This is a fantasy story, with adult/youth scenes from the outset. If you don't like sex (of a woman/girl nature) or a sex story with a little dash of a plot, then look elsewhere. Everybody else? Enjoy!
THE CLOCKWORK VALKYRIE
The vanity mirror returned a cold, still glare as Milva ran her ivory-handled brush through her hair. Every stroke was a meticulous one, ironing through knots that had worked their way into her tresses through the day. For a brief moment Milva wondered how in the world she might have been careless enough to allow her hair to tangle in this manner but she suppressed the thought as the consistent flow of strokes loosened up each knot, and soon there were none to be found.
Milva continued to observe her mirror image, remembering how little of that girl she wished to see, and yet how boldly the woman next door burned for her.
Milva knew from experience how Agatha preferred her hair; loose to the touch, flowing, shimmer and sheen. And she liked to have Milva's hair arranged in the plainest ways possible. There were to be no flowery stylisations or elaborate headdresses or ornaments, only the naked simplicity of her "girl", only for Agatha. That was why Milva was so very meticulous and particular with her hair. It was no act of vanity on her part.
She set her hairbrush down. Thin strands of lilac-coloured hair remained tangled into its bristly teeth. She scoured through her small arrangement of cosmetics; the powered blush, the honeysuckle creams and the lip sheen, until she found what Agatha desired, the aromatic spray. Milva shucked the collar of her robes down just enough to expose the juncture where her svelte neck met her equally svelte chest and applied it. Soon after came her wrists, then finally (and more guiltily), that as-yet-still-sore juncture between her slim thighs.
A sudden flicker of thought, a sly memory of Agatha's genitals crushing her own between their conjoined hips as Milva whimpered her way to a disinclined bliss, caused her to shiver. A shiver? A shiver. One of yearning or one of trepidation? After all these years Milva had almost forgotten the distinction. But no matter how many times she was ravished beneath the solitary glow of a oil lamp, nothing ever dislodged that palpable twinge of anxiety in her stomach. Yet it was a feeling she would soon need to numb.
At the corner of her eye Milva spotted one her wall-mounted clock's steady brass hands tic toward its shorter partner at the number "XII". As if on cue, the thundering midnight bells of Grauheim's gigantic central clock tower made their signatory music across the darkened streets of the city. A full twelve chimes for the completion of the day.
Every night at twelve.
Milva swallowed the lump in her throat and arose; her lush lavender hair tumbled down her shoulders. With one last vapid inspection of herself she strode across her room to her door, sparing only a glance at her bed, or more specifically the thick tome lying discreetly between its pillow and its sheets.
There were secrets contained within that would've made this existence and all its pomp and pageantry irrelevant. If only she had had the courage to use them...
Milva shook those thoughts from her mind too, and exited her bedroom into the corridor. It was dark, illuminated only by the flickering tongues of orange candlelight fixed between every two wall panels. They did little to ease that chilling sense of foreboding that Agatha's stately home was so sodden with at these hours. In candlelight all the various statues and statuettes decorating its halls, those of the old goddesses and delicate princesses clasped tight to the bosom of shieldmaidens; they cast gaudy and intimidating shadows across the walls. If perchance a window had been left unclosed and a small breeze caused those candle fires to flicker, the shadows flickered with them, dancing ghouls pulled to life from stone. More than once had they frightened Milva.
Fortunately Agatha's room was adjacent to hers. Milva quickly rapped the lacquered wooden door with her knuckles and received a slow "Come" from beyond it. She slipped herself inside the far brighter room, suddenly remembering that she left candles burning in her own, but cast the remembrance off when Agatha's deliriously loving smile became her focus.
Her name was "Agatha", an appellation so sodden with age you might be forgiven for thinking her older than she was. Most people who hadn't met her certainly did. And she was getting there. She had seen forty-two Winter Solstices come and go, a parade of years confessed by small details here and there; the little lines of crinkled flesh extending from the outer corners or her eyes, or the furrows her brow drew in anger. But there was no mistaking her raven beauty... her skin which was as smooth and pale as any lavish ceramic, her thin pink lips, her soaring cheekbones and her hair, as verdant and black as the Void itself.
She was still dressed in the raiment of the Houses of Council, a black and gold tunic that bespoke her station and import better than any accolade or august title could. But Agatha had loosened a collar a tad to adjust to her room's boiler-supplied warmth.
Her smile grew all the broader when Milva walked in.
"Milva," she whispered sultrily. "Come here."
Ten slow, bare footsteps across the cold, varnished floorboards took her into Agatha's warm embrace. Two tender arms encircled Milva's slighter body and, if only reflexively, Milva returned the intimacy, winding her arms around Agatha's neck and leaning up by the tip of her toes to settle her head against the taller woman's bountiful chest. That made Agatha hold her all the tighter, just by indulging that bittersweet illusion of love she had honed so well. And when she detected Agatha's fingers slowly working their way into her lilac hair, the hair she had brushed so meticulously these past two hours, Milva knew what to expect.
Agatha's cool lips engulfed her own so quickly she was left breathless for a moment. Her kisses had that effect of being so effortlessly sudden that they robbed you of your bearings. Milva's eyes fluttered shut like a bird's beating wing, consciously dipping her head and allowing her midnight ravisher her due. After all, Agatha spent so many hours of her day helping others legislate the affairs of this city-state they habited... wasn't she entitled to this? Milva let herself rationalize it all this way even as Agatha took her by the cheeks and hungrily plunged her stifling tongue down the girl's throat, eliciting her vibrant and sopping whimpers, muffled by the sheer intensity of their kiss.
When Agatha retracted that tongue and those lips, Milva found herself a quivering mass in the older woman's arms. But she knew not whether she trembled from overpowering fear or overwhelming arousal... or both.
"I've been longing for that all day," Agatha opined with a grin. "You can't imagine how fulsome I'm required to be when Grauheim is to chair a such an important session."
Agatha loosened her grip and ambled over to the crystal decanter at her bedside table. As usual (for Milva was required to both wash and replace them) there were two empty glasses beside it. She pulled off the stopper and poured out two samples of malt with one helping a mite larger than the other. She handed the smaller glass to Milva and kept the bigger for herself.
Without being told to or being willing to Milva set her lips to the rim of the glass and sipped, ever so slightly. Agatha breathed a heavy sigh and nudged the glass up with two long fingertips, plunging the fiery beverage down Milva's throat. The girl coughed and hacked at the malt liquor's strength, drawing only smiles from Agatha who turned to her wardrobe.
"That'll warm you up," she jibed. "The nights have grown colder recently."
Milva set the glass in lap. "...Should I prepare supper now?"
"It's rather late for that and you know it," As Agatha unbuttoned her tunic she cast a powerful smile over her shoulder. "Though I dare say I appreciate it when you tease me like this."
The younger women felt her cheeks flush.
"You do know what is happening tomorrow, don't you?"
She shook her head `no'.
"There's to be an emergency assemblage of the Dukes at the Houses of Council," strip-by-strip Agatha restfully removed all articles and slips of her vestments. They pooled in a dense pile coiling around her trim ankles. "They're to make a deliberation on the Valkyrie problem... if they can reach an agreement. Since our city is chairing the session I will need to be there, but two of my staffers are unavailable so I'll need you to come with me."
It was nothing strange or new, Agatha having her replace one of those vapid secretaries she employed. As the Duke's chief military advisor she had had his ear more often in recent months, which meant assisting him before every cabinet meeting and military briefing. The Duke desperately needed that help (though no one would say so in polite company) because it was well believed that he was something of a liability in that respect, a man of domestic affairs rather than military campaigns; and as a former Lord Admiral of the Grauheim Aeronaughtical Fleet, Agatha was not lacking in such knowledge. Milva threw a glance at the wall-mounted rifle to her left. It was a single-barrel, breech-loading firearm with an ornate ivory forestock, which had the phrase "Unbroken Circle", engraved into it. From what Milva had been told it was not intended for combat, it was more of a trinket the lieutenants had gifted her with when she retired from active service, but it was always loaded.
When Milva looked up to answer her she found Agatha's utterly bared body greeting her across the room. The older woman caught the younger's one bashful eye by the vast ivory-delimited window occupying the left wall, and grinned powerfully at the sight of her blush. With one hand first, then two, Agatha drew her flowing black mane into a spiralled bun at the back of her skull. Two thin tresses dangled either side of her face.
"Is that alright?" Her smile was relentless.
It wasn't as if Milva could refuse. "...C-certainly."
As utterly naked as she was Agatha carried herself around the room with the comportment of a person fully robed. That was how comfortable she was with her own nakedness. Above her heavy bosom's proud sway the lady of the house unfastened her peridot pendant to set it on her chest of drawers along with the other few bits of jewellery she owned. For all her riches Agatha was not a lavish woman, although it couldn't be said that she failed to conduct herself with the indecency of such a one.
As always Milva felt reluctant to gaze at Agatha when she was undressed and yet unable to do anything else. She sat nervously before the spectacle when the older woman reached for her glass of malt (put aside on chest of drawers while she dressed) and gulped it down whole. Milva's golden-coloured eyes were transfixed by the sight of Agatha's bobbing throat, up and down, down and up. Her bare feet then slapped their way across the varnish wooden floor until she towered above Milva, who sat perched upon her bed's burgundy silk sheets.
"Stand up." Agatha commanded.
Milva did exactly that. Their eyes met, though Milva couldn't hold her gaze for too long, before she blushed and looked away. Even now, after four whole years...
"Now... take off your robe."
It was said as matter-of-factly as one would say "butter your toast". There was no sense of shame, no hint of embarrassment. Just the forthright tone of the command and Milva's total inability to resist it. Her fingers curled underneath the folds of her robe and pulled them apart then let the garment slip free from her arms and spool softly at her feet. Suddenly she was as bared to the night as her "companion" was. A wave of humiliation flushed through Milva's thoughts and flowered her cheeks ever more. Agatha's gaze was intense, unrelenting, a devouring stare and a crooked smile Milva had become extremely familiar with and yet unable to handle. Even so she knew better than to cover herself up from Agatha's ravaging eyes. She kept her arms tight against her sides and arched her back slightly to allow her tiny breasts to protrude at Agatha's delight.
Instead the older woman took her by the hand, smiling, and led the girl into her sizeable bed. Agatha reclined against the thick oaken headboard and pulled Milva on top of her, herding the nymphet into straddling her by the hips. Milva gasped at the hot sensation of their flesh pressed up together. Deep tremors of pleasure rippled throughout her skin when Agatha's firm, solid hands took her at her trim thighs and slid up. Like a slow and rhythmic massage Agatha carefully slid her grasp up Milva's shaking waste, her ribs, then turned inward and cupped the girl's tiny, teardrop-shaped breasts.
Milva juddered. All of a sudden she was aware, fully, of the rigidity her protruding nipples had swollen into. She was made to be aware when Agatha's palms ground into them, slowly at first, deliberate and teasing. Milva threw her head back, lilac hair whipping in the light of the bedside gaslamp, unable to hide her discrete groans of pleasure.
Agatha grinned again. "Do you like the way I touch you...?"
Milva bit her lower lip, flushed. "...Very much."
Agatha suddenly grasped up and kissed her. Forcefully. And Milva's tiny moans of surprise melted into the nocturne surrounding them. Agatha always kissed her with a startling passion. A cogent, stern kind of passion that wouldn't let Milva forget who was in command here, who she truly belonged to, that she wasn't her own -- and yet Agatha's touch sent more thrills down her spine, more rapturous twinges in her stomach; than any sensation heretofore experienced.
Agatha held Milva motionless on top of her, then slowly pushed her lips between the girl's just enough to suckle at her tongue. Milva gripped the headboard to keep herself steady. The older woman's lips compressed around it tight. The silence of their room was swallowed up by Agatha's wet slurps and sucking. Milva tried to be daring, but the instant her touch found Agatha's cheek the advisor broke the stream of their kiss, abruptly.
"Make me happy," she said.
She always said it that way. 'Make me happy'. That was another of Agatha's sexual gifts, making the most perverse acts sound so casual and meaningless. But her command was very particular in this instance. Milva knew very well what 'Make me happy' meant. Beneath the covers she reached for it with her hand instead, but Agatha slapped it away, blue eyes sharpening in the gaslamp's light.
"You know what I want." She snapped.
So she did, but it had never been Milva's fancy. It was the one thing Agatha could not trick her into believing she wanted, even though Milva had to admit (with no small amount of shame) it felt magnificent when Agatha did it to her. Still, she had no choice. One last look at Agatha's resolute, ironclad expression told her as much.
Milva sighed, feeling frustrated again, but quietly did as she was told, slinking her head underneath the cover. Agatha took her carefully by the head. With a push she guided the girl to that hot juncture in the midst of her hips, already odorous with the scent of arousal. Agatha's right hand disentangled itself from her lilac hair. Between its middle and index fingers she split open her sodden snatch for Milva to behold.
"Make me happy," Agatha repeated. "Lick me."
A nagging voice in her head suddenly gave Milva more clarity, as it tended to do when she did this. But the rationality of the situation was never lost to her. She had to. She couldn't say no, no matter how great the yearning was to do so. Milva swallowed what little pride she still had and pushed her face between Agatha's hips.
A sliver of a gasp ran through the room. Agatha's astoundingly toned thighs closed tersely around Milva's ears as her little mouth found its way against Agatha's piquant pink aperture. At first Milva tried to coax out Agatha's orgasm by drawing her tongue up to the woman's budding clitoris. She tried it expecting Agatha to drive her on, instead she heard Agatha whisper "Not that way..." above the willowy bedding.
Strong hands guided her again, one at her head and the other chin, when Agatha thrust her hips up into Milva's lips and jaw. All Milva's startled groans were squished her into the older woman's dampening genitals. Her desperate ministrations transformed from thrust to grind. She slowly worked her wet labial folds up and down from Milva's sharp chin to her tiny nose, always centred on her mouth. Milva simply willed herself to keep up, hold Agatha steady and be her pleasure, her living vessel of it, and all the while Agatha's sighs and staccato grunts grew louder and sharper. The legs of the bed rocked the hardwood underneath them in a clattering, cadenced mantra.
Milva worked her kisses into Agatha's sopping vaginal orifice, thrilling her lover, making her hunker harder against the young woman's face, drawing closer and closer and closer...
Then the torrent came. Agatha hit her climax and her whole body went rigid. Her feet drew up the bedding in bunches, hips thrust still, her back arching in orgasmic spasms. Milva cringed reflexively as her face was splattered by the hot, musky discharge that sprung from Agatha's tended womanhood. Ejaculate streamed down her throat and its scent climbed up her nose, its tang razed her tongue; this woman's juices smothered all her senses. When Agatha finally released Milva's hair she pulled her face from the woman's hips and inched back up to the head of the bed, where her dreary wet eyes met the glow of Agatha's. Then she turned a glance to the mirror at their left. And Milva saw herself. Her face utterly soaked in the fruit of Agatha's pleasure. Rather than a badge of pride it felt like some kind of possessive marking, as an animal would spray its scent over its territory. She was Agatha's territory and she knew it.
Milva was forced to remember that as the advisor began greedily licking at her face. With tremendous strokes of her tongue Agatha lapped up her own zesty excretions from Milva's cheeks, jaw, lips and nose and all the while Milva's eyes remained trained on the mirror. She saw herself and Agatha together through dull, damp eyes. As the older woman's licking became kissing she studied the two of them together.
How very different they were. Her youth, her faint cinnamon skin and lilac hair juxtaposed with Agatha's age, alabaster flesh and raven black hair. They were so different, so utterly unsuited, and yet she let herself be taken like this, not because she wanted it... nor really because she had no choice, but because it said something that someone like Agatha could want her...
Someone like Agatha...
The woman in question reclined into her pillow and drew Milva down with her. She fell against Agatha's shoulder and found herself wrapped tight in the woman's arms.
"You're incredible..." She whispered, her breathing still laboured. "Do you know that? How much you please me...?"
Milva said nothing.
"It's going to be a busy day tomorrow. With Grauheim chairing this session the Duke shall be very busy, as will I, as I must yet meet with Professor Kreug. But with you assisting me, we can spend the whole day together. That is the only worthwhile detail about tomorrow."
"When should I wake you?" Milva asked.
"Sun-up. I cannot afford to be late this time. Make sure you are ready too, but dress conservatively. You know I despise it when men stare at you."
Milva frowned. There was no need for her to be jealous. No matter who gazed upon her Milva always returned to this bed and confirmed by flesh and sweat who she truly belonged to. Besides, it was not Milva's belief that people spied her as `sport'. An oddity, perhaps. A curiosity, perhaps. But not sport. Agatha's fancies were her own and for that she was a most uncanny human.
Agatha seemed to be reading her thoughts because the first thing she did (besides pulling a smile) was to grab Milva by the long, arrow-shaped tip of her ear and pull.
Milva recoiled immediately. "Please! Please don't...!"
"Oh Milva," Agatha chuckled. "Surely you aren't still sensitive about that, are you?"
Her long ears wiggled through the lavender strands of her hair, but Milva spoke nary a word.
"My, my. I wonder if all Dark Elves are this easy to fluster. No, perhaps not. You are too unique, aren't you? You are unique."
Yet she'd trade that for normalcy in a heartbeat. Great works of art and literature inspire as much hatred as they do respect, but an uncommon play or understated novel could go on without ever enduring any hint of scrutiny or fawning adulation, and it would simply be itself...
Agatha climbed out of her bed. She slipped the bodice of a white cotton nightdress down her frame and went to the door. As her hand touched the knob it paused, then she glanced over her shoulder at Milva.
"I'm going to bathe, but... I'd like for you to sleep here tonight."
Milva blinked. Despite how possessively Agatha regarded her, she'd not hesitated to give the girl her own room and space. Very rarely did she ask Milva to spend the night with her, even after they made love. In Milva's experience that tended to be a sign of stress.
The girl gave her a nod of acceptance.
Agatha grunted her acknowledgement and left for the bath. The door clicked shut behind her.
Milva sighed and turned over in the bed, far more comfortable than her own, but now reeking of their sex. She tried to block that out of mind and will herself toward sleep, in case Agatha came back while she was awake and desired more nightly festivities from her, but with a grim wisdom Milva realized that, awake or no, nothing could stop Agatha from having her if she desired to.
She buried her head into the pillow and sighed, wondering what it might be like to have human ears. That was how sleep began, by blocking out everything and focusing on one thing. Small sounds such as the flicker of the bedside gaslamp's flame or the sigh of the wind whirling against the bedroom windowsill fell further into the background. Everything fell into silence.
Then she came.
The She who was not Agatha.
"...You're a little whore, do you know that, Milva...?" The icy whisper plunged down her ear like a needle. It made Milva shiver, as if a breeze had sauntered into the room through an open window, so she wrapped Agatha's sheets tighter around herself. She curled up into a foetal ball and cuddled her knees with her arms.
"Go away, Genevieve." She groaned.
But she didn't. She never left until it suited her. Genevieve chuckled derisively. Carefully paced footsteps took her around the bed so quietly they were whispers of themselves. Though Milva had her eyes firmly shut she still perceived Genevieve's presence in front of her, crouching down to her level. Her cold fingers caressed Milva's cheek in soft yet foreboding strokes. So unsettling...
"Leave me alone," Milva rattled off. "I'll call for Agatha, I swear."
That only made Genevieve chuckle again. "You delight in it, don't you? You actually delight in that old strumpet's touch. You enjoy it when she sprays her musk all over your face."
"...That isn't true."
"What she did just did? What she does to you every night? That will not bring you what you desire. It never will. You'll probably have greater luck trawling through all those texts you keep hidden. Though I wonder what your mistress might say if I told her you'd been researching the Arcane-"
"Go away, Genevieve!" Milva screamed it. She would not hear this.
Genevieve's eerie, almost ethereal caress came to a pause. Then she laughed that disparaging laugh again and withdrew her cold hand completely. Rather than look her in the eye Milva kept her eyes as tightly shut as they could be. She perceived more placid footsteps and then the slow turn of a knob. The iron of the door hinges whined. Then the door clicked.
Milva was alone again and finally she allowed herself to cry.
Despite the overall size of the town house, Agatha had no servants. It had five spare bedrooms not including Milva's own, all of which went unused and unattended, as did the second study and the garden house. Only two of the main bathing rooms were ever used and Milva tended to use the second, but only at Agatha's discretion. The kitchen, of course, remained busy, and aside from the lounge and their bedrooms, the rest of the house remained eerily unoccupied. The truth was they did not need servants, as Milva did most of the work one would normally assign to a butler or a maid. This was why she had breakfast prepared by the time Agatha came down for it.
In no way was she a chef but she cooked for Agatha as well as herself, and it was a skill she had had to learn quickly when she first arrived here. It was something of a routine now. She knew all of Agatha's tastes; her culinary likes and dislikes, what served her appetite better on which days and so on and so forth. Though Milva rarely enjoyed going to the bakery or perusing the choice butcher shop and market on the corner of Freun Street and Glosshanber Square; she kept the pantry well stocked and the cupboards bulging with grain, fruit, vegetables, spices, breads and salted meat.
She was in the kitchen tending to a slice of buttered honeybread when the doorbell rang. Milva wrapped a scarf around and scampered off out into the corridor to answer it. As usual there was no one there but rather two items left waiting for her on the top step, a bottle of chilled milk and a copy of the Grauheim Daily Chronicle. Milva took up both and shut the door behind her.
When breakfast was ready Milva set the dining room table. It was built of a fine lacquered mahogany, much like all the other pieces of wooden furniture around the house. She had it draped in huge dining cloth, as it was a table big enough to support a ring of twenty hungry stomachs, though she and Agatha rarely had that many people in the house at once. If they did it was always for some kind of wine party or dinner function, but those gatherings never amounted to anything more than Agatha seeking out new connections and favour with council members and guildsmen.
So Milva only set out two plates either side of the table with a small array of utensils, condiment jars, napkins, sterling silver and a saucer of cream between them.
Milva overheard Agatha's slow steps as she came down the creaking old staircase descending into the main hall. She heard her follow the banister then, presumably, the scent of a morning meal into the door-less dining room fully clad in her formal Houses of Council tunic. Breakfast awaited her and Milva got an unwanted kiss on her cheek for her troubles.
"Good morning," Agatha said, clopping down by her side of the table.
Milva replied "Morning" just as dourly and reached over to the kettle left on the sideboard behind her. She poured Agatha her tea whilst Agatha cracked open the Chronicle. She scowled at the headline.
"Geh. `Valkyrie attacks in the provinces', `second time this week'. Don't these damn papers have anything else to do except whip up people's miserable anxieties?"
When Milva didn't answer her she glanced across the table at what she was wearing. Just as Agatha asked, Milva dressed conservatively by donning a very mundane grey chemise and a snugly fitted corset (which she had had the `pleasure' of tightening herself) from which cascaded her equally grey dress. It was low enough to just partially conceal the colour of her flat, heelless shoes. A small bonnet and a pair of long-sleeved white gloves were waiting for Milva on the coffee table outside. This morning she tied up all of her hair at the back with a clip, high enough to keep most of it concealed beneath her bonnet (when she wore it). Though this, undesirably, put her pointed elfin ear on display for the whole world to see, Agatha gave Milva little choice in the matter.
A palpable streak of jealousy ran through Agatha's veins and it bubbled up from the depths whenever she saw someone eying or flirting with Milva. A majority of the time Milva ignored that jealousy, but that only made their lovemaking all the more turbulent when Agatha tried to re-assert her dominance. She'd broken her wrist the last time Agatha made love to her angry.
"You look lovely." Agatha said.
Milva half-smiled. "It's only for you."
"Yes, you are."
That wasn't what she meant but it did not matter. That was the truth and they both knew it. Agatha cracked the top of the soft-boiled egg Milva made for her, and dipped a strip of honeybread in it whilst reading her paper. Milva quietly sipped her tea and joined her in her silence. The dining room was always so quiet when they ate. They didn't speak much, neither during breakfast nor during supper, and Milva always occupied the time by observing the tiny little sounds around them. The unvarying "Tic, Tock, Tic, Tock" of the grandfather clock, the slurp of hot tea and crunch of toasted bread, the grind of a fork skidding across a china plate, or the scrunch of a newspaper page as Agatha thumbed her way through it.
There was already a carriage waiting for them outside when the finished breakfast. Milva, with her bonnet and gloves fitted on, climbed into the cab behind Agatha and sat. Neither of them offered the coachman any directions because he knew where to go. He was Mr. Pipps, Agatha's regular driver. At his command horse hooves clattered along and took them down the fabled cobblestone streets of outer Grauheim.
It was a vast city. More than 900,000 people called it home, according to the last citywide census. Based on what Milva learned during the two years of private tutelage Agatha arranged for her, Grauheim was the first of the eleven major human cities to see construction following the Doom of the Gods. At present Grauheim was still the largest of the eleven cities, rivalled only by the constantly expanding city-state of Weißheim (her population hovered around the number of 0.6 million). It grew from a mill town built at the basin of a shallow valley. After the Doom and the Migration of Spirits, the technological advances of humankind became centred here and over 200 years later it had transmogrified into an uncontested meta-industrial powerhouse, the de facto nexus of the human world.
The cab took Milva and Agatha far from their home, West Square, to the Silver Bridge, an expansive stone and iron viaduct that traversed more than three hundred metres of the Hochenflosse, the mighty river jutting through the city, carving it into two halves, the Northeast side and the Southwest side. One of Milva's few pleasures in life was crossing the Hochenflosse. It was a beautiful, sparkling river. When one considered how much junk was dumped into it from the city's lower class, industrial quadrants upriver, or the rows and rows of watermills and steam plants lining its lower banks; it was surprising how the river retained its beauty. Despite the clouds of smog and steam rising from the surrounding canopy of mills, factories, chimneys, and airship-guiding pyres, the Hochenflosse was resolutely handsome.
And when the cab traversed the Silver Bridge and veered into one of the small districts of the Southwest side, it followed along the Hochenflosse's romantic banks. The sparkle of the waters had Milva spellbound. She was not the only one. Agatha's gloved hand found its way to her knee and gave it a little squeeze, though her sights were set on the river. It was the one time Agatha's intimacy didn't faze her.
The thoroughfare forked into the district of Sevensby Village and the Metzgerstadt, which was known for the best beef and poultry this side of the Hochenflosse. As they approached it Agatha knocked on the cab wall, drawing Mr. Pipps' attention.
"Take the road through the Metzgerstadt," she ordered. "The procession of Dukes will be coming through Sevensby."
He yelled "Right-O!" and ambled toward the left side of the fork. When Milva glanced out of her window she noted that there was indeed a far larger level of foot traffic down that street than she'd ever seen before. When a Duke of the eleven major cities visited Grauheim there was always a bit of pageantry and fanfare about the occasion, but with all eleven of them gathered together in one city for the first time in two years there was always going to be unordinary amount of public interest.
It made Milva wonder. What matter could be so urgent that all eleven Dukes would gather for a conference this suddenly?
The Houses of Council were simply overwhelming. No other phrase could possibly sum up how intimidating they were. It was a towering symbol of Grauheim's political weight and domination. Its stonework was the brainchild of over fifty-six guilds and thousands of architects, both registered and unregistered (if the rumours were true) though only a handful of which took their place in the final design committee. The toughest limestone had to be brought in all the way from the Valghan Islands, thousands and thousands of miles northwest of here, all the way up at the continental shoreline. The Alliance of Masonry Guilds spent more than sixty years building the Houses of Council from the bottom up, transforming that limestone from raw airship cargo into dizzying towers and tower walls to encircle a long many acres of cobblestone footpaths, statue-populate water gardens, congressional halls, and secondary council chambers.
Lofty, slim stone mullions occupied each of the tower walls and each mullion was fixed with stained glass, a multiplicity of colours boasting the visages of statesmen, industrialists and Dukes of times gone by, an assortment of intrepid men and women whom had turned Grauheim from a little hamlet into the centre of the world. The four main towers of the innermost building, there where the Duke and the all members of Grauheim City Council normally congregated, forwent those designs for the more archaic spiralling lines of crenulations chiselled through their walls.
This was not the first time Milva had accompanied Agatha to the Houses of Council but it impressed her every time. As she climbed out of the cab at Agatha's behest she failed to suppress her esteem. Yet its interior was just as lovely.
All its arched doorways were delimited by stone spandrels decorated with maiden-tracery, a noted staple of Grauheim architecture. Every hall and walkway was topped by hammerbeam roofs and every wall had a passing mark of culture; a portrait of a shieldmaiden blazing her way forward for humanity with nary more than a rifle and an aegis, tall statuettes of long dead Dukes and Duchesses of note like Bolingbrooke, Nils Cruschang, Myerswyft of the River and Herr Ernst Krauser. Every inch of the floor was paved in marble ruled with elongated stretches of crimson velvet, all embroidered with the golden-coloured symbol of the city, the mark of every flag that flew from the Houses' heights, that of the Sword and the Sparrow. The symbol of Grauheim.
Grauheim spoke "power" and this, the Houses of Council, was its seat.
Milva stayed close to Agatha's side as they entered the main building from the waters gardens. The corridors were so long, so tall, so vast, and with she so small in comparison, Milva feared how easily she might get lost. As one of the rifle-armed guards received Agatha's identification badge she slinked one arm around the older woman's and kept her close. They would raise no eyebrows doing that. With the age gap between them, most people simply assumed that Milva was her adoptive daughter.
"Shall we go?" Agatha asked, pocketing her badge after the armed guard gave her the all clear.
Milva nodded and walked inside with her. Her shoes clicked against the marble, loud and echoing, bouncing off the high roofs of the foyer. But those noises were only a small part of much more as the pitch-sized `vestibule' was jam packed with councilmen, upper-level guildsmen, foreign dignitaries and their many aides. Each and every Duke came with something of an entourage so the ream of people lodged up in here came as no surprise to Agatha, but Milva found herself dwarfed by them. And it was a soothing sensation, oddly enough. No one seemed to notice that she was a Dark Elf here. No, these people were too busy preparing to haggle over the business of state.
Agatha turned to whisper in Milva's ear, though she had to be louder to be heard over the chatter and laughter of the crowds. "The session will begin as soon as the Dukes arrive. Lets wait in my chambers until they do."
Milva nodded. Some people were beginning to notice who Agatha was and she didn't desire the chore of explaining her connection to the advisor. So Agatha led her by the arm to one of the dozens of arched hallways shooting out of the foyer like spider's legs into the ornate depths of the Houses of Council. After a brain-twisting compilation of corridors, stairwells, and corners they finally came to a row of simpler rooms. Agatha's was the seventy-sixth. She unlocked the door with a key she pulled from her flowing black and gold robes, then took Milva inside and shut it behind them.
Agatha's room was far simpler than the rest. Just a small mahogany desk (a little like their dining table at home), a wall-shunted bookcase sparsely populated with legal, military and political tomes, a few chairs, and a gateleg table upon which most of Agatha's files had been stacked. There was also a small cupboard couched behind Agatha's desk. On top of that there was a strongbox. It was simple enough, wood, capped on every corner by iron and locked. Milva wondered what might be inside it but failed to ask while the older woman took herself over to the cupboard, opened it, and withdrew a decanter and two glasses. The decanter was not filled with whiskey or wine but plain ordinary water, Hochenflosse-refined no doubt.
"Fancy a drink?" Asked Agatha, pouring them.
Milva took her glass and sipped. Not knowing what to do now, she glanced outside. As this room was a few floors up it had a regular glass window (though arched) with a spectacular view of the main building's grassy central courtyard. She was allowed to appreciate that as well as the sight it gave her of Chippering's Column, that colossal memorial pillar overlooking the Houses of Council from the east, built to honour the first Duke of Grauheim. Then Agatha came up behind her.
She'd set her glass down so she could curl her arms around the girl, safe in the solitude of her office room. "It's beautiful, is not?"
"As arrogant as I am, it does humble me that I am allowed to work in a place such as this, to be bathed in the culture of our progress everyday. I wouldn't share this with just anyone, Milva."
Milva recalled Genevieve's taunting barbs last night and recoiled. "You said you had things for me to do."
Agatha glanced at her as she wriggled away. Evenly. Perhaps with a bit of confusion. Nevertheless she directed Milva to the high stack of papers occupying the gateleg table.
"These are all heavy arms reports," Agatha thumbed through them. "Each one explains a different aspect of our city's current stock and I need six particular ones to take to the Duke after the session but none of them are in order. If I tell you what they are you have to find them for me. Meanwhile, I'll organize my own report about 3rd Armoured Zeppelin Corps. Can you do that?"
The younger one nodded and got to work, anything to distract from what she got enough of at home. Once Agatha gave her the list Milva went to work rifling through the stack of paperwork in search of the specific sheets. An hour later she had only managed to find five, but took solace in the fact that Agatha hadn't finished what she needed to either. She sat behind her desk, reading glasses perched upon her nose, marking off all the airship numbers with an inked quill.
There came a knock at the door.
"Come in," Agatha offered.
A well-dressed orderly poked his head inside. "Miss, sorry to disturb you but the Session is about to begin. The Duke is waiting for you."
"Thank you. That will be all."
He bobbed and went about his way. Agatha slotted her quill into a run-off ink blotter and stood. "We need to go too. How many of the sheets did you find?"
"Five," Milva admitted. "I'm sorry."
The advisor sighed. "Don't pout, you did well. It's my fault for allowing the chairman to foist his most useless hired aides on me. Lets be off."
Once Agatha had the reports she and Milva left the office. They followed the long path back to the echoing foyer, which had now emptied a great deal. Instead of turning into a side corridor they shot straight north through the inner gates to the main chambers. Milva piped up again as she walked behind Agatha into the innermost den of Grauheim's politics.
Though Milva could not say she had seen another council chamber before she knew that this one had to be of unparalleled stature. It was a fully carpeted hall with wide, enclosing frescoes of the typically Grauheimian shieldmaiden/goddess motif, and high-hung canopy seats. But the most grandiose snippet of the Chamber's luxury was the glimmer provided by its open-glass ceiling. It filtered in the good sunlight from a waning summer season and shimmered the Chambers' entire expanse in the delight. Its architecture was in fitting synchronization with that of the rest of the building, noble and gothic.
The Chambers' floor defined by its leather benches, split into two portions, four lines of three, one on either side of the room. The left benches were for the Liberalists, the oppositional party, while the right ones were for the Conservativists, the party currently in power with the firm backing of the Duke. In the middle were the seats of the speaker and of any guests designated to speak. Those inner seats had been arranged in a wide concentric circle of desks with a silvery placard on each explaining the eleven designations. `Grauheim' on one desk, `Rottheim' on the next, `Weissheim' after that and so on. Each desk was broad enough for two people, and sure enough, as some Dukes had already been seated and some incoming; their aides accompanied them.
Milva stood astounded at the few Dukes whom had gathered already, at the portly Duke of Gelbheim and his stout red beard (not to mention is rapacious laugh) at the slender and shrewd Duchess of Grünheim, and the cunning, business-like Duke of Rottheim.
Agatha nudged Milva over to one of the empty ministerial benches (where all the other minor aides and assistants to the Duke had come to observe) while she took her seat at the Grauheim desk. Milva could not turn away from the inner circle. There was a sense of pride Milva felt in being here, that wasn't really underlined until the Duke of Grauheim walked in. The others, though almost regal in their comportment, were strangers to her. Grauheim's political head however, was a man the whole city had come to know. Love or hate him as people so often did, there was a certain sense of majesty about being close to people of power that just didn't explain itself until it happened. That was the spark of `celebrity'.
The Duke of Grauheim, to whom it was utterly taboo to refer by birth name (Ernst Grummelgurg) carried into chambers wearing the same regal trappings of his ten peers, the navy blue double-button tunic, tied at the waste with golden cords and shouldered by a golden tress of tassel. An ornamental sabre dangled from the waist. Across his chest was the crest of his dukedom, the 1st Medal, a solid gold pentagram emblazoned with the Sword and the Sparrow in its centre. It was to a Duke what a crown was to a king.
He took his seat next to Agatha and greeted her, clearly having spoken pleasantries with the other Dukes on the way here. Slowly but surely the other Dukes pattered in until the last one, the Duchess of Schwartzheim, took her seat. All the chatter between aides and Dukes faded into the silence of seriousness. When the chambers were so quiet only the random cough could break its silence, the House Speaker, a wiry old man seemingly `enveloped' by his thick robes, rose from his desk above the circle and addressed the summit.
"In light of current and complete assemblage I hereby declare the 284th assemblage of the allied continental Dukedom -- open," The Speaker struck his gavel. "Opening remarks are to be delivered by the session Chair, the 79th Duke of Grauheim. Please remain seated."
He sat down just as the Duke in question cleansed his palette with a sip of water. After a light cough cleared his throat he began;
"Fellow peers and assembled staff, I... welcome you all to the City of Grauheim and to the 284th session of the allied continental Dukedom. As we all know this is not a scheduled meeting, far from it. Horrific circumstances brought us here together today to determine our solution to them... for the general betterment of the dukedoms, their people, and our overall union. The horror I speak of is that... of the Valkyrie."
Light murmurs passed in-between the aides.
"It has been eighteen years now, since the tragedy at Schwartzheim. And while I know that a possible connection between the two phenomena is still a matter of great contention amongst us..."
Milva might have been mistaken but she could've sworn she saw the Duchess of Schwartzheim scoff just then. It did not matter. The head of her own city-state continued.
"...we cannot mistake that the appearance of the Valkyries coincides with that awful event. Eighteen years have come and gone since their original attacks. Year by year they grow more brazen, more foolhardy, yet ever more dangerous. Though we've done our best to keep our citizens' mind at rest I fear the shroud of security will soon fall. My handpicked census officials were deployed to each known sight of Valkyrie attack during the current year. The analysis took three months, two weeks and five days to complete. The assembled report has detailed the damage wrought by these attacks in the simplest terms. In sum? An estimated 5.8 billion gold pieces in property, livestock and grain damage, which equates to more than half of Grauheim's annual defence budget. Over 88,000 people displaced across the Eleven Dukedoms, at least 12,000 people missing, and precisely 9273 people confirmed dead."
The murmurs grew.
"I might remind you, that this is only the data we know, and that this only applies to gathered information this year. As it stands the eighteen-year death toll of the Valkyrie attacks has launched well over 66,000 lives. What we have here is not a series of ambushes, gentlemen. What we have here is war."
For someone so generally weak-kneed about military affairs, Milva noted how casually the Duke of Grauheim used that word. "War". Something in the back of her head told her that was Agatha's tone and temperament, not his own.
"On a separate note, I can report to you some of recovered findings of Johannes expedition. For those amongst who may not know or recall, six months ago my city deployed an airship and an eighteen-man party of marines and exploratory experts to the Realm Across the Scar in the hopes of identifying a point of origin for the seemingly random Valkyrie attacks. As was well reported in the newspapers, that expeditionary team did not return. Two weeks past, however, a second team returned only with orders to determine what had caused the Johannes expedition's disappearance. There had been a crash."
Milva had heard about the Johannes expedition. Apparently a renowned scholar at Grauheim University determined that the epicentre of the Valkyrie attacks was rooted in the one region of the world no human failed to dream of, the Realm Across the Scar. She also knew that though Grauheim took formal responsibility for the Johannes expedition in both inception and failure, the airship crew and marines deployed with it had all been commissioned from mountainside city of Gelbheim. They were masters of aviation; its young men all trained from the age of ten to either wield a rifle or fly an airship. That elite of their calibre could fail in the face of that enemy and that terrain spoke volumes.
This was why Gelbheim's normally stouthearted Duke looked so focused when the Johannes expedition was mentioned. It was mostly his people whom had lost their lives in that valiant attempt to ascertain the root of the Valkyrie menace. There was only one marine amongst the Johannes expedition who belonged to Grauheim. Her name was Valpheena, a decorated up-and-coming soldier whom had fought off an entire Valkyrie flock in the northeastern provinces with only fifty men under her command. Her believed death struck a chord in this city, those months ago.
"In the ruins of the original airship, The Skybearer," the Duke of Grauheim continued on. "Our recovery teams found a series of notes, too strenuous in detail for me to read now, but all have been copied and sent to your aides. These notes, amassed by Johannes himself, explain his reason to believe that the Valkyries had forged a queendom out of the very cradle of our world, the source of all life. You see it was Johannes' belief that these Valkyries now base themselves at the world tree itself... Yggdrasil."
Collective gasps scattered across the chambers. Milva jerked, feeling a sudden twinge in her heart, hearing that name, "Yggdrasil", but thought little of it. The Duke sustained anyway.
"Though our team returned shortly after the recovery of The Skybearer, I am happy to say that three members of the team were insubordinate enough to defy their orders and seek conformation of a possible Valkyrie infestation of Yggdrasil. Though they were unable to make it any closer to the world tree than three miles, the photogram they took of it seems to confirm Johannes' suspicions."
The Duke held up a monotone, black-and-white photogram. The one he was talking about. On it stood an epically gigantic oak tree towering over a literal jungle of small trees. Yggdrasil. Surrounding it were tiny white spots, dancing specks, like a constellation of stars in daylight, and in seconds Milva realized what those "dancing specks" really were.
"The infestation has centred at a place of holiest significance," Said the Duke of Grauheim. "Yggdrasil is the cradle of life. After the Migration of Spirits to the Realm Across the Scar, the Eleven Dukedoms made a pact not to interfere in the business of the creatures of olde, nor the humans who chose to walk with them. But this outrage is both unthinkable and unconscionable. To profane the cradle of life? No sirs, no sirs. This is all the proof we need. It is up to us to put an end to the Valkyrie menace once and for all. That is why we are summoned to these chambers, the representatives of the Eleven Dukedoms, to establish a concordat concerning our overall approach to this... Valkyrie War. In light of that we will here from each Duke and Duchess, then will discuss the four separate proposals put forward by Gelbheim, Blauheim, Weissheim, and Grauheim and hold them to a vote. Thank You."
As the Duke of Grauheim concluded and the Speaker of the House rose to introduce the next speaker, the Duchess of Grünheim, Milva couldn't help but ruminate over all she heard.
The Valkyrie threat was no new news to anyone. Every other day the papers ran a headline on the latest Valkyrie attack and how they were coming closer and closer to Grauheim, blowing away the 'slapdash' mystique of their raids. That being said she never would have guessed that it was this serious. Either the newspapers were withholding the true extend of the crisis from the people or the Duke (or even maybe some members of the Council) was suppressing the real numbers. Either way it was clear now that the situation was far worse than anyone in the Dukedoms realized.
One by one the other ten Dukes and Duchesses made their statements to the assemblage. The rolling hours revealed that although there was a consensus amongst them about the need to do something, two different schools of thought prevented them from reaching an agreement. The city-states of Gelbheim, Grauheim, and Grünheim (all of which had seen Valkyrie attacks on their rural, out-of-city provinces) clearly were in support of a full-blown military attack, an expeditionary army to be sent over the Realm Across the Scar to Yggdrasil. On the other hand, other city-states such as Rottheim, Weissheim, and Schwartzheim (cities further removed from the Realm Across the Scar whom had seen few Valkyrie attacks, if any) were in favour of a more defensive tact, citing the inherent risk and cost of deploying an army to a region of the world that remained fundamentally uncharted. Milva couldn't help but agree with that line of thought. She knew her history well and it all stretched back to the Doom of the Gods.
The world hadn't always known the sight of a soaring airship or a steam-powered locomotive thundering its strum through the plains conjoining its eleven cities. There was a time hundreds of years ago when men were subject to Gods; when dragons roamed the sky and Orcs ruled mountains, the forests were the dominion of the faeries and their King, seas and lakes and rivers the due of the nymphs and the sprites, and dozens of elfin kingdoms stretched across the highlands. Mankind was only a segment of that universe and a small one at that. Then there was the Doom.
Only two races refused to swear fealty to the Gods. One of them were the Giants, the one race comparable in strength to their long standing enemy, the Gods. The other were the Dark Elves. As mystics and blademages, the fabled extollers of `heresy and harlotry', they were collectively banished from all the elfin kingdoms to the volcanic territories of the northeast. There the relentless heat and magma tinted their skin a dim bronze and burned the power of magic into their souls, as instinctive to them as the will to breathe. In preparation for their revenge they fashioned the most mighty weapons from the smouldering pits of magma; all of which was to arm Lord Loki's armies.
When Lord Loki forged that union between the Giants, the Dark Elves, the Orcs and his ferocious children; he waged war upon the denizens of Asgard and would settle for no less than their absolute destruction. Conflict raged thusly. Men chose sides. Years of war rendered swathes of the world hideous. All the elfin kingdoms collapsed. The mischievous faeries fled forests ravaged by fire. As dragons were captured by "dragon riders" for war their clans shrank. Orcs were obliterated, the Giants crushed, the Gods fallen. That was the Doom of the Gods and only the human population managed to survive the war with any degree of stature. The world was theirs.
What tatters remained of the Olde World, the few lingering dragons, faeries, Dark and Light Elves, nymphs; they made a pact with the ruling humans of their time, the forefathers of today's Dukes. They would be allowed to live in peace in a corner of the world where they might once more begin to flourish, the Realm Across the Scar, and the ruling humans would not interfere with them. Under these terms the remnants of the Olde World left most of the world to humanity in what became known as the Migration of Spirits. A few humans joined with them, fearful of the technologies man developed in order to survive the Doom of the Gods. In time man began to expand into the territories once ruled by giants and orcs and elves. They raised cities of iron and stone from the ruins of the past, manufactured Zeppelins and Dreadnoughts to protect them, and over the slow centuries they industrialized into the modern human world of today.
Now that the Valkyries were threatening their way of life, Milva had to wonder, would the humans take themselves into the Realm of the Scar to fight them? Would they truly reengage their past in such a fashion? And what would the consequences be if they did?
Milva was jolted from these thought when someone tapped her shoulder. Agatha. Milva glanced around. Most of the other aides had left and only the Duke and Duchesses themselves still remained. How long had she been thinking to herself?
"Come," Agatha said. "This half of the meeting is for their ears only."
Milva nodded and followed Agatha out of the chambers. The two then followed that long path back to the office room.
"What did they decide?" Milva asked.
Agatha was busy fiddling with that strongbox from before. "Weren't you listening?"
Milva shook her head.
"Fine. Gelbheim's proposal has been accepted."
"...We're going to war?"
"That's the problem," Agatha tucked the strongbox under her arm. "As it was Gelbheim's proposal they are refused a vote in the proceedings and the remaining ten votes are split evenly. Five for invasion, five against."
Milva felt a little rasp of something in her heart. Relief, probably. "Does that put an end to it?"
"Of course not. When a proposal this important hits gridlock it doesn't just die on the floor of the Council's chambers. The proposal will be put to a referendum across the Eleven Dukedoms. It's up to the people to decide now."
"How will they vote?"
"That depends," Agatha returned the water decanter and tumblers from earlier to the floor cupboard. "The provincial cities in the Far West may not latch to the campaign, closer cities like ours certainly will. But since Gelbheim can vote in the second round, we'll likely get our way."
Milva frowned. "And is that what the Duke really wants? War?"
"Why do you ask me these questions? These are matters of state, Milva, and matters of state are not your concern. Your only concern should be to keep me happy."
The Dark Elf glanced down, chided. A long, uncomfortable pause ensued, with only the tic of a skeleton clock to mark its passage, until a pair of unusually strong arms closed around her. Agatha's arms.
"I am sorry. I don't meet to snap at you," she said. "I have a thousand and one things on my mind right now. After this last chore I'll have us taken home."
Milva looked up. "What chore?"
Agatha turned to that strongbox she'd put aside to hold her. "I have to speak to an old friend of mine."
His name was Kreug.
Agatha had, from time to time, mentioned him. They studied together at an ancillary preparatory school of Grauheim University but after their graduation they pursued different courses in life. After publishing his award-winning thesis on the meta-geological preservation of dragon fossils, Kreug became a geology lecturer at Grauheim University proper. After receiving his tenure seven years ago he was distinguished as a professor. Agatha conversely went on to five more years of training at the Grauheim School of Aeronaughtical Warfare before joining the fleet. In the space of twenty-two years she leapt from the lowly rank of cadet to Lord Admiral (the highest position in the fleet) though she had held that position only a year when she retired. Agatha and Kreug had gone done very different paths in life and yet remained close friends.
Such a thought made Milva ponder her lack of them.
Mr. Pipps' carriage took them all the way southeast from the Houses of Council to the residential charms of Schäfer's Parade, a place Milva had hitherto never been. But it was very like their West Square, from the steady procession of unlit gaslamps to the carefully cobbled streets below them. Dapperly dressed gentlemen and their petticoat pretties trumpeted up and down the pavement. Brick chimneys pillowed small streams of smoke into the midmorning sky.
When they stopped Mr. Pipps helped Milva out of the carriage. She hiked up her skirts and followed Agatha to the steps of Professor Kreug's flat, no. 67, where she tapped the knocker.
An aged, grim-looking butler answered the door. "May I help... Miss Agatha?"
She smiled warmly. "Charles. How lovely to see you again."
"And you, madam, and you!" A sudden shift of mood took to Charles who took Agatha's hands in his own and bobbed profusely, cheerfully. "The master will be awfully happy to see you today. He's thought of nothing else since your last visit."
Milva saw him cast an eye to the strongbox underneath Agatha's arm. It was brief, but she certainly noticed it, although Agatha didn't seem to.
"I can't stay long," She then gestured to Milva. "But first let me introduce you to my companion, Milva. You haven't met yet, I believe."
Charles' stern face and giddy expression turned to her now. A flushed Milva watched his cool, analysing eyes dart from the lilac-colour of her hair to the points of her ears. At times like this she felt like a book to be studied, ingenuity within the ambit of the mundane.
"She's a Dark Elf." Agatha started.
Charles glanced from Milva to Agatha and then back again. He pulled a lukewarm smile, extending his wrinkled hand. "I've never met one of your kind before. I am Charles."
She shook his hand. "...Milva."
"Well... I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Milva. Now, if the two of you will be so good as to step inside, I'll quickly fetch the Master."
Charles closed the door behind them as they stepped inside. Agatha peeled the gloves from her wrist and set them down in the compartment hanging from one of the hallway walls. Charles swiftly excused himself and went up the staircase to the second floor a moment. Thanks to the underground boilers it was much warmer in here than outside, so Agatha unbuttoned her tunic to adjust to the difference.
Agatha glanced at Milva. "...You can take off your bonnet."
"I'd... rather not."
"Kreug is irredeemably liberal, Milva. He has no problem with Elves. Or their ears."
Milva knew that that was not so much an suggestion as it was an order. Since Agatha didn't like to be embarrassed in front of her friends Milva reluctantly did as she was told, fingering loose the knotted straps of her bonnet from underneath her chin. Milva suspended it from the peg of a coat pole then, at Agatha's ushering, removed her gloves.
Just then the timber staircase groaned underneath the weight of footsteps. Milva looked up and saw a man, undoubtedly Professor Kreug, walking to them. He was roughly the same age as Agatha was, early forties, with a stubbly chin and a moustache as bushy as that of any marine colonel. A loose cigarette was perched by behind his ear and his hands fumbled with an oil-soaked rag that he tossed over the banister into a straw hamper left out in the corridor. She didn't know if it was his demeanour or his dress (a simple ashen shirt and black trousers) but something about him just said `ordinary' to Milva. And something else too.
Strangely enough she'd never gotten that impression from Agatha, and somehow, someway, she and Kreug were good friends. So told when, instead of taking Agatha's hand, Professor Kreug drew her into a wide embrace. He even chuckled. They looked more like siblings than former students.
"It's so good to see you again, Aggie." Said Kreug, drawing back.
"And you. I came as soon as I heard about The Octavia. You move quick."
"Well, the rest depends on you." Kreug smiled suggestively, then turned his attentions to Agatha's `companion'. "Ah, and you must be Milva. In the few letters she sends me, Agatha speaks so highly of you. It's delightful to finally meet you."
Milva smiled bashfully and shook his larger hand. He was a very polite man too. After telling him a quick "very nice meeting you" he returned to Agatha. Behind the sheen of his glasses, the professor's eye gazed at the strongbox. "Is that what I think it is?"
Agatha nodded. "Yes."
"So you've come to a decision?"
"Let us speak first. Is there any place Milva can be while we do?"
Without even thinking Professor Kreug branched his arm down the hall to a door left ajar at the far end. There were some subtle murmurs beyond it though Milva's sharp elfin ears could not distinguish between them.
"Milva, why don't you step into my lounge while I borrow Agatha for a moment?" He suggested. "There's a few people waiting to speak with me but I'm sure they won't mind some more company. I'll have Charles send in some tea and biscuits."
Whatever it was Agatha and Kreug had to discuss it was clear "not her concern" so Milva didn't bother wondering why she had to be sent away until they were done. Instead the girl gave her host and her mistress a polite curtsey and followed the corridor into the lounge. The old friends were already halfway up the staircase when Milva entered.
Three people were, apparently, in the middle of a conversation when she interrupted the exchanges. A rugged and scruffy young man slouched in the comfortable leather of the Professor's armoire with his muggy russet boots perched on the edge of the centre table.
He pulled a sleepy, blasé grin. "So. You must be the Dark Elf."
"Elberich! Don't be so rude!" There was a girl seated in the chair left of his. She was roughly Milva's age, eighteen or so, and roughly the same height. She rose from her seat to greet Milva. "Awfully sorry about that one, but you know what blokes are like, `specially air-faring ones. Milva was your name, weren't it?"
She cocked an eyebrow, wondering how this girl knew that.
"Sorry, we might've listened in on your conversation a wee bit. When we `eard the knocker we thought it might another crew trying to make him an offer. But never mind all that. I'm Tetra. Nice to meet you."
Milva, feeling a little awkward, plastered a smile. "And you."
"This is Elberich," Tetra pointed to the scruffy gentleman. "No one takes kindly to him at first, but he'll fly you out of a fix in a flash when the coins are down. And this," Tetra gestured toward the girl whom had remained silent since Milva came in. "...is Flannery."
Their eyes met.
Milva paused as the girl named Flannery, still-faced and staid, ran a calm hand through her hair, hair as fiery an amber as a oil lamp's flame. It was the first thing Milva noticed about her. How explosively red her hair was.
Flannery gave Milva a nod, and not much else in greeting. Milva offered her a nod back while a smirking Tetra shrugged. "She en't much for words, our Flannery."
"And I en't much for dangling, neither," quipped Elberich. "What's taking the professor so long, aye?"
"I think he had to talk to that lady out there first." Explained Tetra. "Though I en't so sure why. Nevertheless now, that's all just talk, aye? Why don't you come and have a seat, Milva?"
Tetra gestured to the chair she'd just been sitting. At first she thought she shouldn't, after all, it was Tetra's seat since she sat there first. But the Milva wondered if refusing it might offend Tetra, so she silently did as she was told and sat down.
"There's a good girl," Tetra leaned up against the lounge wall. "We could all do with something to take our mind off the waiting."
Milva blinked. "...What are you waiting for...?"
Charles entered with a tray full of tea and biscuits before Tetra answered that question. Elberich quickly yanked his boots from the centre table as Kreug's butler set down the silverware tray to pass out the hors d'oeuvres person per person, until he handed Flannery her share. She glanced at the cup and plate then shook her head, telling him a stern "no thank you"."
That had Milva curious. "Aren't you hungry?"
Flannery paused before offering up a reply. "There isn't much I eat."
"I'll leave it on the table for you, if you reconsider." Said Charles. "Well, must dash off but if any of you need anything, don't hesitate to call."
By the time Charles had left Elberich had already woofed down his plate of biscuits (sugary shortcake). He chased it away with what was left of his tea before it even had a chance to cool, then he let loose the most unsightly belch Milva had ever heard.
"You're a pig." Snipped Tetra.
A not yet sated Elberich ignored her and cast his hungry eye at Flannery's uneaten refreshments. "Are you gonna finish those?"
"Be my guest."
Milva watched him slurp and gobble his way to the bottom of that china too. It was about that time when she realized that these three, whoever they were, were of the lower classes. Their manner of speech was unlike her own, more familiar to that of the industrialists and factory workers of the city nucleus. Elberich in particular seemed to have very little sense of decorum. No one of sanity would mistake his breeding. Yet somehow Milva still felt dwarfed by him. A lady would have asked him to comport himself with greater dignity in the presence of women. That was what her teacher always said; maintain your station. For some reason Milva could not summon the strength to do that. What was it that prevented her from speaking her mind, as Tetra had?
What was it?
Then, suddenly, the morbid resonance of Genevieve's words crept up the slope of her back, threatening to invade her mind. Milva pushed the line of thought away before it was too late.
"So Milva, what's your story?"
The Dark Elf almost coughed on her tea. "Pardon me?"
"Sure'n you have a fable or two in your wake. More exciting than ours, I'd wager."
Flannery, her arms firmly crossed, glared at her. "Tetra. That's none of our business."
"N-no it's fine," Milva stammered. "It's only that... I haven't much of a story. I spent... some years at an orphanage... I do not know who my parents are. Then when I was fourteen Agatha bought me."
Suddenly a tense, thick silence clouded the room.
Elberich steadied. "...`Bought you'...? You mean... you're her-"
Once again the door opened. All four youths fell still as Agatha marched into the lounge, her gloves fully fitted and tunic fully buttoned. Her expression was terribly still and Milva knew it well. Whatever had been discussed between her and Professor Kreug hadn't gone the way she intended it to. Milva also noted with a growing awareness, that Agatha no longer had the strongbox underneath her arm.
"It is time we were off," said the Duke's advisor. "Mr. Pipps is waiting."
Milva nodded, realizing that perhaps she had said too much. After setting her cup and half-eaten shortcakes down Milva said her farewells to Tetra, Flannery, and Elberich then followed Agatha into the corridor. Kreug stood at the foot of the staircase, his expression downcast.
"Is there any chance you will reconsider?" He asked of Agatha.
Now Milva was sure something had gone wrong. But what? What were they even discussing in the first place? One thing Milva did know was that the habitually starched glare Agatha once spared Kreug had made its return.
"None," she replied, coolly. "We are leaving."
He sighed. "Goodbye, Aggie."
The former Lord Admiral unclasped the locks of the door and stormed out, nary a word in goodbye. Milva curtseyed a goodbye for the two of them, to which Kreug smiled a bit. Just a bit. Milva then swiftly followed after Agatha down the front steps to the carriage waiting patiently for them.
Agatha maintained a grim silence all the way back to West Square, even over the Hochenflosse. In her heart Milva wanted to ask her what was the matter, why things had soured so soon with her friend, what had happened to the strongbox she brought from the Houses of Council, but in the end thought better of it. She would be told that it was "not her concern" and would only incense Agatha further. As always, it was better for Milva to remain unspoken.
* This is my first fiction in a good long while, and I tried a little harder this time, so any and all comments are extremely welcome. Come up in here http://ksn-kaiser.blogspot.com/ and support the blog. Drop a comment, speak your mind. Or if you prefer, e-mail me at email@example.com.