On day fourteen, the marshalling rostrum on the second tier of the renamed Shenyang Tower played host to the summing-up of the International Inter-University Competition.
With all three teams standing shoulder to shoulder in the quadrangle, the Lieutenant-General of Shenyang, now the Provincial-Secretary of New Liaoning, gifted each contestant with a pin-stripe palladium medal for "Service to the Republic of China and its People".
As the lumen-recorders hovered over the gathered crowd, the students turned to salute the surviving soldiers. In response, all bowed deeply, thanking one another for risking their all to return Shenyang to the world of the living.
Atop the pulpit, Provincial-Secretary Qíao delivered an hour-long speech detailing the valour of the troops and their sacrifices. He began with thanking Mao for garnering the will of the people and ended with a special mention for Committee Chair Song, whose granddaughter had contributed significantly to the victory at Shenyang. Finally, Magister Eric Walken, formerly of Oceania, stepped forward to receive an individual medal of recognition for catalysing the banishment of the Lich Oi Kuk-ryol.
After the speech, Magister Jamison, Chief Proctor, declared that though Fudan was the overall winner of the Chinese round, they had chosen to bow out. In total, Fudan had finished the competition with a tally of 7,450 CCs to Pretoria's 4745 and Auckland's 3270. However, due to extenuating circumstances such as Magister Walken's intervention, the contestants had chosen to end their bid on a high note.
Finally, the night concluded with an officer's soiree wherein Fudan, Pretoria and Auckland traded contact details. For high-tier competitions, networking was a principle purpose; for there was nothing quite like mutual survival to bond young mages into a web way of 'guan-xi'. In the decades to follow, assuming the students survived to become Magisters, Secretaries, Ministers and Tower Masters, their youthful memories would grow into bonds of trust. Two decades on, if Minister Hertzog had a problem in South Africa, he could look to an old friend like Secretary Bai, or Magister Song of Sydney for advice or support. A few years on, they would then return the favour under no uncertain circumstances.
And so it was that after a healthy infusion of alcohol, Gwen found herself facing a deeply embarrassed and completely scarlet Jean-Paul asking for her Message Glyph.
"Shall we take a stroll?" Gwen extended an elbow. "You did say you wanted to talk in private."
"Y-yes." In his double-breasted jacket, the pale Jean-Paul was positively oozing, not unlike a lightly-salted slug.
For the farewell party, the students had changed into their best for the mass media. As before, Gwen had dressed her team in oriental-themed garbs, rehashing the same outfits from Cuzco with different accessories. For herself, she had chosen a midnight blue floral cheongsam with a classic thigh-split, paired with a pair of platform pumps in pearl. It wasn't anything outlandish, but the lumen-recorders burned bright nonetheless.
Comparatively, Auckland was decisively uncomfortable wearing three-piece suits, meaning the moment the media relented, the men were reduced to tie-less dress shirts. As for the three female members, it was Yue who naturally stood out— both for being the only Asian in a throng of caramel giants and her halter-maxi, on loan from Alesia.
And for Pretoria, the Afrikaners reminded Gwen of a wedding party, with the men stiff in charcoal herringbone, adorned with ties in sunburst and emerald, accessorised with union-jack pocket squares. In such a garb, even the boisterous Lencho was pleasing to the eye, proving that even lipstick did work on hogs. Comparatively, the women were more florid in their attire, with Alizea, Ella, Izette and Mariette igniting many an imagination.
As for her present company, Gwen wondered if Jean-Paul had intentionally morphed his self-fitting suit two sizes too large, appearing so hollow that, for a moment, she wondered if Umzokwe would crawl out to say hello.
"We're alone now." Gwen found a place by the outer wall. Gingerly, she tucked her dress against her buttocks with both hands, then sat between the jutting battlement. "So, what's Mevrou Bekker's proposal?"
Jean-Paul's face was by now the colour of boiled beetroot. The Void Mage had been shadowing her all night, leading Richard to joke that she had gained a new Familiar.
"Before I explain— how do you like my spells?" Jean-Paul began with an unusual ice-breaker. "Like… Usurp and Consumptive Orb, did you watch the lumen-crystals I sent over?"
"I watched them twice!" Gwen sighed wistfully, turning her face to enjoy the wind. With the Undead gone and the ley-line thrumming below, the night had lost its malicious chill. "Simply masterful, Jean-Paul. Compared to you, I feel like a bruiser. There's going to be so much I have to learn and relearn in London. But of course, you said they're not for trading."
"Well, they could be…"
"THEY CAN?" Gwen perked up. Flashing Jean-Paul a simpering smile, she arched her spine to present her best profile, her heels swinging like puppy tails. "Go on, I am listening. I've got CCs to burn, babe."
"Babe? YES! NO! I mean..." Jean-Paul stared at her shoes. "Oh, you meant me, right, right… er…"
Gwen awaited the Void Mage's offer, weighing the young man with considerable attention.
"Umm— look, I am going to just come out and say this. The Mevrou gave me a 'Quest', if you will, for my benefit, that is..."
"I am listening."
Jean-Paul looked her in the eyes.
She smiled back.
The Void Mage grinned, looking very thirsty indeed.
Fighting back a snort, Gwen redirected her mirth toward more constructive feelings. While Jean-Paul remained the most malformed creature she had ever seen, his unique visage now appeared to her a sort of cuteness associated with Sphinx Cats.
"Goed, I am going to say it— okay?"
"The Mevrou will teach you all the spells she has made if you can lend me... your egg."
Gwen blinked. "My what?"
"Egg?" Jean-Paul appeared to look for a crack to crawl into.
"Like…" Gwen made a somewhat obscene gesture with her fingers that resembled an okay sign, then poked a finger into it. For some reason, all she could think of was Ayxin and Jun.
"No! Your o..." Jean-Paul's eyes fell lower to where her waist tapered, and her hips flared out.
"You mean—" Gwen felt suddenly dizzy. "My OVARIES?"
"I think? I am not sure why I said egg... eggs."
"I think the Mevrou inferred my womb."
"Ah?" Jean-Paul looked hopeful.
But Gwen's expression was no longer kind nor friendly.
"I take it she wants to see what happens when two Void Mages conceive a child," she intoned, gritting her teeth. The vision of Axyin in her mind was quickly replaced by the face of Elizabeth Sobel. "I understand her concern, but I am really questioning her intent. Let's say I am missing a few brain cells and consent—"
"Er…" Jean-Paul looked as though he was emerging from a sauna. "I… I don't know? I mean, I would imagine marriage first… I am supposed to be Catholic."
"—Whatever. Sure. BUT then what? What happens if there IS a child? Is she going to take my BABY? Is she expecting a mother to give up her babe? For what? Her experiments? That's monstrous!"
Even as Gwen spluttered, she glared at Jean-Paul, her eyes sharp with displeasure. Together with her rising ire, a wave of Dragon-fear rippled out, prickling the shivering Jean-Paul with icy jabs of primordial terror.
"I think I misunderstood—"
"I don't fucking think so." Gwen's voice grew infinitely stiff, turning almost into a rumble. "No. No. No. Jean-Paul, you're barking up the wrong tree, mate."
"I meant no offence." Jean-Paul raised both hands. His pupils turned midnight as he circulated notes of Void to fight off the gut-clenching fear. "I think I misinterpreted my Quest."
"Whatever." Gwen stood. In her heels, her Amazonian stature towered over the little man. "A little tact could have helped to lubricate your proposal."
"I am not good with love, or romance, or dates." Jean-Paul's eyes floated like a pair of runny eggs. "I've never touched a woman either—"
"Okay, a little too much info there," Gwen groaned, realising Jean-Paul really was serious. Scattering her bubbling Essence, she withdrew the Dragon-fear. "Tell ya what, bud, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. What are the Mevrou's exact words?"
"My Master wanted to know if it was possible for two Void Mages…"
"… to find attraction in one another, and to start a family. She often spoke of children. She also said you might be interested in learning real Void Magic."
"That's fucked up, JP." Gwen decided she should be honest as well. "First of all, I am absolutely not whoring myself out for Signature Spells, no matter how bloody good they may be. Second of all, this hypothetical kid is your son or daughter, JP, and MY flesh and blood. How the hell am I supposed to give him or her up to your Master? What kind of monstrous mother would do that? Fucken oath, I don't know about you, but my child would mean the world to me. I would never abandon them! Your Mevrou would have to pry the baby from my cold dead hands!"
Without warning, Jean-Paul misted over.
"JP! Do you understand— Whoa!" Gwen paused when Jean-Paul oozed in earnest, leaking fluids from every facial orifice.
"You're a good person, Gwen." Jean-Paul fought back his choking voice.
Gwen scratched her head, then recalled what Schalk had revealed about their Void companion. "Oh— Oooo— bugger. I am sorry if I made you remember something unpleasant."
Jean-Paul reached out with his hands.
She allowed the young man to cup her fingers.
Gingerly, the Afrikaner kissed the tip of her digits, then clasped them with his own.
"You're so beautiful and strong —"
Gwen felt goosebumps crawl up her thighs, but before she could withdraw her hand out of disgust, Jean-Paul continued.
"Gwen, I am a bastard born from a whore and a no-name Mage." Jean-Paul stared into her palm as though reading his fortune from the creases on her skin. "The farm I grew up on, it was for talented children who tested positive for rare magic. We were orphans, and we were raised by a Sister. I was there out of luck and pity, but the others— the Mevrou told me they were part of a breeding program by the country's elites. Effectively, we were livestock…"
"Jesus, that's terrible." Gwen resisted hugging the poor sod. Instead, she optioned to sit beside him. At any rate, her womb wasn't for sale, though she was keenly interested in Jean-Paul's origin story. If anything, Schalk said there was quite the saga. "If you're keen to talk, JP, you might as well recount from the beginning. I think I know what the Mevrou wants, and I am not upset, really. We Void Mages are a rare breed, bud, and we should stick together… platonically."
And so, Jean-Paul began.
Gwen listened, commenting every now and then, gasping when the NoMs raided the orphanage for the first time, then fought down her anger when they returned. After Jean-Paul's beloved Mevrou finally entered the scene, she understood why the young man thought the world of his Master.
"The Mevrou told me that we were spare bodies bred to fuel the exhaustion of talent brought by the civil war. She's a little strange, but she's a sincere individual and the closest thing I have ever had to a parent," Jean-Paul explained, exhausted by the emotional outpouring. "Therefore, I sincerely believe in her vision, that together, as a pair, our lives will be better than if we went our separate ways."
Oh boy, Gwen sighed as she traced Jean-Paul's train of thought.
The idea that two Void Mages are better than one was difficult to refute.
After all, who could a Void Mage speak to about their fears?
Who would understand their unyielding hunger?
Who else could empathise with their guilt?
How could a Void Mage open themselves up to anyone but another of their kind? Even herself who had friends and family aplenty had never told anyone the explicit extent of her talent. Since her Master died, not a single other, not Gunther, not Alesia, not Walken or even Petra or her Babulya, fully understood the potential of her talent should she unshackle morality from power, damn the Noblesse Oblige.
Gingerly, she cupped her companion's head and guided Jean-Paul so that the back of his high-rising skull rested against her thigh.
"Don't move," she told the blushing young man. "Let me talk."
"I understand your desire, JP," she said softly. "A family, a home; the power to ward away the wolves and live a life of your own choosing. A lover who understands your fears, your pain, your suffering and your triumphs. That's nice. Those are all admirable goals. I get it."
Gwen interrupted her fellow Void Mage. "Shush—"
"JP, do you know what love is?"
"I think so."
"Shouldn't you marry the person you love?"
"That only happens in stories," Jean-Paul replied.
"Don't move." Gwen pushed him back against her leg.
"Good. Let's talk love and Spellcraft— since your Master is offering a two-in-one package."
Jean-Paul looked up at her.
Gwen puckered her lips thoughtfully.
"To me, having power means having the privilege of falling in love with who I want. If I was to marry you and conceive a child so that I could learn the Mervrou's invocations; I would do so to fund my personal power. And once I have what I want, I would leave, because I don't desire power for power's sake. In fact, for making me auction the most sacred part of myself, I would hate myself, and then you, and then your Mevrou. I would loathe such a thing with every fibre of my being. Even if you had made a better case, and I was to fall in love with you, I would doubt myself— do I really care for you? Or are my feelings tainted by ulterior motives? It's a no-win situation, JP, do you see?"
"I am not a romantic, Jean-Paul. I've been through enough to know that the love they show in Vid-cast dramas doesn't exist. I also know that for folks like us who can depopulate a town if left unchecked, marriage is a BIG deal. Nonetheless, I am refusing your offer. One, I barely know you and that my feelings for you are purely platonic. Two, I am rejecting you because you can do better, because one day, someone will appear who genuinely loves you, and then you'll regret everything."
"No." Gwen shook her head. "You don't know me, Jean-Paul. You see a polished stone, but underneath, I am a mess of fractures. I am selfish, egotistical, arrogant. I am greedy, and a born hypocrite. I like to talk a good game, but I don't want to sully my hands. I honestly don't think I'll make a right partner for anyone. God knows I am a terrible friend, did you see what happened to Eunae? Did you know we had a teammate, Kitty Liang, that I abandoned to a Naga on a mountaintop, and I felt fucking great doing it?! I was singing myself praises! Viva la vengeance! Of course, eventually, I realised too late Kitty was innocent after all... after I voided her corpse... okay, now I am crying, you asshole."
The two Void Mage sat side by side, drying their eyes.
"... I ate Sister de Mulder." Jean-Paul suddenly confessed. "And the other children too."
"... fuck me dead..."
"Bloody oath... what a pair we make." Gwen began to laugh, thinking of Caliban's first foray. "For the record, I did that too. A whole den of NoMs and captive Mages."
Jean-Paul snorted, then paused, then joined her bitter laughter.
From atop Shenyang Tower came the roaring of two Void Mages, laughing at the world, laughing at themselves because sometimes, anything was better than silence.
"Later, do you mind if I come and find you?"
"Sure, but why not make a Tower of your own? You're Meister Bekker's Apprentice. I am a nobody."
"Ah— you're too modest by half."
"So... I can visit?"
"Sure— you're welcome, bud. I don't know what the Mevrou's expecting from me, but I'll reserve a spot for you, I promise."
Gwen leaned back, throwing her weight on the palm of her hands.
"Good luck with the competition, JP. Show the world what we Void Mages can do."
"I will. And..."
"When I said I'd come to see you, I meant in a few months... I'll see you in London. Our universities are less than an hour's flight apart..."
"... Bloody hell!" Gwen slapped Jean-Paul on the forehead, causing the young man to yelp. "Get off my leg, you cad! You got me all sentimental for no reason!"
For a week, the politburo debated whether a national holiday should be declared for the reclamation of Shenyang. The victory was a piece of welcoming news— but the CCDI under Secretary-General Miao advised against celebrations. Do not grow lax, Miao intoned; not when the likelihood existed that the city may be retaken.
Nonetheless, a celebration WAS in order. Thus, the largest festival since the fiftieth anniversary of the People's Liberation poured across China's cities, setting alight the night sky with fireworks and illusions.
And in and amongst the dazzling, effect-added propaganda projected from lumen-casters in every square, the citizens of the Middle Country raised cups to the team Fudan.
Of the group, Lulan emerged as the crowd favourite. From the very first broadcast, the vid-projections had emphasised her hot-blooded, iron-wrought "Patriotism".
A notch down the totem pole sat the flame-trailing Jiro, immortalised by a scene of the Fire Mage laying down Phoenix Pinions to defend the PLA soldiers. Lower still, Rene and Anita emerged as regional favourites, each upheld by their respective Frontier regions as paragons of modern Magehood.
When the news broke that Fudan had chosen not to go on ahead with the IIUC's semi-finals, the response had been devastating. But, the concession was soon buried under the reconstruction of Shenyang. While some questioned why so little vid-cast of the pretty vice-captain was shown, or why the principal CC champion fled the IIUC, their suspicions were quickly glossed over by the mass of troops, labourers and Mages marching into Liaoning. "Soon", declared Central from the People's Assembly, a thirteen-hundred kilometre long, ten-kilometre wide strip of "salted earth" would be dug out beside the Yalu River to segregate the North Korean peninsula forever.
And as each Frontier province conscripted its able-bodied men, the cries of separated families soon snuffed all interest in the IIUC.
As for the contestants, they first returned to Fudan from the Front to receive a thank you speech from the Dean in the assembly hall, then went about taking advantage of their ephemeral spotlight.
"Gwen, Richard, come see me once you're finished." Dean Lou was the very definition of courtesy. "We need to finalise your documents."
"Will do." The duo waved at the Dean.
Upon Gwen's and her cousin's return, Dean Luo had informed them that he had worked tirelessly to ensure Richard also had a placement in Cambridge. It was a kindness performed by vice-chancellor Butterfield to facilitate Gwen's uncomplaining transfer. The caveat though was that an ancient college like Peterhouse was too good for Richard. Instead, the Abjurer could enter Wolfson, one of the modern collegiates with a less severe transfer policy. Naturally, the Dean assured them, the students' performances in Shenyang had helped grease the wheels of cumbersome bureaucracy, so some credit should go to themselves.
Outside, the paparazzi awaited. Though Fudan's fame had fallen in the week since; there was more than enough mana left for the gossip magazines and the local press to make mountains out of molehills. And so, in front of the thundering globes, under Guanghua Hall, the students stood with Gwen and Tei, having their lumen-pics taken.
Now that the proverbial banquet was at an end, Gwen felt strangely melancholic. In her mind, the team was going to stay together for at least two more matches. Nonetheless, the fact that a group she had spent almost three months with was now going their separate ways was a reality she found difficult to accept.
Her captain, Tei Bai, had offered his wholehearted congratulations. After woodenly receiving a kiss on the cheek, he thanked her for catalysing his dream of taking Fudan beyond China. When Gwen asked of his future, Tei startled her by saying there wasn't much he looked forward to. To inherit the position of Clan Head was his duty, and that was that. The fact that he got to see so much of the world before he assumed his life-long vigil was enough.
The same sentiment was echoed by the other third-years, who would now be entering society. Rene looked forward to returning to the Thundering Peninsula south of Guangdong to assume future duties as de-facto head of her House. Anita chose to remain in Shanghai, though she now dithered between joining the PLA or the Pudong Tower, knowing that one offered present advantages, while the other allowed her to maintain future relationships with Gwen and company.
As for Jiro, he no longer lusted after a position of influence and power in Asia. Instead, he said that he wanted to travel the world, selling his skills and polishing his spells. In a heartfelt confession, Jiro intimated that having seen beautiful sorceresses with hair the colour of sun-silk and eyes the blue of the sea, there was no possibility of him been bogged down by an arranged spouse. If anything, he wouldn't rest until he had visited all corners of the world.
After which Rene slapped Jiro, inferring that either he was coming to the Thundering Peninsula with her, or she would have him castrated here and now. Sulkily, Jiro conceded, promising Gwen that he may very well visit when she acquired her very own Tower.
Of the remaining two, Mayuree would graduate the next year after earning her degree in Divination, though her life, much like Tei's, was set in stone. As the mistress of the House of M, she would spend her time between Shanghai and Myăma. Of her separation from Gwen, she felt unintimidated. The unspoken truth was that someone with Mayuree's wealth and influence could really travel anywhere in the world if she wished. Even if Gwen and the others were going to be in London, LR Message conferences or a monthly ISTC jolt to London, Paris, Frankfurt, or any of the larger cities proved relatively painless.
Conversely, Lulan's future was in flux. Now a celebrity, the PLA promised complete support, conceiving of Lulu as a wedge to dislodge the influence of the Clans. Nevermind that the girl herself was only interested in swinging her sword, the PLA desired a new Ashbringer. And so long as she sword-danced to the Party's tune, she would feature prominently in the future of many young Mages' minds. As for Kusu, the young man was simply overwhelmed by it all, asking if it was at all possible for them to leave China as well. Gwen's response was that she wouldn't dare deprive the PLA of Lulan, at least not yet. But, they should be well looked after once she brought Ruxin onboard.
And finally, Eunae attained her heart's desire. One of the first things Gwen enacted upon returning to Shanghai was relaying her concerns for the half-Korean member of her team. Between Secretary Song, her Babulya, Dean Luo, and the power of HDMs dispensed by the House of M, Eunae would have a position waiting for her in the first PLA Army hospital should she wished, or in Pudong Tower. However— where the "Lees" were concerned, Eunae was on her own. No one had the clout to force the Chaebol to heel, not when ten families owned more than a quarter of a nation's GDP. With so much authority, it was little wonder Eunae's uncles believed themselves Demi-gods.
And so, all good things now came to an end.
And standing on the steps of the towers, Gwen felt she had aged a decade. Gone was the last vestige of her teenagehood, for once she left Fudan's gates, a new chapter of her life would begin.
"Once more!" A reporter hailed the group. "Big grins for the Shanghai Extra!"
Gwen put on her most dazzling smile.
Suddenly, Richard wrapped a hand around her shoulder, then squeezed her tightly.
"What's sup, Dick?" Gwen whispered by his ear.
Her cousin waited for the camera to flash, then leaned across and kissed her on the side of her head, eliciting a few squeals from the watching crowd. Richard hadn't been promoted much on the national vid-casts, but he had a fan-following of girls from around the university, especially the local senior high school.
"What was that for?" Gwen touched the side of her head.
"An apology in advance."
"For that... " Richard pointed at the wall of bodies.
"GWEEEEEEEN! MY BEAUTIFUL NIECE!" an ear-splitting shout pierced the crowd.
Gwen shrivelled; all sentimentality, all goodwill, all feelings of effervescence evaporated.
Her Uncle Kwan, only a head shorter than Whetu and wearing a scurfy suit, stepped from the circle of reporters. "AND MY SON! THANK MAO, THAT'S MY SON AND NIECE!"
Gwen's reflexive desire was to call a Vold Bolt to rid the world of this travesty. When she finally focused her eyes, however, her heart softened.
The boisterous Kwan had clearly lost weight since the events of Sydney. Whatever his old wealth and power had been, living the better part of one and a half years as a refugee, forced to work for Surya in exchange for board and food had milled her prideful uncle down to the stumps. For Gwen, who had once been so intimidated by Kwan's mere presence, the sallow-cheeked, grey-haired Indonesian now appeared Negatively Drained. Behind Kwan, another well-known face, that of Aunt Tali, loitered in the crowd, too embarrassed to make herself known.
"Sorry…" Richard half-sighed, half-grinned. "Thank fuck we're both going to London, eh?"