The Ravenport's London Compound sat three stations east from Westminister and two stops south in a prestigious corner of Chelsea adjoining the Ranelagh Gardens. In the past, the compound had encompassed the entirety of the southern courtyard from Chelsea Bridge to King Charles' Court. Now, at Charlene Ravenport's behest, most of its private land had been surrendered for a public park, leaving only a modest sixteen room "Manor" in service to the Earl Marshall of England.
It was under its austere, Edwardian facade in rich red brick that Gwen now arrived, clacking from Sloane Square in her eye-watering heels for a few hundred meters until confronted by its brass-bound gates.
There were three modes of transport which she could have chosen, and sore feet were her sufferance of choice.
The rationale, at least according to her cabal of schemers at the Isle of Dogs, was well-founded. Firstly, unless she wished to ride to the compound in a Fabricator Engine or a Strider, there were no decorum-worthy vehicles to deliver someone of her class and station to visit a noble of a higher station. Buying one when the IoDRP was trying to gather funds was doubly untenable. As for flying, that particular convenience would break all manners of etiquette.
As such, taking the public transit and making a public showing of her closeness to her employees made not only for an excellent front page—it also cemented the difference between the haughty Militants and her IoDRP. Additionally, scant critique could be levelled toward her announcing her visit to the Ravenport's compound, lest the Sun wanted to expose her for the "absurdity" of taking public transport.
Secondly, the appearance of her visitation to the Ravenport mansion must be communicated to her stakeholders, regardless of the success of their alliance. Walken's opinion was that such a showing would complete the despair of the Barlow Group, thoroughly demoralising their attempt to block the Pinnacle's construction.
Thirdly, House Ravenport was a stumbling block she had to cross sooner or later. Despite Dickie's professed neutral feelings about the death of his son, "bad" blood doesn't go away with fancy words. The only way to move on with peace of mind was to wed her interests to theirs and vice versa—through mutual profit. Once that happened, both parties were bow-tied at the ankle by their joint stakeholders. Likewise, as a future Magister with a Tower on the horizon, diplomacy with enemies she had not chosen of her own free will would be best practice.
"Caw—" A pair of ravens flapping atop the anchor struts for the gates announced her arrival.
As seen in Gothic horror films, the gates yawned open with a squeak of green brass, entirely of its own accord.
The interior was the textbook definition of a manicured English garden, with every tree and hedge tamed and shaped into geometric perfection since the epoch of King George IV.
There was also an explicit lack of entourage out to meet her.
Gwen glanced at the riverbanks, where Lorenzo and his men awaited with dismay for the front page shot that would no longer appear.
In a way, she felt relieved.
It made sense that their success should be limited. Unless Dickie consented, there was no way the old ghoul didn't see past her shallow ploy of the Kitsune borrowing the Manticore's terror.
Nonetheless, she walked in-between the gates, shook loose her hair, then struck a pose in the middle of the open gates embossed with the heraldry of ravens. Lorenzo took a low-angle cover shot from a suitably safe distance for his ostentatiously titled "Dog visits Raven" article, then farewelled the onlookers gawking at her dramatic narcissism.
Like a pair of gnashing incisors, the gates railed closed with a discordant tone of disapproval.
The pebble stone path ahead was undoubtedly never made with stiletto heels in mind, nor was the distance to the "modest" manor, designed originally for war horses, suitable for walking.
Thankfully, Gwen had a Flight Licence and so abused the fact to "glide" her graceful self toward the frontage of the three-story manor with its Gothic arches in wine and enormous, white-ribbed French windows.
As she closed the final dozen meters, the door opened, revealing the absent figure of the majordomo, who bowed from the waist before hailing her countenance.
"I can only presume Lady Ravenport is expecting me." She smiled at the butler. "Is Duke Ravenport in?"
"He is not," the man offered a curt and unambiguous answer.
"How about Lord Saville?"
"Lord Saville is on business for the Duke. The young Mistress of the House is waiting for you inside." The moustachioed servant appeared ripped from a period film. "If you would follow my humble self, I shall take your august self to her."
"Very well, lead the way." Gwen figured there wasn't much point in squeezing clues from a man who was likely the hidden villain of Cluedo.
The interior of the Ravenport's London Manor was not the lavish Louis XIII style she had been anticipating, but rather a minimalist form that deviated from the ecliptic preference of the late Edwardians. Chief companion to the ridiculous space were the portraits, hundreds of them, row after row of gaunt Ravenports of the past going back centuries, all the way unto the rise of Henry V, the "Argent King", progenitor of England's Arthurian legends. Gwen noted that common to the appearances were the hawkish nose, the calculating grey eyes, and the thin lips that gave Dickie the look of a Bond villain.
Nearer the end of the upper corridor, Gwen received a preview of the hostess she was about to meet.
It was a portrait of the Ravenport family with Dickie's second wife, Everleigh, and her two children. The Mistress of the house was herself a vision of femininity perfected by good breeding, good food and unfettered access to Transmutation magic. From her perfect fair hair to her flawless poise, Dickie's second wife should be in her thirties in the picture but had the mien of a girl-wife just making it past her second decade. To Everleigh's right stood a girl with a regal frame and eyes that took after the Duke, though feminised and with lips kissed by rouge. The kids and the mother did not look at all alike, a testament to the strength of House Ravenport's genes.
Then there was the boy to the woman's right, dressed in flamboyant doublet and hose, embroidered with the crest of House Avon and Ravenport. With a sinking feeling, Gwen recognised the psychopathic glint in the kid's dead fish irises, becoming astounded by the skill of the portrait artist in framing Edmund's hidden mania.
The door to the room in which Charlene waited for her was already open. From the look of the doorframe, this was not a tea room but a bedroom.
More mind games? Gwen frowned.
Or did Charlene read too much into her widely known association with Elvia?
That would be foolish. Firstly, she liked blondes. Secondly, thanks to Caliban, she had never been less thirsty in all her life.
Whatever the play awaited her, Gwen tugged on her dress, patted down her blouse, then ventured past the threshold.
"Welcome to our humble home, Magus Song." The voice that greeted her came from a young woman about Gwen's age, though her severe features did make her look more mature than her mid-twenty-odd years. Her voice was controlled and measured, with an aristocratic air not unlike her father's. "Please, call me Charlene."
Charlene Avon Ravenport, of House Ravenport, stood from the arrested grains of an enormous armchair to greet her, dressed as one might expect, in form-fitted, crow-black sables. Compared to Gwen, Charlene was half-a-head shorter, though the girl carried herself with the poise of someone taller by a handspan. As she approached, her kitten heels announcing her arrival as she left the plush Persian rug to step onto the polished oaken floor. Charlene Ravenport, Gwen surmised, had the look of a handsome and confident predatory bird of prey.
"Thank you, Magus Ravenport, for sparing the time." Gwen kept their meeting formal.
"It's provisional-Magister, as your title should soon be as well." Charlene extended a hand as the two women closed in on one another like duelling hens.
They shook, her hand warm and soft, hers cold and skeletal.
"They're preparing the tea in the garden." Charlene nodded toward the back section of the compound. "Before we become partners, I would like to divine the Oliphants in the room, if you do not mind."
Charlene sat but did not invite her to sit.
"Of course—" Gwen had a feeling the topic was unavoidable. She looked around the bedroom for a place to sit, eyed the bed, then a disturbing realisation crawled up her thigh, tickled her spine, then spread across her scalp.
Here was not Charlene's room, nor a guest-chamber—but a boy's bedroom. Gwen had not noticed at first because the room was choked full of things; specimen jars, magical implements, scroll parchments, assorted magical ingredients, collectables, two globes of the world, as well as extensive landscape paintings that drew the eye away from the smaller lumen-pics hidden in brass frames among the dusty bric-a-brac.
In one frame, she saw Edmund in his early teens, stoic and rigid, smiling disinterestedly at the lumen-recorder. Another picture showed an adolescent holding a wand and wearing a cape, pointing at something in the distance. A third vision showed him at a Duelling Arena sitting front-row with his mother beside him, looking like he'd stepped in shit.
To her right, a picture that caught her eye involved a smiling kid with his hand on the Awakening Stone, both thrilled and happy. Beside it, there was a similar image of Edmund at what looked like Cambridge's King's College, with the distinct form of "Dusty", the Dust Devil, looking all kinds of harmless.
That Edmund had a childhood, a life of his own, or that there was a boy before there was a man had never occurred to her. In Gwen's memory, Edmund was merely a faceless bastard who had assaulted her, gotten inside her Astral Body and molested her after confounding her mind. The realisation now that a human being was inside the monster made her feel strange and angry.
"Unpleasant memories?" Charlene was testing her.
"I do not think that the passing of a bloke who tried to have a go with my body and mind is going to touch me as much as you think." Gwen switched tracks from diplomacy to sarcasm. "Besides, even as a victim, I hardly knew him."
"What was he like in his final moments?"
"I didn't kill him," Gwen reiterated the fact, her emotions feeling as though caught in a crucible. "And I wasn't there. I killed his compatriot, the one they called the Faceless Man."
"What was he like when you met him?" Charlene put up both hands in defence. "I am not accusing you of anything, Magus Song. I am merely interested. Edmund and I weren't close, but he was my brother. Could you tell me how you met? I've read the reports from Father but never met an actual person with whom he had—interacted."
"A victim," Gwen corrected her. "We're called victims. As far as I know, I am a rare survivor."
"Of course," Charlene concurred. "My condolences. Could you humour me?"
"I shall, but then we must talk business, else I've got uncomplicated deals elsewhere," Gwen declared her position.
Charlene inclined her head, wearing the expression of a sister rather than the young Mistress of the House. Gwen wondered whether the girl feigned sympathy or otherwise, then resolved not to care so long as they got to the business at hand.
"Agreed." Charlene concurred.
As she did not want to touch Edmund's things, she remained standing.
"We met at the Royal National," she began, feeling all kinds of strange, like delivering a victim's testimonial at court. "This is not a happy story, so don't expect any euphemisms..."
Gwen told her opponent as much as she was able to divulge without giving herself away. She began with the killing of the teachers, then moved on to Debora while withholding the involvement of Faceless. She talked about Spectre, the cave, the "Land God" that Edmund had wrangled, then in meticulous detail, she relayed Edmund's madness.
"… and if I had been a second late in Voiding him, I wouldn't be here today."
As she finished, Gwen noticed her fingers were trembling. She might be mentally over the bastard, but it seemed her body remembers.
Charlene sighed. "I see. And the Mageocracy would be a poorer place for it."
Gwen raised a brow.
"Whatever Edmund's faults, I thank you for the story," Charlene said. "I will relay his… somewhat final moments to Mother."
"Lady Avon is present as well?" Gwen realised that etiquette indicated she should greet the eldest Mistress first.
"No, she's away." Charlene absolved her consternation. "Mother's merely unhappy at father's pragmatism, as usual. She thinks it's a slight to the Ravenport name to leave you unmolested."
"I would reconsider your choice of diction." Gwen stared daggers. "Edmund didn't exactly leave me in a caste state, as so to speak. Compared to what he did, a salacious grope wouldn't even register on the scale of damnable offences. Tell me, how much do you care for Edmund? Is this conversation a task set by mummy dearest? Or did 'Daddy' dear put you up to this?"
"Now it is I who should commend you for your choice of words, 'Secret Sister' dearest." Charlene's lips curled. "That's the true reason for my mother's ire. It's sickening, but she had considered owing up to the rumour that you might indeed be her daughter. Father rarely speaks to mother, so to see him in a rage was quite the unique experience."
Gwen fought to keep her expression from twisting into a mask of cringe. "She dislikes Edmund THAT much, eh? He's not a stepchild, is he? He sounds like he was adopted."
Charlene's reply came with a secretive smirk. "Gwen. I'll gift you an open secret as thanks for Edmund's story. Would you like to hear it?"
"Sure." Gwen shrugged. Free was free.
"We ARE stepchildren."
Gwen blinked. "What?"
Charlene laughed. "It's well known that father's marriage to Lady Avon was political. Our birth mother died delivering us. Edmund and I, we're fraternal twins."
Gwen stared at Charlene's face before recalling that fraternal twins did not share identical DNA. "So Lady Avon…"
"Might have given birth to you after all?" The girl laughed. "You have her colour—and Mother is incredibly vain when it comes to the emerald lustre of her eyes."
"Gods." The corner of Gwen's lips twitched. "If I could tell my mother that, it might just be worth it to see Helena implode."
The two women shared a private chuckle, each for reasons the other could not know.
"But Lady Avon is your mother, isn't she? Even Lady Maxine said so."
"From birth, yes," Charlene clarified. "But we did not issue from her womb. Father never touched her, you know, on account that he's an old romantic."
"Who was your mother then?" Gwen struggled to imagine Dickie with roses and chocolate, serenading a woman under a Romanesque balcony, crying Caw—Caw—!
"A far-removed relative and a childhood friend of my father." Charlene appeared to read her expression with great interest. "Father wanted to continue the Dust-talent of the Ravenport line in an unbroken manner— his success can be seen in Quinn, Edmund and myself."
"Yet, with all the healing magic in London at your disposal, your mother still died?" Gwen furrowed her brows. "Don't tell me there was a conspiracy involved as well. Assassins plots and whatnot."
"There isn't," Charlene said. "But you are VERY astute. Of the twins, I was the older, and my delivery was already difficult for the body of a well-practised Dust Mage. Edmund was the weaker of the two of us, and his birth taxed mother to her breaking point. As a Void Mage, you should know the limitations of healing magic, Faith-charged or otherwise. If Astral Bodies could take healing, your kind wouldn't all be dead."
"You couldn't call on Tryfan?" Gwen remained puzzled by the aftermath. "Summon the Bishop of Canterbury or something? Drops a dozen Vitae Fruits or use Regeneration laced with Faith from the knightly Ordos."
"Father is in the wrong Faction to command the church's aid for such a private matter," Charlene replied. "And yes, he should have called on Tryfan. I have no doubt the Bloom in White would have sent aid—at a cost—and then mother would have survived."
"But she did not?"
"Father did not call for aid. I think it is because of duty and his sense of honour to House Ravenport. Edmund thinks that father wanted mother to die."
"Okay— a bit extreme. Why?"
"Father wedded Lady Avon while we were still nursing at our wet nurses' breasts," Charlene said. "Thanks to the abrupt marriage, High Society readily accepted that we are her children. In truth, father needed an alliance at the time, and Lady Avon's family was perfect for the precarious position he had found himself mired. If you look at who benefited in the end, as Edmund had—"
"Holy shit." Gwen sucked in a lungful of perfumed air from Charlene. "He got EVERYTHING he wanted! The kids with Dust Talent, the political alliance, AND his kids grew up with a mother as decorum demanded!"
"That's right," Charlene gushed with questionable authenticity. "Isn't Daddy wonderful?"
"Good grief—your Daddy's a real piece of work! So I take it Edmund's not good pals with Daddy-dearest?"
"He was born tearing at his father's throat." Charlene's shoulders drooped. "They fought even before he could speak. Edmund blamed Father for forsaking his birth mother, even outright accused him of killing her for the favour of Lady Avon, the stepmother he hated with every ounce of his being. Father's attitude toward him grew even more aloof when Edmund Awakened a tier lower than I had a year earlier. Once, Father even confided in me that had Edmund not taxed mother during labour—she might have survived the ordeal of a high-tier Dust Mage giving birth to two Dust-talented children. That Edmund's talent was above average was an existential insult to my mother's sacrifice. Of course, to my knowledge, Father loved our mother dearly, and to this day, he and Lady Avon sleep in different rooms. He was as good a father any noblewoman could ask and had rarely left me wanting. I never understood Edmund's gripe."
Daddy issues were the worst; Gwen shuddered as the thought crossed her mind. If Edmund wasn't such a psychopath and had gone off the deep end, they might have even found common ground.
Charlene picked up a photo of Edmund. "I understand why he joined Spectre. Father disliked Edmund's attitude so much that he had Ed board at Eton from the earliest possible age, then threw him into College without even a semester break at home. Ed quit, of course, never completing his Magister training. He reappeared in Sydney, or so the reports say. I don't know if Father knew the truth, but Lady Avon and I assumed he merely wanted to get away from Father by escaping to the other side of the world."
Gwen felt her head throb. She also knew a guy who hated his father so much that he fled to a penal colony to escape the guy's control. Holy fuck, was Edmund her father's soulmate? No wonder the two of them 'found' each other.
"So you and Ed—" Gwen paused. "Never mind. You said you were not close."
"No, we're not."
"And you asked me all this out of curiosity?" She pointed to herself and then the Lumen-pics of Edmund. "Or is there another meaning to this ruse?"
"Closure, perhaps?" Charlene stood from the lounge chair. "I don't know. He WAS my brother, even if we never grew up together. Do you have siblings?"
"I think you already know I do. Percy's in China, and you've just made me miss him terribly." As expected, she felt a hot gush of tenderness engender from her diaphragm, coupled with the vision of her hugging a struggling, scowling Percy. Charlene's apathy was impossible for her to understand. Baby brothers were the best, and she loved her brother dearly. Unlike Edmund, Percy was a good boy who didn't care for Daddy and was on solid ground with grandad. What is Percy doing now? She wondered. Maybe she could Teleport back to Shanghai for a spell and give Percy a big, wet, slopping kiss on the cheeks while he squirmed and complained. That would be the best feeling.
"I see." Charlene's steely eyes, so like her father's, studied her. "I should also confess that I wanted to see how you would react to the humanity Edmund had lost. I wanted to see if you're as ruthless as the rumours say or if there's still humanity in you. From our interactions, I sense you're either a Magister-tier illusionist or an honest and sensitive individual, not at all like the picture of you painted by the SUN or your METRO. There's little wonder you're so sympathetic for the NoMs. In that regard, I don't think our opinions diverge."
"NoMs are people too. The IoDRP employs almost six thousand NoMs a month so that you know," Gwen said, impatient to be away from her uncomfortable feelings of empathy for a villain. "So, are we done? Here, I mean."
"We're done." Charlene opened the door. "And I apologise, Magus Song. Know that Father has put me in charge of the Norfolk Estate Fund, so please ease your mind. Now, let us retire to the garden for tea and talk of the real reason why you're here."
Gwen sensed that Charlene must be the kind of girl who always does her homework, for the newly minted Magister knew the details of her IoDRP almost to a minute scale. The knowledge meant that their negotiation spoke the same language and worked on the same plane, drastically reducing her wiggle room.
"Five million for a fifteen per cent ownership in the second Phase IoDRP's Millennium Wharf and the Pinnacle, and five per cent for ongoing ownership of the Millwall and Cubitt constructions."
"Seventeen per cent for Phase II, fifteen per cent on future rental leaseholds, but no ownership of Phase I. We retain management rights." Gwen moved the illusory bar charts she had conjured. "The Dwarves are invested in West Ferry and the Bunker, meaning we won't be able to sell, much less transfer ownership without say so from the City of London."
"You think that's an obstacle?" Charlene cocked her head haughtily, a bone china cup in one hand and a saucer in the other. "Four per cent. We'll arrange the High Arbiter for the Barlow Case."
"Am I to think you would buy a fifth of the Pinnacle, then ignore Barlow's underhanded tricks?" Gwen made a thrust. "The judge comes with the territory, one would assume."
"Judges don't come cheap, neither does a future favour promised by House Ravenport," Charlene riposted. "How about the Print Works? Twenty per cent, and we've got an agreement."
"The Print Works is inviolable." Gwen shook her head. "I'll sell you a portion of my one per cent stake in the isle, how's that? There's boundless potential, even if it doesn't come with voting rights. Ten per cent of my origin stocks, and thirteen per cent for Phase II. I reserve the right to re-purchase my share at a later date."
"Now you're just greedy." Gwen pointed to another floating chart. "Perform your duty, Magister Ravenport, and that point one per cent will gift a near-perpetual income to the Norfolk Fund rivalling its best investments."
"Why does a girl as young as you need so many HDMs?" Charlene mocked her. "Ten million, five up front and five in assets for fifty-one per cent of your origin holdings, ten per cent of Phase II and five per cent of Phase I, and we'll call it even."
"Now you're insulting my business acumen." Gwen smiled back with teeth. "I did say we could forgo the matter and simply delay development for a few years. I am sure another opportunity will come about, but how many IoDRPs are there for the Norfolk Fund? You're not investing in lettuce."
"We could take over Barlow." Charlene showed her teeth as well. "I'll manage it personally with staff from the Gray Faction."
"I am sure Lady Maxine would love that, and Daddy-dearest too," Gwen's tone grew churlish. "Leap into bed with the Militants? Taking over a failing company propped up by loans and about to be cannibalised? I've no doubt someone with your talent would make it work, but Norfolk alone can't stem the tide. You'll need allies."
"For us, allies are not in short supply."
"I am your ally." Gwen smirked. "Sell me three per cent of the Norfolk Fund. "
"You jest, surely?" Charlene retorted by biting into a scone.
Gwen rebutted with a passive-aggressive scone-slathering.
Both women had to pause for breath for the impasse they had reached.
While Charlene pivoted to talk about their family, Gwen scanned her memories for parallel portfolios. She and Charlene were on the same page— but their interests had yet to align. How is it then that they could meet in the middle? While her mouth filled with jam and cream, her sugared synapses fired up the recollection of a legendary deal made on a golf course in Hangzhou between developing "Alibaba" and a falling giant in Yahoo. One was a company with no cash and explosive revenue potential, and the other was a company with liquidity and an uncertain future. BOTH believed that their company was undervalued by the other.
The solution, a stock swap, was a stroke of bloody genius.
And though Alibaba rightly predicted its ascension and Yahoo did not, the latter's double-digit stake in Ali emerged to encompass the entire marketable value of Yahoo in a post-Google, post-Facebook apocalypse, providing Yahoo with so much revenue that its stock had the tenacity of a Lich.
"How about—" Gwen remembered to swallow before speaking. "—we do an equity swap?"
Charlene raised a carefully plucked, aristocratic brow.
"We'll settle on a fair evaluation of five per cent of the Norfolk Fund." Gwen conjured the charts from earlier with a swish of her hand. "Forget the cash. I'll trade you fifteen per cent of the IoDRP as it is currently valued, give or take the difference. Once we are connected at the hip bone, your cash-stake is my cash-stake. If your investments fail and mine succeed, you still come out on top. Likewise, on the chance someone blocks our construction, we can count on the Norfolk fund to control the aftermath, which in turn minimises your risk. And if we BOTH do well, then the profits can only be said to be astronomical!"
She extended a hand across the petite fours, her green eyes glinting with the distinctive sparkle of glimmering HDMs. "We work together, for mutual interest, in pursuit of mutual profit. We'll combine the IoDRP and the Norfolk Fund to form the Isle of Dogs Norfolk Redevelopment Project and let the Duke's name resonate across every sound and bay in the isle!"
Charlene's eyes said she agreed—but her hand teased Gwen's fingers a little too long before meeting her palm in a firm handshake.
"When shall we summon the accountants?" The bird-like woman's grey irises did not betray the excitement Gwen assumed she should be feeling. In a way, she knew Charlene had agreed so readily because the equity swap was a bum deal for the IoDRP. On the surface, Gwen was paying for Norfolk's social position, power and influence with cold hard currency while Norfolk took in assets on the cheap.
Their hands parted—Charlene's rouged lips parted, exposing pearly white canines.
It was a shame then, Gwen grinned back, that Legion, borne from the IoDRP proceeds funnelled into a separate investment account, would otherwise be an entirely independent entity the Norfolk would have to purchase all over again.