The men each extended a hand.
“For our mutual benefit, I shall abide by our agreement and keep our methods confidential,” Gwen began, shaking Patriarch Fung’s hand. The man suppressed a wince when his rough palms enveloped Gwen’s own, her delicate white fingers gripping his old bones like steel rods.
“Well said,” the Patriarch concurred.
“As will I.” The aspiring Chairman Tu shook Gwen's hand, then Shen's as well, paling at the firmness of Gwen’s dainty fingers.
“I will abide by our accord.” Magister Chen shook Gwen’s hand, then shook out his fingers. “My word, you have a firm grip.”
“Sorry,” Gwen apologised, giving the men an unnervingly coy look. "It's the excitement, you understand.”
“As anyone's would. Gwen, what are your immediate plans?” Shen enquired. It had been some time since he had felt so stirred, and to think they were safe in a building and not holding the fort against a screeching horde of Beastmen!
“I’ll be going back to Shanghai,” Gwen informed them. “I’ve got to train for the IIUC. Perhaps leave a liaison with me so that I can continue to refine our venture. The devil, as they say, is in the micromanagement. A workspace where we can discuss matters in private would be ideal.”
“I’ll send Dai with you. The rascal could stand to learn a few things.” Fung snorted. “All he does is socialise all day. It would make me very happy if you could straighten him out.”
“I'd appreciate that, Patriarch.” When Gwen bestowed no particular prejudice against Shen's blatant ploy, their other partners took this to imply the Patriarch's infamous son had no effect on her what so ever.
“I’ll send someone from my office as well.” Vice-Chairman Tu pinched his double-jowls. “I have a young protege who could benefit from broadening his horizons.”
“No need for intermediaries, you may contact me directly.” Magister Chen was going all out. Of the three men, he possessed the least wealth, though he enjoyed greater seniority when it came to the trust of the CCP. “Here’s my Glyph. Anytime, Gwen.”
“An old goat grazing on tender grass. Eh, Quin?” Patriarch Shen burst into a snorting chortle.
“Hahaha!” the Magister shot Shen a look of disdain. “Gwen's far too talented for the likes of me! You're a braver man than I am, sending out your heir as bait. Be careful little-Dai doesn't get eaten!”
Shen ignored Chen's rebuttal. Instead, he sent off a Message.
“Dai! Get in here!”
It took all but ten seconds for the door to open, revealing Richard, Percy and Dai. Richard looked his usual composed self. Beside him, Gwen’s brother and the Fung heir had a hint of colour to their faces from being caught red-handed listening at the door. The banquet was long over by now, and the three had been killing time by translating snippets of conversation drifting through the gaps. Candidly, the guards' convenient ignorance had also been a part of the Patriarch's intent.
“Sorry for the wait,” Gwen apologised. "Did you have a good meal? Where's Lulu and Kusu?"
Dai floundered into the room, circulating mana to keep his head clear and his face pale as to appear entirely sober.
“Father. Uncle Tu. Uncle Chen.”
“Dai,” the Patriarch addressed his son. “You are to stay with Gwen in Shanghai.”
“It'll be my pleasure.” Dai glanced at Gwen, grinning broadly. “I’ll be in your care, Gwen.”
“Same here, Dai.” Gwen smiled back, realising the young man had gotten the wrong idea entirely.
“Ahem!” The Patriarch cleared his throat when Tu and Chen both took on taunting expressions. “Gwen is very precious to me, your Uncle Tu, and your Uncle Chen. You’re to make sure she’s perfectly safe while in Shanghai.”
Dai caught the mockery in Gwen's youthful eyes, juxtaposed against his father’s awkward attempt at preserving his face.
“Yessir!” Dai bowed. “I’ll do my best, Sir.”
“Anything happens to her,” Patriarch Fung grumbled. “Bring your head back on an iron platter.”
“It’s a silver platter, Sir,” Gwen corrected the Patriarch politely.
“I stand corrected.” Patriarch Fung gave Gwen a curt nod. “Teach him well; he is my heir, after all.”
Whatever alcohol that had inundated Dai's bloodstream was now perspiring through his pores. What in the Great Leader's name had just happened? Why was his father showing Gwen such deference? Why did it feel like he'd been sold? Looking at Gwen in her flawless white dress with its floral accents, he noticed for the first time just how imposing she was, how she appeared larger than life. And to correct his father? Dai couldn't recall the last time his father confessed to being 'corrected'.
“Gwen, when do you leave?” Dai enquired of Gwen, taking over his father's mantle. “Let us show our hospitality for a few days.”
“I am afraid I have to train.” Gwen shook her head respectfully. “The selection for the IIUC is getting close.”
“I’ll put in a good word,” Shen stated firmly. He then rose from his seat to face his son. “Dai, regarding Gwen - respect her wishes.”
That was the second time Shen Fung had made it very clear to his son that Gwen was beyond reproach. Though dismally confused, Dai knew better than to challenge his father’s decree. Briefly, he could see the other two chuckling to themselves. Was that it? Was the joke that she was too good for him and that he's the bunch-back toad trying to mount the elegant swan? He, the most eligible bachelor he knew, a wishful troglodyte?
For now, the young man swallowed his wounded pride. He turned toward Gwen, then deeply bowed, as if she were the senior.
“I’ll be in your care, Miss Song!”
“Just Gwen, Dai. We’re friends, are we not?”
Dai looked to his father for affirmation. Shen’s brows knitted, forming a barely perceptible wrinkle of frustration his forehead.
“Of course, Gwen.”
“Good lad,” Magister Chen affirmed happily. “Gwen, I am tempted to send you my apprentice as well, but that would be a conflict of interest. He's a part of the Jianqiao IIUC team. If the two of you do meet, please be gentle. His name is Lianchen Yen; he also goes by Lachlan.”
“I’ll be sure to greet my Senior,” Gwen promised. She then playfully made a mock-swooning motion. “Now, if you don’t mind, I am famished.”
“I’ll have the kitchen prepare something." Dai immediately retreated from the room. He needed time to reevaluate.
As he passed Richard, the young man struck out a hand.
“Welcome to the team, mate.” Richard grinned.
As they shook, Dai wondered what Richard meant by his lopsided grin. He then extended a hand to Percy, who answered with a shake and a bow, as proper from a junior to a senior.
Beside the two, Richard chuckled. For some reason, he was reminded of Gwen's Draconic-Deerhounds. Another dog added to her pack? How many strays would Gwen assemble before she was satisfied?
"She has too many secrets we're not privy to. Be very cautious, Dai. Chen's right in that she might just eat you alive."
"She's just a girl." Dai worked up a retort. Once Gwen and her party were sent to their suite, Shen gathered his two children to confer upon them the dangers of being besotted by outward appearances.
"That doesn't mean much coming from you. Mao, the information you gathered is completely out of date, or wrong to begin with," Yuhua joined the conversation. "I was there, Dai. The girl's Lightning Beast is the closest thing to a Kirin I have ever seen. Her Void Worm as well is far more potent than you give her credit for."
"My information is three months old!" Dai sulked. The first thing Yuhua did was to check with their Master of Records, only to find that Dai's collated information on the girl was leagues away from what she had observed in the dungeon.
"Her hounds were Draconic, Dai." Yuhua illustrated her point by swimming a hand through the air. Shen had made Yuhua give a detailed account of the Water Monkey Dungeon. "That Kirin commands them via some sort of telepathy as well. Meaning its a Spirit, and a Draconic one at that."
"Dai." Shen stood over his heir. "Without venturing into the Ruìshī's lair, one will never acquire a Ruìshī cub. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Father." Dai's outward appearance as the dutiful son betrayed his seething sense of shame. In truth, he struggled to reconcile Gwen's striking face and her long, lithe limbs with the terrifying story told by his sister. He had known Gwen since her arrival in Shanghai; he knew she was prideful - all Lightning Mages were prideful, but for him to be subordinate to the girl?
"You must not provoke her." Shen stood with his back toward his son, his mandarin jacket an oxymoronic mask of the man's lofty ambition. "From Yuhua's story, we know that she is a sentimentalist. Touch her with your generosity. If not for herself, then for her brother, her friends, her family. Do you understand, Dai?"
"Yes, Father." Dai bowed deeply. His father's words were sending shivers down his spine.
The most difficult debt to repay, after all, was the debt of generosity.
“Dai? Dai!” Gwen politely nudged their newest companion.
“I am listening,” Dai lied, doing his best to keep still.
Once the meeting was over, Gwen and her party had retreated to their penthouse suite to rest up for the night. After Dai personally brought up her late supper, Gwen chose to induct Dai into their little circle.
The other's didn't much like Dai, but she saw in the man a valuable asset.
Though the Patriarch's intent was self-evident - Dai was nonetheless a useful body to place in the way of potential trouble. The silver-spooned jackaroo was, in Gwen’s eyes, a triple threat: he was a Wealth-cum-Power Progeny rolled into one, and a bonafide Clanner. Clothed via his family connections, Dai was a human-shaped skeleton key for Shanghai’s high society. Furthermore, so long as Gwen and Shen’s economic interests aligned, she was confident in Dai’s loyalty.
Of course, that loyalty was itself ephemeral. Gwen did not doubt that when the numbers came in, her partners were bound to regret agreeing to that seemingly innocuous single per cent of the Venture Fund’s revenue.
But Gwen had a plan for that eventuality as well - one that reached fruition after the IIUC; when she could finally declare herself her Master's Apprentice and the sibling-in-craft of Alesia and Gunther. Likewise, Nantong needed at least a year or two to grow into its new-found wealth, if not longer.
Gwen reminded herself that regardless of her venture's success, her material investments were temporary. Ultimately, when she left the country, it was far more likely that the CCP would attempt to usurp her share. Likewise, her deal with the House of M could be a hit or miss. Mayuree was a sweetie, but she was one of many. With that many siblings, it was unlikely she would have much sway if they refused to pay Gwen her due.
Perhaps this was why Mages, in general, had such a disdain for finance, just as her babulya had held so little regard for currency. The accumulation of magical prowess was personal growth, once gained, Spellcraft, like knowledge, directly empowered oneself.
Wealth, on the other hand, could be pilfered, stolen, usurped and squandered. As a lyrical maestro once rhymed, 'mo-money, mo-problems'.
Over on the couch, Dai sat rigid as a sculpture as Ariel and Caliban kept him company. Her Void Fiend was coiling itself beside Shen’s first-born son, sniffing his tapered suit and dribbling grey drool over his tailored pants. Ariel meanwhile, sat on its haunches, molesting Dai’s tie, occasionally poking Dai's face with a prehensile whisker. Caught between a Kirin and an all-devouring nightmare, Dai chose the Path of Petrification.
The reason being was that he had earlier sidled close to Gwen and placed a hand on her lap and another around her shoulders. Though Gwen possessed championship-level patience, her Familiars were far too sensitive to her repressed loathing.
“I've Messaged you the preliminary staff roster.” Gwen tapped a data slate.
The rest of her party had gone to bed or were meditating in the privacy of their rooms. Lulan chose to make full use of the building’s facilities and had gone down for a massage, joined by a paranoid Kusu, fearful that Lulan might K.O. the masseuse.
“Why so many?” Dai glanced over the numbers, baulking at the complexity of the organisational chart spread out like a dyslexic spider web.
“Lawyers, accountants, auditors and managers. We'll need to segregate the Departmental work as well. I suggest your Father takes care of the auditing since he’s the Governor-Secretary of Nantong. Vice Chair Tu can take care of the accounts and day-to-day Administration. Magister Chen should be in charge of the of the Investment Portfolios, with individual managers reporting to him directly.”
“So many divisions and sub-divisions!” Dai spluttered. “Wouldn’t that make running the business even more complicated?”
Oh, you poor lamb, Gwen groaned inwardly.
“Checks and balances,” she instructed her novice companion. “Think about the inner strata of the CCP. You’ve got the MSS, who oversees the Districts. Then you’ve got Internal Service, who oversees its Secretarial departments. On top of that, there’s the CCDI, who oversees the MSS and Internal Security. All separate entities - independent from the Party's members. We’re going to be dealing with A LOT of crystals, Dai. What do you think is going to happen if we leave it to people we ‘trust’?”
“So we shouldn’t trust anyone, not even people from my Clan?”
‘We’, Gwen noted.
“Trust is too strong a word.” She coaxed Ariel into her lap. Dai’s eyes flittered between the white flesh of Gwen’s smooth thighs and the soft fur of her white Kirin. Catching Dai’s desirous ogling, Ariel wiggled its serpentine body, taunting the man with its soft tummy. Amused, Gwen then kissed Ariel's forehead. “Dai, what we’re doing is Venture Capitalism. We’re making crystals from the void. When there’s that much profit - people are bound to go crazy. I would not be surprised at all if our operation became riddled with fiscal parasites.”
“Preposterous!” Dai snarled. “Heads will roll!”
“You can bet on it.” Gwen kneaded the frog of Ariel’s front hooves, waving its paws at Dai. “Don't tempt fate. Or else, by the 2005's financial year, there may not be a Clan Fung left…”
“…” Dai’s expression implied stubborn disbelief.
"People are going to steal from us, Dai," Gwen assured her protegè. "My job is to make it harder. Your job is to make sure they never steal from us again."
“You can trust me,” Dai stated bluntly.
“I know I can. You’re my Second in this matter. First things first though, we need to parcel out future duties. Believe it or not, I won’t be around Shanghai forever. In the meanwhile, I'll be prioritising the IIUC.”
“Why?” Dai was incredulous. “You're going away? You’re standing to make… hundreds of thousands of HDMs! You could buy yourself a position in the Party with my father's help.”
“Not interested,” Gwen refuted Dai's offer. “What if I told you that I possess loftier goals?”
“You mean a Tower? Is that why you're collecting Crystals?”
“Among other ambitions.” Gwen smiled mysteriously. “I am only seventeen, Dai. Think of it as preparing for an uncertain future.”
Dai understood, though only in an abstract sense. For one such as he, becoming a part of the CCP's inner circle during his middle-years was par for the course. It was the reason for his youthful indiscretion. Now was a period of rare freedom: he could party, date beautiful women, go on adventures and act the young master. When the time came, he would be tied down by a political marriage, inherit a position within the Clan, then embroil himself into a life of realpolitik. His was a gilded cage - one he had long convinced himself happy to inhabit.
“Your father has a lot riding on you, Dai,” Gwen illustrated the point by stabbing a finger at his gut. The girl's vivid irises appeared to glow as she delivered her next words. “If you can pull this off -if you are of help to me. If you can hold the fort even after I’ve gone back to Sydney.”
Dai scratched his chin.
Gwen decided to push in another direction.
“Look, because I trust you so much, I'll be honest.” Gwen lowered her pitch. “We don’t need you.”
Dai turned to glare at Gwen menacingly.
"SHAAA!" Caliban snapped the space directly in front of Dai's nose.
"Cali! Be nice!"
Dai sat back down.
“But,” Gwen continued, amused by the boy and the man jousting for control within Dai’s head. “You know what? I think this is a test from your father. If you can’t even take care of a little business, how can you stand to inherit the Clan of Fung? For how many years does your father have to labour? How old does Patriarch Shen have to be, before he can rest? Wheres your filial piety, Dai? You Clanners fancy yourselves Confucian-scholars, don’t you?”
Dai's face grew tense.
“Don’t take my words for it. I am nobody important,” Gwen assured the young man. “This is your task to fuck up, Dai. I can't imagine how disappointed your father will be when you do.”
“I not going to fail!” Dai snapped. He couldn't believe he had wanted to date the girl. She's terrible! Domineering! Nothing like the soft-spoken southerner girls he preferred. He knew that she was unscrewing his head in ways he couldn’t discern and still he got caught. In a rare moment of passion, the truth escaped his lips. “If you don't want me beside you, just say so!”
Ah~, the glass ego of a spurned child, Gwen subtly rolled her eyes. A kid-dult.
“Prove me wrong.” She met his eyes, leaning closer. "Make this work."
Dai met her head on.
“So, can I trust you?” Her lips moved hypnotically.
“Of course!” Dai fought down baser instincts. Her face was too close, her breath so moist and warm. They weren't alone, but the others were asleep by now. Was she doing this on purpose? It's now or never!
Summoning supernatural courage, he leaned in, hoping that Gwen wouldn’t pull back in time and thus, share a quick kiss to seal the deal.
A mouthful of tasteless grey goo greeted him. Something slimy withdrew with a sucking sound. Caliban snapped shut its carapace, feeling bashful for having been kissed by someone other than Gwen, feeling like a virgin, touched for the very first time.
“I need to go.” Dai stood so fast he almost head-butted Gwen in the nose, sending Caliban tumbling from the couch. “Goodbye.”
“See you in Shanghai!”
The door slammed shut.
"Thanks for the save, Cali."
"No, Ariel, you could have triggered his Contingency Ring."
Gwen yawned. Below her, a vista of Nantong stretched out, revealing countless labourers working under the illumination of Daylight spells. Touching a hand to her Familiars, Gwen cautioned herself. Dealing with the Fungs was like wrestling with eels, one false move, and she'd have a slippery situation on her hands.
The next morning, after a buffet breakfast, Gwen and her Party arrived at the newly built Nantong ISTC station. The oval construct remained under construction, though for reasons of government business, a subsection had being made operational.
Two hundred odd HDMs later, the party arrived at the Shanghai ISTC interchange. A guard examined their papers, apologised to Dai for the delay, then escorted the group to the transit terminal. Dai then called for a minibus to taxi the party to Fudan.
Arriving after only two hours of travel from start to finish, Gwen thanked Dai for the Fung’s generosity.
“I’ll find a place to set up an office.” Dai looked around Gouding B1. “This place looks serviceable. Any vacancies?”
“You’ll have to speak to the real estate.” Gwen pointed to the agency whose shopfront, illuminated by a large VMR logo, was visible even from B1's lobby.
“I’ve got an apartment near The Bund, so I am only thirty minutes away,” Dai returned thoughtfully. “You’ve got my Message Glyph?”
“I do.” Gwen tapped her bracelet. “If you can’t find me, talk to Richard.”
“If I am out Questing, talk to Kusu.” Richard pointed to their erstwhile Clanner.
“Yep. I’ll be around,” Kusu answered awkwardly, annoyed that Richard always put him on the spot.
“Kusu is very reliable.” Gwen came to her companion's rescue. “You can trust him…”
Dai measured Kusu from head to toe, unimpressed. He knew Gwen had picked up two strays from Huashan, though that was the extent of it.
“Do I know you from somewhere? Kusu?”
“Lulan and I are ex-Sword Mages from Huashan,” Kusu confessed bashfully. “If you recall, we met during last year's gathering of the Clans.”
“Sorry,” the heir of Clan Fung dismissed Kusu. “I don’t… recall.”
“You remember my sister, right?” Kusu pointed to Lulan.
They looked at Lulan as she plucked out a flower from B1's garden.
“Nope.” Dai shrugged.
“She defeated a prodigy from your Clan! The Water Transmuter, what’s his name? Qianli?”
Dai’s gaze darted between Lulan and Kusu; recognition dawned.
“She's the blade-berserker?” Dai bemusedly studied the teenager with a baby face.
“…” Kusu recalled that indeed, his sister had carried that infamous moniker for many years.
“She’s… pretty cute.” Dai grinned contemplatively. "She's no longer insane?"
Noting their attention, Lulan looked up. Catching Dai’s handsome face, she gave him a heartwarming smile.
“Nope, nothing's changed. She’s a fucking psycho,” Kusu stated with solemnity. “When Lulan gets going, she’s a complete maniac. I should lock her up.”
“She seems fine to me?”
“She's an unsheathed blade,” Kusu assured their newest companion. “When Lulu's iron blood is up, she's indiscriminate. She'll cut you, no joke.”
Dai motioned for Gwen to join him.
“You’re friends with this lot?” He frowned. "Such disloyalty to his own family! How can you trust this man?"
Gwen had been watching the whole thing with captive interest.
“Don't be so quick to judge, Dai. Kusu’s a good bloke. He is loyal to his sister without being an idiot about it. He's level-headed and risk-aversive. We need someone like that around here."
“Whatever you say.” Dai grunted. “I’ll contact you once I have the office set up."
“You got it, champ.”
Her party breathed out a sigh of relief when Dai finally departed.
“What now?” Kusu was feeling rather self-satisfied, thanks to Gwen's praise.
“Tower Two?” Gwen pointed to the two buildings visible from B1. “Lulu's carrying about a hundred collectables in that Ring. You can leave the Cores with me; I’ll take em to Mayuree. When do you need the crystals.”
“We’re almost out,” Kusu confessed. “January rent is due soon, and there’s next Semester’s tuition, textbooks, training hall bookings, Cognisance sessions…”
Gwen patted Kusu on the shoulder. She gazed at the guileless Lulan, who wouldn’t have minded even if she had to live in a Portable Habitat, awakening each day to that maddening grey expanse.
"We're going now?" Lulan raised her head.
"Yep," Gwen replied, giving her first genuine smile since Dai joined them. "Let's collect some loot!"