Gwen regarded her armoured profile in the mirror.
"It has heels?" she asked, dubious that such a decision had made it into the custom suit's design.
"A melee AND an aesthetic feature. It collapses at-will." Magus Lin Tsai, the representative from Sinomach Heavy Industries, mopped the sweat from his brow. The stiletto had been incorporated by their chief designer, who had projections of Fudan's vice-captain pinned to his workbench. Ever since Sinomach's RECON Operator's Garb appeared unannounced in Cuzco, requests and complaints had driven the clerks in the public-relations section mad. In response, Commissioner Tsai made explicit demands that their state-sponsored corporation wouldn't made a laughing stock in future broadcasts. The result was a maintenance team that arrived at Fudan with a fully-equipped service truck.
In the training hall, Fudan's eye-catching Void Sorceress cat-walked up and down an invisible rail, observing her reflections in the conjured mirrors. The re-tooled MKIII CUSTOM promised to hold together much better than the stock MKII, with elevated thresholds for dampening physical and elemental damage. Likewise, for Fudan's members who necessitated external means of Flight, an internal module enabled tier 3 locomotion, specced to the competition's item-assistance limitations.
Furthermore, the once unisex Shen-teī was gender-split. Gwen's suit had conduit-lines inscribed around her lumbar to cup her under-breast, while at the rear, a half-armoured skirt protected her bottom, extending like a dovetail. Comparatively, the girls' collision-pauldrons draped around their shoulders, capable of transforming into all-weather capes. An automatic potion-injector was initially included, though Gwen forsook the unaesthetic waist-bulge for reasons that a crushed potion-pouch was no use to anyone. The result was a sleek and modern design akin to Magi-tech racing suits.
For the palette, Fudan's iconograph came in three hues— red or blue with a white backdrop. The original designer favoured Revolution Red with white highlights and a blue under-layer, but all Gwen could see was a Pepsi Company IP violation.
"I want Gunmetal, here, here, and there…" Gwen ran a finger down her body line from chin to her inner thighs, then from knees to boots. "The team members who are willing to keep the red motif are welcome to, but I need the thighs in white. The butt-skirt's a nice touch, by the way, more space."
"Space for what?" Magus Tsai furrowed his brows. "There are no modules for that… region."
"Nothing to worry." Gwen grinned at her re-colourised reflection. "The armour should work out beautifully."
"So you keep saying..." The Magus Glyphed new hues onto the skin-hugging malleable-metal. Of Fudan's crew, he far preferred working with Miss Li, who was petite, red-faced and obedient. Even Miss Wong, who asked for the men's variant, had been perfectly happy with the original design. As for the Void sorceress, she had an opinion for every nook and contour. "Miss Song, as an Illusionist and an Enchanter, it's easier if you manipulate the pattern and colour yourself. I'll relinquish the formulae."
"Even better." Gwen checked herself in the mirror again, inspecting the angles. Feeling sentimental, she wondered when she'd be able to sell the world's first selfie App. But for that to happen, she needed a whole tree of technologies to be unlocked. Maybe when she arrived in North American or London, places where entrepreneurs had guaranteed rights backed by the Tower and the government, she could test the possibility of bringing more of her old world inventions to bear. In her old world, she struggled to gain a position higher than a Senior Consultant. Even when self-employed, her company was limited by size and affordable talent. Perhaps in her second life, it was possible to build something that spanned the continents.
"Miss." The Magus felt a feeling of revulsion as the girl chuckled narcissistically, wholly engrossed in her reflection. "Please take care of our product."
"It'll stay in one piece." Gwen cowed her technician by testing the armour's inbuilt heels, instantly raising her stature. Placing one foot ahead of the other, she tapped across the training hall. "Four inches? That's ambitious."
"Miss Song, if you're done, I shall go and aid Miss Li. Her CQB variant needs adjustments."
"Make sure her shoulders, breasts and thighs are matt-white," Gwen instructed the retreating technician.
With the flustered Enchanter retreating across the room, Gwen was quickly approached by Anita, looking very handsome indeed with her half-cropped hair and arrogant lips. The men's variant was bulkier, though Anita carried the look with dignity and pomp.
"Just to confirm." Anita pointed to her chest. "We're adhering sponsorship logos?"
"Indeed." Gwen inspected Anita's suit, pointing to either side of her chest. "We will affix our biggest sponsors at the front and back. Fudan's seal hangs over your heart; adjacent is Sinomach. Our major sponsor is Wang Enterprises and Centurion-M. Down here we have the lesser sponsors, Tonglv, SinoTrans, SAIC Motors, and finally Mao-tai Co."
Anita nodded like a chick bobbing to a mother hen.
"All in all, 11,000 HDM for each of us. Plus a bonus if we win," Gwen assured her companion. In truth, she and Lulan commanded four times the price but chose to subsidise the others. "Not bad, eh? Don't you love it when crystals fall from the sky?"
"No kidding." Anita counted her post-match income both hands. "If we win, the sponsorship fee will exceed three years of my allowance!"
"Afterward, don't forget to ride out your fame. Use it to build your brand." Gwen slapped the Mineral Mage on the shoulder. "Who wouldn't know Anita Wong after we scour Dalian of the Undead?"
"Ha!" Anita snickered. "You're thinking of Lulu. She's CCVC-1's darling at the moment."
"Do you desire greater exposure?" Gwen asked seriously. "We could probably manage it."
"Oh, Mao, absolutely not." Anita sighed. "I am no martyr. Famous and alive— that's my motto."
"Knock on wood." Gwen rapped on Anita's armour with her knuckles.
Anita made a Taoist sign to ward away evil. "So, what now?"
Sch-Chik! Gwen un-deployed her stilettos, acclimatising herself to the balance shift. According to the spec sheet, the Keen Enchantment could punch through steel plates. "Let's check with the others. I want to see Richard and the boys. After our promo-shoot, we need to get dressed to receive our oversea guests."
At Gwen's behest, the reception was to happen on their home turf, the Waldorf Astoria on the Bund, where the House of M's Shadowmen could keep a pair of eyes on things.
This time around, major dignitaries included big-wigs like the Mayor of Shanghai, Magister Rong Yin; a sorcerer-bureaucrat whose many tasks included balancing Pudong against the PLA. Likewise, newly arrived was the American proctorship delegation with representatives from Stanford and the American Towers. Concurrently, as Shanghai's first international match in recent memory, the paparazzi were legion, enough to make the dog-packs ambushing Gwen and Lulan at Fudan seem like tame poodles.
"Gwen, may I have a word?" Walken's Message blossomed against Gwen's ear. "We haven't had any good opportunity to talk of late. I would very much like to hear your mind before your decisions go public."
"One second, I'll meet you downstairs." The sound of blow-dryers accompanied Gwen's answer.
When the girl arrived in the lobby of Gouding B1, Walken's breath seized. Since her return from Amazonia, the aura of personality his student possessed now encroached on oppressiveness. Perhaps it was the Lightning affinity, or maybe the girl had reached another essence-milestone; her presence captured the attention of onlookers, willingly or otherwise.
How exactly like a Dragon, Walken reflected as he circulated a mote of mana. Already, the residents and the concierge had ceased their activities to stand and stare.
"Do you like it?" His protégé spun her body mid-stride, expertly turning on one foot as the fishtail dress fanned out. When she crossed the floor, the girl blossomed like an Amaryllis, her hair falling about her shoulders. Unusual for an exhibitionist who shamelessly showed off her vain stalks, Gwen's present hem was modestly pinned, though the shoulderless upper portion appeared to overcompensate for her knee-length demurity. "It's an Alex Mu original. He's an up and coming designer the House of M is sponsoring."
"You're certainly becoming acquainted with the locals." Walken looked up at the ceiling, conjuring visions of his daughters to ward against Gwen's ostentatious fashion. "Are you sure you can bear to leave Shanghai?"
"And there it is." Gwen curled the corner of her lips. "I wondered when we'd have this talk."
"Call it curiosity, that and self-preservation," Walken confessed, switching to Silent Message. "You can't blame an old cynic, can you?"
"Let's sit and talk." Gwen pointed to the garden. The cafe next to B1's lobby wasn't very good, but it was convenient. "I am not going to ditch you in Shanghai if that's what you mean."
"You're not?" Walken followed. To the observers, the Magister appeared like an abandoned mutt who had just heard a whistle in the distance.
The two sat.
Outside, the paparazzi were ready with their optically-enhanced lumen-recorders. Walken sat with his back to the lenses, while Gwen flashed her teeth for her cyclopean admirers.
"Beware," Walken intoned gravely. "You're tier 7 now."
"I know." Gwen rested her face against the palm of her hand. "So, what would you like to know."
"Are you going to London?"
"Do I have a choice?"
"There's always a choice," Walken scoffed. "Now or in the future, no one will want to fight Gunther von Shultz."
"And in the not so distant future, no one will want to fight Gwen Song."
Walken's countenance twitched. So much for stemming her pride. The girl wasn't wrong, but her boisterous swagger was a magnet for future troubles.
"Sorry…" the girl stuck out her tongue playfully when she saw the vein bulging against his temple. "But yes, I WANT to go to London."
"Because?" Walken demanded. "Do you not have enough family here? Not enough crystals? Not enough influence? Do you have any idea what the PLA will give if you're willing to forsake the Mageocracy?"
"Who paid you off?" Gwen cocked her head, a lock of hair falling across her eyes like a dash of dark paint. "What's the going rate for Magister Walken these days?"
The Magister scowled. "I am serious."
"Alright." Gwen suddenly sat upright so that Walken had to avert his gaze. The dress, though elegant, wasn't at all lady-like.
"I spoke with Babulya, and she's in agreement that I shouldn't be caught up in the CCP's internal affairs. Yeye isn't going to stay a Secretary forever, and once he's out, either I fall in line, or they'll screw me out of everything. As for Gramps, I'd say he's ambivalent. For now, I am a boon, but knowing his inheritance plans for Percy— who knows? To the Party's upper echelon, too much wealth is a taboo. The Communists loathe the notion that power and wealth should be concentrated."
"Career-wise, I am well aware of my shortcomings. Fudan's a good university, but it's all second-hand knowledge. I've got Magisters who studied in England teaching me a facsimile of what authors in Oxford and Cambridge composed. With my limited time and intelligence, I am not sure if I'll ever reach my full potential. Magister Wen said that with my access to all schools, I should be making stride into Signature spells, like Henry, like Gunther and Alesia. Did you know that my late Master designed Gunther's 'hybrid School' of spells with the help of mates from Oxbridge? That's what I want..."
Walken felt like slapping some sense into the girl— designing new hybrid Schools! The waif was barely a noviciate theorist— and she wants to make new spells! Did she think spell-crafting for a rare Element-Affinity was akin to growing tomatoes? That one rubbed a few flowers together to engender hybrids? What half-truths had Wen been feeding the girl?
"You're not wrong." Walken thumbed his cup. "But in England, you won't have the support network you've built up."
"I'll have Gunther's buddies, and Lady Grey, and Elvia, my little Evee!"
Is Elvia is all you care about!? Walken suppressed the complaint spewing from his chest. "Did Gunther mention Mycroft Ravenport?"
"He told me not to worry." Gwen toyed with a tuft of loose hair. "Lord Ravenport's Faction has their eyes on the Prime Ministership. If they make Gunther and the Middle Faction their enemy, it would make their objective near impossible. If need be, he'll mediate for me."
"And when Ravenport attains the Ministership? Where will you go then?"
"Gunther says the Tories still need the Middle Faction's support to retain a majority against the progressives. Think about it, Eric. Ravenport's left me well alone for almost two years now. He's never expressed interest in my existence. We don't even know if he's received the intelligence from Nephres. If I go, there's the questionable threat of a Purist avenger; conversely, the longer I stay here, the more I am painted in the CCP's colours."
"A man like Ravenport has patience you cannot imagine."
"All the merrier. In time, I'll eat the bastard head first if he dares to take revenge for what his son did to me. Hell's bells, maybe I'll pay him a visit. Maybe he should be worried."
"You're letting your Lightning do the talking." Walken furrowed his brows. "Your victories are getting to your head, Gwen."
"Why are you so against me going to London anyway?"
"I want what's best for you."
"You mean, what's best for you."
"I'll not deny it."
"I already told you, I am not going to leave you homeless."
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Walken scoffed. "What do you owe me?"
"Well, things have changed. You stood up to Alesia, and she has left without turning you medium-rare," Gwen retorted. "Even Gunther said that you've paid for your crime in Sydney. For your involvement in Master's demise, we'll never see you as one of our own, but you know what? I prefer that we work as mutual beneficiaries. Our short time together has made me fond. I don't mind having you around."
Walken gulped, sensing a slight crinkle in his chest. "You don't?"
"Well..." the Magister realised too late that he was smiling. Gwen's Cheshire smile possessed a sickening infectiousness. "I— I am flattered."
"As you should be." Gwen sipped from her pearl tea. "Eric. I am not the idiot girl who was abducted from Singapore anymore. I entrapped the leadership of Tonglv into giving me one per cent of their gross. I started a credit company without spending a cent. I tripled the price of Jade without lifting a finger. According to my bio, I liberated a country..."
"Allied yourself with Dragon princes…"
"Ate a Beast Tide…"
"Saved a royal…"
"Got offered a place in his harem…"
"What?" Walken almost spat his latte in her face.
The girl's facade fractured as she grew suddenly scarlet. "Okay— please disregard that— I thought you knew?"
Walken dabbed his mouth with a handkerchief, then took a moment to regulate his breathing.
"But Gwen, what can I do for you in London? I am afraid I'm not very popular with the Grey Faction, at least at the moment. Without a position, there are scant favours I may call on. As for academia, compared to the Meisters and Magisters at Cambridge, I shan't offer much in the Path of the Omni-Mage."
"Are you trying to leave?" Gwen's voice grew surly. "Have you tired of my company?"
"Just... pointing out the obvious." Walken despaired at his opponent's endless teasing.
"I want your counsel and your experience." The girl leaned in just enough so that her finger touched his hand. "I need someone to watch my back, who knows what tricks Ravenport may be up to, or Wen, or even Lady Grey?"
Eric Walken felt a tightening in his chest. Was the girl serious?
"Don't you know its unwise to trust me?" he confessed. "De Botton would skin you alive."
"No, she won't." The girl chuckled. "She'll flay you first, then baste you over a slow fire. Then Gunther will pick up the slack."
"I fear your trust." Walken felt a queer twinkle of delight constricting his heart, making his head buzz. Was this what the girl had done to her orphaned followers? He wondered. Was this what it felt like to be Lulan or Richard, utterly caught in the orbit of the girl's gravitational pull? "You're asking too much of a retired old man."
"Don't kid yourself. Your ambition's written all over your face," the girl mocked his attempt at humility. "Come on, Eric, you want the job or not?"
"The…" Walken snorted indignantly. "T-The JOB?"
"I need a majordomo." Gwen's presence seemed to magnify as Walken fought off her Draconic-aura. "You're my guy, right?"
"I most certainly am not your 'guy'." Walken forcibly reminded himself that he still had an estranged wife and two daughters, one of whom was ill. "And stop pouting like that, and sit properly. Your un-lady-like etiquette will most certainly cause tongues to wag. Lady Grey will have a fit."
"See? Helpful already." Gwen laughed. "So, will you think about it."
"You want… one of the Ten…" Walken huffed. He wasn't one of the Ten anymore, but still, he had his dignity and his pride. "To be your butler?!"
"Would it sound better if I gave you a title? When my— Ruxin's crystal mountain is deployed in London or the Americas, I shall be the CEO of a new multinational company. As my second and my ancient, you shall be my Inside Director, my whip. Our board will consist of major stakeholders, people like Gunther, obviously Ruxin, maybe another dragon or two to balance the books, and stockholders from major industrial sectors will serve as Outside Directors. Your job will consist of wrangling their support so that our interests can be prioritised."
Walken stared so hard that his eyes began to water.
"I am very interested in the communications sector," Gwen continued. "China isn't a good place for the development of long-distance communication technologies, but I have a very good idea involving the Divination Towers. That and I have a few notion involving wires and lighting-charged cores. From this baseline—"
The girl paused. Her conversation partner appeared Petrified. "Eric?"
Eric Walken breathed out; his warm coffee was now stone cold. As for his mind, a riot of possibilities played across his frontal lobe. He did not believe the girl had a means of cheap communication for the masses, and yet, Gwen had never disappointed when it came to generating obscene volumes of currency.
"You've got a few months to decide," the girl promised as she slid from her chair. Over the hedge, a dozen bulbs flashed, painting her complexion vivid ivory. "No rush, we've got an IIUC to win!"
The old "Shanghai Club", now known as the Astoria at the Bund, possessed an unrivalled chronicle. Constructed in 1910 to cater to wealthy Westerners, it subsequently survived the Qing Dynasty, the Sino Occupation, The Great Revolution, a failed coup, and then a Beast Tide.
Both inside and out, the Astoria was an art-deco, ultra-luxury colonial marvel whose price-point mocked the communist banners celebrating the workers' victory only four blocks away. One step past the footmen, anyone unwilling to burn at least a hundred HDMs at the bar should think twice before gracing its four-storey foyer.
For Fudan and the young Mages from Auckland and Pretoria, it was with great fortune that the House of M covered all expenses. Had Dean Luo been made to foot the bill, the poor man would have lost all his hair by morning.
Tink! Tink! Tink!
The shrill twinkle of English silver on elven-glass silenced the room.
"Students, advisors, and esteemed guests- we welcome you to this gathering for the International Inter-University Competition. TONIGHT— We kick off the second round of the IIUC. Before I reveal the Quest portion of our competition, let us celebrate our future Magus and Magisters, our talented young people whose very presence represents humanity's hope and dreams..."
The woman with a sonorous timbre was Magister Maryam Clark Jamison, a Stanford alumna of great renown. With her curly bob, creme-coffee complexion and almond eyes, the Magister's presence was awe-inspiring, as befitting a Mage of high station. For Gwen, this was the first African-American Magister she had seen, much less heard of, and so her first instinct was to silently Message Walken.
"Don't act the bumpkin," Walken's voice returned. "According to her file, Jamison heads medical Magi-tech research at Stanford, served as the Chief Medical Officer in Chicago, and now works as an external consultant for Pfizer-Klein. In terms of Factions, she's a neutral outsider..."
Gwen couldn't help but note that Walken was more enthused than usual. Upon the stage, the chief proctor continued.
"… You all know the Magister beside me— Mayor Rong Yin. Sir Yin, the pleasure is all mine," the healer finally finished after a five-minute pontification on the spirit of competition.
"Your modesty is very un-American." The Mayor of Shanghai, physically an unassuming man, chuckled, eliciting a round of laughter from the room. Once the noise died down, he pointed to the reporters surrounding the hall. "Alas, I am not the main attraction, not today. Stop pointing those devices at me— the stars tonight are these young men and women who will soon venture into the hell known as the Northern Front."
As if on cue, bulbs glowed white-hot.
"Well said, Sir Yin." The chief proctor flashed her pearly teeth. "Let me not steal the Dancing Light either. Without adieu, let's invite to the stage— Your Captains and Vice-Captains!"
The reception broke into wild applause. Of the hundred-meter long length of tables that had been set up, three pairs stood from their seats.
From Fudan's side, all eyes were focused on their resplendent vice-captain, whose daring, figure-hugging dress and four-inch stilettos elevated her head and shoulders above her captain. Arm-in-arm, the two proceeded down the extended entry onto the dais, half-blinded by the lumen-blasts firing from the recorders.
Pretoria's leading couple was equally eye-catching. Their captain was a flaxen-haired young man with a prominent jaw and clear, crystal-like eyes in a navy herringbone tuxedo. Everything about the man was tailored; even his measured walk suggested that his existence was brevity in itself. Attached to his arm was an olive-skinned beauty with auburn hair. In contrast to the tapered young man, the lady was outrageously voluptuous. Though she moved languishingly, it was as though every ounce of her sensuous flesh smouldered.
Finally, Auckland's duo turned head by virtue of their difference in height and girth. From what the audience could see, Auckland's captain had the body of a child and the face of a gruff soldier. Measuring just under four-foot-four, the captain from the Land of the Long White Cloud reached only the bosom of his partner. Compared to her captain, Auckland's vice-captain was a giantess with a sculpted body matching her Earth-Affinity.
Together as a trio, the group made quite the headlining spectacle.
"Let us begin with our far-far-away-team…" chief proctor Jamison intoned. "Captain Hertzog, please say a few words for the audience, the people of China, and your fellow contestants."
"Ek groed u, my liewe vriende." The young man's accent was apparent even through the translation stone. "We are delighted to be here and be given the opportunity to represent my country and my university. Though much has changed in my country since the days of my great-grandfather, I hope to prove to the world that despite the blessing the Britannic Mageocracy has bestowed upon us, the blood of our forefathers flows undiminished. Today, I am here with my vice-captain, Alizea Kock, my teammates Lencho, Mariete, Ella, Altus, Pieter, Izette, and Heila. Together, I hope that we shall provide the people of this land some solace from its invaders. From the depth of our hearts, we truly thank you for hosting us."
The Captain of Pretoria bowed.
"Wooo, snarky." Gwen had learned of the beef between the Boers and the British who came into South Africa salivating after its abundance of precious minerals and HDM mines. According to Walken, the result was that South Africa's Purists were dragged kicking and screaming onto the Middle Path. One by one, Gwen's gaze matched the names to the nodding faces and the waving arms.
"Six… seven— there's nine of them? Eric, did someone die?"
"No, there's ten of them. Hertzog missed the last one."
Gwen's gaze fell upon an individual she had disregarded. It wasn't surprising, considering his lack of presence. Now that her Essence-infused eyes focused, she saw a young man who could only be described as unfortunate. Where the rest of Pretoria had the chiselled look of young nobles with their Duchess noses, deeply sunken eyes and fair to olive skin; the oddball appeared as if a goblin shark and Voldemort had a lovechild. Gangly and yet somehow shrunken, the man looked completely uncomfortable in his designer suit, giving the impression that the wardrobe designer had stuffed a sphinx cat into a child's tux. As if sensing her gaze, the man raised his head. His eyes were a beautiful blue, but against his face and his pallid dermis, all Gwen could think of was Gollum.
"Wow." Gwen repressed her ingrained prejudice, then silently Messaged her instructor. "What is that dude? Is he demi-human?"
"I'll find out from Magister Jamison," her instructor replied. "Stop staring, it's rude. You'll see worse in England, I promise you. The upper nobility throws up some horrors now and then. I'll tell you that."
Unable to control her mirth, Gwen burst into a dazzling grin before removing her eyes from the unfortunate tenth member of Pretoria.
Next to take the spotlight was Auckland's mismatched combination from the buddy comedy "Twins".
"Kia Ora!" came a booming voice from a tiny body. "Rona Manaia from Turangi, Captain of Orkland, at your service. Oi am here with me mates and missus from Oceania and the Land of the Long White Cloud. With me here is our missus boss, Ruihi Keeti. As for the other fellers: from the left, that's Yue Bai from Sydney, the Wikiriwhi brothers from Whitianga, Maka and Timoti. Over there's Rongo and Otikoro, the big boi there is Whetu of Rotorua, next to him in the shade is Tua from Te Urewera. Finally, that choice young lady there's Opi from my hometown. It's good to be here with the bros, and we look forward to a good competition."
Yue waved at her captain, or perhaps she was waving at Gwen— Gwen couldn't tell. The little-red dress that Yue wore, however, was sure to raise eyebrows once the cocktails started flowing.
"The captain's a 'quarterling'." Walken's voice drifted across the room via the Silent Message. "It wasn't mentioned in his file. How quaint."
"What the hell is a quarterling?"
"Half of a Halfling." Walken's dad-joke flew over her head. "You're aware of what happens when a Demi-human and a human love each other very much, yes?"
"AH." Gwen nodded imperceptibly. The young man was barely up to her chest, but his hand and feet were enormous.
"And finally, a word from our residents!" Magister Jamison stalked around Gwen and Tei, cooler than a cucumber. When she passed Gwen, the chief proctor lowered her voice. "Miss Song, I've seen your uncut vid-casts, and I must say that what you refer to as CPR has turned heads and peaked interests in my field of expertise."
"I am happy to hear it." Gwen smiled at the decorated Magister, carefully observing the youthful, forty-something woman. "We've yet to find an avenue to publish our findings, you should know. Perhaps in the future, when I am abroad…"
"Of course." The Magister pursed her thick-lips. "Which one of you will speak?"
"Tei, work your magic." Gwen nudged Tei so that he began the usual cookie-cutter speech deemed acceptable at all official CCP events. Without blinking, he began to extol their un-repayable gratitude for the nation, his Clan, his parents, to Fudan. "… He's our official CCP spokesperson."
"You're not going to speak yourself?" The chief proctor measured the girl from head to toe with her amber orbs. "You've got a gift for oratory. Some would say that's a rarer talent than Magic."
"And a good speech must be delivered at the right time and in the right place. For now, I am happy to play the vase." Gwen held her gaze steady as the two women measured one another. "…Magister, I think you're up."
"We'll talk later." The caramel-complexioned Magister turned her face slightly from Gwen to face the crowd. As her voice rose to a crescendo, the multitudes stood to raise their glasses. "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, allow me to declare the opening of the 2004 second round of the INTERNATIONAL INTER-UNIVERSITY COMPETITION! FUDAN! PRETORIA! AUCKLAND! YOUR MISSION, should you choose to accept: is to assist in the RECLAMATION OF SHENYANG!"