The hospice cot was softer than Gwen had expected. The foam, or whatever spring-insert sat between the linen, engulfed her buttocks with a lewd creak, drawing her level with Elvia.
"I am sorry about what happened on the Isle of Man." Gwen patted the space beside her, opening the first salvo. "Dom told me everything."
"Mister Lorenzo did what he thought was best." Elvia refused her invitation with a disarming smile. "He calls it his great success, even though it wasn't right— not for the Manx. Not for the Elves. Not even for the island."
"And how do you know that?" Gwen smugly cocked her head. "Are the island folk not now safe from the predation of this Colonel Tarleton? The ceasefire everyone wanted is in effect. There's no more loss of life on both sides."
When Elvia raised her chin to glare, Gwen glared back.
"The peace is sophistry." Elvia's eyes, Gwen noted, were bright with discontent. "There was no redress, no justice, no punishment for the sinners. The Manx have lost their homes, Gwennie, they've lost everything. Is that how you'll treat Goolagong and her people when you go back to Australia and lord over the continent with Gunther?"
"Old Goolagong?" Gwen frowned, recalling the Indigenous woman. "We're not at war with her people, Evee. Besides, thanks to Almudj, the descendants of the Pintupi share common goals with us. Whatever happens, they're free to either stay on their land or assimilate, think of Tommy for example. I am not going to dictate whether they should embrace modernity—"
Elvia looked away, sighing.
"—What? Don't give me that look. What's wrong?"
"You're becoming like one of them."
"One of who?" Gwen's brows wrinkled.
"The Lords and Ladies here."
Elvia bobbed her head. "You used to be… nicer. I lack your words, Gwennie, so forgive my simplicity. I don't know if you were happier back in Sydney, but I always looked up to how well you treated the NoMs at school, like Mr Rawson. You were so genuine. Could you do that now?"
"Why would I treat Rawson any different?" Gwen swallowed her rising ire. Why was she the one being interrogated? It wasn't as though she's straddling the Yinglong and riding roughshod over their sisterly pact.
"I don't think you'll be able to see Mr Rawson now and see him as anything other than another number in your multitude of NoMs." The sadness in her companion's delivery made Gwen feel patronised. "The same way that the Manx's exodus to you is just an abstracted problem to be solved. You've become a Colossus, Gwennie, and we mortals peep about your great white legs..."
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Gwen snapped.
"I mean, how can you believe the Manx is doing better?" Seeing Elvia's adorable face so upset was remarkably intimidating for Gwen. "Not to preach, Gwennie, but I don't understand why you refuse to understand. Maybe there's too much on your plate— your Isle of Dogs being so much more important than the Isle of Man— The tale of two Isles..."
"Hold on," Gwen interrupted the healer. "What exactly are you trying to say here? That I AM trying to roll the Manx-folk off their usurped island? That I AM responsible for the Mageocracy's imperialism from seven centuries ago? You're ridiculous…"
"Am I?" Elvia's chest rose and fell. "Gwen. The Mageocracy, the very one who holds you dear like the Heart of Flames— you're on their side. They took the Manx's women, children, their elders, and they treated them with contempt. They drove them from their homes, then they killed their loved ones, murdered their Druids, performed rapine on the very sites that the Crown had guaranteed them. They then built an ISTC that drained the mana from the Manx's hearth, their trees and their sacred places."
"That's not… my jurisdiction?" Gwen's brows knitted with frustration. The girl's wild accusation was not doing her cause any favours. "I am here to talk about us, Evee… why…"
"Then in the Newspaper and on the Lumen-casters, your Mageocracy, your Tower— Lorenzo included— they called them mad, mocked those of us who wanted to help or placed us on pedestals. The Foreign Office marginalised the Manx, degraded them, tormented and exiled them with politics, made their lives impossible. But they're the bad guys, and you're the good ones. They don't deserve their home, but we deserve our ISTC Station. That's what Dominic is celebrating, Gwennie. Do you support that?"
Gwen gritted her teeth. Why was Elvia so caught up in this Manx business? Shit happened to folk everywhere. If Humanity were weak like the Manx, they would be the ones slaving away in Mermen coastal pens as opposed to having sushi Thursdays. "Evee, enough. Out with it. What do you want?"
Elvia appeared to study her as if seeing her in a new light. "Look, your hypertension is shooting up again. Here, take my hand."
Gwen stared at her partner's dainty fingers.
"No Positive Energy. No vitality." She warned her thankless lover. "Calm my Emotion, and I'll have Caliban French you."
"Okay," Elvia agreed, then continued where she left off. "To answer your question. I know what I want, Gwennie."
"Good." Gwen's long digits enveloped her friend's hand. Evee's fingers were rougher and more calloused than she could recall, a testament to her labour on the Isle of Man. "Come on, lay it on me. Ask, and I shall consider."
"You make my needs sound like a problem to be solved." Her friend's fingers searched out Gwen's, then twined themselves around her slender digits. "Gwennie, must everything be accounted for and audited with you? Can't you just trust me to do what's best for us? For you? When you're doing the same to me?"
"T-trust? I have to trust—" Gwen stopped herself before she could say something she'd rather not walk back. "Fine, you want to tango? Let's do it. But first— Ariel! Caliban!"
"Shaa!" Caliban slithered into the world and onto Elvia's lap.
"EE! EE!" Ariel likewise nuzzled Elvia as soon as it materialised, running figure-eights around the healer like a cat.
"Kiki!" From behind Elvia, the Alraune greeted its peers.
Gwen fought off a wave of displeasure. "You two, go and secure the perimeter. NO CROWS. Cali, you can harass, but no eating. Anyone comes close, Spider them away."
"Shaa!" The departing Caliban gave Elvia an oozy lick, drenching the front of the healer's doctor's coat. Likewise, Ariel kissed the Cleric thrice before reluctantly leaving to perform its duty.
"Kiki, you help as well."
"They've grown so much since Sydney." Elvia produced a handkerchief to wipe the gloop from her chest. "Do you remember when Caliban was shorter than me, and Ariel was still a ferret?"
"Simpler times." Gwen sighed. "That was a long time ago, Evee. Master was alive back then. Our world was smaller."
"Yes, I miss Master Kilroy. Sufina too."
Gwen said nothing. She wasn't about to be softened by sentimentality.
"So what do you want, Gwen?" Elvia threw her question back at her.
"Me?" Gwen momentarily pondered if declaring "I want you" was acceptable, but decided against something so camp and easily misconstrued. "I want things to go back to what they were."
"And what would that be?"
"You, me, Yue— just the three of us. Chilling. No Yinglong."
Elvia smiled. "What was so dear about those days that you want to relive them so badly?"
"You should know the answer to that, or at least; before your patron took over." Gwen refrained from shouting out her accusations. She was in control, she told herself. Be mature.
"Gwennie, your inconsistency astounds me sometimes." Her healer walked her fingers over Gwen's open palm. Gwen looked down, knowing there was Draconic strength there if Evee so desired. "You, who have been the vessel of Almudj for so long, do you not possess autonomy from its will? Why should I relent my potential to make the changes I want in the world when you do not?"
"That's hardly the same." Gwen channelled her Essence into her hands to ward away Evee in case she chose to use the Yinglong. "Almudj is benevolent."
"And the Yinglong is not?"
"Who has thus suffered from its manoeuvres?" Elvia's accusing lips were pink and moist. "You? Uncle Jun? Your family? The Chinese? Their homeland?"
"The hell are you on about?" Gwen tried to pull her hand back, but her healer wouldn't let go. "God damn it, Evee—"
"There's that hypocrisy again." Elvia's palm kissed hers. "That's just it, see? Think about all the men and women you've sent to the Front through Tonglv, Gwen. All those machinations you've thus far plotted, all of them had winners and losers— mostly losers— while you came out on top. I should thank you for gifting me with the means of gaining both vision and knowledge, Gwen, but now that I've seen the truth— how can I close my eyes to them? I can't ever become the lordly Lady you aspire to be."
"Oh, that's a crock! I don't aspire to any such thing!"
"That's because you want to be greater than even they—" Elvia's words were using her chest as knife-sheaths. "Isn't that right?"
"And that's wrong, is it?" Gwen sensed the pulsing Positive Energy circulating under her healer's skin. She could sense her Void-tinged mana pulse in response. "Fuck me for wanting to live my life, right? I should be content with being a Dragon's sock puppet. Or the Mageocracy's marionette. Or the dolly-wife of some dickhead like the Exeters, pumping out stillborn Faceless Void babies."
"I don't mean that." Elvia's patience appeared infinite. "I am sad that you think that's what I implied."
Gwen withheld her immediate riposte, which was that she couldn't give two fucks what Elvia thought about her ambitions— but that was in itself deep dishonesty. She was the adult here; Gwen reminded herself repeatedly. Don't let the Yinglong win.
"Thanks to the Yinglong, I think it's obvious that we're no longer able to see eye to eye." Gwen's throat bobbed; her expression grew hard. "But I can fix this, Evee. If you come back with me to Australia, I'll talk to Almudj…"
Elvia stood, then before Gwen could finish her words, she sat down beside her. The healer's coat smelled like antiseptic, but her hair's scent was divine, as was the lustre of her vitality-infused skin, so tender that she just wanted to reach out and pinch it.
"Gwen." Elvia looked up, her face as white and fragile as milk crystals. "I like you."
A gush of strange heat ignited in Gwen's chest. Her breathing was already irregular, but now it grew heavy. Was Elvia, her Evee of all people, trying to seduce her? Did her Cleric think that she could pay with her sweet little body for all her transgressions, or was this the Yinglong pushing her buttons?
"Evee, you know that's hardly fair. We need to talk. I am serious."
"You misunderstand me again. I do want to talk." Elvia directed her body so that they sat beside each other. "Your face there was a little scary. Care to listen to a tale, Gwen? Afterwards, you can talk, then we'll make our peace."
With Evee's shoulder warm against her own, Gwen sighed. "Aright. I'll shut up and listen."
"Thank you," Elvia's voice came from beside her. "Do you know the Psalms of Sir Bors, Gwen?"
Gwen shook her head.
"It's a story my mother used to tell me, taken from the tales of Saint Chaucer of Canterbury."
"Alright…" Gwen failed to see how any of this was connected but resigned herself to lend Evee her ears before they reached an ultimatum.
"Before we begin, you should know that Sir Bors was one of the Princes of antiquity to reign over the Isle of Man. His blood, if the tales are correct, contributed significantly to the blending of Elven and Human blood, thanks to him, the Manx survived the Christian epoch of Avalon."
"Bors… from Arthurian legend?"
"The very same— famed for returning with the Grail."
"… okay." Gwen refrained from jeering at this world's patchwork theology. The people here took Faith a little more literally than the folks back in her world. From what she had seen of Prince Inti and the Northern Front, there was little reason why a deified existence like the Nazarene couldn't have fed the multitudes or raised the dead. If she considered that Gilgamesh and Enkidu were all historical figures and that Perseus and Hercules parallelled Charlemagne, there was little reason to doubt the existence of a legendary Relic.
"This parable pertains to you and me," Elvia said. "The details vary between authors, but in Saint Chaucer's Chronicles of Avalon, Sir Bors was the youngest of Arthur's knights, originally rescued from the clutches of the Orc warlord Claudas. While in Arthur's service, the young Bors, a relative of boy-Lancelot, became one of the strongest Faith-casters on the island— until he broke his vow of chastity."
Gwen snorted. "We haven't—"
"I know." Her healer balanced herself against Gwen's weight; the Cleric was small and petite compared to her counterpart. "To his shame, Bors didn't just break a vow of chastity; he raped a girl— an Elven visitor who had come to the isle to converse with Arthur. The two had met at Arthur's banquet, and after the mead and the wine, Bors offered to take the maiden up to her lodgings. Once they were alone up in the parapet, the young Bors gave in to lust and intemperance."
The thematic parallels in the story, Gwen felt, was a little too close to home for comfort. Was Evee accusing her of shoving Almudj's Essence down her throat? Could that be construed as a violation? But then again, back in the observatory, she was the one who halted Elvia's wandering hand. Did that make Evee the aggressor? Was she Bors? But that made no sense either.
"Deeply ashamed, Sir Bors left Arthur's service to seek atonement. He travelled to the Sacred Lake in Loch Lomond and begged the Lady for a way to attain penitence. The Lady informed him that the only way to regain his credo is to discover what women truly desire."
"Love?" Gwen said. "Or money, if we're realistic..."
"Don't be impatient," Elvia rebuked her interjections. "Sir Bors travelled far and wide, rescuing women from horrible estates and freeing them from abuse and defending them from assault. He became very popular with young ladies, though every time, he resisted both wine and lust. A French variation goes that a group of fan-maidens grew so smitten that they threatened to throw themselves from the parapets unless Sir Bors made love to them all."
"So he did?"
"He did not." Elvia gave her a wilting look. "Yes, the old tales can be rather bawdy. As it turns out, these were Sirens who lusted after Sir Bors, and when he failed to heed their song, they leapt from the parapets to take him by force. Naturally, Sir Bors slew them all."
Gwen quickly banished the rancorous vision of Sir Golos and the harpy flock from her mind.
"For ten years, Sir Bors served the cause of women on the Isle, be they human or Demi-human. He came to understand their pain, their suffering, their woes and their desires. Still, he could not answer the question the Lady told him to find the answer to— then, his nephew's scandal with the Queen split the Round Table."
Gwen licked her lips. The story was more elaborate than she had imagined.
"Bors confronted Guinevere and demanded of her why she, who had the world under Arthur, would choose dishonour with Lancelot. The Queen said that though the Pendragon had given her the world, there was something the King refused to give, one Lancelot delivered without her ever asking."
"The female orgasm is no less a mystery today..."
Elvia sighed deeply.
"Sorry." Gwen fought back a chortle. At least the mood was warmer now.
Her healer ignored her and continued. "For the answer, the Queen instructed Bors to visit her kinfolk in the Enclave of Tir-Mara. Bors obliged, though he became entangled within the Fairy Circles. After wandering the woods for days, he met an old crone, who told him thus—"
"'Ye wilt ken what women want, but first yee must yield thy stubborn pride. We shall wed in the Tower 'ere thou defiled the maiden of our Grot, and this withered form, so haggard and woe-begone, shall be thy just reward.'"
"… that's fucked." Gwen tried to imagine the thirty-something Bors, a hero in the prime of his life, being made to bone a Troll hag.
"Bors, fraught with guilt, obliged. He took the old lady, who smelled half like the grave, back to Avalon. The sight of the pair was so absurd that though his nephew Lancelot was at war with Arthur, the King bade his ex-Knight to pass. There, up in the Tower, the two disrobed…"
"Erg…" Gwen was now sure Elvia was pulling her leg.
"As Bor had anticipated. The woman's visage was most foul; her skin was akin to scales, her breasts shrivelled and sapless. Bors grew so disgusted he could barely lay eyes on her— but still, he upheld the promise. In exchange for that which Guinevere refused to tell; he would bed the crone."
"Before the Knight could seal the deal, the woman halted Sir Bors. 'I will give thee a choice,' she told him. 'I can be as thee see me now so that unlike Arthur, thou wilt never fear cuckoldry. OR, thou may bed me as the woman of thine dreams, and like yer Queen, be unreined to relish the general camp as I please. What art thy choice, Sir Bors?'"
That last question was directed at her.
FUCK. Gwen gulped. She was sure there was a similar parable in her world, but she couldn't for the life of her recall the plot-twist ending. From the way the story had been contextualised though, Gwen was certain Evee was running one of her bible-psalm analogies. In this case, was Evee saying that she had to love her unconditionally? Even if Evee was an undead hag? Even if she had a fucking Yinglong nestled in her gut? And if she said yes, would Elvia swear allegiance to her alone? But what of the alternative? Was Evee declaring that, if Almudj purged the Yinglong from her by force, she would leave forever? That even if she swung Evee with her new-found limberness, the Cleric would cuckold her?
"Er… the ugly… one?" Gwen chose, she supposed, the mature choice.
Elvia shook her head sadly.
"Well, I am sorry I can't read your mind." Gwen exhaled, suddenly disquiet. When she spoke again, her tone grew weighted with burgeoning emotions. "Fine, lets cut to the chase— what do you want? Elvia?"
Elvia appeared neither upset nor disturbed by the sudden shift in her timbre.
"Sir Bors..." Her healer returned to the tale. "Sir Bors did not respond. He had spoken to so many women, listened to such suffering that the answer came to him in a flash. Bors did not choose; instead, the Knight said nothing. When the crone asked why he remained silent, Bors said that it is she who should choose. The choice was never his, and he would be a fool to think so. 'Aye', the crone toothlessly grinned back at Bors. 'Ye finally ken. What women want more than anything is that which menfolk took for granted: that which costs nought, and yet weighs more than then Avalon itself— sovereignty.'"
The sudden punchline of Elvia's parable struck Gwen like a bolt from the blue. The resentment and frustration of her heart instantly quieted, as did her rioting upset. She turned to face her friend, and Elvia's eyes, the cool blue of her friend's irises, were so tranquil and without defect that they washed over her like an icy current.
She understood. How could she not when she had excelled so readily in the Humanities across two lifetimes? Her mouth opened and closed, but her Evee had snatched her tongue and skipped down the street. Deeply, her brain dug for an excuse, something to stopper the welling of remorse driving the air from her lungs. Her quest proved futile— for her dear little Evee had perforated Gwen's pride with nothing but a simpering fable for little girls.
How could she deny her Evee that? What kind of monstrous, tyrannical, selfish, ego-centric maniac would deny a person they love the very agency of human experience itself? Unbidden, an image of Helena floated to the fore of her mind, and Gwen suddenly felt such self-loathing that she was sick to her core.
Their familiars rushed back to see what had happened to their masters to cause such a disturbance, rubbing up again the girls' legs to make things right again.
"Gwen, are you alright?"
"Kiki?" Elvia's Sprite appeared concerned as well.
"I am fine…" Gwen gulped air as hungrily as a newborn fawn. "Maybe you are suited to the seminary."
"… the crone," Elvia continued in a quiet voice. "Then transformed back into her original form. It was the female elf, now maiden no more, who Bors had violated almost a decade ago. Like a babe, Bors wept in her arms, and while she cradled his head, she forgave him. Their vows would hold, she told him, and she would bear him a child so that even if he should perish in the pursuit of the Grail, his bloodline will not fade."
"I know, I know— I get it." Gwen inhaled, then exhaled. To her surprise, she felt free. "Jesus Christ… I am so sorry, Evee. I truly am."
"I know." Now facing her, the healer's hands reached up to cradle Gwen's cheeks.
Gwen allowed it to happen.
From Elvia's delicate fingertips, she felt her healer's infused mana knead her skin.
"Your mother's a wise and kind woman." Gwen found something to say. "My mother..."
"Gwen," Elvia spoke softly. "I'll be going away for a while."
"We've only hung out for two weeks," she moped. "God, I am such an idiot. Where are you going?"
"To Battle Abbey, near Hastings," Elvia said. "It's the home of the Order of the Bath."
"… I see, are you going away because of me? Because— wait, wait, wait. The hell am I even on about— Hastings?"
"I can fly there in an hour…"
"I'll be in intermittent reclusion," Elvia explained, biting back a laugh. "Maybe a month at a time, maybe longer, it's determined by how I take to Faith Magic— and if the Yinglong's blessings interfere with Anglican Relics. There'll be outings as well, missions of mercy elsewhere in the Commonwealth where my skills will be put to good use. Compassion is the Ordo's manifesto, after all. There's so much to do."
"Oh… so now the Yinglong gets to plague a Knight's Order. Great."
"The probation period is about a year, and the essential training at least another," Elvia said. "By then, maybe you've finished your studies at Cambridge?"
"I sure as hell hope so." Gwen inhaled in the sweet scent of her soon to be gone Elvia. "I do expect to be in England for a while, though. The Isle is a five-year project; the Newspaper's a longitudinal investment as well. I also don't know how this Magister or Tower business is going to work out in London. I guess if I can make enough Crystals; I could just refurbish one when I eventually head to the States. Over there, Crystals talk a lot louder."
"You always did look far into the future, Gwennie." Elvia's breath was sweet on her face. "I wish I could have that foresight and confidence."
Elvia let her hands fall.
Gwen felt her face flush.
"Just to clarify." Her voice trembled. "Are we… calling it off?"
"Did we even begin?"
"I don't know," Gwen confessed despondently. "I told you before— I am not good at this. And I wanted to wait till you got older, more experienced."
"How about we keep being besties then?" Elvia suggested.
"Yeah, I like that." Gwen could feel the negative emotions drain from her body in the same manner as Void Mana directed into a Conjure Elemental Swarm. "Holy shit, Evee. I would love that."
"You won't be able to kiss me anymore," Elvia teased her. "Would hand-holding suffice?"
"I can't..." Gwen wanted Evee to clarify whether cheeks counted, but then she would be kidding herself. "Sure, I'll take that. There are no limits on cuddles, right? I'll come visit every so often."
"In private. It would be best to refrain in front of the Rectrix."
"The leader of the Order of the Bath," Elvia clarified for her. "Is Rectrix Theodora St. Claire, the former Duchess of Beaufort and Somerset."
"… That title sounds very familiar. Isn't that where Mathias is from?"
"Yeah, she's a Rothwell. Emily and Mattie's aunt." Elvia sniggered. "Britain is a small world."
"A little too small." Gwen moped. "And claustrophobic."
Unsure of what else to say, Gwen sat holding her healer's hands for a while longer, basking in the cathartic silence. Could the Order of the Bath straighten out the Yinglong? She couldn't help but wonder. The Order of St George was, after all, a brethren order of Dragon-killers.
"Gwennie." Elvia's hand found hers once more. "The story I told you— I am serious."
"I know, I know…"
"If one day in the future, I chose to do something and you despise my choices... Promise me that you won't dismiss me out of hand and treat me like a dolly. You have to open your eyes and see. You have to listen."
"Yeah. I get it."
"I don't think you do."
"I do. I promise to respect your sovereignty."
"You must swear."
"Okay." Gwen arched both brows. Her Evee could be difficult and stubborn, so it seemed. "If you're taking this THAT seriously. I swear on my Astral Soul that I will carefully consider your choices and not get mad at you for no reason. I promise to listen before I make a decision."
"Thank you." Elvia's voice grew low; her eyes grew moist.
"Whoa, whoa." Gwen held Elvia's shoulders. "Chill, Evee. Why are you crying of all things?"
Her Elvia was in tears. It wasn't the first time she had seen Elvia sob, but it was undoubtedly the strangest. "I'll respect and love you, as a friend, alright? The best of friends. Did I not swear? Jesus— you've infected me, now I am choking up. Are you going to take responsibility, pay with a cuddle?"
"Ee... Eeee..." Ariel nuzzled the Cleric.
"Shaa!" Caliban sang a little song while coiled against Gwen's ankles.
"Kiki!" the Alarune cooed.
Pushing her away, the Cleric wiped away her shame. "Gwennie. I am hungry."
Gwen checked her Message device. "… holy cows, we've been at this for two hours!"
"I want..." Elvia blew her nose. "I want to eat curry. Spicy curry. Hot enough to make me hurt."
"Okay, curry it is." Gwen patted Elvia's head. "My shout. Did you know Petra's here? In London? I'll get her and Richard as well, though I do feel sorry for Pats."
"Why?" Elvia looked up, and her newly freshened face was enough to fill Gwen's chest with profound happiness.
"Well." Gwen stroked her washboard abdomen. "Petra's a bit sensitive to curry… it gives her the er— whimpers. But that's fine. What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger, right?"