Elvia's Clinic and Soup Kitchen for the Poor Believers of Christ, "Evee's" for short, was renowned across the docklands from Hackney to East Ham. According to the word on the Thames, it was the place to bum if a man or woman was down on their luck. Be they hungry, destitute or desperate; all were welcome at Elvia's.
Without disappointment, such generosity attracted abuse as naturally as gadflies were drawn to an Auroch's arse. Once the news of its fulfilling free food drifted downstream, all manners of vagabonds had floated from the outskirt slums toward the Isle of Dogs. At first, the locals rose with homemade implements to keep order and protect their "Saint Evee". After an altercation with a gruff Mage broke out, Gwen had invited a private security firm to patrol the perimeter. Coincidentally, the same corporation also hired ex-Arbitrators from the retired Municipal Police ranks, thereby supplying law and order to Elvia's open-handed generosity.
When she stepped once more into the courtyard, Gwen thanked the Nazarene that she had made such a foresightful decision, for the moment she arrived at Elvia's Clinic, already a dozen officers were interviewing victims and taking records of the injuries sustained by West Ferry Print Work's paper handlers.
Other members of their little cabal were likewise present, including Lorenzo and a few of the Dwarves. Walken was missing, likely putting out fires elsewhere that would later arrive at Gwen's desk in the form of documents needing signatures and acknowledgements.
"Sergeant Rhodes, McMahon." Her heels announced her approach.
The officers turned. One was a stout man that looked right out of Blue Heelers; the other was a younger bloke more interested in her than in his investigation.
"Please, just Gwen." Gwen shook their hands, then stood closer to the gurney where the NoM slept. "How's our man?"
"He'll heal." Sergeant Rhodes breathed through his mouth. "They weren't going to kill him anyway. That said, this was intimidation through and through."
The man on the gurney was "Ken Peterson, Son of Peter Peterson of Unit 11, District 2, Bugsby's Way, Greenwich," better known as the bloke on the cover of the METRO to his friends and family. She vaguely recalled the man's name but recognised his face— or what had been his face before the brutal beating had given him a new one.
While Gwen soothed her tempestuous feelings into a semblance of calm, the officers studied the woman behind her with wary distance until the visage appeared to match the list of VIPs in their bank of notable personages.
"Your Ladyship Ravenport!" The Arbitrators bowed their backs.
"I am here as a guest and an observer." Charlene Ravenport raised a hand to stop the officers from offering bothersome platitudes. "Please, Sergeant, assume that I am not here and go about your business."
"At once, your Ladyship!"
The amusing sight of the officers obeying and actually "pretending" that Charlene was no longer present managed to cool a little bit of Gwen's bubbling anger. From what she could see, a copper working alongside nobles and Magisters required a particular class of social awareness.
"Ken?" She approached the bed.
One of the Clerics Elvia hired from the local hospitals jolted the man with a carefully transfused mote of Positive Energy. Slowly, Ken's eyes fluttered open.
"Yes, it is I." Gwen held the man's hand. "Can you tell me what happened?"
"The cost of… fame." Ken managed to squeeze out a smile. "Your Devourership, I lost… I lost the box."
"The box?" Gwen looked to Lorenzo, wondering what was so important about this box.
"They destroyed his storage box." Lorenzo exhaled in exasperation. "It's not just a warning to you, but us as well, and to the NoMs working for us. They could have killed Ken with impunity so that you know, and I think your reputation prevented that—no one wants a Shoggoth to manifest on top of their mansion one day."
"Who did this?" Gwen looked back to Ken. "Ken, do you know?"
"Mages—from the Barlow Group!" Ken Peterson was adamant. "I know their faces! They're always loitering near Canary, the lot of them. They came into our neighbourhood to try and intimidate us into selling our leases! We wouldn't budge, but they dared not attack us there in our homes on account of Master Richard waiting for them outside."
Or waiting for them inside their homes, Gwen figured. Sometimes, it took unconventional methods to deal with particular methodologies. Even so, what had changed to precipitate this specific shift in scope and strategy from the Barlow Group? The answer she could guess, though she wasn't sure if her partner would agree.
Behind her, Charlene audibly drew her attention with a soft cough.
"You're right. I think we both know what's happening here," Charlene spoke as if reading her mind. "It doesn't take a Cabal Agent to figure out that the catalyst was our equity exchange. You and I are now in an unassailable position—at least one not movable by the Barlow Group. Ergo, the Militants have decided to move everything at their disposal to salvage the situation."
"They won't win!" Ken Peterson spat specks of blood from a mouth swollen with bruising. It was a miracle that after all that, the Brit had kept all of his teeth. "They won't—will they? Bastards! We have it good here, and that's too much for them!"
Gwen assured the man by patting his hand once more. This time, her compassion was genuine and heartfelt, much like her guilt for putting the man in the limelight to be targeted by petty revenge. If Ken had died and not merely be injured—or if Ken had been a Mage and his Astral Body disrupted or damaged—her feelings right now would be a storm of rage only conceivable by Golos and Ruxin.
Not to miss the chance, Dominic took another image, ensuring that her compatriot Ravenport was also in the frame. Charlene did not protest, attesting to the fact that their interests were indeed mutual.
"And there are others?" Gwen asked the attending physician.
"Yes, dozens, albeit in lesser states of trauma." the Cleric parted from Ken's bed to steer them elsewhere. The officers stayed with the now lucid Ken Peters while Gwen and the management team at the Print Works ventured to the other beds.
The other workers were indeed better off, even if roughly-rolled and in a state of shellshock. Some apologised for losing their devices; most were fearful they would lose their jobs, while a few carefully asked if they could switch to a different position.
Gwen bit her lip.
Whatever the case, she could sense the damage was done. Confidence in the company's ability to protect its NoMs was faltering, and those in less desperate situations would no longer think that the West Ferry Press was a safe Eden.
While she mulled over her next course of action, a Message Spell bloomed beside Charlene's ear. The daughter of the Duke gave her a knowing nod, then left the Clinic's compound to take the call. While the woman was gone, Gwen walked from bed to bed, reassuring her workers and fomenting a speech, wondering whether this world's Churchill had any rhetoric to lend. Newly injured workers from further afield continued to arrive now and then, both a testament to the success and scale of the METRO Press, as well as the effort to which the Militants were asserting their dominance.
Looking at the flustered Arbiters milling about the place, Gwen couldn't help but wonder if there was a power up-on-high that was looking down on them. The Crown, well nestled behind its Griffins and gold-wrought gates, was probably as giddy as a kid watching the bees fight the hornets, breathless as it waved its sceptre-stick, waiting to poke fun at the losers.
For what other reason, Gwen rationalised, should Charlene be caught flat-footed? It wasn't easy to believe her father Duke could be waylaid as she had. Likewise, the Ravenport family cared, above all else, about their reputation. If their venture failed to achieve the lofty heights promised by the METRO and over-blown by the Sun and the Telegraph, then the Duke's perchance for faultless schemes would lose its lustre. In a sense, London was a nest of Dragons, and the city's competition, Gwen supposed, was something akin to a Magister-making "Gu" pot.
A few minutes later, Charlene returned to her side with a knowing expression that suggested the next stage of Barlow's ploy had arrived as she had anticipated.
"Gwen." She willed the glowing Message toward her so that her Device made a resonating "Ding!"
Gwen took the Message, not entirely sure what to expect.
"Our Dearest Magus Song." The Message possessed a familiar voice. "We have missed you so much since Cliveden and have since been watching your performance with bated breath. As your friend and admirer, House Exeter cordially invites you to the negotiating table with the Barlow Group so that diplomacy can be achieved, one that is mutually beneficial to you, us, and our dearly cherished Charlene. A meeting has been arranged as noted. Meanwhile, we wish you all the luck in dealing with your woes.
—Your ardent fans in waiting, Edward Poins and Benedict Thomas of House Holland."
"… the Exeters?" Gwen recalled her lesson from Le Guevel. "They want to help us negotiate with the Barlow Group?"
Charlene nodded, then pointed in the direction of the Bunker. "I do hope this is the light at the end of the tunnel. In that regard, may we speak more privately?"
"Of course, give me one second." Gwen motioned for Lorenzo, who attended her at once.
"Yes, Boss?" The Chief Editor and presumably Ex-Cabal agent did not look amused by the state of his precious news sellers. "Your orders?"
"We'll make this right. Anyone injured can submit a verified Arbitrator's report to receive one months' wage, doubled, HDM-in-hand. For everyone else, one-week bonus wage. Additionally, tell the kitchen their budget is tripled for the next month. I want all the workers well-nourished and happy. Likewise, for anyone who is living in our properties or leaseholds, give them one month rent." She paused, looked at the envious faces of the Arbiters whistling at the smiling labourers, then once more upped the ante. "Put out a bounty with the Tower for the criminals who did this, set the cap at forty thousand HDMs and take it from my private account. Make it preferentially open to our local Arbiters and work with the inner-city Metropolitan Office to verify their capture. As soon as possible, I want their faces and confessions on the next edition of METRO."
"Great move and I'll write up something in defence of our NoM employees," Lorenzo affirmed her order. "Anything else?"
"Tell the Runesmiths and Engineseers we've got trouble coming—possibly an enormous protest and a potential riot. Walken will coordinate the Bunker's movements with theirs so that we can minimise loss of life if they're forced to 'defend their property' against unlawful citizens seeking to loot the sovereign Magi-tech property of our allies. Once Richard's back, get him and Lea on recording duty."
Lorenzo took his orders and left.
"Alright, let's go." Gwen pointed the way to the Bunker so that Charlene could follow. "So, what do you think the Exeters want?"
"The answer is straightforward enough, even if it is not to either of our likings." Now that they were walking alone, Charlene grimaced as though she had to swallow a live hornet. "You do know what the Exeters want— and it's you—and I."
Gwen cocked her chin with a scowl. "They're after our funds? Bastards! That's my money! I made the Isle of Dogs from nothing! And it took you years to gain the Duke's confidence."
"There's that," Charlene responded to her intensity with a strange look. "That's not what I meant." She raised a brow. "Do you need me to spell it out for you? We are in London, here, in the heart of the Mageocracy, the veins of the aristocracy bleed a bright blue."
Further down the quay, realisation dawned upon Gwen like rotten soil dug out from the swampland surrounding Mudchute Farm.
"They want to… marry me?" Gwen almost gagged at the prospect.
Charlene's brows twitched. "ONE of them wants to marry you, although I'd wager both would want to have their bit of fun. Think about it, Gwen—what do you think is the perfect resolution to our conflict of interest with the Barlow Group? What would resolve all of our problems and emerge in a way that all of us become winners?"
"Christ…" Gwen searched her mind for a better way of expressing herself but fell to an old faithful expression of bewilderment from Forrestville. "Fuck me, are you serious?"
"Indeed, that would be a part of the deal." Charlene illustrated suggestively with her fingers while wearing a secret smile. "Thoughts? Which one do you fancy? Poins or Benedict?"
"No fucking way!" Gwen growled at her recollection of a grey-haired young man with his carrot-top brother, then groaned as the rational part of her mind put a stopper to her outrage.
Whatever her feelings, Charlene made a sensible case.
Matrimony among the nobility was never about love or even physical attraction. Instead, it was about the compatibility of Elemental Affinity, wealth, class, and prospects. Right now, the IoDNC was at war with the Barlow Group and the Militants. Classically, the most natural way to resolve the problem was through marriage—not of young bodies—but wealth and interests. Then, if they could make love and not war, new wonders would engender.
Terrifyingly, now that Gwen knew the rules, the prospect was indeed enticing. According to Le Guevel, what belonged to her would remain hers alone as a part of her dowry and insurance. Concurrently, the Exeters would lose an enemy and gain an ally. The conjoining of the Barlow properties with the IoDNC would also resolve all major land disputes and pave the way for the most significant urban development in recent history.
If that alone were not enough to catalyse a political and economic marriage, she could also consider that House Holland, with its golden lineage of Henry of Monmouth, would make her children distant heir to the Throne of England. Furthermore, her bloodline of Lightning and Void would mix with the Exeter's Smoke and Steam to create genuinely astounding heirs who could be the envy of the world.
Logically, was there a reason to refuse?
Of course, she would never entertain the matter under normal circumstances. Of the four above, she lacked nothing, and when she came into possession of her Tower, there would only be an excess. Besides, Evee would be sad.
If so, what could compel the Exeters into possessing such confidence? The answer, Gwen found with some distress, was in Ken Peterson.
"Are you implying." Gwen turned to Charlene; the more she thought about this, the more she wanted to murder something. "That all of this—the articles, the attack on the NoMs—the drama with the Veteran's Pension Fund—all of it was for me?"
Charlene tilted her head at Gwen's accusation, her eyes twin slits of scepticism. "Gwen, your ego is as legendary as your exploits. Do you think I am not caught up in this as well?"
"They're out to fuck you too?" Gwen blurted out, a flicker of spit narrowly missing her conversation partner.
Charlene winced. "Please, Gwen, I know we're comfortable in each other's company, but I assure you I am not as comfortable as you might assume. We are business partners, compatriots, companions, perhaps, but we are not close enough to share bodily fluids or casual vulgarity, which is worse."
Gwen stood a distance apart and studied the girl, her mind alive with new suspicions that her partner was playing chess in a dimension that she could not access. "Tell me truly, did you plan this? If so, what do you want?"
The daughter of Mycroft Ravenport raised both hands in surrender. "I deny nothing, but don't accuse me of ploys I did not put in to place. I merely went with the flow of events. Schemes, Gwen—are not so simple as business deals. A supplier of ploys should be fluid. A good plot flows around the events, not become the event itself. My father taught me that."
"Your Father's a Duke," Gwen reminded her. "My father was sowing seeds in NoM single mothers while fighting my actual hellion of a mother."
For once, Charlene appeared taken aback by Gwen's briskness. "What? Despicable! No footman to cover his tracks and take the blame for his bastards?"
"Maybe he IS the footman, you thought about that?"
Unable to control her laughter, Charlene halted her then and there, waited for the awkwardness to pass, then returned to their former, more profitable topic. "I shall confess that yes—I do have some knowledge of the Exeter's plans. However, I am not a partner to said plans. In reality, I wish the two of us would remain as unattached and disconnected from the gentry as possible. As father already has Quinn to continue the line, the reins around my neck have been loosened, and I may pursue whatever I wish, be it politics or blood."
"What does this have to do with the Exeters?"
"Is it so hard?" Charlene asked. "To believe that the Exeters have you and me in their sights? They are twins, after all, and London's laws do not allow one woman to have two husbands. Besides, is my share of the Norfolk Fund not many times the worth of your ownership of the IoDNC? Are we not both women carrying distinct and desirable bloodlines?"
Gwen made a scowling face. "The cheap bastards!"
"That's God's truth." Charlene laughed. "What a ploy, though, hmm? They put pressure on our respective investments, then offer a greasy olive branch. Of course, there's merit as well. The blood that flows in the veins of House Holland is sacred without question. If our children—disgusting a concept as that may be—should yet engender a second Henry Dawn Star, who knows what the Mageocracy might look like in the next century. Likewise, you don't need me to tell you of what the marriage can produce, both economically and in terms of London's political scene."
"Either way, I see it as a poisoned apple—" Gwen shook her head with absolute adamance. The more she thought of the bastards' smug faces, the more she felt that a stern point must be made to leave her and her investments well alone. If the Exeters wanted to push the envelope in this dire time, she would return their Message to the sender in the cruellest terms. "I only trust in my future, carved with my hands. Besides, I know you, Charlene—you and I— we don't marry Tower Masters. WE ARE the Tower Masters."
"Well then." The self-professed schemer extended a hand. "Shall we teach them a lesson? I don't think it will salvage the situation here at the Print Works, but it should keep undesirables from interfering with an already complicated situation."
Gwen took the dainty, aristocratic hand and firmly shook the potential Duchess' palm. "I am sold. So what's the plan?"
"Well." The Ravenport girl's cold, hard eyes glimmered like black diamonds. "I hear, Gwen, that you're awfully good at duels..."
The Isle of Dogs.
The Veterans' protest promised at West Ferry materialised two days later in a manner as infuriating as it was futile.
Around the fortifications the Dwarves had set up overnight, just over two thousand men and women gathered, excluding their friends and family. Likewise, joining the march via resonating sympathy or boredom were another thousand or more spectators caught up by the riotous atmosphere. Annoyingly, most of the protesters wore the colours of the union jack, adding to the impression of legitimacy, dissuading onlookers from thinking that this was merely a rioting mob.
They were also organised, for just past Canary Wharf, near the inner dock, the protesters held up well-made signs, placards and banners made for a headline-worthy spectacle.
"GIVE BACK OUR FUTURE"
"DON'T DEVOUR OUR LIVELIHOODS"
From the Bunker, Magister Eric Walken stood over a battle map reconstruction of the protest, wishing with all his might that these were Mermen and that all he needed to resolve the matter was to unleash Gwen for fifteen minutes.
"Those are some nice looking signage," his War Mage boss remarked. "Funny how a bunch of poor, penniless Veterans have access to industrial printing machines."
"It would be funnier if we could trace those signs back to the warehouses where the Sun or the Telegraph prints their papers." His new Duchess von Boss, the daughter of Duke Ravenport, snickered in turn.
The banter between the girls made Walken's temple throb.
For several hours now, they had been monitoring the protest. Charlene was confident that there should be agent provocateurs working among the Veterans. Merely from the fact that bystanders and family members had shown in force, he could already imagine the political fall should the elderly or the young be injured.
Besides the trio and their scribes, several open channels of Message hovered, each in their distinct Divination spheres. One was to Petra, who was using her hidden talents in the field to canvas the protesters. Thanks to his unique Spiritual talents, Richard remained invisible and hidden above the crowd, keeping an eye out on the Sun and the Telegraph reporters, or at least those wearing their press badges. Finally, the dubious shadows of Strun, Dede and Mori lingered atop a construction crane, watching the events unfold with interest.
To ensure that no betray came from their side, Walken withdrew all their Print Work's workers from the front line in favour of Dwarven engines. Usually, this would incur severe penalties from the Municipal office, though the political fallout should hopefully be absolvable with Charlene onboard.
"Christ, next week can't come soon enough." Gwen appeared to split her attention between the vista outside the boardroom window and the illusory markers on the enormous table. "Are you sure the Exeters can put a stop to this?"
"Nothing on earth is going to return their pensions unless the Militants can return to profitability and repay their debts," Charlene assured the girl. "But yes, they absolutely can stop this nonsense."
Walken looked from one girl to the next, feeling distinctly old in his late age.
"If you lose," he warned the girls. "You would have to marry either of them."
"If I fail, I may as well be dead." Gwen grinned prettily, her fatalism as morbid as it was sardonic. "So, how could I lose?"
Walken nodded in silence.
To the Exeters, Gwen was game, and Charlene was a worthier prize. However, against a self-made woman who would fight as though her life hung in the balance, how could the Exeters hope to win unless they were also willing to put their life on the line?
In Walken's eyes, the riposte from the girls was a masterstroke in hitting your foes where they were most vulnerable while avoiding their strengths.
In the reply sent to the invitation from the Exeters, both of the girls stood firm in their position that they would not allow themselves to be wooed by knock-kneed Mages too afraid to make genuine proposals without the threat of coercion.
However, they were amiable to negotiations and would prefer to meet the Exeters on neutral ground, such as the Royal Goring Hotel directly opposite the Buckingham compound. Within, in a private suite joined by a few press members, Song, Ravenport and Holland could openly carve out the conditions necessary to meet the Barlow Group in the middle and put an end to this fiasco.
Perhaps thinking of success, the Hollands agreed.
In reality, Gwen would take Le Guevel's lessons and strike the Exeters between the legs, where their honour lay by asking for a public duel. Such a development was unorthodox, but it wasn't every day that an heiress was also a Class VI War Mage.
To further entice the men, Charlene would offer confidence by offering herself as assurance that she and Gwen would follow through with specific promises should the Exeters be victorious. Of course, if Gwen and herself were the winners, they would ask the Exeters for a favour.
To refuse the offer in public would bring such scandal and shame to the Militant Faction that the twins need not raise their heads for a decade—an outcome that suited Charlene just fine, as she could finally cease responding to the continuous requests for marriage from undesirable partners. As for Gwen, the duel's outcome would firmly establish her position among the nobility and catalyse an optimal end to the IoDNC's protest problems.
As for the planned spectacle—the scions of a Great House matching up against the Devourer of Shenyang in public would dominate every headline and put a stopper to the daily "bad news" spewed forth by The Telegraph.
Once more studying the two ambitious young women, Walken thought about retirement.
In many ways, he felt distinctly sorry for House Holland, who would undoubtedly underestimate Gwen's growth after Shalkar and be woefully incapable of understanding the sheer grit needed for Gwen to be standing in her present position.
As for the protest.
He felt only sadness for the ruined lives of the men and women below, each a red-blooded personage and yet, not even worthy of being a chess piece in the hands of the city's future twin Magisters.