Ragna crouched on the topmost stair. From her position, she could see the Xion siblings. But the spiral design of the staircase prevented them from spotting her.
It was rude to eavesdrop on friends. Especially if it concerned family matters, but if the woman’s words rang true, then she had to do this. Plus, the entire situation smelled fishy. Something was going on between Altera and her family. There was Altera’s earlier behavior. She seemed to be overjoyed seeing him, but that didn’t have to mean anything. What girl didn’t have to learn to hide behind a fake mask?
Ragna held a piece of paper in front of her eyes, her pupils reflecting the drawing of the Hagal rune.
She could only pray that she misinterpreted the situation. But if she didn’t, she could freeze the staircase and impale Geißel before he would notice. It didn't matter that he was the chieftain of Utgard. She would protect Altera from him.
“Adult my ass.” Geißel began to shout, and Altera flinched. “Are you trying to fuck with me?”
“I…I,” Altera tried to say.
“You what?” Geißel slammed his fist against the wall, missing Altera’s face by millimeters. Altera flinched again. Her expression regressed to that of a child. She couldn’t look her brother in the eyes, her hand, she clutched against her chest.
Ragna ground her teeth and held her wrist.
She couldn’t act. Not yet. If she attacked Geißel and turned out to be wrong, the consequences would be severe. After the fiasco with the paladins, Altera would hate her. She had to be sure no other explanation existed. For Altera’s happiness alone, she had to pray that she was wrong. That Altera wasn’t in this messed-up relationship.
“Let me guess what happened. You drank so that I would believe everything was normal. Are you fucking stupid? When do you realize? You’re not normal.”
“Shut up. I can make my own decisions.”
Geißel raised his hand and slapped Altera.
Altera’s eyes widened, and her hand inspected the swollen red spot on her cheek. “Y…you…”
“You fucking idiot,” Geißel shouted. “When do you get it. You can’t. You’re a liability to yourself and everyone else.”
Geißel let out a snicker. “What a great argument. But of course, you would think so. Let me guess. Right now, you feel great. You feel like you could take on even the Kaiser. You just have to take the risk. So, you jump right into danger with no regard to your life.”
“It worked out so far. I made it here.”
“Yeah. And at what cost? What did you sacrifice so far? You thought you could capture Griffin here in Utgard and deal with the consequences of your actions once you had succeeded your Bragi. Guess how that turned out? A real 200-IQ move you did there.”
Altera grumbled, her eyes looking away.
“And this is the easy part. You know fucking well what happens next. If this journey continues, you won’t be able to function. And then, it’ll get worse. Either you explode, or you burn out. And then, you’ll spiral down, and no one will be there for you. Who’ll be on suicide watch? I won’t be there. You think this Ragna brat will help you? Be happy if this self-centered, spoiled girl won’t hate you.”
Altera didn’t let out a word. There was no argument she could make. Nothing, she could say to refute.
“Did you think you could live a normal life? Finally, have some friends? That’s all in your head. Some nice words, a few smiles, and some affectionate gestures were all it took. In your lonely idiocy, you let that serpent bewitch you.”
“I had hoped the academy would drill some sense into you, but guess, that’s too much to ask from Midgard. So, let me get this through your thick head until you fucking understand. You’ll never be normal. You’ll never have friends, and you should never become a Valkyrie. You won’t make it through your journey, and I’ll not allow you to make it through the tower. Tomorrow will be your last day. Once you fail, I’ll keep you here in Utgard until I deem you safe enough to release to the outside world.
Ragna would have attacked once she saw Geißel raising his hand, but someone grabbed her shirt, covered her mouth from behind, and pulled her back to the sleeping room. Ragna struggled to free herself and tried to bite through the hand.
“Easy there. I want to keep my hand,” said Quin and let go.
“What the fuck was that?”
Ragna tried to scream, but Quin had pressed her hand against her lips before any noise could escape her.
“Please,” said Quin. “Just be quiet, and I will explain everything. Believe me, when I tell you, you would only worsen the situation.”
Quin let go of her for a second time, and Ragna took a deep breath.
As much as she wanted to kill Geißel, on the off chance that her impression was wrong, she would listen. It was doubtful he would use the situation to escape. If Quin failed to convince her, she would kill him then. And everyone involved.
“I really hope that this isn’t a ‘Let this stay in the family’ situation.” Ragna lowered her voice to a growl and glared at Quin.
“Yes and no,” said Quin. “You are an outsider and have no right to interfere with the business of other families. Context, past, and situation. What do you know about these? You only possess an outsider’s perspective. It is the duty of every family to resolve internal strife within the confines of the family.”
“To save face, you let others suffer. That’s just sick.”
“To bother the outside world is a great shame and would bring great dishonor. Issues are temporary. Losing face is a stain that marks you forever.”
“Thinking like that allowed Vaix to continue their crimes up until this point. One couldn’t lose face. Sure, we might have lost many lives, but look at how much face we’ve saved. What a joke. I don’t give a fuck about face. I won’t let this abusive asshole of a brother hurt Altera.”
“Then, why did you wait? Why didn’t you intervene the moment you saw Geißel’s behavior?” Even though Ragna had challenged a pillar of Utgardian culture, Quin’s expression did not change.
As if Quin’s smile didn’t conceal her emotions and thoughts enough. Her stoic mask was worse. She couldn’t read her at all. Quin could have the most depraved thoughts, and she had no way of knowing.
“Let me answer that one for you. You were afraid that you could misjudge the situation. For the sake of so-called justice, you risked that Altera’s suffering could continue…no.” Quin shook her head. “It was not even that. You don’t care about Geißel. But you care about Altera. Her reaction scared you. You didn’t want to risk that she could hate you, and that was why you hesitated. Rather would you see her suffer, let injustice continue than let her hate you.”
“That’s ridiculous. I wou-”
Quin raised her hand and silenced Ragna with the same motion.
“You said it is ridiculous. Do you know the meaning of that word?”
What the Hel was she talking about? Who cared about that?
“It means something is deserving or inviting derision or mockery. Something is absurd. You are unable to comprehend its logic, so you devalue and mock it. I discourage that kind of thinking. It is flawed and assumes your logic, your view of the world, is superior to the logic others possess.”
“What are you…?”
“Universal logic doesn’t exist. It requires universal truth, which doesn’t exist either. Within the world you have constructed, it is harmonious. But your logic will often not apply to the actual world. And while logic doesn’t exist, we can create it. And we did. We have created thousands of different logics.”
Why did she start monologuing about some philosophical concepts? For some reason, she reminded her of Grendel, and each word she spoke increased the resemblance.
“For the weak, it is easy. As they live in a society where logic is imposed on them, they don’t have to think. They just adhere to it and follow it. But for us, the strong, it is different. From our understanding of the world, we create our own logic, and then will it into reality, so that others can follow it. That is the privilege of the strong. And if you become stronger, you have to decide which logic you follow.”
“What’s the point of this?”
“What you consider the truth is not universal. What you see as logical may not be for others. And as the strong perceive the world in different lights, they will impose their perceptions onto the world. And onto you. For you, freedom would mean that two plus two equals four. But for me, freedom would allow me to say that two plus two equals five. And not every deviation from your logic is seemingly that easy to spot. Do you understand?”
“You don’t have to understand everything. And right now, I guess it doesn’t matter. But about Geißel, you read the situation wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
Was Quin trying to protect her husband by trying to find excuses?
“I can’t tell you that. Neither Geißel nor Altera wouldn’t want this. Perhaps one day, Altera will tell you.”
“Again. What’s that supposed to mean?”
I have no right to say any more than this. Just trust me when I tell you Geißel is doing this for Altera. Geißel loves his sister. He would never want to bring her pain or misery.”
Ragna narrowed her eyes. “Why should I believe you?”
“You are Linde’s daughter. I would never lie to you.”
Quin’s expression didn’t change. But the light in her eyes – as cliché that sounded – communicated Quin’s sincerity.
She would have to trust her on that one. If Quin was right, then everything was peachy. If she had used a half-truth or a truth that was only true from a certain point of view, then…she couldn’t make Altera’s past better. But once they would get out of Utgard, Altera was outside Geißel’s reach, and she would make sure that he would never get to her friend again. It didn’t matter what Quin said. Some things were just wrong. She would never accept them.
“Good,” said Quin. “Now, let’s go to bed. You have a long day tomorrow and will need every speck of rest you can get. But if you have trouble sleeping…”
“Actually, I could need your help with something.”