Ms. Xion straightened her back, and the three entered the office. In its center, a mahogany desk occupied most space. Shelves filled to the brim with file folders stood on the walls. On the desk lay five smartphones and a notebook, and behind it sat the Mayor of Auster on a leather office chair.
The Mayor raised from his seat and bowed, revealing the window behind him that allowed one to overview the village.
“Welcome, Mr. Donnerschlag,” he said. “And...Ms. Skyfrost.”
Why did he bow? Midgardians don’t greet guests like that.
Rory looked at the Mayor.
His wife performed the same gesture. The longer he stayed in the mead hall, the more un-midardian aspects appeared. She never cared for patriotism, let alone nationalism or chauvinism, but villages tended to exhibit xenophobia. All that differed from what they knew, they deemed evil and worthy of their hatred and fear.
“Quite the modern office you have here, Mayor Xion.”
Mayor Xion sat on his chair, and with a smile, he folded his hands. “I’ve been trying to modernize Auster for the last two decades. Sadly, the villagers resist my attempts with all their might. But I make progress. Three years ago, we adopted a 4G network.”
“How come?” asked Rory. “Most villages can’t even think of concepts like modernization or progress.”
“It’s like with evolution. Those who can fit into changing situations will survive while the unfit go extinct. With global warming transforming Aes into a death trap, it’s our only choice. The winter grows harsher every year, and Auster’s winter already tests the limits of human tenacity. Without modern technology, we won’t survive the next polar night.”
Rory started to laugh. She stared at the Mayor’s face. He had closed his eyes to slits, hiding any emotions his pupil could reveal, and his black beard obscured his mouth.
“Global warming? Polar Night? I’m surprised that you even know these words. Don’t you guys see every weather phenomenon as an act of Twice?”
While the big cities had understood the scientific reasons behind global warming and the polar night, those living far away saw the longest night and the midnight sun as Twice's punishment for mankind’s sins. That global warming intensified the weather proved for them that humanity’s sins increased.
“Well, who says that global warming isn’t a catastrophe, Twice allowed to happen as punishment? What better misery to make us suffer than one of our own design? But I used to sail around the world when I was younger and broadened my knowledge.”
Rory narrowed his eyes, catching every movement of the Mayor’s body no matter how minuscule. “You’re not from here, aren’t you?”
“I actually am,” said the Mayor. “I was born in Auster, but my parents immigrated from Utgard to Midgard and settled here. When I got older, I left the village to make a name for myself. Eventually, I found myself back where I had started. But enough of me. You’re here because of my daughter, is that correct?”
Rory nodded. She walked towards the door and leaned against it. In her field of vision, she could observe the entire office and everyone inside.
“Your daughter, Altera Xion died on her Bragi,” said Rory. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“No…” Mayor Xion opened his eyes, and his face froze.
His wife covered her mouth. She walked backwards, tried to grab a hold with her free hand, and dropped on her knees. Gerard ran to her and helped her up.
The Mayor’s face contorted to a mask of pain and anguish. “How…?”
“She boarded the MS Verne when it got attacked. It’s been 90 days since the attack, and there are still no signs of any survivors.”
“Ma bairne quine.” Tears ran down Ms. Xion's face as she covered her eyes.
“Altera always wanted to be a Valkyrie.” Ms. Xion wiped away her tears and blew into a handkerchief. “She devoured all the books and loved to draw pictures of them.”
“I can’t say that for sure.” Gerard put his hands on top of hers, enveloping them with his warmth. “Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I believe she fought for what she believed was right. I only met her a few times, but I believe Altera doesn’t regret her choices. And if you could ask, she would make the same choices again. Your daughter's a true hero.”
Rory was about to open her mouth, but Gerard looked at her and frowned. She nodded and remained silent.
Fine, she would keep it to herself that Altera had allied herself with Ragna Griffin. She would get her information through other means.
“When Altera was a child, she would seldom smile. She was born with sadness in her heart, and this village made it worse. I love Auster with everything I have, but it destroyed my daughter’s happiness.” Ms. Xion’s voice deepened, and her fingernails ate into Gerard’s knuckles, causing him to flinch. Yet he reaffirmed his grip. “Fatigue and melancholia may have weakened her, but this village hurt her. “
“Hurt her?” Gerard asked.
“Altera was born with white hair and red eyes. She didn’t look like us and even as a child, it was obvious that she would become as beautiful as a goddess. And that scared them. They didn’t believe she was human, but a changeling the fey had switched out. Altera was never good with other people. She was reserved, often sadness and lacked energy. It was different from how the other children acted. And because she was different, these primitive apes tormented her. If Twice ever judged me, I would let them cast me into the depths of Hel to wander for all eternity. I was her mother, yet I allowed this village to hurt her.”
Ms. Xion’s hands shook, and she took a breath. Multiple times she breathed in and out until her hands calmed down and became still. Her lips twisted to a half-smile, her eyes glimmered on the verge of crying again. “But when she finished another Valkyrie story, she would smile and laugh as if there was no tomorrow. She would leave her room more often, and she would talk more. I felt truly connected to her. And for the first time, I didn’t believe I failed as her mother. I could be certain that my baby girl was genuinely happy.”
Rory looked away.
Maybe her plan wasn’t such a great idea after all. How did her mother and father feel raising her and dealing with all the issues she had? She was neither their biological child nor the offspring of one of their friends. Why her parents had decided to adopt a Vaixian infant would elude her forever. Yet, they treated him as an equal to Gerard and supported him through every issue that made him suffer.
“As Altera grew older, her conditions grew worse and her desire to become a Valkyrie stronger. We sent her to the capital to get her away from this village and to help her. And to allow her to chase her dreams. Truth, be told, I didn’t want her to be a Valkyrie and undergo a Bragi.”
“How come?” Rory asked. “Isn’t there a greater privilege in the world than to be a Valkyrie?”
“For her Bragi, she would have to travel to Avalon. Her life would be over.”
Rory looked at her in confusion.
Was there some beef between the Xion family and the kingdom of Avalon?
“If I may ask, what was your daughter like, Ms. Xion? Besides wanting to be a hero?” Gerard asked. He put on a smile and caressed her hand, and in response, Ms. Xion returned the smile.
“At first, you’d think that Altera’s a shy girl. She didn’t like to mingle with others and could be quiet. When things didn’t go her way, she easily got flustered, and often, she lacked the energy to get out of bed. But she had that other side to her. Sometimes, I wondered if she had two souls in her. When she believed in something, she would fight for it, And if Altera set herself a goal, she could focus for a long time to achieve it. My girl never liked to lose, and she hated to share. I remember when we bought her and Geißel a dog. She would never let him have it and protected it with everything she had. Forcing her to let Geißel spend time with the dog was quite a hassle, and when he married, she became furious.”
Ms. Xion chuckled.
“I pity her lovers,” said Rory.
“She was never interested in that stuff.” For the first time, the Mayor spoke. He had sat behind his desk, observing the conversation between his wife and Gerard. “With how the other kids treated her, I couldn’t blame her.”
“Aren’t you the Mayor?” asked Rory. “You should have the power to make them stop.”
The Mayor lowered his eyelids and dropped his shoulders. “It’s easy to think of power as this absolute thing. But that’s only true if you never had any. It takes time for it to solidify. Years even. And one wrong move and everything’s gone. The villagers respected my wife and me, and they respected Geißel. But this gesture didn’t extend to my daughter, who didn’t even resemble us. She was an outcast in behavior and appearance from the beginning. It was lucky enough that I could stop any witch hunts.”
“That sounds like excuses.” Rory crossed her arms.
“You’re probably right. Becoming a father had softened me. I started to care about my people as well, and I lost my edge. The old me would have executed any dissidents. While this would've turned me into a tyrant, for my daughter’s happiness, wouldn’t that be a small price to pay?”
“When news traveled of her entering the Valkyrie program, all their attitudes suddenly changed. She became “wife material”, and the men swarmed the mead hall in masses for her hand.” Ms. Xion’s turned up her nose. Her voice, she filled with bitterness. “They all wanted to fight for her body as if she were a trophy they could win in a tournament. We rejected them all, but they insisted on having a chance.”
“The hammer in the other room,” said Rory. “It’s a contest to determine who’s worthy of her hand. But it’s rigged. No one can lift it because you made it impossible. Perhaps you used superglue or welded it to the ground. Or perhaps…” Rory narrowed his eyes. He took a deep breath. “You used a Fylgja. Perhaps one that affects gravity?”
Neither the Mayor nor her wife reacted to the comment. A few seconds passed until Ms. Xion spoke again. “You seem quite interested. Don’t tell me you want to marry my daughter?”
Rory chuckled. “Sorry, but I don’t fancy women. And he…” He pointed at his brother. “...is too busy being a hero and doing good.”
“Of course, we would never let any of them even near her, but we gave the boys the illusion of choice. Excuse me, but we won’t tell you. Even if you show no interest, we can’t trust your word. Our daughter’s too precious for that.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine. Ms. McWilliams,” said Rory with a smile.
Ms. Xion raised her eyes open. “W...What did you just say?”
“Kelly McWilliams.” Rory moved away from the door and walked towards the desk. She sat on its edge and crossed her legs. “Miss Aes of 961. Smart, compassionate, funny, and one of the most beautiful women to ever grace this planet. Even the Allfather fell for you and proposed for your hand. But on your wedding day, the infamous pirate Blackbeard kidnapped you, and the world never heard of you again.”
“You’re quite the charmer. To call this old lady beautiful.” Ms. Xion composed herself. She let go of Gerard’s hand and answered with a smile.
“It took me a while since it’s been almost 40 years, but you resemble her quite a lot. Sure, you grew older, and you died your mesmerizing red hair. But even age can’t hide the radiance you once emitted. Also, you have the same mole.”
“Just based on that, you believe me to be a former beauty?”
“Not just that. There were other hints. You know, I have a degree in fashion and history. I'm actually a big fan. Read every book and browsed every website. Kelly McWilliams hailed from Auster. Plus, you got the same mole and the same first name. Sure, that could be a coincidence, but that’s not all. Blackbeard coincidentally also hailed from Auster. A pirate born of Utgardian immigrants aiming to rule the world. He was quite infamous for his Fylgja, the gravity controlling “Totalitarian Personalism”. Don’t you think so, too?” Rory leaned with her head behind. “Mister Mayor?”
“Wait.” Gerard looked back and forth between the Mayor and his sister. “You wanna say he’s Blackbeard?”
“I agree with him.” Mr. Xion showed no reaction and stroked his beard. “Just because you Midgardians think all Utgardians look alike doesn’t mean we're the same person.”
“That’s true. But having the same Fylgja, now that’s quite unusual. Almost no Utgardians have a Fylgja. Not only do you hail both from Auster, but you both also have a Fylgja with the ability to control gravity. You set out to sea to claim Platine de Vasseur’s treasure and the title of King of Pirates, and eventually crown yourself ruler of the world. News of your exploits traveled throughout the world. Your crew included some notorious criminals like Raja Dhakkar. And then, you crashed the Allfather’s wedding and kidnapped Kelly McWilliams, and no one heard of you ever again. You became a legend. A ghost, mothers warn their children about.”
“So, let’s say I’m Blackbeard. What do you intend to do? Send me to the gallows?”
Rory laughed. “All those who suffered are long dead. Why should I bend for the justice of the dead? If I took you, this village would die out in the winter. I just wanted to deduct your identity. But if you desire anonymity, perhaps don’t put a statue of the pirate king behind your seat in the mead hall.”
Mayor Xion stood up from his seat, showing no emotions on his face. He turned around and faced the window that let him overview his village.
“Almost everyone who knew me back then is dead,” he said without looking at Rory or Gerard.
“Lee, you don’t have to…” Ms. Xion said.
“It’s fine. If the Allfather desired my death, he would've killed me already. I wished to find Platine de Vasseur’s treasure and rule over the world as Pirate King. For ransom money, I kidnapped Kelly. As it turned out, she never wanted to marry the Allfather.” A snicker escaped his mouth. “At first, we tried to sell her back anyway, but she bullied us into letting her stay on the ship. Before we knew it, we started to like her, and I fell in love.”
“How romantic.” Rory rolled her eyes. “The kidnapper and the kidnapped fall in love and become a couple. What a perfect code for “You need therapy".”
“Make fun of that however you like. But we loved each other, and I was going to make Kelly queen of the world. We traveled for years, but in the end, my ambitions led to a disaster. When we entered the Lost City in search of the treasure, we encountered true horror. And my crew paid the price. Dakkhar, Eustachius, Cavendish, Kelly, and I: We were the only ones left. Cavendish died soon of the misalignment he contracted in that godforsaken place. Eustachius disappeared, and we never heard of him again. He probably died too. And Dakkhar died during the attack on the Verne. My crew’s gone.”
“And with your ambitions destroyed, you returned home and decided to turn this village into your miniature kingdom.”
“We defeated a monster that plagued Auster, and since I was already born here, I easily became Mayor. At first, I wanted to play tyrant for the sake of it. But then, administrating the village, keeping everyone alive and my kingdom functioning, took most of my time. And before I knew it, I started to care for their well-being. I wished to advance and improve the village to respond to the growing climate crisis. Now, I had to accommodate their stagnant minds and make them change. I could have ruled over them and lived to my whims, but what’s the point of accumulating more suffering and death? I wanted to create a paradise for my children. But in the process, I sacrificed my daughter’s happiness. Should I have become a tyrant for Altera’s happiness and sacrificed the village instead?”
No one answered the Mayor’s question. It was silent in his office until he turned around. “And now, if you excuse me, I’ve work to do. Unless you have anything more to say, get out.”
Rory nodded, and together with Gerard, she left the office.
“Hey, I’ve to go to the bathroom really quick,” said Rory. “Could you please wait outside the mead hall?”
Gerard nodded and walked down the staircase.
Rory passed the room with the bachelors trying to win Altera’s hand. She took out her phone and whistled. “All bars. He wasn’t kidding. The connection is good.”
He dialed a number. The phone beeped, and Rory gulped. When the person on the other end picked up, Rory took a deep breath and answered.
“Hello, mama. How are you? No, everything’s fine…I just felt like talking to you...I..” Rory’s voice turned into a whimper, and a blush spread across her face. “I just wanted to talk to you...Mama…! Please, it’s really nothing...Gerard’s fine...I’m sorry, I should’ve called more often...”
“They’re lying,” Rory said once they were outside.
“Are you sure? Gerard asked. “It sounded good to me.”
“Oh, most of it was the truth. To sell it, they had to mix it up. Their regrets were genuine. But when they reacted to Altera’s death, they lied. Miss Xion did a good job and played her part convincingly. Being Miss Aes, she had to have lied for years. But she reacted a bit too fast. She may be good at lying, but I’m a lie smith. There’s no better liar in the world than me. And the Mayor blew it completely.”
“I think you’re reaching.”
Rory shook his head. “I’m not. But more importantly, they accepted her death too fast. If you were Altera’s parent, wouldn’t you be in denial first and do everything in your power to prove that she’s alive?”
Then, there was also the fact that the story of the Mayor’s past revealed their body language further. They hadn’t practiced that, so the Mayor turned into an open book.
“They knew Altera isn’t dead. She’s alive. I will find her and Ragna Griffin.”