Within Karaweik Palace's golden exterior, "Matriarch" Mayuree, Lady Protector of Myăma and it's Frontier provinces, reunited with her friend and saviour. The embrace was heartfelt, for though nary a year had elapsed since Shanghai, a lifetime had transpired.
Wilted was the Mia of the past, a meek little Diviner fearing for her life at every turn; she was now robed in silk, satin and authority, a glorious vision of wealth and prosperity mirroring her burgeoning city on the Yangon River's lip.
Trailing the throne-hall, twin lines of servants from menial to civil bowed from the waist while seated on their knees, engaged in genuflection. Some venerated her out of genuine worship, for Mayuree remained an inheritor of the Eight-headed Naga's blood. Others yielded out of fear for the glimmering eyes lurking in the shadowy ceiling. A few final obstructionists, half-crouched, bided their time, too proud to confess their capitulation.
Yet, bathed in the presence of a Devourer capable of banishing existence from the karmic wheel, Mayuree could see that even the hardliners quaked with soul-trembling terror.
A year was a long time for a city in constant flux. After the IIUC, Marong's Shadowmen had performed a deep cleansing of the House of M's affairs with the aid of Ruxin's compelling Dragon-tongue. Then, in March, after Professor James Ma sent the pair a company of auditors, a second reckoning had shaken Yangon's provincial government. Each time, the infamy of the Devourer had been utilised by Marong to cow the opposition.
Now, with the insurgency in hiding, the Pillar of Jade installed inside the gemmed halls of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda and the newly furbished Yangon Tower guarding her reign; peace of a kind had returned to Kachin, Manipur, Yangon and Nagaland, forming a vast stretch of fertile Green and Orange Zones. Even as Mayuree received her companion of yesteryear, a million square kilometres of the Irrawaddy River's rich-silt shores awaited transformation into fertile rice fields, while up north, past the abandoned capital of Mandalay, Dwarf-made diggers crushed the jade-rich seams to pour a constant stream of revenue into Ruxin's emerald vaults.
And most importantly, the House of M, a consortium that once existed only to retain what little resource the royal family once possessed, was now a regional powerhouse controlling the South-East Asian jade trade with a near-monopoly. It also served as the largest financial institution in Indo-China, offering itself as the Mageocracy's lending proxy.
Yangon's new seaport, taking a leaf from Tonglv, added to the trade from the Ivory Coast, the Bay of Bengal, and to the fortress city of Singapore and beyond. Concurrently, in the wake of its industrial rebirth, new public infrastructure from Shielding Stations to public schools sprouted like new fungi after the yearly monsoon. For the first time in a long time, the colonial city's streets were choked with industrious labourers, while hopeful children grew assured that human tithings to the Tyrant were a thing of the past.
"I've missed you." Mayuree ignored the stares from her ministers as she held her guest's hand like a lovesick child. It was a struggle to voice just how she felt seeing her old friend again, for though their titles had changed, her feelings of awe and gratefulness remained Mithril. She was now a ruler with the fate of millions on her shoulders and Gwen, a renowned Combat Mage and Mageocracy socialite known around the world.
"I missed you too." Her friend held Yangon's royal majesty for a long minute, squeezing the girl against her tall and imposing figure. "It's good to see you again, Mia."
"I hate to intrude, but Master Ruxin awaits." Mayuree's beloved brother, Marong, stood by her side, every inch the demure servant, no longer possessed of the arrogance and pride he once carelessly exhibited. She was his queen now, Marong had explained, and he, her subject. The only privilege he retained was the right to smoke in the throne room. "Reunions can wait."
"I just got here." Gwen gave her brother a churlish reply. "What's the rush?"
"Well, we wouldn't want to upset a Dragon." Marong exhaled nervously through both nostrils, trailing smoke as he spoke. "We're in Lord Ruxin's debt— and unlike yourself, we're not his relatives."
"Bah, Russo's long-lived," Gwen insisted. "He'll be fine."
Mayuree watched her friend dismiss the caprices of a being capable of returning Yangon to the jungle at a whim. No doubt, Gwen had matured, for the unusual age her friend previously displayed now harmonised with the allure of a budding young woman. As for Gwen's presence— Mayuree could only compare the sorceress to the Thunder Dragon who now ruled the region through mutual accord with the Mageocracy.
"... or maybe you're right. Your office is a lot busier than I imagined." To her surprise, her companion appeared uncomfortable in the presence of open, slack-jawed worship by her servants and ministers. "Fine, Ruxin it is. I'll do it as a favour for my exchequer."
Marong bowed. "You have my thanks. The Teleportation Circle is in the lower levels."
Seeing that Gwen chose to humour her insistent brother, Mayuree relaxed. While technically speaking, they were safe from the Dragon for many reasons, Gwen's favour was central to the precious peace they had carved out of blood and jade in Yangon.
"It's a shame that Shanghai proved more troublesome than anticipated," Marong commented as they made their way past the prostrating ministers. "I suppose in the end, the House of M's hand in the Tonglv confrontation trod on the Communist's bottom line. The socialists are happy to eat their own, but when you invite a Dragon to a Human buffet..."
"It's fine." Gwen dismissed the bad news. "As long as Ruxin gets his cut of Tonglv, we're good. I still need that revenue."
"The Jade has more than made up for the limitation to our enterprises in Shanghai." Marong toked deeply on a dogend. "The communists are not going to give us the freedom to take the Centurion program beyond entertainment and hospitality. Their central bank is proving to be as zealous as Master Ruxin."
"Hahaha..." Gwen laughed. "Very well, then. Say Marong, I know we talk shop a lot, and I know Mia's happy, but how are you these days?"
"Well, if you must know, I am still losing sleep over Aung Sung's rebels, the lot of them..."
"I meant you, Marong." Gwen stopped her brother before he could continue to gripe about national security. "You weren't very forthright about working for Ruxin, though now I see you two are as thick as thieves. It can't be easy both managing your sister's estate and keeping a True Dragon satiated. There's little wonder you smoke two packs a day..."
Her brother regarded Gwen, exhaled a lungful of smoke, then reorganised his thoughts. "I am alright, I suppose. If Mia's fine, then I am fine. We talk a lot about this book you've published these days."
"Oh? Which one?"
"The Mockingbird," Mayuree said. "We're learning a lot to avoid our ancestor's pitfalls."
"Aww, that's cute. Still, you should take care of yourself. Learn to delegate and go easy on the smokes. I'll leave you a few bottles of the Essence-Maotai. Get Ruxin to reward you some of their free-range Draconic ingredients as well."
"I'll... take care," Marong replied. Mayuree could see that her brother appeared affected by the concern from the Dragon's niece.
"You better. After all, we've still got Legion to test and implement in Yangon." Gwen burst out laughing as soon as the words left her lips. "Once the Dwarves make enough progress through the Murk, I'll see if it's possible to get them to send us a contingent of Magitech Engineers and Runesmiths. For now, we better fatten up Russo before his hoard shrinks again, hahaha…"
Mayuree joined the pair, filling the cold halls of Karaweik Palace with warm laughter.
Ruxin never understood his immortal father's fascination with the human female that bore Ayxin, at least until he met the female called Ruì, whose name, "Ru—Yi—" meant "wished for" in the old dynastic dialect.
But, as a hermitic Dragon for whom very few events could elicit powerful emotions, Ruì's monthly visits did gift him with genuine pleasure, and for that, his immortal self felt well-pleased.
"Is she here yet?" Beside the throne of Jade, Golos paced.
"Please be patient, Lord Golos," trilled the voice of a multi-coloured individual with a woman's upper torso and the lower body of a bird. In her feathered arms, she held a trio of chirping Harpy-spawn. These had the lovely likeness of their mother, though their feathers had taken on the vibrant hue of spawn descended from the line of the Yinglong. The Lord of Nagaland glanced at the pair: reflected in his slitted irises, "Phalera" was at least the apex embodiment of her Avian race. Conversely, Golos' chimeric whelps, despite their wanting, luminous moon-yolk eyes, were ordinary mud.
"They are arriving now, Lord Golos," Sagol Kangba, Vairagi and Grandmaster of the Shadowmen of Manipur, softly whispered from the shadows.
Ruxin felt the ley-lines beneath the Jade Palace faintly pulse.
He counted to twenty, ignoring his impatient brother and his rainbow-coloured consort while engaged in meditation. When he opened his eyes again, the double doors to the palace opened, revealing the petite figure of his maid-servant, Tika.
Ruxin watched as the pathetic Naga removed herself from his sight. With the vermin gone, his eyes met with the smug and smiling mien of his crystal tree niece.
"Russo! How's it going?" Gwen broke into an enormous grin as she strode into the jade-plated hall, her heels clicking musically on the tiles. As usual, she attired herself in a manner advertising one seeking a mate, though Ruxin always suspected the display was a ritual, a ploy or a lure, like those monsters of the Deep that possessed light-emitting mana-organs. "Mate, guess what I've got for you?"
"M-mate?!" Golos almost jumped, his eyes darting between Ruxin and the sorceress.
"It's an expression, brother, from the land of the Elder Serpent," Ruxin explained with patience lest the Wyvern misunderstood. "You should know better than I the Calamity's glibness. Have you learned nothing in your travels with our niece?"
"… I've never been to the Calamity's homeland," Golos grumbled, peeking at Gwen from beneath his scaly eyelids. "Haven't met her mother snake either."
"That's for the best, I am sure. If you anger the Elder One, its wrath may very well reduce you to Essence cinders—"
The girl walked right past Golos.
"Oh my god!" the Devourer squealed, passing under Ruxin's eyes with an impertinence that reminded him of Ayxin in her youth. "Phalera! Is that—"
"These are our children." The bird-being came closer, her avian eyes full of happiness. "This is Verynse, Phynase, and this is Lysaphse."
"SO CUTE!" The girl reached out to pet the chicks' heads. "Do they bite?"
"Don't you dare devour my girls!" Golos warned the girl. "Despite their affinity for Lightning, they're not tasty at all."
Gwen gave Golos a glance. It was evident what the girl thought of his brother's intelligence.
Amused, Ruxin observed the girl as she picked up a chirping harpy-chick and began to speak to it as though her intelligence had dropped to an infantile stage as well. The girl's affection surprised him, for the chicks were crude fledgelings with muddy bloodlines. A True Dragon spent aeons developing intelligence and mastery in the egg; these fledgelings were bred and spawned within eight months in a mortal shell barely large enough for a Golos-portioned omelette.
"Calamity, I want a favour." His brother was without tact as usual. "Can you spare my kids some of your Primordial Essence? I want them to grow up strong enough to fight the Da-peng!"
To Ruxin's surprise, Gwen looked to him for advice. "Fine by me. But would your Father mind, Ruxin? "
"No." Ruxin shook his head. "Their blood is... thin."
Phalera lowered her head in shame.
Gwen turned to Phalera. "Then I'll thicken their blood. One drop enough? We can re-dose when they're older. Does this make me their fairy God Mother, haha..."
The chicks eagerly opened their mouths to receive their blessings.
What horrors would these bird-beings become if they're weaned on the Essence of an Elder Serpent? Ruxin felt a tingle of morbid curiosity. A part of him desired to put a stop to this affront to the Elder Serpent, but as a Dragon millennia away Unformed Land, he was also bored enough to want to see what would happen.
With the doses delivered, the chicks fell asleep to digest the enormous potential now injected into their tender bodies. Golos loudly boasted that his kin could grow big enough to wrestle Big-Birds while Phalera prostrated to show her gratitude.
"Enough." Ruxin silenced his chittering family. "Gwen, Ruì said you had something to show me?"
"Ah ye." Gwen gave the chicks one last pat while their parents beat a retreat away from the irate Ruxin. Ruxin watched the girl walk into the middle of the throne chamber. "Here looks like a big enough space. You ready?"
"For?" Ruxin cocked his head. As with their kind, the girl liked her showmanship.
"For your investment returns." She flashed both hands, revealing four Storage Rings. "Alright, Hoss. It took me a lot of effort to prepare this."
In the next moment, a wave of raw mana blew over those still sitting in the throne room. A small rive of clattering crystals poured onto the jade tiles, made far more impressive by the fact that on solid stone, the crystals jingled and clattered, skipped and jumped, flowing over one another like liquid. Each hexagonal rod, representing a single HDM, radiated the astral energy contained within its elemental prison, enriching the air with their tangible presence.
Near the door, Golos and his avian consort stared. Ruxin did not condemn his bumpkin brother for acting the idiot, for the young drake had never seen their father's treasure hoard.
As for himself, he felt his Essence quickened, just a little.
"Two million-odd HDMs is a lot less impressive in person than I imagine, but here it is. That said, if I gave you the same profit in ten-thousand HDM credit chips, it would be less impressive still," Gwen explained, drained from the exhaustive act of using mana to unload the HDMs from her ring. "I was originally going for raw Air, Water or Lightning crystals, but the volume of ore was near-impossible to stow without paying out for even bigger rings."
The Dragon's eyes narrowed suspiciously. The pile was majestic and glimmering, but really, it was big enough only for Gwen to make a bed. Without the compression applied by the Mageocracy's minting engines, raw HDM crystals made a rough collection, hugely varying in purity and element. The girl was right that if she had materialised the same volume in freshly mined crystals, the "hoard" would make a comfortable bed for Ruxin— but that would be an unergonomic gift.
"Well done. I thought you said ten years," Ruxin recalled from his perfect memory. "Is it wise to return so much crystal so soon?"
"I said I would flood your vault to the brim and then some in ten years." The girl waded through the ankle-deep pile of crystals. "Not to mention..."
His niece made a circle with her arms.
"All this— This is just the beginning. Give me your complete confidence because soon, I'll be needing A LOT more crystals. You're my Bank of Ruxin, remember?"
"I am your..." Ruxin's chest cavity tightened. Unsure of what to think, he motioned to Tika by the door. "Tika, move the spoils to the treasure room. Every last one."
Tika's shoulders drooped as her eyes swept over the small mound of crystals scattered all over the hall.
"Sorry," Gwen gave his servant an insincere apology. Ruxin wondered what his niece would think if he told her that here was the Naga that had eaten one of her "friends". Would the girl demand Astaka's Core there and then? Undoubtedly, knowing their relationship, he would be happy to oblige.
"Well then, that was an entertaining display," he confessed. "What do you wish as a reward? An item? Sorcery? Creature Cores?"
The girl approached. When she stood close enough to touch, Ruxin considered his conversation partner. The girl's Astral Body had grown since their last meeting. Not immeasurably, but more contained and controlled, akin to a compressed HDM versus its raw, excavated form. She was also glancing at his brother's bastards while making moon-eyes, cooing with her lips at the Essence-drunk infants.
"I want a favour, one only you can give, though you may not be willing to give it."
Ruxin grew suddenly worried.
"Name your demand— though I should forewarn you that unlike yonder 'Gogo', a True Dragon's first-spawn cannot and shall not be a Dragon Carp—"
"What? No!" Caught by surprise, the girl almost swallowed her tongue, a reaction that made Ruxin relax his spine-ridge.
Near the door, the stricken Thunder Wyvern fled from the shameful past of his adolescence. The Yinglong's 'first-spawn' nodded. His brother had learned shame since travelling with Gwen.
His niece shuddered at the thought of the carp-grubbing Thunder Wyvern relieving himself. "Nah, Russo, we're not partners in that sense. I would like you to speak to your Father about what plans Daddy Dear has for my friend, his shiny new Faith-filled Vessel— your er... 'aunt'?"
When she first transmigrated into her present world, Gwen lamented the fact that air travel was rendered moot by marauding Air Elementals.
Now, armed with riches beyond the wildest dreams of most Magisters, she much-preferred the Conjuration-empowered workarounds used by the residents of her present reality.
The longest flight she had taken in her past life was a business trip to Argentina involving a four flight from Sydney to Auckland, thirteen hours to Santiago, then another six to Buenos Aires. Including transfers, she had remained lucid and awake for over thirty hours, finally alighting drunk and sleep-deprived, slathered with gritty, half-runny foundation.
Comparatively, in a world sans air bussing, she took a few minutes to teleport from Nagaland to Yangon, then an hour to transfer from Yangon to Kunming before arriving at Chongqing for customs processing. There, forgoing the Panda-folk yet again, she stepped into the ley-line Circles connecting Chongqing to Shanghai's Hongqiao interchange, appearing a split-second later at her desired destination.
All-in-all, the trip took two hours. Less time than it took to drive to Kensington's air lounge, check-in, buy coffee, wait for boarding, then embark.
Her travel arrangements proved so expeditious that she had arrived ahead of her escorts from the MSS, ensuing a quiet lull that gave her some time to catch up on her conversation with her Draconic banker.
All-in-all, her detour to post-Colonial Myanmar proved fruitful.
Last night, over dinner, when she had questioned her business partner about the intentions of his Demi-god patriarch, the perfect-jawed drake had evasively provided some food for thought.
First, the Thunder Dragon explained that thanks to his new abode, he was no longer affiliated with his esteemed father in any way Dragons were concerned. They were now competitors, and only after another aeon when his father soared into the Unformed Land would he return to the Yinglong's court. Assuming the other Asiatic Dragons had not themselves ascended, his "Uncles" would help Ruxin defend his father's legacy from foreign Dragons, such as the three-headed green-lizard in Siberia. Beyond that, if their scions wished to contest Ruxin, then Huangshan was his to defend. Alliances like this were why True Dragons lauded unsullied bloodlines, as the ancient kin would only aid those who bled the same Essence.
Then the topic moved onto Elvia, whose predicament she had explained to Ruxin. In the past few months, she and Elvia had patched up much of their grievances, though their friendship continued to suffer from the air of secrecy between Elvia and her patron. As her friend had not forbidden Gwen from seeking discovery, she had interpreted Elvia's reticence as an invitation.
With his role exacted, Ruxin explained that his father's position had always been a neutral one not dissimilar to the Middle Faction's propensity for avoiding extremes. As a skilled Soothsayer who was the first to "ying" or "heed" the call of the Jade Emperor, thereby acquiring the title of Yinglong, his father seldom acted rashly.
In his opinion, Elvia Lindholm must be a central character in a future event; a lynchpin in an interplay of cosmic convergence regarding a matter his father held dear. As to when, what, why, who, and how, Ruxin had no idea— but the centrality of her flaxen-haired companion was beyond doubt.
"Whether his blessing bodes ill or weal, I do not think our father will allow his Vessel to perish. Alas, I must also challenge your claim of foul play. Have you considered that perhaps, all of this could have nothing to do with you? For instance, this "Evee" of yours, you say that she is now a part of an elite Sect of Sorceror-Monks?"
"Er… the Order of the Bath, yes," Gwen had to admit Ruxin made an excellent if disturbing observation. It was Draconic arrogance to think that whatever the Yinglong had planned must revolve around herself like Jupiter's moons, but why else would Elvia be chosen? "They're an order of do-gooders, generally speaking. With the 'altruism' being whatever brings repute for the House of Windsor and 'bad' being whatever would paint them with ill-repute."
"Then what are the chances of your 'Evee' engaging in battle against some great Calamity? Like this 'Sobel' and her 'Spectre', independent of you? With her vital facilities, could she not preserve someone pivotal to some balance in the human world— and therefore our world?"
Gwen had sighed, unconvinced by the Dragon's musing.
"We keep a precarious balance among our kind." Ruxin's patience proved impressive. "Through her, for example, Father could prevent the slaying of a Chromatic whelp, thereby averting a generation of War or another Beast Tide. Either way, whatever branch of fate Father chooses to prune or preserve, I doubt Father cares about you as much as you think. That and you over-estimate our patriarch's interest in the Human world. Father could doze for a century, and all the humans we now know would be dust. Now, if you were involved with the Elder-kin, that would be—"
"Russo, you keep saying 'we'," she had remarked after measuring the Draconic scale of time against her Human urgency. "Why?"
Ruxin had given her a strange look, which when paired with his perfectly Polymorphed face, made for a comical combination. "I forget you're younger than an egg sometimes. Though I suppose time will be a better teacher than I."
After that, their conversation returned to the matter of business ventures from Yangon to London.
Gwen briefly closed her eyes, trying to imagine how her Evee was doing in Ireland. Was Mathias keeping her safe? Was the expedition keeping the Fomorians in check? The Bestiary had said that the violent and ancient fae could grow powerful enough to hunt Dragons should the fabric between the Planes grow thin-enough to allow the ancient elementals free rein. If Caliban couldn't eat Elves, how about a fey?
"Magus Song?" A pair of bowing bodies shook her from her mental revelry.
"That's me." Gwen looked up to see a pair of vaguely familiar faces.
"Good morning, Magus." The stoic-looking Chinese Mage snapped a salute. "I am Officer Wei, and this is my partner, Officer Yung—"
"… I know you guys." Gwen left the lounge, shaking out the fatigue from her body by circulating a mote of Essence. "You guys came for me when I was in Singapore."
"Ah." Wei's face grew instantly clammy. "Maybe that was… another Wei?"
"My memory is perfect." In heels, Gwen stood half a head taller than the man who once arrested her. "I mean, your partner's even wearing the same shirt."
Wei glared at his partner accusingly.
"… I like this shirt." Officer Yung complained to the devastated Wei, far less affected by Gwen's recognition of her former captors. "Besides, we were perfect escorts. She vomited on you last time, and you helped the Miss clean up."
"You fellers still working for Gramps?" she asked, genuinely nostalgic that Guo's goons were still around. She didn't dislike them, for although she possessed no fame, wealth, nor power the last time they met, Wei was very professional.
"Promoted. Wei's a Departmental Head now." Yung laughed infectiously. "Word from above is for us to accompany you while you're here in Shanghai."
"A guard detail? Surely I am a trustworthy individual." Gwen snorted. "I spent almost two years in Fudan without burning the city down, and then I fixed Tonglv and cleaned up Shenyang. Secretary Miao even commended me."
"Miss Song, we're not here for your protection or as your guards," Wei explained while staring down the passersby who stopped to stare. "It's just that. You have no idea just how famous the face of SPAM might be in Shanghai, especially after news of what you managed in Tonglv became common knowledge. For the duration of your stay, orders from Secretary-General Miao is to filter your visitors through the Ministry of State Security."
"May I speak to anyone I wish?"
"That's your freedom, ma'am."
"But if unsolicited people want to speak to me..."
"Then they'll have to go through us." Wei nodded with solemnity. "You're a Class VI War Mage, Magus Song. And a Mageocracy one at that..."
Gwen straightened out her dress, then took a deep breath.
Only nine months, and how things had changed...