Magus Maymaruya visited Gwen’s office with the necklace she had uncovered from the Water Ghost’s den.
“An unusual curio.” The Magus presented the identified device. “The central Core distributes the creature’s mana to the lesser Cores, reducing the stress of operation.”
“So, can a Mage use it?” Gwen asked the quintessential question.
“Poorly - also, that’s the reason why I am here.” The Magus shifted in his seat. “This thing wasn’t made by a Water Ghost. They lack the means. The item was made by people - by us.”
Gwen arched both brows.
“May I suggest handing it to the relevant authorities, perhaps a Tower? Usually, Enchanters are very interested in those creating illicit Magical Items for the Demi-humans.”
“That sounds like a plan,” Gwen heeded the Magus' advice, glancing at the necklace.
“On the other hand, I wouldn’t overthink it.” Magus Maymaruya inclined his head. “Are you familiar with the work of the Grey Faction?”
To the Enchanter’s surprise, Gwen knew.
“Yes, well, boons like this could often be a means to unbalance the power structure of a Demi-human region. By giving items to one tribe or race, the Tower encourages competing tribes to war with old enemies for food, land, and other resources.”
“I see.” Gwen realised the Magus was suggesting the Rogue Enchanter might be the working of the Tower itself, or least a Faction within the Tower. “Let's not stir the pot unnecessarily.”
“Do not fret for the loss,” the Magus assured her. “The reward for such things are usually paid in CCs. About twenty to thirty would be my guess.”
Gwen’s regarded the orbs.
Currently, she had no shortage of CCs. Perhaps she could bolster Richard’s efforts? Call it an early Xmas gift. Surely her cousin would like that.
For the next few days, Gwen managed her long-distance contacts.
With Gunther, she delivered a full report on her current condition in Shanghai, everything from her Spell List to her economic exploits, illustrated via the Power-Point School of Illusion. Thoroughly impressed, Gunther asked if it was possible to apply some of the ideas to Australia, or at least Sydney.
“Our population and production won’t cut it.” Gwen shook her head. “When I am back in a few years, I’ll go over what we can do - not to mention to induct NoMs into our workforce; there need to be significant changes to our basic economic infrastructure.”
Not to mention, Gwen held her tongue for the time being. If Australia was anything like the land of her old world, there remained unfathomable volumes of resources waiting to be unearthed in the Wildlands. In her old world, by 2010s, the great Southern Land was the world's biggest producer of diamonds and opals, a bulk supplier of sapphire, ruby, emerald, garnet, topaz, and the single largest source of iron-ore in the world. Considering that precious stones formed in areas dense with elemental-crystals; she could only suppose that the same could be said of her current world.
“And what of your allies in China?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the methodology I am applying,” she explained. “Not accounting for avarice, nepotism, and inbuilt disregard for social good, of course. There’ll be tangible benefits for some time to come. But, as Master would say, all things conform to the natural rhythm of human greed. As for economics, it bubbles and bursts, ebbs and flows. If nothing else, I hope my friend Mayuree’s House of M will persevere.”
“Merchants without nations,” Gunther mulled Gwen’s earlier words. “An interesting philosophy.”
“Only in an interconnected world.” Gwen had already cut back on the vision her world had entertained since some five decades ago, but even so, Gunther had been sufficiently engrossed in her illustrated roadmap of Sydney’s future.
“I’ll look forward to it,” Gunther inspirited his sister-in-craft's ambitions. “On our other topic, the Imperial Divination Agency has tracked Sobel’s cabal to the South of Kazakhstan, on the Demi-human Steppes.”
That Elizabeth Sobel was alive came as no surprise to either Gwen or Gunther. A sorceress capable of hiding from the Tower’s best efforts for three decades would not lack the means to escape even the direst of catastrophes. When they had held an earlier conference regarding Sobel, Gunther pragmatically informed both Gwen and Alesia that the hunt for Sobel would be neither quick nor satisfactory, but a life-long pursuit involving dismantling her organisation, turning her backers and exposing Spectre’s sympathisers. Only then, finally starved of resources, support, mana and vitality, they would have her.
For some reason, Gwen thought of Henry's story, where they had cornered Elizabeth in Hungary, in a place devoid of people. But even then, she had escaped, or was it merely her Master's sentimentality that had forbade them from pursuing further?
“If you hear anything, or if you think someone’s after you, tell us immediately. Pudong will do its best to intervene.”
“What about our Ravenport problem?” Gwen reminded Gunther of her drama with a member of the British House of Lords.
“I’ve asked friends in the U.K to keep an eye him,” Gunther cautioned his sister-in-craft. “To be honest, the man has his hands full. Westminster’s paralysed from a pitched battle between the Conservative Tories and the socialist Labour Party. Magister Blair’s just declared that he'd resign before his fourth term, so the Priministership is up for grabs in three years...”
Gunther paused when he realised his China-bound junior was politically illiterate.
“… so don’t worry about Ravenport,” he concluded. “At least, not until you leave for your IIUC. Talk to me then.”
Gwen cocked her head.
"What do you mean? Am I going to be in London?"
“I am not saying you will,” Gunther explained. “The U.K universities dominate the top ranks of the IIUC. Oxford, Cambridge and the London Imperial Sorcerous College are all seeded. Assuming you manage to beat out the Universities from your region, your team will progress to the top 20 round. Whether for the Quests or the Duels, its very likely the competition will take place on their home turf.”
“WOA, I GET TO SEE ELVIA?!” Gwen blurted out, her mind suddenly flying to her golden companion. “In person? In Europe?!”
“And Ravenport himself, I’d wager.”
“But Elvia!” Gwen grinned foolishly. To think she'd be reunited with Elvia in just a year and all she had to do was plough through a few teams of elite Mages.
"The chance of Ravenport taking action..."
The Radiant Mage paused; he could see her attention was elsewhere.
The girl was in a world of her own, but in a way, Gwen’s indifferent composure was the right thing. Until their path crossed, there was little they could do against Ravenport, now or in the future. Even in the instance of Gunther's Centralist Faction allies taking meaningful action against House Ravenport, it would be for political gain. Without significant rewards, no one in their right mind would move against a deeply rooted member of the Conservative Faction.
“Don’t count your cockatrices yet,” he stifled the girl’s excitement. “Now, tell me again about this Dragon problem in Myăma…”
Gwen tried to contact Elvia before Christmas came upon them, only to be informed by the Dorm Matron that the girls had left for Lady Astor’s country manor. Elvia did leave her a Message, however, wishing Gwen well and telling her she would be contacted when the opportunity arose.
Dejected, Gwen returned to the slog.
On Christmas Eve, she returned home to find Richard and Petra setting up dinner.
"Richard! You're back!"
“Petra told me about what happened at your work,” Richard remarked with amusement. “China’s not big on religion. You should know that. Also, what’s this thing about putting St. Nicholas in a big red coat? How is it possible that at your age, you confused Jesus Christ with the Patron Saint of Children?”
Gwen groaned. Petra had already bemusedly explained to her that Pope Julius I had made the 25th of December a day to celebrate the birth of Christ.
When she demanded if there was a Santa, Richard chimed in with the expert knowledge that it wasn’t pronounced Santa Claus, but ‘Sinter Klaas’, or Dutch for ‘Saint Nick,’ corrupted by English speakers when the Protestants frowned upon the worship of Saints. Either way, gift giving was not associated with Christ, but rather with Saint Nick.
“Gwen went to a government school,” Richard explained to Petra. “They don’t have a religious curriculum there.”
“Ah~, I went to private girls academy,” Petra informed her cousin. “The Boarding School for Girls of the Ministry of Defense of Russia, we had mandatory religious education using sanctioned scriptures.”
“I’ve heard of your school.” Richard whistled. “The best girl’s academy in Moscow.”
“Prince’s is not bad either,” Petra's lips curled sensuously.
“Nothing of the sort!” Richard scoffed. “I was in a Frontier chapter, incomparable to the real thing in London. The very idea that at tier 5 Conjuration I was made House Praetor should give you an idea of how starved we were for talent.”
Bah! Gwen rolled her eyes. Private school kids. My school was next to the fish markets! It stank, and we ate fish and chips three days out of the week. On the weekend, homeless people slept on our oval.
Ultimately, it wasn’t as though China forbade the celebration of religious holidays. It was more so that its citizens, particularly the younger folk, were indoctrinated by the thought that devoting one’s life to an all-powerful being was antithetical to say, blind allegiance to Clan, House, Family, and the Mao Manifesto. It was no surprise, therefore, that her employees had been so alarmed. What she had done was no different to asking Coca-cola employees to engage in Pepsi Appreciation Day.
The dinner that Petra and Richard had laid out reflected that austerity. Her Xmas celebration was bereft of any sign that the jolly fat man of commercialised gift-giving existed in this world.
Nonetheless, fluted glasses clinked.
“To your jolly fat St Nicolas!”
As agreed, the trio had forgone expensive gifts. Gwen bought for Richard a moderately priced quasi-magical cologne. While Richard had gotten her an Expatriates Guide to Living in China handbook; for Petra, Gwen brought French perfume, the closest thing she could find to Chanel No.5, while her cousin gave her a can of Huso-Huso caviar.
“From the old country.” Petra tapped the quasi-magical tin. “The taste of home.”
“Wait up.” Richard stopped her. “I thought the Beluga Sturgeon's gone from the Black Sea.”
“This is incredibly precious!” Gwen pushed the can back toward Petra. “We said nothing expensive, remember?”
“I had it since a long time ago,” Petra explained. “I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. I figured you could do with the vitality.”
“The roe can be kept alive for a century,” Richard salivated. “It’s the ultimate decadent delicacy.”
Gwen made a face.
“I’ll hold onto it,” she informed her cousins. “Maybe one day, we’ll share it for a special occasion.”
Richard had hoped they would eat it now, only to have his hopes dashed when Gwen packed it away.
“Oh yeah, I got this thing from Yue!” Gwen changed the subject. She produced a gift-box which she had received the day prior but waited until now to open. Stripping away the protective shipping packaging, she unwrapped a box, then another box, then a colourful assortment of paper wrapping to reveal a hair ornament.
“Oh wow.” She lifted the opal-coloured twig between her fingers, allowing the play of lights to shine through its semi-opaque interior. “I better call her back! It looks hella expensive!”
Two invitations plus a hopeful Dai presented themselves in front of Gwen.
‘The House of M cordially invites Miss Gwen Song…’
‘Wang Enterprises invites the esteemed Miss Song…’
“Gwen. Father wants to know if you can attend our New Years Dinner. Uncle Tu and Magister Chen are going to be there as well. I’ve invited Ruì, Ken and everyone else…”
In a time like this, Gwen wished she knew the legendary Illusion ‘Simulacrum’.
But in the end, she chose to accept the invitation from the Wangs, informing the others that she wished to spend time with her family, a universally acceptable alibi which absolved her of any accusations of favouritism or snobbery.
“Thanks for the offer Dai,” Gwen apologised to the Fung Heir. “Can you explain my circumstances to your father for me? I haven’t seen Mina, Tao or my Aunty Nen in weeks.”
“I will,” Dai was visibly disappointed by her choice.
“We see each other three days a week, Dai,” Gwen joked. “Aren't you sick of me by now?”
“How could I?” The young man grinned sheepishly. “We should see each other outside of work.”
“Date a teenager? You wouldn’t!”
“Oh... Hmm...” The Fung heir scanned his unrequited beloved from head to toe. Since their first meeting, Gwen had strung him by the nose with the air of an older woman. Through he was intellectually aware of Gwen’s age, Dai never gave much thought to the fact that they were five years apart.
What kind of optics would taking a seventeen-year-old girl to a New Years party bring, especially one who was your boss and could kick your ass?
“Have a happy New Year, Dai.”
She gave him the gift she had prepared.
It was just a simple thing, a jar of potpourri she had made herself, although the vase was imported Venetian glass and the ingredients both rare and enchanted to uplift the user’s mood and attentiveness.
Before Dai could think of something profound to say, Gwen left to give the others their gifts.
“A trifle,” Gwen laughed amiably as Ken Duan likewise received her standard-issue potpourri.
But for the real heroes of her office suite, Gwen had prepared two gifts.
“Ruì,” Gwen summoned her P.A. “Here, this is for New Years, and the bonus is for your hard work.”
“Ma'am!” Ruì’s hands shook.
On her table was a card and a box.
The first was a currency card with 150 HDMs, a paltry sum for Gwen, but for Ruì, it was akin to three months of her salary.
The second was a special-order item Gwen had commissioned from Magus Maymaruya - a small Storage Ring useable by NoMs.
“Miss, I can’t!” Ruì’s hands shook. A Storage Ring was the mark of a Mage, only the servants of powerful families or the NoM attendants of prominent Secretaries were given customised Storage Rings.
“Nonsense!” Gwen slipped the device onto her right ring finger. “If it weren’t for your dedication this month, Dai and Ken would have failed already, right guys?”
“Absolutely!” Ken raised his hand. “Thank you, Miss Li!”
“We’re in your debt,” Dai added dishearteningly. There's was no skirting the fact that if not for Ruì’s help; he wouldn’t have been able to spot the discrepancies in the accounts Gwen had given him.
Gwen took the empty box and placed it in Ruì’s hand. The instructions were inside. Ruì left her seat, bowed deeply toward Gwen, then likewise toward her two co-workers.
“Keep up the good work.” Gwen patted the woman on the shoulders. “I’ll be counting on you next year as well.”
“Thank you for everything, Ma’am!” Ruì’s head remained low.
As for Effi and Terence, Gwen gave them each a ‘thank you’ card and a Minor Ioun Stone of Clarity sourced from the House of M for having followed her gruelling regime, after weeks of training under herself and Ruì, both of Ma’s hand-picked acolytes were proving to be worth their weight in crystals.
Finally, with the secular gift-giving completed, Gwen fared them well, wishing everyone a prosperous 2004.
Dinner at the Wangs was the right choice to make.
The gathering became an impromptu meeting of the young members of the House of Song. The location, as expected, was the Wang Group building just off Zhongshan Metro with the moniker of Dragon’s Dream, a massive complex with self-contained apartments, office blocks and a six-storey shopping mall choked to the brim with restaurants and shops.
After delivering their greetings and performing bows, Gwen, Tao, Mina, Petra, Richard and Percy retreated to a private level of their own, to a shabu-shabu restaurant owned by the Wang Group. With alcohol freely flowing and a display of Wildland meats free for the taking, Gwen thoroughly enjoyed herself.
“Sis, I want you to know I super appreciate our Nantong trip.” Percy raised a glass to toast. “Really gave me a confidence injection.”
“Oh-ho?” Gwen slammed down a shot of Mao-tai. Tao was shouting, after all, the Patriarch shouldn’t mind a few hundred HDMs, she hoped.
Percy’s face flushed with optimism.
“After I got back, I tried out and got short-listed for the junior Duelling team! Once training starts in January, I’ll know if they’ll include me as a starting or backup member!”
“How wonderful! Drink!” She sipped another mouthful of the vital liquid, feeling warm and fuzzy as the triple-distilled alcohol infused with her Essence. Beside her, Ariel was chewing on an enormous bone-nub she had fished from the hotpot soup, while below the table, Caliban ate up table scraps. Not far from her two Familiars, Lea the Undine likewise sat as though a member of her human party, although other than the mana-rich alcohol, she couldn’t consume anything else. "Did you have to duel many people?"
“Hell yeah! You should have seen it, Sis, I kicked ass…”
Inspired by a cup of Mao-tai, Percy related to her a slurred account of his participation in the school tryouts. At first, the boy was nervous and afraid, but after facing the Water Ghosts in Nantong, he realised there was nothing to fear from his fellow Mages, especially when sparring. As such, using his rudimentary Abjuration to create a defensive bulwark, Percy managed to defeat his first opponent by wearing them down, and then a second opponent by immobilising them with his salt shards. After that, the extended use of Salt exhausted him, and he had to request a pause to the duel. His performance, however, caught the eye of the Duelling team captain, a genius-level Mineral Abjurer with a Secondary-School in Transmutation called Kelvin Ma.
“Captain Ma might even give you a run for your money, Sis,” Percy challenged his sister, his boyish face red with passionate worship. “He can duel our No.2 and No.3 at the same time! I’ve never seen someone as good at Melee Magic as Senior Ma, not even Lulan!”
Gwen looked at her companions, who all shrugged.
Richard didn’t know the local celebrities. Petra didn’t care.
Tao wouldn’t know if he tried, and Mina wasn’t interested in kids.
“That sounds wonderful,” Gwen assured her brother. “Maybe we’ll find out one day if Lulan’s better or this Ma of yours.”
Of course, the alcohol-infused Percy continued to speak at a hundred words a minute, an endless torrent spewing forth without end.
When the time was ripe, Gwen retrieved from her Ring a dark, obsidian box and passed it over toward Mina.
“What’s this?” her cousin asked.
“I need a favour,” Gwen leaned in conspiratorially. “Give this a whirl and see how you like it. Most importantly, see how your friends like seeing you using it.”
Mina picked up the container. She recognised the embossed M from the House of M atop the scented and sealed package. It was thin, but also dense, about the weight of a book.
The package opened with a suction sound.
Mina’s eyes widened as her name flashed across the card’s light-absorbing surface.
“Gwen!” Her cousin whispered loudly, the sorghum amplifying her volume. “Is this the Orichalcum Card?! Daddy's been asking about this!”
Tao's eyes glowed beside them.
"Uncle Bao's already famous and influential, so I'd be infringing on his time and generosity," Gwen explained. "But, for you and I, we both have something to gain..."
Friday, 2nd of January, Gwen returned to the office to find two of her staff absent.
“What happened to Dai and Ken?” Gwen demanded from her P.A.
“Ken’s recovering from drinking too much at Dai’s party,” Ruì informed her.
“Mr Fung has being detained by his father.”
“Oh? For what reason?”
“For logging a total of 3,350 HDMs on his expense account.”
“Ouch,” Gwen winced. The total outgoing for the Office so far was 480 HDMs for the outfitting, courtesy of Patriarch Wang, and their total monthly wage, excluding Gwen, was 500 HDMs a month split between three NoM Secretaries, Dai and Ken. “Dai sure knows how to have a good time.”
“It's not the amount," Ruì explained, snickering. Gwen was happy to see that she had grown comfortable talking about her Mage colleagues. "Mr Fung forgot to pay the balance before the year’s end as well, and has incurred a 17% interest on all purchases.”
“…” Gwen exhaled. You can lead a Dai to water, but you can’t make him pay his credit card bill on time.
January passed in a daze.
With university yet to be in session, Gwen continued to refine her Spellcraft, sparring with her cousins, receiving visits from the occasional lecturer, and one time, had impromptu tea with Dean Luo and Ellen on the balcony of Fudan's Zibinyuan.
Two events of note punctuated early January. One was that Gwen received a Message from her uncle Jun, stating that he would return to be with the family on Chinese New Years. Of course, Gwen ecstatically responded she'd be there, or be square.
The second was her catch-up with Elvia. During their two-hour long conversation Gwen's erstwhile angelic companion gushed and cooed that upon receiving her provisional practice-licence, she would be assigned a Knight-Protector for Quests outside of London’s domain. Though Elvia was young and inexperienced, Lady Astor had earmarked the Spirit-Healer for great things.
Gwen's response was one of ambivalence. The idea that some man was going to follow Elvia around the countryside, inches away from her dear Evee at all times, left a bad taste in her mouth.
“Can a woman be a Knight-Protector?” Gwen insisted across the LRM Device.
“The rank of a Knight-Protector is ‘Knight Brother’ of The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, so…”
Gwen groaned in despair; even the title sounds cool as fuck.
To offset her growing anxiety, she informed Elvia that potentially; there may be an early visit to England on the horizon, assuming the IIUC goes well.
“Ooo! Gwennie!” Elvia squealed, her smiling face filling Gwen with happiness. “That’s amazing! I’ll ask Matron Maxwell and Lady Astor about the November IIUC as well. I am positive our school provides healers to the competing teams! Imagine if we could meet up!”
“No need to imagine! I’ll be there!” Gwen ground her teeth with such determination that the impact jarred her jaw. She had never felt such motivation to run to the Training Hall and summon all her hounds at once. Her Evocation was edging close to tier 5, and Gwen was keen to pick up Bilby’s Hand and Cone of Cold before May. If by August she could make inroads into the mid-tier 5 Evocation, it was entirely possible to learn the most crucial spell of the Lightning Mage’s repertoire - the tier 6 Chain Lightning.
Tier 6 Affinity Barbanginy Chain Lightining? As Peaches would say, you Mother-fuckers better watch out!
"Wait for me, Evee!" Gwen gushed. "I shall not pause until I bestride the green hills of Avalon!"
Curiously, work at the Office began to die down around mid-January.
When Gwen consulted Richard's Expat Guide and her workers, they informed her that all work on Tonglv would be suspended between 17th of Jan to the end of the Golden Week on the 29th, with the labourers and the Mages gradually returning until the 5th of February which was the Lantern Festival.
With book in hand, her orientation of Chinese holidays clicked into place. For her host nation, the real ‘end of year’ party was on the 22nd of Jan, the Lunar New Year of the Wood Monkey.
Supposedly, according to Ruì, the whole calendar wasn’t so much as based on the lunar cycle but the year of the inauguration of the Yellow Emperor, marking 2004 as the 4702nd year of Han dominion. Chinese 'Fengshui' Divination, it seemed to Gwen, was entirely divorced from the Eurocentric variation of Augury sourced from the Greco-Hellenic Dynasties, far too cryptic for a westerner to understand.
“This year is very auspicious for business, Ma'am,” Ruì explained to her bemused boss. “2004 is the beginning of metal-cycle, meaning an abundance of gold, precious stones and crystals. Therefore the financial business will boom. You are a Lightning Mage, correct? According to the Analects, it means you will get along with people who are related to Water and find conflict with those who are Wood. Also, when do you wish to close the office?”
“What’s your opinion, Ruì?”
“The 17th is a Saturday, Ma’am,” her P.A advised. “The problem with Golden Week is that manufacturing also takes the week off, meaning there’s a break in the supply chain. We won't be receiving reports starting from the 16th.”
“Then 17th it is. No point in working when construction's halted.”
“Agreed, Ma’am. I imagine all the migrant workers will be going back to their Districts to visit family and relatives. I'll probably request to travel to Canton to visit my family as well.”
“Well then.” Gwen wondered what she’d be up to in the interim of the Golden Week. “Let’s set that down tentatively, and I’ll speak to the others.”
January 21, 2004.
Chinese New Years Eve.
As was the tradition from Harbin, the Chinese Frontier west of Vladivostok, Klavdiya’s end of the year get-together involved the whole family gathered around an enormous table, jointly knitting hand-made dumplings.
Gwen arrived early, looking a treat in her hybrid blue-silk cheongsam, the very first dress that her babulya had given her. She had taken extra care with her hair as well, piling her long strands into a thick swirly bun before striking Yue’s opalescent ornament through the middle, affecting a distinct oriental look that turned heads wherever she went.
She spent the morning and noon speaking and listening to Guo and her babulya, teasing Percy whenever she got the chance.
By the late afternoon, the rest of the family had arrived.
Once the DIY dumpling banquet began, the youngsters were all pushed to one side, consisting of herself, Petra, Tao, Percy and Mina. Knowing that Kusu and Lulan would be spending their New Years alone, Gwen had invited the siblings as well, but Kusu insisted that he and Lulan would spend the Chinese new year together as a testament to their new independence.
On the other side was Tao’s father, Bao Wang, his mother Nen, her father Hai and his wife Qīn, her Uncle Jun.
Gwen had imagined Qīn's presence would have made everyone antsy as anything, but as it turned out, her family was out of shit to give.
The reason being Ayxin came as well.
Which, Gwen realised, explained why there were two CCP-Tower Magisters eating noodles in the courtyard, chewing the fat with Guo.
Currently, her babulya was trying to teach the dragon-princess how to make jiaozi-dumplings.
Initially, the dumplings had chive-and-pork or mushroom-chicken-bamboo as filling, but the Magisters who had arrived informed the Songs that it was an insult to the Dragon-princess to provide for her such mundane, mortal fare.
When Guo bullishly asked his colleagues what the Dragon-kin had in mind, Ayxin outright murdered the old man by exploding his old heart.
First, she tilted her head, then with the utmost respect one of her race could afford a mortal being, she presented to Gwen's grandparents a gold-foiled New Year's gift-box.
“This is for the family, Father,” Ayxin announced, her voice the softness of gentle water. “It has properties that will improve yours and mother’s health.”
Guo's face moved through multiple shades of colour at once. The 'F-word' ripping out his tongue and nailing it to the wall. Babulya blinked her big eyes innocently as Jun performed a double facepalm.
Ayxin then opened the box.
Were it not for the quick actions of babulya calming his nerves, Guo would have spat a mouth full of tea in Ayxin’s face.
What was inside was a white-jade slab of perfectly preserved flesh, and what looked to Gwen like a Mandrake root.
“This is the rump from one of Ryxi’s prized dragon-boars.”
Just the vitality radiating from the damn thing was having Gwen salivate uncontrollably. She could eat the damn thing raw.
“And this is for yourself, esteemed mother and father. It’s a Ginseng Spirit, millennia old, from my father’s herb garden.”
The two Tower Magisters gazed at Guo, wondering if they had heard the word ‘Spirit’ wrong.
That was when the ginseng root tried to make a break for it.
“Pok!” Ayxin commanded in her draconic-tongue. Half the assembly froze. She picked up the mischievous ginseng root, then tore off one of its limbs.
The ginseng let loose a silent scream, possessing no mouth to communicate its agony.
Ayxin then materialised an urn of rice liqueur, then dumped the crushed limb into the amber liquid.
“The Ginseng is best when drowned in this Song Dynasty rice wine.”
Guo wanted to refuse, but the whole family, babulya included, was wiggling their brows at him. Stricken by the immense pressure of public scrutiny and peer-pressure, Guo relented to being bribed for the first time in his life.
“Please accept it, Father,” Jun urged from the side. “I’ve already dissuaded her from bringing gifts that are too outrageous.”
The two CCP Tower Magisters' eyes watered as Guo gave his thanks, wishing Ayxin well in the coming year. Millennia-Old ginseng with a developed sentience? Dragon-brewed rice wine? The flesh of a draconic-creature used to make dumplings?
Was their old friend cultivating a path to immortality?
“Magister Cho, Magister Xiang, if it too much to ask that you join us for New Year’s dumplings?” Guo requested of his two old compatriots, seeing their wistful faces.
Cho and Xiang almost burst into tears. Guo was a true comrade, his socialist manifesto without question.
Spending Golden Week away from their family guarding a Dragon Demi-God was already hard enough on their old bones. If they had to eat buckwheat noodles outside the door while their friend feasted on the food of the Gods, they would lose faith in Mao himself.
“We’re going to need to mince that somehow…” Gwen’s babulya examined the slab of draconic-boar meat, moving in onto a chopping board. “Shall I ask if any of the barrack’s chefs know how to prepare magical ingredients?”
“No need,” Ayxin glared at the slab harshly. There was a gentle breeze; then the meat fell apart into tiny diced cubes smaller than Gwen’s fingernails.
“Now to season it.” Gwen’s babulya didn’t miss a single beat. A collection of Wildland grown garlic, shallots and generous serves of chives cleared her Storage Ring and into the mince. “Nen, start kneading out the dough. Qīn, Gwen, Petra, Mina... Ayxin. Start with egg and chive pockets while I ready the filling.”
The women cleared some space around Axyin, though Gwen didn't care and sat right next to the Dragon-kin.
After Nen cut the dough, they got to work.
Ayxin picked up a piece of dough, feeling the texture of the soft and stretchy flour.
How many centuries had it been since she ate dumplings? Her draconic-memory recalled a temple, or what looked like one to the young Ayxin, with her aunt and her sisters on their knees, head bowed, presenting a stone cold dumpling in a golden bowl after it had been tested for poison.
"You hold the edge like this, and then you flip the corner, kneading with your index and thumbs..."
Luckily, it didn’t take her long to learn. As a Dragon-kin with perfect control over her body, she was soon producing more dumplings than all the other girls put together.
As for Gwen, she couldn't make a jiaozi if her life depended on it. All of her dumplings looked as though conjured from dark space, each one of her creations was a 'thousand young' spawned by Shub-jiaozi-Niggurath.
Soon, the first dumplings arrived. When cooking, the Song family chef, an ex-army cook, almost kicked over the pot when the steam took on strange, draconic shapes.
"Happy New Year!"
"Prosperity and fortune!"
Ayxin bit into a dumpling, her mouth filling with the fatty soup of juices from Ryxi’s painstakingly reared beast. It was delicious and nostalgic, so much so that she closed her eyes to savour the taste and texture.
“Ergh! Sooooo good! The sou- ARRGH my dress!”
Ayxin’s nostalgia was rudely interrupted by Jun’s niece and her indelicate, hyperbolic utterances. Were it not for Jun’s questionable paternal devotion to the girl, Ayxin would have cautioned Gwen with a power-word to teach her some manners. To have so little regard for her betters, especially in a sacred time like the change of one elemental cycle to the next, was blasphemy.
Back in the Palace, every twelve-year cycle, Ayxin, Ryxi, Golos and their mightiest sibling, Ruxin, would present their gifts to Father. For the entirety of the ceremonious occasion, the siblings, as well as the Yinglong’s lesser subjects, would sit in silence, not daring to breathe or achoo, waiting on their Lord to conclude his meal.
She looked toward Gwen, whose form she had once taken, and saw the girl shoving dumpling after dumpling into her maw. For some reason, Ayxin saw Golos' gluttonous face. For some reason, she felt homesick.
That was when she noticed the pronged ornament sticking from Gwen's piled hair.
The Dragon-kin's eyes narrowed, she focused her pupils for a closer inspection. There was something disturbingly familiar about the shape of it, the way its tapered end split into two elegant, coral-like extensions.
Half-way through chewing a dumpling, the realisation hit her.
A mouthful of boar-juice showered Jun, who was turning to ask what held her attention so intently. Ayxin's complexion glowed a vivid scarlet as her desired mate wiped tender bits of pork from his eyebrows.
“Enjoying yourself?” the Ash Mage intoned carefully.
“Your niece, Gwen…” Ayxin wanted to apologise, but Dragons don’t apologise or yield- especially not when faced with such an absurd sight. “She’s wearing…”
“Oh?” Jun looked toward Gwen, who was now staring at them, holding back laughter at her uncle's ridiculous face. “She’s adorable tonight, isn’t she?”
Ayxin wondered if she should explain, but looking at Gwen, she just felt so tired.
“It’s nothing.” The Dragon-kin returned to her meal, though all her appetite was gone. “Here, let me clean that up for you.”
Beside them, the 'adorable' niece burned with oppression as Ayxin took a priceless moon-moth silk hankerchief to her Uncle’s face.
What a peculiar child. Ayxin pondered bemusedly. Why would anyone stick an enormous baculum inside their hair? Sometimes, there was no explaining what humans did in the name of fashion.