By the second minute of the unceasing applause, Gwen's hands were beginning to hurt. The ovation had continued unabated as though they had concluded a concerto and the audience refused to leave without an encore.
Miao raised a hand.
The Inspector-General's impromptu humility caught Gwen by surprise. While a sudden cesura reigned, she kept clapping for half a second.
'Clap! Clap! Clap....'
It didn’t help that her envigorated approval was at a decibel hitherto unreachable by those without draconic-essence.
Horrified, she made herself smaller, hiding behind Jun.
Catching sight of her ashen complexion, the Secretary-General snorted with good humour.
Gwen's apprehension was voluntary.
Unlike when she had first arrived in Shanghai, she had studied up on the organisational structure of the CCP in the half-a-year since she had been at Fudan.
Secretary-General Miao Yang-Bò wasn’t someone whose name and title she could afford to lose to inconvenient amnesia.
Within her head, Gwen had painted a picture of the confusing separation of powers within the CCP. At the nerve-centre of the Chinese Communist Party was the General Office, an organ which held the Central Committee of Twelve. Attached to the General Committee was an independent oversight body - which was the Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection. The head of the CCDI and its Secretary-General was Miao Yang-Bò.
She knew of the man because, quite simply, Secretary General Miao was the boss of Jun’s boss.
The watcher who watched the watchers who watched the state.
How's that for a mouthful? Gwen thought. It would be funny if not for the fact that every word from the man's mouth could be enforced as an edict.
“Lord Ayxin, I hope you will forgive us for our neglect of your august presence. That Secretary Liu has insulted you was an unforgivable trespass.”
Boom. Gwen winced. There goes Liu's career as a statesman.
“I BEG FOR YOUR CLEMENCY! LORD AYXIN!”
Liu threw himself into another prostrating kowtow.
This time, it was of his own volition.
The CCP had long since banned the use of Imperialist gestures like the 'full body kowtow,' but Liu had mastered the form after only one attempt. The man was amazing in ways Gwen could never replicate; his skin was as thick as dragon-scales.
Qīn fell to her knees as well, bowing until her forehead touched the cold pavement, knowing that only humility could save their family from disgrace.
Hai stood awkwardly behind the two, unsure of whether to kneel or remain standing. After a moment of stiff-jointed hesitation, he implored Jun, his eyes swimming with unspoken desperation.
The corners of Ayxin’s lips twitched.
It was amazing how such a worm-like being could be the blood-relation of the male she desired. But then again, Ayxin recalled with reproof, wasn't she related to that scholarly coward, Ryxi? There's one in every family, it seemed.
Erasing Liu would please her, but she had a feeling that exercising the liberty afforded by her position and prestige would sour Jun’s opinion of her. But as a dragon, she also hungered for satisfaction.
Echoing Hai's dilemma, she allowed the matter to fall to Jun.
“Lord Ayxin, please have compassion for Hai’s father-in-law” Jun bowed, reminding his companion that they were at a wedding. More specifically, a wedding Ayxin had intruded upon uninvited and unwanted. "The man did not know of your august presence."
“I do not like that you are so distant,” Ayxin recoiled at Jun’s formality. “Speak normally.”
Jun awkwardly looked toward Secretary-General Miao for instruction.
The old man was watching the siblings and Jun's draconic-charge with great interest.
“Be at ease, Captain Song,” The Secretary-General chided Jun with a tone of great mirthfulness. “You will assume the role of our Ambassador while Lord Ayxin remains in Pudong. I am sure you're aware of how having an ancient land deity who has protected the yellow-earth for millennia as an ally would affect our borders. Maybe the Japanese will think twice about our South Sea territories then, eh?”
“My only interest here regards Jun,” Ayxin stated bluntly, furrowing her brows. “I do not have my father’s permission to engage in political barter.”
“Then let our city be your shelter and sanctuary,” Miao answered without skipping a beat. “You are welcome to stay for as long as our cities stand.”
“Sir, I have duties in the North…” Jun coughed, politely rejecting the General Secretary’s too-generous offer. Listening to the man’s increasingly grandiose diplomacy, he was getting goosebumps over parts of his body hitherto untouched by nervous premonition. “My next tour begins in February.”
“Lord Ayxin is free to go wherever she pleases.” Miao inclined his chin in a way that made him seem infinitely agreeable. “If it pleases her to tour the North, we will make that accommodation as well.”
“I see.” Jun stepped back. He was beginning to comprehend the scope of the CCDI’s vague intent. Whatever Jun desired was now out of the question. As a soldier, orders were absolute, be it trench-charging a troop of Corpse Gatherers, or the escort of a Draconic-Mage to the Front. "I shall perform my duty."
Hidden behind Jun, Gwen gritted her teeth, feeling a sincere desire to pinch her uncle.
“Perfect, Captain Song. You are a smart man and an even better soldier. Now, let us not stand on ceremony,” Miao stretched his arms behind his back. “I am an old man, Eighty-Two years old! Guo, is there a good place to sit down for some tea? Lord Ayxin and I have much to discuss.”
“Please allow me to offer my home!” Secretary Liu quavered from the floor. “Qin! Bring me my store of yearling Da Hong Pao!”
Qīn remained unmoving, but the implication was clear enough.
Ayxin dismissed the pitiful sight of Secretary Liu.
“You are forgiven,” she stated beside Jun. “Next time, know your place."
Qīn and her father remained on the floor, the very picture of humbleness.
Hai moved to retrieve his wife, but she battered his hands aside.
Caught by the awkwardness of her rebuke, Hai finally took a knee beside his spouse.
Klavidya turned away from the pitiful sight of her son, as did Guo, who was grinding his teeth with enough vehemence to require new molars.
"This way, Secretary-General.” Guo didn’t so much as glance at his first-born son as he led the way back to the west wing.
“Oh, one more thing.” Miao paused mid-stride.
The gathering collectively ceased their shuffling.
“The young Miss over there, I have some questions for you, but lacking the time, Xiao-Kú will act in my stead.”
The crowd parted to reveal Gwen, still wearing her skin suit, covered only by a towel.
Gwen pointed a trembling finger at herself.
She had been singled out like a drunken Sheila at a Friday night alcohol-stop.
A resounding series of 'Fuck! Fuck! FUCK!’ resonated through her mind. On the surface though, she kept her passions contained.
“Sir?” She dipped her head just low enough so that she was eye-level with the Secretary-General; her makeup was a mess, but Gwen figured her guise of juvenile vulnerability was to her advantage.
“It’s nothing serious, Miss Song.” Miao was already on his way out. “Kú, I'll debrief you later.”
The woman in her early thirties known as Kú lowered her gaze until Guo, Klavdiya, and Miao were out of sight. Walking side by side with Miao was Ayxin, the state VIP, followed closely by Jun, who paced beside his father. Trailing the group beside Miao’s two bodyguards were Qīn and Hai, with her father lagging slightly behind. When they reached the end of the corridor, Hai and Qīn went their separate ways, evidently lacking the seniority to participate in whatever discussions that now took place.
With the senior party gone, all that remained in the spacious courtyard were troops of servants, Gwen, Kú, Mina, Tao, and Petra. The sibling's mother, Nen, accounted for her children, then quickly excused herself.
Kú turned toward Gwen with eyes the clarity and hardness of rock-quartz. Attired in a hip-hugging pencil skirt, the woman was the definition of corporate cool, though Gwen suspected her blouse & dark skirt combo was something akin to a departmental uniform.
“This way, Miss Song.”
The woman indicated to a pavilion beside the water.
Gwen pinged her Divination Sigil to no avail. Its silence wasn't a bad thing; it meant Kú wasn't going to knock her out and take her back to Central for vivisection.
Her cousins reached her side.
Petra especially, having seen such incidents in her previous line of work, raised a hand to Gwen's shoulder.
“I’ll be fine guys, the worst is over,” Gwen assured them, though she wasn’t so sure herself what Kú, and by extension Secretary General Miao, wanted from her. “Miss... er, Kú?… appears quite amiable, I guess.”
“It’s Kú Tēng, Senior-Assistant to Secretary Miao. I hold the rank of Assistant Chair within the Central Confidential Communications Bureau, Ist Division, Beijing branch. I assure you, your cousin will be safe with me. My business with Miss Song is conducted at the behest of the Secretary General’s office. All non-affiliated personnel should make themselves scarce, lest you are charged with espionage.”
Tao and Mina were the first to leave, being far more in awe of Kú than Petra, who was more accustomed to officious grandstanding from public officials.
“Gwen, be careful.” Petra lingered for the rest of their short walk, at the end of which Gwen urged Petra to go.
Walking into the pavilion, Kú materialised a wand that suspiciously looked like one of those butt-thermometers. It was, however, the width of two fingers.
“What’s that for?” Gwen stayed a step behind the woman, readying herself for a series of rapid Dimension Doors if the Assistant Chair’s next response was to ask her to lie down.
“Oh, thank God...” Gwen simpered with relief.
“Your Kirin, please.”
“It's a marten.”
Kú waited impatiently by the table.
Gwen glanced at the instrument one more time, then once again brought forth her Familiar.
Ariel materialised mid-air.
In its passive form, Ariel's draconic qualities were far less pronounced. Without an empowering flow of Lightning-mana, her Familiar remained closer to its marten form. Two little stag-horns peeped out from its forehead, while its tail more closely resembled that of fan-tailed fish, forming a fluffy pad perfect for stress-relieving molestation.
Ariel swished through the air a few times, then landed on Gwen's head.
Ooo~, WARM! Gwen kept her face straight. Minx-scarfs aren't just for show!
“Hold it steady.”
“Ariel, be strong.” Gwen held her Familiar with both hands. “Look at me. Focus.”
Kú passed the wand over Ariel.
She then punched the numbers into a data slate.
“That thing’s not for sticking?”
Ariel’s butthole? Gwen stopped herself from blurting out the obvious. Why are you aiming it at my Familiar’s ass if all you wanted to do is wave it like a metal detector?
“I am detecting a trace of Draconic Essence,” Kú prodded Ariel’s fur. "I need some samples."
“Okay,” Gwen scratched Ariel’s tail. “But Ariel dematerialises when I unsummon it.”
Kú handed her a pair of nail shears.
“One lock of hair and clippings from the front hooves and the back paws, if you please. As for your enquiry, Familiars with highly developed Ego - ergo - a Spirit, retains their existence in the Prime Material. The samples will degrade. That is the point. The degradation itself allows us to gouge its authenticity.”
“I see... Ariel, hand.”
It was a shame that Ariel’s front paws had become hooves, though they were cute in their own way, with a thick bushel of furry mane covering the pastern bones. The hoof-wall was a polished jet, more akin to obsidian than keratin. When Gwen took hold of its hoof, she noted that the frog was thickly fleshed, like an overlarge paw-pad of a dog or cat; immensely satisfying to squeeze.
A chunk of the keratin parted.
“EEeee!!” Ariel retracted a hoof, pawing the air.
“It’s okay buddy, come on, one more!”
Reluctantly, Ariel settled back into her arms.
Cradling her Familiar like a baby, she retrieved one of its hind legs. Hidden under the snowy fur was a mightily fluffy paw with four meaty beans so pink and springy one could play with them for days.
Gwen dug her fingers into the luxurious tissue, tickled by the soft down.
“May I?” Kú's eyes followed Gwen's joyous, exalted digits. “Inspect your Familiar, that is.”
Hmm, Gwen felt her old instincts kick in. Maybe there was a play here. It was always good to bond with your clients before talking shop. Asking about their day, their holiday, their latest venture, that relative they had once mentioned, their new car, their dog and cats.
“Thank you. Ariel?”
Ariel regarded the woman warily.
“I’ll be careful.”
The Assistant-Chair retrieved the other foot, with Ariel now floating belly-up.
“Mao… Ariel is certainly a divine specimen.”
“Not divine enough to be a Kirin, I hope.”
“No… that much is evident. The physiology of a Kirin is far more complex.”
Ku gingerly lifted Ariel’s tail.
Ariel covered its butt with its swishing, flap-like appendage.
Rude! Its scowling face seemed to say.
Gwen couldn't help but notice Ariel now possessed 'expressions'.
“As you can see, your Familiar has no sex.”
Gwen made an 'O' with her lips.
“Through the Kirin is a chimeric creature, it nonetheless possesses universal underlying traits. Your Familiar is lacking dragon-scales, or ‘Fish-scales’ as we say.”
Kú then parted Ariel’s mane.
“Additionally, the mane should extend from under the keratin, but Ariel has an undercoat with a herringbone scale-pattern. Furthermore…”
Kú tapped on Ariel’s horns.
“Young Kirin sport ‘ròng’ or fuzzy horns. This creature possesses what looks like a warped stag-horn, even unempowered.”
“You're very observant,” Gwen marvelled at the woman’s expertise. Was she a cryptozoologist?
“Well, observant enough to see that it’s a low-tier Spirit. What did you feed it?”
“Assorted Cores? I was given some by Uncle Jun, and then we found one in Huangshan imbued with Draconic Essence.”
Kú paused in her molestation of Ariel’s paw before continuing.
Gwen looked up.
The two women met one another’s eyes.
Gwen averted her gaze, using Ariel's back paw as a distraction.
“Out of respect for Inspector Song, my colleague, I will give you an opportunity to be forthright with me,” Ku replied amiably. “You should know that I am a Bloodline Diviner. I am not very good at foretelling the future, but I can tell with fair accuracy whether someone is telling a lie.”
Gwen clipped into Ariel’s back-paw with more force than she had intended.
When she looked up, she caught a glimmer of Divination refracted from Kú's dark, amber eyes.
Her Familiar escaped the women's grasp, slithering away like greased lightning. It hovered just out of reach, swishing its tail, taunting the pair for their trespass.
“Is this an interrogation?”
“Only if you want it to be.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Then think of it as an interview. I would endeavour to make a good impression if I was in your position. With a rare talent, come dire complications.”
Gwen shifted her position so that she wasn’t so intimately seated beside the Diviner; it was bad enough that the woman could affect her with a touch spell. As for her response, it would seem cryptic answers and Divination were mutually symptomatic. Mayuree too suffered from the affliction of using half-truths as answers to common queries. Admittedly, Gwen wondered if she was still in the grasp of Mayuree's foretelling of weal and woe.
“Then I shall endeavour to do my best.”
“Good, who is the originator of your Summon Familiar?”
“Henry Kilroy, he was my mentor.”
Gwen had omitted the fact that Henry was also her saviour and her Master. She wasn’t sure how many people knew of her position as Kilroy’s No.3 apprentice, but the information was best kept covert until such time that Gunther could announce her presence to the world.
“I see. What is your Familiar’s original form.”
“A Marten. With mana, it transformed into a Mongoose.”
“May I see your second Familiar? The Void Beast?”
“I am afraid not.”
Kú's pen paused above her slate.
“Wonsoo sealed it,” Gwen added helpfully. “I can’t call for Caliban right now.”
“Back to our original question. What did you give your Marten?”
“Three Cores. An Eland Core I bought from an Auction. A Draconic-Carp Core, and a Draconic-Stag Core.”
“Retrieved from where?”
Gwen gave Ku a wane smile which said ‘nice try’.
“I see.” Ku tapped her slate. “Are you able to empower Ariel right now?”
“Please do so.”
Up above, Ariel grew into its combat form, transforming into a magnificent pseudo-Kirin.
“How wonderful. I need Lumen-Pics from all angles if you please.”
Gwen coaxed Ariel to come closer, then paraded her Familiar like a show-dog at Crofts. She lifted its tail, struck out its chin, and lifted its paws for close-ups.
More samples were collected with Ariel in its combat form.
“You are a fortunate young woman.” Ku brushed a hand over her Familiar's back, startling motes of static electricity which leapt from Ariel's fur. Grimacing, the Diviner retreated her hand gingerly, shaking out the numbness. “There are stories of Familiars becoming Spirits, of course, but no replicable sample exists that we know of. Certainly, your Familiar's changes are tied to Kilroy's spell.”
“The State’s not going to want Ariel for invasive tests, is it?” Gwen inquired worriedly.
“No, Magister Wen of Fudan will take care of that. She has been given broad jurisdiction over the matter of reporting on your progress.”
Gwen’s heart sank.
Magister Wen wasn’t a malicious sort, but the woman was utterly amoral when it came to filling charts with numbers. Given the opportunity, the scholar would likely jump at the chance of dissecting Caliban or Ariel to figure out what made them tick.
“Jun mentioned Draconic-Essence.”
"Ah, of course.”
Still thinking of Petra'a Master, Gwen funnelled what little Essence she had collated in the meanwhile into Ariel.
Again, her Familiar took on the radiant form of the full-maned Kirin with the elongated fork-pronged horns and shimmering fur-scales.
“Beautiful.” Kú breathed in. "It almost feels like the real thing, especially its presence."
Ariel modelled for another round of Lumen-pics; before Ku was done, however, Gwen’s Familiar shrunk back to her marten form.
“What happened?” the Assistant Chair demanded.
“I am out of juice,” Gwen confessed. “It takes a long time to coalesce Draconic-essence.”
“That makes sense, I suppose.” Kú noted the flaw down on her pad. "You're only human."
“So, what’s going to happen with me?”
“I thought you’d never ask." The woman packed away her implements.
“Well, I am asking now,” Gwen fired back.
“What do you think will happen to you?”
“Again with the rhetorical questions.” Gwen’s patience was wearing threadbare. If the woman wanted to play the fortune teller, she could do it on a day when Gwen wasn’t so damned tired. “Assistant-Chair Tēng. I know Gunther has a thing going on with you guys, and that I've got limited options, so why don't we be 'forthright' with one another?”
“That’s a bleak way of putting it.” Kú crossed her legs, though older, the woman rocked her pencil skirt; she reminded Gwen of a female CFO she had known from Westpac. “Let us be blunt then. The Secretary-General’s position is to ensure you do not become a point of tension between ourselves and the Mageocracy.”
“Our only expectation is that you actively avoid putting yourself into a position which would flare those tensions. Territorial disputes; Political posturing; sabotaging Lord Ayxin's interest in your Uncle. Jun has informed you of the treaty we have with the Pudong Tower, yes?”
The snide insert about Ayxin hadn't escaped Gwen's notice.
“Wen’s research data?”
“Yes, so long as both sides have equal access, you are free to do as you please.”
“If I wish to leave the country?”
"Go ahead. Jun is a loyal member of the CCP and the PLA. Your grandfather and grandmother are both our countrymen, so is your father and now your brother. You're welcome to return to the fold at any time; so long as your interests abroad does not conflict with ours."
"Is that a threat?"
"Are you going to be a threat?"
Gwen sighed unhappily.
Kú leaned forward, studying the young woman's vivid irises as the saturation of Gwen's hazel orbs reflected her lifting emotions.
“Look...” Gwen took a deep breath. In Kú's eyes, the girl visibly squared her shoulders and arched her spine so that she sat upright and poised. “As you know, I came from Australia, an old British Penal Colony. I was a nobody - hell, in a place like the Oceania Frontier, I was meat. But as luck would have it, I awoke to rare talents I had no idea how to control, literally winning the bloodline lottery. During that very uncertain period of Spellcraft infancy, I was picked up like a stray cat by Magister Kilroy and his apprentices, Magus De Botton and Lord Shultz. They gave me a home in the Sydney Tower, taught me how to use my magic, and set me on the right path.”
Gwen waited to see if Kú would interrupt her, then continued.
“Until I had found allies like Magister Kilroy, my babulya, my friends in Sydney and my family here in Shanghai, I had no idea what I wanted, nor what I was going to do with my talents. Crystals? Sure, I could do with a mountain or two. Buy a big house, have a nice life, place by the Ocean, sans the Mermen; that sort of thing.”
“Sounds nice. A good aspiration.”
Ariel turned in Gwen's lap.
Positing her Familiar, Gwen offered Assistant-Chair Tēng Ariel's super-soft belly. Gingerly, Kú dug her fingers into the luxurious fur.
“And that would’ve been it. But Magister Kilroy told me that there are bigger things in this world than just sitting on your ass sipping a Tequila Sunrise, watching the surf at Bondi. A great man once said ‘With Great Power, comes Great Responsibility.’ My benefactor himself believed in Noblesse Oblige, the idea that Mages should take it upon their shoulders to elevate NoMs above their mediocre, poverty-stricken lives, or at the very least, show compassion and empathy for our fellow man.”
“The Great Leader stated as much in his Manifesto,” Ku added, squeezing Ariel's beans. “I am in full agreement. Go on.”
“Thank you, I appreciate it." Gwen wetted her lips quickly. "What Magister Kilroy gifted me was more than Spellcraft, more than his Signature Conjure Familiar. It was a goal that extended beyond myself. A goal that, with every tier of magic I master, I feel inching closer. As my power grows, so does the burden on my shoulders, and that’s why I strive always to surpass myself. For my immediate future, I want to represent Fudan in the IIUC. I’ll finish my degree here. I’ll graduate a Magus. After that, I want to help Gunther rebuild Sydney. If China wishes to be a part of that, you're welcome. If not, not my problem. THAT'S my honest opinion. I hope the Secretary-General is not going to think lesser of me.”
Kú played with Ariel's tail.
Got her! Gwen exalted internally.
“What about Magister Kilroy’s killer?” Kú asked casually.
“Well, given a chance…" Gwen licked her lips again. "I would like to see her returned to the Void."
“I will pass on the sentiment.” Kú nodded, her face revealing neither agreement or malice.
Gwen swallowed. Assistant Chair Tēng seemed amiable enough. It was time for a few questions of her own.
“May I inquire as to the Secretary’s desire?”
“Status quo.” Ku waved a hand over the samples, stowing them in her ring. “The country is in a good place at the moment. The past decade has seen minimal insurgency, and the Undead has been kept from the Xian-Beijing Front. It’s times like this that we need to build up our forces for the next big calamity.”
Gwen nodded, a little unnerved by Kú's choice of words.
'The next big calamity?'
Her grandfather had called her that when they first met.
Ayxin had stated likewise, as had the Yinglong.
“I understand,” Gwen answered. “I’ll keep out of trouble.”
Ariel coiled again, its serpentine marten's body offsetting the tension. Without speaking, the two women listened to the bone-thrumming purr of Gwen's Kirin-like marten as they worked over its head, feet and tail.
“Very well,” Kú replied eventually. “This concludes our meeting. I will inform the Secretary of my findings. Oh, and one more thing, young one.”
“Don’t be so trusting, especially of those wearing a uniform.”
Kú's chuckle broke into a laugh.
What was that all about? Gwen wondered.
“It was a pleasure speaking to you, Miss Song. I look forward to your progress.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. I’ll not disappoint."
“I have every confidence you won’t.” Kú took one last gander at Ariel, then picked herself from the seat. “An official announcement regarding your pseudo-Kirin will be sent out to relevant stakeholders, though I would personally advise keeping a low profile. It would be a fortuitous day when half of those under our jurisdiction believed in official notices. Never underestimate what people are willing to do to get their hands on a piece of semi-divinity.”
"I'll be careful, Ma'am."
As though preplanned and divined in advance, a Message bloomed beside Kú's ear.
“Sir? Yes, I am done here as well. I understand... Very well.”
Kú turned toward Gwen amiably.
“Looks like we’re all wrapped up. Your family is seeing off the Secretary-General. Shall we?”
“Yes,” Gwen followed.
Back in the outer courtyard, the party had reconvened. From the looks of it, the group had already bespoken their farewells when Gwen and Kú approached.
"Xiao-Kú, allow me a good gander at our future Magus." The Secretary-General beckoned.
Gwen bowed deeply.
“I am flattered by your recognition, esteemed Sir,” she replied sheepishly.
“Don’t mind the formality.” Secretary-General Miao approached. Strangely, it was as though the man had no aura at all; she may as well be addressing a NoM.
Miao extended a hand.
An opportunity! Gwen contemplated the unexpected prospect. First impressions were important!
She had a split-second to react: years of ingrained professionalism took over. Gwen straightened her body, looked up with bright eyes, and gave Miao the most sugary smile she could muster under the circumstances.
The two shook.
Gwen had long since discovered the power of a submissive handshake, a poise uniquely exploitable by women, particularly attractive women. She lowered her shoulders, dipped her head, then took Miao’s hand with both hands. The ‘double-cusp’ it was called, delivered underhand, almost like a hug. Miao’s hand felt coarse and hard, rigid and skeletal; hers were soft, tender, and warm.
“Thank you for looking after our family, Secretary General Miao. It put me at ease knowing that Grandfather has a reliable superior and that Uncle Jun is working under your esteemed guidance.”
The Miao's mien took on a generous and expansive expression.
“A fair flatterer!” the old man marvelled, smiling so much that his face became a mass of weathered lines. “Guo! You have a wonderful granddaughter; I am jealous!”
“Please don’t mind her.” Guo awkwardly chuckled next to his superior. “Gwen, show Secretary Miao the proper respect.”
“Please forgive my insolence.” Gwen bowed again, this time with her hands on her knees and her long hair cascading from her white neck. Her makeup, she mindfully noted, was still in ruins.
“Nonsense!” The Secretary appeared pleased by her demure humility. Behind Miao, Kú fought back her mirth.
“Sir.” She coughed. “We need to go. You have to be back in Beijing at 23:15.”
“Of course.” Miao turned toward Ayxin, who stood with Jun. “Lord Ayxin, I hope Captain Song and yourself will usher forth a new era of cooperation between the PLA and the Lord of Huangshan. For now, please enjoy your stay in Pudong.”
Ayxin remained attired in her Hello Kitty shirt, cutting a curious figure beside Gwen.
“Thank you for the reception, Yang-Bò. I am sure Pudong will be a very interesting experience.”
It was the first time that Gwen and Ayxin had stood side to side; the apparent similarities had not escaped the Secretary General’s sharp eyes.
“Fair well.” The Secretary dipped his chin.
The gathering saluted, bowed and curtsied.
Meeting Gwen’s eyes, Kú began an incantation.
A silvery Conjuration mandala formed on the floor of the outer courtyard.
SHE WAS A CONJURER? Gwen baulked. Suddenly, the woman's advice made so much more sense. Kú had played her like a fiddle! Seeing her dismay, Kú Tēng, Assistant Chair to the Secretary-General, winked at Gwen, then moved aside as a portal connected Hangzhou and Beijing, where presumably a massive ISTC array fed power into the translocation spell.
In the next moment, the Secretary and his men were gone.
All that remained was the scent of burning silver in the air, sizzling away where the mandala’s reagents had eaten into the granite floor.
The gathered members of the wedding party breathed out a collective gasp of relief.
Magus Liu turned to Guo.
The man bowed deeply.
“Secretary Song, can you forgive a fool who was blinded by greed and ambition?”
Gwen’s grandfather sighed.
“We’re family now, Liu. Lets put this behind us, shall we?”
“I cannot possibly repay you for your generosity,” Liu’s voice choked.
The two old men held each other's hands and shook on the ceasefire agreement. It was a foregone conclusion, one that had been set the moment Miao arrived. The head of the CCDI wasn't going to allow his Chair of Confidential Communication to have a shit-fight with the man responsible for supplying Shanghai with grain. It would create chaos for his precious ‘status quo’, as Kú had so generously informed Gwen.
Gwen felt a wave of revulsion.
The two old crooks had been at each other's throat an hour ago!
It was Qīn who now turned to Gwen.
“I am sorry, for everything. My intentions weren’t pure. Can you please forgive me?”
A blast of heady perfumed washed over Gwen’s nostrils, Qīn was inches from her face. There was a musky scent of old sex as well, one that Gwen as an inexperienced teenager could not have known, but as a veteran, prickled her nostrils.
What the fuck? She glanced from Qīn to Hai, then back to the woman again. They had been gone an hour at most. To think that in a time like this, her father and step-mother still mustered enough libido to get it 'on' like they do on the Discovery Channel.
“Of course,” Gwen replied, stepping away. “As grandfather said, we’re family now. We’re on the same team. Right? Not to mention I love those shoes, hahaha.”
Qīn's face trembled with happiness, even though Gwen could feel the rigidity in her fingers. She was a woman being forced to put on a show, but Gwen couldn’t blame her stepmother. Qīn had her circumstances, such as being stuck with her asshole of a father, and that in itself would be torture enough. Why add insult to injury, especially as tomorrow, she would be back to Fudan.
“Well, I am glad that’s resolved,” Jun interjected. “I’ll be taking Lord Ayxin-”
“...Ayxin. Back to Pudong first thing in the morning. They’re readying her accommodations, as well as a Shielding Key capable of supporting a being of her seniority.”
“Uncle, such poor choice of words,” Gwen intervened. She took the opportunity to separate from Qīn, not wanting to think about where the woman's fingers had last been. Walking beside Ayxin, Gwen offered the Dragon-kin her off hand. Reflexively and a little perplexed, Ayxin took it. The two then shook in full view of the audience, two near-identical figures standing side by side.
“Ayxin, I hope you enjoy Shanghai as much as I did. There’s lots of cuisine to eat, tons of interesting places to visit, clothes to buy, shoes to try. Let me tell ya, sweetheart, the number of outfits you could buy could fill up that cavern of yours up in Huangshan and then some. That Hello Kitty shirt? That’s just the beginning. I am sure Uncle Jun's company Currency-Card has no limit, right?”
“I suppose.” Jun shrugged helplessly, feeling a terrible premonition, both for himself and the Operations Budgetary Office.
“That sounds wonderful.” Ayxin tugged at her shirt, then looked toward Jun.
“Yes, Ayxin.” Gwen smacked her lips. She had seen how Ayxin looked at her clothes on the Mount. The dragon-lady was strong, but not even a dragon-kin could escape the curse of vapid consumerism. “In the mortal world, we call it Retail Therapy. Endless shopping, unlimited budget, with Uncle Jun by your side, holding your bags. Every other woman, staring at you with nail-biting envy! You, my girl, are going to have a blast!”
"Gwen-" Jun warned his niece.
“I think I will.” Ayxin beamed, her eyes sparkling. “Yes, I would like that.”
Jun groaned inwardly.
Shopping? Endless shopping?
He would rather face an endless Undead hoard.
Beside her uncle, Gwen beamed - an innocent flower with a serpent's tongue.
Jun felt an outbreak of cold sweat soaking his dress shirt.
Was this Gwen’s revenge for his indiscretion with Ayxin?
The girl's pettiness could rival a Dragon's!