Hai rested his face against his wife’s milky abdomen, listening for the heartbeat that may even now be finding its pulse.
The room was a mess, but that was fine, the NoM servants would restore it to pristineness tomorrow.
“Hai?” Qīn’s fatigue-riddled face turned toward him in the darkness. “Is something wrong?”
“Nothing, my love, go back to sleep.” Hai brushed her forehead with his lips.
The usual Qīn would have kissed him then queried him until she was satisfied, for the moment though, his wife was arguably and understandably exhausted.
The Patriarchs' bitter dispute.
Gwen's fiasco, redux.
Secretary Miao's visit.
As any soul with half-a-heart would heartily agree, his wife deserved the rest.
Hai dug his face into Qīn’s voluminous hair.
He loved the scent of vitality radiating from her scalp, the softness of her supple skin; the warmth she exuded effortlessly. It was in moments like these that Hai felt genuinely happy.
Happy - and a little paranoid that his fragile happiness wouldn't last.
There had been a near-miss right after they had left the aftermath of the wedding. It was the reason why the room smelled like burnt paper right now, despite the Gust of Wind he had operated for half an hour.
After her father's disgrace, Qīn had stormed back into her room, screaming ‘I can’t even talk to you right now!' He had chased her all the way into the interior of her bedroom, where she dispelled an illusionary wall, revealing a hidden alcove.
Curious, Hai had followed his wife, then immediately regretted his decision.
Qīn was tearing down a wall scroll.
It was a picture in his likeness from many years ago.
On the table were chunks of pink salt, which tended to naturally form if he fought on water or areas with high humidity. There was a splayed, leather-bound volume as well, filled with old newspaper clippings of his past exploits in the military, as well as other propaganda pieces about when the ‘Song Brothers’ were still a thing.
If Hai had to be honest with himself, he felt unnerved but a little pleased.
To think Qīn had waited for him this whole while, alone and loitering, even knowing that he was 'dead'. Hai knew that if it were him in her place, there would be no chance he could muster the conviction to ‘wait’ for a woman, much less lose a decade of his life.
But of course, his wife was now in the process of tearing down her ‘shrine’.
His callousness had broken her heart.
“Qīn! Calm down! Hey!”
Hai approached his wife.
“No!” Qīn’s mascara was running down either side of her creamy white face like squid ink. “I can’t believe you didn’t help daddy! Your peasant family humiliated him, Hai! Humiliated him! I felt like I could have died right there! If I could have killed myself to save him from that experience, I would have!”
“But…” Hai scratched his head.
“I KNOW!” Qīn wailed. “Mao! Oh, Hai - I knew you couldn’t do anything. You ran away from your father, didn't you? You faked your death! But I had HOPED! I had a little spark of wishful, HOPEful thinking that maybe, just maybe, you could have done something!”
“I did do something… it was Gwen-”
“Then Gwen exposed you for the man you truly are! A RUNNER! When things get too hard, you RUN! ARE YOU GOING TO LEAVE ME NOW?”
“Qīn, that’s not true,” Hai protested.
“YES, IT IS!” Qīn touched a hand to her belly. “Poor child… poor baby…”
God damn it! Hai snarled internally, feeling the descend of torturous anxiety enveloping his mood like a dark shroud. Qīn was right though; he had a half-a-mind to get the fuck out of here while everyone was busy entertaining Secretary-General Miao.
Why was it that every time he achieved a little happiness, people from his family came and shat all over it. Was it so hard to get the fuck on with their own lives? To leave him to live his life in peace? Was that so impossible? The wedding wasn’t even for him or Qīn; they could have just eloped and be done with it. They could be happy somewhere, ANYWHERE that’s not here, living off his Abjuration and her Healing.
But Qīn loved her father, and he couldn't force her to leave Hangzhou.
Earlier, Qīn had demanded that he 'do something'.
It wasn't enough, but he did it anyway. Put himself out there like a worm for hens to mercilessly peck and quarrel.
"Waaaaa~" Qīn's wail was heartbreaking.
He had to do something.
Hai summoned the courage that came naturally to him in moments like these; he strode toward Qīn with the conviction of a martyr going to the cross, spitting at sneering Romans along the way.
Hai set the scrapbook on fire.
His wife recoiled from the scrapbook, her misery suddenly replaced by shock. Her face was streaked with tears and fraught with fury, caught between wanting to preserve her childhood memento and letting it burn, like her marriage.
From behind, Hai's arms wrapped around his wife’s waspish waist.
The act surprised Qīn at first; then she began to violently struggle, beating his hand with her fists.
"Let me go! Let me go you bastard!"
“Qīn.” Hai held his wife tightly, ignoring her protest. “I love you.”
Qīn's trashing visibly grew tame.
“I won’t leave you, and I won’t leave our child,” Hai whispered beside her ear.
Her struggling ceased.
“No, not now, and not ever. I’d rather leave my parents, leave Gwen, leave all of them behind than leave you.”
Qīn gasped; she turned to putty in his arms.
She then began to sob.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Then we can leave right now.”
“Where will we go?”
“Anywhere you want. Just pick a direction, and we’ll be on our way. It’ll work out.”
The idea of ‘leaving’ struck Qīn like a bolt from the blue. It was such a romantic notion, and it was just like Hai. Just trying to imagine the two of them escaping from home and going on a life-long adventure had her heart in stitches. Her face flushed, her breath came in shallow gasps, her bosoms rose and fell dramatically. Perhaps not surprisingly, she could feel Hai stabbing her thighs with the proof of his commitment.
“We can,” Hai stated affirmatively. “Just say the word.”
“No.” Qīn refused, fearful of what she might undertake in the passion of the moment. When she seriously entertained the notion, Qīn found the idea of a future without the House of Liu, without the familiar siheyuan, without her koi- well, her koi were dead now.
Nonetheless, the abandonment of her family was abhorrent to her, and it made her all the happier for Hai's proclamation.
“Hai, we can’t just leave. Daddy needs me now more than ever; it’ll break his heart. Not to mention your daughter, your parents…”
“Then I’ll stay here with you. I don’t care what deal the family has made, Qīn. In the end, this is our marriage. It’s just you and me. It’s our right to be selfish; it's our life, our happiness, not your father’s, not my father’s and certainly not Gwen’s. ”
Hai needn't even have finished before Qīn melted into his arms, silencing him with her peach-petal lips. The warm glow from the flaming scrapbook illuminated their faces with dancing flickers of orange light, juxtaposing the acrid smell of diffused ink, old leather, and lacquer.
A cascade of Salt washed over the burning effigy, snuffling the light.
Qīn launched her own assault, infusing Hai's abdomen with positive energy.
And that’s how they had spent the hour or so until they had to send off Secretary General Miao. Upon their return, Hai and Qīn had mucked about the entire room, as Gwen had once noted with asinine peevishness, like ‘goats and monkeys’.
An inestimable number of 'rounds' later, Qīn was OOM.
She collapsed beside her once again loving husband, sticky with musk, fast asleep.
Hai breathed out. His whole body was sore, and his legs trembled, and certain parts of his anatomy had pings and needles.
It was done.
By all accounts, he had sheltered his little corner of the world. His wife’s milky form lay beside him, and their future was arguably going to be uneventful.
Still, Hai felt an interminable 'bad feeling'.
Naked and sweltering, he shivered.
He embraced his wife.
As a Positive-Energy Mage, her quick metabolism meant she had a very snuggle-worthy body temperature.
He hoped, somewhat naively, that Gwen had no more grievances waiting to be unloaded. She was no longer a little girl, and her continued obsession with his life had gone on for far too long. With any luck, Gwen would be back to Fudan, back to her ‘interesting’ life of power and turbulence, leaving him to his boring old honeymoon on the placid surface of the West Lake.
On the other side of the estate, a conspiracy of Songs convened.
It was impossible to know if such a thing as ‘privacy’ existed in the Liu’s estate, and so Jun had suggested for Gwen offered up her Portable Habitat.
Now gathered together in the living room, the three junior Songs stood uncomfortably opposite their patriarch.
One of these is not like the others, Gwen noted.
“You… told her. Without my permission.”
Gwen further noted acidulously that her grandfather’s accusation was not a question but a statement.
"Grandfather, I hardly think this is the time to be bickering about-" Gwen began.
“I did. I informed Gwen while we were on Huangshan,” Jun interjected between the old man and his granddaughter. “And I intend to teach her the Rite when the time comes. You can’t deny her now, not after all that she’s done for us tonight.”
Beside the uncle-niece duo, Percy's expression took on one of confusion and contemplation.
“I-I see.” Guo’s fury was starved of its indignant fuel; he had indeed promised his youngest. He turned his head ever slightly toward Gwen. “I can’t deny that she has earned that privilege. Gwen?”
“Tell us what has happened.”
Gwen back-peddled until she stood behind Percy.
For once in her life, it wasn't her who stuck some crackers up the cat's arse.
“First of all, I am perfectly fine.” She watched her uncle raise a brow. “Yeah, I know, I can’t believe it either. This time its Percy who’s in trouble. BIG trouble. We did what we could to mitigate the damage, but as I’ve said to Percy, there’s no point keeping secrets from family! Right, Percy?”
Guo glanced at Jun, who cleared his throat.
“Percy.” Gwen prodded her brother's spine; he'd been as quiet as a church mouse the whole time. “Tell them what you told me.”
"We're all here to help you, Percy," Jun encouraged the boy as well, following Gwen's lead.
“A-alright.” Under the watchful eye of his family, Percy rustled up his courage.
In affirmation of Gwen's growing validation of her brother, he bared the naked truth.
Percy told Jun and Guo that he had become increasingly jealous of Gwen ever since her awakening as a Lightning Mage, then again as a Void Mage. He confessed to his peevish insecurity as Gwen found belonging with the likes of Gunther Shultz and Alesia de Botton. He furthermore told them of his paranoia that Gwen would somehow be better suited to the Kirin Amulet than he. Lastly, as an unexpected boon, Percy told Guo of his sinful intentions the night Gwen attempted to ‘take’ his amulet.
“I lied. I was afraid, and I lashed out. I am sorry, Grandfather. Gwen as well. I’ve disappointed all of you.”
“Owning up to your wrong is a good thing, Percy,” Gwen stated with sagacity, leading the conversation.
Guo's gaze shifted between his two grandchildren.
"Father," Jun politely intruded. "Gwen is a model sibling, is she not?"
An unspoken missive passed between father and son.
“Gwen," Guo declared after a few seconds of hesitation; his expression one of constipation. "That time, I was too quick to judge.”
“You were under a lot of stress.” Gwen lowered her chin understandingly even as her heart soared with vindication. “Babulya already told me. So it’s fine. I understand your intention, Grandfather. I know it’s not personal.”
Guo nodded, his expression softening.
Percy then told of his killing of the two deserters.
“Percy.” Guo regarded his grandson. “You were right to defend yourself, but your lack of discipline must be addressed. Your training will be harsher from now on.”
Percy shook his head.
“You do not think you deserve it?” Guo’s face twisted into one of displeasure and outrage.
“No, Grandfather,” Percy answered. To their surprise, he retrieved from his neck the Kirin amulet, then held it within the palm of both hands. “I made a terrible mistake tonight, Grandfather, something that proves I am not worthy of this.”
Guo looked to Gwen, who quickly forced Percy to put the amulet away back where it belonged.
"Grandfather,” Percy uttered miserably. “They saw me use the Rite.”
Both Guo and Jun tensed, flooding the enclosed chamber of the Habitat with a sudden pressure that made it laborious for Percy to breathe. As for Gwen, she gauged her Grandfather’s aura to be inferior to Golos, especially when the Thunder Wyvern was fluffed up and as angry as a pissed wombat.
“No one else saw anything!” Gwen added quickly. “Percy took care of the two that attacked him. He came home wounded, I looked after him. Well, Petra looked after him. After that, Petra left, Percy told me what happened, and here we are.”
“What about their remains?” A military man, Jun followed up with a pragmatic enquiry.
“Ah, about that.” Gwen made a face.
She recounted that Percy had collected the bodies and that she had deemed it necessary to ‘void’ the evidence, as it were.
Guo raised a cynical brow.
“You helped your brother hide the bodies?”
“Guilty as charged.” Gwen raised both hands. “We’re accomplices.”
“And you discerned that they were deserters?” Jun was surprised that after all of Percy's misgivings, Gwen's immediate reaction was to shield her ungrateful sibling.
“They stank, their attire smelled like old onions and rancid grease.” Gwen creatively painted a picture for her elders. “They wore rags as well, completely haggard; matted, wild hair too. Does that sound about right?”
Father and son contemplated Gwen's depiction.
“Look, there's more. Percy made a booboo,” Gwen tried to downplay the catastrophic news of accidental Necromancy by making a cute face. Hopefully, it sounded better coming from her lips than if Percy stuttered out the truth in terror. “He used Drain-Life on the hobos.”
“HE DID WHAT!”
Even the unfazed Guo leapt from where he'd leaned against the couch.
“IMPOSSIBLE!” Guo snarled. “The Blessing is a RITE! It takes minutes to prepare! How is it possible that you, a boy, can use it in the heat of combat? PERCY! Now is no time for deception! I want the truth!”
Percy’s mien turned the colour of paste.
“I was in the middle of the Rite itself when they attacked me!” The boy protested feebly. “I… I don’t know what I did. There were two of them; it was dark, I was OOM. I did the first thing that came to my mind.”
Guo's face was a tremor of conflicting emotions. Gwen could see the pressure building, the old man's weathered face may as well be molten tectonic plates.
"YOU INGRATE FOOL!" Mt Guo erupted.
Percy shielded his face.
Gwen reflexively moved in front of her cowering brother.
The outburst, particularly her rare use of Mandarin, caught Guo off guard.
The intercept was just enough time for Jun to intervene.
“Dad, hold on.” Jun took his father by the arm. “Let Percy finish, what's happened has happened. You're right to be angry of course, but punishments can wait until after we figure out a solution.”
Guo struggled against his son's iron-grip before slumping a little against Jun's shoulders.
"I have taken too little care of this..." He signed. "I was too hasty. The boy's not ready."
"Percy?" Gwen swallowed, feeling fortunate that she didn't take an accidental licking in Percy's stead. "Tell grandfather what happened."
Percy took a few seconds to calm his nerves.
Unfortunately, it became self-evident that the boy was not talented in the gift of gab.
"Why are you all so surprised?” Percy had on a wounded expression of having been betrayed; the very picture of a child bewildered by circumstance beyond his knowledge. “Didn't you teach Gwen, Uncle Jun? She Life-Drained people in D-109, didn’t she? That’s how she gained those schools. She also used her Amulet in Australia as well. Maybe Dad taught her back in Sydney? How else is she stealing all those Schools of Magic?”
“…” Gwen stared at Percy, mouth half-open.
“…” Jun met his father’s disbelieving eyes.
“…” Guo looked as though he was about to open another jar of Salt-laden walloping on his obliviously entitled grandson.
“What do you mean, Percy?” Guo’s low voice took on a dangerous fullness.
Percy stared at his elders with incomprehension.
Even if he had no idea what was going one, even with his limited knowledge of the world and its people, he could read the mood. If he'd been up shit creek without a paddle earlier, now the dingy has capsized, and there was a Shit-Water Crocodile in the water.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding…” Gwen pushed between Guo and her brother again, much to their grandfather's annoyance. “What Percy is saying is that he accidentally took on Abjuration, the talent of one of his victims, after accidentally using Drain-Life on her in the heat of the moment.”
“Nonsense,” Guo dismissed Gwen’s counterpoint. “Percy has been trained in Abjuration. It should be no surprise that he could reach tier 1 by now. Not to mention your sister is... different, in a way.”
“Gwen's telling the truth, Grandfather.” Percy stepped back from the inquisitorial Patriarch. “Watch!”
An external Salt-Shield sprang into existence, lingering even after Percy ceased his channelling. To Guo and Jun's trained eyes, either Percy had become a prodigy in learning secondary Schools of Magic, or he as telling the truth.
“Mao…” Guo touched the Shield, observing its rigidity and its slow corrosion of the skin on the surface of his finger. “Percy, tell me exactly what happened. Every detail.”
Percy retraced his steps as he had done for Gwen.
“Percy, perform the Blessing of the Kirin, right now,” Guo commanded.
“Do it outside,” Jun advised, not wanting to damage Gwen’s Habitat.
Once outside, the rest of the family retreated to a safe distance.
Guo activated his diagnostic magics, then watched as Percy underwent the process. Compared to Jun, Percy’s movements were clumsy and unrefined, his command over the essence reclamation was likewise ineffective and amateurish.
What impressed both Jun and Guo however, was the affinity Percy seemed to posses for the Amulet. What little mana the boy injected into the amulet induced a disproportional release of rarified essence far more generous than Percy’s expenditure.
“What do you think?” Guo enquired of Jun. "I've never seen anything like this."
“Same; not for me and certainly not for Hai,” Jun confessed. “Percy has taken to the Amulet’s Soul-Well like a fish to water.”
Though the incantation ended with the infamous Necromantic utterance, both Guo and Jun understood that the spells’ misnomer was a syntactic misunderstanding. The final utterance for activating the magic was the Hanyu incantation for ‘draw’, a synonym beside the Annunciation for ‘drain’. "Chōuqù," wasn't the same as "Xīqǔ". Where Necromancers would ‘DRAIN’ life, the Song’s magic ‘DREW’ Life from the Kirin Amulet.
Of course, anyone with limited knowledge of Necromancy and its reputation would naturally assume the spell ended with ‘drain’ and not ‘draw’, even though one implies taking out something that had been stowed, while the other was synonymous with usurpation.
Not far from where the trio stood, Essence flooded Percy’s Astral Body, forming a swirl of darkly shimmering energy barely perceptible at the edge of vision. The spiritual meta-matter first entered from Percy’s palm, with the Kirin Core at its epicentre, then diffused into his mana channels.
“I activated the Rite,” Percy reiterated. “Just like this.”
To his observers, it wasn’t so much the Rite, but the ease and efficiency by which Percy had completed the sigil and incantations for Drain Life that surprised them.
Percy could apparently 'switch' the 'draw' effect on and off at will.
Did the boy have a talent for Necromancy?
What a terrifying prospect!
If so, they should thank their lucky stars that Percy was a Salt Mage and had no means to raise, empower, or summon the Undead.
Of course, nothing the boy had demonstrated explained how he managed to ‘power up’ his Abjuration like Gwen. For the boy’s sister, there was a whole Elizabeth Sobel who came before to explain her otherwise inexplicable talents; likewise, her mastery over Caliban offered a rational logistical pathway for the acquisition of new Schools of Magic.
As for Percy, the family stood on unbroken ground.
If a Song had ever thought it was a great idea to use the Rite on a living human being, a Mage no less, they had undoubtedly not recorded it in the Analects for posterity.
“We need to keep an iron-lid on this,” Guo suggested darkly. “Until we know more…”
“I concur,” Jun breathed out, glad his father saw reason. “Gwen?”
“I am at your mercy.” Gwen smiled simperingly, knowing that sort of thing placated Guo. "Percy, are you fine with it? Speak up!"
She slapped her brother's back.
“…” Her brother was silent.
Percy looked up.
“May I return the amulet to Gwen?”
The quest fell upon his listeners like crashing thunder.
“No!” Gwen was the first to protest, an act which confounded both Guo and Jun. “It’s yours now! Didn’t you see how well it worked just then? I never had that kind of interaction with it, ever!”
Percy's weakness should have made Guo erupt once more.
But instead, the old man stroked his chin thoughtfully, gazing upon his granddaughter with a profound understanding in his eyes.
“You do not wish to possess the Amulet, Gwen?" Jun tested the water in case Gwen was playing one of her mind games. By now, he knew that the girl had a depth that neither he nor Guo could see through. "As you can see, it could help you train beyond what you are capable of doing alone, not to mention you may need it if you wish to master your Void element.”
“Don’t need it,” Gwen flexed her bicep in the 'We can do it!' Rosie the Riveter pose. “I got Ariel and tier 6 Lightning! Let Percy have his.”
“I see,” Guo’s voice took on a kindness the old man had previously withheld. “This makes me truly happy, Gwen. I don’t know what to say.”
“Saying you feel proud of her would be a good start!” Jun laughed. “See Dad, I told you; you’ve mistaken her this entire time!”
Guo scowled, but it was a sheepish expression, mingled with feelings of pride, scorn, and self-loathing.
Indeed, Gwen freely had given Percy the Amulet, if she had fought Guo tooth and nail, Klaviya would have likely sided with Gwen. Earlier, she had again refuted the Amulet when Percy first took it from his neck. And now, she had denied it thrice, not only verbally, but had used the attempt to encourage her brother, to help Percy attain his destiny.
Thrice she had resisted the temptation, and thrice she had proven herself, unbidden.
He had always known that her ardent loyalty to family sat well with him, and now his wayward granddaughter had demonstrated a selflessness that Guo knew to respect, even if he doubted the purity of her loyalty.
The girl was alright.
A groundswell of rapturous pleasure engendered in Guo’s bosom.
“Granddaughter.” The old man uncharacteristically placed a hand on Gwen's shoulder.
“Yeye?” In all honesty, the sudden generosity in Guo’s eyes made Gwen's skin crawl. Though she knew what to say, where Guo had expected her to meet him, she unconsciously shrank back.
The old man retracted his fingers, disappointed.
But lucky for Guo, Gwen wasn’t a sulky teenager who'd delight in rebuking an old dog who'd bitten her. The girl instantly recognised her error, as well as Guo’s desire for reconciliation.
Taking the opportunity, Gwen pulled up Percy by the hand and brought him into the circle.
“Uncle Jun, come on!”
If Jun was Australian, he would have declared 'You bloody ripper!' but as he was Chinese, he chuckled politely.
Guo stoically joined the fray, his arms awkwardly tethered to his side.
The four of them huddled.
“Team Song!” Gwen stepped back, beaming at her work. “If we work together, we can overcome anything! Percy, don’t you worry about a thing, we’ll get to the bottom of this yet! There has to be a logical reason for all of this!”
“Sure thing, Sis.” Percy’s face was beet red.
Touched and invigorated by the spectacle of sibling communion, Guo took to silently Messaging his son.
“Jun.” Allowing a smile to touch his lips, the old hound of the CCP felt his well-worn bones loosen. “I think your mother will be overjoyed to know that the two of them have made up.”
“You should tell her yourself, Father.” Jun held his father’s shoulders and felt his father's tense shoulder relax. For how long had the old man stood by the tip of his toes, hung by a string, tethered and strung until breaking point? “With Percy’s talent and Gwen’s support, he will make a great heir.”
Guo watched the brother and sister muck about, giddy and happy after knowing they weren’t going to take up residence in Tianlanqiao.
“Ancestor’s blessing,” the old man muttered.
“I thought we’re cursed,” Jun joked, then more seriously, he returned a silent Message. “Dad, I'll be going to go back to Hubei once Ayxin is settled in.”
“About what the Yinglong told you?”
“Yeah. I should probably bring Percy.”
“Never trust these supernatural beings.” The mirth faded from Guo’s face, replaced by his usual indifference. “These Dragons, they give us truths to damn us with our own foolishness.”
“I’ll treat it as a matter of academic interest.”
“Do you believe that I made a mistake? Trying to save both you and Hai?”
“No, father. If you hadn’t made the hard choices, either myself or Hai would not have been here today, and without Hai…”
The two of them looked at Gwen and Percy.
Gwen had Percy caught under her arm and was now overpowering her physically more pronounced sibling. Percy, perhaps because of puberty and perhaps fearful of Guo, was too shy to fight back, woefully allowing Gwen to ruffle his hair at her pleasure, crushing his face against the side of her bosoms.
“Isn’t this fine, Father? We’re all here. Whatever happens, we will deal with it together.”
“You’re right.” the old man placed a hand on his youngest son's broad back. “Hai as well. You’re absolutely right. We’re all here, and that’s what matters.”