The Royal Goring, located opposite Buckingham Palace, was famous for its regular hostings of Royal Galas and high-class functions. To date, it also remained the only hotel owned by the founders' direct line, having been built by Otto von Goring before the outbreak of the Great Undead War and now operated by Otto von Goring the Fourth, Great Grandson of the original proprietor.
What surprised Gwen as she entered was how lovely the place looked despite its low ceiling, cramped space, and busy furnishings that appeared the world's loot collated in an eclectic museum. Conversely, the quirksome decor with its paintings and herringbone tiles gave the suite a strangely welcoming atmosphere, one rich with the Empire's history.
At the lobby, a group of reporters from the Sun, Telegraph and the METRO were already swarming like Mermen around a struck whale. They were entertained by none other than Otto Von Goring the Fourth, who immediately broke from his polite engagement with the press pack to join the austere figures of the Devourer and the Duchess. Together with their METRO reporters, Gwen spotted Richard and Petra, who she deeply suspected had tagged along for the complimentary royal-class High Tea "shouted" by Charlene Ravenport. All the same, she had entertained the notion of bringing Strun and Dede, though Charlene's almond-sized eyes and deathly glare proved rather more dissuasive than her impulse.
They were, after all, here for business, a fact reinforced by their choice to forgo flamboyance.
Gwen's dress, now that she could afford a King-sized bed carved from a block of solid HDM crystal—was subfusc French-chic in black chiffon, adorned with aggressive ivory collars and cuffs that gave her the air of a domineering mistress. The designer was one of the dozen ambitious NoM graduates Gwen had on-call, and for the occasion, the young man had not disappointed.
Comparatively, her partner took the seriousness a step further, showing up in crow-skin, four-inch heels that added to her bird-like visage, completed with a cubic jacket and tapered, stiffly-starched ankle-length suit-pants.
Together, the clicking of their heels on the marble tiles communicated without ambiguity that they were witches of the same cabal—and that the scions of House Holland who awaited within would be enjoying a rather unpleasant surprise.
"Magus Song. And our dear Lady Ravenport!" Gwen stood aside while the general manager exchanged personal greetings with Charlene.
Once their cheek to cheek was over, Otto bowed from the waist and mock-kissed Gwen's offered fingers. "What an achievement in the Elemental Sea, Magus Song. You have been burdened with the affairs of our state unfairly, Milady. I do hope you are taking care of yourself."
"I am, thank you." Gwen received the man with politeness.
"Otto's father spent a while serving Grandfather as his second," Charlene clarified the position Otto held. "He's like an uncle to me."
"You are too kind, Lady Ravenport," The proprietor cut short his genteel address to shake Gwen's hand. "To think the cherished girl-child of yesteryear is now London's bluest rose, one whose bloom puts this old man to shame."
"Well, it's good to know we're on home ground." Gwen withdrew from Otto. "Sir Goring, where are the Hollands?"
"Inside." The man nodded in the direction of the garden suite. "I've set up the press gallery in the drawing-room adjoining the garden tea room. Our young lord Exeters are awaiting your arrival and has been for about thirty minutes."
"Good, at least they know their decorum," Charlene nodded. "We should be glad that they're taking this seriously."
"Well, you did say they only get to marry once—lest they wish to impersonate the infamous wizard Bluebeard," Gwen remarked. True to her words, the influence of the Church of England ensured that officially, there would only be one wife, both in sickness and in health, until death did the pair apart.
Charlene laughed, then asked "Uncle" Otto to steer them toward the objects of their present ploy.
While they followed and was in turn followed by the troop of reporters, Gwen pondered whether the Exeter honestly possessed the miraculous power to dissuade the protesters from the IoDNC's compound. In the last few days, things had indeed reached a boiling point, going so far as to cause her pair of Dwarven Hammer Guards to ride out in their MKII Rock Smashers as a show of force.
For now, the swaying Spellswords had dissuaded the passionate protestors from taking a step further past the barricade. The reasoning, Gwen figured, was that even a Mage-grunt was aware that dying at the hands of Dwarves "defending" their Fabricator Engines was an exercise in futility with no legal recourse for compensation. For both sides, having the lot of them dying would save the Faction money in terms of pensions and validate the Metropolitan Police's promise that a "riot" would draw a response exercised with "great prudence".
Nonetheless, the protesters' passion had proved to be inflamed beyond the scope of diplomacy. Their continued harassment of the Print Works' workers meant that circulation of the METRO was at an all-time low as advertisers deserted them in droves. Worse still, construction of the projects at the Isle of Dogs had ground to a halt due to protestors blocking the transit of garbage trucks and barges, going so far as throwing delivered construction materials into the River Thames.
Gwen had to admit that what was happening was a good strategy for the Barlow Group and their Militant backers. Conversely, the Exeters taking the opportunity to push the envelope was right up her alley, even if it proved an unwelcome Hail Mary. In their bid to shame the Exeters, her greatest regret was that she couldn't invite Ruxin to London to have a friendly chat with the Twins, who would certainly appreciate the time spent under a mythic millstone of living-lightning and Dragon Fear.
Ahead, Otto waved away the footmen and personally opened the doors for them, revealing an empty garden view chamber with a walled-off illusory barrier so that they and the Hollands could have faux privacy.
Within, the Exeter twins awaited under an ornate ceiling with its mural of Grecian bathers, dappled by the light from a row of two-storey French windows. As the girls entered, both rose from their seats.
This time, away from the sordid atmosphere of Cliveden and its seedy history, Gwen saw the men for the first time in their natural habitat.
Edward "Poins" Holland, the Smoke Mage, possessed dusky-platinum hair and charcoal eyes polluted by the purity of his Affinity. He wore the high-cheekbones of his Clan, a protruding, hawkish nose that reminded Gwen of Rowan Atkinson, and sported thin pale lips curled into an expression of frozen sardonicism.
Comparatively, brother carrot-top was a sunnier fellow with fairer skin, a less stooping gait, and though he shared the same face, the Steam Mage appeared less hostile and arrogant. In stark contrast to his twin, Benedict "Thomas" Holland broke into a pleasant grin when his eyes landed on the girls and their choice of garments.
Unlike the girls, the brothers wore matching, three-piece suits suitable for the April weather, with Poins in black and Thomas in light grey. Their ornate vests, comparatively, drew Gwen's eyes toward its embossed heraldry, which were rune-like and interlaced in the manner of fine herringbone, leaving little doubt about the time and effort a Master Enchanter had spent making the vestment.
The foursome met in the middle, framed by a marble arch overlooking enormous bay windows and the garden beyond. Where it not for the sizzling tension in the air, the vision of London's tailored young folks standing shoulder to shoulder would have sent tongue wagging from John o' Groats to South Sea.
Once in position, all four turned to face the press pack.
A flurry of Lumen-recorders exploded, filling the room with light. After this point, the press would reside behind the illusory curtain, giving the speakers relative privacy.
Otto directed the dazzling pairs to the window seat, where already, he had set up three-tier tea sets, each positioned meticulously in front of a flurry of antique silverware from the epoch of Victoria.
Feeling the pressure of the men's searching eyes, Gwen turned her gaze directly to the twins who she hoped would meet her in the middle, ideally in an arena.
The company of youths studied one another for a full minute, searching for a kink in their irrespective armours.
"Your IoDNC," Poins began with undisguised displeasure. "It really is the most damaging thing to come to London since the Red Dragon."
"Poins!" Thomas shot his brother a disapproving glance. "Be nice."
Gwen looked from one face to the other, both identical but for their in-built colour scheme. From the looks of it, they were playing good and bad cop, just as she and Charlene were bitch and bitchier.
Charlene motioned for Otto to pour her tea through a silver sieve to remove the sediments. Presumably, a trained butler was to be their man, but the owner had replaced his disappointed employee after becoming overcome by what Gwen read as second-hand fatherly affection.
"Milords Holland," Ravenport's voice was huskier for her two decades as a Dust Mage, a stark contrast to Gwen, who often lowered her voice to suppress her youthful vitality. "The true damage to the Mageocracy is the fiasco at the Niger Delta. When had our glorious estate ever suffered such a resounding loss? Not in recent memory—not since the Elemental Sea. Gwen returned from Shalkar with Demi-human allies. Your men, or so I've heard, returned with a thousand caskets."
The riposte should have come as expected, though Poins' lower lips still grew tight, while Thomas laughed off the matter with a smile. It was an interesting insight into the brothers' dynamic, one in which Gwen fancied a potential divider.
"Speaking of the Elemental Sea." Gwen took over from Charlene, who had set her up beautifully for the boast. "I do believe that particular problem is resolved, at least for a decade, or until drastic changes come to the region. We expect profitability within three months, as soon as the imports clear the port."
"You've done an unbelievable job," Thomas took a swipe by emphasising the "unbelievable" part of his statement. "You mean to tell me you've terraformed the place singlehandedly?"
"Of course not— though thank you for assuming so," Gwen thanked Otto as the man passed her the yearling Darjeeling. "I've had help from ten thousand Rat-folk and Tryfan. Do you know Tryfan, Milord Hollands? Immortal beings holding the secret of Spellcraft? Solana and I are on a first-name basis."
That last part, Gwen amused herself, was genuine because Solana referred to her as "Gwen" on account of her Master.
"Aye. We know of the Hvítálfar's role," Poins interjected with a scowl. "We know of your association with them. When you are a part of House Holland, you should take care of with whom you associate. Of the undesirables, the Hvítálfar count among the few that we forbid."
"When I become a part of Holland?" Gwen raised her chin and extended her elegant neck. "'Forbid?' What a claim, Milord Poins. Tis a curious choker you've placed around my neck. Is that the courtly decorum they teach at London Imperial?"
"Poins has been looking a little too forward to the diplomacy," Thomas chuckled. "I should confess that I was no less eager."
"Grace begins with gratefulness," Poins continued his routine. "Look about you, Gwen. Poins and I, and Lady Ravenport yonder—we are the Mageocracy's future. Yet, you have been invited to join our ranks. As someone from the Frontier, you should know just how rare an opportunity this may be."
Gwen glanced at Charlene, finding her partner's expression unreadable. She supposed that as a matter of breeding, she was the anomaly while Charlene and the Hollands were born on the same stratum.
"Oh, I am no stranger to sharing regal company. I already had the pleasure of Edmund, even back in Sydney." Gwen prodded the trio a little. She rather disliked the idea that Charlene and the twins were werewolves of the same pack. Before they were nobles, Gwen had hoped she and Charlene should be witches of self-made means.
"Ah yes, the untalented twerp." Poins smiled for the first time. "We were good friends, young Edmund and I—weren't we, Thomas?"
"Edmund was a special kind of guy for sure," Thomas laughed as well. "I am sorry, Charlene. I know you did your best."
"I would thank you not to mention my brother again," Charlene sighed at the threesome. "Have you all had enough banter? Our patriarch's world has enough smoke and mirrors to last me a lifetime, so let us of the younger generations be more direct while we still have the time and convenience."
At Charlene's agitation, Gwen regretted her callous mention of Edmund.
"That's fine by me." Poins looked up at Gwen with expectant eyes equally hungry and desirous. "Brother's Affinity is safest when coupled with the Void Mage. Charlene and I should make an equally well-matched pair."
"How practical." Charlene nodded. "Although I heard that you often asked after Gwen. Is there no affection, Milord? No attraction, even? Her popularity on campus remains unrivalled."
Even with foreshadowing and context, Gwen felt shocked by the straightforward nature of Poins' statement and Charlene's rebuttal. Were they merely bitches and bulls? Was this Crofts? The absurdity of what these men considered normal was on par with Swiftian satire. To air her unhappy thoughts, she lavishly jammed a scone with excessive cream, then rudely gestured to the hotel's upper suites.
"Say I agree. Then what?" She spat. "Shall we get a room or do it on the table here? After you finish, those poor protestors better get off of my property!"
All three nobles, with the addition of a shell-shocked Otto, converged on her outrage.
Somewhere, the muted sound of Lumen-recorders going off reminded Gwen that they were being recorded for posterity.
"Milady Song." Thomas coughed to cover his awkwardness. "I applaud your eagerness, but there needs to be more to diplomacy than the horizontal variant."
"Oh, sorry, I forgot we needed a ceremony as well," Gwen said sardonically. "For a minute, I thought Poins was intimating that we're at a Mermen Flesh Market. Shall I summon the accountants and the Magisters then? Time is HDMs, you know?"
More clicking came from the adjourning room.
The twins appeared lost for words.
"Gwen, calm yourself," Charlene stepped in. "Milord Holland, we've convened here today for reasons that need not be profaned—however, need I remind you that we are not here under our own will? You've put us in a compromised position, Milords, and we have this way responded to your invitation. We have attended, but to dance the quadrille is an entirely different matter."
"What do you propose?" Thomas halted his brother from rebutting to Gwen by muttering something about golden blood. "An equity exchange? Our Father is happy to up the ante if your Father obliges."
"First of all, we don't need your money," Gwen spoke before Charlene could continue. "Charlene and I— We ARE money."
"Thank you, Gwen." Charlene shoved a scone onto her plate. "For that perfect revelation. Now, Milords, please listen to our proposal."
"We are listening," Thomas concurred. "Pray, tell."
"I propose a trial of arms," Charlene said. "You are of the Militant Faction and should know the tradition well. Gwen and I wish to organise a Trial by Combat in the same vein as Henry Dawn Star's wooing of Catherine of Argon. If your golden blood of the Plantagenets flows true, you would not deny us, or so I would hope."
Behind the illusory veil, another flurry of Lumen-recorders erupted. By citing their proud ancestor, the twins could not deny her proposal without denying their "golden blood".
"Tis true," Thomas replied after a moment's thought. "I would not and cannot deny you this. A lack of confidence would go against our Credo."
For the moment, Gwen withheld her mockery.
"So you harken for a good whipping?" Poins looked at Gwen with an expression she once recognised in Charlene's brother, possessing equal parts excitement and cruelty. "Will you participate this time?"
"Gwen is an ordained and proven War Mage," Charlene reminded the man. "I would speak with care, Milord, lest she flays you alive in front of all of London."
"Oh, she would, would she?" Poins voice grew gravely as Ravenport's daughter pricked at his pride. He turned to Gwen once more. "Would you like that, my dear?"
"Win or lose—I'll make a man out of you." Gwen thrust forward her best figure by arching her spine and raising her eyes defiantly.
A flurry of lumen recorders shuddered.
Thomas burst into an impolite snicker while his brother floundered at Gwen's teasing outburst. "You're a jewel, Magus Song. There's no doubt about it. Very well— we accept. What are our stakes? Officially and otherwise?"
"If we are defeated in our suit," Charlene continued. "Then Gwen and I shall formally accept your proposals for the union of our Houses. Naturally, we reserve all rights gifted by etiquette and tradition, but we shall concede that you two are capable future spouses and will undertake your offer with complete sincerity. So long as you remain willing, we shall not refuse."
"Maybe I'll have the Void witch after all?" Poins said to his brother. "We do make a passionate pair."
"And should we fare poorly in the arena?" Thomas halted his brother for the fourth time, then continued the parley, demonstrating a composure far exceeding his brother's Affinity-driven frivolity.
"Then House Holland will do its utmost to leave the Barlow Group and its interests, as well as perform a favour in the withdraw of the protests on the Isle by the Militant Faction," Charlene said. "After which, we are happy to conduct business with House Holland if you would have us."
"All risk and no reward," the mocking voice of Poins rose from between them. "Why should we agree to such terms? When we have you by the neck?"
"Bah! What a curious case of a fool and his advantage." Gwen held little patience for such economic illiteracy. "You have anaesthetised our profits, Milord Hollands. But the IoDNC will not be making a loss either way. And there are other means by which the IoDNC's interests can be preserved and West Ferry continued. As the adage goes, don't push your luck when you don't have all the spells memorised. You have far more to lose, while we have only un-materialised gains to be lost. The IoDNC is the tide of change, Poins. Can you stop the tide? Can House Holland will away the ebb and flow of the Thames? What power Holland must wield to hold back the progress of a city!"
"Magus Song." Thomas motioned for Otto to give her more sweeties before she could say something genuinely catastrophic. "Poins, you as well. Please control yourselves."
Charlene assisted by offering Gwen a glimmering fruit tart and a lime-lemon profiterole. "To exercise fairness and tradition, we will use a three-crew bout, as per duelling jousts of old. Gwen will compete herself— and I reserve the right to nominate a champion on my behalf. Milords may have the convenience of either option."
Thomas appeared to consider the matter on his brother's behalf.
"Three-Mage bout?" He looked at Poins, whose thin lips curled. "I see. That is agreeable to us. Where should this take place?"
"May I recommend the All England Duelling Club?" Charlene proposed a very public arena. In Gwen's old world, this was where the Wimbledon Tennis Cup held its matches. In her present London, the All England Club hosted six arena-sized duelling rings and ten individual-match rings. It was the place where the International Duelling Grail, the national sport of the Mageocracy, took place every year.
"Of course," Charlene rejected the American's love of flamboyance out of hand. As she had discussed with Gwen, pre-buffing before the battle was likely not in their favour, considering what House Holland had in its six-century history of conquest. "Elimination?"
"I would vouch for none-other," Thomas agreed with a glint in his eye. "Likewise, if you choose these conditions, then I propose a blind match up."
Gwen likewise favoured elimination rounds. Without incident, she could defeat both Thomas and Poins and end their ambitions once and for all. Comparatively, a round-based bout would imply that either they or the Hollands could use the three-horse strategy to skewer their odds, such as matching Gwen with fodder while they took on Charlene and whoever served as their third member.
Meanwhile, a "blind" match implied that participants, or in this case their third participant, would remain a mystery. Together with the elimination rounds, the setup raised the tension and exponentially increased the bout's entertainment value for the viewing public.
As for who might be their third wheel, that was an additional layer of strategy and complications. If they or the Exeters chose a senior household member, it would draw wrath from the spectators and scorn from the adjudicators, effectively invalidating the victory. If they choose poorly, the choice may offer a complimentary match to one's opponents. Ergo, a pre-ordained condition was to pick someone of the same age and pedigree as the original participants.
What mattered then was the selection of a Mage that countered at least one opponent, such as selecting a high-tier Dust or Earthen Mage to deaden Gwen's Void and Lightning. More creatively, picking a Cleric or a Faith-caster was likewise a viable option to offset the overwhelming popularity of Spellcraft sorcery with Faith Magic.
Finally, an extreme option would be the choice of forgoing number three entirely and simply challenge the Exeters as a duo, or Gwen could choose to solo the threesome.
"Very well. We shall agree on three-Mage bouts. And as I picked elimination as our format, I shall abide by your choice of blind matches," Charlene confirmed the conditions. "To minimise undesirable interferences, shall we set the date? All England has an opening on court number two as early as Saturday, three days from now.
"If you have it all planned out," Thomas leaned back in his chair. "Than as gentlemen, we shall respond in kind. Is Magus Song amiable to the conditions?"
"I am." Gwen inclined her chin. "And you as well?"
"We are," Thomas spoke for his brother. "I assume you have no complaints, Poins?"
"I eagerly await our wedding night." Poins, as advertised, appeared to have a particular obsession with her.
"I am also eager, though for something else entirely," Gwen returned with a smile of her own.
"Then we agree," Thomas turned to the illusory veil. "We shall reconvene on Saturday at the All England Duelling Club. There, we shall show the world what may yet be achieved when history and blood met in Raven and Exeter—"
The man paused to grin at Gwen.
"—additionally garnished, of course, by our flower of the Frontier."