To their surprise, the chieftain’s residence was not an opulent castle. Ragna hadn’t expected a building that could rival Gimli in its grandeur. The presidential residency eclipsed most architecture throughout Aes’ history. But a simple house on the city’s outskirts? Admittedly, it was a building made of Orichalcum, and its silver façade glittered in the moonlight like the dance of a million fireflies.
“Not exactly what I had expected,” said Eric. “Would have thought the chieftain would lead a pompous life.”
“Past chieftains used to live in a castle. But Geißel wasn’t a big fan of that.” Nephthys rang the doorbell. “He thought that one shouldn’t live in such excessive luxury. So, he turned the castle into a museum and built this house.”
Yeah, that sounded like someone who shared Altera’s blood.
“It's all smoke and mirrors,” the future Valkyrie said.
Ragna glanced at Altera.
She pulled her hoodie down to her eyes, hiding her white hair. Her head hung from her shoulders, and her fingers sunk into her right arm. Altera's posture had degenerated to a hump, and her face had lost its radiance. She smiled, but only a fool would believe its authenticity. The proud Valkyrie oozing with discipline and self-assurance was gone. A beaten child had replaced her.
Ragna exchanged glances with Eric.
The situation was getting uncomfortable. She didn’t want to come to conclusions and prayed to Twice that there were other reasons for her friend's changed behavior. But if her premonition about Altera’s brother turned true, then she had to kill him, consequences be damned.
The door opened, Altera straightened her back, and before them stood a woman. She wore a garb Ragna had only seen on television. If her memory served her right, people called it a 'kimono'. She had long and straight black hair. Her bangs stopped just above the upper eyelids, and her sidelocks, she had trimmed to cheek and shoulder level. Combined with her pale skin, she resembled the image of Utgardian royalty that fiction liked to project.
“Oh my, is that really you?” The woman smiled, and in the same instance, she had said her words, she hugged Ragna. “My. You have grown into a wonderful woman.”
What was going on? Why was this beauty acting as if she knew her?
Ragna tried to free herself from the woman’s embrace when a metal blade appeared before her eyes. Before it could hit, the woman separated from Ragna, and the weapon hit the air.
What the fuck was that?
Ragna turned around. Altera was flying and had drawn her weapon, pointing the other end of the partisan at them.
As Ragna’s mind connected the dots and grasped what just had happened, her face displayed a mixture of shock and disbelief.
What the fuck? Did Altera try to kill the women? What the fuck was wrong with her?
Altera’s face showed no emotions; her previous discomfort gone. “Excuse us, but we had an excruciating journey,” Altera said in the fakest tone Ragna had ever heard. “We are tired, and the last thing we need is another matter of confusion. So, could you just let us in, Quin?”
Altera closed her eyes and smiled.
“Oh, I’m really sorry.” Quin chuckled. “I didn’t want to make my little sister jealous.”
“I think you didn’t hear me right,” said Altera.
“Oh, don’t be like that.” Quin widened her arms. “You know my arms are always open for you.”
“Huh?” Altera opened her eyes. “Have you finally lost your mind? I don’t – “
But it was too late. Before Altera could have reacted, Quin caught and imprisoned her in a hug.
“Let go of me.” Altera raised her voice by several octaves, turning it into a high-pitched scream as she tried to fight her way out of the hug.
“Don’t be like that. I know you missed your big sis.” Not for even a second did Quin lose her chipper tone.
“Ye vile huir. Lit gang. Ah. Don’t. Need. A. Hug.” Altera’s eyes began to seethe with fire and desire for murder. “Buck. Buck. Buck. Lit me feckin' gang.”
“Hey, say.” Eric turned to Ragna. “How come since I joined you, I’ve only met weirdos.”
“Well, perhaps it is the fool who attracts fools.” Nephthys folded her arms and looked at them with such confidence one would believe she had ventured into a higher plane of existence and achieved enlightenment. “You guys are a strange bunch.”
Ragna and Eric didn’t comment. They came to the unspoken agreement to not run into Nephthys’ bait. Instead, Eric asked Ragna if they should help Altera against what may be an act of harassment.
“You’re probably right,” said Ragna and took a step forward. “Ehm, Miss Quin. Could we perhaps go inside? I am kinda curious about how you know me.”
“Of course, of course.” Quin dropped Altera and turned to Ragna. “Where are my manners? Please, come inside."
“Noo ye listen?” Altera’s eyes twitched.
Quin bowed, gesticulating at the house’s entrance, and the party entered the residence.
“I apologize for earlier. Seeing you grow up just made my heart jump up in joy.” Quin closed the door and bowed again. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Quin Bei Fong. Chieftess of Utgard.”
Seeing someone in a position of high power bow as if it was second nature was weird. Aura bowed, but she was a princess and lacked the formal power the president or other head-of-states had. She was powerful because the world wanted her to be powerful. As long as she remained 'Princess', she depended on the citizens' goodwill. The moment she fell from their grace, she would lose her status and power. Aura had to curtsy, lest she created an image of disrespect and arrogance. But this Quin was the chieftess. She ruled but opened the door and bowed to them, yet her attitude didn't suggest it was fake.
As the so-called ‘dragon princess’, Ragna had met too many members of Midgard’s high society to count. Besides a disdain towards the majority of said high-society or her uncle, she had gained the ability to differentiate fake from genuine humility. Quin didn’t fake her behavior for the pretense of humility or to get in their good graces. Either it was a cultural standard of Utgard that the ‘queen’ bowed, she had a humble personality, or like Aura, had adopted this behavior for the sake of maintaining power. Of course, there was the fourth option that someone forced her to act this way. Hopefully, that wasn’t the case.
“Can I ask how you know me?” Ragna asked.
“Ah, this.” Quin straightened herself and smiled. “I knew your mother.”
That wasn’t an answer she had expected.
Eric took off his hat. “Just another day in our soap opera lives. None of you have terminal cancer by any chance?”
“Nothing too crazy. She worked as my bodyguard around twenty-three years ago. Midgard and Utgard have an exchange program. Every year, we exchange one of our Samurai for one of your Valkyries to improve relations.”
“Did you know that?” Ragna asked Altera, who shook her head.
“And twenty-three years ago, it was your mother’s turn. My father, the previous chieftain, mainly tasked her as my bodyguard. Back then, we still lived in the castle, so my contact with people who weren’t staff was small. And I was only 13. Your mother was technically also paid, but she didn’t have to be careful to say something wrong, like the servants. Linde was just amazing. You won’t believe how much I idolized her. And of course, I was there at your birth. You were so small and cute.”
“So, who is the current Valkyrie here?” Altera asked, bringing an end to Quin’s idolization.
“No one. The last exchange ended about a month ago. We were supposed to get a new Valkyrie, but Midgard wished to delay the exchange after the peace ceremony. And then, the assassination had happened.”
Altera raised her bow. “Who was the Valkyrie?”
“Let me think. It was under Captain Donnerschlag. I remember that…ah right, Rory Skyfrost was the name.”