“Happy wife, happy life, Mr Song! Gānbēi!”
Gwen poured the wine distractedly, far more engrossed in seeking out the source of her dreadful premonition.
Her surveillance, however, was limited to the table-by-table meet and greet where, as is tradition, people were trying to get Hai as drunk as humanly possible.
At each table, they had to toast the guests with thimble-shots of baijiu sitting at a heart-stopping 53% purity. It was, therefore, the groomsmen's job to ‘help’ the groom by acting as the 'Abjurer'.
Likewise, as the bride's companions, it fell to the bridesmaids to ‘take one’ for the team to ensure the bride was sober enough to complete her nocturnal nuptials.
At the main table front and centre of the inner courtyard, the bridal party greeted their immediate elders. Klavdiya touched Gwen's hand and thanked her for acting so competently, while her grandfather knitted his brows, displeased at Gwen's unnecessarily revealing attire. Secretary Liu, conversely, immediately complimented her on her beauty, raised a toast, then congratulated her grandparents on possessing such a 'treasure'. The grandiose gesture drew eyes from around the room, which then doused the spiteful pride Gwen had mustered in rebellion to her grandfather's ire.
All in all, there were ten tables in the inner courtyard, twenty tables in the outer courtyard, and another thirty-odd outside the estate, under an external pavilion. The bridal party needn't visit the outer assembly - it was filled with mundane guests and servants, consisting principally of NoMs.
“Petra!” Gwen squealed when they reached her cousins. She had been hoping to converse with her Shanghai 'crew' all day but had been too busy to tear herself away, even for a minute.
“Gwen, you looking sweet-ASS!” Tao gave her a thumbs up. “Please wear the dress to my show? Bring some sugar!”
“Are those Hermes?” Mina knew what was up and what was truly important. Her eyes had a lean and envious cast about them. “Where did you get them? Do you know someone from Rome? Paris?”
“I am happy you’re safe and sound.” Petra nudged Mina, feeling awkward that the first words out of the girl's lips after a week-long absence was branded shoes. “Welcome back.”
“Thanks, everyone,” Gwen relaxed. “Please come and join me after it’s all over. We just have another thirty tables or so. No, Mina, they're a gift from Qīn. But I'll tell you what - these shoes are killing me! Tao, I'll consider it, but only you can convince Petra! Pats, how long did it take you guys to get to Hangzhou? Did Mina drive all of you?”
Mina did not answer Gwen but looked to be in a trance, likely still thinking about Gwen's shoes. Beside Mina, her mother forced Gwen’s cousin to sit, mortified by her daughter’s inappropriate fascination, thanking her lucky stars that Patriarch Wang was absent.
“Sorry, Gwen,” Tao wasn’t sure what had overcome his sister as well.
“Don’t worry about it,” Gwen replied, disregarding the faux pas as inconsequential.
“S-sorry!” Mina stammered, dazed by her sudden infirmity, appearing as though she had broken free of some charm. “I am feeling a bit unwell… maybe it's too stuffy in here.”
The banquet was outdoors.
“No worries, Mina, have some water,” Gwen urged her cousin. "The humidity here gets to everyone."
As the bridal party left the table, Gwen became hyper-conscious that the guests were now staring at her shoes, which were unfortunately attached to her very naked legs. If she had been wearing her burrito dress and not Qīn’s scandalous number, immodest exposure would not have been a problem; alas, her meagre fabric just managed to cover her frontal torso, hips and upper thighs. Maybe, Gwen mulled as she played at waitressing, she could let her hair down to cover her shoulders.
The rest of the 'inner circle' were Liu’s friends and family, notable local Houses, and a few prominent Clans from between the Hangzhou Frontier, Suzhou, Shaoxing and Anhui.
The guests ranged from polite and friendly to displaying undisguised concupiscence. One middle-aged bloke even sniffed her arm as she poured.
After another half dozen tables, Gwen took to camouflaging herself behind the other two bridesmaids. It was just as well that their dresses were identical shades of pastel pink; with a little effort, she could hide her legs behind the frontal pair, even as the back of her hem lifted precariously.
“I would like to toast Miss Song!” a voice called out from the table.
Gwen looked up and saw a young man with a square face and bushy brows lifting a shot of Maotai toward her.
The wedding party turned to regard Gwen with amusement and expectation.
Jun met her eyes, but said nothing, leaving the matter to Gwen's discretion.
Gwen lifted a shot glass, then sculled the liquor with one gulp. The rice wine entered her throat as a line of fire, burning her tongue with its delicious scent. The enormously vital baijiu, distilled from rare Wildland sorghum harvested from the Orange Zone south of Chongqing, meshed well with that of her Draconic-Essence.
Gwen found, to her surprise, that her hunger abated.
There was a brief moment of silence, then the table, as well as its neighbours, burst into applause.
“Cao! That girl can drink!”
“The Song’s are northerners, right? Those northerners can drink!”
“She is half Russian... well, her grandmother is from Harbin.”
“You know what they say, the Ruskies prefer Vodka over water…”
Gwen licked her lips.
She could do with another.
Maotai was famous for its distilled 'life-force'. The purer and older the distillation, the more potent. She wondered if the rice wine, like the Fructum Vitae, had diminishing returns.
Unconsciously, she licked her lips again, savouring the scent, setting the young man's heart to race.
“Thank you,” she replied sweetly. “Right back at you! Fill’er up!”
Jun regarded his niece, guessing at her intentions.
Qīn and Hai regarded one another quizzically, but the exchange was beyond them now. One of the uncles happily filled up Gwen's glass and the young man’s.
“To your health!” Gwen took the shot without even blinking, savouring the taste.
The young man sipped his second drink, not wanting to choke and embarrass his family. The table cheered the young sorceress and jeered her competitor, filling the festive air with jovial mockery.
Thanks to Gwen, the 'toasting' had taken on a less formal, and far more familiar air, cries of 'Good!' and whole-hearted 'Gānbēi!' filled the air.
At the next table, Jingwen turned to Gwen.
“Gwen,” the diminutive woman was slurring a little. At one point, Jun had to hold his partner steady lest she tripped over her own feet. “Can you still drink?”
Again, her spine tingled, and again she failed to locate the source.
“Sure.” Gwen gave her a thumbs up. “Hit me up.”
It wasn’t every day that she got to drink decade-old Maotai like spring-water, not to mention the distilled sorghum appeared to nourish her hunger. If one bottle of five-decade-old Maotai was close to a hundred HDMs, then she had to savour every drop.
Another one of the young men, a fellow whose eyes hadn’t left her face since she arrived at the guest table, raised a toast to Gwen.
Three shots and the young man was ready to spew.
The next table came and went, with Gwen taking the shot for Qīn, and furthermore another two shots from her admirers. Very quickly she was gaining a group of followers who couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Following the group from table to table, cheering every time she took another hit for the bride.
Hai was beginning to sweat even as Jun continued with a mirthful expression readable only on his curled lips. Her uncle must be cracking up behind his stoic exterior, Gwen chuckled, flashing Jun a happy grin. He was the only one who knew that so long as she kept her essence cycling, she couldn’t become intoxicated. Her evolved Draconic-essence, more potent than even her previous Druidic Essence, impeded and corrected all altered-chemical states, from toxins, hallucinogens, to alcohol.
At the next table, to the surprise of all, it was her uncle Jun who couldn’t hold his rice wine.
The bridal party was doing the last rounds of the inner courtyard when they were greeted by an ethereal beauty. Raising a glass, the coy maiden toasted the Ash Bringer.
Gwen's uncle raised his glass, sculled the shot, saw the Hello KItty shirt - then spattered the poor woman with a conic blast of high-grade alcohol.
The spontaneous spittle-shower drew every eye from across the courtyard.
What a beautiful girl! The guests sucked in a collective breath of air.
The young woman was so strikingly stunning that the their hearts became sore with sympathy at her bedraggled state.
The Ash Bringer coughed violently.
The young lady's appearance suggested she was in her late teens, about Gwen’s age. Spit and Maotai slobbered past a set of bright blue eyes, a high-bridged nose and deeply set features which marked her as a foreigner. The dead give away was her platinum-blonde hair, which was now plastered across her face in sticky strands of sun-silk. One would have figured the girl older than she looked, but the young lady uncharacteristically wore over her slim body a Hello Kitty t-shirt now covered with booze still dribbling from her chin.
The crowd regarded the new girl - then Gwen - then shifted their attention toward Gwen's grandmother, with each instance adding increasingly more adventurous guesses as to their connections.
There was an uncanny resemblance between the two girls, that was undeniable.
Their facial structure, their long, lithe limbs, even their demeanour and body language, was similar.
Could the girls be sisters?
The guest's curiosity converged on Hai, who was for once, earnestly confused by the girl's familiar yet alien countenance.
Jun made a sound that sounded as though he was drowning.
The wedding guests migrated their gaze toward the Ash Bringer, who had become slack-jawed and wide-eyed.
A love child?
Not Hai's child, but Jun's?
Gwen meanwhile, endured goosebumps for an entirely different reason.
That shirt! Her mind scraped its grey matter for recent memories. Where have I seen it before?
Her Scale - or rather, Ayxin’s scale, tingled.
FUCK ME DEAD! Gwen felt her cerebellum perform a double-summersault before landing awkwardly with a sprained ankle.
AYXIN?! Gwen screamed internally. What the hell is the Dragon-Mage doing here? COULD SHE EVEN BE HERE? Why isn’t she imploding from the Shielding Resonance?
Was the PLA aware that a thermo-nuclear warhead had snuck itself into a city of four million people?
Most importantly, should she tell anyone?
But she needn’t make that call, Gwen realised. She was in the presence of a higher ranking officer possessing far more intimate knowledge than her wild speculations; if anything, it was Jun's call to make, his dragon to lay.
Ayxin's expression was one of complete devastation as well, though her distress was directed at her alcohol ravished 'Hello Kitty' shirt.
“I am sorry,” Jun stammered, his face growing as red as a beet. Gwen figured her uncle was likely shitting himself as he spoke.
The man had ruined the dragon-kin's one of a kind shirt; despoiled the memento of her affection and ravaged the romance of her surprise visit.
Ha! Serves you right! Gwen smirked even as she deliberated the possibility of the Dragon-Mage erupting into an all-consuming fount of living lightning.
Jun turned to Hai.
There was no time to explain.
If anyone should get the wrong idea about why a Dragon-kin wandered into a Shielded city without a self-decaying Resonance Sigil, Hangzhou could be playing host to the PLA Super Tower for the foreseeable future.
Ayxin opened her mouth to speak.
"Jun, I want a b-"
“BROTHER, I NEED TO GO.”
“You go for it, man.” Hai offered his straight-shooter brother a bro-fist. Completely misreading the situation and glad only for the fact that the girl hadn't blurted out 'Daddy' in front of his guests. “Do what you gotta.”
Keeping a straight face, Jun ignored Hai's fist-bump, took Ayxin by the arm, then pushed the girl behind him. With a single, scandalous gesture, the Dragon-kin wrapped her arms around his waist and dashed the hopes of women in the courtyard young and old.
Jun's constipated expression insinuated someone had stabbed his reputation in the kidneys with a broken-chopstick.
"Gwen, stay out of trouble. I'll be back if I am able."
"Where are you going?"
"Far... from the city, for now. You never know-"
"Gotcha," Gwen nodded. "Be careful. If need be, what should I tell Babulya?"
Jun produced a Teleportation scroll.
With a flash of silvery Conjuration mana worth over 700 HDMs, the two de-materialised.
The guests erupted into wild and audible speculation.
Gwen glanced back at the Song’s table and saw that Guo had transformed into an impassive stone statue, not unlike one of those granite lions outside the Liu's estate. Her grandmother must have received a Message from Jun, for Gwen could see that the old woman was cupping a hand against her ear.
Gwen's heart sank.
Her precious uncle Jun- A gigolo?
* * *
Besides Gwen's grandfather, Secretary Liu poured for cup of tea for Guo.
The man's palpable schadenfreude was visible almost half-a-dozen tables away.
Already the Songs owed the Liu’s because their wayward son had knocked up his only daughter. And then their grandaughter 'lost face' by causing a scene with her belligerent brother, furthermore showing up as bridesmaid wearing an entirely un-maiden-like attire.
Now even Jun, the golden boy who could do no wrong, was slinking away after splattering a guest in the face, perhaps to get her a new change of clothes, but more likely dealing with a lover's dilemma. Jun's only grace was that the beauty had not burst into tears and made a scene! To think that the Ash Bringer of all people had been panicked enough to burn a tier 7 Teleportation scroll. It made Liu wonder which family the lass could belong to, though the answer would have to wait until after the wedding.
Unexpectedly, events had progressed so well that Secretary Liu felt as though he had previously consulted with a State-sanctioned Diviner from Pudong.
After tonight, the Songs would not have enough face left to slap!
As if guided by a divine hand, the pieces kept falling into place of their own accord.
Earlier, he had received conflicting reports that Gwen Song was seen marauding through Hangzhou city, making trouble for the locals, venturing as far as hooking up with the son of Assistant Secretary Chen at the Ritz Carlton. When he questioned Qīn's servants, however, they had reported that the girl had returned to the estate with regularity, bathing and sleeping in the south wing.
The inconsistency was a puzzler, but to Liu, the actuality hardly mattered.
With the Ash Bringer gone, a rare opportunity had presented itself.
And Liu was nothing but an opportunist.
* * *
A few tables over, Gwen was still trying to think of a way to put together a contingency plan, or at the very least, a way to clear the guests should the Dragon-Mage return with less than peaceful intentions in mind. With her Spatial Magic, it was difficult to say if anyone in Hangzhou could hold her down, Jun included.
“Let’s take a break.” Qīn licked her drying lips, she couldn't drink on account of her pregnancy and all the Maotai was giving her a heady dizziness. “Hai, take me back, then get me some water.”
"Of course, dear."
Gwen caught the split-second glance that passed between them.
The bridal party moved as one. Yet, when Gwen followed, her step-mother stopped her.
“Go see your friends, Gwen. Mingle with the crowd. Hai and I will be fine. We’ll do some catching up over on my side of the family. I would think Jun should be back soon; we'll wait for him. What do you say?”
“Sure, I’d love that.”
The woman put on a sympathetic smile intended to assuage the girl's growing paranoia, but the girl had bolted without so much as a glance in her direction. Gwen made for her babulya, feeling an urgent need to impart critical information necessary for near-future contingencies.
It was just as well that she could see the 'oldies' had hardly touched their bottle of Maotai.
Gwen had made it no more than three tables when she became surrounded.
A dozen young men from the various families had apparently been waiting almost two hours for the opportunity to address her vis-a-vis.
"Come have a drink with us."
The attention was flattering but there was something in their eyes that reminded Gwen of Caesar's paranoia, that 'Cassius over there has a lean and hungry look.'
She hoped they weren't expecting to stab her in the back, in a euphemistic manner of speaking.
“Let me through.” She forced a wane smile to her lips. “I’ll be with you soon. We'll 'hang' later, I promise.”
To her dismay, the men closed ranks. Their uproarious voices overpowering her feeble protest.
Gwen's spine stiffened with displeasure.
Are these guys fucking with me? She performed a double-take.
In her eyes, the Frontier power-progeny were like dogs in heat. Goats and monkeys! Gwen bit her tongue, taking a moment to ponder what was the acceptable amount of minimal force necessary to dispell the Wall of Lust. Judging the look on their faces, this wasn't their first rodeo.
From the way her step-mother had left with the bridal party, the men's actions would appear premeditated.
“My Uncle, the ASH BRINGER, is going to be very upset if we come to any unfortunate misunderstandings,” Gwen raised her voice an octave. "Let me remind you that he is an Internal Security operative."
Name dropping Jun seemed to have made it through their system, penetrating the spirit and the hormones ruling their judgement. She was already regretting taking advantage of the blokes to drink their table dry.
Seeing that her wayward suitors had become sufficiently cowed, she put her hand forward to part the crowd.
Gwen had made it about halfway through the throng when her Divination tingled.
What is it with her uncanny gypsie-luck with molesters?
Can't she just meet normal people for once?
Do these people think that just because they were rich and powerful, they could do whatever they wished, that a woman would just let them grope and grab her? What an absurd sense of entitlement! One would have to be semi-moronic and mentally-addled to believe such a thing.
With extreme prejudice, Gwen swung her hand across her buttocks, as though swatting at an annoying gadfly. The edge of her knuckles grazed a wandering pair of fingers that were clearly going for a squeeze, a pinch, a nab or a grope targetting whatever her attire had left exposed.
There was a yelp, a scream cut short.
Then a burst of expletives.
And they said chivalry was dead, Gwen rolled her eyes.
One of the young men who Gwen recalled as having shared a drink with her was nursing his right hand with a painful scowl. Two of the would-be groper's fingers were twisted in a strange direction.
SHIT, Gwen shook out her right arm. A little too much force.
"HOW DARE YOU!"
Gwen turned to regard the source of the uproar.
One of the young men charged her.
ARE YOU SHITTING ME?
Gwen sidestepped the crimson-faced buck with ease.
She readied herself to push the man away, wondered if crying out for Petra, Tao, or God-forbid, her grandfather, would salvage the situation.
But she wasn't the young man's target.
The bloke passed her by, wound up a right-hook, then king-punched the molester in the face.
Gwen suspected the young man must have been a Transmuter or something because his victim was sent flying in the literal sense. A clatter of teeth scattered over the pavement, joined by a striking arc of crimson.
“WOCAO! What are you doing, Pao?”
“Is this guy trying to show off?”
“Back off Chen! Who the fuck do you think you are? Your Dad is only the Second Chair!”
"Buhaha! Playing the hero. You think she'll spread her legs for you?"
"So fake, not even trying!"
Gwen stared slack-jawed at the young man who stood in front of her, sharing the shocked expression of her astonished assailants.
A white knight?
A real-life, true to form white-knight?!
She was impressed. Not that she wanted to know the guy better, nor did she possess any desire to butter the guy's toast, but she was impressed nonetheless. It was one thing to talk the talk, but this Pao guy walked the walk!
“I love her!” Pao declared his loyalty with such passion that Gwen's heart rate shot to a hundred. Pao then turned to the assembly of amazed assholes, then blew her away with yet another audacious announcement.
“I'll die for her.”
Even without a nip of booze halfway down her gullet, she had to wipe the surprised spittle from her lips.
The rest of the guests appeared equally astonished.
“Are you two in cahoots?” One of the young men stated with an impassioned face full of injury. “Why in Mao’s name would you put up this charade if the two of you are already an item.”
“Do you know how much I gave to your Father's wedding registry?”
"So what, it's not like you're gonna lose a piece of flesh."
"You should be happy that we're interested in a gweilo at all."
"Suitors my ass! Stinking er-bi..."
"CHEN PAO! YUUA MEAD MUN!"
The youngsters parted. Pao's victim had recovered from his tumble and was returning with a mouth full of blood and eyes full of retribution.
Gwen swore and tried to back away from the scuffle, but a wall of bodies kept in place by spectators and rubberneckers pushed her back into the ring. The scent of fear, excitement, sex, and alcohol, it all seemed to mingle and feed into each other until she was reminded of music festivals where ‘bullrings’ spontaneously erupted and had to be put down by security.
“PAO! YORE DNNND!” the groper had recovered after using a potion injector, attesting to the extent of his injury. His teeth, however, would require professional help.
But the man's outburst became halted by a second cry from beyond the ring of spectators.
“GREAT LEADER’S GHOST! WHAT IN MAO’S NAME DO YOU RASCALS THINK YOU’RE DOING?!”
The crowd parted like the red sea.
Guo, babulya, and the Patriarch Liu descended upon the riotous kerfuffle. From the perspective of the watchers, it was proper that the bride and groom remained absent and out of sight, leaving the dirty work to their elders. The expected outcome was the expulsion of the troublemakers - though Gwen's inclusion among that number infinitely complicated an otherwise easy deliberation.
“Young lady,” the patriarch began. “What is the meaning of this lover’s spat?”
For a moment, Gwen thought she was hallucinating.
The meaning of what?
A Lover’s Spat?
How the hell?
She trained her hazel eyes onto the Secretary, whose nose merely reached her chin.
“I am afraid you are gravely mistaken, Magus Liu,” she riposted critically. “I am an unwitting victim. These men have taken offence entirely of their own accord.”
“From where WE stand, all I can see are young bucks butting heads over a doe.” Liu grinned, putting on a show of sagacity. “What do you think, Guo? Your granddaughter is a rare beauty. To think she possesses such beguiling powers at such a young age. What will you do when she enters society?”
Her babulya’s face became torn between ripping the man apart with her bare hands and keeping the peace. Gwen was reminded of that old saying, that even Buddha has a temper.
Behind her grandparents, she could see Petra's face fuming with quivering rage, while beside the Russian girl, Mina kept a hand firmly on Tao's shoulders.
“As I VERY CLEARLY STATED, Magus Liu, I do not know these men.”
“Am I to presume these young gents spontaneously decided to accost you?” Secretary Liu scoffed.
“That is correct, Sir,” Gwen replied chillingly, channelling her inner Guo. She raised her voice so that everyone could hear. “They appeared from thin air, uncalled for and unsummoned, to block my path. They have no respect for you or my father's matrimony. If you have any sense, you should expel them from the wedding.”
The retort from a girl a quarter of his age seemed to catch Liu off guard.
For a brief second, the Secretary appeared entered by her commanding presence.
But then the man's face soured with annoyance.
Liu's eyes swept over Gwen's livid face, his expression rimed with frosty displeasure as he cynically regarded her 'beau' and his toothless victim.
“Pao, Hu, explain yourselves.”
“I am in love with Miss Song.” Pao's admission blew Gwen's mind to kingdom come. “I’ve spent the last few days and nights with her in the city, sharing in her company. I cannot allow animals like Hu the chance to place his dirty fingers on the girl I adore.”
S-Spent the last few days...
PLURAL? FUCKING PLURAL?
Gwen felt dizzy.
“I dnn no such fing!” Hu retorted vehemently, his missing teeth slurring his protest. The man’s unbridled anger was lending strength to his cunning. “The Song girl is a tease, and she's also insane! She attacked me when I offered her a greeting! Ben and Pei-Jai and Suqee can all attest!”
“She broke his hand!”
“The girl’s out of control.”
“Such a shame, why waste what the heavens have given you?”
“There are some girls you take to a hotel but not your home...”
Secretary Liu turned to Gwen, spreading his hands as though he had received all the evidence he needed.
With a critical eye, he admired Gwen’s state of half-dress. Watching the man's curling lips, Gwen felt a subconscious longing to Consume Liu's smug face right here and right now and damn the consequences.
“What do you have to say for yourself, Miss Song? What’s your game? Why the garb, and if so, why turn away the young men you set out to attract?”
“That’s not tr-”
“Don't play games with me!” Liu snapped at her, making her flinch. "Do you believe me so easily swayed? This is my daughter's wedding you're despoiling!"
The last statement was intended to ricochet elsewhere.
Both Gwen and the Secretary turned to look at Guo and Klavidya.
Her grandfather maintained his stoic-statue countenance, while her babulya’s face became as vivid as pippins.
Gwen's head buzzed. Every ounce of her depleting will was spent suppressing her raging essence. She was sure that if she blew her casket now, she could be on an examination table by next week, having her Draconic-essence leeched into a bucket.
“As I was saying,” Liu continued, basking in the shameful attention he was bringing to his in-laws. “Gwen, it is improper for a young lady to lie so readily. Young Master Chen evidently knows you in an intimate capacity. By his own admission of guilt, you have shared his companionship for many days, and indeed, my servants can attest that you have been absent from my home from morning to evening.”
The patriarch’s accusation hammered her like a mallet.
She could refute - but the age-old quandary of 'he said, she said' put her at a distinct disadvantage.
From the wedding guest's perspective, it looked as though Gwen had became stunned by the Patriarch’s judicious revelation.
Gwen's grandmother moved to interject; Guo held her in place.
Secretary Liu continued.
“I can see why the young Chen is so smitten with you. Talent, beauty, intelligence, a good family, you lack nothing. However, it would appear to me that your Frontier upbringing has limited your understanding of how our society functions - its basic rules of modesty and dignity. I cannot blame your esteemed grandparents, of course, they are the most wonderful people I know, but one wonders…”
“Patriarch Liu…” Seeing her dismay and believing her on the verge of tearful disgrace, Pao interjected on Gwen’s behalf. “I am willing to take any punishment, please leave Gwen out of this.”
“Now, now, Mr Chen, we’re not done with Miss Song yet.”
Gwen was an inch from going nuclear and hitting the Mutually Assured Destruction button when she detected her grandfather eyeballing her.
She blinked back angrily.
Her grandfather looked over at the bridal table, shook his head, then shot a sideways glance at Liu before narrowing his eyes dangerously.
Liu could see that something was up, but the Secretary was intoxicated by his own oratory.
“Now, knowing what you have set in motion, Miss Song, I want to know how you wish to resolve this? If you have nothing to say, perhaps Secretary Guo can provide a nugget of wisdom to share with us? No one wants this sort of ugliness at their son’s wedding, no?”
So that's it. Gwen realised. It would appear negotiations over the allegiance between the Songs and the House of Liu had yet to be settled.
Gwen glared at her grandfather, her eyes fiery and demanding.
“Gwen,” Guo's voice filled the room with its sonorous timbre. “I want to hear what you have to say.”
The unexpected olive branch surprised Gwen as much as it startled her grandmother, who stared at her husband with astonishment.
Gwen stepped forward.
By now a ring of rubbernecking guests had gathered around the commotion. Many of the non-factional members remained seated, not wanting to embarrass the Chair of the Confidential Communications Committee. Others, members of Liu’s faction, took up an audience to lend the Secretary their clout. If someone like the infamous Secretary Song, the old ‘hound dog’ of the CCP, could be taken down a peg and brought to heel, it would do wonders for their factional influence.
Gwen smoothed out her dress, her calves lifted by the Trojan gift of Hermes. Mindful of her hostile audience, she struck a power pose. Let them look, she mused sardonically, let their eyes rot.
To Gwen - Qin’s purpose, intentional or otherwise - was now clear; whether Secretary Liu premediated the event no longer mattered. What was important was that her grandparents had been cornered because she fell for a pair of shoes, among other things.
Secretary Liu’s intent, she discerned, was to show that the Songs had diminished since the heydays of the Ash Bringer. A House was only as good as its standing in high-society, and the House of Song had fallen far from their perch. Caught within a web of shame and social pressure, the best outcome would be to allow the Patriarch Liu to speak up and absolve the matter, that or risk the further disintegration of the Song's reputation.
Though Ayxin’s presence was entirely unanticipated, Jun’s absence had set something unexpected into motion. She doubted Patriarch Liu would be pushing her grandfather like this if Jun could step in. Whatever his plans, Liu was honour bound to ‘give face’ to the Hero of the North or risk ire from the PLA's military.
Gwen stood with her shoulders squared and legs slightly apart. Her draconic-Essence filled her veins and mana-channels, gifting her with an air of effortless supremacy.
The change in the atmosphere was immediately notable as the crowd ceased their murmuring. Those who’d been ‘checking out’ her goods now tasted in the air an unexplainable cocktail of reverence, fear and uneasiness.
“- What I am about to tell you is the truth and nothing but the truth. Listen well. I DO NOT KNOW Mr Chen. I have NEVER MET Mr Chen in my life. MY DRESS-”
She slowly turned, her gaze sweeping past the silent crowd, shivering spines and silencing small children.
“Is chosen FOR me by Qīn, your daughter. I do not personally have an issue with it. I am grateful that she has given me such beautiful attire to attend her wedding. If you feel scandalised, take it up with her.”
“You can’t expect me to-” Liu moved in to cut her off before Gwen's performance could derail the narrative he had constructed.
“Let her finish.”
It was her grandfather who now moved a hand in front of Liu’s face.
A supremely offensive gesture.
But Guo was the elder, and the old man held a higher, though far more sensitive position within the CCP.
The two men gazed upon one another like two tigers sizing their opponents. One was an old veteran of the jungle, the other an ambitious intruder looking to expand his territory.
Liu relented, for now.
He couldn’t publicly break with the Patriarch of the Songs. That was never his intent, a public showdown wouldn’t benefit anyone and would only gift the other factions with mana for criticism.
Pao appeared bewildered by Gwen's outright denial of his existence.
“I am not the girl you are looking for, Mr Chen. Let it go.”
“But it was you!” Pao protested desperately, his face scarlet from sweaty brow to throbbing neck. “I know it was you! How could I forget your face? All my friends were there!”
He turned to his ‘friends’ in the crowd.
“Yes, she’s the one!”
“We even have lumen-pics!”
One of them waved a Pic-recorder.
“What do you say to that?!” Liu grinned wolfishly.
The Secretary immediately commanded the young man to approach. A moment of tinkering later, an image became visible, projected via an Illusionary Enchantment embedded into the device.
There was a picture of Gwen in her white sundress, standing beside Pao. She stood like a queen surrounded by her sycophants - arrogant, proud, and beyond reproach. The boys were cowed by her demeanour, clearly subordinate to her presence.
A thunderous clamour broke out among the audience; a few the guests began to chuckle.
Voices jeering at Gwen rose above those restraining themselves to polite mirth.
The girl was a liar, and she had been caught red-handed.
What a moment of shame for her elders!
What a thing for the granddaughter of the Songs to do!
The apple had fallen far from the tree indeed!
Perhaps the girl was insensible from her excessive drinking?
Mayhap she had been raised as a greenhouse flower, and had thought the world her oyster because of her uncommonly pretty face?
“The woman in that picture is not me!” Gwen's voice rang out over the courtyard.
But there was no one to hear her.
Granddaughter and grandfather stood in the middle of a circle of wedding guests, bearing the cross of humiliation. To Gwen's wonderment, her grandfather reached out to her. She reflexively responded by offering her grandfather a hand, which Guo took.
Her grandfather drew a few pictograms in her hand.
Gwen blinked rapidly at Guo.
SHE DIDN'T UNDERSTAND CHINESE.
HER IOUN STONE COULDN'T TRANSLATE SECRET HANDWRITING.
Guo blinked back.
The two regarded one another as the clamour persisted.
Secretary Liu raised a hand.
The laughter ceased.
It was a clear demonstration of power and influence, one that said to Guo and Klavdiya that he could make all of this go away if only they’d listen to his proposal.
“I want compensation!” The Hu boy cried out, breaking the silence as if on cue. “Now we know the girl's a liar! She attacked me first! She owes me an apology and a favour! The Songs owe the Yuan family an apology!”
Before Gwen could retract her hand from Guo's grasp, Chen Pao, the unwittingly involved young man, lost his shit entirely.
“SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP!” The poor fool's eyes were glazed over with rage and unrestrained passion. “I CHALLENGE YOU! I CHALLENGE YOU TO A DEATH MATCH! You FUCKING LIAR! How dare you sully Miss Song’s name! I’ll KILL YOU DEAD!”
“PAO!” A voice called out from the crowd. It was one of Chen's relatives, who had been observing the proceedings. “Don’t be a fool. Apologise and go home! You’re no match for Young Master Yuan.”
“I can’t, Uncle.” Pao gazed at Gwen longingly, his voice choking as he spoke. “I have to defend her, even if she doesn’t care or remember me.”
OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE. Gwen felt her temple throbbing painfully. YOU FUCKING SIMPLETON.
She glanced over at the bridal table, hoping her father or Qīn could salvage the situation.
The bridal party was gone.
OF COURSE, her father was fucking gone.
Within Gwen’s mind, the final puzzle pieces fell into place.
Secretary Liu must have begun the night with hopes of humiliation to 'push' the Songs in the right direction, but the absence of Jun had provided an opportunity he couldn't refuse. Steering Hai and the wedding party away, the Secretary then took advantage of whatever childish tomfoolery his daughter had set up to bring matters to a head.
What blew her mind was that Hai, her father, left with his cunt of a wife instead of standing up for his own family.
But then again, what the fuck had she expected?
As for her uncle Jun, he'd probably have to offer his body to the Dragon-witch, quelling her wrathful lust. She imagined her Uncle lying on his back, thinking of China as Ayxin did what came naturally to dragons.
Just as the two hot-headed youths were about to leave for the duelling arena set up in the other courtyard, her grandfather walked between them.
"You two, a moment before you shame yourselves."
Guo turned to face the wedding guests, studying the faces of those who had mocked and laughed at a Chair of the CCP's inner circle, as if carefully remembering their faces.
What had Liu promised them? Guo wondered. His is a position that should have made these 'esteemed guests' quake in their boots. No one could attest that their rise to power was achieved without mud on their feet, least of all in a verdant place like Hangzhou, full of scum and intrigue.
Guo fell into step beside Gwen, flanking the girl, joining her precious babulya.
“I believe my granddaughter is telling the TRUTH.”
His voice penetrated every inch of the guests' skulls, empowered by Suggestion, enhanced by Illusion, skills which Guo had squirrelled away over the years, waiting for the right moment to be exercised.
Gwen was sure she had misheard.
Guo was taking her side?
Had the Plane of Fire been taken over by the Para-Elemental Plane of Ice?
The old man appeared to grow in size as he addressed his audience.
“Two truths are presented before us - no matter, for you know as well as I do, that this is not about Gwen. If you do believe the words of Guo Song, that is your choice-"
"THOUGH I tell you now as the CHAIR of the CHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY's CONFIDENTIAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMITTEE, my granddaughter is NOT a LIAR."
"Who among you will challenge me? SPEAK UP NOW. I WELCOME IT."
The crowd fell silent.
The sudden and uncomfortable reminder that this man knew their secrets, perhaps better than themselves, overrode Liu's promise of an obedient ally.
Guo's mien remained ironclad, though his timbre dropped an octave as his voice rang out once more.
"So you hold your peace."
Guo scoffed, then continued.
“The Songs do not require another to defend their honour."
He turned to Gwen.
Gwen puffed out her chest, taken by her grandfather's uncharacteristic outburst. Was this what they meant when they said that a dangerous dog rarely barks - because you'd only hear it after it had torn off your face?
"Gwen, show these whelps why you have no interest in them, and why their accusations are false. A toad may wish to take a bite of the swan, but the immutable TRUTH is that toads are toads! Do what you will. You have my support!”
Suddenly, the thin veneer of politeness hiding the hostility between the two families was torn asunder.
Mina, Tao, and Petra all broke through the crowd to stand beside Gwen.
“We believe our cousin!” Tao declared, defiantly looking around at the Hangzhou’s collective Guan-er-dai and Fu-er-dai. “Peaches will fuck em up for you, Gwen! They all know who my Dad is! Let’s see em try! These motherfuckers are gonna be bankrupt before the weekend’s out! You Er-Bi's want to honour your House? I'll BUY YOUR DOGSHIT HOUSE AND KICK YOU OUT! YOU'll BE HOMELESS! YOU HEAR ME?!”
Gwen fought to suppress a snort of inappropriate laughter.
Tao's boast was just that, but didn't they say one had to 'fight poison with poison?'
“I’ll act as your Abjurer in Richard’s absence,” Petra declared, giving Gwen a curt nod as she flashed her Storage Ring. "I always bring a full complement of spell-cubes. By the way, I got a tier 6 Blade Barrier loaded for emergencies..."
“I’ll heal.” Mina was peeved that Tao had just dragged her out here without her consent, though for once her brother had tossed her under the bus for the right reason.
Gwen turned to the young man from the Hu family.
Her eyes were light-fantastic, alive with mana.
“You still insist that it was my fault?”
The young man couldn’t back down, which meant he couldn’t apologise either.
Watching Hu's face twisted in anguish and self-righteous indignation, she lost the last ounce of her sympathy.
“Well, are you going to apologise, or are you going to screw your courage to the sticking place?”
“What in Mao's name does that even mean?”
Hu's eyes were wildly eyeballing Secretary Liu.
“This is absurd!” Patriarch Liu scowled as events escalated nonsensically. His daughter had consented to whatever he had planned so long as she was allowed to marry the wayward son of the Song family. As for the Songs, Liu would have preferred to end the ceremony on a high note.
It was supremely vexing for Liu that even nailed to the wall, Guo refused to cease his struggling. Why was it so hard to ask for the Secretary's help in public, declaring their allegiance for the Conservative Faction? Even a cordial 'let us work together now as one family' would have sufficed.
Guo snorted at the schemer.
The old man’s countenance suggested he was browsing turnips at a market, not facing the disintegration of his family’s reputation.
“Care for a wager?”
“What do you have in mind, Guo?”
Guo's reply filled the courtyard.
“If a single one of your Clan's juniors can best my seventeen-year-old granddaughter tonight, I will join the House of Song wholeheartedly to your Faction and labour toward whatever cause the Conservative Party wishes. Furthermore, your grandchild, male or female, will become the inheritor of both our Houses.”
Liu’s heart skipped a beat.
The guests ceased their eating, drinking, and merry-making.
Duels were a common feature of any good social gathering. The after-dinner entertainment was a chance for the elders to show off their young people, to find suitors, and to size up their factional rivals.
Wagers were also a standard feature.
But this -
This had to be a bluff!
“And if she survives the contest?”
Much to Liu's annoyance, Guo refused to lower his voice.
“If Gwen should prove the victor - I and the house of Song shall cease all obligations toward the House of Liu. Your future grandchild will not only have the last name Song, but they will belong to MY household.”
Liu stared at Guo, his mouth half-open.
Dared he test the old dog's resolve?
The girl was talented, sure, a rare Dual-Elementalist. But she was only a child! How long had she cultivated her skills? The intelligence he had gathered on the girl showed that she was tier 4 Lightning and tier 4 Void. Furthermore, the girl had severe limitations when using her Void spells, endangering herself more often than not. Her upbringing in the Sydney Frontier likewise limited her Spellcraft knowledge. Unless of course, the information trader from the Fung's sought to entrap him.
But that was unlikely.
What would be the benefit?
If one couldn't trust the surety of having something to gain, what could one trust?
“You ask for a difficult wager…”
Guo turned to Secretary Liu.
For the first time, a smile touched his lips.
“It's true what they say. Paper Tigers don't bite.”
A few of the guests snorted.
Others tittered politely.
One idiomatic phrase was enough to set Liu’s world on fire.
When was the last time Liu had been insulted like this?
The Secretary of Hangzhou closed his eyes for a brief few seconds to cool his feverish mind. Taking the opportunity to ruminate upon a checklist of young Mages the House of Liu could draw upon. The more he measured the pros and cons, the more assured he became of victory. Even if the girl had acquired new spells, mayhap even an Elemental Spirit, he was sure she could be beaten.
A girl of Gwen’s age was in the end, just a girl.
For Liu, there was everything to gain.
With the old dog on their side of the fence, the Conservative Faction would gain wings!
“Very well, Secretary Song.”
The two men's hands met in a firm and unrelenting shake.
“I applaud your confidence, Secretary Liu.”
Guo nodded at his granddaughter, who stood defiantly with her friends.
Receiving the confirmation from Guo, Gwen patted Pao on the shoulder, feeling commiseration for the addled sod.
“I’ll take it from here, buddy. Thanks for the save.”
Pao's lips trembled as he sank to one knee.
"Anything for you..."
Gwen sidestepped his attempt at kissing her, careful not to reward the man with a knee to the kisser.
She then turned to the assembly of 'suitors' gathered in front of her.
Gwen struck a thumb toward the direction of the outer courtyard.
A blue-white spark zinged from her shoes and grounded itself on the stone pavement.
She placed a hand to her hip, forming an admirable S-line with her proportioned curves. Their insults, lies and humiliation had left welts on her mind that could only be soothed by tier 6 Lightning.
“Alright, fellers. Like my grandaddy said, its fuck or walk."
The men stared, stunned by her expletive.
"Don’t you bastards DARE go soft on me now.”