"Kilroy's ward?" Lucy Astor's mind conjured forth an impressionable mien, a Phantom IV, and an outrageous short summer dress. The Lady of Cliveden had few vices and the gossip column was one of them. "Mycroft's bastard?"
The maid said nothing. An excellent servant did not presume.
"Where's Dickie now?"
"At the Duke's Garden, madam, with Exeter and Landsdowne, dealing in the dark."
Lucy felt the corner of her lips curling. "Why do the men always act like they're a cabal of warlocks? Nonetheless, this ought to be interesting. Where are our pups from the press?"
"Airing themselves among the parterre."
"Corral a pair to the Duke's Garden. And tell Nellie to bring Miss Lindholm to the Garden as well. And our Devourer, naturally."
"Do pass on my most sincere courtesy." Lucy Astor's eyes informed her maid that the Lady of Cliveden was in one of her moods. "Let us see how Kilroy's Apprentice performs."
With ambivalence, Mathias followed the girls at a distance, not wanting to be too close to the Devourer of Shenyang, while fearing rebuke should he stray too far from Elvia Lindholm.
Then there was the fact that he was exhausted.
It wasn't the sort of fatigue that came from defending a keep until the eleventh hour against the Mermen tide. It wasn't even the tiredness he felt drilling Spells until he was OoM. It was an exhaustion of the mind, of administering the destitute for two days straight, assuring strangers that Miss Elvia would soon be free to oversee their ailment.
Until midday, Gwen and her conspiracy from Mudchute had busied themselves with the spirit of what she called "A True Christmas Miracle", curing the sickest among the residents of the Isle of Dogs. Naturally, by then, the news had spread, and NoMs from Blackwall to Poplar and Greenwich had come in search of a meal and a heal.
Thankfully, three mid-tier Clerics had arrived from the Tower, taking over some of Elvia's duties. Concurrently, against a backdrop of Elvia's face plastered across the back of the warehouse, the hungry received their Spam and pumpkin soup and black bread. Elsewhere, the ex-foremen of the docks took on their former roles, gathering the abled-bodied to sell them a dream of fairly-compensated labour. For some strange reason, Gwen had made the Praelector from Cambridge conjure up a jolly image of who he could only assume to be Saint Nicholas and to decorate a large, mostly dead tree.
Despite having changed out of their grimy, NoM-molested attires and then teleported from London to Heathrow to Cliveden, Mathias felt stuck in transit. Having spent so much time among NoMs; he now felt repressed by the grandeur of Lady Astor's Estate.
Of the two extremes, which did he prefer? The Knight fought down an impulsive and chaotic thought. To walk among the insects who saw him as an avatar of compassion and charity, or to return to the shadow among the genteel folk?
The Knight of St Michael had no answers, at least not without betraying a deeper part of his Oath.
Ahead, his ward glowed in a corseted silk dress Gwen had produced from her Ring. The train was modest, an arm's length at most, and the flowing fabric enchanted to repel grime and dust. On the dress's front, an intricate jadeite necklace, threaded with silver, marked Elvia's collarbones, sloping the fabric between the gentle swell of the healer's bosoms.
Besides his Cleric, the Devourer of Shenyang herself wore an oriental dress made from moth silk, elegant and contoured, but also skin-hugging and risqué. To cover her otherwise exposed arms and shoulders, the girl wore a sky-blue stole, adding to her natural elegance.
Their Praelector, who had thought he was coming with them, was given orders to return to Peterhouse's Matron.
"I've got Mathias with us." Gwen had glanced at him. "Besides, I am a hoot when it comes to parties."
"I don't know…" Ollie Edwards had made several appeals.
"Ollie, go home." Gwen's voice grew stern. "I am spending Xmas with Evee, just Evee. Is that understood?"
Though the Magus was her superior, the man nodded. Mathias felt a bout of sympathy and compassion, wondering if he had found a fellow sufferer. He was indebted to Gwen due to the events at the Gulch, as well as in the hope that one day, she would put in a word with Lord Shultz.
The callout from a maid stirred Mathias from his mental stupor.
"Nellie!" Elvia tottered forward.
"The Lady is beyond pleased that you could make it." The maid, prim in her penguin two-tone, bowed. "You are cordially invited to the Duke's garden to accompany her ladyship."
Mathias observed the exchange, especially when Elvia re-introduced "Nellie" as one of the three head maids of Cliveden.
The Duke's Garden? The VIP section of the Estate, used only for the entertainment of Lucy Astor's most select friends?
"Miss Nellie," the Knight intruded, mindful of his position. "May I ask why the Duke's Garden? We're perfectly happy to meet her in the central ballroom, or the guest dining inside Cliveden House itself."
"I can't say." Nellie remained bowed. "If you would follow me?"
The trio followed.
It wasn't as though the girls could refuse, not with the head of Cliveden House calling for them explicitly. Even if they didn't know Lady Astor on a personal level, the courtesy had to be repaid.
Although like all the other guards, he would be left out in the cold.
Of the dozen English gardens surrounding the three hundred-odd acres of Cliveden, the Duke's Garden was the sole original from before the Astor family renovated the home into one of the most extensive estates in Britain.
Walled on all sides by Wildland flower beds, the Garden consisted of an acreage of elevated sandstone, built for privacy and warded from wind, rain and Divination by an elaborate underground Mandala.
To enter, one negotiated the two guards standing outside, each holding the rank of Magus. Other guards patrolled the Garden's exterior, awaiting a call from their masters should the conversation turn sour.
Mycroft Ravenport knew the Lady of Cliveden was up to something the moment two reporters, one from the Telegraph and the other from the Sun Herald, wandered into the Garden's confined spaces.
In truth, the Duke of Norfolk didn't much like Lucy Astor, "American" Heiress, and neither did she like him. They were partners in many ventures; however, he needed her business contacts across the borders, and she, his iron hand in whipping the nobles into line. In his younger days, he would have suggested that the woman's presence tarnished the Chain of Being and the dignity of the nobility. Now, he could only concede that few among the blue-bloods had half the wit as Lady Astor. The obsession with breeding for talent, Mycroft confessed, had brought a terrible toll. Exeter's twin morons, Mycroft shuddered, were evidence of that.
The profitability of Lady Astor also made her a curious being among the Factions. In temperament and politics, he would gladly call her one of his own. Yet, the Lady of Cliveden professed on joining either the Middle Path Faction, or be without one; the latter being what the Factions preferred. To have Astor fiddle with the Middle Faction's complex politics created vast unknowns— while having her as an independent would at least make the woman's profiteering predictable.
Sheepishly, like conjured imps, the reporters slinked among the roses.
Most of the upper class took no notice. Others, like Mycroft, dimmed their presence, wondering if their host was seeking a frontpage shot to entertain her bid for the House of Commons.
Lucy had acumen, Mycroft respected that. If only the woman weren't American. She wasn't a raven-haired prodigy like his late wife but kept well enough to be desirable still for many of their ilks.
Which was why when Lady Astor entered the Garden, gliding across the blue-green lawn like a shimmering bloom, the men turned to bow. Very soon, Lady Astor gathered around her a small swarm of crystal-chasing bumbling nincompoops, much like a nature goddess for fools.
Mycroft himself chose the shadows offered by the Devil's Pothos. There were a time and place for the limelight. Even the role of an officious parliamentarian did not make him anymore noticeable outside Downing Street. He was British-looking, not good-looking, meaning it was easy to glamour the part to suit the occasion— or fade into the fog.
The Duke of Norfolk was just about to smirk when his half-formed smile was forcibly torn from his thin, pale lips.
Emerging from the gate was a vision in pale blue, slender and tall and clad in gossamer from the Ming Dynasty. When the girl moved, her shawl lingered like a scent, turning heads and pausing conversations for the briefest of seconds. Behind Gwen Song came a shorter lass in cold white, emerging as a shocking burst of gold-blonde hair. Elvia Lindholm, Mycroft recalled. She must be the companion Gwen saved in Ystradfellte. The girl's dress suited her youthful body well, accentuating what she did possess, and making what she lacked less memorable.
As for Gwen Song, with her raven hair swishing at the waist, Mycroft couldn't help but be reminded of another girl-child from long ago, following a Deathless Mage like a bright-eyed kitten.
Mycroft grew increasingly self-aware of the fact that the eyes in the Garden were now looking for someone— and that someone was him.
Across the Garden's lantern-lit trellises and ancient touchstone walls, two pairs of eyes met across time and space.
Mycroft's nose itched, his attention-dimming obfuscation rarely failed.
The girl's mouth mimed a word.
Mycroft's scalp crawled.
If the girl dared to say that aloud in public and within the lens of the reporters, Mycroft would have half a mind to reinvigorate the magic he had reportedly left unused for two decades. Such a deluge of Dust would arrive from the heavens that from this day forth, the Duke's Garden would change its chronicle to adhere to Norfolk.
Thankfully, the girl's vivid irises passed like cold water, shifting toward Lady Astor.
The girl smirked.
What is this? Ravenport felt his spell-finger twitch.
Was the girl saying this was a favour? He felt assaulted by absurdity. If so, did she expect him to repay it? Dare the girl try to tease her betters? One capable of ejecting her from the Material Plane itself, damn the consequences?
Elvia wasn't sure if she respected, or feared Lady Astor's fierce affection.
Perhaps only Lucy Astor's maids knew, but the woman had told Elvia more of her life, of Robert and of Wardolf, than was proper for the friendship between the head of a Noble House and a stray girl picked up from the gutters.
Or perhaps, as Gwen had informed her— Elvia precisely presented what the Lady needed. The woman had lost a son and then a husband, and she had to abide by the stiff-upper-lip attitude. If so, why shouldn't a plushie like Elvia become a source of her ladyship's soul-soothing escapism?
Elvia did not believe it of course, but the more she thought about it, the more sense it made. The Lady of Cliveden was upset, but her outward expression was always one of fairness and unbearable sternness. If Gwen was right, then wasn't she, a young woman with no connections to anyone, the perfect sponge for the Lady's unresolved emotions?
"ELVIAAA!" Lady Astor's thrilling voice called across the courtyard of the floral Garden, stirring the scent. "Come here, young lady."
Her leggy companion fell back, allowing Elvia to lead. The move made Elvia nervous, especially considering the size of her heels and the irregular cobblestones. Without much grace, the Cleric tottered toward Lady Astor until, half a meter from the Lady, she fell into the woman's motherly arms.
"My golden cherub, back at last." The Mistress of Cliveden squeezed Elvia about the shoulders to steady her. "And this must be the intrepid Miss Song."
Besides Elvia, Gwen raised her chin elegantly. Her companion had no trouble navigating anything in heels, striding on stilettos with a natural sense of balance. A little scandalously, the porcelain-wrapped young woman curtsied, showing off as much as she had intended.
"You're rather infamous, Gwen."
"Shenyang was a necessity, ma'am." Gwen raised her chin, finding herself two inches taller than their host. "It was life or Undeath— I chose life."
"Well said." Their hostess clapped. "Elvia has told me much about you. I have also watched ALL of your matches."
"I am flattered." Gwen smiled back. The whole exchange was happening above Elvia's hastily piled curls. "I hope I can live up to both your expectations."
"You have already, Miss MVP of the IIUC." Lady Astor studied Elvia's companion.
"Milady, surely you jest."
Her friend's body tensed with a sudden thrill. "You think far too highly of me."
"I do not think the 'impossible' is something you're known to abide by." Lady Astor's smile was untouched. "I am a sponsor, you should know, for the competition. One of its financiers. I have a direct ley-line to Brussels. As usual, Oxford shall take the cake this year, though I am always happy to see a dark horse."
"I am unworthy." Elvia's friend bowed her head, accepting the reality with a hidden grin and a careful bite of her lips to preserve her makeup.
"That's wonderful, Gwen!" Elvia gushed for her friend's growing fortunes, feeling such happiness that she was on the verge of soaring.
"As repayment, dear," the Lady continued. "What is your relationship to Dickie?"
The nobles around them grew silent. Crystal flutes that had been kissing sultry lips now rested against expectant bosoms.
"Strictly business?" Gwen spoke with such innocence that Elvia had to laugh.
"A bold answer."
"Completely professional of course," Gwen continued. "Without a doubt, the good Duke and I shall share an orbit, whether I desire his company or otherwise, so I'll not fight his advances."
"You tease us, surely!" The Lady was enjoying herself immensely.
One of the paper men raised a hand.
"What's there to tease?" Gwen shrugged, presenting herself so that she seemed to glow. Facing the two men from the press, she made her favourite tea kettle pose. "Observe— Here are my hands, these are my knees— I know the rags want a big strip-tease, but come on, get serious! The Duke and I barely know each other. If anything, we started in the opposite camp."
Lady Astor leaned in closer so that Elvia was squished between the two women. With each cheek against a bit of side-boob, the two women continued their pantomime.
"Yes. From what I know of Sydney... you should be at each other's throats. Poor Henry, he was the best of us."
"Why, what did the Duke do to me?"
"Lady Astor," Gwen stated firmly so that all present heard. "I shall state this very clearly. The Duke of Norfolk is a most excellent gentleman. I know none among you who would profess yourself his enemy— come! I dare you to declare yourself here and now—"
The crowd was silently rivetted. It wasn't every day that a Manticore strolled into Rome and gave birth in front of a live audience.
"I see— and therefore I, a young waif from the Frontier, shall not short sell myself. I do not know if any of you call yourself a true friend of the Duke either. BUT I have been instructed by the Duke and can offer one insight. The Duke of Norfolk and I are of the same breed: We have no permanent enemies and no permanent allies, only permanent interests."
"Well said!" Lady Astor clapped while the crowd tried to read between the lines. "Well done, I say! I wholly agree!"
Elvia jostled so that she could escape from the two women pressing in, Gwen was tugging on her wrist, but Lady Astor had her shoulders well-arrested.
"Mycroft, come and join us!" Lady Astor announced.
Elvia felt her blood freeze. Was Gwen aware that the Duke of Norfolk was here? Was the most powerful man in Britain watching them the whole time? How terrible it must be to be talking behind a Duke's back! W-would he slap her?
From the darknesses, a sliver of twilight peeled from the shadows.
The Duke of Norfolk. Earl Marshall and the Lord of the College of Arms. The Lord Great Chamberlain who sat beside and below the Sovereign's Orb made his appearance known to Elvia's wide and trembling eyes.
The others made room for their senior-ranked companion.
"Milady Astor has 'goaded' quite the 'tease' from our Devourer of Shenyang." The Lord of Norfolk remarked in a rather unremarkable manner. "Another addition to your collection?"
Elvia tried to study the man as Gwen had, but found Mycroft Ravenport's face utterly unreadable. In her eyes, though the gauntly cheek-boned blue-blood appeared amiable, she still felt intimidated to the marrow.
"You jest." Lady Astor feigned a blush so well that for a moment, Elvia thought her ladyship had materialised a fan. "I am perfectly comfortable here, in my little cottage at Sutton. What would I need to know of the big wide world?"
"For one so professedly impoverished," the Duke remarked coldly. "You know far too much, Lady Astor."
"Its the Lady's business to know," Gwen intervened, her rudeness causing the lesser nobles to flinch. "I know a businesswoman when I see one."
Elvia's glowing blue eyes darted between the trio, lost for words for their meaningless words. How did these people even communicate? They're speaking in tongues!
"Lady Astor." Elvia's friend abruptly revived the conversation. "I trust you because you've looked after Evee like one of your own. May I interest you in a curious business proposal?"
The Duke of Norfolk coughed.
"Go ahead." Lady Astor ignored the Duke's reprimand. "What is it, dear?"
"Elvia is now the head of her very own 'Blessed-Heart Foundation'," Gwen began.
"She is?" Lady Astor appeared surprised, or at least Elvia believed she did. "How exciting! An enterprise of her own!"
"And I am her executor in this venture," Gwen continued. "We've set up at the Isle of Dogs. By the way, I am now the isle's legal administrator and custodian…"
Both Ravenport and Astor raised their chins this time.
"… and I shall, in the next three to four years, develop the docklands into a major commercial and residential region, not to mention, revitalise the lives of the NoMs there."
"The old docklands?" Ravenport sneered. "Fool girl, the Royal Docks are…"
"I've no interest in the Dock's business. I know very well this isn't Nantong," Gwen snapped back. "And this is an offer for Lady Astor. Although, your grace and the lords are all welcome to participate. He and I are, after all, bound..."
Elvia felt shaken when the Duke of Norfolk visibly frowned for the first time.
"… as associates of my late Master, Henry Kilroy."
The crowd around the duo made knowing faces.
"For now, I am cleaning the place up for Elvia. Her Foundation will be a self-sustaining charity, one that should hold some promise. Lady Astor, it would be my greatest pleasure to invite you as a visitor and a future investor."
Ravenport's paper-thin lips formed a barely perceptible line.
"I would love to participate. As they say, the early Roc gets the Wyrm!" Lady Astor clapped. "Isn't that so, Elvia?"
"Gwen's very good at making Crystals," Elvia assured her sponsor. "She's put several thousand into the Foundation already, and cleaned up the two hamlets in a matter of days!"
"Evee means she's done it," Gwen corrected the girl in their midst. "Without Evee, I'd rightly say the folk there would still be wallowing in the muck dredged up from the Thames. We've set up a soup kitchen and a clinic, nothing unusual…"
Gwen again addressed the two reporters lurking in the shadows.
"… you two, a picture of us all together? Remember, this here is Elvia Lindholm, over yonder is the Isle of Dogs! This year, they're finally receiving the spirit of Christmas!"
The reporters appeared hesitant.
Lady Astor smiled her smile.
The men both raised their Lumen Recorders.
"Make sure Elvia isn't left out." The Lady gathered them close so that the Duke of Norfolk couldn't escape. "Say Dragons!"
Memory Crystals flared.
"Toying with masses is a dangerous sport," Ravenport muttered as their bodies separated. "They're playthings to you perhaps, but to me, they're the Empire's chief resource."
"Come see for yourself," Gwen muttered back. "I don't need your approval. I've got Lady Grey's."
"Are you asking me to up your ante?"
"Is your present plotting too uninspiring?"
"Don't test me, whelp."
"Don't threaten me, old man."
A cold, scalp-chilling dryness permeated.
Once again, Elvia felt the aura of her companion crush her in their midst.
"Hahahaha…." Lady Astor's thrilling laughter cut in between the two like a knife. "That's enough, you two. You speak as though you are…"
Before Elvia's eyes, Gwen and Mycroft tore themselves apart. Ravenport in his suit of dark fabrics, Gwen in her showy, leggy dress. The Cleric breathed a sigh of relief. She was sure that had the two continued, the Duke's Garden may acquire a new reputation.
Bung! The reflectors fired.
"… the same breed of people, as Gwen had supposed." Lady Astor golf clapped. "Alright, let us go to the chapel. It's almost time for the mass. Then after that, I would love to see Miss Song here demonstrate some of that rare devouring ability."
"You want Gwen to fight?" Elvia's eyes blinked.
"To cement for Gwen a useful reputation, and perform a courtesy for our Lady of Ely." Lucy Astor's lips twisted. "Elvia, Gwen's a fighter. Her ability is a part of who she represents to the Mageocracy. As a direct recipient of your friend's prowess, don't ever shun away from it."
"I— I see." Elvia lowered her chin. She knew Gwen enjoyed the fight, but she did not enjoy the sight of her friend fighting. When she watched the IIUC, every time her friend's Shield was struck, each time Gwen grunted and reeled from the blowback of a Void Spell, her heart was rendered sore. But Lady Astor was right. Gwen's battle ability, much like her acumen for crystals, was a defining part of her identity, as innate as her desire to aid the needy, no matter how impoverished.
"Time to start the main course." Gwen pivoted her heel so that her dress briefly billowed, causing Elvia's thoughts to go blank. "And after that, dessert."