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Cambridge.
Old Court.

The exterior of “Hall”, the building in which Formal Hall was held, overlooked the frosted lawns of the Old Court facing the east and Deer Park facing north-west.

As an ancient institution, Peterhouse’s Courtyard projected the stoicism of its Laudian Gothic origins. Its interior, comparatively, preserved an older history, favouring the contoured geometry beloved by the Renaissance architects. Within the hall, against a foundation of dark, lacquered wood, vibrant compositions of priceless stained glass, centuries-old and Pre-Raphaelite, depicted the Acts of St Peter, from his adoration of Christ to his crucifixion by Nero.

In the lesser-parlour, a few doors from the Hall, Gwen made use of a converted prayer chamber to change into subfusc attire. From her ring, she picked a long-sleeved ivory blouse, a bell-skirt in black, and a pair of matching heels. Once she was ready, Richard aided her by slipping the Acolyte’s gown over her shoulders, aligning her sleeves and fluffing out her ermine-lined hood.

In a further room, the sound of stirring voices thrummed against the acoustically sensitive ironwood wall.

Thunk! Thunk!

“Miss Song, it’s time,” came the warning from the beadle. “Her Marchioness awaits your arrival.”

“It’s time for me to go.” Gwen brought Richard’s face closer, then kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, Dick. You can go back to King’s now if you like. I don’t know how long Hall is going to take.”

“I’ll wait.” Richard indicated to the lounge. “I am an undergraduate, not underage. My curfew is quite lax.”

“There are teenagers my age attending College?”

“Sure, the older bloodlines tend to kick-in early.” Richard snorted. “For someone who doesn’t look a day over sixteen, you're such an old soul.”

“Aww, thanks, Richard.” Gwen laughed. “It warms my ancient bones to hear you say that.”

She reached for the door.

“A word of advice?” Richard politely discouraged his cousin. “Don't duel in a seven-century old building.”

 

 

The Marchioness of Ely stood under the portraits of her predecessors, proctoring two long tables of Peterhouse’s elites, each in their colour-coded regalia. As per tradition, each member of Peterhouse present on campus did their best to attend Formal Hall when called by its Master.

Justine Loftus observed the swaying gowns with satisfaction; as usual, Formal Hall filled her with a sense of accomplishment.

For Acolytes, the all-black gown ceased at three-quarter length, reaching just above the knees. For the graduate Magus, their vestment sported an ivory moth-silk inlay, with hems reaching the ankle. Comparatively, the lauded Magister’s gown was scarlet, with a black silk inlay and a hooded cloak lined with the finest fur from the endangered Snowdonian Stoat.

For all three variations, a silk-trimmed sash with coloured "bands" indicated their principle Schools of Magic.

Sunburst for Evocation.
Pale nimbus for Abjuration.
Silver for Conjuration.
Ivory for Divination.
Gold for Enchantment.
Lapis for Illusion.
And Tyrian purple for Transmutation.

Had one of Peterhouse's Meisters attended, their gowns would consist of gold-weaved, bible-black moth-silk, with a double-folded sash and sleeves in retina-searing scarlet.

The more carmine that graced a Houses’ Hall, therefore, the more lauded its reputation.

“Students, Maguses, Magisters.” Justine Maxwell Loftus, Mistress of Peterhouse, raised a glass to toast the double doors prefacing the entrance. “I give you our newest inductee, Apprentice to our beloved Master Kilroy and sister to Lord Gunther Shultz and the esteemed Lady De Botton— Miss Gwen Song of Sydney!”

The beadles at the door pulled back the oaken panels, revealing a girl with a beaming face, her complexion as white as lilies, her eyes so bright as to almost appear prismatic.

A murmur broke out among the Magisters. The students themselves remained silent, studying their newest competitor.

The youthful sorceress curtsied expertly, then threaded her way between the two tables, her slender white legs appearing and disappearing between the gown’s folds. Against the fossilised oaken floor, her heels clicked, tip-tapping in dual-toned staccato. The older alumni nodded with approval. The younger Acolytes turned to one another with wiggling brows before returning their attention to the scented body drifting through their midst.

No one spoke a word, though a Diviner would have rolled their eyes at the sheer volume of invisible, Silent Messages bouncing off the vaulted ceiling.

Lady Loftus smiled, happiness blossoming across her still-youthful face.

A few meters from the Lady, Gwen curtsied again. Of all the Mages present, she alone did not possess a single colour— her attire was stark and without adornments.

“Turn around, Gwen,” the Lady commanded. "Do try to impress."

Gwen did as told.

Their new arrival faced the crowd. At once, an indescribable presence radiated from her svelte silhouette. It was an aura of life, of fresh dew on the first day of spring, of thawing brooks frigid with ice melt. Looking at her hopeful, luminous face, her onlookers forgot for a moment that outside, Cambridgeshire was still in the grip of winter.

With relish, Master Justine Loftus produced the multi-coloured stole she had commissioned for the occasion. Working the cloth under Gwen's collar, a tapestry denoting every School of Magic marked the scarf hanging from her shoulders.

The ones closest to the head of the table were the first to inhale sharply. Each by each, the Silent Messages ceased until all present— forty-two sorcerers and sorceresses, stared at the girl. From her contoured heels, their eyes travelled up Gwen's scandalous interpretation of subfusc to arrive at the rainbow-hued sash now completing her gown.

Amused by the cohort's reaction and with Gwen standing by her side, the unwavering Mistress of Peterhouse offered the traditional benediction of the Nazarene.

“Benedic nos Domine, et dona Tua, quae de Tua largitate sumus sumpturi, et concede, ut illis salubriter nutriti, Tibi debitum obsequium praestare valeamus, per Christum Dominum nostrum, Amen.”

“Amen,” the gathered returned.

“Deus est caritas, et qui manet in caritate in Deo manet, et Deus in eo: sit Deus in nobis, et nos maneamus in ipso. Amen.”

“Amen,” their newest compatriot repeated after the others — when in Rome and all that.

When the Lady spoke again, her magnificent voice filled the cathedral- vaults of the dining hall.

“PETERHOUSE!” Lady Grey toasted the crowd. “Let us welcome our youngest sister! Let us toast the induction of the Mageocracy's first OMNI-MAGE into our abode!”


Hall itself proved to be a simple three-course affair, featuring an entrée of seafood, followed by a main of Australian Auroch cheeks paired with an exotic salad of Wildland origin. Dessert was poached pear in Manuka honey, followed by tea and biscuits.

For Gwen, the hour-long affair was an endless stream of expectant faces.

The Senior Bursar, the Steward, The Dean, the Chaplain, the Archivist, the Senior Tutor, the Tutor for Discipline and Etiquette, the Matron of Accommodations, the College Secretary, and finally Lady Loftus’ assistant-secretary, all made their presence known.

Of the long list of names bobbing through the sea of faces, some were warm, others cold, and many disbelieving. Chief among the sceptics stood the Praelector, an individual whose role was similar to Richard’s Praetorian status at Prince’s.

“Ollie Edwards.” The post-graduate Magus introduced himself. Beneath a head of light brown hair, Ollie possessed elfin features and tapered ears that hinted at an unusual bloodline. From the looks of his colours, the man was a Conjurer-Illusionist-Enchanter. “I’ll be responsible for your discipline, Miss Song.”

“Oh?” Gwen allowed the man to take her hand. “What will you be teaching me?”

“Self-discipline and camaraderie,” Lady Loftus appended. “Unlike London Imperial, Oxbridge utilises a system of peers. We are all obligated to one another to uphold the reputation of Cambridge and Peterhouse. If you blunder, your tutors and especially Ollie, as your Praelector, will be punished accordingly for failing to guide you. Myself, as well, pending the scale of your disturbance.”

“That hardly seems fair.” Gwen looked from the aquiline-nosed young man to her patron. “Collective punishment?”

The Lady nodded. “Once you graduate, your fellows will be your siblings-in-study. As alumni, we walk shoulder to shoulder. To put matters in an oriental fashion, you could think of the constituent colleges as Sects. Whatever you choose to do, Gwen, think of your peers. What you can do for them, and what they may do for you as well. The practice may seem abstract, but it has served Oxbridge well.”

So Oxbridge functions as a result of Nash’s Equilibrium? Gwen digested Lady Loftus' words. Do that which is best for oneself and all parties, assuming that all parties pursued what is best for others and themselves. If indeed all parties, including King’s, lauded the same philosophical tenant, then it would serve to explain Ravenport’s rationale. Everything was on a balanced scale. To harm her or her loved ones would disturb the universe. For her to act without thought would likewise cause an imbalance. For both herself and Ravenport, doing what was best for themselves, and also the Mageocracy, was "win-win"— personal feelings notwithstanding.

The same, Gwen realised, must apply to her tight-lipped brother-in-craft. In silence, Gunther had taken the best course of action to ensure that Sydney benefited and she benefited. In exchange, Ravenport mitigated his son’s scandal and profited in the process. That was why Gunther was confident she would be left untouched in London.

What the Duke of Norfolk must have feared was that in her passion and inexperience, she would pull the wrong brick from underneath a leaning tower.

Realising the depth of Ravenport's plot, Gwen felt goosebumps crawling up her thighs.

“Don't worry. You'll get to know your peers later." Lady Loftus rose to deliver a short, final speech, signalling the approach to the end of Hall. “Take a rest— then we’ll talk in private.”

 

Peterhouse.
Master’s Suite.

Gwen sipped on sweet cherry brandy, allowing the sticky liqueur to cling to her tongue.

Opposite, attired in a cotton blouse and a long skirt that trailed the floor, the Lady retained her stately aura. In Gwen's eyes, Lady Loftus’ handsomeness indicated both excellent breeding and good education. Without ceremony, she exuded an impeccable aura of gentility. For the Marchioness, there was no need to “make up” for what nature had not bestowed.

The interior of the Master’s suite was modest by the standards of the colleges. Considering that Peterhouse was one of the wealthiest in London, the furnishings were frugal. When the Lady saw Gwen’s eyes darting from divan to fireplace to old drapes, she smiled and explained that the scholarly Monks of Ely, the College’s founders, did not wish the estate burdened by material comforts. She then took a stab at King’s, as well as Trinity, a seminary whose wealth equated the bottom twenty colleges combined. Then, after some intimate small talk of family, Gwen "dobbed in" her encounter with Ravenport.

“Dickie can be such a boar.” Lady Loftus twisted her lips, savouring the pun.

“Dickie?”

“That's what we call Mycroft. It was originally Mickie, coined when we were children, around the time of the Pan-Europe Conflict. We were all children back then. At the war's height, us 'heirs' were moved to the Duke of Edinburgh's rural estate to avoid accidental, violent deaths.”

“How did Mickie become Dickie?”

“Oh, the name was a gift from Aunt Angie, that’s the queen’s mother, who got confused with the nick-names. I mean, there were thirty of us.” Lady Loftus laughed. “For some reason, she kept calling him Dickie, so the kids did as well. It drove Mycroft up the wall. Of course, the more he protested, the more it struck. Children can be so cruel.”

Gwen chuckled.

Mycroft Ravenport, the unseen hand of London and the big Don of the Grey Faction, and now also “Dickie". In her mind, she imagined Ravenport's laughing face when he threatened to cut her up for parts, then juxtaposed that image with a peevish red-faced boy screaming, "Not Dickie! NOT DICKIE! STOP CALLING ME DICKIE!"

Also, did Lady Loftus just casually name drop that she chummed with the Queen as a child? The Queen of England, her Majesty, the ageless Elizabeth the Second? Her Majesty was older than the Marchioness, was she maybe like an older sister?

“If that rooting hog tyrannises you again." Lady Loftus' smile was gentle as felt genuine. "Remind him that even if 'Dickie' becomes Prime Minister, it doesn't make him any less of a 'Dickie'. Step out of line, and Lilibet will put him in his rightful place."

Gwen wasn’t sure how that helped or who Lilibet could be— but assured the Lady that "Dickie" would get an earful.

“And rest assured, Dickie won’t touch your friends or family.” Lady Loftus patted Gwen’s hand. “It's not how we do things here. If the War of the Roses has taught us anything, it is that ruling a barren throne is about as worthwhile as lording over a Necropolis. Dickie excelled in history. No, he won't dare.”

Gwen was amazed. In Asia, threatening to maim friends and family was the number one solution to all conflicts. Even stepping on toes engendered a "Do you know who my father is?" or "I'll fuck your eighteenth generation ancestors!" She had seen it play out in real life. Maymyint threatened Mayuree, Huashan threatened Lulan, the Communists took heirs as hostages, and Eunae had fallen victim to her father's potential dismissal.

“He fears your retaliation as much as you fear his," the Marchioness continued. "Dickie has other children too, you know.”

“He does?”

“Three— well, TWO sons. And a daughter. Edmund and Charlene are from his second wife. Charlene attends Cavendish. Assuming she knows of the feud, I would keep a wide berth. If not, she's a pleasant enough lass.”

“Four children! Isn’t Dickie a Dust Mage?” Gwen marvelled.

“Three now. Is that so strange?”

“But, Negative Energy, magical power and fertility...”

“Dickie hasn’t used his talent since attaining admiralty.” Lady Loftus met Gwen’s eyes. “Or so the tabloids report. Now, if you don’t mind, can we not debate the viability of Mycroft’s loins?”

“Sorry.” Gwen bit her tongue, realising that she had struck the English variation of "Don't ask, Don't tell". It was the same as how the "incorruptible" Communists in China turned a blind eye to political horse-trading.

“Has Henry ever spoken of me?” Lady Loftus took a sip of her cherry brandy.

“I am afraid Master wasn’t very forthcoming.” Gwen touched the subject with a gentle prod. If the Lady’s relationship and Henry was one of friendship, then she should feel disappointed. Had they been more than friends; Gwen sensed she might be in danger.

“Oh…”

“He was very tight-lipped,” Gwen added. “Mark Chandler had me hog-tied and put up for auction before Master bothered explaining Sobel’s connection to his stake in Void Magic.

“The Chandler incident— that was you?” Lady Grey raised her brows, then sighed. “Gunther kept a tight lid on the events in Sydney. I wished that Henry could have trusted us more. We may have prevented Sobel’s infiltration.”

“Is... Dickie, in actuality, unassociated with Sobel?” Gwen followed up with a question that desperately needed answers.

Lady Grey studied her face.
Gwen made herself as earnest as possible.

“A dangerous topic for an unaffiliated Acolyte,” Justine Loftus sighed. “All I will say is that Henry was a great deal-maker with ties to many power brokers. After the Great Restoration, those factions formed into loose coalitions, eventuating into the Greys, the Militants and those who remained unaffiliated. I can't offer you a 'Yes' or 'No' to your question because you lack the context and the position to grasp its ambiguity."

“I wonder if I'll ever know my Master’s past," Gwen lamented, a hint of exasperation creeping into her voice.

“Get yourself a Magister’s robe first and foremost,” Lady Loftus chortled. “As always, if you listen to the stories from each side, you’ll get a different truth. Those are the arrangements Henry had put in place when instituting the Tower system.”

Gwen nodded.

“I’ve heard so much about the Factions.” Gwen changed the topic, meandering away from her Master. “So, am I a part of the Middle Faction?”

“Doubtlessly.” Lady Loftus raised a critical brow.

“It’s just that.” Gwen looked guilty. “Sometimes, I am fairly sure Alesia is on an unerring militant warpath. Between the three of us, only Gunther truly embodies Master's philosophy."

“A curious observation. And how do you see yourself positioned?”

"I do believe in Noblesse Oblige, but I want to carry on Master's Legacy my way."

"Do go on."

“While I was in Shanghai—” Gwen explained. “— and throughout the IIUC, I was consumed by this thought. Lady Loftus, to be entirely forthright with you, what do you know of my extracurricular endeavours? You know that I've brought in a great deal of currency and that I have made connections with otherworldly beings, yes?"

“Likely not to the degree that Dickie professes to know.” Loftus replaced her wine.

“You're too kind.” Gwen took a deep breath, knowing that now was the time to make a good impression, not to mention secure her foothold in London. In Shanghai, when the possibility of her migration materialised, she thought immediately of expanding her operations. Now, Gwen desired to reopen her shop in London. Considering Ravenport's threats, she had to get Justine on her side as soon as possible. “Lady Loftus, there are a few notable capital ventures which I wish to present for your benefit. If you have some time, I would like to give you a quick introduction…”

Gwen stood, her pearly whites flashing brightly.

“No need for formality.” Lady Loftus motioned for her to sit. “I would like to think of you as a niece of sorts— perhaps a grand-niece, considering your age.”

“You’re far too youthful to be a grand-aunt.” Gwen took a few steps back to give herself some room. “Do you mind if I use illusions?”

“How ostentatious—” Lady Loftus appeared impressed by her confidence. “Very well, if you believe me so easily persuaded…”


“Holy shit, Dick, I am so sorry!” Gwen burst into the common-lounge, finding Richard encircled by her new peers from Peterhouse. There was a lad with light-grey hair and dark eyes, and two girls looking very English indeed in their empire-waisted night-dresses. “Oh… am I disturbing anything?”

“Thanks for the head’s up, Richard.” The young man inclined his aristocratic chin. He turned to Gwen, then bowed. “It was a pleasure to meet you at Hall today, Miss Song. I look forward to your contribution to Peterhouse.”

“Thank you.” Gwen waited for the man to introduce himself. Instead, the Acolyte politely made his exit.

“Rachel Clarke, Magus.” The older-looking of the two girls, a blonde, approached to shake her hand. “Welcome to Peterhouse, Gwen.”

“Harriet Cornwall, I am an Acolyte like you.” The second, a brunette, nervously shook Gwen’s fingers. “Richard’s been telling us about your exploits. I’ve seen you on the broadcast, but to think so many details were left out.”

“When are you going to bring out Golos?” The first girl’s eye gleamed. “I am a Conjurer-Diviner, and I don’t have a Spirit yet. BUT, you've got TWO and a Planar Ally. To say I am envious would be an understatement.”

“Stuff the Wyvern.” Harriet’s eyes sparkled. “Where’s Ariel?”

Ah, Gwen glanced at Richard, realising her cousin has been laying down the groundworks.

“I’ll be more than happy to bring them out.” Gwen indicated for the girls to sit. “But it’s midnight, so we'll have to be very discrete.”

“Okay.”
“Agreed.”

The girl sat demurely on the ancient, mustard-coloured lounges.

“Ariel!”

“EEEE!” Ariel materialised with a somersault, eyes gleaming, rainbow coat shimmering and waving its stubby stag horns to and fro. Attached to its perky bottom, a furry fantail, shrouded in nimbus, waved back and forth. “EE?”

“OH MY GOD!” Rachel’s voice was loud enough to summon the dead. “ARIEL YOU ADORABLE BABY!”

“AEEEEEEE!” Harriet squealed, her dignity dissipating before Ariel’s charmed assault. “SO SOFT! ARRRRRRRGH! IT’S LICKING ME!”

“Gwen, you’re officially my chum! Ariel, want an HDM? Yes, you do!”

The Magus dropped a fist full of precious crystals on the couch. When Ariel landed in her lap, the girl appeared as though she was about to lose her mind.

WHAM! A door opened.

The familiar face of Ollie Edwards burst into the lesser-lounge. “What's happened? The Acolytes are trying to sleep, for Peter's sake! You lot better not be engaged in salacious—”

The Praelector’s furious eyes fell to Gwen, who stared back wide-eyed and innocent. Across from her, one of the girls rubbed Ariel’s tail all over her face, while the other made sweet moans as the Kirin licked her fingers.

Ollie Edwards, the man responsible for Gwen's proper behaviour, craned his neck; on his jugular, a vein throbbed.

The girls looked ashamed. Richard gave her dorm officer a nod.

“Mr Huang, please return to King’s. Our visiting hours are between eight AM to six PM.”

“Of course, Praelector Edwards,” Richard bowed his head. “I shall leave at once.”

“Miss Song,” Edwards gulped. “If you could refrain from—“

Other students, having heard the commotion, were now emerging into the lounge. When the young men saw their Omni-Mage “little sister” sitting with her immodest skirt, stretching across the old divan, their hearts sang. When more of the women caught sight of Ariel, all thoughts of the Praelector’s authority flew out Peterhouse’ gothic windows.

“A Kirin!”
“I’ve seen it on the broadcast!”
"If that dress is subfusc, I am a Bridge Troll..."

“STUDENTS—“ Ollie cried out, only to be interrupted by yet more Acolytes emerging from the lower court.

“Caliban! Where’s Caliban!”
“I want to see the Wyvern!”
"Blood of Christ! It's Ariel in the flesh!"

“RETURN TO YOUR DORM!” The Praelector began to realise what the presence of Gwen Song in Peterhouse’s midst might signify for its resident disciplinarian. “GO! NOW!”

Against his orders and encouraged by their numbers, the students Messaged their peers in Gisborne, informing them that a bona fide Draconic-Spirit was freely floating around the lesser-lounge, free to molest for anyone adventurous enough to try.

“Feel this. It’s SO SOFT.”
“TOUCH THE BELLY!”

“EE! EE!”

“It sings!”
“Someone get my Lumen-Recorder!”
"HDMs for Ariel!"

“Everyone…” Ollie Edwards felt a tightness in this chest. Inexplicable helplessness gripped his torso, sapping all strength from his body even as his temple throbbed. Glaring at the Void Sorceress, he wondered if this was the infamous Void Aura that sapped one’s life-force. The Lady did say to be careful around Gwen, and always to regulate his mana.

“It’s alright, mate.” Richard, who was now leaving, patted the young man on the shoulder. “You’ll get used to it. Just do your best to stay afloat for the next year, then pass her on to the next Praelector."

 

 

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