Gwen requested an extra-spacious inspection room at the Fudan Tower to house the ill-gotten gains they had acquired in Nantong. Dubiously, she recalled that back in Sydney, their student-device could be used to log kills. If so, why was a tier 1 city using such primitive methods?
While they waited for the clerk, Petra elucidated that indeed, for a decade, the Tower did employ kill-counters via Magitech bracelets.
Unfortunately, a string of rotten-apple Enchanters resulted in the Tower reverting to the medieval method of having Appraisers sort through trophies manually to verify totals. It was an imperfect system, but it functioned without major incident.
The body-count took the better half of the day, tallying finally at a hundred and eighteen Water Monkeys, plus one Priest and one Chieftain. Gwen wasn't herself too exact on the number, but Richard seemed satisfied.
Additionally, against all expectation, Yuhua Fung came through with her promise, with Nantong signing over 400 HDMs and 50 CC.
Ultimately, the party left the Tower with 900 HDMs in currency chips and a total of 536 CCs, having received 30 CCs for the Chieftain, and 20 CCs for the Priest. With Gwen forfeiting the HDMs to her peers, each of the members thus received 180 HDMs and 89 CCs, with the extra going to Richard for arranging the trip.
The party then took the liberty of having lunch in a European style cafe under B1, with Gwen 'shouting' her friends afternoon tea.
Once settled, Gwen mentally reviewed her account, arriving at 290 CCs - more if enterprising Mages had since forked out for Morden’s modified spells.
“How about you, Richard?” Gwen was curious as to her cousin's progress. “How far along are you?”
“I am sitting on 450 or so,” Richard confessed. “You've given me a windfall, Gwen! Without your involvement, quests tend to be much more mundane, haha, and of course, far less rewarding.”
“Oh, you know me. I am a vortex for trouble,” Gwen joked self-depreciatively. “That’s a remarkable amount, Dick. You’ve been here barely a year, and you’re already a quarter of the way there! Ever thought to take a break? Don't burn yourself out.”
“I’ll rest when I hit 2000 CCs,” Richard lamented his pace. “You got more lucrative ventures lined up?”
“Potentially - I’ll do whatever I can to help,” Gwen promised, full of admiration for Richard's ceaseless work-ethic. Though she waxed no sentiment for Aunty Tali and was even less fond of Uncle Kwan, she knew their elevation was necessary for Richard's emancipation.
"Enough about me," Richard interrupted his cousin and companion. "How about you? You've got a shitload on your plate, but you keep stacking it."
"Richard's got a point," Petra agreed. "I take it you're going ahead with this 'consultation' for the Fungs?"
"And for the House of M." Gwen's reply surprised them all. "I’d imagine they’d be up to their necks in inquiries by now.”
“What about your training?” Kusu cut in, always the voice of moderation. “There’s not that much time until the IIUC. I would be begging for instructions and perfecting my spells, day and night.”
“I’ll manage.” Gwen smiled. “I can’t be training every waking hour. Taking breaks and switching it up will do me better than living like some hermit Sage."
“Don’t neglect your utility spells,” Petra warned her cousin. "But I suppose you're not wrong. From what I've heard, the IIUC selection isn't wholly combat focused, albeit the inability to fight your way through a scenario is itself disqualifying."
“I'll make sure I don't miss anything.” Gwen brushed a few lose strands from her face. Outside on the avenue, she noticed that the mulberry trees were already bare and skeletal. Out of the blue, she felt overwhelmed by a melancholic diaspora.
"What's wrong?" Petra noticed the sudden change in Gwen's demeanour.
“You know what I really miss? The Australian summer.”
“How so?” Petra was a winter girl; Shanghai's blanketing December snow always reminded her of simpler times in Moscow.
“Back home.” Gwen stretched out her body, wiggling against the soft fabric. “December’s the hottest month of the year. Blue sky, aqua seas, red earth, flaming galahs, olive blood gums and golden sand. You slap on some sun-screen, slip into a swimsuit, then loaf under an umbrella. When the Tasman Sea blows in at high-tide, all your fatigue just blows away.”
“That does sound wonderful.” The Petra of winter tried her best to imagine the Gwen of summer. "You know, I've never been to a beach like the one you described."
"Are there beaches here in Shanghai?"
"There are artificial ones for the well-to-do." Kusu pointed a finger toward the south-east. "To my knowledge, there's an artificial one in Jinshan that's open in the summer."
"Do you have a swimsuit, Petra?" Gwen wondered what style would suit their leggy cousin.
Petra shook her head.
"Lulu, you bought one last time, right?"
"I'll buy another one! I want one that's tied with strings!"
Kusu began to perspire; his swimming eyes begged Gwen to put an end to the topic. The last thing he needed was for Lulan to start swinging iron-blades at the beach, especially one made for the wealthy, indolent scions of the powerful.
"I guess I am in the same boat..." Gwen made a subtle pivot. "Something for the future then. I do miss the beach though."
"Did the two of you go the beach often?" Lulan inquired innocently, trying to vicariously experience a scene she'd only ever seen on idol Lumen-casts.
“Oh, all the time!” Richard chimed in, grinning from ear to ear. “Gwen would be lying down her beach towel, topless, and she'd look around for someone to rub creaming sunscreen into her back. The day’s hot as anything, so she’s pretty much drenched in sunlight, getting a tan. Then there’s the sand, it gets everywhere, you know, on your feet, the towels, on her butt cheeks, when you're putting in a good rub...”
Percy pulled a hood over his head, entering a world of monkish meditation.
“Richard, stop it!” Gwen punched her cousin.
“Oof!” Richard nursed his shoulders. “That’s going to leave a bruise.”
“You deserved it,” she scolded him. "Don't listen to him, Lulu. We did no such thing. I was too young to hang out with him in Sydney. Think about it. I'd be fourteen at best."
“Kusu.” Richard slowly turned to Lulan’s eerily quiet brother, his eyes flashing. “Why’re are you sitting so awkwardly?”
“Mia! I AM BACK!"
Gwen Dimension Doored into Mayuree's penthouse, fancying herself Cosmo Kramer bursting in on Elaine and Jerry. After half a year of showing up uninvited for dinner, she was beginning to appreciate the genius of Seinfield's humour.
"Oh, Marong, when did you get back?”
She couldn't actually see Marong from the lobby, but she could smell him. Though Mayuree's penthouse had a double-storey ceiling, it wasn’t so spacious as to negate the stench of tobacco permeating the open living room.
Their eyes met.
Marong's eyes bulged.
Gwen immediately examined her attire to ensure there wasn't a wardrobe malfunction.
To her bewilderment, Mayuree's half-brother leapt from the couch, kicked the sofa, flipped it over, then dove behind the L-shaped barricade.
"What the h-"
“Wha-? Oh, God… erg… cough~! Cough!”
A blast of smog spread across the bottom floor, obscuring all sight. It was just as well that Marong had stripped out the smoke alarms, else the whole building would be screaming for evacuation.
“Who are you?!” Marong’s voice came through the smoke. “Reveal yourself, bastard!”
“It's me, Gwen! MIA! Where are- Cough! YOUR BROTHER has gone INSANE.”
A door banged open on the second level. Mayuree ran out in hastily donned pyjamas. Another door opened, Lei emerged from the pantry, coughing and gagging.
“Marong! What in the Goddess’ name are you doing?”
In the smokey murk, Gwen could make out Puff, the Smoke Mephit fading in and out of vision. Whatever the hell Marong thought he's doing, he was definitely on the defensive.
“MIA!” Marong warned his sister. “Stay back! The Tyrant has taken your friend’s form! I can smell her STINK from here!”
My stink?! Rude! She changed before teleporting over! Gwen’s anger barometer shot from white to red, especially exacerbated by Lei's distress. She’s had it about up to her neck with this impudent asshole. First, he reeks the place like a coal chimney, and now he's accusing her of being a stinking tyrant while choking her favourite cook! If anything, Gwen suspected, Marong may have been vaping the wrong pipe.
“Ariel!” Gwen called on her Familiar. A little Dragon-fear should inject some senses back into Marong's head.
"EEE!" Ariel cleaved through the smoke, blasting apart the obscuring miasma.
"KAAA!" Puff the Mephit shat acrid smoke all over the floor.
“Gwen, NO!” Mayuree came between them, leaping from the interior balcony, landing via Feather Fall.
“Mia! Get out of the way!” the both of them shouted.
“STOP IT!” Mayuree screeched, the pitch of her voice vibrating the windows. "Both of you! Dismiss your Familiars! NOW! Else I am going to be mad!"
The smoke faded, albeit grudgingly.
“What are you?” Marong stood to one side, clothed in smoke and ash, no more than a silhouette of a man.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Gwen snapped, her expression thunderbolt and lightning and very, very frightening.
Mayuree stood in the middle; a poor girl caught between the two.
“Why do you have the stench of a Dragon-kin?” Marong demanded of Gwen.
Gwen had half a mind to blast Marong with a bolt of Barbanginy.
“None of your business.” Gwen eased her combative stance. “I am here to see Mayuree.”
“Not anymore, you're not.”
“Marong!” Much to her brother’s ire, Mayuree sauntered toward Gwen, then reached over and hugged Gwen about the waist. “There! See? She’s perfectly safe.”
Gwen could see a vein throbbing on either side of Marong's temple. His accusatory eyes charged her with subverting his obedient sister with her unruly western upbringing.
It took a while longer for Puff to collate the smoke and the building's ventilation to clear the air.
“… and that’s why I’ve got Dragon Essence,” Gwen finished her explanation in as few words as possible. According to her censored narrative, she and her uncle battled Draconic beings in Huangshan, after which ‘redacted’ happened, and now she's in possession of a tidbit of Draconic-essence.
“That makes no sense.” Marong blustered. "You acquired Draconic-Essence after eating too much?"
“And took down a Thunder Wyvern to boot,” Gwen refuted Marong’s freedom of information request. “If you weren't Mia's brother, I wouldn't even bother explaining, much less tell you a cool story."
"Not only that, Gwen’s been advising us on a new tier-based membership program for the Auction House,” Mayuree interjected proudly. “The elders are very impressed.”
Marong appeared lost for words.
"But enough about me," Gwen steered the conversation away from herself. "How's the old country?”
"You told her about Myăma?" Marong growled at his half-sister.
"Master Maymaruya did."
“That old coot.” The Smoke Mage knitted his brows.
"Well, how's progress recovering your city?" Gwen asked. "If you must know, I promised Mia that if I ever become a Tower Master, I'd teleport it over and lend you a hand."
Marong stole a glance at Mayuree, who nodded imperceptibly.
The girl's arrogance knew no bounds!
“Yangon... is not looking good.” Marong exhaled, ejecting two jet streams of Marlborough Red. Within the smoke, Gwen could spot an anorexic humanoid figure with wings flitting about, keeping the smoke contained. “We’ve got rebels stirring up trouble in the south and east of the country. Construction projects disrupted, shipments delayed, assassinations in broad daylight, the whole Bristle-back Hog.”
“Jeez Louise.” Gwen touched a finger to her collarbone. “Sounds like you've got a civil war brewing down there.”
“War, yes. Civil War, no - nothing of the sort,” Marong refuted Gwen’s conjecture. “We’re the only functioning government. Our enemies are brazen, but not organised. They have no goal beyond personal profit. They're bandits, brigands and thieves. Mayuree told you our war-torn land lacks the presence of a Tower, yes?”
“No Tower,” Marong growled. “Means no CCs, no Rule of Law. Rogue Mages do as they please. They rape and pillage their own kind and harass Demi-human settlements. Outside of Yangon, where we have our intern government, it’s the Wildlands."
“That's terrible!” Gwen grimaced.
During her University days, she had visited neighbouring Cambodia. There, she saw the atrocities of the Killing Fields first hand, and through swarms of beggar children, experienced the ramifications of war for the young and the destitute.
“We’re doing our best, but Yangon is a crystal sink without a bottom,” Marong lamented. "If it wasn't for the jade, I say we burn the damn thing and leave it to the Tyrant."
"Don't let grandmother hear you say that," Mayuree warned her brother.
Marong sullenly glanced about the apartment, making sure an angry old Matriarch wouldn't leap from the shadows. That the gruff Smoke Mage could be so skittish relieved the horror she felt for his unfortunate country.
“I need a drink.” Marong exhaled. "Lei!"
Lei emerged from her pantry, having changed to a new maid outfit.
“Good evening, Miss Song - Master Marong, what would you like?”
The fact that a lady as sweet as Lei lived in the fucking pantry brought a stiffness to Gwen’s jaws every time. It was like some sick, servile magic, one that never lost its horrid charm. What further boggled Gwen’s mind was that when she asked Lei about potential emancipation, the maid grew terrified, insisting that she genuinely possessed the best job in the world.
“Whiskey on stone, leave the bottle - how about you?” Marong indicated to Gwen.
“Sparkling water, thanks, Lei.”
“I want fresh coconut juice,” Mayuree joined in. “Thanks."
Lei went about retrieving their drinks, additionally putting together a lovely little fruit platter. The trio sipped their drinks as Gwen snacked on logans and lychees.
“I've got a question." Gwen raised her hand. “How does the Tyrant feature into all of this? Does it fund the brigands or something?”
Marong swished the expensive-looking whiskey in his mouth before swallowing.
“Not directly. It keeps us penned up in Yangon,” the Smoke Mage explained. “As a result of its presence, we can’t project force outside of the capital and put an end to the raids on our mines in Tawmao and Khansee. Our convoys as well, are a constant target. After robbing us, the scoundrels portion a part of their loot for the Tyrant, who takes great delight in our suffering.”
Listening to Marong's frustration, she wondered if there was meaningful advice she could give. Her old world was no stranger to insurrection. As with Afghanistan, with Iraq, with DR Congo, it was impossible for a country to heal without at least a decade of centralised power. In this world where monsters lurked, peaceful reconstruction was doubly painful when there was a dragon to stab one in the back.
Killing the Dragon was only the beginning.
First would come a great Purge of the land.
Then the rebuilding.
Then the inevitable corruption.
Then a gradual balance of power.
If a country could survive that, and if it could ward off foreign interference, then it could finally thrive.
Across the coffee table, Mayuree’s brother extinguished a cigarette against his palm, then stowed the stub in his ring.
“I am going to sleep. Got an early meeting tomorrow."
"G'nite Marong." Gwen waved him off. She waited until the Smoke Mage was out of sight and earshot before excitedly waggling her brows at Mayuree.
“I’ve got another shipment of Cores!”
“M-more Draconic-Cores?!” Mayuree hesitated. “You're insane! The Yinglong has only so many children! It's going to skin you alive at this rate.”
Thankfully, Gwen materialised a Water Monkey’s Core.
“What do you think about this?”
"Not Draconic, thank the Goddess." Mayuree took the Core from Gwen’s fingers.
Her pupils glowed with a pale cast of Divination, scanning the element-stone with her diagnostic magic.
“A little cloudy.” Mayuree chewed her lips. “Well-preserved, negligible fracturing... hmm, impurities present throughout the inner stratum. How many do you have?”
“Like this? About twenty odd. And forty other lesser specimens.”
“The House of M can offer about a hundred HDMs for the larger ones, assuming a 20% margin for us. They’ll make decent trinkets like Ring of Water Breathing and Water Walking, Everflowing Decanters as well as low-tier Affinity Boosters. As for the others, we can bundle them into bulk-sales.”
“Sounds good to me.” Gwen let loose a small pile of the mishappened Cores on the coffee table, which Mayuree promptly collected. Raw Creature Cores came in all shapes and sizes, unlike the polished products one saw at auctions.
“To confirm, 65 ungraded Cores, Water-affinity, correct?”
“Yep. Then there’s also this.” Gwen materialised the necklace they had looted from the Water Priest. “Any idea if it’s worth anything?”
“Woa - lavish!” Mayuree hefted the heavy chain of some seven Water Ghost-orbs. “Who made this?”
“A Water Ghost,” Gwen briefly explained the Priest they had encountered.
“Is that bad?” Gwen queried out of curiosity. "Are they getting too smart for their own good?"
Mayuree scanned the heavy ornament with her Divination-vision.
“I’ll have to take it to Master Maymaruya,” the Diviner confessed. “It looks like an affinity-booster to me, though I’ve never seen them daisy-chained like this before.”
“Let’s hope it’s worth something.” Gwen toyed with the orbs, running her fingers over the smooth, misshapen spheres. “You’ll be surprised how desperate Kusu, Lulan and Richard are for crystals.”
“Your latest haul should keep them going for a while.” Mayuree crunched some numbers in her head. “I’d say you’re looking at 3000 HDMs. That’s about the annual upkeep of an upper tier Tower Magus.”
Split five ways between Richard, the siblings, Petra and Percy, Gwen made a quick calculation in her head. It would be more than enough to cover the Spring semester’s expenses.
“Could I get that as an advance? You can charge me the difference.”
“Sure, I've got the currency cards in the safe. Once sales are complete, you can review your accounts and make up the difference.”
“Thanks, Mia,” Gwen relaxed. “How's interest on our Dragonic Cores?"
"A little intense, but that's not a bad thing. We're thinking of saving the bulk for the Chinese New Year rush at the end of January. After our own plans, we're saving the rest for an invite-only event."
"Sounds good. Say, do you know a Dai Fung?”
“The Nantong princeling?” Mayuree raised a curious brow, recalling the very first time Gwen had stepped into the House of M. “He's a customer. Why? Is he bothering you?”
“Not exactly.” Gwen ruminated on how to best present her case without infringing on her commitment to corporate confidentiality. “Over the weekend, I’ve had an opportunity to speak to the Patriarch Shen Fung, a Vice-Chair by the name of Tu Guangshao, and a Jiantiao Magister called Chen Quin. We’re in business now, with me in the position of their financial advisor for the running of Nantong Port.”
Mayuree's expression was one of incomprehension.
“What do you mean? Like what you’re doing for us?”
“Not exactly,” Gwen explained. “I can’t give you the details, but let’s say I’ll have significant sway in the future success of Tonglv Canal. To that end, I was wondering if your Clan could benefit from having a safe and profitable port of entry on the east coast.”
Mayuree made an ‘O’ with her lips.
“Well,” Gwen articulated haughtily. “It is impressive, I’ll confess to that.”
“We usually route things through the Guangzhou Frontier,” Mayuree confessed. “Shanghai’s tariffs and inspection is way too stringent. Too many people with too many fingers in the rice pot.”
“There’s no rush. The port won’t be accessible until Tonglv is operational,” Gwen explained. “Just thought I’d let you in on some of that insider-information. I would highly advise changing routes to save on costs as soon as possible, and stock up on construction materials, utility Golems, raw materials. When the first stage expansion kicks off, there's going to be a market spike for sure."
“Thanks, Gwen.” Mayuree grinned, revealing pearly white teeth. “I'll pass on your advice to the House. Another thing, Master Maymaruya’s been asking for you as well. He’s unsure about your 'vertical integration' of merchant-provider services.”
“Too easy.” Gwen battered a hand at her companion. “Get him to Message me directly, or if he can wait, I should have a consultation office up and running in the next week or so. I've got a few lackeys running the show for me here in Shanghai. Guess who’s one of them? The one and only Dai Fung.”
“You’re going to have an office of your own?” Mayuree’s mouth again formed an ‘O’ of astonishment. “And the princeling of Nantong is building it for you?”
“I’ll be splitting my time between there and my training,” Gwen replied smugly. “I figured it’s time I took an interest beyond the IIUC. It’ll only be between now and February anyway. After that, the semester will start and my time will be constrained further.”
"You're amazing... I need my sleep..." Mayuree's semester schedule consisted mostly of sleep, sleeping through classes, and dozing through House meetings.
Gwen chuckled at the baulking Diviner. Business, study and self-improvement - she had managed tighter schedules. With her Almuldj’s Essence and her Lightning-induced insomnia, she might even have a few hours to spare.