Gwen's Michaelmas exams came and went.
Due to her direct involvement in the Dwarven intervention, her various "Murk" showcases met with resounding applause. Her Almudj-enhanced memory, a talent usually reserved for strangers and grudges, proved enough to hit the Distinction range for Astral Theory. However, as she added nothing inspiring to her meticulously regurgitated notes, Gwen barely scraped the D. Nonetheless, she was glad for the taxing work, as the repression from her black-handed murder grew muddled as she mired her mind with academia, IoDRP statements and future intrigues for January.
Now, with Christmas and 2006 so close, it was time for family.
On advice from Lady Grey, Gwen gathered Elvia, Richard, Petra, Jean-Paul and Gracie to grace the historic manor owned by Lady Astor.
The offer had come from the Lady herself, who, as a vital IoDRP stockholder, expressed the desire for Gwen's goodwill and that she dearly missed Evee, a sentiment shared by both women.
At the Lady's generous behest, Ferrier's Cottage, a recently renovated, pre-Tudor stand-alone structure quietly sitting by the Thames, had been made available to Gwen and her company for the week, inclusive of a luxury barge and a team of cooks and servants hand-picked from the main house's retinue. As for the Lady herself, she would receive Gwen and her companions on Christmas eve in a grand ball. Both before and after, they were free to use Cliveden until real-world business once more required their presence.
Before the boon, Gwen had thought to take an ISTC hop back to Sydney or Shanghai. But considering Astor's invitation and her intimate "family" close at hand, she settled on being pampered at home.
"I'll visit the Elves in January..." she promised herself, eyeing the days left in her remaining calendar. "With their long-lives, the knife-ears could surely afford more patience.
As for her upcoming week, she had research to conduct and an Elvia to visit.
Elvia Lindholm, Knight Companion Elect, tensed every muscle in her body as the Devourer enveloped her with outstretched arms, her body language resembling Spider-ban's maw.
"E-E-Eveeeee—!" The Void Witch of Cambridge enfolded her petite figure with both arms, her smooth cheeks pushing against Elvia's own as she lifted her off her feet. "Oh, how I've missed you."
Elvia buried her face in Gwen's bosoms, drinking in the familiar scent. With her Draconic senses, she could taste the pulsing seed of Divinity within her companion's Astral Body, knowing her friend had grown yet again after usurping monsters in the Murk.
Having not seen each other for so long, she allowed Gwen's hands to meander.
"You've grown stronger!" Gwen remarked after squeezing her arms, which now possessed some definition to go with the bones. Simultaneously, her companion waved an unenthused hand at Mathias, who looked on like a pup whose master had gotten a new boyfriend.
"...And taller!" Gwen marvelled. "But then again, so much has happened, and it has only been a year, Evee. Can you believe it?"
Elvia could. It was precisely in the same week of December one year ago that Gwen had arrived in England and collected her from Mathias' thankless quest in Merthyr Tydfil. There, Gwen had accidentally saved Hanmoul, berated Mathias, Purged a Troll Warren, then set in motion what would catalyse the Mageocracy's bugle-blaring march into the Dyar Morkk.
For any other nineteen-year-old, Gwen's feats would enter the realm of mythoi. For the Gwen in Elvia's heart, it was just another Monday. With an arm wrapped around the tall sorceress' waspish waist, Elvia considered her friend with whom she had spent ten days cheek to cheek and then the major part of a year apart.
If Gwen's observation was that her "Evee" had changed— then Elvia could only say that Gwen had changed even more. In her eyes, Gwen now displayed a commanding presence that only elders like Seneschal Ashburn or her teacher, the Rectrix Theodora St. Claire, readily possessed. It was the confidence and aura, Elvia discerned, of an administrator whose word and will could at a thought, sent hundreds of families, both Humans and Demi-humans, to heaven or hell.
"How fared Northern Ireland?" Gwen continued off from their last conversation months ago.
Elvia's smile froze for a split-second. "It was rough."
Rough was not a word that could begin to describe the Fomorian's annual Wild Hunt in the Prime Material. Yet, Elvia chose to downplay the hardship, for she had no wish for her friend to once more descend into righteous madness, at least not before Tianjin came to pass.
Still holding her hand, Gwen turned to Mathias. "Mattie? What happened in Northern Ireland?"
"The Fomorians were out in force. We drove them back, but they got what they came for." Mathias' response was far less considerate. Still, she couldn't blame her bodyguard, for where the Knight possessed the pride and enthusiasm of a prancing pony a year ago, recent events had rapidly repressed his optimism. In a way, both she and Mathias had the Fomorians to thank for their rapid acquisition of perspective. "But that's a story for another time. This way, please, the Rectrix is waiting."
"Come on, Gwennie." Elvia relished the secret thrill of once more calling Gwen's nickname. In the Northern Ireland campaign, were it not for the Yinglong's blessing and Sen-sen's outrageous combat multiplier, she would have been Evee-napped and taken to the sacred soil of the Tuatha Dé Dannan to serve some nefarious purpose.
Still holding one another's hand and scandalising the passersby guards and trainees, their party passed under the imposing gate of Battle, its portcullis built for its namesake.
Inside were several cloisters that resembled the ones in Rosebay, through which they reached a courtyard with a half-moon garden and a gazebo, in the shade of which stood Theodora St. Claire, former Duchess of Beaufort and Somerset, grandmother to Emily Greyson Rothwell, and Elvia's warden.
On the roof of the pavilion sat an inch of December snow.
Yet all around the structure grew a profusion of multi-coloured flowers.
"Kiki, Sen-sen." Elvia released her Familiars into the evergreen garden, for it was due to her Familiars that the mortal plants repelled the winter's ravages.
"Ariel, Cali." Gwen performed likewise. "Cali, stay away from the plants…"
A few meters from the smiling Rectrix, Elvia's teacher received them with open arms.
As one of the Holy Ordo, Rectrix St. Claire, possessed equal-rank to that of a Diocesan. As the co-head of a militant order, she also kept pace with the state's Generals. In the year Elvia had spent with the Rectorix, she recognised the woman as genuine and compassionate yet flexible and pragmatic— the polar opposite of Senechal Ashburn, who was as unyielding as a redwood.
"Your Grace." The Void Sorceress curtsied like a pro.
"Welcome, Magus Song." The Rectrix took Gwen by the hand and led her into the pavilion's interior, where a hearty breakfast of jam, honey and scones had been laid out. "It's still early. Have you eaten?"
"I could eat." Gwen waited for the Rectrix to sit before taking her seat. Elvia sat adjacent; Mathias took his place beside her, stoic as a sentinel.
"Mattie, sit," Gwen said to the Knight.
"… That's improper," Mathias recited flatly.
"Do sit, Mathias," the Rectrix implored. "This is Evee's friend, and so she is ours."
The Knight loosened his polished cuirass, then sat with his buttocks nearer the edge of the seat. Elvia gave her Knight an encouraging smile.
"Chip on his shoulder?" Gwen mused at Elvia.
"Mattie's unhappy about what happened in Lurgan," Elvia replied euphemistically. "The Fomorians broke through the defence line and overran the triage centre. Mathias protected me. Many Mages died, as well as several of my fellow Clerics who did not have a Knight of St Michael at their side."
"I see." Her companion allowed the matter to drop. Passing a hand over the empty half of the table, she materialised several obsidian Creature Cores.
Elvia's nose wrinkled. There was something terrible and wrong about the Essence emanating from those Cores.
"Rectrix— my mentor sends her regards. She said that these might be useful to you?"
It took Elvia a second or two to realise the misshapen, kidney-stone shaped Cores were the remains of Aberrants harvested thanks to Golos' presence. From their Element, Elvia could see that the Creature Cores, each with its admixture of Elemental Earth and Ooze, were uniquely suited to ancient Abjuration magic, which were crude but unfussy about materials. A place like Battle was thus perfect for giving roughly-aligned but potent materials proper utility. As to what utility, Elvia could only guess.
"The Ordo thanks you, Magus Song." The Rectrix passed a hand over the Cores while her other hand, glimmering with a faint aura of Faith, touched Gwen's fingers.
"Elvia. Let us pray for your friend's health.
O rise, King of the eternal,
wrap this blessed soul in purple, O Lord
By Christ's cross and Adam's tree,
Look, o Three-personed God, and find thy sermons—
Thy honour and glory be eternal. Amen.
— Greater Bless."
Motes of Faith rose from Elvia's body, forming a brief halo around her brow, mirroring the same phenomenon on the Rectrix. Soundlessly, the spell discharged, its psychic energies of belief manifesting as a "Miracle".
Gwen's expression turned from surprised to wonder, then to awe as the last vestige of any negative feelings she might have held coming into Battle faded into oblivion. From her broad, sunny smile, Elvia recalled a girl living her happiest moments in Sydney, before the Mermen invasion, before Debora-turned-Faceless.
"I am honoured." Gwen bowed her head.
"Please, enjoy the food," the Rectrix commanded the trio. "Waste nothing. These scones are hand-made by our Acolytes for the occasion. The jam is from Seneschal Ashburn's private reserve, and our acolytes in South India hand-picked the tea leaves."
The youngsters performed as told while the Rectrix watched. "Maxine has told me that you wanted to ask about the Northern Steppes?"
Elvia sipped her tea, watching her friend's thoughts transmute.
Undaunted, Gwen affirmatively buttered, creamed, then jammed her scone between her reply. "I have a mind to get down there and see how I may contribute to resolving the local tension. As you know, Meister Bekker was tapped to reinforce the local garrison and put an end to the insurrection, and my friend Jean-Paul is going with her. As a part of my Magisterial course, I'd thought I could spend the month between now and mid-Lent term helping out."
"In your capacity as the Devourer of Shenyang?" her Rectrix was all smiles. "And do as you had done for the Murk?"
"Well," Gwen replied with a hint of smugness. "I have a knack, or so the Tower Master says."
"What do you know?" The Rectrix wasn't one to waste breath.
"From my research." Gwen pointed in the sea's direction, a misaligned gesture Elvia understood to mean Cambridge. "I understand that the Mageocracy has spent centuries fleecing the Centaur-folk from Dushanbe to Karagandy, adding fuel to their inter-tribal grudges every few years. From the local region, there are small mountains of HDMs to be made selling skin, fur and Creature Cores, not to mention rare-earth Crystals needed for Mandalas. After the Tide, when Elementals arrive en mass and the Fire Sea manifested as-is; the entire Frontier pulled back from Baku, and had been pulling back ever since."
Gwen had done her homework.
Elvia's knowledge of the region was only thanks to Lord Ashburn's campaign there to exorcise a corrupt governor, one that was driving the local centaurs into the arms of the Elementals' domain.
"As a result of the Fire Sea's emergence, the balance established by the Mageocracy collapsed, leading to a plethora of problems today. Foremostly, the Khitani Khanate has absorbed the refugees fleeing from the lost Turkmen lands and the tribes exiled from Afghanistan— rapidly outpacing our outposts. Two, the Elementals have begun to enslave and transmute tribes with appropriate affinities into Changeling war hosts. With both concurrently in motion, the Mageocracy knows that a sea-change is coming, but to resist the incoming Tide, it needs to maintain border buffers."
Gwen took a deep breath. "As a result, the Shard is in a bind. There's the Ukrainian line to the west, the Kazakhstani line to the north. The Pakistani line to the west. And Sinai to the south— albeit the Americans are responsible for that fiasco. The point is that everywhere around the steppes sit precarious positions that could spiral out of control at a moment's notice. When they do, the Mageocracy's tenuous control of Central Asia will cease to exist."
"Yes." her Rectrix nodded. "Our Empire is stretched as thin as beaten gold."
Gwen looked over at her attentively, then sighed. "When I was in China, we talked about the Mageocracy as though it was a hegemonic Leviathan. The Empire where the Sun Never Sets, that sort of thing. Now that I am here… it feels like we're trying to catch water with sheets of Swiss cheese."
The Rectrix laughed. "That's an observation Lord Ravenport shares, to be sure. Elvia, you've studied the Steppe Campaign under Ashburn. What do you think of your friend's concerns?"
Elvia cleared her throat, then began to speak in a melodic but meticulous manner. "Gwen is correct, though she lacks details which make the situation worse than it is. The Death Cult of Egypt has its history and conflicts, but we can at least agree they're not going to ally with the Elemental Sultanate. The Undead Aristocracy of Eastern Europe as well, is as opposed to the Elementals as the Mageocracy. To the east, there's the Himalaya divide and the Old Kingdoms of Delhi that fear the Sultanate more than they loath the Mageocracy, which means there is only the problem of the Northern Steppes."
She took a sip of the tea, then continued.
"What happens if the newly risen Khanate breaks off its reliance on the Mageocracy? What if, God forbid, they lay down their arms when the Elemental hosts come knocking? Without the ore, wool, leather, Cores and agricultural produce, who would supply the Eastern European Frontiers? Where would the Mageocracy find another raw-material export zone?"
"Where indeed?" The Rectrix threw the question back at their guest.
"Which is why I've come to the Order." As Gwen spoke, she reached out under the table and squeezed Elvia's hand, signalling that she would soon require her aid. "As one of the Holy Ordo with interest in genuine peace with the Elementals and the Centaurs, I would like to ask for your advice before I commit myself to the plans I've devised for the Steppe region."
Rectrix Theodora St. Claire raised her classically elegant face. Despite her deceptively youthful mien, there was no ignoring her aura of authority and the experience she exuded.
"The Ordo's goals," the former Duchess of Somerset announced. "Is in general alliance with Her Majesty's role as Governor Supreme of our Church of England. Our interest in harmony isn't one pursued out of ethical consideration— but one seeking to preserve the fragile status quo hanging over the Holy Land. What you might see as charity, sympathy, mercy, compassion, inclusiveness and ardent pursuit of peace, is in reality, the product of ulterior interests. Do you understand?"
Elvia recalled being shocked when Ashburn gave her the full dose on her and Mattie's first foray. The good performed by the various Ordos were not acts of inherent selflessness but actions taken to maintain her Majesty's hold on the Mageocracy. In a time when competing interests within her Empire would put House Windsor's interests below their own, the Holy Orders were the monarch's flame and scalpel. Compared to the Towers or the provincial governments of the Commonwealth, the fundamental dissonance was their vows as the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ, with strict pledges restricting their access to pleasure and property. Instead, the crown supplied their coffers while they reaped Faith from the masses. To take herself as an anecdote, her soup kitchen in the IoDRP, her orphanage, her clinics and her actions in Northern Ireland all contributed to her and the Ordo's reservoir of Faith.
"I do." Gwen nodded, untouched by the realpolitik. "Rectrix, you've seen how I've dealt with the Mageocracy's dilemmas in Burma, in Peru and the Murk. You've also seen how I've performed in forming diplomatic ties with the Dwarves. Likewise, in London, I have some sway with the public through my paper, the METRO. Just as well, both the Shard and the Foreign Affairs Department are indebted to me for services rendered. If I can apply pressure from both sides, we may not stop the warmongers, but I can twist their arm and divert their claim. Can you tell me more about the Steppe's internal conflicts?"
The Rectrix motioned with her Mage Hand, refilling her cup. "We're a monastic order, Magus Song. Not politicians or financiers. I can only tell you this— if the Militants and the Greys can give up their unnatural occupation of the resources belonging to the Khitani Khanate, we may yet gain a potent ally against the Tide. If not…"
"You think an outbreak of war from the central region is inevitable?"
The Rectrix slightly shrugged her shoulders, then fixed her habit. "Nothing is predestined, though if you look at our politicians and corporations, at how they squeeze the Frontiers for resources and reap wealth from the corpses of the Demi-humans, it should hardly come as a surprise. You come from the Frontier, do you not? What did you learn as a child?"
"That we Humans are at the mercy of the Demi-humans and that we're eking out a living in between their warring factions."
"Do you consider this to be true?"
Gwen thought of the general fear and anxiety Sydney-siders lived in, even with someone like Gunther at the helm. "I can't deny it."
"Your's is a fear London's Militants do not possess. Imagine if you were born in the heart of the Mageocracy as they are," the Rectrix explained. "Picture your aristocratic ascension in a city that has never fallen to the Wildlands, that not only remained standing but reached out and profited from its Frontiers during the Tide. You open the papers each day or watch the vid-casts on the Lumen-channels. On every front, the discussion is what region should the Mageocracy next usurp, which race has capitulated to the Shard's pressure, and which Lord as profited from what war."
"Ah, the old military-industrial complex," the Void sorceress surmised with a Gwenism. "I get it. Invariably, that's the source of the Militant's confidence, their funding, as well as why they must keep conquering out of jaw-clenching reflex. They've built themselves around a myth, and they're driven forward by the momentum like an ouroboros of ambition, eating their tail inch by inch. So long as their gains exceed their loss, they maraud onward like Micah's Juggernaut, crushing the Godless, revelling in plunder, believing themselves the Masters of the Earth!"
Elvia could see her teacher was very impressed.
"Indeed, that's the force you'll be trying to divert if you want to bring stability to the region," the Rectrix concluded. "We tried, God, knows the Ordo did its best— but alas…"
Elvia could feel the Rectrix's frustration and so lowered her head. She understood her teacher's feelings well. In Ireland, against the endlessly mutating Fae and their reality-warping Faery Circles, against the Changelings that replaced one's allies, she had felt the same. In Toner's Bog, she recalled the village they had entered, where her patrol found the missing children swimming in a bubbling Hag-stew— there was no healing Sen-sen or Kiki could manage that would bring back what Mattie and herself had lost in that campaign.
If the Northern Steppes were worse still, what would Gwen do? What if their foes weren't Centaurs but Mages from London? Even with the Shoggoth at her beck and call, what could she change?
Currency. Crystals. Greed. Those were Gwen's weapons as well as her Void and Lightning. If so, would she buy them out of the Steppes? How could she guarantee that the Militants would stay away if there is so much more wealth to be made by reneging on agreements?
"Thank you for that," Gwen thanked her Rectrix. "I think I understand what the reports won't say. Now then, Milady St. Claire, may I ask for a boon?"
Elvia looked up to see Gwen's gaze washing gently over her.
She blinked as their eyes met.
"Could I borrow Evee and the Ordo's aid?"
"For the Northern Steppes?"
"Yes." Elvia's oldest friend placed an assuring palm on the Cleric's knee. Her breath quickening, Elvia's eyes grew as large as pigeon eggs, while beside them, Mathias turned pink as pippins. "Mattie can come along as well. I'll pay for every expense. If you're worried, I can have Evee attend in custom Dwarven Golem Klad to mitigate the danger. If the region is as unstable as you have prescribed, we'll need a gentle hand to deal with the local folk. In that regard, Elvia is far more suited than I, though she'll need support in terms of logistics and a Class VI War Mage to stiffen her resolve."
The Rectrix appeared amused by the idea. "Elvia, dearie. What do you think?"
On the field, Knight Companions played both leader and follower, but here in the Fortress Monastery, Elvia knew better than to lecture her betters. That said, she did desire to work with Gwen once more, not as a sycophant but as an equal. As Gwen had proposed, there were things only Gwen could do and things only she could do. Gwen possessed the threat of total annihilation and HDMs, while Elvia had her healing and the Ordo's reputation. Together, what couldn't be overcome?
"Your wish is my command, your Grace." She bowed her head, conscious of Gwen's hand still arresting her knee.
Theodora St. Claire returned to the Void Sorceress in their midst. "If Elvia has no complaints, neither do I. The Ordo will not oppose you, considering your record so far. However, may I suggest that you scout the Steppes with Meister Bekker? Elvia still has her duties here and training in London's Great Hospitals. I will grant you access to our Chapel Chapter in Aktau. When you need her, the Abbot there can arrange for Elvia's Teleportation, as well as answer any questions you may have. Does that satisfy?"
"A wonderful arrangement." Gwen struck out the hand warmed by her knee.
Ignoring their difference in rank, the Rectrix took it.
In front of Elvia and the wordless Knight, the two women shook.
"Well, now." Gwen sidled up to her Evee. "I'll be taking her to Lady Astor's as discussed. Her ladyship has dearly missed Evee."
"Don't forget our Cleric has sworn to be a Poor Fellows of Christ." The Rectrix shook her head in the manner of a gentle mother warning her bright-eyed daughters. "No liquor and nothing her fellow Brother and Sisters in the Ordo wouldn't do. Mathias, while the Nazarene sees all, only you can keep an eye on our future Knight Companion. Can I trust our Brother Ordo of St Michael on this?"
"Yes! Your Grace!" Mathias left his seat and saluted, finally relieving himself of the accused chair. "She'll be safe with me, Ma'am!"
The look Gwen gave Mathias made Elvia's hairs stand on end.
After that, they were dismissed by the Rectrix, returning Gwen and company to the upper battlements where she had initially landed to the dismay of the temple guards.
Elvia allowed herself to be Gwen-handled. It wasn't that she couldn't do the same, but her friend's height made it impossible for the smaller woman to take the lead.
"Can you fly yet, Evee?" Gwen lead her by the hand, her mind once again turning mischievous.
"Not yet." Elvia shook her head. "Mattie and I have Orbs of Lesser Flight."
"Well then, tell me about Ireland on the way." Her too-friendly companion put her arm around Elvia's tiny waist. "Mattie, Cliveden isn't far. Catch us if you can!"
"The Prince of Wales once sat in that chair." Richard gingerly slipped his arse onto the gold-threaded cushion. "… firmer than I imagined."
A few moments later, her cousin hailed the group tour to the master bedroom.
"The Prince of Wales once slept in that bed." Richard ran his hand over the velvet and crimson laced quilt. "At the very least, two Kings have fornicated on…"
"God damn it, Rich…"
Gwen threw a pillow at her laughing cousin. "Don't you dare ruin this for me!"
"Hey, you're the one who wanted to come to Cliveden." Richard cackled. "And holy shit! Ferrier's Cottage! This place is full of history! Scandalous, perfumed history. Isn't that why we're here? You even brought Evee— is that a completely innocent gesture?"
The Cleric's face grew instantly red.
Besides the perplexed Gwen, their other guests looked on with confused faces. Jean-Paul was South African and so knew nothing. Petra had never been to England or been taught the trivia. Mathias would never learn of such scandal, and Gracie was a bookworm of an entirely different species.
"You don't know?" Richard roared. "Oh-oh-oh, Duck, you innocent flock of waterfowls…"
At the country kitchen, Richard ordered anytime High Tea from the team of discrete servants living at the main building, then settled the crew down to storytime in the country dining with its lavish decor.
"The main building isn't originally the Astors," Richard began between gulps of English Breakfast, leaving his teeth stained pink with intrigue. "It was originally built by the Lord Duke Villiers of Buckingham, Richard's right hand. He built it not for his long-suffering wife but the stunningly beautiful Lady Talbot, a married woman. This land and its entire property, the most expensive in England at the time, was a gift to his mistress."
Richard pointed at the picturesque bridge just out of view. "When Lady Talbot's husband found out his wife had been taking equestrian lessons atop Buckingham, the Earl of Shrewsbury challenged the Duke. An Earl! An administrator! Against a Duc! A war leader! You can imagine the outcome. And so, on that bridge yonder occurred the first love-induced Mage-duel-to-the-death in English history— which was why Lady Astor ALWAYS hosts stag-duels whenever there's a part at the river garden. "
The listeners made O shapes with their mouths.
"But of course, a one-sided slaughter is hardly romantic. What's infamous is Lady Talbot's performance while the two men duelled."
"What did she do?" Gracie trembled as she asked.
"She stood on the Duke's side and held his horse while the men fought. In the aftermath, she frenched the Duke in front of the witnesses while her husband turned to dust."
Richard's audience drew in deep breaths. The boys weren't much into the aristocratic drama, but the girls were no less thrilled than modern-day homemakers watching the season finale of Downton Abbey.
"After that, the House of Lords ordered the Duke to stay away from Lady Talbot." Richard thumped the table with a suggestive rhythm. "So naturally, the two took to creaming discretely in Ferrier's Cottage…"
The girls put down their biscuits and teas.
"… and later gave birth to the Duke's favourite bastard in one of those beds upstairs."
Richard took another sip. "Not to be outdone by her brother-in-law, Lord Villiers' wisp of a wife had a vivacious vixen for a sister who the Duke occasionally fancied as well. Since she had free reign of this building while Lady Talbot and the Duke were away, she decided to outdo her brother-in-law by entertaining both King George I and later George II in her lap of luxury… somewhere around here…"
The girls began to doubt what the inch-thick Ursine rugs were hiding beneath. The white-washed walls were starting to look a little too white.
"After that, of course, there were a few centuries of peace until Lady Astor's in-laws took over the estate— But not before falling to the cottage's unique charm. One of Lady Astor's relatives was well-connected to the Germans during that unnatural bout of ambition from the Central Continent and used Cliveden as a sort of royal whorehouse for information gathering. Naturally, he chose a secretive and private portion of the estate…"
"Oh, my God..."
Richard grinned wolfishly. "Finally, it was here that Lord Magister Profumo, War Master of the Mageocracy's Mage Flights, was revealed to be entertaining his nineteen-year-old Apprentice in private equestrian lessons as well. Of course, old aristocrats chewing on young tobacco leaves isn't news— but the fashionable sorceress wasn't just a side-piece polishing the War Master's golden knob— she was a bona fide Mind Mage; hailing from the ice country…"
"OH!" Petra's eyes grew wide. It was rare for the trained Mind Mage to be so excited. "Magus Kabiccaya! I know of her! She's a legend in our Tower. There are even portraits of her. That was here? I thought it was the Spring Cottage?"
"After that fiasco, they renamed the cottage."
The ex-Mind Mage rose from her seat to study the room anew, her eyes full of stars. "Do you know which room they used?"
"Pats..." Gwen pulled her cousin down.
"And there you have it." Richard allowed the dollop cream to dribble from his spoon, then looking to Gwen and then to Elvia; the man wiggled his brows. "Welcome to Ferrier's Cottage, Ladies and gents, hand-picked by your Magus Song truly, a sordid homestay with an orgiastic history of sex, spies and scandal!"