All across England, from John O' Groats to Land's End, the clinking of silverware on porcelain aligned like a synchronised ceremony. Butlers, the stoic sentinels of propriety, awoke their masters and mistresses for church and or business. Downstairs in every manor; scones, cream, and jam were warmed and plated, ready to be served with a strong Assam from India's Orange Zones, alongside the day's paper.
At seven-thirty, having relieved the First Footmen, or Head Maid, pending the proprietor of the estate; both lords and ladies perused the latest national gossip.
The weekend marked the week-in-summary edition of the Herald Sun and the Telegraph, meaning extra-thick papers weighted with classifieds.
The Sun's double-page jacket, with its eye-catching red letters, featured a picture of Gwen Song, her eyes all aurora, her figure sleek and svelte in her Shen-teī battleplate. In Brittanic Bold, the plosive "EATEN ALIVE" was what the editors had chosen to ensnare eyeballs, followed by the non-sensical standfirst, "Devourer engulfs Ystradfellte".
In a smaller, blue-tinted teaser for page 3, the words "Nothing to Hide" prefaced a picture of the Void sorceress' flushing face. Should the discerning buyer turn immediately to said page, what they would then find was more gainful employment for Miss— a buxomly gifted sorceress of petite talent. Assuming the reader could tear their eyes away from the compelling article on Miss Caterina's favourite food— "Fish and Chips", they would then find a small expose on Void Magic. That, and an image of Gwen standing beside a timid Mage in Cambridge robes, alongside a gruff Dwarf. Should a customer inquire whether the sorceress was Ravenport's daughter, the paper did offer an apology— on page 9, in a tiny grey amendment box.
Next to the Sun, the Telegraph, its editors possessing a keener sense of authenticity— chose to go with an image of Gwen standing amidst a dark swarm of lampreys. The headline, "One Woman Purge" was front and centre. What its teaser showed was a fair-haired Cleric with a flower Spirit on one shoulder, and a Mandrake on her palm. "Strength of Spirit" was the name of the page 5 article, composed so that the judicious reader was awarded a close up of Sen-sen, a cross-continental Ginseng from Huangshan. In a smaller teaser, advocating for page 8, one could read an interview with Gwen Song's feathered white Wyvern.
Turning the pages, a few browsers sipped their tea a few seconds too long and scalded their tongues. Other raised brows and requested that their majordomos filled in the details.
Who could have imagined that; uninvited, a single sorceress would gnaw her way through the Red Gulch, erasing all green-skin presence for the next quarter, freeing mines for deep-ranging excavation? Who could guess that the same sorceress had then befriended the Commandrumm of the Hammer Guard, requesting a city-wide tour of the Red Citadel? Who should have expected that said sorceress now held within her palm, a twin-Spirited Cleric, and a freshly-harvested Hag-Core from her Wyvern's arse?
Lord Mycroft Ravenport wordlessly nibbled on a brittle scone as he scanned the tabloid, first quickly, then again in detail. After the last tidbit of misinformation was digested, he willed his Message Device into life.
Ding! The spell connected.
"You've reached Dominic Lorenzo," a tired, just awoken voice replied. "May I ask who this is?"
"The cockatrice croaked thrice."
"Three times I denied the Nazarene." The Diviner was now wide awake.
"God save the wicked."
The resultant pause was held a little too long for comfort.
"How may I be of service."
"I am told you know Gwen Song in a personal capacity?"
"Knew her since Friday, Milord. I am well acquainted with her sister-in-craft, however."
"Who is your handler?"
"Magister Milliford. Your Grace."
"Joan? I see. I'll have Saville debrief your Master. My apologies for the… unsanctioned contact."
"Quite alright, Sir. We are the Mageocracies' eyes and ears. We live to serve."
"Yes." Ravenport sipped his tea. "Now, I wish to know every detail. Leave no act untapped."
"I... was on the front page once." Lady Loftus sipped her tea, seated across the table from a fresh-faced Gwen and an eye-bagged Ollie. "I was sixteen and coming out. Lord Wembley's boy, Jeremiah, invited me to first-dance. Acting on a dare from his Eton mates, he kissed me without permission, in public. I struck the boy twice— like this…"
The Lady Grey mimed a Mage Hand. "— The cad lost two of his front teeth. Father was furious, of course. Lord Wembley came to apologise personally, and poor Jem went about without his incisors for the better part of a year while father's upset simmered."
Lady Loftus allowed the cup to rest; her expression remained contemplative.
"Jem died after the Beast Tide. Near Merthyr Tydfil, in fact, to Trolls. We found his body eventually, though not all of it."
The matron sighed. "How curious— I haven't thought about Jeremiah in two decades."
"I am sorry to hear that," Gwen apologised. From the looks of Ollie's apprehension, Lady Loftus wasn't the type to outwardly show upset.
"Don't mind me. Just an old woman's musing." Lady Loftus reheated her Assam with a glance. "You'll be going to London then?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Gwen nodded. "Elvia and I will be visiting the galleries and the museums, maybe watch a show or two."
"No word from our Dwarven compatriots?"
"Not yet, Milady."
"I see. You must remember, London has the highest concentration of Mages anywhere on earth, not to mention Demi-human dignitaries. Any Mage worth her salt in sorcery must tread as if on air. Ollie?"
"I'll take care of Gwen, Mistress."
"You just do your best. Gwen, will you be visiting the Isle? I've told Wally you'll be gracing his presence and needing his full cooperation."
"I shall." Gwen bowed her head.
The Isle of Dogs was the leasehold Lady Loftus had lent to Gwen as a base of operations. Located some ten kilometres from London Bridge, the underdeveloped peninsular skirted the River Thames on all sides sans north. Presently, the Marchioness' men operated a farm for unique breeds of quasi-magical domesticated animals, including kennels with breeding prize-winning hunting hounds. Boundary wise, Gwen's jurisdiction began and ended with the farm and its surrounding hamlets— Cubitt and Millwall.
Gwen herself had been stunned by the Machioniness' generosity.
In the forgotten dimension of her mundane world, the Isle of Dogs was prime real estate. In the late 80s, the revitalisation of Canary Wharf Station had completely revitalised its dilapidated, outdated, decaying infrastructure. In the 90s, following an uptick in land speculation, the Isle rapidly consolidated into an office and retail mecca, kicking out the very dockworkers that the redevelopment initially sought to aid.
In Gwen's present London, no such developments had yet taken place, and the Isle continued to remain a bastion of close-knit communities tethered like beasts of burden to the yoke of Canary Wharf and Millwall's shipyard. The port authority of the Isle currently suffered from poor management and a lack of understanding of the location's importance, primarily as a result of prejudice toward the NoM ghetto-townhouses.
Wally Samson was the custodian of the Isle, overseeing Lady Grey's puppy mill. A Mage of small talent, Wally was the son of the Marchioness' ageing ground keeper, having returned from Military Service to receive a coveted position as a custodian for Ely's many properties.
"Well, then." The Lady indicated for the tabloids to be moved downstairs to be savoured by the servants. "Shall we expect you before or after New Years?"
"After." Gwen bowed again. "Thank you for your understanding, ma'am."
The Lady appeared to rest her case but then decided against reticence.
"The 'rags' are a double-edged blade, Gwen. I hope you know what you're doing. They're like Gnolls— not impossible to tame, but completely comfortable with biting the hand that feeds."
Gwen assured the Lady that she knew her goals.
"Good, then I shall leave you with an axiom from my mother," Lady Loftus intoned carefully. "Maxie— make some trouble out there, but if an angry mob stampedes my garden, God help you..."
Nightingale's College, London.
As one of the big three Medical Colleges responsible for churning out the Mageocracy's frontline healers, the college took great pride in the location of its leasehold, being situated directly adjacent to Westminster Bridge, opposite the palace of the same name, overlooking the Thames.
The brutalist building itself, however, did not echo the grandeur of its surroundings. As celebrated as Florence Nightingale was during her tenure, there was significant opposition to her philosophy that magical healing was for both NoMs and Mages. There was also her unorthodox view that vast numbers of low-tier quasi-magical nurses utilising magical instruments trumped the training of Faith-fuelled Clerics.
As a keen student of biographies, Ollie informed Gwen that Florence was first a graduate and then an instructor at King's College. Under Queen Victoria, the founder of Elvia's college came into prominence for her actions during the Crimean Conflict against the Demi-humans of Central Asia. The present-day college itself was converted from St Thomas' Hospital, underwritten by King's into a secular medical school in recognition of Nightingale's achievements during the war.
Also according to her Praelector, Nightingale's represented a curious bridging of the Mage-NoM divide. The Crimean Conflict, alas, was the first publicised instance in which a prominent, frontline individual at the highest tier of Victorian Spellcraft demanded practical healthcare for NoMs. Namely, the radical Miss Nightingale fought for the sanitation of NoM infantry hostels, triage stations, healing tents, and the placement of one lower-tier healer for every fifty or so NoM infantrymen. Incredibly, where more than a hundred thousand soldiers died of preventable illnesses and injuries in the three-month campaign in Scutari, her compassionate, cost-saving measures reduced subsequent casualties to two-thirds.
And though recognition had initially escaped the Lady of Modern Medicine, no petty politics could impact the unambiguous matter of Faith. All across the front, the worship of "Our Lady of the Lamp"— said to be the lone figure of Florence wandering the camps at midnight, bestowing Healing Word and Remove Disease upon sleeping soldiers, widely circulated. For the establishment in the Church of England at the time, Nightingale proved an awkward "Saint" to place. The reason being that the middle-aged woman widely spoke out against the use of Faith Magic in the conquest of colonial heartlands. Instead, she considered Faith to be a manifestation of compassion, love, and care for the suffering of Mages, NoMs, and Demi-humans.
In the aftermath of Florence's academic teaching, the untitled Magister wrote simple and concise medical annotations in prose, making many of the epoch's kept knowledge open to all. Thanks to her and her advocates, a sharp decrease in infectious diseases, preventable ailments, and infant mortality spread across the Mageocracy like a reverse-contagion. Her generosity was such that even Demi-human races long plagued by chronic maladies came to benefit, ushering in a new era of diplomacy across much of Queen Victoria's domain.
When Florence finally passed at the age of ninety, the church breathed a sigh of relief and christened her "Our Saintess of the Lamp". All across London, medical institutions erected statues and stained-glass portraits in her honour. Most curiously, in the Purple Zones skirting the Black Sea, there exist shrines to Florence Nightingale, worshipped by the local Demi-humans as a Goddess of restoration and regeneration, a fact that, to this day, vexed heads at the Westminster Congress of Cardinals.
And it was in front of one such statue that Gwen, disembarking from Waterloo's endless array of levitation platforms, arrived.
"Palace to the right, palace to the left, palace opposite—" Gwen felt dubious that, for occupying such a location and as a place of such fame, Elvia's home looked underfunded by two decades.
"The college portion is located in the newer wings," Ollie explained. "The hospital wing needed to be shut to be renovated— I guess the authorities never had the opportunity."
"The woes of public health." Gwen approached the gate. Where a guard had been staring for some time. Others gawked as well: one reason was that her face looked familiar. Another could be that the sorceress stood pretty in a knee-length skirt and kitten heels, oblivious to the cold.
"Hi. I am Gwen Song. Here is Magus Ollie Edwards. We're here to visit Elvia Lindholm," Gwen relished her next words. "We hail from Cambridge."
The guard stood aside before he even finished Messaging the ward Matron.
Inside, the college wing of the teaching hospital was a mishmash of modernisation and dilapidation. The antiquity of the lesser rooms had overseen the crossing of four monarchs. Others portions were renovated with glass and steel, filtering sunlight from outside through Daylight Orbs.
"Miss Lindholm's shift hasn't ended." The Matron standing guard behind the counter at Elvia's station eyed Gwen questioningly. Speculating that this must be one of the crones giving Elvia grief, Gwen stood her ground and stared back until the Matron looked away.
"No visitors for staff," the woman insisted.
"We'll wait." Gwen directed Ollie to a side bench. The Matron looked like she wanted to say something, but thought better of addressing someone rumoured to have wiped out a mountain.
While her Praelector fiddled with a data slate, Gwen observed the coming and goings of the hospital, diving deep into thoughts of her own.
Now that she had settled into London, how should she proceed with the enterprises she had laid out in China and Sydney? It wasn't as though, without a base of operations, without a crew of tertiary-educated workers; and without a central office, she could reproduce her success. Without the right support, she wouldn't trust herself to operate a fleet of hotdog stands.
What she needed then, was something lucrative and agile enough to give credibility, but transparent and straightforward enough to skill up a group of locals. As with China, she would prefer NoMs uplifted by gainful employment, for these individuals engendered the highest loyalty and enthusiasm.
Now, seeing that the Lady Loftus was willing to lease her the lesser portion of the Isle, there was no reason she could not strike another deal with the port authority there. With the Marchioness backing her interests, it would take a brave and greedy entrepreneur to short change a noblewoman with a direct line to Buckingham Palace. If so, drawing from the House of M, she may be able to "import" skilled individuals from Shanghai, elevating NoM professionals into the realm of highly paid expatriate professionals. After that, she could use these little seeds to propagate a core group of accountants and managers.
The time frame, assuming she could kick-start the mana-engines at the decrepit docks, would take a year or more. In the meanwhile, she needed to gain a local presence.
What she needed, Gwen considered her options, was a tremendously daring book— an intellectual enterprise that would shake the foundations of Mage society, while maintaining a facade of progressive, moral superiority. When earlier, she had gazed upon a handsome statue of Florence Nightingale in the lobby, she couldn't help but feel that there was a book that could be engendered— one that was the crying need of the hour, showing the terrible cancer of apartheid with all its boils and bleeding scabs. If composed correctly, here was a book that should serve as a clarion call to the bruised and beaten NoM masses.
And Elvia— Eureka! EVEE would be the key!
The healers needed Faith, if so, why not make Evee the subject of an appropriated book? Sure, it was fiction, but when did "Faith" ever need something concrete and tangible? In this book, she could create a diptych of humanity— she— or the ghostwriter she paid, would expose Mage society and its disgusting depravity. Then, she would present a young healer, one of original innocence and natural virtue, blonde, of course, with the bluest eyes. This healer would have a mentor, a father figure of sorts, who existed as an unyielding defender of the rights of NoMs as enshrined by the law, a man would not break under the yoke of the Mage's repression! What a book it would be! Presented in the timelessness of its literary milieu, it would vicariously draw the audience into a bitter conflict of grace and disgrace, discrimination and altruism! The readers could not help but be moved— touched— enraged!
And Evee, hailing from Nightingale's was a perfect model for mythology! She was a scion of the very "Saintess" who treated NoM soldiers during the war. Who was to say that Evee, with her Kiki and Sen-sen, would not rise to become the poster child of the college? All Elvia lacked was a generous crystal-account for acts of philanthropy, a good consultant who understood the vertical integration of charity-branding, and good "Faith" would come rolling in.
A philanthropic Demi-Saintess with two Spirits and a multi-national charity under her wing? Sweet dreams are made of Evees!
Gwen felt her hands clench and unclench. It was achievable; she could feel it in her bones; she could put it in the bank! Money and momentum! Once the Evee Express left the station, fundraisers, sponsors, government grants, maybe even cross-continental recognition and support— the world was Evee's oyster!
"Hehehe... Hahaha…" Gwen chuckled to herself, grinning like a mad priestess. "Excellent— how excellent!"
Beside her, Ollie Edwards felt goosebumps rise all over his skin. Haunted by Gwen's cackling, he couldn't help but wonder if somewhere, a Shoggoth was descending into the Material Plane.
"Gwennie!" Elvia's voice greeted the duo from the corridor, wholly oblivious of the "Special" role she would play in her friend's otherworldly ambitions. "Ah, Ollie— thanks for coming."
"Evee!" Gwen stood, opened her arms, then swallowed the girl wholesale with her long limbs. "Did you get your vacation approved? If not, I'll have a stern word with your boss, or we'll go Purge another mountain."
"No, no, I am free!" Elvia replied quickly, aware that her friend wasn't joking. "I've sent Mathias back to the barrack as well..."
"— she's joking," Ollie declared to the doctors and nurses, now watching the trio with unfriendly expressions. "Let's go, let's go. Trafalgar Square awaits!"