Gwen never thought there'd be a day she'd yearn for MS Office.
For the fourth time, she threw the data slate onto the bed, then picked it back up with a sigh.
The bloody things were useful only in the sense that they were better than paper. Other than that, they possessed no inter-connectivity outside of some arcane data-storage system used by the Tower, managed by lodging the slate with an Administrative official. Gwen paid for an account, though the fact that her data-bank was inaccessible from home and served only as a redundancy irked her to no end.
Was it possible to introduce complex word-processing to this world?
She would even accept the possibility of an annoying Familiar called Clippy.
But Gwen knew she was daydreaming.
For all its supposed wonder, the data-slate was a handheld projector. Beneath the papyrus 'screen', a crystal core recorded whatever was transcribed by the user. Other than that, the slate responded only to 'record' 'show' and 'next-page' commands. After tinkering with the device for some time, she realised there were no wires, no electronics, nothing to manipulate but inscribed scripts stowed within the Core.
Dislodging the Core from its resin inlay ensured it died a permanent death, losing all of its intellectual cargo. Not that it mattered. Without a decade of study, she couldn’t discern the algorithms used in the crystal.
Gwen pinched her brows.
With a word, she could summon a lamprey from the netherworld beyond space and time to consume her enemies. In Nantong, Japanese-made automata lifted ten-ton slabs. Via an ISTC, she could Teleport from Shanghai to Australia in a matter of minutes.
But copy-pasting a fucking 7-day schedule was beyond her ken.
The next day, Gwen met up with the others and gave them their advance.
Kusu and Lulan thanked her profusely, rushing away to fatten their savings account.
Percy conveniently came to ‘hang out’ with his beloved sister, though Gwen knew her brother was keen to get his hands on some ‘spending money’ to impress his mates at his elite high school. When Percy exhibited a sudden urge to 'train at home', she instructed him to buy something nice for Guo and their babulya with his first ‘paycheck’.
“If you spend it all on yourself, I am never taking you out again,” Gwen warned him, wagging an authoritative finger.
Percy nodded obediently before bolting off, faster than a Bottlebrush Bilby.
“Little rascal.” Gwen snorted, dropping a stack of currency cards in Richard's palm. “Here ya go, Dick, enjoy.”
Richard stowed his cut.
“I am thinking of buying a house,” her cousin declared.
“You’ve made that much?” Gwen raised both brows in surprise.
“I’ve got a few thousand that I’ve saved up from Quests and bounties. I’ve got the share you gave me from District 109, and I’ve received our bounty just now,” Richard recounted his finances. “I can buy something an hour away from the CBD, no problems.”
“Are you moving out?”
Richard shook his head.
“Our rent is absurdly cheap; you know that, right?”
Subsidised by Mayuree, Gwen affirmed ashamedly. She hoped that whatever benefit the House of M would gain from her ideas would make up for the Eland Core, the offset rent, and the copious amounts of free dinners she was mooching off the Diviner.
“Thinking of renting out your new purchase?”
“Nah.” Richard appeared unmoved by her suggestion. “I am saving it for my folks.”
A torrent of advice hammered at Gwen’s throat; buying property and letting it idle was amongst the direst of fiscal blunders.
“That’s wonderful,” she tested the waters. “But, wouldn't it be more reasonable to buy, then lease?”
“What, like Kwan?” Richard scoffed disapprovingly. It was rare to see Richard displeased, though any conversation regarding Richard's father and their family's money was bound to get the man scowling.
To Gwen's knowledge, her crystal-obsessed uncle had built a small fortune on real estate, buying up ramshackle houses, repairing them, then selling them for profit. From Richard's grievances, Gwen learned that Kwan utilised an unscrupulous model, developing housing for low-rent Mages by demolishing areas close to the city inhabited by NoMs. His business partners happened to be councilmen, inspectors and certifiers, people he invariably bribed. The very same people he'd offer Gwen up as a bargaining chip.
Of course, karma came in like a Leviathan.
“Well, not exactly like Uncle Kwan.” Gwen proceeded prudently. She had once queried Richard why he was so keen on immigrating his parents when he had so little regard for his father. His response was one that struck close to her heart.
“Whatever my opinions of Kwan may be,” Richard cooly intoned. “They gave birth to me, raised me, put me in Prince’s, gave me the best education Sydney offered - and I am thankful for it. Realising their life-long dream of living comfortably in a tier 1 city is how I can pay them back."
A man of principle! Gwen applauded. Whatever Richard's faults, his capacity to carrying out his goals with single-minded devotion was in her opinion, a rare bird in any neck of the woods.
“That may be, I could show you how to invest the money,” Gwen offered. "Something safe and steady, or you can piggyback on my ventures."
“Yeah-Nah.” Richard shook his head. “Once my parents settle in, I’ll be finally pushing ahead with my spellcraft. I’ve got a lot to catch up if I want to keep Shielding you.”
“OH?” Gwen cooed. “You’re my knight in shining armour, are you?”
“And you’re my crystal-purse," Richard laughed. "I hope you won't leave me destitute."
Gwen broke into a self-depreciative chortle.
“Well, when my cockatrices come home to roost,” she solemnly promised her cousin. “I want everyone on board. It'll be like a Co-Op, I'll make a 'Trust' for the people I trust.”
“I'll invest my trust in your Gwen-Trust?”
“God.” She cackled. “Really, Richard? You're too young to be a Dad.”
Rather than laughing with his cousin, Richard tapped her shoulder with a fist-bump.
“Hey!” she returned the favour by thumping his chest with the flat of her palm. “Stick with me, Dick, and you’ll never know want for crystals!”
Gwen found Petra in her lab atop the Heilong Building.
“Thanks.” Petra waved a hand over the currency cards. “That’ll tide me over for a while.”
“Are you often short on crystals?” Gwen enquired. “Is your stipend from the university insufficient?”
“A little, just personal projects and the like,” Petra shrugged. “Nothing urgent.”
“Not my field.” Petra declined her enquiry. “Magi-tech is a hyper-specialised School of Enchantment, integrating concomitant energies from other Schools. We have an entry-level course on it in Fudan, but to truly learn it, you have to go on exchange to Japan, the United States, or Europe, though European Magi-tech stems from the Demi-humans.”
“Arrgh!” Gwen flexed her wrist, reeling from report-writing carpal tunnel. “Woe is me!”
“Maybe ask a Diviner-technician?” Petra pointed to the soaring spires of Fudan’s Guanghua Towers. “You can ask around or if you’re desperate, why not put some of your CCs to good use. That’s what they’re for, you know.”
HOLY SHIT! Gwen blinked. Petra’s right! Her prettier-than-thou cousin was absolutely right! Gwen had forgotten entirely about the whole point of CCs! All she had to do was put out a request, attach a CC and HDM reward, and wait for results at the door! Eureka!
“Thanks, Pats!” She gave Petra a quick hug. “Laters!”
“So, what do you think?”
Dai patrolled the breadth and depth of the hollowed out suite.
He had found her a place in less than forty-eight hours. The suite overlooking the corner of Handan and Gouding road was in an older building with a sandstone facade, once a colonial townhouse. Forty-eight hours ago, it had belonged to a researcher. Right now, it awaited its new tenant.
“Perfect,” the girl appraised him with inspiriting approval. “Well done, Dai.”
“Don’t patronise me.” Dai lifted his chin, wary of Gwen’s encouragement. “Who do you think I am; this is the least I can do.”
“Should I ask what happened to the previous tenant?” Gwen tilted her head, allowing her hair to cascade.
“He left.” Dai shook his shoulders. What did it matter? “I was told he had a family emergency.”
“Of course he did.” Gwen put on an apprehensive expression of disapproval that made Dai scowl. “Look, it’ll do. It’s close, it’s roomy, and it’s quiet. That ticks all my boxes. Who do I see to decorate the place?”
“You’re renovating yourself?”
“Of course, it’s my office. I'd hate to work in someone else's workspace. I’ll need a secretary as well, someone who takes care of visitors and paperwork while I am away. Know any good Personal Assistants?”
Dai tapped his chin.
"You mean like a secretary? Sure.”
"Good knowledge of accounting is essential," the girl was quick to complicate matters as usual. "Don't get me a pretty vase or some arrogant lout looking to make a quick buck. I need people to work, not to give me lip."
Dai furrowed his brows.
His counterpart rolled her eyes, ignored his irritation, then paced back and forth, measuring the space with her stride, envisioning where she would place her desk, where her assistants would sit. Dai studied her unassuming yoga pants with renewed respect.
“We’ll need to add a bathroom. I’ll need to shower and change every other time I am here."
“I can ask them to send a team from Nantong. Might take a week though,” he replied uncertainly.
"Don't worry about it then." The girl shrugged. “I’ll ask the Wangs."
Dai's expression replied 'oh yeah'.
He had neglected Gwen's relation to Wang Enterprises.
Of the siblings, Dai thought about Mina now and then, though never as Gwen's cousin. As for Tao, the idiot never entered the orbit of his thoughts.
Still, if she could have gotten one of the largest developers in Shanghai to find her a commercial property, why in Mao's name was she getting him to run around town looking for spaces? Didn't she know how much of a hassle it was to get the City Guards to threaten the previous tenant? In the end, he had to ask the District Secretary to put in his two cents before the stubborn idiot fled. Was all of this a part of her game? Was she perhaps, the hunter and he was the prey?
"Say..." Gwen continued.
She had this habit of glancing down before looking up, Dai noticed. It was highly distracting because the girl made bedroom eyes everytime she spoke about business or crystals.
"... Dai, do you still talk to Mina?”
Dai flushed, recalling the first time they'd met. For some reason, simultaneously smitten and a little drunk, he'd been overwhelmed by a sadistic desire.
“Not since last time.”
“Why did you guys break up anyhow?” the girl persisted, her face full of curiosity. “If you don’t mind my prying of course. You don’t have to answer.”
“Our parents don’t see eye-to-eye,” Dai replied candidly. “The Wang heir is a squib, and I would be a threat to his fortune.”
“Hey!” Gwen's tone was suddenly sharp and uninviting. “Don’t say that about Peaches. He’s a perfectly fine young man.”
“He’s a sha-bi.” As soon as the words left his mouth, Dai felt better. He had finally said something which triggered her. “Can you imagine that ‘thug’ running the Wang empire? Give the walking failure a few years, and Mina’s fortune might be all that’s left, give or take a decade.”
Dai was right of course, but the girl appeared reluctant to concede. She didn't think she could reverse the Wang's downward spiral, did she? The little minx had enough on her plate as it was.
Gwen glared at him, a judgmental hand placed over a hip, drawing Dai’s eyes over her slim curves. For some reason, Dai felt strangely titillated by the girl's displeasure. Nervously, he licked his cracked lips.
"So... why did you and Mina break up?"
Ah, a diversion! Dai patted himself on the shoulder for winning this round. Who'd thought all it took to stump the girl was a fruit.
“We weren’t dating in the conventional sense.” Dai allowed the girl her pivot. “Mina is one of the most desirable bachelorettes, and I am, of course, No.1 bachelor in Shanghai’s social circles. We met at a party, tongues got wagging, and we’d thought we give it a try.”
“That’s so sad.” Gwen shook her head. “You’re not even attracted to her?”
Dai grinned at Gwen.
“No, though I am attracted to you.”
"Oh?" Gwen paused to regard him.
Dai blinked. Was this a break in the levy? With her hair tied into a thick ponytail, there was a sense of youthful vitality about the girl, making her infinitely alluring. Likewise, Gwen's lightly made-up face cast her in a different light to the two times he had seen her at parties, all dolled up.
Gwen placed a hand across the arch of her hip.
"What about me do you find attractive?" She cocked her head, her vivid irises sparkling like opals.
"Everything. You're the prettiest girl I've ever seen," Dai confessed shamelessly, no, proudly!
Gwen ran a finger along her bosom until her digit pointed at her head.
"Shallow! I take it you have no interest in what's in here? Is that how you're going to answer your father's expectations? I'd thought you a man with depth, but hey, even I could be wrong."
She's pretty even when she's upset! Dai marvelled, swallowing nervously. He adjusted his trousers unconsciously.
"No, no, no!" the young man interjected, realising his faux pas. "I love your keen intelligence. I am most definitely attracted to what's in that head of yours. So many ideas! With my wealth and your head, think what we can achieve!"
"Bullshit!" the girl scoffed, giving him a critical glare. A commanding presence radiated from her body. "If what you said was true the first time, at least I could accept it as a compliment. But to change your tune so callously? I am disappointed, Dai."
"..." Dai stared at Gwen open-mouthed. At the very least, he had expected himself to call her a manipulative biaozi! Instead, listening to her spitting insults and being subjected to her deriding glare, Dai felt a strange, fearful thrill. They said that love was better than hate, and hate was better than apathy. Doesn't that mean he's halfway there?! Mao! She sure looked pretty in her peevishness!
“Let's talk it over dinner.” Dai pointed at the next street over. “I heard there’s a family restaurant there that does authentic Beggar’s Chicken.”
At the mention of supper, the girl relented. She had been training, and Dai was aware of her increased metabolism. His cousin, Lu Fung, the Master of the Lightning Hawk Wanli, also snacked incessantly.
“Fine.” The girl regarded him suspiciously. “You're shouting.”
“Woman, are you human?!” Dai shouted.
Her dinner companion sat open-mouthed as Gwen polished off the chicken single-handedly.
“What, order one yourself if you want.” Gwen sucked on her fingers. “The stuffing inside is to die for.”
As usual, the shop's patrons had gathered to watch Gwen eat, though this time, they were treated to a different spectacle.
“Is that Dai Fung?” someone whispered in the corner.
“It is!” another voice answered.
“To think the son of the Commissioner would be together with the Worm Handler!”
“Mao, I am so jealous.” A third woman bit into her chicken, tasting only envy.
“I know, right!” another female voice joined in. “Mr Fung is Shanghai's No.1 Bachelor! What a waste, like a jade flower, shoved into worm dung!”
Gwen watched as Dai turned to her with a shit-eating grin split from ear to ear, wiggling his brows at her.
“Go and pay.” She wiped her mouth annoyedly with a paper napkin. “You waiting for dessert or something? Supper's over, go home!”
“So, what kind of worms are you apt at handling?”
Gwen's deathly glare was enough to synergise an audible ‘Shaa!’ inside Dai’s head.
As she stepped out the door, she stole a glance at Dai. Just then, she had combined both a mote of her Void mana and her Almudj's Essence, though, from the looks of it, Dai seemed to have grown tolerant to her use of Dragon-fear. Perhaps she should up the dosage?
Shit, Gwen thought to herself. Did she push him too far? She better not have accidentally awakened something in the prick.
“Within the week would be good,” Gwen spoke amiably into the Message spell. “I’ll be there first thing. I'll bring prints and sketches for your Foreman.”
Her correspondent was none other than Patriarch Wang himself.
“Tao will meet you there. I've instructed him to oversee the project personally.” Patriarch Wang’s voice came across almost like a bark. Gwen could envision Tao cowering in the corner, mumbling incoherently, attired in Adidas trackies.
“That would be fabulous!” Gwen thanked the Patriarch. “I want to consult Tao on the School of Illusion as well. I intended to pick up a few basic spells but can’t seem to get the nuance of it.”
“You hear that, Tao? Listen to how humble Gwen is, even though she can thrash you with a little finger! And she's four years your junior!”
The Patriarch must have left the Message on a public setting, Gwen realised. Poor Tao. From the sounds of it, he was already on the receiving end of a lecture when Gwen called through.
“Uncle, please be gentle on Tao, his talent as a musician is nothing to scoff at,” Gwen pleaded. “He’ll do a great job, I am sure.”
“You better not screw this up, else no more of your idiotic American fad!"
"Not true! Mah music is culture, with a K~, Daw-d-Dad!"
"You little shit! How many times have I told you..." The Patriarch began his lecture anew.
Gwen whispered a prayer for Tao.
“Thanks so much, Mr Wang,” Gwen shouted into the Message, then closed the link.
She invoked the glyph for Dai.
“Dai? Yeah, it’s me. I found someone…”
The next day, Gwen awoke after four hours of sleep. She dressed in her sporting garb, made herself a triple-decked SPAM-cheese sandwich, then caffeinated herself with Almudj’s Essence.
Outside, winter was beginning to invade the November autumn, dropping the morning temperature to single digits.
At 6 AM, she left for a morning jog around the campus, followed by an invisible Ariel and a full-sized Caliban. There was no point hiding her worm, for Caliban had by now become a staple feature of Gouding Road.
Occasionally, stall owners fed the Mongolian Death Worm dumplings and buns, marvelling as Caliban's tentacles snatched the food out of thin air. At first, Gwen was apprehensive, though she relented after consultation with Chen. The old soldier advised keeping a tight leash on her beast, but otherwise allowing it to socialise on its own.
After a ten-kilometre campus circuit, Gwen stopped for a milk tea, then began her Spellcraft practice. Swiping into the room reserved for her by Dean Luo, she ran through her pre-planned routine, exercising each School of Magic she possessed before prioritising high-tier Evocation and Conjuration.
At 10 AM, she found Tao and a crew of gruff workmen, unhappily awaiting her arrival.
“Sorry!” Gwen apologised, bowing deeply.
She had told Tao 10 AM, but the fear put into Tao by his father ensured that he had arrived just after 8 AM. Additionally, Gwen seldom paid attention to her Message device during training, meaning Tao and his crew had waited in the cold.
Seeing the sight of a lovely girl bowing and apologising with such sincerity, however, was enough to turn the men's upset to discomfort.
“Alright, alright.” The Foreman forgave her tardiness. “Let's see this office of yours; Master Wang said you got prints drafted up?”
The group arrived at level 3, suite 3001, where Gwen had her suite. She produced a blueprint sketch of the renovation she had in mind, drew in chalk on the floor where and what she wanted the installations, and furthermore outlined every detail from vanities, tiles, to the placement of plants and other decorative accessories.
"You got furniture?"
As for decor, Gwen already had specific ones in mind, having seen the designs she desired when she had outfitted her and Petra’s apartment.
“Ooo, this is not going to be cheap.” the Foreman scratched his head guiltily. "Just that feature wall's going to cost extra."
“Money ain't a thang, thug!” Tao volunteered, conscious that his father had instructed him to do a good job. “We're loaded, bitch.”
Bloody oath Peaches, this is why you’re going to lose your father’s fortune, Gwen grimaced, noting a similar expression on the Foreman's face.
“Budget’s not a problem,” Gwen imparted. “Thanks, Peaches, I appreciate your kindness, but I won’t need your generosity on this one. The quote's fine, Foreman Du. I can pay you up front for the materials if you're not sure.”
The Foreman rubbed his hands together.
“You're the boss! Let’s get to work!”
After making the necessary calls for the plasters, the carpenters, the floor installer, the civil-Enchanters, he informed Gwen that the outfitting would take just under one week.
"Look, can you do something about that?"
Tao had been instructed by the Patriarch Wang to stay on site and 'learn', though the Foreman made it clear to Gwen that his personal preference was for the princeling to be out of sight. After watching Tao 'at work', Gwen admitted the Foreman had a point. It wasn’t that Tao was a bad technical supervisor, it was that his informative criticism came in the form of ‘that’s the wrong shade, bitch,’ and ‘use the guides, motherfucker.’ Not surprisingly, the workers wanted to sock him in the gonads with a plaster trowel.
Caught in the middle, Gwen promised to occupy as much of Tao’s time as possible, though the young man had to return to the site each evening to inspect the scope of work.
Gwen patted Tao on the shoulder sympathetically.
“Come on, buddy. There are some questions I wanted to ask you about Illusion. Do you think Mina is free for lunch? Haven’t seen her in a while.”
Gwen watched her magically projected ‘cube’ float across the vaulted ceiling.
After a light breakfast with Tao, the two arrived at Fudan’s campus, where Gwen logged herself and Tao as a guest into the training room.
“Dawg, yo cruising on tier 2 already?!” He baulked at her progress. Gwen decided it was best not to inform Tao that beyond the Minor Image he just taught her; she knew a total of one Illusion Cantrip and three Tier 1 Illusion charms.
Her principle enquiry was how to construct vector-based projections so she could create tables, lettering, numbers and charts for her future presentations.
“Dawg, you gotta understand spells are dumb bitches,” Tao informed her in a jargonist manner. “You gotta make 'em work for ya, dig? Take this bad boy for example.”
Tao projected an image of his pal ‘Little-Dog’ for Gwen’s perusal. The semi-opaque holography gave Gwen flashbacks of a Gorillaz concert.
“I ma doing it slowly for yo eyes ta see.”
The first Image was an ambient background. The second Image was an impressive pictogram graffiti which Gwen's Ioun Stone couldn't read. The third was a florid script of ‘Little-Dog’ written in Chinese, embossed in 3-D, hovering above the visage of Tao’s friend.
“Wow, that looks incredible.” Gwen walked around the Illusion, inspecting the optic visage. Was it a projection of the mind? She wondered, then realised Illusions couldn't be mass-hallucinations. It made more sense that these were mana-particles bending light in such a way that they constructed images, much like a laser-projected hologram.
“How do you add sound?”
“Mo' Illusion spells, dawg.”
Tao incanted a quick ‘Magic Mouth’.
“Yo! Yo! Yo! Little-Dog in the house!” The Illusory pup made a gangster sign.
“Wait-a-second.” Gwen realised something. “You’re telling me you are simultaneously running five persistent-effects?”
“For shows, I gotta run ten-ta-twelve,” Tao boasted. “The hard shit's when ya gotta pimp out sick rhymes at the same time.”
“WHAT!” Gwen cocked her head, looking Toa up and down in the same manner that so many of her seniors had regarded Gwen. “What about spell fatigue?”
“Yo get used to da headaches,” Tao explained. “Jus booze up beforehand and go with the flow.”
Hold on to your hip-hoppity horses! Gwen stared at Tao as though seeing him for the first time.
“Peaches, you’re telling me that during your shows that we’ve attended, you’re operating ten persistent spells, while rapping, while pissed as a koala on fermented gum-leaves?”
“Don’t know about koalas.” Tao tried to imagine it. “That a kind of dog, dawg?”
“It’s a deadly fauna from Australia,” Gwen explained. “They eat a lot of eucalypti, and the leaves ferment in their stomach after a while, so they’re constantly drunk. After that, they fall on you. Hence they're called Drop Bears.”
“Mah spirit-animal!” Tao declared.
Gwen took another gander at Tao.
Could Peaches actually be an idiot-savant?
“Can Little-Dog and Mack-Daddy do the same?” Gwen enquired, desiring to satiate her curiosity.
“They can manage three or four. That’s why most MC’s run with a crew.” Tao nonchalantly answered. "Cuz of my old man, I was forced to play with mah self."
The vision of Tao playing with himself made her throw up a little. Still, Tao’s strange obsession with the ‘arts’ was itself an immense pressure placed on him by his father. It was no different to the burden Helena had put on her to stay thin and attractive.
“So,” Gwen continued. “If I wanted to create, say a song, using Magic Mouth or Auditory Hallucination, how would I go about it?”
“Yo gotta layer it, like I said.” Tao stooped as he spoke, throwing a few gang signs here and there. "Check this out..."
She listened to Tao's ‘track’ as he bobbed and weaved.
Illusionary music, Gwen realised, was Electroacoustic-Synth achieved via magic!
No wonder she couldn’t reproduce anything other than cat-like howling.
Even for the most uncomplicated music, she had to separate each ‘track’ into different spells, loop her ‘samples’, then activate them together in sync before ‘mastering’ the product via a recording device. In essence, Illusionist-musicians were sound engineers and 'Samplers'! .”
Holy Shit, Gwen’s respect for Tao entered a new stratum. Did Tao’s father know about this?
But then again, Gwen realised despondently. It wasn’t as though an enterprise could be inherited via hip-hop. What Patriarch Wang wanted, Gwen supposed - wasn't ill-rhymes, but someone more akin to Dai: ambitious, charismatic, and motivated enough to strive for more wealth and power.
She looked over at Tao, his head weaving back and forth, and felt a curious sympathy for her cousin's innocence. If her Path was the path of Violent Conflict, what then, was the Path of Peaches?