Elvia Lindholm, the infamous “Trouble Maker”, the great disruptor of the Chain of Being at the Great Ormond Street Hospital, sat dazed in bed, one hand holding her work roster.
When her roommate and now co-worker, Sylvie Stratford, called out her name, Elvia turned as though a journeyman's golem still booting up its Glyph-scripts.
“So, how is it? Can you come with me to Northumberland?”
“Take a gander.” Elvia handed over her roster slip.
Sylvie scanned the printed strip. “What bollocks is this?! You’re on outbound from tomorrow through to NEW YEAR EVE?”
Elvia lay back on her commandeered gurney. GOS had just beaten back two crises, back to back, and it was only now that the emergency patients could be shipped out to convalescence homes. Each Winter Solstice, the exponential propagation of magical resources meant a proliferation of hostile Demi-human activity. Even so, Elvia hadn't expected to be on deployment.
“Ystradfellte?! That's north of Merthyr Tydfil! Who's responsible for this?”
“Rosy and her fan-club, but you didn’t hear me say that.” Elvia rubbed her swollen eyes. “Maybe they’ve got a good reason? It’s not like I’ve got folks waiting for me. Also, I volunteered last year.”
“Those boots from Royal Alfred!” Sylvia blurted out. "What's Matron Maxwell thinking? Sending our Evee out in the dead of winter. Lord knows what's on those moors."
"Redcaps, usually. Gobs, Snots, the occasional Ice Hob, Trolls. Lots of Trolls." Elvia shrugged. "It doesn't matter. The Purge happens every year, and so do casualties. Every hospital has to cough up 'volunteers'."
“Kiki…” A bipedal sprout emerged from Elvia's coat. It had previously been sleeping in her breast pocket, but the conversation had stirred the Plant Sprite from its meditation. Raising its chubby little arms, the Alraune kissed Elvia on the cheek. “Kiki?”
“Thanks, sweetie,” Elvia hugged the plant between her arms. “We’ll get through this. Another two and a half years is all. Then we can see mum and dad, and Gwen, and Yue…”
“You still haven’t heard from her?” Sylvie appeared stricken by Elvia’s unhappiness. “Surely, in between kicking zombie arse and punching Flayers in the face, she’s got time to Message her bestie? Besides, didn't she finish a month ago?”
“Gwen’s real busy, I bet.” Elvia allowed Kiki to massage her cheeks, working away some of the accumulated fatigue. “If I fought off a LICH, I would be swamped by interviews, offers and engagements as well.”
"Surviving a Lich you mean?"
"And saving the Prince of the Inca!"
"And Eating her way into Shenyang," Sylvie remarked dryly. "You know, I am not so sure about meeting 'The Devourer' after all."
"She's a doll!" Elvia had picked up some old vernacular from the canteen ladies. "After the IIUC, I think everyone will want to be acquainted with Gwen."
“Speaking of connections.” Sylvia sidled closer. “Maybe you should ask Mathias? He can petition Lady Astor in your stead. You’re in her choir, right? If the Lady wants you at her Christmas Mass, how can GOS send you to Ystradfellte? You know how these assignments are. They say ten days, but who knows what’ll happen? If the Purge goes well, you're bored witless for a week— but if bodies start arriving by the truckload, it’s not like you can pack and leave. Nightingale is very particular about its reputation.”
“Lady Astor is fair,” Elvia intervened before Sylvie could work herself into a frenzy. “She doesn’t interfere with GOS’s rosters. If I am not here, then some other poor sod would have to fill the vacancy. I don’t want that, Sylvie. It's Christmas and people ought to be with their families. It's okay for me to work harder. There'll be dozens of physicians from other Hospitals and Colleges there as well. We'll keep each other company. Maybe the field cooks will have pudding?"
“ARRRRGH!” Sylvie pulled at her hair. “You’re such a pushover! Lady Astor adores you— like a pet, I’ll admit— but she likes you better than any other Cleric at GOS! Rosy's perfectly composed abusing her aunty's position, why don't you make use of yours!”
“Sylvie! That’s a conflict of interest!” Elvia pouted, somehow more adorable when upset. “We learned that in orientation—“
“Fur-fooks-sake, Evee!” Sylvia slipped into her northern dialect. “Yer— You’re so nice. You are infuriating!”
Elvia laughed, dispelling Sylvia’s ire with her unadulterated sticky-sweet goodness.
There was, of course, another reason Elvia did not want to disturb her honourable benefactor. Having grown intimate with the powerful widow, Elvia knew better than anyone that Lady Lucy Waldorf Astor had her hands full. As it stood, the General Election was only five months away, and the Lady had been pre-selected for the District of Sutton. To disturb Lady Astor with juvenile, mewling requests for rest, or to open Lady Astor’s mithril reputation to nepotism, was unacceptable to Elvia. That and the more she relied on Lady Astor, the more problems she would encounter when the Lady leaves her post at GOS for parliament.
And as for Mathias, Elvia felt a mild migraine coming on. The intense young man was a catalyst for her woes. The job of a Knight is to protect their ward, and in Mathias' case, Nightingale's Spirit Healer.
Unfortunately, Elvia suspected the young man was unconsciously using her to live out a fantasy. Emily and her father meant well, but Elvia understood that she was, in reality, a nobody. The grand-nephew of a Duke, attending to a peasant? If the fingers and tongues wagging behind her back got any more intense, she'd have to treat them for cramps.
On cue, the door slid apart, drawing sparks with the speed in which the metal rail received the slide-catch.
“Matty!” Elvia hissed, her cheeks puffed. “Shush! We're in a hospital!”
"Kiki!" Kiki likewise berated the careless young man.
“Evee—” Mathias, her assigned Knight, was a propaganda poster come to life. “We’re going to a war zone! Again! Huzzah!”
"SHUSH!" Elvia imagined Kiki suffocating the absurdly handsome face.
From behind the impassioned young Knight came the sound of gratuitous giggling. GOS, like the five other major hospitals in London’s Metropolitan area, was a training ground for junior Nurses. As expected, these young women hailed from good families with top-notch education, talent, and connections. As such, within GOS' student hierarchy were pupils from each of London's three major medical colleges— Nightingale's, Royal Alfred's and Black's.
Sir Mathias Rothwell, with his ash-blonde hair and chiselled jawline, broke hearts with a glance. To say the young man was merely good looking would be an insult, for Mathias was Radiant.
When Elvia first saw the young knight-errant standing behind Emily, her friend and Nightingale's Student Council President, she had been shocked into silence by the grandeur of his presence. It wasn't so much that Mathias was a rare Radiant Mage— after all, Elvia had dined with Gunther Shultz, arguably the most famous Radiant Mage in the world. It was that Mathias’ radiance was untempered, unchecked— raw, oozing out from every pore.
"Do you like him?" Emily cooed as though she had presented Elvia with a puppy Golden Retriever.
"He's amazing." Elvia regretted gushing in turn. She was no more immune to the young man's Radiant Aura than any other, but more than anything, she didn't want to disappoint Emily.
"Mathias is a distant grand-nephew of my father," the future Duchess of Somerset introduced the young man, running her hand from his hair to his hips in the vein of one addressing her favourite stallion. "He's three years older than you, and by all accounts from his tutors, extraordinary."
“Lady Lindholm.” The young man had held Elvia’s hand. To her chagrin, he knelt. “Allow me to profess my loyalty, my fealty, and my love.”
Elvia recalled freezing like a Draconic Deer in the path of Gwen's Void Swarm.
In the aftermath, Emily had told Elvia that their meeting had gone swimmingly. In her eyes, Mathias was a proud young stag with the heritage, talent and education to back up his dreams, and she was afraid he would reject Elvia.
Personally, Elvia would have preferred the rejection.
The worst of it, Elvia had learned months later, was that only the nobility had explicitly assigned guardians. For pissants like herself, the Tower appointed interim Knights for individual assignments. A permanent Knight— such as Mathias, could only be assigned by nobility to their family members. Emily had treated Elvia like a sister— but the fact remained that a Rothwell had bent the knee to a Frontier refugee. Naturally, malicious rumours followed— Mathias was the ideal protector for many a well-bred sorceress. When Elvia finally realised the trouble she was in, her reputation as a bite-sized Whore of Babylon was well-cemented.
“Thanks, Mathias.” Elvia wondered if Gwen had ever felt so overwhelmed. For herself, just dealing with Mathias, Lady Astor, Sylvie and Emily was already making her head twice its size. Additionally, she had work, her patients, the unfriendly seniors, the jealous juniors, the snotty Matrons, and more piling on her plate.
It was enough to drive a girl mad.
“Evee.” Mathias parked his tightly-toned figure in the ward. As usual, he was utterly oblivious to the fact that Elvia had been stealing precious shut-eye on her pilfered gurney. “Shall I go and commandeer supplies for our deployment? I am confident the quartermaster would not dare to deny or shortchange you if I am there. If your equipment is short again, I shall beat him!”
“Kiki!” The Plant Sprite waved a leaf. Unlike Elvia, her Alarune had taken to Mathias like a plant to the sun. “Kikiki!”
“Hey there, Kiki.” Mathias withdrew an HDM crystal and awarded the treat without so much as a blink.
“I know, Matty.” Elvia just felt so tired. “Thank you for always watching out for me. Please do that.”
Her lip service was enough to satisfy the bright-eyed Knight.
“Then I shall be on my way. Lady.” Mathias snapped a salute. “Please rest well.”
BAM! The door slid shut. Outside, there was the sound of Mathias being swamped by the angels in white.
With her Knight gone, Elvia wondered if it was at all possible to go back to sleep. Unfortunately, the lingering impact of the Radiant Knight’s Aura had her body operating on full throttle.
“Aah..." Sylvie pined, her eyes full of stars, half-drunk on the man’s Radiance. “Evee, you’re so lucky. If I were Emily, I would have kept that hunk for myself, so what if he's my nephew? Anyway, my shift is up! See you later.”
With Sylvie gone, Elvia stared at the back of the abused door. On its rear, there was a picture of a Manx Cat, hanging from a clothesline. Matron Maxwell was an enormous feline aficionado and had framed the doors with hundreds of the damned things.
“Hang in there,” Elvia read the words to herself in silence, wondering how her friends were doing half a world away.
Heathrow ISTC Station.
Like most capital transit stations, London’s ISTC sat in a quieter part of the city. A key rationale was for the processing of the thousands of Mages passing through its Teleportation Circles on an hourly basis, and another was for the propensity of said Mages to traffick in illicit materials.
Gwen stood pretty as a statue at the base of the ISTC Mandala, scanning for her handlers. When her eyes floated over a pair of Mages in tightly fitted militant uniforms, the duo moved to accost the new arrival.
“Miss Gwen Song of Sydney?”
“That’s me.” Gwen raised a hand.
“Here.” Gwen produced her Multi-Pass.
The two independently verified her credentials.
"You're a Class VI War Mage?" The older of the guards, a stocky man with a bull's neck, eyed her from crown to toe. "Really now?"
"Yep, that's me." Gwen gave what she hoped was a disarming smile.
“Welcome to Heathrow, Miss Song.” The second speaker, a young woman with fair blonde hair, bowed her head.
“Mmm. I am Sergeant Waterford, and this is Cadet Mills. If you could follow us, please? As you are immigrating from a Frontier, we need to clear you for customs."
"Of course," Gwen returned politely. When she caught her reflection of a mirrored pillar, she performed a double-take. In Yangon, she had worn mini-dress and wedge sandals suitable for sticky summers. After crossing the equator, she had put on a parka to cover her arms and shoulders.
Presently, however, the European Mages around her, the guards included, were each bundled up in multiple layers of clothing. From the ISTC's four-storey windows, she could even see snow blanketing the countryside. Next to an iron gate, mist-huffing guards stood with fur hats and trench coats. Inside, the male travellers wore vests and jumpers, the women, full-length coats and scarves.
Presently, Gwen realised. She must look like a crazy person— that or an exhibitionist.
"Sergeant." She stopped. "Could you excuse me for a second? I'd like to change into something warmer."
"No." The sergeant's curt rebuff was puzzling. "Please follow us to the interview room. Also, please refrain from accessing your Message Device as well as your Storage Ring. Penalties will apply."
Gwen glanced at the female cadet, who nodded meekly.
"Alright." After a quick gander around the spacious interior of Heathrow, she chose compliance. She had no idea what 'Airport' security was like in arguably the busiest hub in Europe and didn't want any trouble, at least not before Evee was in her arms.
"Cadet Mills will confirm your visitation endorsements. I will inspect what you are bringing into London. Once satisfied, you will be released into the city."
“Released?” Gwen realised the man never did return her Multi-Pass, wondering if this had to do with her classification. “What am I, a Dragon?”
Sergeant Waterford remained stoic. The corner of Mills’ lips twitched.
Behind a glass barrier with the words, "Border Control - HEATHROW", was a row of offices built without windows. Sterile and intimidating, the interior of the room was furnished with a bare steel table bolted to the floor, and two chairs.
Gwen sat, as did Sergeant Waterford. Cadet Mills was left standing with a data slate.
“Miss, may I have your name?” Cadet Mills was at least polite.
“Place of Birth?”
“Date of Birth?”
“25th of May, 1986.”
“Highest Level of Education Attained?”
“Of Blackwattle High School.”
“Senior Diploma, Ma'am?”
“Er…” Gwen realised something terrible. “Junior? But I have a senior's certificate. Also, I attended Fudan-Shanghai for three Semesters. So I am technically not a Frontier's woman anymore.”
The two officers looked at one another. Sergeant Waterford snorted.
“Your reason for moving to London?”
Again, the confirmation engendered a longer than usual silence.
“Highest School of Magic Attained?”
“Conjuration, Tier 6.”
“What, all of them?"
“Okay. All of them. Excuse me—”
Gwen interrupted herself when Sergeant Waterford rolled his eyes.
"Not to be rude and interfere with your job." Gwen raised a hand. "But do you not know who I am? Have you picked up the wrong person, perhaps? I am sure there's someone who is supposed to meet me here."
“Employment status?” It was Sergeant Waterford who spoke.
"Just answer the question."
“Where will you be staying in London?”
“A hotel, I’d imagine, near Marylebone, where Evee— Where the Nightingale College is located."
"You DO NOT have a place of residence?"
"Should I? I've only just arrived."
"Name your sponsors, their name, contact and address."
"What?" Now Gwen knew something was wrong. "Listen, Sergeant. I know you have mistaken me for someone else. My name is Gwen Song, and I am here on invitation by the Marchioness of Ely. I am the sister of Master Gunther Shultz of Sydney. You should have seen me on the Vid-Casts. I was in the team going against Pretoria. Now, I understand I may have gotten off the wrong stop. Maybe I was expected in Cambridgeshire. If you could let me out, I am happy to take the next ISTC over and have them deal with me."
“How will you be paying for your stay?”
"Are you even listening?"
"HOW will you be paying for your stay?"
“Sponsorship from Peterhouse.” Gwen's tone grew cold. "Can I speak to your manager?"
“If you’ve brought more than 1000 HDMs into the country, you need to declare the amount.”
“… Oh?” Gwen blinked. Was this what it's about? Could it be a tax thing? "Is there a tax on personal wealth now?"
"I don't make the rules—"
“— You just follow them. FINE." Gwen returned curtly. "I have 112,420 HDMs in credit sticks and minted currency on my person right now. Is that a problem?”
Sergeant Waterford's eyes widened, then he smirked. Gwen recognised the look but did not understand why Waterford looked like a hound jaunting back with a hare in its teeth. Gwen bit her lips in frustration. Something was wrong. The question was whether she had made a mistake in getting off at London, OR if she was caught up in someone else's ploy, OR if said scheme targeted her directly.
Cadet Mills slid a second data slate across the table.
“What is the total value of Magical Items you are bringing to London? Please read sections 1-4 and 2-1, respectively,” Waterford demanded.
Gwen read the slate.
It made no sense.
Dean Luo had said that all she had to do was show up.
Gunther likewise confirmed that someone from London Tower would be awaiting her. No one ever said she had to deal with bean-counting bureaucracy.
Should she play along? Gwen took a moment to consider her options.
Grudgingly, she tallied her Ioun Stones, her Ring of Evasion, her Contingency Ring, Storage Ring, and her yet to be restored Ghosting Amulet, reminding herself that she had an outstanding IOU from Kyoto. Other items such as her babulya's stone of clarity and items of convenience like the Portable Habitat she had forgotten to return, she made a rough estimate.
“Here.” Gwen handed back the slate.
Mills counted the zeros.
“Is this correct? Ma'am?”
“Yes.” Gwen was glad that she gave back Gunther’s Ring. She wasn't an Auctioneer at Sotheby's and would have put down five zeros on reflex.
“You're carrying 26,000 HDMs worth of items on your person...”
“Some of the items are unique.” Gwen's brows furrowed. “Are we done? Can I go now? Important people are waiting for me."
Sergeant Waterford scrolled through the list.
“You have a Spirit on you?”
“It’s a supplement,” Gwen explained. “Think of it as homoeopathic medicine.”
“Can we see it?”
Gwen materialised her jadeite storage box.
“Is that storage device on the list?”
“The box is a Magic Item?” Gwen stared at the box, then realised her stupidity. Hers was a container made from ageless, near-perfect jadeite, hand-carved by Ryxi. In the current jadeite market, the box may be quite priceless. “I suppose it is.”
Before the officers could answer, she opened the box.
“Kii—Kii?” The ginseng stirred. When it caught sight of Gwen, its remaining limbs grew limp. “Kii!”
Gwen patted the root vegetable on the chest, then closed the lid.
The two officers must have stopped breathing at some point because Gwen could hear both of them taking deep breaths.
“We'll need to confiscate that,” Sergeant Waterford stated blankly. “The plant is an illicit Class-III Magical Creature. You’re not allowed to bring un-attuned Magical Creatures into London without an Import Licence, a signed 11-B and a Request for Quarantine 12-C. The penalty for non-compliance is a fine of 10,000 HDMs and prison time up to one year.”
Gwen de-materialised the box.
“I wasn’t informed.” She had it up to her neck with these goons. “Cambridge should have taken care of all my papers.”
“Cambridge does not command Border Control.” Sergeant Waterford's eyes grew hard. “Miss, I am afraid we will need you to empty your Storage Ring.”
“No." Gwen felt her patience wane. "Contact London Tower. Tell them to send someone."
“Are you refusing a lawful request?" The Sergeant's tone was arrogant and rude. Gwen checked with a subtle manifestation of Detect Magic that the room wasn't equipped with anti-magic wards. Thus far, no other ISTC station had shown the slightest interest in her inventory. At any rate, the Sergeant's smug mug made her wish she still had her Dragon-fear.
“Sergeant, I may look like this, but I am not stupid,” Gwen complained. “I know my rights. And I will not empty my ring nor relinquish my inventory. Now be a good Sergeant and go and call your superiors. There has been a terrible mistake. Fix this, and I won't pursue the misunderstanding."
“If you are dissatisfied, you may lodge a formal complaint ONCE we stow the contents of your Ring.” Sergeant Waterford stood, his face growing redder with her every word. “Again, I ask that you remove from your body all magical items, and detail the source of the currency, items and materials you are bringing into London.”
Gwen's complexion grew pink. Her irises took on a vivid hue. Even when some NoM groped her tooshie on the train, she had not felt so annoyed. What the fuck was this motiveless malignancy?
“I am a Class VI War Mage." Gwen wasn't sure if what she said held any weight, but it was worth a try. "Return my Multi-pass to me. Now. Then CALL your superiors."
“Sir.” The cadet leaned toward to her superior, her face ashen. “Maybe we made a mistake?”
Sergeant Waterford turned.
“Cadet! NEVER undermine a superior officer.” Waterford’s snap was so vicious that Mills visibly flinched. “Miss Song! I am warning you—”
There was a sound of steel on concrete. Gwen stood from her chair.
“I stand warned. Are we done?"
Waterford's complexion darkened.
“Give me back my Multi-Pass if I am not welcome in London. Send me back to the ISTC station. You can be sure that I’ll inform Tower Master Gunther Shultz and Lady Grey of Ely that some brainless twat stopped me from entering the city because of bureaucratic inflexibility and an ego-driven power trip.”
Sergeant Waterford closed the distance between them in an instant. Gwen sensed a flood of Transmutation cascading from the man’s body. In Sydney, the officer would have been someone special, but here in London, the man was just a grunt with a badge.
“Gwen Song, you are under arrest for refusing to comply with an officer of Border Control,” Waterford announced. “Your belongings will be confiscated and kept in storage until further notice.”
The cramped room, combined with Sergent Waterford's body odour, was making her claustrophobic. In Singapore, she at least knew her father had fucked up. In Shanghai, it was her grandfather who had her incarcerated for observation. Here in London, she was truly alone. If she allowed this man to take her items, who knew what would happen to them? If she allowed this man to arrest her, who knew where she would end up? Gwen studied the man's bloodshot eyes. Was Ravenport behind this? Her Master's Factional enemies? Perhaps, someone looking to embarrass Lady Grey?
“I am leaving,” Gwen stated coldly, raising her Message Device.
“You’re a smuggler!” Waterford barred her way. “And Devices don’t work here, pissant.”
“Move.” Essence flooded Gwen’s conduits. She no longer had her Dragon-fear, but the methods by which Draconic-Essence was deployed remained ingrained within her body. When she once again gazed into her opponent’s eyes, her irises were twin lanterns vivid with scintillating rainbows. She couldn't turn spines into noodles anymore, but her presence was nothing to scoff at.
Unconsciously, the officer took a step back. Mills whimpered against the wall.
Gwen passed the man now sweating profusely, then approached the door.
It was locked.
Feeding Essence into her arms, she tried the handle again.
It wouldn’t budge. She was hale but no longer a She-Hulk, and her obstacle was designed to withstand Transmuters.
“Go on, leave." Waterford had recovered enough to speak. "What are you going to go? Flee into the city?"
Gwen forced herself to calm. Different from her Draconic days, her fog of indignant rage cleared far quicker than when she was under the influence of Dragon-juice. With an icy clarity, Gwen measured the outcomes of her demolishing the door. Whatever Sergeant shit-for-brains presumed, she was confident that so long as she did not kill anyone, injury and mayhem was perfectly acceptable for someone with her backing. No one wants an angry Alesia in their office, and few bureaucrats in the Tower desired a justified censure from Gunther. If anything, Lady Grey would likely have a stern word with the Border Force's replacement Director.
Satisfied, Gwen placed her hand against the door. Though the mechanism was well-made and enchanted, it was not warded. They were in an office, not an MSS secret prison under the Ministry of Social Welfare.
“Chakram.” She invoked her Signature Spell. Carefully channelling the Void Mana through her Essence-shielded conduits, she neatly sliced at the locking mechanism as though slipping through a credit card.
The mechanism disengaged, the door opened.
"Sir, she IS a Void Mage!" Cadet Mills whispered harshly. "We've—"
“Guards!” her captor was screaming into a communication device. “Code THREE. Female Escapee, on suspicion of currency laundering and smuggling of Magical Creatures. Dark-haired, eighteen years of age, green eyes. She’s leaving the holding section right now—“
Gwen turned, the final syllable for Flashbang on the tip of her tongue, only to be met with Cadet Mills’ pleading eyes.
The spell faded from her lips.
“Keep me covered. Don’t attack even if provoked.”
Her Familiars complied, each assuming their combat forms.
If her Familiars, so instantly recognisable from the IIUC’s international broadcasts didn’t earn her a visit from the higher-ups, then she was indeed caught in the grip of a wide-ranging conspiracy. In that eventuality, she would make as much commotion as possible, ensure that as many pairs of eyes saw that Gwen Song, Class VI War Mage, was causing mayhem.
Only in the dark were these corrupt, arrogant, bureaucratic bastards powerful. In the light of scrutiny, their schemes melted away like morning snow.
Heathrow ISTC Station.
To the complete awe of sticky-beaked valets, a Rolls Royce idled in the Station's reserved parking bay. In all of the United Kingdoms, only fifteen vehicles of the same make and model existed, making the onlookers guess as to which noble was gracing the station for a business trip.
“Milord, I think now might be a good time to intervene,” sounded an imploring voice from the driver’s side seat. “Director Reeves is en route as we speak."
"Very well, Elliot. You know best."
“Aye, milord.” The driver exited the vehicle, then tapped on the passenger-side door. “Acolyte, ready to leave?"
“Yes, Sir Savile," the young man answered, his voice brimming with barely-constrained agitation. "We'd best hurry— before she eats anyone in public.”
A severe sense of déjà vu assaulted Gwen when two dozen guards surrounded her with sonic suppressors. The last time she had been in this exact precarious situation, it had been Alesia refusing to stand down to Walken’s goons.
If so, who was the mastermind this time? What would happen to her if she Chain Lightninged the lot of them?
If anything, Gwen lamented losing her Dragon-Fear yet again. A good AoE jolt of the Dragon-juice was effortlessly capable of disabling the guards via explosive bowels.
“UNSUMMON YOUR FAMILIARS!” the Guard Captain shouted. “NOW!”
The area outside Border Control had been cleared of civilians, though not before Gwen caught the flash of a few lumen-recorders. Where she loathed exposure in Shanghai, she welcomed it in London. With her beautiful Ariel and her big-black Caliban out in public, how could anyone NOT take a lumen-recording?
“BRING ME YOUR MANAGER!” Gwen wasn’t sure what title the highest officer of Border Force held, and so could only act like an ignorant mall-mom. “NOW!”
A sonic suppressor misfired. Perhaps out of nervousness, maybe to test Gwen's resolve. With her Essence encircling her conduits, however, the otherwise agony-inducing device was a minor annoyance.
“Shaa! Shaa!” Caliban sang— its carapace split, driving the men back. Her familiar rather enjoyed the din. “Shaa! SHAA!”
Gwen felt like a fool, but that was the role she now played. Idiots weren't dangerous. Idiots could be pacified. Surely, an idiot who merely stood her ground didn't warrant lethal retaliation. There was no War on Terror in this world, after all, no Fox-News mass hysteria.
“YOUR SUPERIOR, NOW!” Gwen howled, using her Clarion Call. This time, the windows visibly vibrated.
“Maximise output! On my mark!” The Guard Captain, standing in front of a smug Sergeant Waterford, ordered his men for the inevitable. “Miss Song, you have FIVE SECONDS TO COMPLY.”
Groaning internally, Gwen readied her Void Skin and a Lightning Shield. Void Shield had the unfortunate habit of cutting line of sight, and that was something she couldn’t afford right now. With her Essence, Void Skin, and her VMI, she should be able to hold out until someone without shit-for-grey-matter arrived.
“HALT!” A burst of silvery Conjuration gave the Guard Captain pause. A split-second later, the space in between Gwen and the leader of her assailants filled with two figures, one youthful and tall, and the other old and gnarly.
Gwen gasped as recognition dawned, the well-loved contour of the young man's face may as well be an angel sent from heaven.
“R-RICHARD?” she spluttered, her eyes widening. “Oh, thank fuck.'”
“Gwen!” Richard threw both hands up in the air to show that he wasn't dangerous. He then spoke through a silent Message. “Let Lord Savile do the work. “
Richard made the gesture for her to zip it.
Gwen willed her Familiars to calm. The old Magister-looking bloke must be the man initially assigned to pick her up from the ISTC station. If so, then her pointless ordeal was at an end.
The gent behind Richard produced a crest, lighting up the space in front of him with a Coat of Arms so absurd Gwen almost snorted. The projection was a stylised Glyph, one consisting of a single stripe of gules across a white shield with a trio of emerald parakeets.
“Elliot Savile, acting on the order of the Duke of Norfolk. Guard-Captain, you WILL submit your authority to me. Remove your arms, then remove yourselves from my presence.” The hunched Magister's declaration fulminated across Heathrow's grand hall, driving the guards back.
Déjà vu once again suffused Gwen's senses. Wasn’t this what happened last time too? The old guy wasn’t Gunther "Apollo" Shultz, but he was plenty burly in so far as his presence was concerned.
“She’s a smuggler and a trespasser!” Sergeant Waterford’s face was pale with panic. “Do not be fooled, Secretary Savile. She’s carrying hundreds of thousands in illicit funds, including a Spriggan Sprite stolen from lord knows where! Just check her ring!”
"Sergeant." The man called Secretary Savile appeared unfazed. "Where is your superior?"
Another Dimension Door opened, vomiting forth a bespectacled man in a three-piece suit. Others followed, depositing other half-dozen officers. These ones, Gwen could see, were all Combat Mages.
“Sir!” The guards saluted, instantly relieved.
“What’s happened?” The new arrival glanced at Gwen and Richard, then at the wizened Lord in their midst. “Lord Secretary! Why are you here? Have my men offended you?”
“Yes.” The man known as Elliot Saville gestured for Gwen and Richard to gather around.
“Sir!” Sergeant Waterford was bowing and scraping before anyone else could get a word in edgewise. With astounding acuity, he painted Gwen in the colour of his accusation. Gwen seethed, though again Richard held her hand and told her to leave the work to their escort.
Once Waterford finished, the bespectacled Mage turned to Gwen and the Lord Secretary now acting as their shield. “Miss Song, I am Magister George Reeves, Director of Operations here at Heathrow. Is what my Sergeant said true? Are you in possession of the objects and creatures he has identified, and do you lack the necessary paperwork? These are serious crimes..."
Gwen’s stomach sunk. Fucking useless self-serving bureaucrats. “Yes, but—“
“There is NO need to explain yourself, Miss Song.” Richard’s companion interjected, raising a finger to hush her lips. Turning toward the guards and their Director, he thumped the floor. “You have grown too complacent, Director Reeves. She isn't someone you can detain.”
“Check her ring—” Sergeant Waterford was cut off by his Director.
“Lord Savile." The Director adjusted his spectacles. "I would advise against the Grey Faction interfering with border operations—”
“Silence—!“ Savile stopped the man before he could continue. “Is THIS the hill you have chosen to die on, Reeves? Waste my time again, and you'll regret it.”
The Director snorted. “If you think Norfolk can prod and bully—“
To Gwen's amazement, Reeve's voice dimmed. It was as though someone had suppressed the ambient volume around them. In so far as a chantless Silence was concerned, its size and fineness were astounding.
“Miss Song, Mister Huang.” Elliot Savile turned to Gwen and Richard again. The Mage then gestured to the far exit. “Shall we? I am sorry your arrival in London has become so unpleasant. Not to worry, heads will roll."
“We're just going to leave?” Gwen was incredulous. There's still a dozen guards, more on the way, a Director and his cock-brained sergeant hurling abuses! How the hell is anything resolved? Was Savile senile? They've still got her Multi-Pass!
“Gwen, we better listen to what he says.” Richard had been holding Gwen's hand the whole while. “Send away Ariel and Caliban. You're already late for your appointment in Cambridge, or so I am told.”
“I have an appointment?”
“I was going to see Elvia.”
“You will.” Richard squeezed her hand. “Gwen, have patience. Right now, we’re out of our depth. WAY out of our depth.”
Their eyes met.
Richard's eyes were unblinking and full of gravity.
“Fine,” Gwen ordered her Familiars to disperse.
The trio advanced, Savile parted the guards like Moses parting the Red Sea.
“You won’t hear the last of this!” Director Reeves' voice was barely a whisper. “I'll have you censured, Savile! What you're doing is a blatant abuse of power!”
Once outside, Gwen breathed in the air of frigid freedom with gulping breaths. There was already a ring of bright-eyed reporters taking pictures of the Lord, the nobody and the girl wearing not very much.
"Thank God you arrived with Lord Savile, Richard," Gwen said to her cousin, then bowed towards their rescuer. "My most sincere thanks, Lord Savile. Your aid is most timely."
"No need to thank me." Savile gestured to the shadows, his voice deep and raspy. "Your benefactor is over yonder. We should hurry if you do not wish to be tardy. Lady Grey is holding Hall in your honour."
"O?" Gwen followed. "We'd best hurry, then."
The man quickened his pace, behind them, the stickybeaks dispersed, though the paparazzi followed. Ahead, Gwen caught sight of the most expensive personal possessions she had ever seen, barring Gunther's ring.
“Wow, a Rolls Royce,” Gwen gushed, slapping Richard's rigid body. “Moving up in the world, Dick!”
Still holding her slender fingers, Richard’s hands grew clammy.
All around them, the December snow fell like cotton, the crystallised motes of water clinging to anything remotely warm.
Ten meters away, the door of the Rolls Royce swung open with a will of its own. Gwen whistled. From what she could see, the spacious interior was impossibly large. From the unique mana signature, she recognised the same Spatial Magic used for the Towers interior. If so, how bloody expensive was this car?
"Wait!" Richard pulled her back. "You're just going to get in?"
Gwen staggered, her legs akimbo, slipping on sleet. With both hands, she gripped Richard's coat. "Jesus, Dick, what the hell?"
"W-why are you so weak?" Richard groped her arms, confused as to the unexpectedly soft body clinging onto his neck. To make sure, he gave her shoulders a shake. "What's wrong? What's happened? Did they do something to you in there?"
"No, this is my fault." Gwen righted herself. Peeling away Richard's hands, she punched him in the chest. "Be careful, will you? I am an old lady."
Richard waited for her to adjust her sandals. Struck by a sudden thought, her cousin unzipped her blazer, saw what the parka hid, then re-fastened the zipper. "Why are you wearing a summer dress? It’s two degrees out! My balls are up in my pelvis.”
“Four hours ago, I was in Burma!” Gwen adjusted her jacket. “It was thirty-four in Singapore and thirty-two in Yangon, with a humidity of ninety! That’s when I last stepped out of an ISTC station. Besides, I feel fine. Nothing wrong with a refreshing breeze on the old stalks."
She unzipped her parka. "At least I am immune to cold still."
Richard zipped shut her parka again. Her cousin looked as though he was enduring great mental and physical anguish. "Forget about the dress. Gwen. Didn't your mother teach you never to get into a stranger's car?"
"That's a Rolls Royce, you know. Not a candy van. And those are reporters." She pointed to the men with their Lumen-recorders. "Why?"
"Do you even know who's in there?"
"Our contact from Cambridge? It's not like I can go back to the ISTC station. I don't have my Flight Licence either."
Richard's jaws clenched. "Look, just listen to what I have to say, and stay calm."
“Fine.” Gwen glanced at the leather interior of the Rolls Royce. There was someone in there, but the air was all fuzzy. Considering her near-perfect vision, she figured it was a part of the Spatial Magic.
Richard shook her shoulders. "Gwen, focus, look at me."
"Okay." Gwen obediently gazed into her cousin's eyes.
"The Duke of Norfolk is in that car, and he's offered to chaperon your passage to Cambridge."
"A Duke! How fancy!"
"The Duke of Norfolk— is Mycroft Ravenport."
It took several seconds for the words to filter through her head. Ten-thousand mud-grass horses imported from the steppes of northern China stampeded through her mind in the time a dozen snowflakes kissed Richard's cheeks.
"As to why I am here as a willing captive." Her cousin's Adam's apple bobbed. "Did you know that he's also an ex-Provost of King's College, Cambridge?"
"But you're in Wolfson."
"Not anymore." Richard's complexion alternated between passion and ashen. "I've been inducted into King's College, Gwen. My childhood dream, the impossible goal I set for myself when I enrolled in Prince's— it's come true."
Gwen considered the implication of Richard's words.
The warm interior of the Rolls awaited.
The cold whipped at her bare legs.