April passed without Gwen catching Kitty even once, not even when she commanded Ariel to camp at the entrance of the penthouse, terrifying the cleaners who came every Monday night.
The whole ordeal had left a sour taste in her mouth, for if they were to be on the same side for the IIUC, what did their current relationship forebode for their future teamwork?
Her immediate instinct was to consult Marong, but Mayuree's brother had left as well, leaving her with well-wishes and a promise that the House of M would soon deliver her friend's return Message.
As for the week ahead, other than her dedicated class and work times, she had set herself two tasks.
One was a luncheon with Senior Bai to discuss potential competitors, and the other was to make tangible progress in her twin endeavours of completing her Chakram as well as Lulan’s Panzerschreck.
Of the two, Senior Bai was her first order of business.
Bai Tei looked around the small, cramped restaurant awkwardly, uncomfortable in his mandarin jacket.
For their secret wish fulfilment, the other members of the duelling club had goaded him into dressing up for the occasion. In his Storage Ring, he even had a bouquet of rare Wildland flowers from a nearby florist.
A heavily set NoM woman who Bai could only assume to be the lady-boss of Fengbo Village, famous for its Beggar’s Chicken, asked if he was alone or with a group. Close to dinner time, the place was packed shoulder to shoulder, its air gravid with the scent of spiced fowl.
“I am looking for someone.” Bai swallowed, quickly undoing a few buttons.
“Senior! Over here!”
Bai cursed those bastards at the Duelling Club.
When the girl stood to reveal herself, the whole restaurant took note. It was like that time when he went with Uncle Chu to the Front, where a hundred Jiang-shi suddenly turned toward him with their phosphorescent eyes when he prematurely activated his magic.
Regretting everything, he squeezed past the patrons toward the girl, finding her alone. Curiously, there was a ring of space which surrounded their table.
“Shaa!” The answer to Bai’s silent enquiry revealed itself, sloppily absorbing on an enormous stock-bone with its lamprey’s maw.
Beside Caliban was her other Familiar, likewise sitting on the floor with a bone of its own, chewing away happily.
“The boss-lady was very kind.” She flashed him a winning smile. “Come, sit.”
He couldn’t help but notice that she wore a flattering dress; though arguably, Gwen could wear a rice-sack and be no less attractive.
Pausing slightly, Bai purged his head of useless thoughts with a mote of Elemental Dust, then sat. The stupid idiots at the club had warped his expectations, but it didn't mean he should continue to entrench himself in fantasy.
“My shout,” Gwen offered. “Whatever you like.”
“You can order,” Bai informed their honorary member. “My sense of taste has… declined somewhat.”
“Oh, is that an elemental trait?”
“Something like that.” Bai nodded. “Our senses dull over time, and the stimulus required to reach the old threshold grows increasingly more and more demanding. My Master takes his salt by the fistful.”
“I am sorry to hear that.” Gwen's expression was one of devastation. For a foodie like her, 'sans taste' was a fate akin to death.
“Coming from a Void user, I am grateful.”
The girl's smile was as sweet as nectar.
“Mama Chu! Beggar’s banquet! Extra Chicken!”
“You heard her, Banquet-extra-chicken!”
“Coming right up, Miss!”
After the juicy morsels filled the void left by the absence of meaningful conversation, Bai began to query Gwen's unexpected generosity. That was when under no uncertain terms, she asked Bai to give her a rundown of who would pose a 'threat'.
“To you? Why would anyone be a threat to you?"
“To Lulan or Richard, I mean.”
“I see.” Bai mulled over the list in his head. “I am confident Richard can assume the second Defence slot, or a Controller position. However, your ex-Clanner is indeed in a precarious position.”
“Realistically? No, it’s a fair competition, leave it to the Proctors. You're not thinking of anything unsavoury, I hope.”
“But can you tell me about them at least?” Gwen fluttered her voluminous lashes innocently. “I can access their Tower records with CCs, but that doesn't tell me about their quirks or their characters. I would prefer not to walk into the June training session blind as a dingbat.”
Bai regarded Gwen’s pleading eyes. The dim glow of her vivid pupils in the amber ambiance of the restaurant’s sickly bulbs told him that it was a terrible idea to give the girl what she wanted. After their fateful encounter on the duelling field, his Clan had given him express advice to tread lightly.
“Please?” The Void Sorceress flashed her pearly teeth, her face coy and full of feigned innocence.
“I shouldn’t.” Bai circulated another mote of Dust. “That information is privy to Fudan DC.”
“Give me something.” She leaned in. “Biggest threat to Lulan’s assured selection. That's all I ask.”
His mind caught in a jumble, a name came to Bai’s lips. After masticating the syllables in his mind, he relented that it wasn’t so bad if he let one through.
“What’s in it for me?” Bai averted his psychic assailant’s wanton eyes.
“Whatever you like,” the girl teased him.
“I want you to leave him alone. How’s that?”
“Sure.” Gwen's swift response made light of his request. “I promise.”
“Hmm,” Bai grunted. “Jinwei Li”
“From Lulu's family?”
“Yes. A third-year - keeps to himself usually; quiet and doesn’t speak much. Jinwei hails from Huashan’s Inner Sect, the Patriarch's faction. He's sitting at the apex of Lulan’s generation.”
“Would Lulu know him?”
“Presumably. From what I've heard from the other Clanners, your girl's problems with her Iron Heart technique makes her a bit of an outcast. On the other hand, Jinwei is a decent fellow. The strange thing is, he’s never shown any interest in Fudan’s extra-curricular pursuits, like most Clanner prodigies, he’s enrolled to receive a degree from a C9 university, then go home. It was the same with Lulan Li; they’re only here for the formal certification.”
“How about you?”
“I can’t say I am not in the same boat, but I do enjoy my time here.” Bai smiled. “The reason I am telling you this is because I can’t figure out why Jinwei would sign up to the IIUC. He’s a third-year, meaning even if he’s a part of the winning team, all his gains are limited. For Lulan and Kusu, a win could be huge. They could find new Masters, gain scholarship grants, receive positions in the CCP or Pudong Tower - as for Jinwei; he'll receive a better position, that's all.”
“So you think he’s here for Lulu?”
“Its as good a reason as any other,” Bai confessed. “There’s no promoting Huashan’s Spellcraft because no one else can use it. I mean, take yourself, for example, your Spell List uses IMS incantations, and your purpose is to peddle Void Magic to the public. For Jinwei, who knows?”
“That is suspect." Gwen’s eyes flashed dangerously. "If he’s here to pull Lulan’s leg…”
“Gwen, you promised…”
“Yeah-yeah.” The Void sorceress averted Bai’s eyes. “Thanks, Senior Bai. I owe you one.”
Bai sipped his ice tea. Hopefully, the Clan of Li saved themselves the trouble. If not, and if Jinwei Li attempted to sabotage Lulan’s IIUC opportunities, then Bai could only pray that Huashan preached the Confucian teachings that the Junzi must remain unbound by negative emotions of resentment and vengeance.
Likewise, as a disciple of the old Masters, it was his duty to give the girl at least a little guidance.
"Gwen." Bai cleared his throat, then smiling, he adopted a segment from the Analects. "The gentleman is never contentious. Even in losing, he shall retire to drink the forfeit-cup. So that in victory or loss, he remains a true Junzi."
The girl's grin was enough to melt the smile right from his face.
"Oh, but Sir," Gwen assured her senior of her best intentions. "I am not a gentleman."
As it turned out, Eric Walken was precisely the sort of scoundrel Confucious feared.
“Here are the stats on your competitors.” Walken passed over almost two-dozen data slates. “Have a look and advise me on how you wish to proceed. Remember, all’s fair in love and war.”
Banishing Senior Bai from her mind, Gwen lowered her eyes and perused the data slates.
P.O.B:: China, Beijing
Eyes: Amber (Clear)
Transmutation (5), Abjuration (3)
Quasi-Elemental:: Mineral (Calcite)
Spirit:: Rock-Eater (Minor)
S.I.D:: 12598 S0203
Questing Class Permit:: A2
P.P.M.I.D:: 9443399 002
Note:: Persistent Crystalline Effects, Spirit can restore Caster’s mana by consuming Transmuted or Conjured Earth Elements.
There’s even a picture of the young woman, a northerner with sharp cheekbones and a mirthful smile.
Quickly, Gwen skimmed through the others, pausing whenever she struck a familiar name.
Position :: Utility
P.O.B:: China, Hangzhou Frontier
Hair: Dark Blue
Divination (5), Illusion (4)
S.I.D:: 12598 S0101
P.P.M.I.D :: 8942379 003
Questing Class Permit:: A4
Note:: Currently the sole specialist Diviner in Selection
The only Diviner.
Gwen touched a finger to her lips.
Alas, that spot could have belonged to Mayuree.
Now that Miss Mok was the sole Diviner, the only recourse was that she and this girl must both enjoy a most cordial working relationship.
Next was her cousin.
Position:: Defence, Control
P.O.B:: Australia, Sydney
Eyes: Grey, Dark
Hair: Brown, Dark
Height: 185 CM
Conjuration (5) Abjuration (4)
Prime Elemental:: Water
Spirit:: Lea (Sapient Undine, High)
S.I.D:: 12601 S0203
P.P.M.I.D :: 8341279 005
Questing Class Permit:: AA2
Note:: Undine Spirit allows complete control of water with effectiveness up to tier 8. Key strategist. Unless selected with Gwen Song, the contestant will withdraw from the IIUC.
The note flooded Gwen with a flush of warmth.
P.O.B:: China, Nantong
Conjuration (5), Divination (3) Evocation (2)
Spirit:: Wanli (Medium)
S.I.D:: 13598 S0203
P.P.M.I.D :: 8342228 004
Questing Class Permit:: A3
Note:: Aerial Familiar.
Poor Lu, she thought to herself. The Conjurer would have been amazing if not for their mutual redundancies. Even though Lu appeared to have completed his Divination for Link-Sight before she did, she wasn't confident in his chances.
P.O.B:: China, Shaanxi Frontier
Height: 164 CM
Huashan Sword-Art (5)
Prime-Elemental:: Earth (Iron)
S.I.D:: 16798 S0102
P.P.M.I.D :: 8783379 003
Questing Class Permit:: AA2
Note:: Experienced Questing Mage. Unless selected with Gwen Song, the contestant will withdraw from the IIUC.
Lulan was such a sweetie.
Position:: Offence, Control
P.O.B:: China, Qinhai Frontier
Eyes: Brown (Light)
Height: 159 CM
Evocation (5) Transmutation (5)
Para-Elemental :: Air / Ice
Spirit:: Ice Roc (Minor)
S.I.D :: 11597 S0103
P.P.M.I.D :: 8341279 005
Questing Class Permit:: A4
Note:: Exceptional aerial combatant, excellent control over dual-elemental magic.
The next slate was for herself, with the same headshot she had taken when she enrolled.
Position:: Offence, Control
P.O.B:: Australia, Sydney
Eyes: Hazel (Green)
Evocation (5), Conjuration (5) Transmutation (3)
Abjuration (2) Divination (1) Illusion (2)
Quasi-Elemental :: Lightning / Void
Spirit:: Ariel (Pseudo Kirin, Minor) Caliban (Void Beast, unconfirmed)
S.I.D:: 12598 S0203
P.P.M.I.D :: 9840598 001
Questing Class Permit:: A2
Note:: Void Mage. The individual is extremely dangerous. Potentially unstable. Candidate backing including Nantong Fungs, Dean Luo, Jun Song and Ambassador Ayxin of Huangshan.
Am I taller again? Gwen furrowed her brows. She wasn’t going to become a basketball player at this rate, was she? And 'extremely dangerous?' Well, she supposed that was right. Unstable? Now that’s just rude-
The Dragon-princess had put in a word for her? Was this her returning a favour, or was this at uncle Jun’s behest? If Ayxin made a request, then her selection was most certainly assured. No official would risk the sanctuary of Shanghai just so that they could follow ethical guidelines for a Questing competition Fudan had failed for two decades straight.
After taking a moment to take in the gravitas of her nepotic rise to power, Gwen quickly flipped through the data slates until she found the one Senior Bai had mentioned.
P.O.B:: China, Xian
Ethnicity: Han - Uyghur
Eyes: Grey (Light)
Hair: Warm Brown
Height: 176 CM
Huashan Sword-Art (6)
Prime-Elemental:: Earth (Iron)
Spirit:: Onyx Cricket (Medium)
S.I.D:: 12598 S0203
Questing Class Permit:: AA1
P.P.M.I.D:: 8235909 003
Note:: Commendation from General Yingyi Hao for exceptional valour in combat.
Jesus, Gwen swore under her breath. Lulan had nothing on this guy. It was like comparing herself to Lu Fung.
The headshot showed a serious looking young man with large, oval eyes more typical of nomads living on the western steppes. The rest of the man’s face was atypically Han-Chinese, pancake flat and delicate, with thin lips and a straight, flattering nose. Rather than handsome, Gwen found the young man strangely effeminate.
Walken glanced over her shoulder. He liked to do that a lot, she noticed.
“That one's giving you grief?”
“Not yet.” Gwen mulled her options. “Where did you get these?”
“Found them lying around."
The two exchanged a look.
“So that you know, the Chinese have a saying: strike first and gain the upper hand,” Walken spoke beside her ear. “Why resolve a problem when you can prevent one?”
Gwen swallowed apprehensively, reading her Instructor's thoughts.
"Wouldn't that be... unethical?"
"Ha!" Walken snorted. "You think they wouldn't do the same to you? They're afraid, that's all! The University - the Tower - your allies will skin anyone who dares!"
"Gwen - if you can take advantage of a situation in some way, it is your duty to do so. Why should the race always be to the swift or the contest to the strong? Should your competitors be allowed an advantage merely because of their superior gifts, rarer talents, their God-gifted grace? Of course not: victory, Gwen, is the gift man gives himself. Your contemplation of 'fairness' is a disservice to yourself."
"I am pretty sure that is NOT what Ecclesiastes says," Gwen recognised at least a part of Walken's faux bible blurb.
"No, but it is the psalm of victors." Walken's face burned with a fervent faith.
Her teeth clenched.
The man's advice was difficult to refute.
What is fairness? She found herself questioning her motives. Where's the line separating morality and immorality? Was this a case of the hero’s hubris turning them into the villain? What would she do? Use the Fung Clan to pressure Huashan until the Clan relented, or use her money to crush the Clan's finances, then use the leverage to force them to give up all their secrets for Lulan while simultaneously withdrawing Jinwei? Given the next four months, it was doable.
But that would be evil.
Or would it?
Wouldn’t her enemies have done the same, relenting but for the lack of gall?
It’s a slippery slope! She cautioned herself against Walken!
BUT! The crony capitalist in her mind stood up in her four-inch heels. Isn’t ruthless competition the whole point? A true Laissez-faire market of 'fair competition' was just a pipe dream, something that never existed in the first place. In a perfect world, if they were bakers and not Mages, they would all submit their pies to market, and everyone would have a fair shake of the sauce bottle. The reality though, was that if she were to bake the world's greatest sausage roll, it was more likely some scoundrel on the other side would try to steal her recipe, break her fingers, or prohibit her goods from sale.
As such, as the one holding the tongs, shouldn’t she reciprocate?
To be fair was to be unfair to herself: that was the case for business, if so, why shouldn't it apply to her competitors here?
An arc of electricity leapt from her hair, singing the air.
Opposite, Walken marvelled at the girl’s hawkish gaze staring into the middle distance, her lips muttering words only she could hear. As shades of colour played through the pale complexion of her face, the Magister couldn't help but be reminded of how Gwen had deceived him.
Blackmail? Extortion? Coercion? What terrible plans must the girl be concocting now?
The next morning Gwen Song woke from troubled dreams, finding herself transformed in her bed into a horrible vermin.
“God, you look terrible,” Petra observed when she finally crawled out of bed. “Are you not using your Essence?”
“Errghn,” Gwen excused herself. She had spent the whole night fantasising about all the things she shouldn't be doing.
“… nothing.” She made a face, wondering if she should tell Petra she’s deciding on whether to undermine her competitors unscrupulously.
“How’s the Chakram going?” Her cousin misread her anxiety.
“I am testing out propulsion and range with Magister Lee on Thursday.” Gwen sighed. “Making new spells is hard.”
“It took Master and me two years to formalise Spell Cubes as a new class of Magic.” she chuckled. “Of course it’s hard.”
“But you’re pioneering a whole new branch of Spellcraft, going where no Mage has ever gone before!” Gwen buttered her cousin and companion. “I am just trying to put some age-old knowledge together in a functional way.”
‘Ding!’ Gwen's Message device chimed.
“Sorry, let me get this. Lulu, what’s up?… What? WHAT?! OKAY, WAIT FOR ME!”
“Sorry, Pats - emergency!” Gwen scowled.
The bastard! She spat internally. To think Huashan would strike when she least expected it!
“What’s wrong?” Petra watched her cousin fly into a seething malevolence. “What’s this about?”
“I’ve been looking up a guy called Jinwei Li,” Gwen explained from the bedroom, quickly slipping out of her nightie and slapping on whatever was on hand. “Struggling - STRUGGLING with my conscience to not send the guy to meet the Mermen in Nantong, and now he comes calling at Lulu’s!”
“Who’s Jinwei?” The Russian observed her glowering, pink-fleshed cousin. “Another molester?”
“Nope!” Gwen growled, spluttering as she struggled into her dress. “Worse!”
“Ahahahaha…” Gwen laughed awkwardly, holding Lulan close to her body, a hand gripping each shoulder. “As I thought, it’s all a misunderstanding!”
“Gwen…” Lulan winced. “You’re hurting me.”
“Sorry!” Her fumbling fingers relaxed.
A few minutes ago, she had charged head first into Lulan’s apartment with both Familiars akimbo. The moment Gwen saw Jinwei looming over Lulan, she let loose a surge of concentrated Dragon-fear like a shaped-charge, blasting the poor Sword Mage with the force of a high-tier Horrify.
On reflex, Jinwei leapt backwards, a gleaming sword materialising in each hand, filling the air with the sound of screaming metal.
“Take him down!” Gwen commanded. "But keep him alive!"
Ariel leapt onto Lulan’s dining table, scattering plates, fried tofu, soy sauce, porridge and pickles all over. Meanwhile, Caliban slithered through the kitchen to flank the Mage, banging through the cramped space, sending down a torrent of spice-jars, cups, glasses and a pot lid.
“On your knees, Asshole!” Gwen's voice thundered through the room, shaking plaster from the walls. “How dare you!”
"I haven't finished eating!" Kusu despaired.
Lulan tackled Ariel as it zoomed toward Jinwei, hugging it close to her chest. Kusu sidestepped, halting Caliban’s advance.
“Miss Song! Why are you attacking me? I am here at your behest!” Jinwei fired back, both swords raised for self-defence.
Perplexed, Gwen commanded her Familiars to stand down.
“What? Explain yourself!"
“I am here because of the request you and Lulan set at Fudan T2!”
Gwen looked at Lulan nodding her head desperately. Kusu likewise moved his chin up and down vigorously.
“Cousin Jinwei is here for the Heart-piercing Sword Quest,” Lulan’s brother informed their saviour. “Hence, you and Lulu invited him.”
Ariel gave its Master a look, asking if it should maim the guy and be done with it. Caliban slobbered all over, despoiling Kusu' rug.
“Ah~...” Gwen cringed, feeling herself shrink. She grabbed Lulan, then hid behind the girl's profile to mask her evident mortification.
The Old Gods beyond! She groaned. It was true; she was the reason the man was over at Lulan’s apartment in the first place. To the poor bugger, it must seem like she and Lulu had lured him into a trap, and now the three of them were going to send him to the hospital for a long time.
“Sorry!” she apologised again, recalling her complaining Familiars. “Shall we… take a seat?”
The trio looked around the apartment. Its current state suggested a trio of Tasmanian devils had ravaged the Li siblings' abode.
“Or not.” Gwen squeezed Lulan's arm like a stress ball, making the girl wince. “Erm… brunch, my shout?”
Thankfully, with an hour to spare before class, there was enough time for the foursome to gather at a local cafe and discuss the matter of Jinwei’s visit.
“I am here for the CCs,” Jinwei confessed. “As well as a peace offering from the main family.”
An olive branch? Gwen sipped her coffee.
“I am not going back,” Lulan stated right off the bat.
"You tell 'em," Gwen affirmed Lulu's decision. "No one is going to make you go anywhere."
Kusu appeared pained, thinking of the leverage lost after Lulan refuted Jinwei’s offer without even hearing the man out. A simpleton his sister was, but she was honest and dear to his heart.
“I am afraid returning would be impossible,” Jinwei answered earnestly. The young man's almond eyes gave him an affable appearance. “The two of you broke Clan law. If anything, it’s a miracle that both of you have retained the Iron-heart technique. Normally, we are honour-bound to retrieve the catalyst.”
“Then why are you helping Lulu?” Gwen's voice cut through the space between Lulan and her cousin. “You joined the IIUC trial. I want to know why. Is it to sabotage her chances?”
“Nothing of the sort,” Jinwei refuted the accusation. “I’ve been instructed to support Miss Li and if need be, gift her my slot if she happens to fail the selection criterion.”
Both Lulan and Kusu appeared bewildered.
Gwen remained dubious. This gift was equally a threat.
“In exchange, the Huashan Clan would like to ask Miss Song to repay the favour.”
“Oh?” Gwen crossed her arms. “A favour from me?”
“Yes.” Jinwei simpered. “Could you ask the Fung Clan to give us a position in the Nantong Tonglv project? Or rather, could you ask them to allow us to tender for a position?”
Gwen's brows formed the Chinese pictogram for 'eight'.
“All the major Clans have a stake in the project,” Jinwei explained. “Either in exploration, subjugation, security or infrastructure. As a state venture, Nantong is exceedingly safe and especially lucrative, so much that it's now called the ‘Southern Miracle’. The word from one of our sources says that it’s going to be one of the most profitable infrastructural projects within a decade, and you're somehow involved in all its sudden transformation.”
Venture capitalism, Gwen snorted. When credit-derivative economics attended Tonglv's 19th-century shipping operations, it's only natural there's going to be boatloads of crystals to be made.
“… But so far we’ve been kept out of every possible avenue. Members of our Clan can’t even take up positions as guards for the construction teams.”
Must be Dai, Gwen discerned.
Or perhaps his father, Shen.
The Fungs knew that she had 'beef' with the Huashan Sword Mages.
Assuming she was right, was Patriarch Shen trying to do her a solid? No, that kind of thinking was foolish. In business, one acted only on principles of leverage and benefit, privileging one's interest. Rather than rebuking Shen Fung, it would be easier to allow Huashan into the second-stage expansion.
“Senior Jinwei says the Clan is short on funds,” Lulan added timidly. “They need crystals and CCs to rebuild the mount’s infrastructure, as well as hire experts to decipher the Clan’s Magic for the IMS Spell List.
A Clan attempting to modernise? Gwen studied Jinwei's reaction. The young man seemed amiable enough, though as usual, the more harmless a rival appeared, the more sceptical she felt.
“What makes you think Lulu can’t make it on her own?”
“The fact that you put out a 200 CC notice requesting for an incantational algorithm to replicate the Piercing-Heart Technique?”
Okay, there is that, Gwen grumbled.
“So, you’re pawning your Clan’s magic, is that it?”
“As a peace offering, yes. Of course, since I took the Quest, I assume you’ll be paying the CCs.”
Lulan pulled at her sleeve like a kitten begging for treats.
“Very well, Mr Li, what do you propose?”
“I’ve brought the scrolls for the Heart-Piercing Sword, and I’ll demonstrate and teach Lulu the magic in a Cog-Chamber. If you can provide a Magister capable of dismantling or reconstituting the spell, we’re willing to share the spell with outsiders under the condition that we publish as a co-contributor and receive credit for the new spell.”
Which means they can teach it to their Clan members without paying CCs, Gwen mulled over the Sword Mage’s offer. As for Magisters skilled in deconstructing magic, she had Wen, Walken, possibly Petra, and other human resources to call on.
That said, she wouldn't be sharing her limited knowledge of physics with the Sword Mage Clan. What Lulu and Lulu alone would be firing from the Heart-Piercing Sword spell would remain her very own Signature Spell.
Rationally speaking, Li's barter was acceptable. With Tonglv's Stage 1 nearing completion, there's plenty of pie left.
“And in addition to that, you’ll occupy a competitor’s slot, help her in the June try-outs, and bow out if you’re chosen instead of herself?”
“Assuming our Nantong predicament is resolved by then, of course.”
He's dual-wielding a stick and a carrot, Gwen meditated while giving the man the evil eye.
The siblings had nothing to say; it wasn’t as though they had sway with the Fungs.
“Deal.” Gwen extended a hand. “Help Lulu, and everyone wins. Stab her in the back, and your Clan becomes penniless, and you're food for Caliban.”