Spring erupted, emerald and wet as a whistle as Gwen’s second summer in Shanghai cast the domed city into a heat haze, wilting the greenery. Cloistered by the university’s shaded lanes, youths in the May of their lives, lithe-limbed and slick with sweat, came and went, the gossamer fabrics of their shirts and dresses clinging to their skin.
Gwen Song, infamous Worm Handler and now man-handler of reporters, sat on a bench with her white legs crossed, Kirin to one side and cosmic horror on the other, taking a breather.
Earlier, after so long, she had received a Message from Mayuree, stating that matters at home forbade her from travelling abroad. The Tyrant, Mayuree’s Message had read, was wreaking havoc around Yangon, meaning all of her formidable powers of Divination were required to avert the worst of what disasters their developing nation-state must now endure.
“Sister Maymyint is going to attend in my stead,” Mayuree’s sweet voice had chirped happily, devoid of any disappointment. “I’ve prepared a wonderful present for you: look forward to it!”
Gwen exhaled, her body languished and beaten.
It wasn’t so much that she was sad Mayuree couldn’t attend her birthday party. It was more so that her friend had been such a constant companion of her uni-life that in her absence, something felt amiss, like sliced salmon without wasabi. With Yue and Evee, it was at least her choice. With Mia, it was as though she'd been suddenly uprooted. That all three were absent and unavailable, not even on her LRM Message device made her all the more upset; especially Evee, who was away on fieldwork. As for Yue, Gunther had said that Alesia took her on exchange to New Zealand so that her friend could Fireball enemies other than Mermen.
"Is there something you want for your birthday?" Gunther had asked for both himself and his sister-in-craft.
Gwen declined, informing her brother-in-craft that he had already given her too much, especially that family insignia ring.
Gunther had laughed, informing her it was no big deal, which made her all the more guilty. They had prepared a gift, he hinted, but it was with Alesia.
Conversely, the month spent within the confines of Fudan had been fruitful. At the very least, a high-distinction average was assured.
Regarding the incident, Walken inferred that he felt forces unseen were testing her. Her grandfather had said more or less the same thing, though his exact advice was to ignore it altogether because 'the lotus is unsullied by the mud', which Gwen took to mean she was 'sludge proof' so long as she held value.
Not wasting the extra time afforded by her confinement, she and Magister Lee had finished her new spell. They had furthermore lodged the blueprint into the Tower’s Spell Bank, marked 'Not for Exchange' but to future proof copy-right claims. The process had been tedious, involving the Dean, Magister Lee and a drop of her blood, but when all was said and done, Gwen held the certification in her hand and felt the unique joy of creation.
Casting Time: 14 Major, 13 Minor Incantation
Components: Somatic, Verbal
Duration: Instant, Persistent
This unique Void-spell creates a ring of Void-matter which rotates to form a flat disk with a deadly cutting edge, maximising the efficiency of the expended vitality. Future revisions may include Seeking, Channelling, Echoing and other additional effects.
On the footnote of the entry was the tab ‘author’ with her name ‘Gwen Song’, together with a publication date, the institution and the certifier.
Conversely, Lulan’s Panzerschreck wasn't yet ready, though Jinwei, Magister Walken and Kusu were hard at work modifying the magic.
Ariel rolled its furry body over her thighs, resting its head on her chest. Immediately, the heat grew insufferable.
How was it that Shanghai was so bloody humid?!
She had half a mind to get her clothes enchanted with cooling and drying Glyphs!
Still, heat or otherwise, her reprieve was at an end.
For the next eight hours, she would cease to be herself.
“Why do I feel like I am getting married,” Gwen sceptically remarked while a stylist straightened out her hair and another thickened her lashes. For the last hour, she had sat in the ready room of the Four Seasons' grand ballroom, attended by half a dozen maids chipping away at her body.
In all honesty, it was what she had expected. Leaving her birthday celebration to Dai had been a classic manifestation of her masochism, and now she was asphyxiating under an avalanche of bothersome details.
At first, they had planned for a hundred odd guests, mostly people Gwen knew or had known through the course of her stay in Shanghai.
In the first draft, Gwen’s immediate friends and family would attend. Babulya, grandfather, uncle Jun, her father and his new wife, now heavily pregnant, as well as her brother. She had even invited Mai and her brother’s DC Captain, Kelvin Ma.
After the Tonglv episode, the Nantong Fungs decided to make an appearance, bringing with them Patriarch Shen and an entourage that included his wife, his relatives and the young woman Gwen had saved from the Water Ghost’s den, Lihong.
A week later, they received the coup-de-grace.
By mid-May, the news of Ayxin's appearance had made the rounds through high society.
Somehow, Gwen's birthday bash was now an official gathering attended by Shanghai’s big-wigs, involving the Tonglv Big Three, Ayxin the Dragon-princess, Wang Enterprises, the leading mistress of the House of M, a whole host of notable names and worthy titles, as well as the children attached to the city's movers and shakers.
Her eighteenth, as it were, was now no more than a convenient excuse for the men and women of wealth and weight to meet and greet. Excluding herself, many marriages of convenience and politics would emerge by the night’s end, blessed by a Kirin and a Dragon.
As for Gwen herself, she wasn’t allowed to mingle until the moment was ripe. While her friends ate and drank like kings and queens outside, she was locked up inside the ready room, watching the clock make its ponderous circles while the maids modified every inch of her existence.
"Er... no padding," Gwen declined the generous offer.
Worst of all, she couldn't choose her dress.
For a birthday girl, she should arguably be wearing red. When Gwen saw the selection of dresses Dai had recommended, all she saw were faux wedding outfits.
After a tart exchange with Dai, Magus Maymaruya brought the dress she would be wearing.
It was Mayuree’s gift.
Mia’s selection wasn’t quite the flesh-peddling, skin-coloured mini-dress Qīn had made her wear, though it wasn’t much better stylistically speaking. The dress Mayuree had picked out was a gem-encrusted gown in salmon pink, sleeveless and studded with pearls.
“Now that's what I call impressive apparel.” Dai smacked his lips, swallowing at the sight of her white arms peeking in and out of the diaphanous shawl. “Just one of those South Sea pink pearls is worth a dozen HDMs. The whole outfit? Probably close to five or six thousand.”
“Why?” Gwen moved her legs, struggling against the thirty centimetres of freedom the dress’ fishtail setting allowed. The damn thing was absurdly heavy. Had she been any less of an ox, she would have had to buff herself with Enhance Strength and Fortitude.
"To flaunt of course.” Dai smirked. “Those are Creature Cores, you know. You're wearing the lifetime income of a low-level official.”
She wanted to say that wearing the remains of ten-thousand oysters was revolting, but the dress was Mayuree’s heartfelt gift, delivered from her homeland. Only by wearing it happily and without complaint could she send Mayuree sparkling lumen-recordings.
“Miss,” one of her assistants interrupted her daydreaming from below. Thanks to her four-inch heels, the dress was hoisted an inch above the floor. With her piled hair, she was almost two meters tall. “You have ten minutes.”
Gwen eyed the door.
It was time to put on a face to meet the faces that you meet.
Dragons, as a race, were not the sort to feel torn.
An act was right because a Dragon had performed it, and because one of their kind had performed it, the results, therefore, must be right. Only a Dragon had the right to contest another Dragon.
When she resided on the Mount, Ayxin was second only to Ruxin, who was the oldest. When Ruxin left to claim a lair of his own, Ayxin became the penultimate being on the Mount. When Golos erred, she punished him. When Ryxi failed some task, she berated him. As her father had never harshly rebuked Ayxin, she could only presume her wisdom preeminent.
But coming down to the mortal world, meeting Jun and then the girl, she felt the tumorous growth of doubt swelling under her scales, filling her with disquiet.
Her progenitor had plans for the girl, or more accurately, the girl featured strongly in whatever future the Yinglong had foreseen.
Though hardly possessing the God-like wisdom of her immortal father, Ayxin couldn’t help but feel a chill whenever the girl inched forward in her progress, sensing that somehow, the calamity of which her father spoke of wasn’t so much one for the humans, but for the Yinglong as well, and maybe even Ayxin and her lover.
Arguably then, Ayxin should keep away from the calamitous sorceress. But when Ayxin wilfully bonded with Jun, a relative to the girl and her caretaker, the Yinglong had remained silent. This contradiction was the source of her anxiety. As the faithful ‘vessel’ of her father's will in the material world, her life outside the mountain peaks of the Yinglong's five-taloned palm was most unnerving.
“Ayxin?” Jun carefully passed her a flute of bubbling, fermented grape-vinegar.
Below their raised dais was a multitude of human officials, each wanting a word or sign from the Princess of Huangshan. It was a scene not unfamiliar to Ayxin, who centuries ago, had seen the same clichéd deference and worship even as a girl-child. Perhaps in another nation, she would be less conspicuous and visible, but here, among these descendants of the Yellow Emperor, she was a goddess.
For the folk of the yellow river, the worship of the Shenlong, the Yinglong and the Dragon-kind were engraved into their bones, carved into the nation’s lore. Even their most common idioms and Confucian psalms drew inspiration from her kith and kin.
A sudden blast of music filled the hall.
The Master of Ceremonies, an NoM with a glib tongue and a sculpted, flawless mien, announced the entrance of the calamity into their midst.
The crowd turned as one.
Ayxin exhaled. At long last, she could rest.
"Miss Gwen SONG!"
Inching forward, Gwen recalled an old 80’s show called Wrestle-Mania which used to be on television.
The fighting had made no sense, and the storylines were convoluted, but what did impress was the increasingly more elaborate entrances taken by the wrestlers every other episode.
Never had she conceived that her childhood fantasy would come true in such a spectacular fashion; that one day - she would be a woman whose entrance warranted BGM.
Smoke, exploding confetti, illusory flames and an orchestra accompanied her arrival, attired in a pink-pearl wonder. On stage, an MC accounted for her presence as though she would run onto the dais, shoulder-barge Dai, then slam him against the ropes before gutter-stomping his face to the ground to the cheer of ten thousand spectators.
To Gwen's crystal-counting eyes, the whole setup was an exercise in excess.
A giant, golden ‘Eighteen’ in Chinese pictograms floated across the high ceiling of the Grand Ballroom, completely negating the faux 1920s colonial Shanghai decor, while hundreds of guests, most of whom couldn’t give two shits about her, cheered half-heartedly, waiting for the show to be over.
Quickly, she skittered, inches at a time, for the embrace of her family and friends.
Babulya was wiping away a tear of joy.
Guo looked festive and pissed in equal measure.
Her uncle stood next to a smiling Dragon-vessel.
Her father and her step-mother were nowhere to be seen.
Her mother had declined to attend.
Tao and Mina, and their parents clapped alongside her grandmother, besides which stood Richard, Petra, Lulu and Mina, her classmates and workmates.
Her Instructors, all of them, including Walken, stood awkwardly, joining the circle of applause.
And finally, Dai and the Nantong power-brokers gave their public benedictions before retreated to a private corner.
What then followed was an hour-long gifting ceremony, followed by another hour of lumen-pics. The reporters, Gwen noted, were perfect gentlemen when in the presence of the Secretaries.
Grinning and bearing it all, her only solace was that she had stuffed herself prior. Should the tabloids obtain a picture of her in a 5000 HDM dress, holding multiple pheasant drumsticks in each hand, she would run afoul of punishing headlines.
With the main event over, Gwen had half-a-mind to tear the bottom of her dress to let her legs breathe. Despite escaping to the balcony, she found no solace in the damp humidity of the hotel’s sky garden, but at least she could avoid the cacophony of men and women peddling politics. Inside, Richard had gathered a little following of his own, consisting of young ladies; likewise, Petra's unbidden escorts had cornered her for pictures. Unseen, the Li siblings were off trying to load up on the mana-rich banquet, while the Wang siblings were with their father, being passed around the room like chattel at a flea market. After giving Gwen a thick red envelope full of currency cards, her grandparents had likewise left to mingle politely with Gwen's betters. As for the principal culprit of her party, Mister Dai Fung, the young man was having the time of his life beside his well-spoken father, evidently born and bred for statesmanship.
In a way, Gwen was glad that Dai’s mislead celebration had rectified her myopia regarding her love-struck buffoon. Ultimately, she rationalised, Dai really was his father’s son. Even though they worked together and the young man’s efforts at love were incompetent, he was clearly in his element here, far better than she could ever be.
As for herself, it was only by sending forth Ariel and warding herself with Caliban that she could escape to the balcony to elude the chicken noises crowding her head.
But she wasn't alone for long.
“Miss Song,” came the voice of a woman whose accented syllables had the slightest of lisps. The slender woman wore a one-piece dress in cerulean, punctuated by an enormous pearl fastened at the throat, beneath which a serpentine figure tantalised the viewer. “I hope I am not intruding.”
Gwen turned politely, recognising the face from the gift-giving ceremony.
Caliban slithered aside. The eldest of the House of M approached.
“I am Maymyint - Mayuree is my little sister.”
“We met earlier; it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Maymyint. Thank you for your extravagant gift.”
The two women gingerly shook.
“Do you like the dress? Mia picked it out herself.”
“It’s lovely.” Gwen touched a hand to her pearl-plated bodice. “She shouldn’t have, its far too precious for the likes of me.”
“Think nothing of it; she speaks of you daily.”
“How is Mia?”
“Homesick.” Maymyint smiled. Gwen noticed her mouth was overlarge and predatory. “While in her homeland, I may add. She misses you.”
“I miss her too,” Gwen declared wistfully.
“You may see her sooner than you think.” Maymyint opened her palm to reveal a Storage Ring. “I have another gift for you from our Matriarch. However, it’s best if you hold off opening it until the right time.”
Gwen held off her impulsive curiosity.
“Please take it,” Maymyint implored. “This is an important moment for Mayuree.”
After a moment of hesitation, Gwen plucked the ring from Maymyint’s palm.
“Can I ask-”
“You will know,” Maymyint replied cryptically. “All I can say is that it has to do with Mayuree’s talent.”
“Ah~.” Gwen realised what the woman was selling. She would keep it about her person for now. “I’ll take care of it then. Can you tell me what Mayuree’s doing now?”
Maymyint’s smile split from ear to ear.
“I have just the thing.” The woman flashed her pearlescent teeth. “I’ve brought some Lumen-pics.”
“Ooo.” Gwen cooed. “Let’s see!”
“Here.” Maymyint produced a portable lumen-caster, one of the latest models from the States. With a few input glyphs, a picture of Mayuree appeared, dressed in the traditional garb of her people, standing next to an enormous elephant.
“You’d think, but they stink.” Maymyint's tone grew mirthful. “Here’s the next one.”
Sure enough, there was a picture of Mayuree half-sick with nausea.
“Do you have one of the Quay?” Gwen asked, recalling that Magus Maymaruya had waxed sentimentally about the old colonial districts.
“Naturally, she and I had coffee and croissants by the Yangon river; it’s a must, you know,” Maymyint explained, swiping through the images. “Mia is such a sweet and gentle girl, so obedient; unlike her brother Marong.”
Arm in arm with Jun, Ayxin made the round through the ballroom while her companion politely fended off the guests. She had moved from the dais because she had grown tired of the praises, promises and the stupidity of her moon-eyed worshippers.
That and Ayxin figured she should give Gwen her gift in person, ideally away from the prying eyes of the Humans, whose bodies reeked of onions, old soy sauce and greed.
Focusing her mind, she sensed the presence of her scale just outside in the sky garden and instructed her two caretakers: the Tower Magisters assigned to her whenever she left the Pudong Special District, to disperse the crowd.
The Masters obliged, finding no reason why someone of her position should be denied such a simple request.
Gwen was with company, though as Ayxin approached, the two parted amicably.
Lowering her head, the woman stood to one side while Ayxin passed.
Ayxin paused, causing Jun to fall out of step.
She sniffed the air.
Not wanting to leave his niece waiting, Jun parted from his companion to join Gwen by the balcony while Ayxin turned to regard the quietly cowed woman, whose long hair hid her face.
“You,” Ayxin commanded the slender female. “Look up.”
Quivering a little, the eldest of the House of M did as the Dragon-princess asked.
A beautiful enough face, Ayxin observed, but cruel and sadistic, full of deception typical of the Humans. There was something else there as well, something familiar to Ayxin, though it was faint, dilute, almost negligible.
“Re wux ir di udoka?” Ayxin twisted her fleshy, clumsy tongue to produce the correct Draconic.
“Nomeno ir waphic ergriff ekess faestir,” the woman replied inexpertly. Her words were nervous and strained. For the female, the language wasn’t a projection of the soul, but a kind of mimicry, a crude facsimile.
But the accent wasn’t what had bothered Ayxin.
She took a fistful of the woman’s hair and brought it closer to her face.
There was a scent here, a vaguely familiar one. One Ayxin hadn’t sensed in half-a-century, not since their eldest left to found his lair.
“Hey! What are you doing!” Gwen's churlish, tactless voice rang across the garden. “That’s my friend’s sister! Leave her alone!”
“Qe gethrisja!” Ayxin barked at the thin-blooded peon.
The woman formed a prayer with her hands held overhead, fell to her knees, touched her forehead to the cold, damp pavement, then retreated while facing her superior.
When Gwen arrived with Jun, her demeanour was catty.
“Did you enjoy yourself?” she demanded of the Dragon-kin.
Curiously, Ayxin felt a strange sense of comfort. Having someone speak so candidly, even more so than Jun, was refreshing. It was how she had conversed with her brothers at on the Mount, and it was the sort of banter that she sorely missed.
“Congratulations on surviving your eighteenth cycle,” Ayxin shot back. “Impressive for a Void Mage. I wish you at least another decade.”
“Don’t you know,” the girl riposted, grinning with confidence. “By eating more of your kind, I could live as long as you.”
“Or you could die of indigestion.”
“Or my appetite could grow calamitous.”
The two women sparked, the unstoppable spear meeting the immovable shield.
Beside Ayxin, Jun gulped his wine.
“Ayxin has a gift for you,” he quickly clarified. “Here.”
Ayxin opened her hand to reveal another Storage Ring: the sort used to hold living things in stasis. For the gift, Ayxin had chosen the smallest container permissible.
“We got you ginseng,” Jun explained. “It’s only five-hundred years old, but Ryxi raised it.”
“Does Ryxi know about this?” Gwen glanced at Ayxin, imagining a howling white serpent.
Ayxin shrugged. Even in showing nonchalance she was simply stunning. Ever since she had taken up with Jun, her body had grown less androgynous and far more feminine. Any day now, she imagined, she would be heavy with egg. Just imagining her partner cradling a child-sized egg, singing it lullabies was enough to put her in a good mood.
“Thank you.” Jun’s niece took the ring with both hands, then bowed earnestly for the gift.
“It’s a lively one,” Jun warned her. “It’ll make a run for it at the first opportunity, so make sure you’re on guard. Don’t take more than a few slices at a time; you might bloat.”
“What?” The girl laughed.
“He means your body will explode from the excess vitality,” Ayxin appended Jun's prudishness. “You’re no Dragon-kin, no matter what the Old One has engendered.”
The atmosphere once again grew awkward.
“We’ll talk later.” Jun realised having the two women in one place was mental torture. Both were arguably Dragon-touched, and with their Draconic-blessings also came pride, possessiveness and a natural tendency to butt heads. “If I am out of Pudong next month, we’ll meet for lunch.”
“Sure thing, Uncle Jun.” Gwen gave her uncle her best smile.
Turning to her best side, Ayxin gave Jun's niece a wilting glance before leaving with her man, one hand clasped to his waist, leaving Gwen seething and white-knuckled, clutching the ginseng ring.
Sensing Gwen's agony, Ayxin’s mood improved immensely as she sauntered away, her irritated demeanour passing as though a summer sunshower. Not only had she given the girl a herb watered with Ryxi’s expulsions, but she had also shown the arrogant whelp that no matter how many mountains of crystals, rare ingredients and magical items she would amass, her heart’s desire would forever belong to Ayxin.