"Limber?" Gwen cocked her head sideways. "Meaning?"
Magus Keridwen Le Guevel spun on her kitten-heels with the grace of a serval. "Exactly what you intend it to mean."
"Nope, not happening." Gwen stoppered her instructor's retort. "Prostrate in front of those Troglodytes? There are easier paths to homicide."
"Ah, but these are useful Troglodytes."
"But amphibian nonetheless."
"I never took you for a speciesist."
"What's not to hate? They're slimy, for one, and oddly-shaped. I assume we're still on the topic of the nobility?"
Le Guevel snapped her fingers. With the impact of a quick-cut film-frame from Gwen's old world, they returned to the dreary world of the archaic tutor room, buried four corridors deep in the Ward Library building.
"One I'm happy to teach if you pass muster. Else, it'll get you in trouble faster than a Void Bolt. Tell me, kitten." Her instructor leaned in. "You possess enviable biometrics, and I know you're not above abusing it for attention. I've seen those lumen-captures of you in the IIUC and the Sun Herald. Look at those ankles and calves. It's winter! Are you not pandering to the audience?"
"A free woman can dress however she likes." Gwen's lips curled. "It's my body, after all."
"An interesting statement. I don't know whether to be impressed or appalled. And is this woman not a member of the society within which she resides?"
Gwen snorted. "Shall I wear a shawl? Dress in a habit?"
"If you're visiting a nunnery, YES." Le Guevel rolled her eyes. "What are you, a child? Did mummy not buy you pretty dresses when you're younger? Why tease if you can't be spry? Who are you impressing?"
"Myself." On hearing mention of her absent parents, Gwen growled. The remark about Helena had broken skin, pierced flesh then struck bone. "Don't act as if you know me."
"Tsk, tsk, kitten." Le Guevel shook her head. "This is why feral cats get put down."
"You can try." She crossed her arms. "Better Mages have failed."
"I am Illusionist, dear." Le Guevel crossed her arms as well. "If I meant you harm, you'd be raving like a lunatic already. Still, I am sure you'll come around. Tell me, how did you think you faired in your encounter with the Exeter twins?"
"Is your bar set so low?"
"And what do you expect me to do? Fight them? Winning would've proven far more troublesome. Imagine if they lost their heads. I like my peace. Thank you very much."
Le Guevel crossed her legs. Unlike Gwen, who steadfastly stuck to her autumn dresses, Gwen's instructor wore a cashmere skirt, and her ribbon-tie blouse covered her up to the chin. Yet, the Illusionist possessed an aggressive sensuality that made Gwen uncomfortable. Was it her presence? Gwen wondered. Le Guevel was neither svelte nor voluptuous. Nonetheless, there was something of a contrast between them that said "here is a girl" and "here, is a woman". It almost made her wish she was older.
"Here's what I would have done." Le Guevel waved a hand. With the subtlest of somatic gestures, a portrait of the twins appeared. "Let us say you've properly armed yourself with knowledge— such as that Edward Poins and Benedict Thomas Holland, sons of John Gaunt Holland, Duke of Exeter, are beholden to Ravenport financially."
Le Guevel materialised another bust, that of a Duke with a scar across the side of his left lip, a sharp-faced, gaunt-jawed gent with the nose like a Roc's beak and a ridiculous bowl-cut fringe.
"Which is good news, because you happen to be the rumoured bastard of Norfolk, Lord Earl Marshall of England."
"You know that's bullshit."
"This isn't Bonk's, Gwen. Its politics. Had you known this, you would have deduced that the twins wouldn't dare test your true mettle, not with Ravenport's reputation on the line. Likewise, you should have known that as a War Mage, and as a very priceless specimen for Peterhouse, you're in the same boat when it comes to mutual-maiming."
Le Guevel puckered her lips. "And Kitten, I am told Lady Astor has taken a liking to you. She was delighted with how you bantered with Ravenport. If so, have you wondered why someone with enough Crystals to buy herself a seat in parliament endured the Militants? It's to give you an opportunity, dear, one that you failed as spectacularly as you succeeded elsewhere."
Her instructor's brows arched in ridicule.
"So what would you have done?" Gwen glared back.
Le Guevel cleared her throat. When she spoke again, it was in Gwen's voice, miming her mannerism with such likeness that Gwen's scalp crawled.
"You devilish, aborted fae-spawns! How dare you make a nuisance of yourself in the home of your betters?"
"H-how dare you?" Le Guevel answered in the voice of Edward Poins. "You're just a Frontier poppet. I'll break you here and now."
"Really?" Her instructor's waspish-waist was very limber indeed. When she spoke in Gwen's voice, every syllable cracked like a whip's. "That's an audacious claim for someone who's patriarch owes an entailment worth half-a-dozen Crystal-seams. Don't you know it's polite to pay your debts before you bite the hand that feeds? What are you, a half-orc?"
Gwen leaned back in her seat.
Le Guevel chuckled. "See how fun that was? To be limber is to know which fruits are ripe for juicing. The twins are the result of, let's say, unsavoury arrangements, uncle and niece, sister-wives, that sort of thing— not currently, mind you, and don't say it out loud— but its there, somewhere up the line."
Gwen suppressed a gag.
"Which is why they're particularly incensed by any indirect inferences to bloodlines. Likewise, they do indeed owe a significant volume of debt to Ravenport and Astor both. How else do you think the Militants paid for the Royal Docks? Warmongering spoils from the Frontier takes time— but commerce, comparatively, is instantaneous."
"I can't imagine 'Dickie' would remain silent if I dropped his name."
"Lord Ravenport will not make an appearance for fear of verifying the rumours. Or, if he did by chance, good on you. The Exeter duo can only cower before Uncle Dickie, an ally to Lady Astor. Thereby, by invoking a few choice words, you have both inflamed the fools, and positioned them in between an Earthen Elemental and a Diamond Drake."
"Public shaming is dangerous." Gwen pointed out. "Pushed that far, surely they would prefer immediate satisfaction."
Le Guevel cleared her throat, then placed a hand against a cheek.
When the instructor looked up again, her eyes were full of fire, with her shoulders trembling, her chest heaving. At once, Gwen was struck with the paradoxical desire of wanting to push the woman down while desiring to embrace the miserable vision of abused femininity. "Strike me down then! I invite and dare you! Strike a lady! Strike the daughter of a benefactor! Here's my other cheek! Strike it and see that your daddy-dear won't flay the both of you with your spines!"
The effect was such that Gwen felt quite breathless.
"Then they flee, of course." Le Guevel laughed. "What else? Murder you? They can try. Lady Astor and her Middle Faction will take the cue and see the pair lit like bonfires. Assuming you haven't died from the first strike, the Middle Faction now has fewer Exeters to worry about— AND Lord Exeter will owe you reparations for your anguish. And of course, in the ensuing chaos— I would Consume them both. Just imagine what their in-bred talent could do for a Void Sorceress. How delicious!"
"That's…" Gwen swallowed. "Insane."
"It's what being limber means." Le Guevel returned her prim and proper personage. "So, do you wish to learn the exceptional art of limberness?"
Not the part that goaded people into being Consumed, but the confidence that came with control. In hindsight, if she could have done that to the Exeters, it would have filled her with such joy, such satisfaction, that her chest may have burst.
Her instructor grinned. Opposite Gwen, Le Guevel rematerialised the bible-sized "Twerp's Peerage", as well as a second book, entitled "Bonk's Genealogical Records of the Ennobled Affinities of England, Ireland and Scotland."
"Study up, kitten— do what you will, or can. The more you know— the more you know."
Unable to stomach the monotony of genealogy, Gwen decided to take Lady Grey's advice to heart, diffusing her stress by wandering the wintery urban-scape of the college town as its Flaneur. Along the way, she absorbed the gothic trees and spired cathedrals, marvelling at antiquity to absolve the infirmities ailing her mind.
After her lesson, post reanimation of her bangle, four Messages were waiting for her— three from Dominic Lorenzo, stating that he had returned from somewhere called the Isle of Man— and one from Elvia.
At first, she felt immense relief.
Then, considering the histrionic subtext of her last six Messages, Gwen suddenly didn't feel so rushed to listen to her companion's explanation. If Elvia carried on as though nothing happened, she wouldn't feel vindicated. If Elvia whole-heartedly apologised, she would feel guilty, and should Evee placate her with excuses; she would only grow incensed.
"Evee, Evee, Evee..." Gwen inhaled the frigid air, wistfully longing for the yesteryear.
Instead of replying, she walked on, listening to Dominic's Message.
"... still, I can't believe you took possession of the printing press! The one in the Isle of Dogs? The Mulholland Press? AND Dwarves are arriving to repair the engine? That's incredible news. When are you in London again? Let me know; I am on standby at the moment, the battle's stalled for now. Call me if you're in town— I want to discuss your offer as Editor of this 'Metro Paper'."
Dominic's gusto improved her mood somewhat, enough at least to see her saunter down Pembroke, waltz through Downing, then stroll over to the famous duck ponds at Emmanuel's, kept emerald and temperate all year round by zealous groundskeepers.
The pond was smaller than Gwen expected, certainly not living up to its fame. The ducks as well, were not very numerous, not to mention over half were dull-coloured mallards. She was here because she heard from the Peterhouse lodge that these were magical ducks and that years of feasting on the sorcerous leakage had enhanced their intelligence. Come spring, when birds of prey come to descend upon the ducklings, there were observed anecdotes of the ducks calling on student and staff with cries of "Quelp! Quelp!"
In winter, with the student cohort away until the Lent term began mid-January, Gwen had only ducks with which to share the pond.
She released her Familiars so that they too could enjoy the sorcery-empowered emerald pond and its wasteful expenditure of the ley-lines' energies. With express orders not to harass the local fauna, her Familiars went about the place sniffing the willows and rolling in the grass, then snow.
On her knee, she opened up Twerp's Peerage, and flipped the page to Exeter. At almost a centimetre thick, the section could block a Magic Missile. Gingerly, she fingered the three lions passant with a blue border of the fleur-de-lis in gold. The page began with John of Gaunt, the Lancastrian progenitor.
It was fascinating, in a way, how eugenics applied to high society. But Gwen understood the obsession. Henry V, Henry of Monmouth, was a man whose military success turned England into a globe-spanning colonial superpower. Wasn't she aiming for the same? Extraordinary individuals were the way of her present world.
She read on— but the material was dry, and her affections for Elvia remained tinder hot. Somewhere in the suffocating jargon, she dithered between berating Elvia and hugging the flaxen healer tight against her bosom.
"Yesterday..." She hummed, the tune rolling off her subconscious. "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they're here to stay..."
Why Evee had to go her way, Gwen couldn't say, not without acknowledging it was all her fault. In her insecurity, she had told Elvia she was pure, then that she had to be unique, then that they would need to be equals. The contradictions had been intentional, and yet, that's what Elvia now strived to achieve.
Thankfully, she found some solace in Paul McCartney, misplacing her failures in the fancy that somewhere in London, Magus McCartney and maybe Lennon was still making music with the rest of the quartet. Was there a music industry in this world? She wondered, licking her lips. Two best-of albums and she could bribe another Ruxin or two.
Gwen almost dropped her book. Lost in her sing-song daydream, she had not realised the ducks were listening.
"Quack! Quack!" An abnormally large mandarine duck, the size of a goose, appeared to accost her.
Gwen put down her book to regard the strange waterfowl. To her knowledge, ducks "Quabbed", though she was neither a drake fancier nor a duckologist. Her prior expertise on ducks involved pancake, shallots, and dipping sauce.
"Shaa!" Caliban slithered over. With its aura entirely suppressed, her Void snake was a beautiful, semi-transparent worm wrought of obsidian-glass.
The duck turned to flee.
"Wait, don't be scared." Gwen struck out a hand. Much to her surprise, the duck returned, then nuzzled her palm.
Packing away her book in case the colourful duck pecked the moleskin cover, she searched her ring for food, eventually coming up with a can of SPAM. Opening the tab one-handed, she used the metal to spoon out a good chunk, then offered it to the duck. "Hungry?"
"Quack!" the duck gobbled the lot.
Gwen extracted the rest of the mysterious meat.
"Quack!" The duck was an omnivore.
Next, she produced a raw chunk of HDM.
Gwen marvelled as she watched the duck down the crystal shard. "Amazing, so you're a magical duck— WHOA—"
"Quack!" The duck mounted her with a grandiose flap of its wings. The effect was admirable, resembling an explosive rainbow appearing and disappearing at once.
"Cali, down!" Gwen commanded Caliban to sit even as the duck alighted, scrunching her dress as it nestled in between her thighs. In the pale light, its feathers shimmered like Almudj's scales, while clear-cut lines of vibrant colours in sunburst, indigo and flamingo pink formed dynamic contours. It was— without a doubt, the most beautiful duck Gwen had ever seen.
"Quack!" The duck implored at her with large, soulful eyes, its irises twin obsidian orbs catching the light of her reflection. Gwen felt a strange sense of endearment. Was it the rainbow-hued body? She wondered, guiltily thinking of Evee and Almudj.
"I bet you're a Familiar," she said to the duck, looking around the whereabouts of their immediate vicinity to attempt visual confirmation of her hypothesis. When no sorcerer materialised to retrieve their soulful counterpart, Gwen raised a mischievous hand toward the duck's vibrant bill. "Say, does ducky want some candy?"
Cycling Essence, she pooled the viridescent green motes within a cupped hand.
"Ee!" Ariel, drawn by the scent, returned to the fold, scattering the ducks surrounding its mistress.
"Patience, Ariel." Gwen scratched the Kirin with one hand while offering the Demi-divine nectar of life to their new companion. If indeed this was a sorcerer toying with her, then they were in for a rude awakening when their Familiar escaped the paddock for the greener grass. Likewise, if the duck was a Transmuted student playing her for a lark, then Gwen took no responsibility for what was about to happen next.
"Quack?" The duck lapped at the emerald elixir. "QUACK?"
Immediately, the creature's girth expanded another inch. It's neck distended further, its wings larger and longer. It's feathers, already the likeness of Almudj turned heart-achingly vivid.
Gwen felt genuinely surprised that she was not being trolled. Delighted, she conjured a little more nectar and fed the rest to her adorably obedient Kirin. On her lap, the duck appeared caught in a trance as the Essence ran its course.
A Message spell bloomed.
It was her angel-faced tormentor.
"Evee!" Her voice trembled before she could apply what Le Guevel had cautioned, pushing past a masochistic impulse to ignore the Glyph.
"Gwennie!" Elvia's tone wasn't at all what she had anticipated. It was unsure, distressed, and full of vulnerability. "I— I think I am in trouble!"
Instinctively, Gwen felt her blood stir, her angst instantly evaporating. "What trouble? Who is it?"
"No, no, not that kind of trouble," Elvia huffed. "I don't know what's happening! I pulled a Magus Fitzgerald back from the brink of death, and now they're sending me away."
"Hold on," Gwen commanded her Evee to calm, guilty that she felt genuine happiness to have her helpless dolly back in the fold. "You'll have to explain from the beginning."
"Okay!" Elvia's thread-thin voice tickled Gwen's ears. "This morning, I healed a War Mage from the Isle of Man who was badly wounded and on the brink of death. I did it with Kiki and Sen-sen's help, but Director Hatchley said that not even a team at Blacks would have attempted the surgery because of the low success rate. I— "
Elvia halted. "— are you still angry, Gwen, if you're unhappy with me…"
"Nevermind that," Gwen said, feeling the weight lift from her chest. "I wasn't mad for long. Anyway, then what happened?"
"Then I kept practising on the other patients, mostly NoMs, a few lower-tier Mages as well. Director Hatchley called me into her office and said that I was now a big fish in a small pond..."
Gwen's brows furrowed.
Lady Grey was right.
Talent bred trouble like sawmills and loose fingers.
"So, when are you transferring over to the Order of the Bath?" Gwen decided a little Divination of her own might do Elvia some good.
"The… Order of the Bath?" Elvia's response was one of pure puzzlement.
"Aye," Gwen mimicked Hanmoul. Less than a week after politicking with humanity, she missed the Dwarves already. Communicating with the stouts had felt so effortless, for they were a race that rarely saw guile as a virtue. "Did the Knight-recruiters knockdown Director Hatchley's door?"
"… Umm…" Elvia's discomfort was palpable. "Gwen, they're sending Mathias and me to the Isle of Man!"
"Quack!" The duck protested when Gwen's surprise almost tore out one of its feathers. The allure of Alumdj's Essence, however, was enough to anchor the duck to her lap.
"Sorry…" Gwen apologised.
"Was that a duck?" Elvia asked.
"I like ducks." Gwen mulled the place Elvia had mentioned in her mind. Where had she heard it before? "Forgive my ignorance, Evee. What's on the Isle of Man again?"
On hearing the endearing nickname, Elvia's high-strung tone relaxed somewhat. "I don't know much myself, only that the Wildland folk there live among Demi-humans. They've been fighting England since forever, and there's a recent flair-up. I can't tell you more right now, only that Magus Fitzgerald— the Mage I healed, was badly wounded by a Snake Curse— that's old magic, Gwen, Animism from before Spellcraft. Director Hatchley said I was important to Nightingale and Mathias didn't volunteer, so I don't understand why I am being sent out of London again. This is all so confusing. Do you think I should ask Lady Astor? Would she be annoyed? Or Emily perhaps, maybe she can find out why? Oh, Gwennie, everything is happening so fast..."
Gwen wanted to calm her companion but needed more information to ascertain Evee's present crisis, which was why urged Elvia first to take a deep breath, then make herself a cup of tea. "Okay. I get the gist of it. I'll Message you back, Evee. Let me make some enquiries. When do you deploy?"
"… Tomorrow, when Mathias gets here." Elvia exhaled. "There's a whole host of us from the Great Hospitals, a 'volunteer' group..."
Gwen nodded to herself. Somehow, hearing Evee's desperation filled her with a secret joy. It was good to know the Yinglong hadn't't changed her companion where it mattered. Now, she felt as if things had gotten back on track, returned to a state of yesterday.
But of course, her gladness did not diminish the danger Elvia potentially faced. Closing the Message, she dialled in the Glyph for Dominic, having recalled why the "Isle of Man" sounded so familiar.
"Gwen?" Dominic Lorenzo sounded positively delighted. "So soon? Feeling eager?"
"I am always eager for your advice, Dom," Gwen teased her sister-in-craft's old comrade. "But I'll speak to you in detail about the job once things clear up here. For now, can I ask you some questions about the Isle of Man?"
"The Isle? Sure, what would you like to know?"
"I've got a close friend soon to be assigned there. I want to know if it's dangerous to go. Is there a war going on?"
"Ah— you've come to the right man. I was reporting on the Isle just after your Dwarfs. Indeed, things are heating up over there."
"What's the trouble?"
"The usual," Dominic said. "You want history or just the present-day drama?"
"Explain like I am an NoM."
"Well then, I'll make it succinct." Dominic paused to gather his thoughts. "Pre-England, the Isle was the domain of the Elemental Manannán, worshipped by the Gaels as the God of the Sea. The Elemental demanded a few too many virgin sacrifices from the indigenous folk, resulting in a rebellion where the Druids, aided by their fellow sufferers, the Wood Elves, captured, then enslaved Manannán. After that, the Gaels proliferated for some time— until the 13th century, when English conquest took the Isle. Since then, the conflict between the Manx, the descendants of the Gael and the Elves, and the Crown has risen and fallen with the regularity of the tide. The Mageocracy has a large presence in Douglas, an ex-Tower site, now trading port, and in Avalon, where the fabled King Arthur—"
"Quack!" The mandarine duck fled from Gwen after losing another feather.
"Hold up." Gwen brushed the dirt from her legs. "Are you telling me the Isle of Man is where the Knights of the Round Table happened? I am talking Merlin here— Guinevere! Lancelot!"
"… why do I hear a duck?"
"I was keeping it company."
"The Devourer of Shenyang is keeping company with a duck?"
"I am at Emmanuel's," Gwen said. "I was lonely, and besides, it's a magical duck."
"… yes, Avalon," Dominic continued. "Is the where Arthur and his knights fell. An almost typical story of early colonisation. A group of enterprising Faith casters of old, armed with Relic of yore, enter the Wildlands to convert the heathens. Adventures ensued, success galore and then—"
"And then they delve into the heart of darkness; their Christian ethos turns to pitch-black Void, rape and rapine become the norm before it all ends with their leader dying from malaria, bleating 'the madness… the madness…'?"
"Not so… dramatically," the reporter sounded impressed. "The Round Table did fall because of individual vice— though more tragically, their quest was futile from the beginning. No, no, the Isle is the domain of the Manx, that will not change, unless—"
"Unless the Devourer of Shenyang wants a new moniker?" Dominic's tone was full of enterprise. "I could imagine your updated title— "
Gwen shivered as Dominic revelled in the journalistic possibilities.
"— Gwen Song! The Devourer of Man!"