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Ragna smiled, and Eric clapped his hands. “Ah. And zee plot thickens.”

Fantastic. That was even more evidence against Skyfrost. On its own, it wouldn’t hold water. But with all the other accusations, it increased his guilt. Why would a foreigner forgo the chance to boost his career to attend a Midgardian ceremony? One that was boring to boot?

But she shouldn’t focus solely on him. Even as a Vice-captain, Skyfrost lacked the authority to defy a diplomatic mission. She hadn’t been aware of the relationship between Utgard and Midgard, but the snippets she had caught from her father’s work had taught her that much. Someone with power had to authorize Skyfrost’s request in the first place. And the likeliest person to do so would be…Gerard Donnerschlag. No. She couldn’t just accuse Midgard’s hero of being a traitor. If the public ever started to mistrust him, it would disrupt the Valkyrie system. It would be even worse if he was guilty. That would be a blow as severe as if it turned out that the Trutner siblings were criminals. Or if Twice was not a savior but a monster, the Allfather had to imprison. Midgard’s military could collapse, and Vaix could conquer them without problems. What if that had been their master plan? To disrupt Midgard from the inside so that it would become an easy target?

In that case, should she keep hush and let a criminal evade justice for the greater good? To let go of her chance to clear her name and regain her happiness? How far should she go for her goals and joy in the first place?

No, now was not the time to think about these potentials. She had to concentrate on the steps in front of her. If she got entangled in the bigger picture, she wouldn’t be able to progress. And she had to confirm that Captain Donnerschlag was guilty. If she acted on suspicion alone, she would fuck up.

“Anyway,” said Altera. “Where is Geißel?”

“Your brother will be late. He has to deal with the Synchronizer.”

“What’s that?” Eric asked.

“It’s a big device that makes sure we aren’t out of time,” said Nephthys.

“Say again?”

“It’s a big device that makes sure we aren’t out of time,” said Nephthys.

“I should have been clearer.” Eric sighed. “I want to hear the answer from someone who isn’t a clown.”

“Don’t be sad.” Nephthys smiled with utmost confidence. “I think you aren’t that stupid.”

“How the Hel would you think I am talking about myself?”

Ragna chuckled. Those two seemed to get along well.

“As you know, we are here in the Realm of Mana. We are outside Aes,” said Quin, giving Eric his non-clown answer. “Time flows differently here. A day in our world can be several in Aes.”

“Again?” Eric asked, but immediately he turned to Nephthys, raising his voice. “You shut up. I dare you. I double dare you.”

That silenced even Nephthys.

A different flow of time. Ragna massaged her temple. With all the shit they had to deal with, time had decided to go crazy too? What came next? She had to travel to space? Or the planet’s core?

“It’s not as bad as it sounds. The Synchronizer makes sure that the flow of time is synchronized to Aes. Otherwise, it would be pure chaos.”

“That’s some advanced void theory shit.” Ragna whistled. “As interesting as that sound,” she said in a mocking voice. “I would rather know how Altera’s brother became your husband or the chieftain.”

“Ah, that.” Despite the cheerful tone in her voice, Quin’s face darkened. “Geißel was an exchange student at our university. I was in the same semester but a different subject. We met randomly at a pub 17 years ago. He didn’t know who I was, since he wasn’t from Utgard. It made click, and we decided to go on a few dates. I told him the truth a few dates later, and he didn’t care. We dated further. My parents liked him and decided to make him chieftain so that they could retire in Eren. We married around 13 years ago and met 17 years ago.”

“How romantic.” Ragna cheered.

Wouldn’t that make for an awesome movie? It was a fairy tale come true.

“It wasn’t really.” Altera scoffed. She folded her arms, resembling a girl sulking because her parents gave her a dog instead of a pony. “As you probably know, I am here on behalf of Midgard to bring Drake Griffin into custody. So, tell me where he is. Refusal to cooperate will be seen as transgression against Midgard and treated accordingly.”

“Let’s discuss that once Geißel has returned. He is the chieftain after all.” Despite Altera’s disrespectful attitude, Quin hadn’t lost her smile. “If you want to rest, the bedrooms are upstairs. Otherwise, you can wait in the living room. We still have some hot pot, if that is fine. But first let’s call a doctor. I’ve some suspicion that some of you didn’t get proper treatment.”

֎

A doctor arrived and inspected Ragna, Eric and Altera and ensured that all wounds were properly treated and that there would be no risk of infection. And once he was gone, Quin took them to a tour through the house.

As Ragna had suspected, by the standards of royalty, it was simple. But not by those of the middle class. She wouldn’t call it extravagant, but it was what rich people understood as living a humble life. Instead of 100 Wert for a bottle of wine, they had decided to buy one for fifty Wert. Not that she had any right criticizing the lifestyle of the rich. She loved money, and more than hoarding to turn her Wert into luxury. In that aspect, she was different from her father, who wished to protect his treasures. But what good was a treasure if one couldn’t use it? Hiding in the depths of a cave and sitting atop a pile of gold, only counting it. That sounded romantic as well, but it was archaic and outdated. Protecting one’s treasure differed from keeping it away from the world.

Once they had finished the tour and stuffed their belongings in the guest rooms, they made themselves comfortable in the living room. Quin served them beer, milk, and hotpot. To their surprise, it tasted spicier than the variant they were used to in Midgard. They burned their stomachs and mouths and chucked the milk down as Vaixians would their vodka. Meanwhile, Quin told stories of her past. Mostly about Ragna’s mother.

“And then, she managed to defeat two Samurai, all while wearing that wedding dress.”

“So, what was her Fylgja?” Ragna asked. “Father never told me. Or his, even.”

Quin shrugged. “I have no idea. But her eyes were so beautiful.”

“If yew liked her sho much, why didn’t yew marry her?” Altera slammed her bottle at the table and groaned. A red streak grew on her face, and her words had turned into slurs.

“But then, Hanna wouldn’t exist.” Quin laughed. “She will be delighted to see her auntie here, once she is back from her class trip.”

Ragna looked around. Eric had retreated to the toilet as the hotpot took its vengeance on his stomach, leaving with no option, but to cry and pray to Twice. Nephthys, whom Quin had offered to sleep over for the night, played outside with Kirkyogrim – the family’s dog.

“Ish obvioush yew love her more tan Geishel.”

“I was only twelve,” said Quin. “Twis was mere puppy love. A passing fancy of a prepubescent child. But you would understand if you saw those eyes. They were like sapphires. No wonder ol’ Drake fell head over heels for her.” Quin leaned over the table and reached out with her hand. “Seeing you before my door, it’s as if she was back here.”

Quin’s smile didn’t vanish, but a single tear fell from her eyes on the table.

“I don’t resemble her that much,” said Ragna.

“True. You inherited too much from Drake. But your eyes are your mother’s beautiful eyes.”

Quin caressed Ragna’s cheek. Her black pupils focused on her eyes and intensified. For a second, the thought that Quin was about to kiss her flashed through Ragna’s head.

An ice splinter dashed between the two, and Quin jerked back to her seat.

“Would yew pleash not arash ma french.”

Quin held her hand before her mouth and chuckled. “My, my. Such intensity. I must say, green compliments your red eyes so well. You should show it more often.”

Altera grumbled, and Quin faced Ragna again. “When I heard about her death, I was devastated. It might be over a decade too late, but my condolences for her death. I wish I could have been there for you. But Drake…he was in a bad state…” Quin shook her head. Her smile had vanished. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to badmouth a grieving husband. Your father and I might have our differences, but he didn’t deserve that. I know that we should talk later about him, so let me say this. He is a good man.”

“Thank you.” Trying to hold her tears back, Ragna nodded. She wasn’t close to having closure, but hearing these stories, seeing sides of her parents a child would never witness, it helped.

“And.” Quin continued. “Let me say this to you. I am hundred percent serious now. This is not some half-assed joke or fake pleasantries. It sickens me that those responsible for Linde’s death still roam through this world.” She took Ragna’s hands and pressed hers against them. “If you ever wish to hunt them down, just say a word, and I will support you with all the resources at my disposal. As the chieftess of Utgard, I swear on my honor and my parent’s and great parent’s honor, I will serve you with body and soul if you ever wish to avenge Linde Sieg’s death.”

“Oh, boy. What kind of scene did I walk into?”

Before Ragna could process Quin’s offer, a voice directed their attention to the living room’s door. A man in a business suit leaned against the frame.

Altera’s face lightened up. “Geishel.” She jumped up from her seat and ran to the man, hugging him.

“If I didn’t know better, I would say, Alta is trying to make me jealous.” Quin had seemingly dropped the previous topic and returned to her usual self. “You know. Alta hated that he had married me. She adored him greatly and was devastated when he moved away to live with me. I remember when her family had visited us for the first time after Geißel had decided to stay in Utgard. She tried to attack me.”

“She attacked you?”

“Just imagine. A little girl that could barely reach my waist tried to hit me. It was unbelievably cute. And she tried everything. Bribing me with five Wert, which was all the money she had. Using puppy dog eyes. Making me fall on a chopstick. Convincing Geißel that Utgard was spooked. The list goes on.”

As tempting imagining how cute a little Altera was, Quin’s words explained the animosity between her and Altera. Though, it seemed that Altera had a positive relationship with her brother. That didn’t explain why she was so unwell coming here. Sure, Altera didn’t like Quin, but that was anger and childish spite. Altera’s previous attitude had resembled anxiety. So, what was going on?

Well, there was no use to scramble her head over this. She should observe the situation and then judge.

Seeing this Geißel standing next to his sister, one wouldn’t believe they were siblings. He was one and a half heads smaller than her and had his black hair braided to a businessman’s ponytail. Compared to Altera, his face looked plain. It wasn’t that he was ugly and unremarkable. By normal standards, he looked okay. A seven point five on a good day and a five on a bad day. But Altera didn’t adhere to normal standards. One was a normal man. The other was beautiful enough that other people called her Twice’s gift.

Geißel hugged Altera back. “It’s good to see you again.”

He let go of her and sat next to Quin. “You must be Ragna Griffin, right? I’ve heard so much about you. First off, thank you for trusting my sister. I know about your circumstances.”

He extended his hand, and Ragna accepted. “No problem at all.”

Eric, Nephthys, and the dog returned shortly afterwards, and with everyone gathered, Geißel, ruffling Kyrkyogrim’s fur, spoke. “I know you are here because you want to find Drake Griffin. I won’t beat around the bush. He has already left.”

“What? When did he leave?” Ragna hammered against the table.

Fuck. She was so close. Of course, it wouldn’t go as expected. Why would fate ever be in her favor? Fuck.

Ragna exhaled. She had to calm down. Becoming angry now, especially in a country like Utgard where it seemed that saving face took priority above else, would only disadvantage her.

“He stayed here for two nights and one day, and then left. That was two days ago.”

“Do you know where he went?” Ragna asked.

“Drake requested that I won’t tell you.” Geißel pulled a cigarette from his jacket and lit it up with a fire. “And frankly, I agree. Stop searching for him.” He took a puff and blew the smoke in the air between Altera and Ragna. “You’re not strong enough and will only get yourself killed. As such, I will not allow you to leave until Drake Griffin contacts us again. It must pain you, but your journey ends here.”

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