Eric Walken took a sip from his bone china cup, closed his eyes to savour the taste, then gingerly rested it against the porcelain saucer with a crisp clink.
“Did you manage to keep your head?”
“Mmm,” Gwen murmured over sips of Royal Earl Grey.
“You lie better when you're angry.”
Ignoring her opponent's smug superiority, Gwen instead allowed the scent of Wildland cornflower and bergamot to enliven her tastebuds. It was Walken's shout; according to him, she should be glad because there was only so much tea left from the pre-colonial days.
“What’s your plan?” The Magister indicated to the table, or perhaps he was referring to herself. "Go on; help yourself."
To return the favour for her sponge cake, Walken bought tea and scones with fresh cream and homemade jam. When she marvelled at the spectacle of a Magister making strawberry conserve, Walken expressed that thanks to a diluted aristocratic lineage, his mother had possessed a deft hand at crafting artisanal preserves of all kinds, a trade he had inherited after her passing. In fact, within his storage ring, he had no less than fifty jars in fourteen flavours, each a unique product of his physical labour.
Cautious but curious over Walken's boastful narrative-laden conserve, Gwen halved a warm scone with her butter knife in readiness.
“To answer your question, I am going to pay the Yang family a visit this evening,” Gwen informed her Instructor. “Grandfather wants a public apology.”
“That's what he wants. What about you? What do you want?”
“A good grovelling would be a good start.” Gwen applied the jam liberally. The cream was a little runny, so she dipped her conserve-covered morsel instead.
Walken watched as the girl bit off a tad more than she could chew, cramming the rest into her mouth before the jam and cream dribbled on her dress.
How was it that this scone-eating glutton had cornered him? Walken reflected as he passed her a serviette. He suspected that not even Kilroy would have believed his Apprentice of attaining such heights of larceny.
The girl dabbed the cream from her mouth, then gave her lips a once over with her tongue. Having tasted its sweetness, she eyed the rest of the marmalade hungrily.
“Eye for an eye,” the girl answered, crumbling a second scone. “Surely that’s not asking for too much.”
“That's not what you told me earlier.”
“No,” she grumbled. “The family’s protected by some Saving Private Ryan bullshit.”
“Saving who?” Walken raised a brow.
“Some guy called Ryan,” Gwen explained, feeling generous. “Lost a whole bunch of brothers, so he’s the last Mage standing in his House. Tower says maybe this family should have at least one child surviving after giving so much to the Frontier, so they send in a Hero Magus trying to extract the boy from the Front. Hero leads a party into the heart of the war, losing guys left and right until he finally finds junior Ryan. The problem is, Junior Ryan refuses to leave his mates, so Hero stays and fights, ultimately dying so that Junior Ryan could return home. That's who this Alain Yang is, the last man, and he thinks he’s bloody invincible because anyone who kicks his ass would be bullying a venerable old House filled with widows.”
“That’s… quite the story.” Walken racked his brain, bemused that the girl was telling the truth. “Yet, I don't believe I’ve never heard of this.”
“Master told me the story.” Gwen cloaked her uneasy deception with a scone. "Mmmmph... maybe a different war? Somewhere in Europe?"
“Right…” Walken studied her face. “But you know, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
“Oh, I know.”
“Do you now? Then tell me. What type of revenge have you planned? What are you after? Despoilment? Leverage? Control?”
“There are types of revenge?!”
“Revenge should never just involve brutalising your opponents.” Walken raised a finger. “It shouldn’t be immediate either. Before one takes on the role of an Avenger, one’s purpose must be made explicit. Needless vengeance brings nought but suffering; retribution should accompany restitution."
Does Walken think he's Titus Andronicus? Gwen ruminated upon the buttery dough. I am not fomenting a blooding Roman tragedy here!
“I just want an apology,” she explained carefully. “I don’t see why they would refuse. My ire carries some weight these days; I'd imagine.”
“How optimistic.” Walken chortled.
“Why, do you have something to add, Eric?”
“Gwen.” Eric Walken formed the tips of his fingers into a triangle just under his chin. “Care for some advice from someone who has survived three decades of intrigue? I promise to satisfy.”
"You talk big."
"I never just talk."
Gwen considered her Instructor's confidence. Walken reminded her of a manager waiting to show her a project proposal.
"If this goes pear-shaped, I want ten flavours of conserve as compensation."
"Deal." Walken winced, touching a finger to his Storage Ring. "Consider this a trial for the wisdom I shall dispense in the IIUC to come."
“Well then.” Gwen inspected her piece of cake. “What did you have in mind?”
“Master Alain has taken ill and is not taking guests,” a pale and shuddering servant informed her stone-faced guest, cowering before her towering visage.
Almost disbelieving her ears, Gwen turned toward her guide, the affable Mei, who stood red as a beetroot beside the giantess.
“Tell Alain he has five minutes to present himself and make his case in person.” Gwen reiterated her demand, dispensing with the politeness. “Or else he can stay cooped up in there for the rest of his natural life.”
“Yi, tell Alain to get out here!” Mei hissed beside Gwen. “This isn’t a joking matter! Where is Aunty Vivian?”
The servant quickly scurried away.
Sweating profusely, Mei invited Gwen to sit with her in the main living room while they waited.
Visibly fuming, Mei's guest settled into a tub-chair with her back arched and her legs crossed, her simmering furore just shy of its boiling point. Beside her, Gwen’s host remarked the way her senior seemed to fill up the spacious living room effortlessly, her worshipful orbs studying every inch of Gwen’s smouldering visage.
Gazing into the middle-distance, Gwen thought back on Walken’s divined foresight.
Though not explicit on details, Walken had correctly described the core strategy the Yangs would employ: to delay and hope Gwen would go away.
That Gwen herself had miscalculated Alain Yang's resolve was also infuriating. After all, just for the occasion, she had prepared a battle-garb.
Considering the information at hand, she had hoped that a first-impression foot-in-door approach would suffice. To that end, she attired herself to appear bold and resolute. From the feet-up, she had equipped a pair of four-inch black stilettos with stockings in sable, paired with a high-waisted plaid skirt, finished with a charcoal collared blouse and a white-ribbon tie. Additional auxiliary arnaments included straightened hair, bold eye-liners and a matt lipstick with a palette called ruby-revenge.
But for all her imposing impressiveness, she struck a wall the moment she requested Alain's presence.
Beside her, Mei's head lowered apologetically.
“Please accept my apologies, Senior. Mother is away on assignment, and Aunty Vivian has run of the house, if you don’t mind waiting just a day or two, I am sure we will have a satisfactory answer for you.”
“Mei.” Gwen reached over with a finger and lifted her chin. “This isn’t your fault. I don’t even want to harm Alain. I want a public apology for my brother.”
“I know that.” Mei glanced in the general direction of the west wing courtyard. The Yang estate had a setup just like the Songs, consisting of four quadrants. Mei's family lived in the east wing while the branch family lived in the west. The south held rooms for the servants, including the main kitchen, and the north consisted of a communal area connecting to the central feature-garden. When neither Alain nor a servant with tea emerged after five minutes, Mei keened for the future of her House.
“Take a seat,” Gwen implored her host. “I am a patient woman. Why don’t we talk about something, Percy said that you wanted to see me?”
“I did, Ma'am!” Mei flushed. "I am sorry we had to meet under these circumstances."
"No worries," Gwen assured her. "So, what do you want to know?"
For the next ten minutes, Mei fired off a barrage of inquiries.
What was it like in Fudan?
When do the courses start each year?
How competitive were the students?
Who were her Instructors?
Why did she pick Fudan over Jiantong?
Gwen meanwhile, engaged in counter-intelligence, affirming that Mei's mother worked as a low-level Secretary for an outer District west of Shanghai's CBD. It would appear that other than their Matriarch, the rest of the family lived on a collection of government subsidy and widows' pensions. It was why Alain's mother, an only child enjoying the rare support of her family, positioned herself as an economic cornerstone within the surviving Yang household.
“Can… can I see your Void Magic?” Mei pleaded, her eyes glimmering with desire. “Does it consume everything as they say?”
Not adverse to humouring the girl, Gwen performed a little experiment with a tea-cup, handing over to Mei half a glass perfectly sliced in two.
“Mao!” Mei thumbed the half-consumed vessel as though she had uncovered an unearthly treasure.
“Would you like to see Ariel?”
“Of course,” Gwen addressed Mei with a friendly smile. She felt a motherly affection for the girl - though arguably, their shared Lightning Element was likely the culprit. “Ariel!”
Ariel appeared on the plush carpet, poised and handsome, its mane moved by an unseen breeze, a star in its very own dog-food commercial.
“Oh, ancestors.” Mei trembled with excitement. “Can… can I feed it?”
“Of course,” Gwen directed Ariel to play nice with Mei. “Take your time.”
It took all but a few minutes to lure out the rest of the household.
“IS THAT A KIRIN?”
“Leilei! There’s a KIRIN HERE!”
“Lingzi greets Senior Song.”
“Leilei greets Senior Song.”
“Yaozi greets Senior Song.”
“Hello, girls,” Gwen greeted Mei’s relatives.
Embarrassed by their lack of manners, Mei introduced her family members. Lingzi and Leilei were her younger sisters, while Yaozi was her cousin.
“Ah-Hui, Ah-Jia, come look, a real Kirin!”
An older woman in her thirties joined the gaggle of giggling girls.
“Greetings Ma’am.” Gwen rose from her seat.
“Don’t mind us, Miss Song.” Mei’s youngest aunty flanked the fray, unable to resist Ariel’s allure. “It’s we who should be apologising.”
Servants as well, came from the other sections of the house to witness the fabled Kirin of Fudan, powerless to constrain their curiosity. By Gwen's count, there were almost twenty individuals in the central courtyard, all of which were women.
Good God, her cheeks twitched, wondering if anyone had ever been hen-pecked to death in a place like this.
As more women emerged, a picture began to paint itself.
Why was it that Alain Yang refused to present himself for a scalding?
Why did the Yangs fear no retribution from a family like the Songs?
Where did the boy get his confidence?
The answer was right here.
The noble and distinguished Yangs had been reduced to a house of women;
ones who lived in an ivory palace, protected by reputation and sympathy.
And Alain? The boy grew up in such a place! How suffocatingly must he be doted upon, the vehicle of the lineage's bloodline talent, knowing that only he could carry on the name ‘Yang’?
“Mrs Yang,” Gwen accosted the aunty. “Are you able to speak for-”
“No, I am afraid.” The woman gave her a wane expression of helplessness, already regretting not recusing herself. “But I will ask my late cousin's wife to come and speak to you.”
“That would be great. Thank you.” Gwen breathed out, watching the woman saunter away.
“I am in love!”
“Feel its fur!”
Gwen almost felt guilty watching the guileless women gang-petting Ariel, drunk on fonts of oxytocin.
After a while, the aunty returned with a servant.
"This is Ah-Bān," The aunty's face was a cloud of harried displeasure. It wasn't hard to imagine the tongue lashing she'd just received. "Vivian says to take him and... excuse yourself."
Ah-Bān immediately collapsed to his knees, touching his head to the ground.
"It is Ah-Bān's fault that Young Master Song was wounded." Ah-Bān grovelled. "Please punish Ah-Bān."
That they sent out a servant to be vilified incensed Gwen considerably, though her feeling of the moment was a crushing sympathy for the pitiful attendant. To Gwen, punishing Ah-Bān was no different than shooting an irresponsible owner's dog for biting her kin. The guard dog was doing its job; why should it be punished for loyalty? A single word from Alain would have tethered Ah-Bān to the ground, harmless as a statue.
"Ah-Bān." Gwen's stiletto was an inch from the grovelling servant's face. "You don't have to apologise for Alain, and I won't accept your apology."
"Please, it's Ah-Bān's fault!" The simple man begged.
"No, as I said..."
"Please punish this Ah-Bān for his transgression!"
To her surprise and mild disgust, the man touched his forehead to the tip of her shoe.
An arc of electricity zinged from the metal plate holding up her four-inch heel.
"Ah-Bān! Get up!" She slipped a sliver of Dragon-fear into her voice.
As though bitten in the ass by a Mongolian Death Worm, Ah-Bān stood.
"Miss, please punish-"
"Ah-Bān, shut up," Gwen growled. "Have some respect for yourself man! You're a human being! Not a masochistic dog!"
The man slowly raised his head. He'd thought himself tall, but this Mistress Song was taller still by an inch.
"You stay here and don't move," Gwen gave the man an order before turning to Mei's younger relatives. "So, this Aunty Vivian of yours: is she a naked Mole-rat or what? In what stratum, under what subterranean depth is she hiding?"
Lingzi, Leilei, and Yaozi all burst into laughter.
"Eeee! Eeee!" Ariel joined in as well.
"What's a naked mole-rat?" Mei asked, fighting her impolite mirth.
"A hairless rat, ugly as sin, looks like a wet bag of pink skin. It's got a nose like a star, with five little fingers it uses for digging - look, I'll show you. Minor Image!"
Horrible at anything other than graphical data, Gwen conjured an abstract testicle.
"Haaa! Oh, Mao!"
"I can see Aunty as a naked Mole-rat for sure."
“ARE YOU QUITE DONE YET? MISS SONG?”
Finally! Gwen breathed out.
The voice that next emerged from the west wing filled the air space like a raid-siren. Like Helena Huang, Vivian Yang possessed the sort of banshee timbre that assailed one's eardrums like nails on a chalkboard, a decibel away from decimating wineglass.
The crowd parted to reveal who could only be Alain’s mother, a hellcat of a woman with a scrunched face, her hair piled in a manner that screamed 'I demand to see your manager'.
Unbowed, Gwen straightened herself, meeting the woman halfway. When they finally stood toe to toe, Gwen was almost a head taller, awarding her a clear physical vantage.
“My Alain will not be bullied by the likes of you!”
Gwen could feel the elemental Fire radiating from Vivian's body like the glow from a roaring furnace.
“You think your family can threaten us? Just you try! Let’s see how the PLA likes it when the Yang family's trodden on, huh?!”
The woman wasn’t uncomely, though Gwen noted she was extremely annoying.
“YOUR BROTHER~!” Alain’s mother continued, her chest enormous and heaving, threatening to body-check Gwen's less endowed attributes. “Is a little white-faced soft-rice eater!”
Gwen blinked. What the hell is a soft-rice eater? Did the woman mean porridge? Beside her, Mei’s face turned the colour of liver even as her sisters giggled and snickered.
Like a Tiger Shark sensing blood, Vivian Yang fell upon Mei.
“YOU LITTLE STRUMPET!” Vivian barked, her face a mask of indignant horror, as though she'd caught Mei looking for Li's at Nanjing Road. “I wonder, are you still a virgin? If not, Alain will take one of your sisters. How do you like that?!”
“I don’t want to! Alain's ugly!”
The sisters immediately burst into protest.
“Now, now.” Gwen put up a hand to interrupt aunt Vivian's rebuttal. “Let’s keep this civ-”
“DON’T TOUCH ME!” the woman snapped at her, almost biting her fingers. “Who do you think you are?!”
“Aunty Vivian…” Mei pleaded.
“You shut your whore mouth!” Vivian Yang howled the girl into submission. “Wait until your mother gets home; the things I am going to tell her! To think she’s working herself to the bone at the government office, keeping you girls at some of the best schools in Shanghai, and all she’s getting in return is ungrateful children who…”
Gwen locked out the female equivalent of white noise.
She hated to admit it, but Walken had been right on the marmalade.
A contingency plan made controlling one’s temper far easier.
"Caliban!" she silently commanded her other Familiar. "It's time."
It had waited, invisible, on the roof for so long that its grey-drool had encrusted into crispy snail-trails against the seams of its carapace.
An order came from its Master.
Void-tinged slime oozed from between its reticulated chitin.
With a barely audible plop, it landed in the bedroom of the one who had attracted the ire of its Mistress.
Alain Yang stared forlornly at his abused visage in the mirror.
His handsome mien was ruined, destroyed, despoiled by the hated Percy Song. First, the bastard stole his Mei mēimēi, and now the er-bī had ravaged his good looks!
Apologise? No way.
He would rather die twice over than to cower in front of Percy Song, watching the young man’s self-righteous mug twist in satisfaction.
How could they fault him? Be it the House of Yang, or Mei, they all belonged to him, and he would go to any length to ensure that it stayed that way.
Now that Alain thought of it, wouldn't the greatest pleasure be to deny Percy Song his love of Mei? The only reason Alain had felt so strongly about Percy's friendship with Mei was the fact that Percy wanted what belonged to him.
Alain rechecked his reflection.
A part of his scalp, about two fistfuls of hair, was removed entirely, leaving a bald-patch that the Medical-Mages said may never recover naturally. When he protested, they informed his mother that nothing short of a minimum tier 5 Regenerate would be enough to re-grow the boy's decimated follicles.
But the House of Yang didn’t have the clout to spare for such a thing. A civilian-tier Regenerate scroll wasn't rare, but it was classified and subject to supply-constraint. Conversely, A military-issue Spell Scroll was too difficult to acquire without the necessary connections.
Angrily, Alain glared at his appearance, growing more upset with every moment. Just now, after his mother’s youngest sister came, his mother had sent out Ah-Bān as an offering of peace. Having grown up with Ah-Bān, Alain had been unwilling - though he knew better than to try to rebuke his mother. After all, it was Ah-Bān who had launched Percy into the street, an act which Alain had awarded 10 HDMs.
But as expected, Ah-Bān wasn't enough.
After the whole courtyard erupted into laughter, his mother could take it no longer and went to deal with Gwen Song herself. Even now, he could hear her banshee screeches going off at full tilt at Percy’s sister.
His mother was a Mao-damned force of nature, but when she could steer her destructive potential toward outside forces, the woman was without equal.
“Let's see how you like her banshee wail…” he chuckled to himself.
A strange sound resonated through the space of his spacious bedroom.
“Hello?” he said to the room. Perhaps it was one of the other servants, Yi maybe.
His eyes floated over the unmolested details of his bed, his bannister, his table, his chest-of-drawers.
‘Tsssss!’ Something sizzled.
Alain looked down.
A drop of some strange liquid had fallen between his legs and was now eating a hole through the chair.
Reflexively, he looked up.
A sensation of sudden vertigo slammed into his brain as Alain fought to keep his eyes peeled.
The hellish visage that emerged consisted of an open maw, fully a meter-wide, pink and lined with razor-sharp teeth, from within which two tentacles writhed as though pregnant with slithering horrors.
Petrified, Alain's helpless eyeballs followed the contour of the beast until they took in the creature's visage in its entirety. From above, limbs that were spindly and spider-like, akin to rapiers, long, thin and obsidian, trapped him as though a bone cage had descended overhead.
A splatter of grey-goo fell on his face.
“ARRRRRGH! ARRRRGH! ARRRRGH!!!”
His handsome face was forfeit!
Though the gloop was merely cold and clammy, all Alain could do was scream. In an instant, the boy became a marionette of whatever natural impulse his failing biology chose to impose upon its terrified flesh. First, he pissed himself; then after a moment, as though his large intestines were trying to flee his trembling, paralysed form, Alain fertilised his underpants.
“SHAAAA! SHAAAA! SHAAAA!” the creature matched his screeching, bar for off-tune bar.
Caught in the odious-throes of his noxious expulsions, Alain vomited, kneeling over until he was curled into a ball, hugging his shit-stained knees to his chest, his eyes spinning in their sockets.
‘Click!’ A door opened.
“Master! Are you alright?!” A girl-servant who attended Alain’s needs from outside the bedroom pushed into the room. Like the others, she had been distracted by the commotion caused by the Kirin and hadn’t noticed her Master’s cries until they grew loud enough to penetrate the sound-warded walls.
“AEEEEYAAA!” She burst into a terrific clamour. Her Master was rolling in a puddle of his own sick and excreta!
As more details filled her vision, her heart sank; at this moment, she hated the young man so much it was difficult to put her agony into words. Was this - was this a new way to abuse her? Was it because she laughed at his hair?!
Gwen returned her consciousness to the present once Caliban was safely tucked away in its pocket dimension.
“You white-eyed wolf! How could you invite the sister of that soft-rice eating whore-son into our home…”
Jesus Christ, Gwen took a breather to gather her wits. How is it that the woman was still going? Vivian Yang's capacity for inventive abuse was expert enough to attract an hourly rate.
“ENOUGH!” she snapped back, her Essence-infused command cracking the air like a super-sonic bullwhip. A wave of Dragon-Fear radiated out from where Gwen stood, paralleled by twin-circles of electric blue illuminating the amber of her eyes so that her irises grew viridescent. “Another word out of you, and I am leaving. And once I leave, I am not coming back.”
“THEN LEAVE!” Alain’s mother grew triumphant. Her face full of self-exaltation as her Fire-Affinity fought off the paralysis imbued by Gwen’s projected prescence.
"Very well." Gwen turned to Mei. "I will say my piece, then go."
“Mei.” She took the girl’s hands. “If you do not want to marry this woman’s 'whore-son', you just let me know. If you're willing to trust me, I can assure you beyond any doubt that NOTHING can compel you into an unhappy marriage.”
Gwen glared at the woman. This time, she focused her Essence.
Alain’s mother choked as though taken by the throat.
Mei shuddered as Gwen continued.
“Regardless of your relationship with Percy, know that I am offering you not only my protection - but also my Grandfather’s as well. If need be, even the Nantong Fungs will give you and your mother a helping hand.”
“Thank you.” Mei swallowed. “I…”
“No need.” Gwen hugged Mei close to her chest to hide a pang of oppressive self-loathing at having to play out Walken's advise. “If your mother is keen to move to a better Secretarial Department, she can speak to my grandfather. He’ll put in the right word with the right people.”
“Thank you, Sis!”
Mei’s relatives gushed with adoration, swept off their feet by Gwen's unexpected generosity.
To think that the Worm Handler had come for retribution, only to deliver salvation! What a good person she was! How rare and precious!
“As for you.” Gwen turned to the dumbfounded mother of Alain. “Pray that we do not meet again.”
“Mei!” Gwen extended a hand to Mei.
Gwen slipped into her jacket, assisted by her fellow Lightning sorceress.
Her Kirin followed overhead.
Like a queen in the finale of a film, she strode from the central courtyard on clicking heels, cutting a dashing and unforgettable picture through the door - beyond which a chauffeur Gwen had earlier requisitioned from Mina awaited. Key to the ploy, Walken explained, was to get the hell out so that the ball was firmly left in her opponent's court.
The door slammed.
With a final wave at Mei, Gwen was away.
Vivian Yang was the first to recover.
“Mei!” Alain's mother immediately caught the object of her ire. By now she had realised that the girl had left a world of troubles at her doorstep. If Mei's mother was to move to an actual department with influence and power, there was no way she could pressure Mei or her sisters into marrying Alain. Moreso, if word of the generosity of the Songs spread, there would be mounting pressure for Alain to apologise. “You’re in for a world of-”
“MILADY!” A servant rushed into the courtyard.
“WHAT IS IT?” the wannabe Matriarch barked at the servant.
“It’s Master Alain!”
“What is it?”
“Master Alain… h- he’s…”
“Out with it!”
“Master’s Alain’s not himself! He's shat himself!”