Ragna grabbed the VR-glasses from her face and threw them on the ground. That wasn’t supposed to be part of the scenario. The glasses bounced off the white floor and as if on ice, slid across the ground until they hit the wall. The door opened and Ragna could hear the metallic sound of heels ringing throughout the room.
“Don’t do that. The equipment is expensive”, said the intruder and closed the door. “And don’t swear.”
Ragna turned around. She was staring at Altera Xion. A third-year cadet with the most frustrating ‘know-it-all-attitude’ – and the same face as the angel who moments ago had thrust a javelin into her heart.
Ragna looked at her with bewilderment. “Expensive? You can buy them for 150 Wert in every electronic shop.”
“Explain your failure.” Ignoring Ragna’s words, Altera folded her arms.
“Failure?” Ragna stomped towards her and grimaced. Since Altera was a head taller, Ragna’s mimic didn’t have the imposing effect she had hoped. Ragna could earn sympathy or pity but respect would be far out of her reach. “Why the fuck were you in that damn tin can? Explain that.”
Altera’s stoic expression remained, and no movement came from her body. “The battlefield is unpredictable. Unlike the Allfather, we cannot see the future. Enemies can surprise you; allies betray you. If you are prepared for the unpredictable, then you are prepared for the predictable. The mission I created simply simulates a possible and realistic battle scenario. And you failed to adjust to the chaos of war.”
“Realistic my ass.” Ragna poked at her temple. “Your stupid battle scenario was full of plot holes and logic mistakes. 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 weak takes priority. You are too arrogant, unprofessional and brutalized the soldiers. That is behavior is unacceptable in combat.”
“So what?” Ragna shrugged. “They are our enemies and evil to the core. Why should they deserve better?”
“Still a child, I see. And frankly, you rely too much on the gravity manipulator. The only reason you have that in the first place is because your father stole one from the clutches of a Vaix soldier and gave it to you. They should have confiscated it. But well, it’s not like any other accomplishment of yours wasn’t thanks to daddy dearest.”
Ragna clenched her fist. “Say that again and I will punch your pretty face. Let’s see how many of your broken teeth will be because of my father. If you are so jealous of my gravity manipulator, why don’t you ask for R&D to reverse engineer it?”
Altera went a step back and looked at Ragna with her eyes open wide, as if she had suggested that Aes wasn’t a planet, but instead a flat disk.
“Using a device forged by enemies? Do you even consider yourself a true citizen of Veil, first-year-cadet Griffin? You also know very well that your manipulator can’t be replicated. That thing is a black box.”
“So, you admit it. You are jealous.”
Before Altera could deny Ragna’s accusation, the door opened again. The two girls turned around in synchronization.
“Both of you, that’s enough”, said the tall, young man, who had entered the room.
“Cadet Erikson”, said Altera. “I don’t think you have to concern yourself with this matter.” She brushed away her long teal-white hair. Another reason the students at the academy believed Twice had blessed her. She went to the door. But before she existed, she turned around, her likewise seemingly supernatural and exotic red eyes piercing Ragna. “I know that you and 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 blushed. Even Sven’s rugged face got closer to his reddish-brown mane.
“W…We aren’t like that. I…I mean we’re living together, but not together-together.”
“In that case, I would suggest choosing a spouse befitting of your rank. You are the second-best student of the academy and just like me eligible to be chosen as a Valkyrie. Didn’t Captain Wylis show interest? You could even ask Vice-Captain Griffin to vouch for you. Anyhow, the point is, you have to pay attention to your status and public appearance. And this spoiled brat is less than sufficient.”
While ignoring Ragna’s volleying insults of Ragna, Altera left 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 little Miss Perfect?”
Ragna sighed and Sven chuckled. “She has a sweeter side. Once you get to know her better, you can see it too.”
“Is there something between you two?” Ragna stared directly into Sven’s face, who in turn avoided the question.
“Anyway, are you ready for the parade? Drake also invited us to lunch.”
“Huh.” Ragna nodded. “Must be important if daddy is paying. Let me just shower really quick, okay?”
“I will wait for you at the entrance”, said Sven and stretched his arms, letting Ragna gaze at him. His tight shirt didn’t even pretend to hide his well-trained body. Yet he wasn’t brawny to the point that it looked ugly. To borrow the phrases from the old tales of heroes, one would call him ‘a fine exemplar of a young man’.
Ragna leaned forward. Standing on all her toes, she drew lines with her finger on his cheek. Her lips formed a devious smile filled with luscious words that whispered into Sven’s ear. “You know, I will allow you to peek.”
Ragna chuckled. Sven’s face was priceless. Almost nothing from his roughness remained. 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 Valkyrie. After her father and him, it would be up to her and one day that will happen. The whole family will be Valkyries.
“Can you believe that?” Ragna puffed and flung herself at Sven’s arm. “First she decided to hold the exam on a holiday. Like, has that girl no life? And then she designed the scenario so that I would fail. It wasn’t even a good scenario.”
“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 swear I want a new one.”
“No use 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.
Through the streets marched the stags. Mechanical marvels towering over the humans watching them. Their silver bodies shone in the sun. They fragmented the light into its fundamental colors and in the same instance, reflected it at the audience. Their elegant steps created a new rainbow on the buildings they passed. The masses could not help but make big eyes, to let the color games and the majesty of the robotic animals bewitch them. Every stag mounted a rider, who sang. A praising hymn, hailing the glory of Veil, deifying the might of the Allfather, honoring the sacrifice of Twice and finally paying mind to the actual purpose of the event, the celebration of peace.
Low-ranking soldiers and musicians followed the stags. Dressed in ubiquitous colors, they evoked the image of an ever-moving cluster of a painting. Dazzling blue, winding green and springing red. Accompanying the voices of the singers with sound, loud and solemn. Drums and trumpets synchronized to the tact of their stomps, drilling the ears of the spectators with celebration and hype. The civilians cheered, sang along, and followed the march.
Large jeeps drove. Paintings and statues depicting figures and scenes from old myths and legends, and housed stages decorated them. Dancers danced on them to the music. Perfectly choreographed and mesmerizing, bearing 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 ground. A cacophony of colors, sounds and humans and far from complete. Joining them was the sound of chirping and tweeting. From all corners of the city flew doves and corvids. Thousands and thousands of birds beating their wings in monochromatic rhythm.
“They really went full out this time”, Ragna said. A crow isolated itself from the swarm and chose Ragna’s hand as a place to roost. As its tiny claws tickled her skin, the urge to pet the cute little bird caught her. Slowly she moved her free hand to the bird. But just when 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 a father buying a pack of cigarettes.
“What’ya expect?” Sven put a hand on her shoulder. “We are celebrating a 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 and watched into an undefined distance. “If you knew you wouldn’t like it, why did you come with me?”
“Cause you like it”, she said, tightening her hold, so that she could feel Sven’s skin better. “Anything is fun if you’re with me. Even this.”
Ragna pointed 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 thousand years of peace? How many dear faces had disappeared? How Sven could be so optimistic would be forever a mystery to her. Shouldn’t he hate Vaix the most? 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 blushed for a second before her facial expression turned into a grin. “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. “Yeah, you are.” She skipped towards the ice vendor a few feet behind them and performed a pirouette. “And since you are so tall and adult, you can buy a few scoops for 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 Sven only saw the smile of a sweet imp.
“The ceremony will start with a speech of Princess Aurelia”, said Drake. “After that is the initiation of Cadet Xion. Captain Fran has chosen her and will reveal her Bragi.”
“I hope she fails.” Ragna bit off 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 at the pizzeria “Slice and the city”.
Tourists and citizens were strolling through the shopping street, enjoying their sweets, while listening to talented jazz players, trying to earn a living. As the parade had moved on to the farther parts of the city, the usual every day of leisure had returned to the city center. The semester for the academies was also almost over, so students spent their time outside. Constantly moving were the people on the streets, yet also relaxed in their rhythm. That the people of this world could enjoy such leisure, showed how well it was in Veil. Not every city or kingdom could allow its citizens to be so happy.
Enjoying a nice lunch in the middle of such a beautiful day with her loved ones and having a grand future ahead of her. Her life was almost perfect. If it wasn’t for that stuck-up little … but as a wise man once said, ‘Not perfect is good’. So, some trouble should be fine. Once Altera graduates, she won’t have to see her pretty 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 joined the Vikings.”
“That’s true.” Her father agreed. “She is one of a kind. Anyway, Ragna, you are enlisted as part of Princess Aurelia’s guard. After her speech is over, you will accompany her everywhere. I had to pull some favors and needed Aurelia’s approval, but it will give your future career a boost, as long as you don’t mess up.”
“Awesome.” Ragna – ignoring how his father underlined the last part m – bit into another slice and grinned like a child in front of their Yule presents. “I really want to see her again.”
“Take this seriously.” Her father sighed and pressed his hand against his face, remembering how many times Ragna’s antics had almost managed to turn his wild black hair gray. He then straightened his posture and looked at Sven, who grabbed for a slice of pizza, only to realize that Ragna had emptied his share. “You are also part of her guard. But you’re assigned to 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. And the princess is more important.”
Drake 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, Ragna began to appreciate her blue eyes and saw them as an eternal memento, that would exist as long she kept walking and perhaps beyond. Though there were a few moments, where she still wished, she had at least one eye from each of her parents. But those were fleeting and disappeared as quickly as they came into her mind.
“I know”, said Drake. “No matter how strong you are, you will be always my precious daughter. Aurelia may be the princess of Veil, but for me, there is only one princess. So, Sven, please do your best to protect her.”
Covering her eyes and averting her smile, Ragna just starred at the plate in front of her. Scratching his temple, her father continued. “To be honest, my biggest wish in the world is to see you two share a beautiful future. And perhaps one day to be called grandpa.”
“Seriously, you’re gonna give me diabetes.” Ragna groaned, still concealing her grinning expression, while Sven began to resemble a fine strawberry. Drake 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 the people think?” While Ragna didn’t stop to smile, her expression had changed to that of a scoundrel, whose mind had concocted another nefarious plan.
Drake’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 kinds of defenses, causing her to gulp. “But if you wanna spend money on unnecessary clothes, be my guest. How much money should I loan you? The interest rate would be …”
“I think my regular clothes are enough”, said Ragna. Her face and world became bluer than the vision of a man, who took too many wood-enhancer-pills. She should have expected that. Asking money from him was a bad idea. When she was twelve, they had learned this lesson the hard way. The ‘dragon hoard”, her father’s comrades used to call their house and the riches inside. And a few hopeless suitors from the past – who often ended up on the wrong side of Sven’s fist – would call her the dragon princess – or damsel. Not that she had needed him but it was convenient not to deal with every suitor herself. Most 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.
Within the ivory banquet hall of Castle Gimli – the main residence of President Adler – the cameras filmed. Eating from the buffet, drinking the finest champagne, the invited high society, celebrities and influencers had navigated themselves and split up into their familiar groups and circles. Talking about business, celebrities, philosophy, news, scandals and what other topic was convenient for profound or shallow discussions.
On each of the two sides of the hall, golden statues of heroes from the past – starting with the founders, the three Trutner siblings – stood mighty as ever, and let everyone awe before the glorious past. Next to the statue of Willow Trutner was Ragna’s position. She checked her outfit again. Even though she was a mere guard, she wished she could look fancy for this evening. The guests might mistake her for décor, another statue among the others. In a play, she would be a spear-carrier or in a murder mystery, the culprit outside everyone’s radar – since the butler had become a cliché.
But protecting the princess took priority. So, it didn’t matter. For the 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 to have seen the photographer for ‘Viking Brilliance’ shooting her.
To feature her next to the effigy of the amazing Willow Trutner would be another plus. 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 for the myths and later the ideals of the Valkyries. Bravery. Honor. Compassion. Rules of conduct in combat. Selflessness. Just to name a few qualities. And most of all, she brought equality to Aes. Color, love, gender. She ruled all three equals.
And while it took time for these to catch on outside her kingdoms – with varying degrees of success sadly – her contribution made the world better. There was no mistake about that. Without her, would she have been able to join the military? She couldn’t imagine living in a backwater world, where society treated women as inferior and they had to fight with everything they had to be on a level, men could access just because of their genitals. Hard to imagine Aes was like that a long time ago.
Ragna’s face focused on the raised platform with the podium, where Aura was going to hold her speech at any minute. Behind that were seven chairs. From left to right sat President Reillius Adler, second Captain Daphne Fran, third Captain Markus Graswald together with his Vice-captain, fourth Captain Mistel Wylis, his Vice-captain Drake Griffin and Vice-captain Rory Skyfrost, acting as a substitute for the fifth Captain. They, like everyone else – the media, the guests and the viewers back at their homes – all waited eagerly for the start of the speech.
Ragna grumbled. That they had allowed Skyfrost to attend. Was that some PR stunt? That Veil wanted to show how accepting and open-minded it was? What a joke. This was the sacred castle and gateway to Yggdrasil. Allowing aliens into the castle and letting one sit right behind Aura’s podium. That went too far. She could understand it if Skyfrost was a credit to his people. But he was scum through and through. Well, looks like nepotism trumped everything.
The side doors opened. All activity ended and the eyes of the people focused on the ethereal figure that had arrived. A sylvan tea-green cocktail dress wrapped her figure. Long platinum hair followed her every step like a curtain. Not one strand of her bangs was out of place and the sides braided with rings. A necklace that would let one buy a small village hung from her neck, stopped perfectly at her bust.
The amalgamation of a modern, yet regal and tribal young woman. This slim body, her elvish face and sharp silver eyes, it was easy to see why the transcendental beauty of President Adler’s daughter captivated the hearts of an entire kingdom with her presence. 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 at their homes. 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 the 17th of July 1000 AR. Today, exactly a thousand years have passed since mankind had risen from the ashes of the Great War and declare world peace. 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 peace could be enjoyed?
Man’s history is sullied with death and mayhem, blood and murder. The old men of the past once proposed that we have to separate man from machinery and all war and violence will stop. And if that was deemed impossible, to halt the progress of this relationship. Some might say we should be grateful. But sad as it may be, that is simply not true. It is sedentary 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. Men would still wage war. 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 each of us. We have been cursed since the very beginning since we were nothing but infants in our cradle. Perhaps even when life 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 beat you to death with our fists. Take away our fists and we will bite you to death. Take away the teeth in our mouth and we will curse you to death. Cut out our tongue and we will think of your death. Take away our thoughts and we will your demise. Take away our will and humanity is gone.
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 dreamed of exploring the seas and we sailed through the waves of the oceans, till the end of the world and found out how Aes is round, a planet with no beginning and end. We dreamed of the sky, the very domain reserved for the birds and gods. And now look at us, we conquered it. The heavens themselves are under our rule. We dreamed of what lies beyond the abyss and beyond the stars.
And while we have yet to strike complete gold, these two dreams seem to be closer than ever before. We even invented something, whose entire concept was almost impossible to think of: a global network of wireless connections and communication.
Because my beloved people, that is also the nature of mankind. To grasp the impossible. And as such, does the idea of genuine peace sound that silly, in face of what else mankind has accomplished? Is it really unthinkable for this thousand-year-long peace to last even another minute?
After a thousand years, the idea of peace 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. 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 summoned 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 Markus Graswald, to share eternity together with him. That is right, I, Princess Aurelia Adler will take third Captain Markus Graswald as my betrothed.
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 entire room stood in silence. Gasping at the announcement of the princess. As well as the realization that the two most-desired bachelors in the entire kingdom would from this night on not be eligible anymore. Regardless of how likely the chance was for most citizens in the first place. But the numbness of surprise and broken hearts quickly waned in 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 the princess and Captain Graswald gotten so close? Not that they wouldn’t make an awesome couple, but what the hel happened in the one year she had spent at the academy? But just like the rest of the audience, Ragna applauded. Right now, it didn’t matter. With the end of the speech, Ragna’s own task begun.
She nodded towards Sven – who stood next to her – and looked out for the princess. Where could she be? Aura shouldn’t be that hard to find. It wasn’t like any mortal could outshine her in the first place. There was Altera, as Ragna begrudgingly had to admit, but if the two were to compete in a contest, she would probably give the price to the princess. At least based on beauty alone. When it came to personality, a landslide would decide the victory.
Huh? All the colors disappeared and the room turned black. A warm pressure obscured her eyes. Ragna turned her head left and right but everywhere was darkness. What was happening? Should she attack?
“Are you hungry?” A female voice asked.
Ragna’s body relaxed. “Where did you come from? I couldn’t sense you at all.”
Aura removed her hands from Ragna’s face, giving her back her eyesight and the view of the banquet hall. She chuckled and wrapped her arms around Ragna. “Royalty is supposed to have secrets. But now let’s go.”
Ragna smiled, inflating her voice to an absurd degree. “But of course, milady. Your wish is my command.”
“After Altera’s initiation nothing interesting will happen.” The princess released Ragna from her embrace and pointed towards the banquet.
“Let’s get something to eat and then we go to my chambers, okay?”
“Is that really, okay?”
“Don’t worry. No one will pay attention to us.” The princess winked with her eye. Ragna nodded towards Sven and followed Aura.