Despite the aborted divorce, Walken's wife did not appear nearly as convinced as Angie of Gwen's presumed innocence. Instead, Audrey's reprieve would depend on the delivery of a panacea for Angie.
"I'll arrange it right now." Her future executive officer had wasted no time. "First, tell me all of your current contacts in London..."
True to form, the old snake's knack for dropping names at precisely the right intervals worked wonders. After an hour of interrogating Gwen's numerous overreaches and over-achievements, instances of "Lady Grey", "The Mistress of Cliveden", "Our new Dwarven Allies", and "I would not want to waste Duke Mycroft's time either," peppered the Magister's vernacular.
She needed time to think, and Walken had unconsciously done her a favour by exhausting the afternoon pulling every favour to schedule Sen-sen's ritual as soon as possible. In addition to procuring materials, he would also personally inscribe the Mandala, as well as spend CCs to contract an assistant upper-tier Enchanter.
It was a pleasure, in a way, watching Walken work, even if his care for Angie did leave a bittersweet saltiness in her mouth.
Beside her, Elvia remained shut as a catatonic clam, likewise needing time. Whenever Gwen tapped the healer's shoulders, touched her shins, or called her name, the girl only answered in single syllables.
For Gwen, the lack of response only multiplied her silent distress. Even now, the petals of her lips burned with the heat of a thousand suns; though she tried NOT to think about the sweet kiss planted by her willing Evee, the sensation invariably lingered.
"I'll join you on the Isle of Dogs mid-January," Walken explained, finally exhausting every topic of conversation. "We'll be attending the IIUC ceremony together."
"Will it be in London?"
"The venue depends on the victor. If Oxbridge takes the crown as per usual, then you'll receive your scroll at home. If not, you can choose to go to Cambridge, or exercise a private ceremony at Peterhouse."
"The one in Massachusetts?"
Walken nodded. "I think it should come as no surprise that your friends from Pretoria failed to outperform the previous champions. Did you get a chance to watch the December match?"
"No, not at all. How about you, Evee?"
The Cleric's chrysalis remained impregnable.
".... A shame. Jean-Paul did well. Nothing compared to a certain sorceress' metrics in Shenyang, of course, but he's made a name for himself. The lad from House Hertzog as well has received invitations to engage in post-graduate studies here in England. They both have an interest in you and, though I am overstepping my boundaries, let me say Meister Bekker's influence transcends Factions and borders."
To further distract herself, Gwen recalled the cringe-worthy invitation from Jean-Paul, smothering the smouldering coals stoked by Evee.
"Is Jean-Paul back in London?"
"I doubt it," Walken said. "Its spring right now in Pretoria."
"True." Gwen redirected her thoughts toward the jacarandas and flame trees studding Sydney's southern suburbs. Her advisor was right. Her fellow Void user did profess that he and his Master escaped the winter every year in South Africa. Given time and resources, she too would one day ascend the ranks of migratory globe-trotters.
The two rested their teacups.
"... Miss Song, are you staying for supper?" Angie appeared at the kitchen door. "Mum said you're welcome."
And with that, her hardwon time delay came to an end.
After the teas and ices, the crisis had climaxed. Within her beaten body, the surviving motes of emotional awareness that had outlived Helena and Hai cried out for redress. Whether weal or woe, Elvia's courage deserved an answer.
And for that, they needed privacy.
Luckily, they were in the right town.
On Brighton's foreshore, there was an old observational outpost, an enormous pin-shaped tower that commanded a three-sixty degree view of the township. A simple call from Walken citing a Class VI War Mage's desire was enough to warrant unfettered access to the decommissioned war relic.
And that was why, ten minutes later, with Elvia cradled in her arms, the duo arrived a-hundred-and-sixty meters above sea-level into the curved-glass capsule, overlooking the bayside town of Brighton.
Elvia had long since learned to observe Gwen by observing her Familiars. Near the ceiling of the semi-doughnut dome of the observatory, Ariel hovered listlessly, agitated by alien emotions it could not process. Below the Kirin, its sibling writhed, an eel on a hotplate, drooling goo like a dying hagfish.
Not far, her Alraune Spirit was in full bloom, feeding off her burgeoning desires, dripping with the scent of lilies. Besides her, Gwen sat as shy as a rain-teased bud, swaying softly in the honeyed light from the bay below.
Elvia circulated a calming surge of Positive Energy to ease her nerves. What should happen next, she knew all too well. In her occasional daydreams, when she dared to have them, she had already imagined every nook and cranny of her friend against her own, perfectly fitted as if devised by nature.
In Blackwattle, mid-adolescence, her delusions had been vague and fuzzy, full of ambiguity and fantasy. Now, as a provisional practitioner of reproductive health and magically-assisted midwifery, no imagination was needed. Though she lacked practical experience, Elvia understood the physiology of pleasure in an academic context. Though best practices varied, she knew what to stoke and coax. Why, with a little help from diagnostic magic, she would take Caliban's best consumption for a run—
And then the delusion ended, and the root of Elvia's slender neck grew flamingo-pink. From the corner of her eye, she spied at her muted friend, wrapped up in deliriums of her own.
A passive Gwen was lovely as well. Elvia loved the way the dying light turned her eyes amber. She loved the elegance of Gwen's neck, the fall of her hair about her shoulders, her pale skin against the dark fabric of her dress.
When would an answer be forthcoming?
Between her abdomen and her diaphragm, two Sen-sens jostled for space. In the chamber of her heart, an effervescent Kiki danced.
Elvia blinked, realising she had been caught in yet another private revelry.
Beside her, sitting pretty, Gwen had never appeared more beautiful, more within reach.
"Gwen…" she reached out.
There was no more patience to waste.
The fruit of the temporal was ripe for the picking.
For the self-reared Gwen growing up in Newtown, the path of love proved only marginally less torturous than midday dramas. To pay her way through university, she had worked popular dives, which put her in the vicinity of unique opportunities. More than once, she had frightened off disappointing father figures who skipped town when the crazy out-stripped the fun.
By the second year of university, she had grown tired of catfights, fistfights and the company of sympathetic cops escorting belligerent lovers from boarding houses.
Vowing to better herself, she turned to the voracious consumption of literature, living the lives of fictional women to supplement her loneliness. It was there, in the library, in the first chapter of a vintage romance novel, that she met Clarissa, an Austen-reading, Woolf-quoting, Plath-citing bibliophile.
For six-month, Gwen had done her best to keep her spectres bottled, and for a while, life was stable and fulfilling, thanks in no small way to her mild-mannered lover's incredible endurance. After that, old habits surfaced, grinding her companion down to the stump until she too could no longer endure Gwen's unpredictable mood-swings.
In hindsight, the juxtaposing six months of happiness were a rare poison. The fallout from that particular breakup had bordered on the burlesque, almost derailing Gwen's tertiary education.
What she learned from the episode, once professional advice had been sought, was that lacking the aid of Dr Monroe's one-fifty-an-hour clarity, she struggled to understand, much less balance, the intimacy, insecurity, support, challenge and celebrations that came with "healthy relationships".
"I think we should keep exploring the episode with Clarissa." Dr Siobhan Monroe's empathy was boundless when she finally coaxed the tale from Gwen. "That said, are you keeping up with the Celexa? How's your appetite?"
And therein, Gwen self-diagnosed, lied the crux of her agitation.
It wasn't so much that she wasn't "Gwen". That was a moot point since Elvia had never known the original. Rather— she couldn't get over the cradle-robbing reality of their difference in maturity.
Perhaps it was a symptom of growing up in the '90s, an era where the prurient paedophilia performed by the local Church perverted the public conscience, popularising the notion of "grooming".
Sure, under her guiding hand, Elvia could live in a golden palace. But the imbalance of control she would exert over her doll-like lover turned her stomach. She required Elvia to be herself, to live her own life and attain her dreams as she would. She wanted Elvia to be happy, upset, angry, indignant, all of her own accord.
But Hai and Helena had only taught her that love was usurpation; that Caliban was Love's patron saint.
Conversely, her affection for Elvia had its origins in sisterhood, in friendship, in oxytocin incited by small blonde things soft to the touch and snug as a warm pillow. To say that there was something more, to pass that particular threshold, required a re-arrangement of mental and physical faculties beyond the pale.
And her self-chastisement wasn't even the beginning of their problems. Say she cast aside the metaphysical age difference between herself and Evee—how would their meritocratic society gaze upon the loss of not one, but two unique sorceresses?
Soon, Elvia would become a twin-Spirited Cleric with unlimited potential. As for herself, she could strip a city down to the bones and not even need to change out of her dress.
Evee had the privilege of naivety, but she had tasted the bitter fruit of societal pressure all her life. Before she could raze a village, her beauty had been a burden, something to be prodded and molested, or upheld on a pedestal. Now, that very power which freed her acted as her chains. If she denied the Mageocracy its dearest wish, as her Master had once foreshadowed, as JP's Meister now so desired, what would become of them?
As a Weapon of Mass Destruction with a womb, were her life choices truly hers alone? What would Gunther say? Or Babulya? Or Opa, or her Yeye or Uncle Jun? From Sydney to China to London, there was no doubt that the availability of her body, to put matters crudely, had opened doors. As one old enough to understand consequences beyond overt sentimentality and hormonal longing, she shuddered at the catastrophic cost of forsaking potential.
And wasn't Elvia a staunch Christian? Or at least a devoted practitioner of the Faith? The Evee she knew always said her prayers, gave her alms, knew her psalms and attended Mass. What would happen to her Faith Magic if she lived in existential sin? How would the hospital, the state, the Shard, Evee's sponsors, overlook an asset the likes of which they may never see again?
For now, love was blindness.
But success, their future success, required sacrifices.
And say they overcame all of that, Gwen licked her parched lips.
Could she abandon her cloud-capped Tower and the ambitions left by her beloved Master? What about Sobel? Could she leave that behind? She was a one-woman army, but she was no longer one-woman, not anymore.
"Gwen…" Elvia's longing resounded as though filtered through a dream.
Their gazes entwined.
"Evee." She swallowed, fighting to keep her voice from trembling. "Quite the display you put on at Walken's."
NO! Her brain almost threw up. That's not what she meant to say, not what she meant all!
"I did it for you." Elvia sidled closer, her limbs parasitic vines curling about Gwen's princely trunk. In the next moment, her healer's breath was hot against her collarbone. "I swear by my Astral Soul, Gwennie, I—"
"I know," Gwen interjected. To prevent any immediate misunderstanding, she gave Elvia a peck on the forehead, deftly re-zipping the side-slit of her dress. "Let's slow down a bit, shall we? I want to ask you some questions, Evee, and we'll need all our wits about us."
The vague fingers withdrew.
There was confusion and hurt, Gwen felt it acutely, but there was no helping it.
"When did you know?" Gwen wrapped her fingers around Elvia's dainty digits. The girl's hands were tender and warm and trembling.
"When did you start to like girls, I mean."
Elvia's face grew evermore scarlet. There was a pause before the girl began to speak.
"I am sorry, I lied to you and Yue." Her figure appeared to shrink.
Gwen blinked, derailed by Elvia's train of thought. "How so?"
"I told you both that I was afraid of the arranged marriages set up at Lilith's," the Cleric confessed. "And that's why I transferred to a government school, where no one would know me, or care to find out."
"Oh…" Gwen was intrigued. Elvia was indeed an oddball at Blackwattle. Her talent, her wealth, her demeanour, all of it juxtaposed the academy's working-class cohort.
Her healer squirmed in her arms.
"I had to leave because one of the sisters found out."
"About your… disposition?"
Evee nodded. "I didn't know what I was doing then. One of the older girls I was fond of took me behind the chapel, to a shrine in the cloisters…"
"Oh my…" Gwen felt her cheeks heating up. "And then?"
"Then nothing," Elvia quickly clarified. "We danced... and kissed, that's all."
"Like a peck? On the lips?"
"How did it feel?"
"It was... the most exquisite thing. I couldn't think at all. One minute we were practising for the formal, then the world was on fire. All I remember was Matron Mavis screaming, that and St Peter's disapproving face looking down from the altar."
Gwen felt her palpable jealousy prick like a malicious pin.
"Did you tongue-wrestle?"
"Hahaha…" The built-up tension fell from her shoulders together with the rolling laughter. Finally, she could breathe again. "Alright, that was my bad. So the Sister found out, and then?"
"She called my parents and the girl's parents. Mine was nicer. Less fire and brimstone, but the senior girl's parents were livid. They accused me of seducing their daughter, who was Awakened and engaged to marry. They were from the North Shore proper, not immigrants like us, so we couldn't do anything other than accept their accusation at face value."
"In the end, Daddy appeased them by offering to move me out of school so that we would never meet again. I stayed home for a term, moping and crying while my mother comforted me. She said that everything would be alright."
"And was it?"
"It was." Elvia's lips were wet with happiness. "I met Yue— and I met you."
"I am glad you came to Blackwattle as well." Gwen offered her Cleric another affirmation, this time on the hands. The fascinating flashback recollected by her healer had finally dispelled all doubt from her mind. "Okay, I've made up my mind. Care to listen?"
"Right. Here goes."
Gwen took a deep breath.
"Evee, I do share your feelings."
Elvia squealed, her voice child-like and full of glee, further cementing Gwen's determination.
Instantly, the girl settled.
"— Love is never easy. It's complicated, messy, and deceptive. It's not black and white, give and take. Some of us— like you, have so much to give, while others like me— tend to take and take."
"I know you don't care if the balance is tilted. That's too like you." Gwen continued. "And yes, that's what it means to be in love. I don't intend to patronise or condescend, Elvia, but whatever I say to you now, you're not going to empathise, not holistically, at least."
"What do you mean?" Elvia's nervousness was palpable.
"I can only speak for myself," Gwen spoke up. "And speaking for myself, I am not a suitable partner."
"Let me finish," Gwen silenced her Evee with an all-too-serious flash of her amber eyes. "I didn't say I wouldn't make a wonderful companion, a loyal mate, an incredible business associate, a constant sister or a zealous devotee—"
Elvia ceased her struggles.
"Rather— I was raised by Helena and Hai, remember? Right fucking paragons of partnership and parenthood. For a long while, I knew only how to appease others. Then for a longer-while, I learned only to please myself. Even now, what I want from you is completely one-sided."
"But not like that, not yet." Gwen arrested Elvia's fingers a little more tightly in case her resolve grew ill. "But that's what I mean. Love isn't simple. It's a network of conflicting interests that, without venturing into the wider world, you can't begin to comprehend. I love you, Evee— as a friend, a sister, a party member, and so much more, but let me say this, and you're not going to like it—"
Elvia's eyes turned liquid.
Before she could continue, Gwen knew she had to fortify her life-long companion for what was to come. Evee's gentleness, depthless when needed, was also as fragile as crystal.
Answering her healer, she leaned in until their face was an inch apart.
Greedily, Elvia met her halfway, wrapping the small of her arm around the crook of Gwen's neck so that she could no longer pull back.
Then for a long, lingering while, with Brighton's brimming channel shimmering below them, they stayed entwined and interlocked, a pale-skinned glory against a mortal Ledean body, enacting the yolk and white of the one shell. She was breathing through Evee, and Evee through herself, connected by a consciousness older than the oldest of continents.
In time, the pair parted— a viridescent spider-thread appearing and disappearing between them.
"What were you saying?" Elvia slurred, drunk on the milk of paradise.
"Evee." Gwen forced her tremulous voice to remain perfectly level, her brimming emotions a careful meniscus of constrained passion. "We're going to have to take things slow. Very slow."
"I don't understand."
"You will, in a decade or two," she pulled them apart, tearing Elvia from her as one might coax an octopus clinging to the coral. "For now, I want us to remain the best of friends. Closer than friends, but not quite lovers, not yet."
"For one, there's no gay marriage here or there or anywhere, unless Hanmoul's expecting to blow my mind when we get to Deepholm."
To her surprise, Elvia's confusion multiplied. "Why would we get married? We're both girls."
Gwen performed a double-take.
"… Good point, I'll get back to you on that one." She realised she might have to pull back, not just to the '80s, but possibly revisit the '50s. "Don't you want to have children, Evee? I know you've got a brother, but your parents are the most loving, caring people I've ever met. Wouldn't they be disappointed? After your ejection from Lilith, weren't they upset?"
"Mum..." Elvia's tone lost some of its enthusiasm. "Mum and Dad were both very kind, but yes, they were shocked."
"And did you stop to think whether I would want children?" Gwen struck while the fire was hot.
"No…" Evee's voice grew fainter still.
"NOT that I do, so don't fret! On the off-chance, we could adopt, of course, save a soul, or two, or a dozen from destitution and ruin," Gwen assured her little Evee. "Our children need not even be human— Golos would make a good candidate for a little gopher."
"… that's terrible! I would prefer my Kiki."
"Ha! They'll make quite the pair at the local kindergarten." Gwen relaxed her guard. For someone with her limited capacity for non-manipulative empathy, trying to seesaw between passion and prudence was no easy feat. "And what if this is just a phase, Evee? The seasons change, as do lovers. Lest we transcend the shackles of time, nothing's immutable."
"I won't change."
"Nor do I want you to," Gwen sighed. "But you're— we're still YOUNG. Gods, Evee, we're a bunch of babies! Relatively speaking, we're infants! According to Golos, I'd be still kicking around in my third or fourth century, and that's before I had met Almudj again, or ate more Dragons."
Elvia's eyes misted over. For a girl of eighteen, a century was unimaginable.
"I mean, holy crap Evee. Fancy that! In a hundred years, humanity went from buffalo farming to a globe-spanning system of Towers connected by Teleportation Stations! Can you imagine what things would be like two-centuries from now? Would we be in space? Will we jaunt across the aether and colonise the Planes of Fire and Radiance? Drink coffee in Deepholm? Mine the red soil of Mars courtesy of Meister Musk?"
"What I mean," Gwen backpedalled from her digression. "Is that there's no rush. For now, if you're content with my devotion, then leave us enough space to catch our breath."
"… and if I am not?"
Gwen paused. Sometimes, she hated the fact that she had all the right lines.
"The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. I don't want that for us, Evee. A millennium without you? What a terrible aeon that would be. I would prefer the extinction of our world."
Her prophesy lingered in the air, keeping company with the redolence spread by a simpering Kiki perfuming the interior of the observatory. Beside the flower Sprite, Sen-sen approached the observatory's precipice, only to shrink back with an alarmed "Sen!" before retreating to the stairs. Ariel lingered near the ceiling, feeding off the nascent emotions rolling through their Empathic Link. A calmer Caliban coiled under the chair, purring softly at the twin-morsel.
As per the mutability of England's weather, the once burning sky turned rapidly overcast, mauve and under-lit against the crumbling silhouette of the Shielding Station's constant shimmer. The town itself remained fruit-shop bright, gregarious in its faux-summer hues; across the painted English Channel, Gwen saw the marina's yachts returning from their hunt.
Like goose-down they were, erect and upright, bobbing in a crow-black sea, mariners of the aubergine murk, cubism hovering on air. As the light died, the mulberry horizon lost its dimensions, becoming as dull as bleached chiffon.
"Yes, Evee?" Gwen held her breath.
"At the very least, can I kiss you now and then?"
Her hesitation lasted only a second.
The fear of loneliness made for a potent aphrodisiac.
Down below, one by one, the unfurled quills came home as a line, each a white-winged sister from Nightingale's, idly awaiting their turn in the confessional.