Gwen's original plan was to have an old-fashioned girls' sleepover in the spacious extra-king-sized bed of the master suite, where all four women could lay beside one another and yet have room to spare.
After Richard convinced the party of the possibility that the Cottage may inspire spontaneous orgies of debauchery, Gwen's companions slept on the couch, the floor, and behind pillow forts on the bed.
The next day, the crew took a ferry up the Thames, stepped onto quaint old docks while enviously watched by passersby and shopped to their hearts' content from Maidenhead to Medmenham. At night, a traditional farmhouse feast was abruptly demolished by the always-famished Void Mages, leaving the others to ring the main house for replenishments and snacks.
After a second night of listening to Gwen and Elvia exchange horror stories of War and destruction, the party's female members grew close. Gracie especially found an ally in Elvia, who overflowed with vitality and magnanimity, particularly after the woman confessed to being Gwen's soul-subordinate. Gwen replied that Gracie's humbled obedience was wrongly attributed and that she was a free Void Sorceress soon to gain her footing. In response, Gracie grew red-eyed with heartfelt gratitude.
On the third day, a pair of dangerous birds arrived at Cliveden, alighting at the Rose Garden, requiring Gwen's party to emerge from seclusion. The intruders were one black and the other white and were both known intimately to the Devourer.
The 'black' was Mori.
The 'white' was Dede.
According to Ariel, both "missed her dearly", which Gwen took to imply the birds were thirsty for Essence. Out of morbid curiosity, Gwen introduced the pair to Elvia, her fellow "Vessel" and an authentic Draconic practitioner.
"Evee… I want to see what happened if you offer them a mote of the Yinglong's Essence…" After some clamouring from the birds, Gwen suggested they experiment in mixing their juices.
As a biometric academic and a Creature Mage, Elvia's natural curiosity convinced her to entertain Gwen's idea.
Surprisingly, when the girls manifested a clear drop of golden Essence, the avians grew wild.
"Quack! QUACK!" Dede flapped its wings at Elvia, threatening her with its glorious white breast.
"Caw! Caw-CAW!" Mori, much to Gwen's confusion, was no less hostile.
The offence from Mori and Dede was enough to warrant a response from Elvia's defenders.
"Kiki!" Her Alraune Sprite perfumed the air with protest.
"Sen-sen!" The elder Ginseng as well, rose to wrestle the duck, proving itself the superior combatant.
"Looks like the Yinglong and our Almudj don't see eye-to-eye," Richard remarked for their companions. "How curious. I read that lesser beings taken with Essence are susceptible to morphic resonance, resulting in undying loyalty to the patron. The more Essence, the more changes, the more they identify with their Essence-giver. Usually, it's a Draconic phenomenon, but I guess Al's no less an ancient drake, if not more."
"How do you know this?" Gwen asked.
"The King's library is very extensive," her cousin replied. "HOLY HELL— DEDE!"
"Quack!" Dede howled as Sen-sen spun its avian body via its mass of tendrils, turning it just enough to piledrive the bird beak-first into the soft turf. On the other wing, Mori let loose a mighty "CAW!"— summoning a dark murder of crows enough to weigh-down a nearby, splendiferous oak.
Enraged, Dede excavated itself from the floor. Digging into its fluffy breast, it retrieved, then popped an HDM into its beak to replenish its energies. "Quack!"
“SHAAAA!” Caliban entered the fray, believing the contest some great grand melee.
Raging torrents of free-flowing mana clashed, ripping up the dirt and wilting the grass, sending drifts of free-falling snow and rose petals in every direction.
"SHUT UP! ALL OF YOU!" Gwen calmed the farm with a Clarion Call, steam rising from her in spontaneous streams. "We're guests here, for God's sake!"
The Familiars cowered. The Devourer of Shenyang turned to the ongoing party that had all but ceased at the Rose Garden, each drawn by the spectacle of a duck wrestling a root vegetable while a murder of crows bickered with a flower, with a Kirin mewling for peace and a Richard taking bets.
"Lady Astor… I am so sorry…"
The Lady of the house was with her entourage and joined by a dozen guests who had earlier arrived to celebrate Christmas Eve's festivities. Gwen's party had wandered up from Ferrier Cottage, seeing as they were holiday residents. Had Dede and Mori not descended, they would not have met until the evening.
Lady Astor was staring wide-eyed at the crows, evidently recognising their origins and their purpose.
"Caw!" Mori dispersed her flock with a cry, leaving a wordless group of aristocrats and mid-tier bureaucrats thoughtfully sipping gulps of wine.
Their hostess quickly recovered, then invited the students forward to be introduced. Both groups of guests exchanged titles and names, then mingled. When Gwen asked who Astor was expecting to attend, she said that this year, there would be no Ravenport and no Lady Grey, not even a Rothwell in attendance. The advantage Gwen had materialised with the Dwarven alliance meant the Duke of Norfolk was holding a private soiree in his estate for members of the Grey Faction. Being more Middle than Grey, the Lady decided to break from the usually tense and intrigue-charged gatherings at Cliveden every other year.
"If you want excitement, I can ask the Exeters to send the twins over." Lucy Astor sipped from a flute while standing beside Gwen with a smirk. "Care for some payback for last time? With your present standing in the Tower and the news cycle, you'll be able to push much harder than they're willing to push back."
"Thanks for the offer, but I'll pass." Gwen looked to Elvia, who was scolding her two Familiars for their un-lady-like behaviour. "I want this year to be fun and relaxing. Next year we've got Phase III to digest, and after that, our coffers permitting, all of us needs to start laying the foundations for Phase IV."
"How are your studies?"
"Going well, racking up credits," Gwen said. "Hopefully enough to pick up the Magisterhood in another year or two."
"I heard from St. Claire that you and Evee are thinking of heading up to the Steppes?" Astor remarked, her eyes drifting past Gwen's Familiars to the crow now perched on a vine arch. "With Meister Bekker there, I doubt you'll face much danger. That said, you ARE headed for the Steppes, a Black Zone! Do you think you can turn the deficit void-chasm there into profit?"
"I think the Mageocracy can do better than snatch-and-grabs, general oppression and stoking civil bloodsheds," she replied in a low whisper. "If there are as many crystal mines, rare herbs, leather and Cores as they say down there, I think we could manage an import-export consortium. Keen to invest? It could be a new Silk Road."
"If you manage to wrangle the political situation there, sure." Lady Astor nodded. "That said, I do have traders operating out of Istanbul. I'll give you their contacts. When you arrive and are ready to begin operations, tell them I sent you."
"That'll be lovely." Gwen gave the Lady an affirming nod.
Their hostess passed a contact Glyph between them, then turned to Elvia. "My little Evee, my-my, how you've grown. A future Knight of the Bath! Incredible!"
Elvia curtsied. "Your Ladyship."
"I wonder how those sows at GOS would see you now," the ex-Secular Cleric, now House of Commons member, mused. "Probably scrap for scraps at your feet, if I had to guess. Especially the Matrons who used to bully you and those other trainees from Black's too, I wager. Ever thought of going back?"
"I haven't thought of them much." Elvia's expression remained pure and serene. "The Ordo has much work to do."
"True." Lady Astor hugged the girl, squeezing her shoulders hard. "I heard about Northern Ireland. I am so sorry you had to experience that."
"It was a lesson I had to learn. One I don't regret." Elvia gave the Lady one of her signature, heart-melting smiles, one that made both Gwen and Lady Astor sigh with maternal longing.
"Enjoy the party." Lady Astor withdrew, expressing that she had already spent too much time with one group and must now continue her free-flowing meandering. "Merry Christmas. We have high hopes for you all, you who are our nation's future. Magus Song—"
"A merry Xmas to you too, Lady Astor." Gwen curtsied, then hooked an arm around Elvia's inner elbow. "If you don't mind, we'll return to Ferrier's before the crowd arrives. Dede! Cali! Ariel! Mori! We're going!"
"Suit yourselves." The Lady touched a hand to Elvia's cheek and gave it a satisfying squeeze before leaning in to bid them both a fair holiday season. "Keep our Essence-sucking money tree safe, Evee. We're counting on her to pave the Middle Path with crystals."
As a business owner, Gwen understood well the concept of there being no rest for the wicked. The Tuesday past Boxing Day, while the rest of London returned to their repetitive labour, so did the Devourer of Shenyang return to her Isle of Dogs to crunch debit tables and balance expenditures.
In the aftermath of the Shard's "New Deal" with the Dwarves, Yossari returned with more of her folk to help expand the Westferry Print Works, concurrently providing Petra with more opportunities to delve into the secret of Runic sorcery. At the same time, Nesatin the Smith, Doussed the Rune Tuner, and the two Whitebeards, Thulgig Flinthide and Danmurim the Glum had reached their one-surface-cycle contract and were due home. For their return trip, Gwen gifted caskets of Maotai and rings full of surface goodies from sweets to cured meat, as well as trinkets and Lumen-recordings that she hoped would lure more young Dwarves into exploring Himmseg.
Two days before New Years, Jean-Paul invited her down to London Imperial, concurrent with a Message that his Meister would be expecting her to join her for a working luncheon.
Having already met with Meister Bekker upon her previous return, Gwen made her way down to the grand avenues of South Kensington. She rather admired Jean-Paul's university, though more imposing than the fourteen Meisters under London Imperial's name or the Royal degree marking its inception was the fact that London Imperial has the most generous endowment of any learning institution in Europe, emerging the principle collegial benefactor of Victoriana's colonial conquests. Even now, among all of the universities of the Mageocracy, graduates from London Imperial rank first for employment prospects, dwarfing even the majesty of Oxbridge's combined might.
Recently and infamously, a late Meister Stephan Grimm had committed suicide in the college's now repurposed Royal Spellcraft Hall for reasons unknown. In the aftermath, perhaps more tellingly than the Dust Meister's untimely demise, it was the coverup and the subsequent revelation of the faculties involved in executing factional rivalries, petty jealousies and bitter spitefulness that marred the college's two-century-old name.
Of course, the scandal did not diminish London Imperial's imposing approach. Outside its entrance, the Void Sorceress stood tall as a winter tulip in pale-blue boot-cut jeans, with a light wind jacket just reaching her knees. It took all but a minute for a gaggle of snickering young geese to descend from the steps to surround her, crowding every angle so that her only escape would be via Flight.
"Young Miss." One of the young men bowed his head in a gesture of feigned gentlemanliness, not unlike Dede fossicking for HDMs. "You're a pleasure for sore eyes, have we met?"
Had the man's pick-up not being so tacky, Gwen would have reminded the boy he'd probably seen her on the front page of the METRO. As it were, it had been so long since she experienced harassment by strangers that the encounter felt refreshingly candid. What further enhanced her thrill was the fact that these young drakes had thought themselves cornering a hen when in truth, they were waltzing head-first in a slavering Caliban.
"I am waiting for a friend," Gwen answered demurely, feeling every inch a cat swishing its tail in front of mesmerised mice.
"We can stand in for your friend," another of the young men said. "Where you do hail from?"
"Sydney," she replied. "I am new to London."
"Then we can show you around." The third managed with gusto. "I know the best pubs—"
"GWEN! Over here!"
Gwen was just about to agree to drink the men's wallets dry when Jean-Paul appeared from the main building's double-glass doors. Perhaps the Void Mage was in a hurry, or maybe he was a masochist, but Jean-Paul dressed his lower half in slacks and the top half in a cashmere jumper. Above the ugly Christmas sweater, he even had on an orange and blue beanie. The overall effect could only be described as something the Void had regurgitated after an unsuccessful Christmas eve binge.
"Sorry, fellers." Gwen gave the men an apologetic shrug. "I'd love to get to know you all, but my special buddy is here."
The men's expressions fell several storeys and died on impact. Perhaps they knew of Jean-Paul and knew of his reputation, or mayhap they didn't; either way, Gwen took the opportunity to slip past their guard, leaving only a trail of perfume.
"Miss—" Their leader took on a pained expression of self-doubt after seeing Jean-Paul's exquisite face. "Are you seriously suggesting…"
"Sorry, but it's true." Gwen winked back with a smile. "JP's not good-looking, nor is he rich, but I don't know anyone else with a worm as impressive and useful as his. No other man compares."
The young Imperialists looked as though devastated by a Barbanginy.
Gwen left with a thrilling laugh, quickly leaping up the stairs in twos and threes with elegant dancer's strides to join Jean-Paul. "Hey, bud."
"What did you do to them?" Jean-Paul furrowed his brows. "Desolation Aura?"
Gwen gave her Quasimodo a hearty slap on the back. "You think I'd experiment on students of London Imperial?"
Jean-Paul's expression inferred she would.
Gwen followed her fellow Void Mage through the main foyer, turning heads and catching eyes as she passed. At the atrium, she saw an enormous silhouette four storeys tall in technicolour that Jean-Paul identified as the Astral Body scan of a medical Meister specialising in imaging Divinations.
The building's interior was enormous, easily the size of Kings College's main campus cathedral plus the Old Court, with a section of Peterhouse added as the library wing. Jean-Paul took her through a maze of corridors that would surely spell her doom, arriving finally at a secluded area reserved for Magisters, Meisters and upper-tier administrative staff.
"Meister." Gwen bowed as she approached.
Meister Engela "Mevrou" Bekker, one of three Meisters to emerge from Cape of Good Hope and now a resident researcher at London Imperial, had the atypical appearance of a Boer, with salient ash-blonde hair and piercing, cerulean eyes. When Gwen first met Bekker vis-a-vis, she was shocked to discover that the famed Pretorian scholar was an Ooze Mage, for the clean, austere appearance Bekker maintained was usually reserved for those aligned with Ice or Mineral.
Though in her early fifties, the Meister had enjoyed the likes of Vitae Fruits and rejuvenation treatments, possessing the appearance of a well-kept woman in her thirties. Unlike Lady Astor or Rectrix St. Claire, however, the Meister's appearance was to Gwen a facade, for she lacked the natural youthfulness that came with Positive Energy.
"Gwen, come sit." The Meister was one used to command. "Jean, be a dear and get us fresh beverages, aseblief."
Gwen sat, keeping at arm's length from the Meister.
Here was a woman whose achievements in Spellcraft, academia and politics she could not yet challenge. As for wealth and luxury— she doubted someone sitting at the apex of the sorcerous pyramid would care for something she could acquire at a moment's notice.
In Gwen's eyes, the "Madam's" relationship with Jean-Paul was a strange admixture born out of experimentation. To say that the Mevrou felt love for Jean-Paul wasn't wrong, but it was the leftover sentiment of having a dog by one's side for so long that one felt amiss in its absence. In their everyday interactions, the Mevrou's command of Jean-Paul was absolute, treating the talented Void Mage as something between a scion and a servant.
Yet, Gwen also bore witness to how protective the Mevrou was of Jean-Paul. Engela's was a fierce, maternal emotion the Mevrou herself may not fully comprehend. For instance, in the trimester she had spent with Jean-Paul and Gracie, the girls had attracted unwanted pursuers more than once. As a deterrence, Gwen regularly half-jokingly used Jean-Paul as a Shield to discourage prospective suitors. Unfortunately, there was no lack of young men un-accustomed to women with attitude in a place like London.
When Jean-Paul, "friend with benefits" to Gwen and Gracie, fell victim to unkind rumours, he did not need Gwen or the METRO to step in. Instead, the Mevrou stamped her foot.
Later, the culprits issued public apologies, with one going so far as to withdraw from the college.
The Mevrou was married in her youth but did not have children of her own due to her rapid sorcerous advancements. Jean-Paul was the closest thing to a son, Apprentice and heir she had.
In the privacy of the canteen with no one but themselves, the trio settled down to business.
Meister Bekker's wish was to hit the Steppes just after the Gregorian Calendar turned over to 2006.
As for the journey itself, with Gwen joining them, the Meister advised taking the Eastern European route. They and their party of two-dozen Magisters and Maguses would arrive at Kyiv and then take a short-hop ISTC station to Volgograd, where the Russians once halted the German's eastward ambitions through spellfire, blood and enough bodies to start a second Undead War.
From there, the Flights would have to proceed on-air, hopping down the Volga River for half a day, resting at a trading post on the shores of the Caspian Sea, then take a two-day, two-thousand-kilometre flight across a southern section of the Caspian now renamed the "Fire Sea" to arrive somewhere between the land of the Uzbeki and the Kazakhstani Centaurs, both presently held under the Golden Banner of the Khitani Khanate. As to where their FOB might be, not even Meister Bekker could be sure— for the Golden Pavilion was forever on the move, following the rains, clouds and the seasons of the plains.
Jean-Paul remarked that Gwen owned an Orb that could arguably direct the party toward the desired location through mystical means. If she consciously set her mind on the Golden Pavilion, there was no reason why the Omni-orb couldn't circumvent that particular complication in Meister Bekker's quest.
"… How quaint. If I were a Diviner, I would say fate works in strange ways." Meister Bekker sipped her coffee. "As I am not, I shall abide by an old saying from the Steppes, that 'one shouldn't count a gifted Slave's teeth'."
It took Gwen a moment to catch the Meister's implication.
"Does that idiom mean what I think it means?" Gwen's eyes slightly narrowed. She had only the slightest clue about flesh-trading among the Demi-humans of the Steppes, at least not in enough detail to suggest it was a part of the everyday fabric of life.
"War is constant on the Steppes. And so is the caste system used in the region," the Mevrou flatly replied. "We'll be making extensive use of it, so keep your eyes half-closed and your mind wide open."
"I was under the impression that the 'slavery' was a form of indentured servitude—" Gwen thought she'd ask once more. "Or something like prison camp labour derived from the defeated."
"No," Jean-Paul's teacher assured her of the implications. "These are SLAVES in the sense of American history. There's no euphemism implied. We're talking people as property to treat and trade as you, the owner, sees fit. It's a speciality of the Khanate and one of the principal economic forces that drive inter-tribal conflict. Every battle proceeds with a fatal charge of the slave-corps, after which the main force commits its finest archers and riders."
Gwen acknowledged that reading up on the Golden Horde's history may have warped her understanding of local customs. So far, she had gathered that the Steppes, consisting of plains, tundras, plateaus, reliefs and endless estuaries descending from glaciers to the north and east, was home to hundreds of Demi-human tribes. What she did not realise was that the medieval method of victory through enslaving your opponents was alive and galloping today.
"That's crazy. Outright slavery! I mean, not even serfdom! In this day and age?"
"How much do you think the Northern Steppes has changed since the time of Genghis' Golden Horde?" The Mevrou stirred her coffee, re-heating the liquid with a stern glance. "Whatever system of government they had devised was effective enough to rule the largest land empire on Terra— why should the 'Nayzağay Qanı' Kin that hail from his golden blood desire administerial modernisations hailing from France?"
"Alright," Gwen conceded her human-centric worldview. "What do you mean by we'll be using… the slaves?"
"Use that big brain of yours." Engela Bekker drew her a picture. "On the Steppes, there are many commodities to be traded. Crystal currency, rare earth minerals, Creature Cores and magical ingredients are what we're after, but what do you think the 'Nayzağay Qanı', the 'Thunderblooded' prefer for trade in a place so vast and full of danger?"
"… Labour?" Gwen dreaded the fact that she knew the answer. "… and Food? Wait... Jesus Christ."
"During winter, the two are not exclusive," Jean-Paul's teacher's reply made Gwen's toes curl. "The Thunderblood Marauders of Khitan think nothing of using the docile Tasmüyiz for nourishment. We don't think much of our sheep and cows, and neither do they. Further north, the Wolf Mothers of the Qasqır Clan pay extremely well for teams of Şöpter slaves. During spring and summer, the Şöpter tend to the fields and nurse the pups. In winter, they make for good sport— and if the weather remains foul for too long…"
"… Strewth." Gwen had to put down her fourth croissant. "It's the fucking Dark Ages out there."
"Don't be like those old fogies in the Anthropological Section," the Mevrou chided her. "The Steppe is life in its purest form, raw and free, unbound by petty rules to protect the weak. There's much we could learn, as Mages, from those Centaurs."
Gwen grew contemplative. "This is harder than advertised."
"Did you think this would be easy?" The Mevrou laughed. "The Golden Horde was responsible for the Dark Ages, after all. Our job, Magus Song, is to drag the Khitani Centaurs kicking and screaming into the 19th century."
"Do you mean the 21st?"
"Your optimism is commendable." The Meister gave her a look of disapproval. "You're going to be my assistant Administrator, Gwen. Not the Second Coming of the Nazarene."