Two days after Gwen began refining her Minor Image with Tao, Mina joined the duo for supper.
“Babulya misses you.” Gwen's cousin began with a relentless warning. More than once, their babulya had asked about Gwen.
“Arrgh! You're right!” Gwen slapped herself. With so much going on at once, she had completely neglected their grandmother. "Should I call her now?"
“Do it after - oh, thank you,” Mina implored, thanking the waiter for stowing her jacket. Mina was looking her usual adorable self in a pastel jacket, mini-skirt and thigh-high pantyhose, making Gwen doubly dubious of Dai's treatment of their cousin. “I am not going, by the way. Can’t stand gramps, the old man gives me hypertension.”
“Count me out too, dawg,” Tao agreed.
“Aww,” Gwen confirmed the sibling’s conviction not to visit Guo. “Alright, alright, I free you from your obligations.”
The conversation then turned to Gwen’s new office, which the sibling's father, the Patriarch Wang, has taken great interest.
“Uncle Wang is welcome to visit anytime,” Gwen informed the siblings. “In fact, in the future, I would love to work with him on a project or two.”
“Dad’s pretty taken with you,” Mina sulked. “He talked about you two days straight. It's making dinner unbearable.”
“The hoss won't shut it no matter what! No offence, Gwen,” Tao grumbled. “I reckon he wants us ta change places or sumfin.”
“Ergh~. Sorry,” Gwen apologised. “To make it up to you two, let me shout dinner.”
“Ho? If that's the case, I am going to order the Deep Sea Lobster.” Mina grinned at her cousin.
“Help yourself, order two if you can finish it.” Gwen smirked back.
When she realised Gwen was serious, Mina pouted, tasting bitter self-pity served with a dash of envy.
“I can see somebody is doing well for themselves.” She studied her cousin critically. "Last time we met, you were struggling with rent, how come you're so rich now? Did you rob a bank?"
“Ah~, you know how it is,” Gwen answered humbly. “You win some; you lose some. I manage a few Quests, ran a Dungeon or two, sold some loot...”
Plus a dozen Draconic Cores, business partners, profitable adventures and risky ventures, Gwen silently appended.
"What, took you a whole seven months?" Mina derided Gwen's humblebrag.
Gwen grinned helplessly, what else could she say? Opportunities came knocking, and she took them by the proverbial balls.
Tao turned to their patient waiter.
“Listen up, Hoss! Abalone hot pot, Daliang school-prawns, Qinhai Sea-Urchins, and two Ginger and Shallot Deep Sea Lobsters.”
“Peaches!” Mina snapped at her cousin. She had meant the lavish ingredient as a joke.
“It’s fine. Make it three,” Gwen informed the waiter. The man who was doubly impressed by the Fu-er-dai high-rollers, although the dodgy young man in Adidas was deeply suspect. “Wildland wheat-noodle base."
“That’s a lot of noodles,” Mina pointed out.
“It's fine.” Gwen patted her tummy. “I’ve got a hankering for gluten.”
Halfway through the lobsters, the topic turned to Dai.
“So, what’s your side of the story?”
“Dai’s an asshole,” Mina stated blankly, forking a white-jade morsel.
“He’s a playa and yo got played!” Tao illustrated his point with a greasy finger.
Mina warned Tao with a lobster leg, threatening to stab him in his noodle-hole.
“Peaches is kidding; it’s not like we had sex or anything.”
“WOA! Too much information.” Gwen crossed two spindly forelegs to make a tasty 'X'.
“Why, you thinking of dating him?”
“No way.” Gwen shook a juicy tail. “Just curious. Did you have feelings for him?”
“If we do get married, it’ll be for politics anyway,” Gwen's cousin explained. “The standard thing to do here in Shanghai is to get married, produce an heir, then do whatever you like. I can sleep around if I desire, as long as I don't have children out of wedlock. He can plough as many sows as he likes, so long as he doesn't bring one home. I've got married friends who haven't spoken to their husband for a year. I suppose, in a way, that's what passes for happy endings."
A sow, huh? Gwen allowed the passive comment to slid.
"Would you have married him?"
"Daddy wouldn't have allowed it." Mina chuckled. "You know how he and mum are. I heard they held a marriage meeting with Shen Fung. I am guessing they didn't see eye to eye."
Possibly, Gwen imagined that it was because Bao Wang wanted his daughter to be happy, while Shen Fung spent the entire meeting discussing guan-xi, assets and Mina’s dowry.
“I envy you guys for having such a great Dad," Gwen lamented wistfully, stirring her noodles.
“My dad wishes you were his child.” Mina laughed annoyedly. “Maybe you can substitute for Tao; then we can all be happier.”
"Can Dad marry Gwen into our family?" Tao proposed suddenly, sucking on a lobster claw.
The girls dry retched.
Such was Gwen's revulsion that she dropped her crustacean, having lost all appetite.
"God, you're an idiot," Mina spat. "You disgust me. Go and die, right now."
"ADOPT!" Tao protested. All his talk of marriage had addled the lyrics in his head "I MEANT ADOPT!"
After the dinner, Gwen made arrangements to visit her babulya on Saturday. When she asked about her father and Uncle Jun, Klavdiya informed Gwen that Jun had his hands full as the new envoy to the Dragon-Princess, while Hai has communicated that he was perfectly happy in Hangzhou.
“I guess I won’t be seeing Hai until his baby’s born,” Klavdiya sounded lost as she updated her granddaughter.
“Its okay, babulya," Gwen assured her. "I am sure he’s thinking of you. A grandchild is a joyous occasion! I am going to have another little brother or sister; you can't get happier than that!"
Her babulya agreed - though Gwen could sense that her sentiments were ambivalent.
“Thanks for taking care of Percy,” her babulya added before ending the Message. “Your grandfather had nothing but praise for you the last few days. Did you know Percy bought a pair of Soothing-Jade for us? Over a hundred HDMs! Your grandfather hasn’t stopped fiddling with it since yesterday!”
“They grow up so fast.” Gwen chuckled. “See you Saturday, Babulya.”
Friday afternoon, Gwen returned from training to her office to see Dai conversing with the Foreman.
“I am very impressed with your work.” She overheard Dai praising the Wang's Foreman. “What say you come work for us in the Fung Group? I’ll pay you ten per cent over whatever you’re getting from the Wangs.”
“I'll think about it.” The Foreman's rejection came in the form of diplomacy. "Thank you, Master Fung, for the offer."
Gwen coughed audibly, then entered.
“Gwen!” Dai turned to her, his darkened face brightening considerably. “You’ve exceeded my expectations!”
The young man wasn't lying, for he indeed had nought but praise for the new decor. The once mundane commercial space was now an open office. From the entryway, a frosted glass wall with a receptionist’s desk hindered the view of the interior. Opposite the console, a drink dispenser flanked two fiddle-leaf figs in minimalist concrete pots, furthermore joined by four comfortable steel and leather cubic tub-chairs. Past the reception, a working area with three adjoining acrylic tables staffed by mesh chairs formed a workspace, beyond which was the director's table. Gwen’s desk, an overlarge waterfall table with an assortment of filers and pigeon holes hidden from view, stood in front of left-to-right, floor-to-ceiling glass panes overlooking the street below.
“Who’d thought an office without partition or walls would look so clean and beautiful.” Dai touched a hand to one of the three pendant lights hanging from the ceiling. “Take this thing. I know its useless - but I like it! It somehow ties the front together.”
The floor was ash-blonde wood, extending up the far left wall to create a feature section.
“And that!” Dai stalked back and forth. “Incredible, how is it that the floor looks so good on the ceiling?”
“I'd thought you were crazy,” the Foreman admitted. “Come, let me show you the bathroom.”
If the office itself impressed Dai, then the bathroom blew the Fung heir away.
Gwen had requested a two-tone Scandi-style bathroom, a standard and contemporary option for the 21st-century apartment. The tiles were transmuted to resemble white-ash wood, the cupboards panelled with cedar, and a large round mirror had lumen-globes installed to provide high visibility and soft light for applying makeup. To the right, an all-glass cage encircled a rain-shower, with the bathroom-throne discretely nestled in a spacious alcove just out of sight.
“I am starting to think plating our executive bathroom in gold was needless,” Dai confessed.
Gwen recalled the gaudy bathrooms she had seen in the Fung Group’s building. It was very 80s Colombian Narco-chic.
“Yeah, not a fan of your golden thrones,” Gwen agreed.
“All of this was your idea?” Dai kept touching the vanities. He was a man in hot pursuit of a certain quality of life, and Gwen’s simple modifications were drawing the ambitious heir down a rabbit hole.
“You could say that.” Gwen nodded demurely, she was nearing her limit. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First thing's first.”
"Get out of my bathroom..."
Dai and the Foreman stood silently in the lobby. Thankfully, the Foreman had spared no expense on soundproofing.
Gwen rejoined them a few minutes later.
“When’s your counterpart from Vice-President Tu's office arriving?”
“A week or two? We’re way ahead of schedule.”
“How’s the recruitment coming along?”
“Could be better,” Dai appeared a little guilty. “I’ve sent a request back home; they’re canvassing the Clan for people right now.”
Gwen frowned - trying to dig up accountants and auditors from a family business's internal members? That's a recipe for disaster.
“That's not going to fly, Dai. Look, why don't you leave it with me,” she informed her Guan-er-dai companion. “Did you read my organisational charter? Sort through the duties of each department and its members?"
Dai regarded her guiltily. Here was a young man who had not done his homework.
Dai's complexion burned; he couldn't recall the last time he'd felt this oppressed.
"Can I leave now?" the Foreman asked. He did not want to be here if either of these scions started blowing up.
"Yes, thank you." Gwen shook the man's hand. "Give my regards to Mr Wang, and send the bill to Mr Fung."
The Foreman fled.
"Now." Gwen turned to Dai, her eyes flashing. She directed him to her desk. "Sit down! We're not leaving until you know our charter down to the last dot point."
Gwen completed a follow-up session with Magister Wen.
"We're no longer collecting your Druidic Essence," the Magister intoned.
When Gwen enquired as to why they were no longer collecting her viridescent mana, Wen saltily informed her that the upper echelon had explicitly forbidden further research into that particular avenue of Gwen’s prowess.
“Unanimous decision from both Towers,” Wen answered as she stowed no less than two cubes of Gwen’s Void matter. With Almudj’s help, she could now tap deeper into her vital stores without harming herself. By her count, a dozen Void Bolts and non-persistent spells should be relatively painless. “Your biometrics are superb, by the way. Resting heart-rate of just under fifty. You’re as healthy as an athlete.”
Gwen thanked the Magister as she dressed behind the curtains.
“Gwen, dear,” the silhouette of Magister Wen implored as Gwen shuffled into her dress. “Have you come to terms with Caliban’s abilities yet?”
“Ma’am?” Whatever Wen’s intentions, Gwen grew instantly uncomfortable. Behind the veil, the scholar's enquiry continued.
“You lack the School of Enchantment, do you not?”
“…” Gwen maintained her silence; no good would come of answering Wen’s inquiry.
“There's a prisoner on death row, a suspect cult leader, tier 5 Enchanter...”
Gwen hurriedly buttoned up her blouse.
“Gotta go!” She took off at a bolt, not even turning to see if Wen acknowledged her goodbye. “I’ve got a date with babulya!”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about Master,” Petra joined her cousin as they made their way to the Song compound. Originally, the girls had planned to catch a cab, but Petra convinced Gwen she needed at least twenty minutes of brisk pre-banquet exercise. “She’s not too happy right now. Ever since Secretary-General Miao met you, there’s been sanctions on her research.”
“How so?” Gwen effortlessly paced beside her briskly-walking cousin. Comparatively, Petra was already working up a sweat.
“I suspect it’s got something to do with Ayxin.” Petra huffed, picking up the pace. “You know how jealously the Dragon-kin guard their secrets.”
That makes perfect sense! Gwen realised. Ayxin was all thunder and lightning when Gwen started calling Almudj by name. If the Dragon-kin saw Almudj as something of a progenitor, there was no way they would let humanity harvest and research mana blessed with Almudj’s Essence. Though no doubt the CCP would desire to discretely conduct their research, extracting mana from her like juice from a grapefruit was too glaringly an insult.
I should call Uncle and visit Ayxin, Gwen thought to herself. If only she weren't so damn busy.
“Gwen! Welcome back!”
Gwen couldn’t help but notice her grandfather's rigidity when Klavdiya gave Gwen a suffocating embrace.
“I am back, Babulya,” Gwen kissed her grandmother on the cheeks. She then turned purposefully toward her grandfather.
“Gwen” Guo declared stiffly. "Welcome back."
Gwen kept her arms wide open, making a come-hither expression.
“Guo,” her babulya pushed Gwen’s grandfather forward.
With the unwillingness of a cat forced into unwanted affection, Guo resigned himself to be embraced by placing himself rigidly in between Gwen’s arms. As her arms enveloped the old man, Gwen realised Guo was all but bone wearing skin. The frailty of her grandfather came as such a surprise that she kissed the old man on the forehead.
The CCP hound master flinched, touching a hand to his forehead in disbelief.
Gwen's babulya broke into bell-like laughter beside them, soon joined by Petra and an uncomfortable Percy, who cringed the whole thing with begrudged patience.
After Guo hurriedly wiped the evidence from his forehead, the family made for the main hall, where a banquet had been set up, reminding Gwen of the very first time she had arrived in Shanghai.
Seven months on, how different things were! Gwen marvelled at the familiar table; it's nostalgic seating and the juxtaposing atmosphere of jubilant familial bliss.
"Gwen," Guo intoned solemnly, his bulldog face full of concern. "Tell me truthfully - are the Fungs taking advantage of you?"
Though Gwen had promised herself that Sunday would be a break day, she found herself returning to the training hall. After four hours of unyielding practice, she buckled on her Message Device.
“Gwen, it's James Ma. You said you wanted to speak to me? I am on campus now.”
Gwen quickly dialled in her Professor’s glyph.
“Sir? It’s Gwen. Are you available for a luncheon? I need to speak to you regarding a great opportunity for your NoM students. No Sir, I am serious. Great! How about Cafe Europa on Gouding, opposite the Furano candy shop? Lovely, I’ll see you there soon.”
With only a few minutes to spare, Gwen stripped off in the privacy of the training hall, spritzed herself with a Prestidigitation, then slipped into an above the knee cotton skirt, naked-pantyhose and a grey skivvy. She also brought out her Mary Janes, figuring it had been some time since her old shoes saw action.
A quarter of an hour later, she met her Professor at the coffee shop, putting to rest the speculation of a dozen young men and a few women as to whom the infamous ‘Death Worm Handler’ of Fudan could be meeting on a Sunday.
“Not very discrete, are you?” James Ma set down his coat. “I wish they paid this much attention during my lecture.”
“Thank you for coming, Sir.”
She briefly explained her dilemma, redacting critical elements of their methodology.
“You’ve sold one of your economic theories to the Fungs?” Ma raised a bushy brow. “You’re not getting yourself into trouble, are you? It’s in a Clan’s nature to profit off the State, you know. A parasite can’t help but exercise its nature.”
“That’s a little harsh, Sir,” Gwen retorted. “If they directly steal from the venture, it’s lose-lose. The CCP would excommunicate them. Where could they possibly spend that much money? Escape Shanghai for Singapore? The best thing for everyone is to play by the rules. That way, it’s Win-Win.”
“Perhaps in a western country,” Ma refuted her good cheer. “Here, they’re far too used to escaping punishment.”
“Which is why I need your help.” Gwen brought out a data slate. “Here’s something I wrote over the last few days.”
Ma took the tablet and began to read. After the first abstract, he became glued to the tablet, devouring page after page, leaving his coffee to grow cold.
Gwen patiently waited for her professor to finish her fifty-odd page report, consisting mostly of diagrams, organisational charts, and short-form notes taken from an old MBA Course on Corporate Governance which she’d since made good use of in her line of work. An unexpected boon of her draconic-memory was that she could pull old lessons from her head with relative clarity, assuming she had once crammed them into her brain. Moreover, re-revisiting her old course work for her new world seemed to invigorate an erudition she couldn’t attain as a younger woman.
After half an hour, Ma put down the tablet.
“This is… audacious.”
“It’s a necessary evil, Sir.”
Ma reread the title:
‘Independent Supervisory Roles and Regulations - Establishing an External Auditory Committee.’
“You’re going to make enemies, Gwen,” Ma warned her.
Gwen fluttered her striking eyes at the professor, playing the coy and innocent student.
“I was hoping you would be the one to make those enemies, Sir.”
“Me?” Ma snorted in ridicule.
“Yessir, only you have the influence and the clout to start something like this. You’ve said it yourself. The reason our Spellcraft and Economy is incapable of pushing past competitors like Seoul, Tokyo and the Americans is due to corruption. In my opinion, the CCP would love to enact an independent financial body.”
“But…” Ma’s fingers were white-knuckled. “You’re telling me to fill a department full of NoMs?!”
“Not NoMs,” Gwen strongly stipulated her word choice. “Agents who are auditors, accountants, lawyers, whose actions and decisions must be supported by other departments like the MSS, Internal Service, or even the CCDI. Think of it, Sir. NoMs, freed from the fetters of magic, in real positions of power as arbitrators and supervisors!”
“It's impossible! You’re asking for people to give up their lives, Gwen!” Ma tried to keep his voice down, but even so, they were drawing eyes from all over.
“Let's speak elsewhere.” Gwen’s eyes glinted. She knew she had him now. “How about we talk in my office? It’s about fifty meters down the street.”
“…” Ma slid the data slate across the table, then blinked. “Y-you have an office?”
Professor Ma sat opposite Gwen, quite speechless at the decor.
“This is your office?”
“Just had it renovated, sorry about the paint smell.” Gwen’s heels clicked across the floor. “I brought you some tea.”
Ma looked around Gwen’s resplendent workspace, so much more modern, comfortable, and ergonomic compared to his cluttered workspace at the university.
The professor sipped his tea, savouring the scalding amber liquid.
“You’re serious. You - a seventeen-year-old girl, is a part of the Tonglv Expansion Project's top management?”
“I am.” Gwen nodded, crossing her legs for better comfort.
“Alright. I suppose stranger things could be happening, like a department where NoMs audit a Mageocratic operation.” The Professor leaned back on the cantilever chair Gwen ordered from an upscale import emporium. None of the inventory belonged to hers, of course, the liberty given to her offices’ budget was the sincerity shown by her three partners. That she was using their wealth to project her merit was an apt metaphor for venture capitalism. "So, let me play the capitalist devil's advocate. What’s in it for me?”
“Everything,” Gwen replied. “You’re a well-respected scholar, you’ve got pull within the CCP’s ranks, and you’ve got access to a well-trained, non-magical staff without affiliation to the Fungs, the Shanghai Economic Exchange, or Magister Chen from Jiangqiao University. You’re the only non-partisan person I know who has the skills and the respect to act as an independent supervisory our three partners will trust. Don’t forget; they’re a triumvirate, they always doubt each other as well.”
“As to what’s in store for you, Sir, the venture fund can pay you very well. Most importantly, I am willing to pay your NoM students a rate higher than the standard normally paid to Mages in the same role. Rather than working under the moniker of a NoM labour force, I want to establish your group of people as specialists, agents, operators, problem solvers. This project is merely the beginning…”
She opened her hands, then balled her fists.
“As for you, Sir. Succeed in Nantong, and you can start a company - an independent accounting firm - or become the head of a new audit department. I've asked Patriarch Fung to enact internal audits, but we all know how trustworthy that is. This way, everyone has a guarantee. So long as our venture succeeds, Nantong will be a southern miracle. Those in Beijing would be salivating over our methodology, the chief merit of which lies under your austere supervision.”
“What makes you think your doctrines are safe?” Professor Ma pointed out. “Tu or Chen could just sell you out.”
“I wouldn't doubt it. But until then, there are crystals to be made. I asked Dai to find me accountants, administrators and auditors - but you know what he did? He asked home to send him some. Preposterous! I suspect they'll keep me in the loop two years at worst, a decade at best. I am not here for the long haul, Sir. I am not that deluded. I am only here for the IIUC and five more semesters of University. If I can graduate earlier and receive the title of a Magus, I would welcome it. Until then, these are opportunities to fortify my Path. You and I know how it is; always diversify one's investments!"
Ma tilted his head to regard his student, whose grasp of economics was inexplicably leagues above his own.
A part of him was screaming that all of this was folly and what lied beyond Gwen's honeyed words and clear skies was a maelstrom of greed, an economic calamity made inevitable by human gluttony. She had only revealed a thin veil of her proposal for the Tonglv Canal, and already the astronomical numbers she was throwing around were sure to drive the Mages wild with crystal-lust.
And this proposal of hers - this partition of powers to keep her brain-child safe - it was a bloodbath in itself. When Ma and his cadre of auditors invariably unearth corruption, theft, larceny and nepotism, what would await the men and women who’d thought the Triumvirate dumb and deaf? How many would die to the men's rage?
Even if Shen Fung played the merciful bureaucrat, the CCP possessed very little patience for those who sought to enrich themselves at the cost of the country’s progress. The Purge of 86’ was evidence of that. Ma had been an assistant professor then, just an ambitious young man. He saw first hand the massacres, the show trials, the hundreds of Mages chained like cattle through Beijing toward the Northern Front. Behind them were hundreds of thousands of NoMs: associates, servants, family members, loved ones and beneficiaries, likewise taken on the Long March, never to return to their homes.
What would happen if someone were to tear away the festering scab on the country's corrupted wound?
Could the next Purge have its origins here in this fancy office, issued forth from the plump-lips of a girl-child in a too-short skirt playing at economics, stoking her too-big brain, believing herself a niu-bi genius?
But the girl was right. Shanghai was growing stagnant. The Communist Party’s original Manifesto of raising the NoMs from poverty had fallen to the wayside.
As a squib, Ma dreamed of proving to the Party that NoMs were an indispensable part of the CCP and its future. If he could succeed, the party, and especially the wise and all-seeing Secretary-General Miao of CCDI, would acknowledge the existence of an organisation uncorrupted by the Clans, the Scholar-Bureaucrats, the Mage Houses and the power progenies of its Secretaries. Without Spellcraft to distract them, his fellow experts attained proficiency in accounting and bookkeeping far beyond the Mages.
If the state would enact protection for their devoted labour and elevate their positions, it would be the first step of many to integrate NoMs into their socialist society in a meaningful manner, in appropriating a place of influence and indispensable utility.
“Sir?” The girl's voice came across coated with honey. "Is that proposal to your liking?"
James Ma raised his head to meet Gwen's eyes, taking in the extravagant visage of a girl whose eyes stopped at the mountain of crystals.
“I’ll do it,” he intoned with the fatalism of one told to hold the line against an Undead Tide. “I just hope you're happy with the outcome.”
Gwen exhaled, her smile full of relief.
“Sir, it's all for the greater good!” The girl laughed, full of confidence. “We’re in the job-creation business! Not just for your NoM students, the Tonglv Canal will generate hundreds of thousands of jobs: sailors, harbour-men, machine operators, mechanics, service personnel, and a hundred thousands more to support those jobs: food vendors, motels, restaurants, garment makers…”
Ma’s skin crawled with every title Gwen carelessly rattled from her mouth. The girl had no idea! She hadn’t the slightest inkling what prosperity would bring! Progress was all well and good, but where there were crystals, the darkness that grew in the hearts of men held their secret cabals! From the highest Magister of the law to the lowest Neophyte, Nantong would attract them like a bloated Leviathan carcass attracting carrion!
“With your help, Sir,” Gwen smacked her lips. “We’re going to enable a real economic revolution in Nantong!”
Ma said nothing as the girl continued to talk, rattling off her gospel of wealth like a priest at a sermon.
“… one more thing.” Gwen smiled sweetly at her professor.
“Yes?” Ma looked up, feeling numb.
“Do you think…” Gwen cooed at him. “You could send me someone to be my P.A? I'll teach them everything they need to know, and I'll pay them twenty per cent above market rate!”