Ragna removed the VR-glasses from her face and threw them on the ground.
That wasn’t supposed to be part of the scenario.
The glasses slid across the floor and hit the wall. The door opened, and heels clicked across the floor.
“Don’t do that. The equipment is expensive. And don’t swear.”
Ragna turned around. She was staring at her supervisor. Altera Xion was a third-year cadet and had the same face as the woman who had thrown a javelin into her heart.
“Explain your failure.” Altera folded her arms.
“Failure?” Ragna grimaced, but as Altera was a head taller than her, her expression didn’t have the imposing effect she had hoped it would. “Why the fuck were you in that damn tin can? Explain that.”
Altera’s stoic expression remained. “The battlefield is unpredictable. Unlike the Allfather, we cannot see the future. Enemies can surprise you; allies betray you. We have to prepare for every possibility. The script I wrote simulates a possible and realistic battle scenario. And you failed to adjust to the chaos of war.”
“Realistic, my ass.” Ragna tapped her temple. “Your stupid battle scenario was illogical and full of plot holes. Like the whole situation with the girl.”
“And yet you followed her.” Even though her mimic didn’t change, Altera’s voice got lower. “That is your only good attribute. At least you realize that protecting the helpless always takes priority. You are too arrogant and unprofessional. And you massacred the soldiers. This kind of behavior is unacceptable in combat.”
So what?” Ragna shrugged. “They are our enemies. You think they would behave differently? So, why should they deserve better?”
“Still a child, I see.” Altera shook her head.
What was her problem? She had defeated the evil soldiers and looked good while doing it. The issue was the stupid script Altera had written – and that whoever had programmed the simulation had been lazy.
“Frankly”, said Altera. “You rely too much on that gravity manipulator. Vice-Captain Griffin shouldn’t have given you that device. But well, you can’t do anything without your father anyway.”
Ragna clenched her fist and took a deep breath.
“Only an idiot wouldn’t use every treasure inside their fault”, said Ragna with the calmest voice she could make. “But if you are so jealous of my gravity manipulator, why don’t you ask for R&D to reverse engineer it?”
Altera took a step back and looked at Ragna as if she had suggested that Aes wasn’t round but instead a flat disk.
“You know very well that your manipulator can’t be replicated. That thing is a Veixian black box.”
“So, you admit it. Our pretty bird is jealous.”
Before Altera could deny Ragna’s accusation, the door opened again. The two girls turned around and, Ragna’s face lightened up.
“Both of you, that’s enough.”
A tall young man entered the room and walked between Altera and Ragna, separating them.
“Cadet Erikson”, said Altera. “I know that you and Cadet Griffin have a special relationship, but rest assured, the conversation was over anyways. Though one word of advice. It may not concern me, but don’t let interpersonal relationships cloud your judgment.”
Ragna rolled with her eyes.
Of course, she would try to deflect the criticism and change the topic.
“Don’t worry”, said Sven. “You can always trust my judgment.”
“Still. We both have been chosen to become Valkyries. From now on, you have to pay attention to your public appearance and status. And your relationships are a big part of that. If you really need a spouse, take one who actually befits your rank.”
Sven’s rugged face turned red and began to resemble his hair color. “W…We aren’t like that. I…I mean we’re living together, but not together-together. We are just friends.”
Ragna clicked her tongue.
“In that case…” Altera’s red eyes glared at Ragna. “You won’t have to worry about this spoiled brat.”
“Really?” Ragna let out a fake sigh and shook her head. “You of all people lecturing about relationships? Dried up as you are?”
Altera flicked her long teal-white hair. That was another reason the other students believed Twice had blessed Altera and why, like dogs, they worshipped her as the academy’s shooting star. White hair and red eyes were rare traits. Even smaller was the number of people who had both.
Altera exited the room and slammed the door shut.
“Wow, she must be really mad. How did you get under her skin so badly?” Sven asked.
“You are too nice. How can you even be friends with that stuck-up Miss Perfect?”
Sven chuckled. “She has a sweeter side. Once you get to know her better, you can see it too.”
“Yeah, hard pass. I would rather become a criminal than her friend.”
“Anyway, are you ready for the parade? Drake has also invited us to lunch.”
“Huh.” Ragna nodded. “Must be important if Daddy is paying. Let me shower really quick, okay?”
“I will wait for you at the entrance”, said Sven and stretched his arms. His tight shirt didn’t even pretend to hide his well-trained body.
Ragna leaned forward. Standing on her toes, she drew a line with her finger on his cheek. Her lips formed a devious, and she whispered into Sven’s ear. “You know, I will allow you to peek.”
Sven’s face was priceless. Nothing of his roughness was left. So unbelievably cute.
“Just kidding.” She said before Sven could come back to reality – let alone say a word – and left the room.
Ragna closed the door. She pressed her palms against her sternum and smiled.
Sven was always so kind. Having the remaining two years at the academy without him as her senior will be tough. Well, it would be amazing if he becomes a Valkyrie. Then only she would be left, and one day that will happen. The whole family will be Valkyries.
“First, she decided to hold the exam on a holiday. Like, has that girl no life? And then, she designed the scenario to make me fail. It wasn’t even a good one.”
“I mean yeah, holding the exam today was a bit…”, said Sven. “But everything she did was within the parameters of the exam. But really, lately, you’re only talking about her.”
“I wouldn’t be if she were not my supervisor. Why couldn’t I get you? I want a new one.”
“No use in getting angry now. She is graduating anyway. Come. Let’s watch the parade.”
“Fiiiine.” Ragna moved to the raised platform, leaving Sven on the lower part of the street and rested her head on his shoulder.
Stags marched on the streets. Mechanical marvels that towered over the audience. Their silver bodies gleamed in the sun, fragmented the light into its fundamental colors, and in the same instance, reflected them. Their elegant steps created rainbows on the buildings they passed. The masses widened their eyes and let the color games and the robotic animals’ majesty bewitch them. Each stag mounted a rider who sang a hymn. They hailed the glory of Veil, deified the might of the Allfather, honored the sacrifice of Twice, and finally, paid mind to the purpose of the event: the celebration of peace.
Musicians and low-ranking soldiers followed the stags. They had dressed in extravagant colors and evoked the image of a painting’s ever-moving cluster: dazzling blue, winding green, and springing red. They accompanied the singer’s voices with sound, loud, and solemnity. Drums and trumpets harmonized to the tact of their stomps and drilled hype into the spectators’ ears. The civilians cheered and, singing along, followed the parade.
Large jeeps drove over the street. Paintings and statues depicting figures and scenes from myths and legends, and stages decorated them. Dancers danced on them to the music. Perfectly choreographed and mesmerizing, they bore the fruits of months of rigid practices. In scantily clad and pompous white costumes. Flowers in full bloom. Moths wings raving in the fire, drawing the spectators into their evanescent trance. Behind them, more robots, more marching musicians, more dancers, and more stages, until one could see neither beginning nor end.
And in the sky, zeppelins decorated its blue with as many colors as the stags on the ground. The parade had transformed into a melting pot of colors, sounds, and humans, and was far from complete. The sound of chirping and tweeting joined the festival. Doves and corvids flew from all corners of the city. Thousands and thousands of birds beat their wings and turned the sky into a transient black-and-white mosaic. With every passing second mutated the image until it went through enough permutations that the resemblance to the original had stopped.
“They didn’t spare any money for this”, said Ragna.
A crow isolated itself from the swarm and chose Ragna’s hand as a place to roost. As its claws tickled her skin, the urge to pet the bird caught her. Slowly, she moved her free hand to the crow. But as she was able to touch it, the crow decided, it didn’t like Ragna’s hand. It cawed and flew away into new horizons and new adventures. Ragna could only stare after it like the wife of a soldier marching into war – never to return – or the daughter of a father buying a pack of cigarettes.
“What’ya expect?” Sven put a hand on her shoulder. “We are celebrating thousand years of peace after all.”
“Years of peace?” Ragna sneered and turned away from the parade. “As if there will ever be peace. Not as long as these bastards from Vaix live and breathe.”
“Don’t be like that”, said Sven. “We have managed thousand years without any actual wars. That’s something to be proud of.”
“And at what cost? There is still conflict. Otherwise, Vikings wouldn’t exist. We are sent out on missions and conflicts and fight against enemy soldiers. People are still dying.”
Sven sighed. “If you knew you wouldn’t like it, why did you come with me?”
“Cause you like it”, said Ragna and tightened her hold. “Anything is fun if I’m with you. Even this.”
Ragna pointed back at the moving stage, whose dancers reenacted the declaration of the peace treaty.
Thousand years. What a joke. Even someone like her could see behind that façade. How many had lost their lives to Vaix during these so-called years of peace? How many dear faces had disappeared? That Sven could be so optimistic would forever be a mystery to her. Shouldn’t he hate Vaix more than anyone? They took everything from him. Both of them lost too much.
“Didn’t you also say that you would always hate me when Drake brought me in? Remember how often we fought?”
Ragna grinned. “I remember that I always won. You were so small and scrawny back then. And every time you cried and ran to daddy.”
“I didn’t cry.” Sven’s protest was as convincing as the existence of a flying dodo. He moved his palm horizontally from his forehead and stopped when it floated far above Ragna’s head. “And now I’m tall and strong.”
Ragna chuckled and let go of her hold. She skipped towards the ice vendor a few feet behind them and performed a pirouette. “Since you are so tall and adult, you can buy a few scoops for smol little Ragna, right?”
Without wasting a second, Ragna had made her order. Usually, Sven would protest. But at this moment, he just stood frozen and watched after the movements of Ragna’s figure. The parade might captivate everyone else but in Sven’s eyes was the smile of a sweet imp.
“The ceremony will start with a speech of Princess Aurelia”, said Ragna’s father. “After that is the initiation of Cadet Xion. Captain Fran has chosen her and will reveal her Bragi.”
“I hope she fails.” Ragna munched on a slice of her pizza, and with her other hand, shielded her eyes from the sun. It was the middle of July, and temperatures were at an all-time high. As such, they had decided to eat outside the pizzeria ‘Slice and the City’.
Tourists and citizens strolled through the shopping street, enjoyed their sweets, and listened to jazz players who tried to earn a living. The parade had moved on to the remote parts of the city, and at the city center, it was business as usual. The semester for the academies was also almost over as well, so students spent their time outside. That one could enjoy such leisure, showed how well life in Veil was. Not every city allowed its citizens to be happy.
It was a beautiful day. She enjoyed a nice lunch with her loved ones and had a grand future ahead of her. If it weren’t for Altera, her life would be perfect. But, a wise man once said that “Not perfect is good.”. So, some trouble should be fine. Once Altera graduated, she wouldn’t have to see her face again.
“Don’t be like that”, said Sven. “It rarely happens that someone becomes a Valkyrie, and even less before they graduate from the academy, or join the Vikings.”
“That’s true.” Her father agreed. “She is one of a kind.”
“Thank Twice for that”, said Ragna. “But how come you won’t receive your Bragi, Sven?”
“I’m not a fan of the limelight. Would rather do it when it’s quieter.”
“Anyway, Ragna, you are part of Princess Aurelia’s guard”, said her father. “I had to pull some favors and needed Aurelia’s approval, but after her speech is over, you will accompany her everywhere. It will give your future career a boost, as long as you don’t mess up. So, don’t do anything stupid, and listen to the other guards. They are your superiors.”
Being Aura’s bodyguard for the peace ceremony will look great on her resumé. Not to mention eventually, Aura would leave to party at a night club, like she does every year. The public would notice Aura and then wonder who that hot girl next to her was. She will be trending in no time. That plan was perfect. Career, family, and fame – the only direction her life could go was up.
Ragna bit into another slice and grinned like a child in front of their Yule presents. “I can’t wait to see her again.”
“Take this seriously.” Her father sighed and pressed his hand against his face. Straightening his posture, he looked at Sven, who reached out for a slice of pizza, only to see that Ragna had eaten his share. “You are also part of her guard. But you’re positioned outside her chambers. And while she is your priority, I want you to keep an eye on Ragna too.”
“I can protect myself”, said Ragna. “I’m not a child anymore.”
Her father smiled. His eyes shone like gold.
As a child, Ragna had wished, she had inherited her father’s beautiful eyes. But when her mother had died, she began to appreciate her blue eyes. They were an eternal memento that existed as long as she kept walking, and perhaps beyond. Though there were a few moments, where she wished she had at least one eye from each of her parents. But those were fleeting and disappeared as quickly as they came to her mind.
“I know”, said her father. “No matter how strong you are, you will always be my precious daughter. Aurelia may be the princess of Veil, but for me, there is only one princess.”
Covering her smile, Ragna stared at the plate in front of her.
Her father scratched his temple and continued. “To be honest, my biggest wish is to see you two share a beautiful future. And perhaps to be called grandpa one day.”
“Seriously, you’re gonna give me diabetes.” Ragna groaned, still concealing her grin, whereas Sven began to resemble a strawberry. Her father stroked his three O’clock and laughed at the shyness and innocence of the modern man.
“Anyway, since this is a big event, I think we need new clothes. I mean, what would others think?”
Her father’s laughter and joy faded. But his smile remained. “Sure. I mean, your military uniform should be fine.” His golden eyes narrowed and pierced right into Ragna’s soul, ignoring all defenses. “But if you wanna spend money on unnecessary clothes, be my guest. How much money should I lend to you? The interest rate would be…”
“I think I’m fine”, said Ragna. Her face turned as blue as the vision of a man who had taken too many wood-enhancer-pills.
She should have expected that. Asking money from him was a bad idea. When she was twelve, she and Sven had learned this lesson the hard way. They had lent money from him to buy clothes and games. She and Sven had expected that he would turn a blind eye on them. But after they had spent all the money and couldn’t pay it back, he revealed how high the compound interest rate was. It took them one and a half years to work off their debts. When it came to his possessions, her father stopped being human. The ‘dragon hoard’, her father’s comrades used to call their house and the riches inside.
A few hopeless suitors would call her the dragon princess – or damsel. But those desired her only for her beauty or her father’s money and got to meet Sven’s fist. Not that she had needed him, but it was convenient not to deal with every suitor herself. Most of them were annoying, but some were nice, and most importantly, they weren’t entitled – and had enough self-awareness to know that dating, sex, and marrying were different concepts. If she felt there was chemistry, she went out with them. Sadly, Sven was too dense to notice.
The guests had gathered at the ivory banquet hall of Castle Gimli. While they ate from the buffet and drank the finest champagne, the socialites, celebrities, moguls, politicians, and influencers began to chit-chat. They talked about business, celebrities, philosophy, news, scandals, and what other topic was convenient for either profound or shallow discussions. Some preferred to remain in their familiar circles, while others sought out the opportunity to meet new faces and make new connections. And the cameras rolled, catching and broadcasting every passing second of the event.
Starting with the three Trutner siblings, statues of past heroes stood on the hall’s two sides. Next to the statue of Willow Trutner, Ragna checked her outfit.
Even though she was a mere guard, she wished she could look fancy for this evening. The guests might mistake her for décor. In a play, she would be a spear-carrier.
But protecting the princess took priority. For Aura’s sake, she would become furniture. Some of the greatest heroes remained forever anonymous. And it wasn’t like she hated her clothes. She was killing this outfit. Dark boots and a black and white military uniform – skirt, shirt, garter belt, and jacket. She was also sure that the photographer of ‘Viking Brilliance’ had shot her.
If they featured her next to the effigy of Willow Trutner, that would be amazing and open a few doors into stardom. At least a small modeling career should be possible with the fame ‘Viking Brilliance’ could bring her. Afterall, Valkyries weren’t just warriors. They were idols and superstars.
If Willow Trutner were here, she would be proud that another young woman will fulfill her dreams. The majority of Aes’ population revered all three Trutner siblings. Each of them had contributed to the wellbeing of humanity and their progress. While each sibling tended to be the most popular in the kingdom they had founded, she preferred Willow to Odin.
She was the greatest woman in history, and in her opinion, the inspiration behind the Valkyrie’s myths and ideals. Bravery. Honor. Beauty. Compassion. Rules of conduct in combat. Selflessness. Just to name a few qualities. And most of all, she had brought equality to Aes. Color, love, gender. She had ruled all three as equals. While it had taken time for these to catch on outside her kingdoms – with varying degrees of success sadly –, her contribution has improved world.
Without Willow Trutner’s accomplishments, would she have been able to join the military? It was hard to imagine living in a backwater world where society would treat women as inferior. Where they had to fight with everything they had to be on a level, men could access because of their genitals. Were it not for Willow Trutner, Aes might still have been like that.
Ragna’s face focused on the raised platform with the podium, where Aura was going to hold her speech. Behind the podium were seven chairs. Most Captains and Vice-Captains had not come. It was a shame, but Veil’s protectors couldn’t relax even tonight. Even those that attended were on duty to protect President Reillius Adler, who sat on the first seat. She could see Mistel Wylis, Marcus Graswald, and Daphne Fran. Three Captains being here was still great and with the three Vice-Captains that amounted to six Valkyries. Her father sat on one seat. There was one Vice-Captain whose name she didn’t know, but he was under Captain Graswald. And the last one was…Rory Skyfrost.
Why did they allow Skyfrost to attend? Was this a PR stunt? That Veil wanted to show how accepting and open-minded it was? They were in the sacred castle and the gateway Yggdrasil. Allowing aliens inside and letting one sit right behind Aura, went too far. She could understand if Skyfrost was a credit to his people. But he was scum.
Well, looks like nepotism trumps everything.
The side doors opened. All activity ended, and the guests focused on the ethereal woman who walked towards the podium. A tea-green cocktail dress wrapped her figure. Platinum hair reached her back and followed her every step like a curtain. Not one strand of her bangs was out of place. And rings braided the sides. A necklace worth a village hung from her neck.
She projected the amalgamation of a modern, yet both regal and tribal young woman. With her slim body, her elvish face, and sharp silver eyes, it was easy to see why President Adler’s daughter had captivated the hearts of an entire kingdom. Despite his long and successful presidency, it was the princess, everyone would follow until the depths of Hel. Standing before the masses for the entire world to hear, her melodic voice began to speak.
“Good evening. Before I start, I would like to thank everyone for attending this event. Both those present before my eyes and all the viewers online. You all sacrificed your time to listen to my speech. I cannot express just how much that means to me. So, please accept this humble gesture. Thank you, everyone.”
The princess paused to curtsy, and the guests applauded.
“As you all know, today is July 17, 1000 AR. Today, exactly a thousand years have passed since mankind had declared world peace and risen from the ashes of the Great War. These last thousand years have been special. Not just to our kingdom, but for mankind itself. In our eons-long history, has there ever been a period of time, where we could enjoy peace? Man’s history is sullied with death and mayhem, blood, and murder. The old men from the past had once proposed that we have to separate man from machinery, and all war and violence will stop. And if that was impossible, to halt the progress of this relationship. Some might say we should be grateful. But sad as it may be, that is not true. It is convenient for sure to come up with an easy solution to solve our greatest problems.
Take away, all machines, guns, and new technology, and man will grab swords. Take away his sword, and man will use sticks and stones. Take away every stone and stick in the world, and then take every object with the potential to be misused by man, and it still would not result in peace. Man would still wage war against others. Because they look different, because they speak different, because they think different. Whatever the reason, the potential to cause violence and misery is inherent in all of us. We have been cursed since the very beginning. Since we were nothing but infants in our cradle. Perhaps even when life had emerged on Aes billions of years ago. Take away the guns, and we will kill with sticks and stones. Take away these, and we will hurt you with our fists. Take away our fists, and we will bite you. Take away the teeth in our mouth, and we will curse you. Cut out our tongue and we will think of harm. Take away our thoughts, and what is left of us?
It is in our nature as humans to cause violence. Yet this very humanity has accomplished the seemingly impossible: to achieve a thousand-year-long peace. For that is too a hallmark of humanity. We had dreamed of exploring the seas, and thus we sailed across the seas, till the end of the world and found out how Aes is round, a planet with no beginning or end. We had dreamed of the sky, the very domain of the birds and gods. And now look at us, we conquered it. The heavens themselves are under our rule, and we learned that there is only one sky. We dreamed of what lies beyond the ocean’s abyss and beyond the stars. And we’re closer than we have ever been before. We invented a global network of wireless connections and transmission. 1500 years ago, we couldn’t even have thought of such a concept.
Because my beloved people, that is also the nature of mankind. To grasp the impossible. And as such, in face of everything else mankind has accomplished, does the idea of genuine peace sound that silly? Is it really unthinkable for this thousand-year-long peace to last even another minute? After a thousand years, that idea seems old-fashioned, and the cry for blood and war stronger than ever, but it’s especially in times like these, where peace seems more brittle than ever, that humanity has to band together and do what was previously deemed impossible.
And not just us, the people of Veil. Avalon. Utgard. Kemet-Raa. Eren. Vaix. Let us all become a humanity that will allow Aes to function forever and ever. But this shall not be a warning or a mission I have forced upon you. This day shall be a day of celebration. A day of joy and smiles.
As such, I will add another reason to celebrate. Tonight, I am announcing my engagement to Captain Marcus Graswald. I want to thank everyone for listening. May humanity live long and prosper. For this shall forever be the fate of humanity, the fate of our ancestors, the fate of those, yet to be born, and the fate of us, living in the present. Thank you all for listening to my words, and please enjoy the rest of the night.”
At first, the guest stood in silence and gasped. Veil’s most desired bachelors had stopped being single. But the numbness of surprise and broken hearts waned under the sounds of thundering applause. Captain Graswald stood up, the princess curtsied, and together the two walked away hand-in-hand, disappearing from everyone’s sight, as Altera and Captain Fran came to the forefront.
Ragna stood like a frozen statue, perfectly mimicking Willow Trutner next to her. It took a few moments until her brain had processed the news of Aura’s announcement.
Just when had she and Captain Graswald gotten close? Not that they wouldn’t make an awesome couple. Aura was a princess, and Captain Graswald a Valkyrie. But what the hel had happened in the one year she had spent at the academy? Right now, it didn’t matter.
With the end of the speech, Ragna’s task begun. She nodded towards Sven – who stood next to her – and looked out for Aura.
Where could she be? One would think spotting her would be easy. No mortal could outshine her – except maybe Altera. But Aura had always been a master at hide-and-seek. If she wanted to be alone, no one would find her.
The room had turned black, and a warm pressure obscured her eyes. Ragna turned her head left and right.
What was happening? Should she attack?
“Are you hungry?” A female voice asked.
Ragna’s body relaxed. “Where did you come from? You just left with Captain Graswald.”
Aura removed her hands from Ragna’s face, giving her her eyesight back. She chuckled and wrapped her arms around Ragna. “Royalty is supposed to have secrets. But now, let’s go.”
Ragna smiled, inflating her voice. “Of course, your majesty. Your wish is my command.”
“After Altera’s initiation, nothing interesting will happen.” Aura released Ragna from her embrace and pointed towards the banquet.
“Let’s get something to eat, and then we go to my chambers, okay?”
“Don’t worry. No one will pay attention to us.” The princess winked.