should recognise.
“It's time!” Qīn suddenly rose from her seat, her crimson cheongsam hugging her hips. “That’s it for the main banquet. Let’s get down there and start the greetings! Hai, tell the boys to get their kidneys ready! Jing, Fei and Gwen, bring the Mao-tai! One bottle each! We're starting the toasts!”
Jingwen slipped her arms into between Jun's elbow and his waist.
Gwen stood as dreadful premonition poured over her like an ice-bucket challenge.
"Gwen!" Qīn called out. "Come on! You're pouring!"