With Wen and Brown gone to Cambridge, Gwen conjured the third member of Team Cousin to convene with the duo at the Tower of Tandoori.
Unexpectedly, they were joined by Richard's friend and co-worker, Lucas Spencer.
"We were surveying the isle when you called," their cousin explained when Gwen met them with an arched brow. "Besides, if Pats had questions about London or Cambridge, who's going to answer her? You?"
Gwen granted that this was true, though privately she had hoped that the cousins would have the afternoon to themselves. As she had feared, once Lucas' eyes firmly rested on her cousin's face, the young man was smitten.
"Magus Kuznetsova, please do not hesitate to call upon me if you have errands or questions, academic or otherwise," Lucas ingratiated himself by listing his credentials for Enchantment and Abjuration. Gwen recognised that perhaps, this had been Richard's plan all along. Petra may be gifted and well-trained, but her knowledge possessed gaps when compared to a Cambridge elite. Likewise, Petra having a volunteer concierge for the enormous campus would prevent much grief.
"Was this planned?" she demanded.
Instead of replying, Richard indicated behind her.
"Ahh— Namaste, Magus Song—" A pair of well-wishes sallied forth from the swinging double-doors to the kitchen, revealing a pair of cinnamon-skinned siblings in lungis. "It's good to have you revisit us."
"Hello." Gwen waved back. She knew their faces, just not their names.
"Namaste." Richard bowed his head. "Good to see you too, Burhan, Shab. How's business?"
"Master Huang, Lord Mages." The brothers bowed. "We are well, thanks to your patronage."
"Dick, how do you know the owners?" Gwen asked out of curiosity.
"I am far too fond of curry." Richard serenely smiled. "Since you took me here, I've eaten nothing else while working at the isle. Burhan and Shab are old Londoners, did you know? Far more local than your or I. They're the second-generation owners. Their father hailed from the lost colony of Bengal. It's a common story here."
"Master Huang is too kind." The brothers bowed again. "We owe much of our success to Magus Song—"
"Me? You flatterer." Gwen laughed out loud before composing herself, unpleasantly recalling Le Guevel's disapproving face. She needn't have worried, for the other Mages cared not for her company. The clientele here wasn't like Fenbo Village in Fudan, where the NoMs gawked because she was a foreigner and because she had been on the Lumen-caster.
"If you recall, a month ago, Magus Song, you bought out our entire menu for a day and forced us to close," Burhan explained with care. "It has piqued the curiosity of many a Mage from the Shard. The business blossomed since then."
"Sounds about right. That's Gwen's golden touch alright." Richard thanked the owners, then ordered for the table. "Chicken Tikka Masala, Goan Goat Vindaloo, Rogan Josh, Bombay Aloo and Mushroom Bhaji to share. Triple-portion rice, Gwen here can pack away enough for four."
The table broke into laughter, breaking the ice.
Some small-talk later, fragrant plates of spice arrived with mango lassis on the house. Gwen took hers saucy and robust, while Richard and Lucas opted for something creamier. Petra, who had never had real curry in her life, looked as though Pyrotechnics were about to shoot from her ears.
Now gastronomically content, the cousins settled down for business.
"Tell me about the Dwarves." Petra laid down her utensils. "How do I talk to them? What are the formal greetings? Should I bring a gift?"
"Dwarves are blokes, basically," Gwen explained. "Master Yossari Vildrenbrandt's their de facto leader, an Alchemist Master I've hired to make special ink, among other things. The two you're after are Thulgig and Danmurim the Glum, both Runesmiths. Nesatin and Doussed are the Golem masters— the rest being untitled Journeymen. Gift wise— booze? I am waiting on shipments of Maotai routed through Yangoon; we'll have to settle for something local. The cost is no object."
"Just as well, did you know Lucas is a self-professed sommelier? His father trades in wine from Bordeaux and Rioja." Richard turned to the dark-headed Englishmen. "Spencer, how about you recommend something?"
"Sure." Gwen nodded. "Make sure its something flammable."
Lucas pursed his lips in deep thought. "You don't mind human-made Spirits?"
"There are non-human made ones?" Gwen inched closer to the young man, suddenly very interested. Petra appeared equally keen. "Go on."
"Well, not exactly, there's Elven Birch Spirit." Lucas gulped. "Frozen birch-sap from Snowdonia is imported by Pullman and Sons into London, where its distilled into an ice-laced elemental liqueur that goes down like quick-rime. On a hot summer's day, there's nothing like it to keep cool."
"That sounds amazing." Gwen licked her lips. "And…"
Lucas' throat bobbed. "Er… a London Classic would be mana-burn Gin from Plymouth, named so because the Royal Navy never sets sail without a half-year supply of ninety-proof bottles. It's a bit of a rough and tumble, cheap and popular with the dockers."
"So long as it gets the job done." Richard stirred his lassi.
"How about mead?" Lucas said. "It is winter, and a hot cup of overproof, tong-clinging mead can be rightly divine."
"Gwen." Petra nudged her cousin. "You're drooling."
"Erg— I haven't boozed-up since the Red Keep," Gwen moped, licking her lips. "Lucas, where does one get this mead?"
"You know what? We'll take care of it." Richard volunteered as tribute. "You gals just go and have fun with your Dwarves."
Gwen nodded approvingly. Tapping the table, she materialised a stack of HDM-chips. "Two hundred enough?"
Lucas baulked. "Are you trying to buy enough alcohol to set sail for the new world?"
"I don't know about that—" Gwen sighed dreamily. "BUT, we're going to be pounding shots with Dwarves, Spencer. Get enough to make it to the Suez at least."
A few hours out with Team Cousin, Petra already felt fuzzy.
Now removed from the all-enveloping love of her Babulya, she had feared that the Moscow part of her life would resurface. Instead, she had laughed more in this one luncheon than many months under Wen.
It was enough to dispel all of her worries.
As an ex-candidate for a Red Ghost, she was erudite on human appetites. Yet, going to London, leaving Wen, striking out on her own with all the responsibilities, financial and otherwise, remained daunting for a young cadet who had been reared hand-to-mouth by a line of caretakers.
She knew much about the world and yet knew little about the world. It didn't help that Master Popov had been very particular about human hypocrisy, perfectly explaining that people were were-jackals. In his view, human beings are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as one succeed they are yours entirely, offering food, blood, property, life, and children; and when the fortunes turned, so would they.
"Take, for example, Minster Abramchenko's lovely young wife, Viktoria." Her Master once boasted while conditioning her for high society. "She's the kind to talk while enjoying the afterglow. It's uncanny. No amount of liquor can pry her tight little lips, and she's trained to obfuscate Mind Magic, but a good massage…"
Petra recalled being disgusted, but her Master merely shrugged. In their profession, he had said, humanity's appetites were bread and butter. She could be a cynic, but she should never get all sanctimonious like those pontific hypocrites in the Orthodox Sects.
For the same purpose, Master Popov also took her on little practicals to air out her talent.
On those trips, Petra, who spent her childhood in an elite cadet-academy, had felt such a thrill that her head grew full of stars. His job as a Mineral Enchanter aside, Master Popov's covers included being a renowned novelist popular both home and abroad. He was also a distinguished paramour and an infamous socialite, one embroiled in no less than three scandals at a time. When he had dressed her up like a daughter-dolly and told her to play the part, she obeyed, and the two of them had frequented cafes and bars, high-rise penthouses, oligarchs' homes, and one time, even toured the Kremlin.
"You can sense the subtle shifts in pathos if you concentrate," Popov would explain with uncharacteristic patience, a rare occasion for the wandering bohemian. "Focus towards six O'clock. No, don't turn to look. Shape your Detect Thoughts, tell me what they're feeling."
It didn't take Detect Thoughts for Petra, then fifteen, to know what the man was feeling.
"No, no, deeper," Master Popov urged. "Don't skim the surface— keep digging."
"… Shame?" Petra took a moment to digest the quagmire of emotions swarming her brain. "Self-loathing?"
"Correct, now turn around and glare."
The man drooling over her ripening figure was an old priest with a benevolent mien. He wore a priest's collar, and when Petra's cool-blue eyes met his, the man's defence crumbled.
As to what had happened next, Petra recalled with salience. Master Popov stubbed his cigarette, picked up his mug of booze-laced coffee, then walked across the floor.
"YOU, pervert— how dare you gawk at my daughter?"
The priest blinked, his mind suddenly rioting with fear, so much so that Petra could see her thin legs trembling in resonance. "I am afraid you're mistaken—"
In one swift movement, Popov smashed his mug over the old priest' head, causing him to topple from the chair onto the floor. Several patrons instantly moved to confront him— Popov's victim was a priest after all, and the old country had long indulged in the opium of the masses.
"Tower business." Her Master wasn't shy to use the notoriety of Moscow Tower. He gave no shits about his employer's reputation.
Naturally, without even questioning his credentials, the onlookers retreated.
"Was that priest a criminal?" Petra recalled asking her Master in the aftermath. "He was bleeding so much."
"Who knows?" Popov laughed once he'd tipped the waitress and they were on the way to their next location. "But then again, who is truly innocent? Purity merely invites sin, my little devotchka. When you get older, we'll get your hands dirty yet."
"Pats?" an endearing voice called from afar.
Petra blinked away the daydream. "Yes?"
"Are you done?" Gwen eyed her leftover Chicken Tikka, for Petra, the spice was too much. "Sorry, if it's not to your liking."
"I wasn't that hungry, you know, because of the Teleportation." Petra smiled as they exchanged plates. Why was it, the Mind Mage wondered, that something as simple as Gwen eating leftovers made her felt warm and loved?
The Isle of Dogs.
Gwen couldn't wait for Petra to see what her Demi-human employees had accomplished.
In six-days, working day and night, her Dwarves-on-loan had performed three-months worth of labour, demonstrating a stark difference between Dwarven engineering and human artifice.
In her old world, Gwen had marketed residential towers for Lendlease, and so possessed a learned eye for the convolution involved in construction projects. Compared to that, Dwarven methodology, combined with the ability to live-fabricate components with complete precision, made the process streamlined. Beyond doubt, what Walken had praised of the Fabricators was an understatement as to why humanity struggled to replicate Dwarf-tech.
Even if a Human technician could attend the proverbial Deepholm College— he or she would remain an Apprentice for three decades and a Journeyman for five. A professional by humanity's standards matured at an age when a Dwarf was still a trainee— edifying an insurmountable experience-gap.
As for runic magic— Gwen had seen Tuner Nesatin servicing the mantis-Fabricator. Once its bright yellow spine-panels came off, there was a galaxy of gears and pistons, lubricated and empowered with hundreds of micro-Mandalas. As someone who had seen War Golems stripped down to the bare frame, the intricacy between what a Masterclass Tuner had invested a half-century of work into, and a mass-produced MK-III was like comparing a Swatch to a Patek Philippe.
What also amazed her was that the Dwarves had not rushed to build their workshops or their garages, though the cavities for those were ready and in service— instead, the first structure to see completion was the Mead Hall.
A Mead Hall! Gwen was giddy Petra had arrived so serendipitously. Sharing Dwarven mead with Pats was one of her most ardent desires. The whole while she partied in Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth, she had anticipated the prospect of family and friends participating in her Demi-human discoveries.
Naively, she had first taken the room to be a cosy mess. The conjecture made sense, for the Dwarves had to eat, and Human food was far too exotic for Dwarven stomachs used to Battle Bread, charcoal-meat, Wildland legumes and copious volumes of alcohol.
Then, when she toured one evening to check on the expenditure of materials the Dwarves had demanded, she was instead greeted with the sound of rowdy quaffing. Walken then carefully explained that their guests had unanimously voted for the Mead Hall's construction to be prioritised— and he had signed off on the proposal because it would mean keeping drunk Dwarves outside of London's infamously rowdy pubs.
Once inside, she learned that the Dwarves had brought enough materials from home to stock the bar. Behind the long counter, the Journeymen took turns playing the publican, while their Masters, the Tuners, Runesmiths, and of course Hanmoul's aunt knocked down stein after stein. When she asked about the booze, it was revealed that each of the Master-tier white-beards had Storage Rings full of alcohol stowed away for their outing and that the Alchemist herself planned to construct a distillery at the first opportunity.
"Join us fer a pint, lassie!" Yossari, a descendent of Bürumm-Dal Irøngut, invited their host to get smashed. "Hanmoul said yer drank em under the table! Tis a mighty feat if true, lass, let yer aunt see the prowess of the Devourer!"
"Gwen still has accounts to settle."
Much to her executive's delight and horror, she took his advice and refrained from impromptu alcoholism.
Thankfully, the Dwarves weren't offended.
Theirs was a hardy and straightforward life.
The Murk-folk drank hard.
And they were honest and hard-working. As an uncompromising superintendent, Gwen felt inspired by the Dwarve's natural, uncomplaining Protestant work-ethic, not to mention their emotional honesty in airing grievances. In the absence of her extended family, she preferred the Demi-human's company to the companionship of the inhabitants of London.
That's not to say there weren't those with whom she could let down her hair— Lady Grey, perhaps, but she couldn't imagine the Lady quaffing and howling. There was Ollie as well, her Praelector was a dear, but the boy would be laid out like a carcass by the second stein. As for those closest to her, Walken proved a fatherly prude, and she had never seen Richard drunk. Caliban would just eat the stein, Ariel would get the zoomies, and Dede— Dede could not afford to get into more trouble.
As for Elvia— Gwen knew full well that she was drinking to distract herself from that particular problem, and therefore her dearest little Cleric didn't count.
Thankfully, now Petra was here.
Unlike Richard, who kept giving her crass and horrible advice, Petra would listen, and Petra would lend her a sympathetic ear. They were alike, she and Pats, both grew up without the support of parents, both had their Masters perish, and both worked like demons.
Yes. With Petra here, Gwen manically convinced herself, everything would be better again.
Despite Gwen's upsell, the Mead Hall was a modest affair, accomodating three dozen bodies at most. Running parallel to the long table was a long bar about ten metres, behind which were kegs of Dwarven brew, provisioned by the inhabitants, was stacked three-kegs high against the recessions in the wall. An automated cleaning-station had been set up in the middle of the bar, and dozens of steins lined the counter. Unlike the freight shaft leading down past the Thames, the walls of the Mead Hall were textured stone, leaving an overall impression of cosiness. Finally, from the ceiling, a trio of moody lumen-globes glowed, flooding the chamber with a dusky warmth.
Into the hall now stepped two giantesses an arm's length short of the ceiling.
Gwen hailed the Dwarves suffering through a supper of stone bread.
The scene in front of her was unbelievable— but as Master Popov used to say— if you're seeing it and feeling it after running a routine for Illusion, only an idiot would deny objective reality. Why couldn't Gwen recruit Dwarven masters? Her cousin might not use Mind Magic, but she did possess the non-magical equivalents of Charm, Silver Tongue and Suggestion.
From the waist, Petra bowed with sincerity. She had not shown so much respect to anyone other than Master Popov and her dear Babulya. It was a demonstration of her awe, her happiness, and her ardent desire to excavate what was buried in the heads of these Dwarves.
"Hey ya, fellers! Yossari! Let me introduce a member of my family, this is Petra, is she not pretty?" Gwen walked past her arched figure without hesitation. "For your information, she's studying magic from your race, and she's a huge fan of Dwarven Runes."
The Dwarves hailed with their mugs.
Her sorcerous cousin strutted toward those august figures seated around the table, walked around the bar, then hefted a keg onto the table. "As promised, I'll be joining you today. Pats, what'll it be?"
"Ur lurlom monleg kjanr etta torjof?" One of the Dwarves, a respected white-beard, chuckled. "Hanja klokar jikablith en Strider!"
The barrage of Dwarven sounded like a man trying to gargle stones while drinking boiling water. Discretely, Petra activated Master Popov's variation of Tongues, ashamed her training had fallen by the way-side.
From the bar, Gwen was explaining that she wanted them to teach her Dwarven magic.
In turn, the Dwarves were expressing their doubts.
"Well then, what's the limitation?" Gwen brokered the question on Petra's lips with the same ease as one asking for a salad recipe. "She'd not acquiring your magic. She's doing her own. Pats' is having some trouble with the next stage. Complications with Meta-magic and Spellshaping are preventing the completion of her thesis."
The Dwarves' mutual gazes fell on Petra.
Star-struck, she blushed, which made her more embarrassed, a prospect that seemed to please her cousin.
"Aye, I am sure we can give the lass some pointers," the Alchemy Master said with a grin. "Come here Lass, let Yossari have a swatch at whit yer got."
"Right now?" Petra's gaze flowed from the Dwarves to Gwen then back to her impromptu examiner. "My magic?"
"Of course! Strike while the iron's hot." Gwen emerged with two jugs. "This is strong stuff, by the way, I don't think you should be performing magic AFTER we get you liquored up."
The mana in her veins pulsed.
Things were happening quite a bit faster than she had anticipated.
When Gwen mentioned Dwarven Masters, she had imagined standing quietly on the side, playing the sycophant. Cold glares and scoffs, then a demeaning command to perform an apprentice's duty for a few months would follow, maybe a caning or two. At some point, Gwen would grease the wheels with gifts of Crystals, and like cold-dripped coffee, knowledge would filter down between her parched lips.
Now, this fine-whiskered Dwarf, a matron of her craft and the leader of even these august white-beards, was asking Petra to show her shameful facsimile?
"Come on, Pats, why so bashful?" Gwen sloshed the jugs, much to the Dwarves delight. "We're asking for a show of magic, not table dancing. The drinks won't wait."
"A-alright." More flustered than when Master Popov had made her charm a man into doing the unmentionable, she extended both hands. A brief manifestation of her Naga Spirit appeared and disappeared, then in her palm laid an empty Spellcube of the fifth-tier.
"This is the magic I am working on completing. Originally, it was my teacher's, Magister Wen's idea, but she's since left it to me, and I've been improving the formulae."
In her palm, the unoccupied Spellcube scintillated, a die of Nephrite half-translucent with veins of ivory lightning. On its surface, Glyphs derived from Dwarven Magic had been magically etched through hybrid Conjuration.
"Interesting lass, a spatial hexahedron with multi-tier containment Runes." Yossari put on a pair of diagnostic spectacles. "Danmurim, this is your area, what do you think?"
A well-soaked Dwarf with a deformed and acid-scarred face pulled himself from the long table. He extended a hand; with reverence, Petra handed over her cube.
"How old are yer?" was the Dwarves' first question.
"I am twenty-one," Petra confessed. To think Gwen was just eighteen and could sit at the same table as these Dwarves.
The Runesmith invoked a form of Detect Magic Petra could not decipher, enveloping her cube with an earthen dweomer.
"Yer a mere babe? Then yer a genius by our standards." Danmurim allowed the cube to traverse from hand to hand while he probed its internal Mandalas. "This is Journeymen material, Yossari. The girl is a gem."
"I knew it!" Gwen filled the steins of a Dwarf next to her, then her own. "To Petra the Gem! Bottoms up!"
To Petra's shock, her cousin downed the mug. The Dwarves performed likewise, then collectively let loose a tremendous belch.
"That said," Danmurium the Glum continued soberly, untouched by the meagre volume of mead. "Yer can see how the Glyph-lines are smashed ter-gether like cobbled-rocks. The formulae are outdated as well, maybe from before the Murk turned dark. Looks a wee-bit strange ter me, maybe from Eth Vaefaz Urndlikr? From the Bjar Kjanth."
"What's that?" Gwen interjected.
"Another Citadel-city, one of the rogue colonies. In your world…" Yossari tapped her empty tankard. Without shame, her cousin happily played the hostess. Once Gwen refilled the mugs, the woman continued. "... Our blue-skinned kindred live between Bavaria and the middle country, past the Elemental Sea, near where the mountains are plenty."
When Gwen struggled to map the locale, Petra intervened. "Do you mean one of the central plains regions, Tajikistan? Kyrgyzstan?"
The Alchemist shrugged. "I wouldn't know. Haven't seen the bastards for two centuries."
"Well? Danmurium? You feel like taking on an intern?" Gwen refilled the Ruinesmith's vessel.
"Wot's an intern?"
Petra stared at her cousin.
Gwen winked back.
"A not-Apprentice," Gwen said. "Just let her follow you around, ask some questions, maybe you answer them, maybe you don't. If you don't like her or if she's a bother, just let her know. You're going to be inscribing the rest of the base with Nesatin, right? Then there's the printing press and after that, the new subway line. I would be very grateful."
Glum looked at Yassari, who raised a tankard. "Aye lass, I suppose that's alright."
Petra gulped. Was that it? Was that how easy it is to acquire a Dwarven instructor?
"She can alternate between you and Nesatin," Yossari advised. "Who knows, you might take a liking to the lass if she's that talented."
Petra watched as Gwen reached her side, then forced her to sit in between her future instructors. A stein of sickly-sweet something soon arrived under her nose. "There you go Pats, all sorted. Cheers to Petra, first-ever intern to the Dwarves!"
"Thank you." Petra received the foaming mug. How in the world had she gone from having never even seen a Dwarf in real life, to following TWO Masters around town? If Popov weren't dead and dusted, the man would pinch her cheeks and call her a liar, then instruct her on how to bullshit believably.
"Hey-hey." Gwen knocked her tankard. "Bottoms up. Before Richard gets here with even more booze— let's try out all the Demi-human stuff."
"We need to get out of here." Richard slung the unconscious, well-quaffed Lucas over one shoulder. "I am going to lose my hearing."
"Agreed." Her cousin grimaced, helping Petra to her feet.
All around them, the Dwarves thundered with their snores, replicating a Fabricator at full-bore. A few had gone back to their unfinished workshops to sleep, but the rest slept where they fell, happy and blissful and well-soaked with Birch Spirit, which had been a surprise sleeper-hit for the folks from the Murk.
Outside, the freezing night air of the Isle of Dogs cooled Petra's flushed face and furnace-lit skin. Gwen appeared to be tipsy, though Petra suspected that unlike herself and Richard, Gwen's intoxication was more mood and less alchemical aid.
"I'll take Lucas home." Richard slung their new friend over his shoulder. "We'll hole up at Mudchute Manor. Our Praelector will have a fit if he sees us like this."
"Thanks, Dick." Gwen hugged herself, even though she shouldn't have felt the cold.
Richard nodded to Petra. "Look after Duck, Pats. Lea, give me a hand. This guy weighs a ton."
"I will." Petra circulated her mana. Mineral Mages, having access to both the Positive Plane and the Elemental Plane of Earth, possessed robust constitutions even when pitted against mixed alcohol.
With Richard disappearing toward Mudchute Manor, she now stood alone in the wintery cold with her Void-ensorcelled cousin. Gwen kept warm by borrowed-Essence from a Mythic; she by her Russian blood and booze.
"Let's take a seat." Petra walked closer to the Thames, then conjured a bench by shaping the Nephrite offered by her Naga Spirit. In the moonlight, the slightly malformed bench of stacked-cubes appeared both comical and majestic, making Gwen laugh.
The girls sat.
"Go on." Petra knew she had to do this for her cousin, who had done much for her. Like Richard, her elevation to Cambridge was in no small part thanks to Gwen selling herself.
Now seated beside the icy flow of the famous river, a whole world away from Shanghai and two from Moscow, Petra recognised once more that Gwen's facade, her maniac exuberance, was as fragile as ice-crystal, as transparent as a poorly-laid glamour.
Her cousin had a tale to tell. She could see it in the way Gwen's eyes fixated the distance, turned to study the cobblestone, then kept flittering about between them. Her stuttering body language, her halting speech, the digression back to the Dwarves, all of it pointed at the emergence of a story that, like an angry box of bees, cried out for release.
The Dwarves were an interlude, Petra decided. The alcohol was the point.
On the bench, she invited Gwen to recline so that her cousin's head rested on her shoulder like so many other times they watched the Lumen-caster at their apartment in Fudan.
"I think I know you well enough to know that something's eating you," Petra decided to initiate. "I am not completely lucid right now, so it's a good time as any to say your piece. Master Popov had a saying— the drunk doesn't judge, and therefore make the best listeners."
"Wait up." For some reason, her cousin activated a Detect Magic. Petra frowned. Was Gwen wary of her Mind Magic?
"Okay… no crows, and nothing too suspicious. All good. Oh-oh-oh, my mind has been full of scorpions, dear Pats."
"Gwennie… Are you in trouble?" Her cousin's head was hot against her cheek. The scent from Gwen's hair was earthy with hints of sandalwood and orange blossom, moss and cedar, as well as something vibrant and sweeter. "Is it something you can't kill or eat?"
Gwen's eyes, bean-green in the dusk-blue light of the lower dock's buzzing bulbs, enlarged with horror. "No! Evee's the problem! Evee!"
"Well—" Petra patted her chest. "Lay it on me."
"Okay…" Gwen took a deep breath, then exhaled; there was a lot inside of her cousin that needed expelling. For half an hour, Gwen's gripes gushed forth like the destruction of the dam-wall at Tonglv, guiding in the South China Sea like a blue-white Leviathan, tumbling over, wave-on-wave, a rolling tsunami of complaints.
"She confessed to you?" Petra halted her cousin when the topic took a turn for the queer. "Elvia, the Anglican Cleric, confessed her love for you?"
"Is she attracted to you?"
"I'd say so."
"I would… hope so?"
"Okay." Petra did her best to digest Gwen's words. She remained silent for a long, uncomfortable few seconds while her mind joined the dots. "Alright."
The cold wind remained refreshing while the liquor in her blood diffused. Women could be attracted to women; this was something Petra acknowledged— Master Popov had said it was nothing to be surprised about, for it was just as common for men to be attracted to men. In their world, such incidences were not forbidden so long as the involved parties performed their ultimate duty. Only in some circles— such as under the Orthodox Sects, was the practice taboo; which made them ripe for blackmail.
"Did you reciprocate?" Petra skirted the topic with a careful euphemism.
"I said I was in love," Gwen confessed. "But… no."
"Do you regret not rejecting her? Were you serious?"
"I don't know," Gwen keened like a sickly banshee. "I feel like I've ruined something beautiful, like Dede."
"Who is Dede?" Petra's brows furrowed. A third party made things all the messier.
"Dede's a duck."
"… a duck?"
"… go on."
"I feel terrible for Dede. He was perfectly happy where it was at Emmanuel's, then I—"
"I meant Elvia."
Her cousin corrected the course.
"… I was content with being sisters, but then, of course, Elvia had wanted more than that. And my pent-up feelings in China kind of muddled things— When I saw her again, I just wanted to give her stuff, everything I could spare. It was addictive, you know? The Contingency Ring, the Evasion Ring, a Ring of Storage, I felt such a thrill. I was so happy every time her face was surprised or content. She was upset with my treatment of the Ginseng— do you remember the Ginseng?"
"Yeah, it was delicious..." Petra remembered the Essence-infused Maotai. "Wait— you gave her... THREE rings?"
"Into her hand?"
"Onto her fingers..."
"Was one of those fingers... the RING finger?"
Gwen face slowly grew from confusion to recognition to horror.
"Oh, Gwen..." Petra sighed. "Too late now. Keep going. You were onto the Ginseng."
Gwen sighed long and hard, then continued. "... Elvia didn't like that I kept slicing its limbs for wine, so I gave her Sen-sen as well. Holy shit— was THAT a mistake. After the incident at Walken's, I got her into the Tower to make the Ginseng her Familiar— only when she finished, the bloody thing had subverted my Evee! MY EVEE was stolen from me by a night-tripping fairy, Pats! My Evee, a Changeling! She used the Ginseng's connection to the Yinglong to rebuff Almudj's Blessing, then came out the other end as a vessel!"
"A vessel being what, exactly?" Petra turned the phrase in her mind.
"What I am to Almudj, I suppose," Gwen confessed. "I don't know how it works either. Lady Grey said she'll find someone to explain the concept to me in context. For now, I know it as the manifestations of a Mythic's will, a mortal agent of sorts."
"Or a sock puppet." Petra's eyes narrowed. "I think your Rainbow Patron has proven itself loyal, but this Yinglong…"
"Yeah, I wouldn't trust it as far as I can throw it, no matter how many daughters it's got tapping Uncle Jun."
"And after that?" Petra did her best to dispel Ayxin's smug face. The loving duo regularly visited Babulya, and their affection was sickening.
"After that, we stopped talking— properly at least. I started my lessons, and Evee went off the Isle of Man. I think about her a lot, and every time, I get mad, you know? And then I think about how pissed I am, and that just makes me madder. Maybe Caliban can lick some sense into her."
As she complained, arcs of blue-white electricity sparked from Gwen's hair, numbing Petra's skin, frazzling her hair.
"Okay. Deep Breath." Petra circulated some Mana just in case, commanding her Naga to ground a head or two. Maybe a dash of Mind Magic would prevent any accidental electrocutions.
"And the little... lass... used CALM EMOTION on me!" Gwen seethed. "I was livid, and then I was not! It was like having the wind knocked out of you, only it felt good. Can you imagine how weird that is? Her aura was so warm and tender— and next to her. I felt drunk as a skunk. Drunk and happy, like everything's right with the world— Arrrrgh..."
Petra listened. She was a listener by profession. Master Popov once said that when a target was digressing, never interrupt. From what Gwen had explained, she understood that this Elvia Lindholm was Gwen's pet on a pedestal, only now the pet had subverted the Master's control. What Gwen wanted to be was a protector-cum-benefactor. Instead, Elvia chose to live a life of her own and was empowered to pursue it. That was what made Gwen unhappy— what began as holistic generosity now demanded undeserved redress, and the ambivalence was driving the Void Sorceress mad.
In short, Petra concluded. It was nothing new. Gwen's elementally induced masochism was playing up, and the episode should pass once something more concrete came along. Her cousin was an easy girl to love— what she needed was a man, or a woman, who could be her lightning rod.
"How do you feel about Elvia now?"
"If I could scream at her for a bit, I think I would feel so much better. But if I see her…" Gwen sighed. "I don't think I can work up the anger."
"Can you forgive her?"
"I don't want to." Gwen shook her head, hesitated, then shook her head with more conviction. "Not until Evee purges the Yinglong from her system, but that would involve destroying everything she's built up. I've been thinking about it a lot and, can you imagine the shit we might get into if I gave in to Evee? Imagine, a Draconic-pervert watching from behind her eyes, vicariously riding her senses…"
"Do you still desire intimacy with Miss Lindholm?"
"No, no, no…" Gwen's brow broke out with a sheen of cold sweat. "Nothing carnal. Don't even go there. Just the occasional cuddles."
Petra fought back a sigh of exasperation. So Gwen wanted a pet after all.
"Okay." Petra pushed her cousin away from her. "I think I've heard enough."
Gwen sat upright, held her hands, then waited for Petra's verdict.
"You can't woo her or eat her, so until she purges the drake-juice, leave her be."
Her cousin deflated.
"So long as she's the vessel of the Yinglong, you can't trust her with your secrets. She might even be an operative of a foreign power with designs far removed from yours. As your future policy advisor, if it were up to me, I'd severe the turncoat like a gangrene limb— but if you have lingering affections, then keep her at arm's length. She can be a friend, but not a confidant— a lover if you don't mind the Dragon, but only for pleasure and not for business."
"And if you feel lonely." Petra struck out her chin. "IF a cuddle must be had, there's Richard, and there's me. You can always talk to us about anything. We're your family, Gwen. Blood is thicker than water. You might not realise this, but Richard and I are in your orbit now. We're tied to you in more ways than one. Your suffering is our suffering, your success and triumph we partake in as well. Don't forget— you're the one that sold us your vision of a floating Tower with garden terraces and now, we've followed you to Cambridge. Whatever happens, you'll have Richard and me— and Yue, as well—"
"Arrrrrrugh!" Gwen pulled at her hair. "Fuck! FUCK!"
"I haven't told Yue about any of this!" Gwen howled into the uncertain darkness of the lower docks, sending swarms of rats scattering back into the dark, waking babies from their sleep. "When she finds out I accidentally turned Elvia into a Draconic juice bottle, Yunnie is going to be PISSED…"