In the end, The METRO got the shot it wanted, though not in the form it initially wished.
In the garden-estate of the Ravenport's London manor, the Devourer of Shenyang, Handler of Worms, Mistress of Dog and Rats, stood beside the Lady of Ravens, one in white and tartan, the other in figure-hugging sable.
The special edition's cover page featured little else other than the two eye-catching young women smiling at the audience, embossed with the cryptic and yet self-explanatory title "Dog meets Raven".
Within hours of the ink drying, the edition inundated every transit node in London, both land and water-bound, even flooding the Teleportation Station at Heathrow.
Be it shoved by force into the idle hands of passersby, or picked up out of curiosity for the "twin" daughters of the Duke of Norfolk standing side-by-side, all of London knew by the day's end that a project in the hundreds of millions of HDMs, inflated to over a billion, was happening in their city.
What especially hooked the good folk of London was the scope and scale of the IoDRP in its transformation of a mud-swamp industrial bloc into a nouveau jewel of commerce. As customary, hyperboles like the "The Pearl of London's Real Estate" and "A Hub for All" captured the interest of their readers. Then, to the pleasant surprise of the audience, the devil in the details surpassed the bait-worthy headline.
For the genteel readers, the IoDRP was to change from a private enterprise into a partially state-funded cooperative. Four per cent of the Norfolk Sink Fund, possessing land and leaseholds second only to the Crown, would be traded to the IoDRP for sixteen per cent of its original shares. The eye-watering small print floated for the investors immediately glued their eyeballs to the page, enough to neglect the alluring headshot of the deal's architects smiling at the viewer.
Comparatively, the average NoM labourer, after their eyes had feasted upon the two young proprietresses, turned the page to find an article dedicated to London's underclass. "Pinnacle and Millennium Wharf to add 3500 Jobs" implored the supplement on the third page, together with a pleasing pie-shaped chart. On the fourth page, the girls promised that in its completion, the next phase of the redevelopment would add five thousand jobs for NoMs to service the locale via catering, general service, cleaning, maintenance and other miscellaneous employs Mages disliked. Most of these jobs, the METRO explained, would be made available through the IoDRP, with management positions open on merit to the company's existing NoM employees. In addition, small businesses such as cafes, restaurants, food stands and service amenities would account for another six to seven thousand positions. What's more, the City of London's public sector was due to announce another thousand-plus posts once the hub was running.
Altogether, between the construction, which would take upward of thirty months, there should be ten thousand jobs soon to materialise, both long and short-term, with salaries promising to fall between liveable to lavish.
In a week or so, the Isle of Dogs Redevelopment Project would be renamed the IoDNC, or Isle of Dogs-Norfolk Conglomerate, and its logo would change accordingly.
"A triumphant return to the days of London's explosive growth!" the METRO concluded. "A city for all, not just the powerful, sorcerous, and noble-born."
In the Bunker, Eric Walken placed the paper brought by the girl on the boardroom table with a complex expression.
Walken's reaction to Gwen's triumphant return was a bittersweet ambivalence—one he expressed with profound sentimentalism. On the one hand, he had inadvertently risen from a senior member of the Grey Faction to one of its splendiferous stars, surpassing the position he had held even as one of the Magisters presiding over Oceania. On the other, he had spent almost a year working six days a week, carefully pruning every facet of the Isle of Dogs Redevelopment Project, and had made the Bunker his home. He had hand-raised its staff members and middle management and had even gotten to know the cleaning corps by name. Now, with a part of the future IoDNC co-owned by the powerful and influential Norfolk Fund, there was bound to be new members of the board who would disagree with his choices.
"Like giving up a child for unwilling adoption" was how he explained his ambivalence to Gwen.
To his chagrin, the girl's annoying sense of empathic justice was absent when it came to HDMs.
She explained that a part of the deal was that the original company would retain complete control—though, of course, Walken was correct in that snobbish folk with large titles would indeed be joining their board meetings. However, he shouldn't worry about butting heads. Instead, Walken should anticipate the moment when their newcomers flexed their weight. Quietly, he could then explain that a small but significant portion of the company's controlling stocks belonged to a Mythic-tier Dragonic Scion. To get Ruxin onside to go against Gwen's decisions, and therefore Walken's decisions, would be a truly epic and Lumen-caster worthy mini-series by the BBC.
Besides, Gwen explained, even if Norfolk were to eventually usurp control of the IoDRP through the Gray Faction's underhanded avenues, the subversion would work out for the better. The revenue she had apportioned for Project Legion could not be stymied without catastrophic contractural breaches. If so, then they should receive enough reparations to complete the first phase of Legion regardless.
"Still, you won't find anyone willing to work on the Llias Leaf in London, at least not publically," he reiterated his warning for his overconfident girl boss. "Besides, where are you going to find a Planar node like Tryfan?"
"I have my ways," Gwen said with a wink. "Do you wish to know?"
Walken shook his head. He had a wife and daughter and thus did not need to know how the girl was hoping to subvert the unspoken rules of reality.
After patting his rigid hand, Gwen then softly explained that her Tower wouldn't be in London anyway, meaning he had nothing to fear and that the IoDRP was never "theirs" in the first instance. Rather, they were custodians for the Lady of Ely, the Ravenports, and the Middle Faction members with their vested interests. In time, their little group would lack both the clout and the time to manage a project of such a size and would have to leave it in the hands of proxies. Taking that into account, Walken should enjoy his time in the limelight, solidify his connections, and get ready for the next stage of their mutually beneficial relationship.
"We had thought you were raising a child." Richard tsked when she made her point. "Turns out, you were rearing cattle. You know how Pats and I took care of this place—"
"Whatever the case, we made lives for the NoMs better, even if Gwen made out like a bandit." Petra gawked at Richard in surprise. "Besides, sentimentality from Richard 'Drowner' Huang? Now I've seen everything."
"You did well on the Isle, Dick," Gwen comforted her cousin to reassure him that they weren't abandoning the Isle of Dogs, only that they would lose complete jurisdiction and that their closely-knit team should prepare to move on. "It added the necessary laurels onto your graduation certificate, I assume?"
"Oh yes, both me and my friends from King's," Richard readily agreed. Meeting her eyes, he adjusted his ensorceled glasses. "Thank you, Cousin. You've done me another favour I cannot repay."
"Don't be like that." Gwen punched her cousin's arm. "You've done me plenty of favours. You kept a tight lid on things while I was gone. That's more than I deserve."
Richard shook his head.
Petra rolled her eyes. "For a Water Spiritualist, he's stubborn as a Mineral Mage sometimes."
The boardroom laughed, putting a gentle comma on the matters at hand, for the rest of the problems to come was now well out of their hands.
Watching the kids, Walken laid back in his seat not to relax but to conserve his energy. At the velocity at which events were now transiting, there was bound to be a train wreck very soon.
A week after, under the auspice of the "Dog-Meets-Raven" article, Gwen and Lady Ravenport visited the Museum of London together to cut ribbons for Charlene Ravenport's "Life in London" Project featuring giant Lumen-stills of the everyday lives of the city's NoMs.
In the interview, they confirmed their companionship, concurrently teasing the Sun and the Telegraph about their supposed relationship and their "shared" connection to the Duke of Norfolk. Eventually, once their sisterhood was denied, both gave word that everything The METRO had reported was true and that London's investors should ready their HDMs.
A day later, the proverbial levy broke.
Suddenly, it was as though fractures that had been building became magnified at once, leading to the complete structural collapse of the fatigued system the Militants had been undermining.
Unexpectedly, it was the Telegraph that broke the silence by putting the Barlow Group to the roast. To her disbelief, the merciless headline "THE ISLE OF DOG FOOD" firmly placed the blame of its imminent collapse on the IoDRP, then went on to note that due to the untenable prospects of the company's debts, they would no longer be able to hold onto their loan-purchased holdings in Canary Wharf and its surrounding government areas. The article itself, much to Gwen's brow-twitching, continued its euphemism and idioms of "A dog's breakfast," "A dog will have its day," "dogged by debt," and had even put up a picture of her from her high-heeled, summer-skirt days in London with the tag "The Hound Mistress puts the bite into Canary."
In short, whoever wrote the article deserved a damned raise for exhausting every dog-pun in the English language, concurrently communicating Barlow's precarious position while placing all blame on the IoDNC and Gwen in particular.
Was this a counterattack? Gwen wondered but couldn't fathom why or how. Was the Barlow Group hoping to declare insolvency? As far as she knew, that's not how bankruptcy worked in the Mageocracy.
Whatever the case, the counterattack completely caught the METRO on the back foot, as they had at least six days until their next edition. Meanwhile, the Telegraph busied itself, simultaneously undermining her reputation while directing their opposition to visit the Isle of Dogs for redress. It was a stroke of genius, one she had no way of anticipating. What frustrated Gwen more than anything was that even using The METRO, there was no possibility of getting Barlow's stakeholders to realise that theirs was a self-goal and not one instigated by the "top bitch of the IoD".
Simply put, no laymen could understand that the Militant-Funded Barlow Group was a cluster-fuck of conflicting interest from its very inception. Even in her Magister's classes, her teachers had stated without ambivalence that the Crown, unlike their continental cousins, looked poorly upon war for the sake of pure profit. According to the Commonwealth's historical lessons, profit should be a byproduct of victory, and a loss-in-war did not mean the venture should be a loss-in-profit.
Comparatively, the Militant Faction's military-industrial greed was ravenous. They borrowed funds to fight wars and used their political clout to make the Shard turn a blind eye. When their members returned laden with magical loot, all remained happy and kept their bought mouths sewn shut. However, in the advent of the Niger Delta, early profitability quickly turned into Sunk Cost Fallacy, coalescing as a stubborn refusal to withdraw from a "tamed" region rich with magical flora and fauna. In six years, what had been regular principal payments then slowed to interest only, then more loans had to be taken out to pay the initial war bonds, which then forced them to turn their eyes toward the civilian market.
Once more, Gwen could only marvel at the audacity of the Telegraph, who now accused her of single-handedly undermining the livelihoods of thousands of people who worked for the Barlow Group. Additionally, the unspoken word in the article had suggested that the collapse of the Militant's pseudo-Ponzi Scheme should be laid at her feet and that Gwen wore the heel that broke the camel's back.
Whatever the case, her METRO printed its retort; then everything seemed to chill for a few days until unbidden, Charlene suddenly materialised to warn her about the shit storm coming her way.
"You're about to have a major problem, which is a problem for me," Charlene broke the news at Cambridge after finding Gwen blissfully feeding Dede. "Jesus, is that even a duck anymore? What tier is that monster?"
Dede lumbered up the shore of the Duck Pond, a Goliath of a duck only a little smaller than a pony, putting an end once and for all to the debate of whether a Magus could fight a horse-sized duck or a hundred duck-sized horses.
"If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck—" Gwen joked.
"QUACK—" Dede roared, letting loose a sonic blast that would have Golos' approval.
"Caw—Caw—" Another greeting came from the nearby tree.
"Mori?" Charlene looked to her for answers. "What's she doing here?"
"You know the Tower Crows?" Gwen felt impressed by just how connected Charlene was proving to be. "But of course, they're your Dad's goons. I know it is called Mori, though interestingly, different ones come around, all calling themselves the same name. What's with that?"
"Much like the secret of your duck, that's not for me to tell," Charlene rebuffed her enquiry, then cut straight to the chase. "Anyway, let's not divert from the issue at hand. The Militants are moving to pay their debts with the Veteran's Pension Funds."
"That's both absurd and... illegal, I think?" Gwen blinked, suddenly making an unhappy connection with the suspicion that had plagued her for days. "Don't tell me the Veterans are being told I am the one fleecing them of their livelihoods."
"Of course they are." Charlene breathed out. "At a time like this, they need a villain, and you fit the bill better than most, being a famed NoM sympathiser, and one guilty of taking their jobs."
"I took their jobs!" Gwen's eyes widened. "Really! When?"
"In their mind, you offered positions that Mages could have filled but gave it instead to NoMs who are doing them for cheaper."
"So I should overpay Mages to stand on corners and deliver papers? Pay Mages to shovel mud from Mudchute? No Mage would work for the wage of an NoM!"
"I think that's obvious to you and me, but not so much to these Orc-headed spell heads. Your problem is that the Isle of Dogs employs more NoMs per Mage than any other corporation in London, the public works notwithstanding." Charlene's scowling elfin face reminded Gwen of the displeased Elven Wardens when she flashed Sanari with Caliban. "At any rate, there's going to be a protest aimed at the IoDNC."
Gwen furrowed her brows. "Why? What are we to do? Pay their pensions?"
Charlene rolled her eyes. "I say protest, but it's an organised riot directed at 'us' and 'you' in particular. Maybe there's a legitimate Mage's work union behind it, or maybe the Militants are semi-mobilising their loyal adherents, but the results are the same. You've destroyed their reputation, and now they're going to destroy yours—with mine caught up as well."
"They're the criminals!" Gwen fumed. "What the hell? Can't you do something about this?"
"The law takes time, and I've tasked High Arbitrator Illingworth to begin the Barlow corruption case immediately with the evidence you've provided. An official investigation cannot be rushed, as is the nature of the High Arbitor's Office. Your present problem, however, is far more immediate."
"… Shit. When's the protest happening?"
"Between this week and the next."
"So we can safely assume this is not a peaceful protest? And that it's going to be at the IoDNC's expense?"
"I dare say there are no grassroots intentions to damage anything, but there will be forces instigating the protestors. I can guarantee that."
"Who are the organisers?"
"The Royal Veterans' London Chapter is organising the march."
"Could I go and talk to them?"
"I doubt they will be listening to you unless you want to front up money for their soon to be missing pensions. These are frightened and unsure Mages who survived the Mageocracy's wars—they know we won't prosecute them harshly."
"Come on. Surely the government can do something. What's the Shard doing? The Metro Police?"
"The Metropolitan police is on our side in this matter," Charlene sighed. "Thank God they have a headquarters on the Isle. That said, the inclusion of Veterans in any capacity always complicates matters. Most of the folk you should be expecting are spare bodies, but you never know who-saved-who and who had remained in the service of a Magister and a Magus of the Factions. Even if we assume the ones marching are all sympathetic to the Militants, there's no reason to rough them up or provoke them to self-destruct. These are men and women who have given their youth and their bodies to the Mageocracy. To repel them without mercy would destroy our credibility."
"Yeah, bad optics." Gwen dug her fingers through Dede's down in frustration. "Okay. So who's looking to benefit from all this? What are the Barlow Group getting? What are the Militants getting? So they shift the blame onto me, or the IoDNC, then what? As a private entity, we have no obligation to feed the Veterans or offer reparation. Likewise, if they damage our plant and equipment, it will only generate lawsuits they can't afford or won't pay. These folk aren't walking away as the winners, so who are the beneficiaries?"
Charlene considered her words. "That's… very astute. I do think—"
The Magister-in-waiting paused when the Message from a serving Magister blossomed beside Gwen's ear.
"Gwen here," she answered the call with an apologetic nod to Charlene.
"Gwen, your crows have come home to roost." The caller, unsurprisingly, was Magister Walken. With far less detail, Walken informed her that his sources had revealed an incoming revolution from the Veteran's Association, who has falsely attributed the partial loss of their pension to the Devourer of Shenyang.
"I know, and I am speaking to Charlene right now," Gwen informed her Executive Officer. "Either way, contact the Commissioner and see what he can do to cordon away the protestors in the next few days. Tell them we'll supplement their building budget if they can muster more Arbiters to stand guard and pick out the belligerents. As thanks, there shall be two—no, make that THREE Golem suits made by Master-tier Runesmiths on order for the Metropolitan office regardless of their help."
"Right." Walken understood her intentions implicitly. "How do you want to resolve this? Any advice before I move forward?"
Gwen looked at Charlene, then gave the matter a minute's thought.
"Ask Yossari if they can line up the Striders as a barrier. If there's one thing the Shard cares about, it is continued diplomacy with our rune crafting neighbours in Wales. Likewise, the vets should understand how pivotal their relationship with the Dwarves need be, considering half of them fought under the shadow of the Cromwells. Likewise, park the Fabricators in the middle of the street. Tell our bearded friends to dig out a moat if they have to. We can't have these protestors coming into the IoDNRP and getting slapped down by the Arbiters. If they refuse to be cowed, direct them towards Millwall. Yossari's folk had clearance for two Rocksmashers, correct? Have the War Golems guard the chokepoint, Stone Shape the damn concrete into an impassable maze if you must. Record everything and hold the line even if they throw the first stone. We'll rebuild once it's all over."
"Right, I'll get that sorted," Walken replied. "Any advice for your companions?"
"Get Richard and Petra to keep an eye out for agent provocateurs," Gwen gave the order. "Charlene says there's bound to be agitators in and among the frustrated folk—" She paused. "And tell Richard to exercise complete discreteness in his fact-finding."
"Will do." The Message Glyph died.
"You have a good team," Charlene observed with appreciation. "A Magister is never himself, but a collective. I have companions as well, though most were hand-picked for me by Father."
"My folks have been through a lot since Sydney," Gwen vaguely explained. "What's your take on this?"
"Well." The heiress to the Ravenport Fund strolled around Dede with a learned eye. "I think you're bound to receive a visit soon. As am I, in fact, so I came here to save us both some time."
"A visit?" Gwen cocked her head. "From?"
"From our mutual friends behind the Barlow Group." Charlene's eyes grew hard as peach pits. "I still doubt that they're committing to the wholesale denial of the Veteran's Pension, meaning there's bound to be a play happening very soon. Have you had tea? Shall we wait a while to see if my prophecy comes true?"
Gwen stood from Dede's lap. "Sure. Dede, you up for tea?"
"CAW—!" The crow professed its desire to join them.
Charlene stared at the crow with disapproval.
The crow did not appear to give a toss about its boss' daughter.
"I'll ask my guest from Shalkar to join us." Gwen watched Charlene's interactions with the crow with interest. "Have you met Strun, Lady Ravenport? He's a self-professed refugee rat, but once you get to experience his tack-sharp mind, the bloke's an absolute hoot—"
The Glyphs that blossomed was red.
"Gwen here." Gwen took the emergency call. This time, it was from Dominic Lorenzo.
"Boss, we've got a Garp-sized problem," her Chief Editor's voice came through. "It's our NoMs."
"Our NoMs?" Gwen looked to Charlene, who looked back with just as much uncertainty as herself. "What about them?"
"Before I say anything, stay calm." Dominic's reply sent chills up her spine. "Are you calm?"
"I am calm."
"Right." Dominic continued. "Gwen, there are folk attacking our paper handlers, accusing them of taking their jobs and working for the b—for you! Do you remember Ken Peterson?"
"... The bloke from the train?" Gwen recalled the man's terrified face with a sinking feeling.
"Yeah." Lorenzo's voice grew low. "We received him at Elvia's Clinic with extensive injuries. If it wasn't for a sympathetic Cleric who stopped the mob on the train..."
"Alright." Gwen's reply was calm indeed. Calm enough to charge the air with fizzling static. "Hold the fort, Dom. I'll be right there."