"Beg for it..."
"Ah!" The cushion repressed Milva's snivels. "Please, Mistress..."
Agatha's twinned fingers shot into and out of her like pistons at the crank of her hand. Each damp thrust made her squeak with some indefinable mix of pleasure and anxiety, there was no other way to describe it.
Milva laid stomach-first over the surface of Agatha's bed while the older woman laid flat on top of her, as close as pair of spoons tucked away in a draw. Agatha had her arm underneath Milva in that position, and her hand wedged firm in-between the girl's hips. Her little finger and her wedding ring finger kept Milva spread while the saliva-drenched middle two plunged through her mons into the tight, clamping warmth of her womanhood.
Milva gripped bunches of the blankets so tight in her fists her knuckles paled. Agatha's rock hard nipples were as daggers in her shoulder blades. Every groan and grimace was smooshed into the fluffy pillow underneath her chin, all the while Agatha's teeth and tongue sloppily worked their way around her defenceless neck. Every bite and lick was peppered with `compliments'. "You're so beautiful..." Agatha whispered between kisses. "Tell me you're mine..." she pleaded.
She didn't simply `please' Milva. Agatha pleased herself.
Her desperate hips rode the firm curve of Milva's plump arse with wet slaps hard enough to rankle the bedsprings. The Elf's shapely bottom was already splattered with Agatha's ejaculate, the hot juices dripping down her thighs and vulva, pooling in her dimples; but with all her unwanted knowledge of Agatha's sexual abilities and appetites, she knew there would be more to join it. That was all Milva could think about, that moment when Agatha finally had her last release of the night...
At least until she came back...
At first Milva heard nothing but sounds of their sex; Agatha's laboured breaths, the soppy slapping against her arse, the groan of the bed, and her own desperate gasps and sighs... until that icy voice slithered back down her ears...
"You do your people proud, you filthy harlot..."
It was horribly difficult to concentrate with Agatha's thick wet fingers vigorously jutting in and out of her, but Milva managed somehow to lift her head from her tear-soaked pillow and glance to her left. And there she was. Standing brazenly in the corner of the room, her arms folded, beaming a grin of inherent disgust and amusement. Genevieve's cruel smile. Even outside of the oil lamp's glow, the silvery-blue in her eyes managed an unsettling sparkle.
"Is this not why the Light Elves banished you all to the fiery wastes of the north all those centuries ago? Once a pervert, always a pervert, is that not so?"
The Dark Elf stayed silent while Agatha pounded her slicked rear. Those cold, cruel eyes had her transfixed and fearful, far more so than her vile words. Milva watched those eyes move to the many patches of damp staining the sheets. Genevieve's smirk grew.
"All that nectar," she said. "...and none of it your own."
"...Go away, Genevieve."
Agatha blinked, slowing down a notch. Her breathing was still hoarse from grinding at Milva's haunches. "...Who are you talking to...?"
Though she only looked away briefly, when Milva glanced at the wall corner a second time Genevieve was gone. Milva still felt her presence around them, like that lingering smell of dew after a sudden spring rain. Even with the boilers pounding below the basement and shipping up hot water into the pipes beneath the floorboards, warming the room to a fever pitch, Milva felt cold. Even Agatha's sexual acts upon her seem to fade into the background. The elf found herself staring at the spot where Genevieve once stood, wondering about if those things she called her, a harlot, a whore, a pervert... if they were all true.
Milva wasn't even aware Agatha had finished until she saw the advisor pouring a glass of malt from the crystal decanter on the nightstand. In a daze she reached behind and cupped her buttocks, sticky with Agatha's discharge, and sore. Oh, was it sore.
Agatha threw back a gulp. "You may leave now."
Hearing that Milva slowly took herself off the bed and reached for her nightgown. The Elf dressed herself again and made a wordless exit into the hallway then into her own room. She threw on the lock almost mechanically, aware of performing the gesture but utterly disconnected from it. When she carefully took herself into bed, nursing her tender bottom like a spanked child, she found that she couldn't sleep. So Milva took out the text underneath her pillow, the Arcane text. She could not focus on the words.
In time she wondered why in the world this was, why she could neither sleep nor read, then it hit her. For the first time in a long while Milva genuinely felt... dirty. Ashamed. That was why Genevieve's words stung so terribly.
Harlot... Whore... Pervert.
How was she not those things?
How could she not be those things when she let Agatha do that to her?
But it was too painful to think about. As difficult as it was Milva tucked her head beneath the covers and tried to fall asleep. Still felt the spit of Genevieve's hatred clinging to her skin, icy and malignant, but it paled in comparison to how much Milva hated herself.
Milva's sleep was always light. Though she laboured for hours it was not difficult to awaken. She writhed within her downy blankets, tossed her head from one hemisphere of the pillow to another, plagued by sinful reminiscences even in her slumber.
It was high midnight out. The blown-out flame of her bedside oil lamp was surrogated by the moon's grim white glow. There were no stars in the night sky. The clouds of fog, steam and smoke rising from every chimney collected into a smoggy atmosphere that never seemed to dissipate. Even in daylight sunshine it was never truly bright out. On a night like this that atmosphere thickened the darkness to a level only the moon and the streetside gas lamps could penetrate.
The boilers were off and it was cold again. There were no nightly winds rattling the window frame. It was dark and quiet in a way it had never been before. Milva felt that when she jerked up from her sleep, panting and light of breath. The Dark Elf pressed her hand into her chest and patiently willed herself to calm down. Once she brought her breathing back under control she reached for a glass of mineral water on her other nightstand. The cool liquid soothed her throat.
"...Sealed, your fate is..."
Milva froze. Panicked eyes darted around her bedroom but it was so dark, even under the moon's morose gleam. She could barely see her hand if she put it in front of her. But what was that whisper? Was Agatha calling for her?
In light of that possibility Milva fumbled for the drawer knob to her left. She took a small box of red phosphorous matches, withdrew one, struck it, then put them back. Her quivering eyes were fixed on the prevailing enclosure of darkness even as she lit the oil lamp's wick. With the new flame came a small source of light. It was a terribly miniscule glow that revealed less than a foot's distance around her but it was something.
After replacing her lamp's chimney Milva warily climbed out of bed and padded one slow step after another toward the door. The floorboards beneath her bare feet had never felt colder, not even in the thicket of winter. Milva twisted the doorknob and peered into the corridor.
"Is... anyone there?"
There was no one there.
Even more unusual were the walls. All the candlesticks, even though of them each had plenty of wax to spare, had been blown out. It was just a long stretch of darkness from one end of that quiet corridor to the other. Milva, who was becoming more and more unnerved by this, checked Agatha's door. She saw no light beneath its threshold. She must still have been asleep. But if Agatha still slumbered, where had the whisper come from? Was it Genevieve...? Milva called her name but no one replied.
After the seconds Milva wondered if maybe she had heard things. Maybe all the day's events had gotten to her. The girl exhaled her displeasure with herself and returned to her room. It was when she set the oil lamp down that she heard it.
The first scream.
A bloodcurdling shriek, echoing from outside and breaking into the still of her room. The shriek was followed by a tremendous rising surge of male shouts, gasps and roars. Then came a sound unlike any Milva had ever heard before... the juxtaposition of an effeminate squawk and a vicious screech so audible and sonic it dislocated the latticework. That fierce screech, so reminiscent of a bird and yet so far flung from one, was quickly joined by dozens of others. The horrifying cacophony plunged down the streets of West Square.
Alarmed, Milva ran to the window above her bed and climbed up on her knees to see what was going on. Milva raised it above and peered outside to see a frantic scrum of half-dressed men and women, neighbours and strangers, herded down the street in a rumbling torrent by a sniping flock of hideous winged creatures.
Milva knew what they were without even wondering it.
One of them swooped in on a fleeting woman and sunk its gruesome prehensile talons into her shoulders. She screamed horrifically as the valkyrie flapped up into the pursuing flock for its sisters to tear her apart, limb from limb. More than five of the flock swooped in and stripped the pieces off their prey like plucking petals from a flower, her arms and her legs, her head and her breasts, until finally one valkyrie seized its sharp ivory talons into the torso's ribcage and broke it open, spilling clumps of blood and meat into the cobblestones below.
Milva gaped in horror as that small group of valkyries ate their fill.
Never in her life had she seen something so horrifying. Her bedroom door suddenly swung open. Milva jumped with a start but calmed quickly when Agatha jogged in. She had the ornamental rifle from her hands, the parting gift from the lieutenants in the aeronautical Fleet.
"Outside, Agatha, outside! There is-"
"I know," she replied. "Valkyries. Come on, quickly now. We must get to the basement."
Milva agreed with a nod. She grabbed the oil lamp, still lit, and followed Agatha out of her bedroom into the corridor. The shouting and shrieks outside were so loud now that they could be heard from the corridor. Milva held close to Agatha in the partially lit darkness, praying that the oil and wick held out.
They ran down the left arm of the hallway and followed the pinewood curve of the balustrade downstairs to the vestibule. The chaos outside was so loud it was deafening. Agatha grabbed Milva's wrist with her free hand and dragged her around the stairwell to an almost imperceptible hatch in the floor.
"Give me some light." Agatha commanded.
Milva brought the lamp closer to her. The former Lord Admiral set aside her firearm and pulled at the hatch's brass loop handle. With erstwhile strength and laborious grunts Agatha managed to lift up the heavy hatch door. It swung backwards and slammed into the vestibule floor.
"Quickly, Milva, let us-"
Her sentence was cut short by the sound of glass being smashed.
Milva and Agatha paused, glancing at each other. The crash came from inside. Nearby.
"Did you hear where that came from?" Agatha asked, picking up the rifle.
Milva shook her head "no".
Growling her frustration, Agatha reached into the pocket of a sheepskin belt suspended around her waist and brought out a bullet. It was silvery and sleek. There was a abrupt crash of furniture, wood being smashed to splinters, from the right. Though huddled behind the wall of the stairwell Agatha and Milva both knew where that came from. The dining room. With her eyes now set towards that Agatha loaded her rifle and lurched forward in slow crouched steps, eyes steeled, like a huntress wading through the reeds of the bush. She held a finger to her lips warning Milva to be silent, then inched around the stairwell to the open space of the vestibule.
The valkyrie shrieked.
Agatha recoiled from the doorway and fired an echoing bolt but the swift creature flew past her and soared up into the second floor where it found a perch upon the banister. Its six terrible talons crunched into the wood with a vice grip.
Agatha wrestled to reload the rifle. "Milva, get into the basement!"
But she did not listen. Her eyes danced from Agatha, thumbing another bullet beyond the breech of her gun, to the valkyrie, perched above like a watchful hawk, its shriek disjoining into a chalky cackle. It vaulted from its perch the instant Agatha fired at it, the shot only clipping the banister. Before she had time to reload the valkyrie plunged towards Agatha in a flash of motion. Its rammed head and shoulder into Agatha's stomach and threw her off her feet into the far wall. The thud was so forceful it dropped one of Agatha's favourite portraits from its hook. Her rifle slipped from her loosening fingers.
The valkyrie cackled at its victory a moment before its jerking head slowly twisted around to gaze upon Milva.
The Dark Elf's heart leapt into her throat.
It launched itself at her before her leg muscles even had time to expand. A blur of feathers and scales pounced and knocked the oil lamp from her hand. It rolled along the floor until the flame was extinguished and the whole foyer was pitched into darkness. Milva screamed, shouted for help, cried. No one answered her calls. In the distant corner of her senses she knew Agatha was motionless, unable to help her. Then, for some strange reason, the river of time's flow decelerated into a tapered trickle.
Even in the coppice of darkness, Milva was able to perceive the unsightly features of the valkyrie. Its hideous body was a deformed parallel of a young woman's. But where a woman possessed svelte fingers and toes the valkyrie sported menacing ivory talons, while two powerfully beating wings, its caesious feathers jagged and sharp, extended from its skull. Astride its grey-skinned face and swaying breasts, its entire body was cloaked in a hoary shroud of coin-sized scales. Its eyes were black slits that blinked out of synch and an awful stench of blood permeated from beyond its tiny, serrated teeth.
It was going to eat her.
A syrupy mix of blood and saliva dripped onto her cheeks. Milva looked away. Then, at her side, the Dark Elf saw her again.
She cast an icy smile at Milva's predicament. "This is where you die, pervert..."
The valkyrie's talons had her arms pinned at her sides with a grip so tight it drew blood in painful, fiery welts. But that pain was so overwhelmed by Milva's abject terror that she was barely aware of it. A tormenting, relentless tension pulled in Milva's heart in three directions. One with the knowledge of her impending death, the second with the knowledge that she deserved to die, but stronger than either of those: knowledge of badly she wanted to live. The tension simmered...
...until it exploded!
Milva's eyes went blank as a chime, like the sweep of a cymbal, gonged in her ears. Her mind was stormed by visions of the oil lamp, of the fires of the north, her people toiling in volcanic mines, of the fire in her blood and a yearning for heat. Cinders. Flames. Pyres.
Suddenly the oil lamp burst into flames. It shattered into fragments and a twin trails of fire streaked out from either side of its remnants. The two trails converged together beneath Milva's feet and forged themselves into a circle of fire. The circle's flaming walls rose into a hollow pillar of fire, blistering and cindering, eliciting startled shrieks from the valkyrie.
Rope-like tongues of flame grappled the valkyrie by its wings and legs to both burn and restrain it. All the while invisible forces carried a dazed Milva up by the arms, lifting her out of the column of fire and placing her at the staircase's steps.
The valkyrie cried an impassioned shriek and broke its bonds, launching into the air, but the column of fire became a dancing, sniping snake and circled up after it, stalking it through the darkness until its blazing bright jaws gobbled it up.
The creature was consumed by corrosive moxibustion that burned hot through its tough scales until it came plummeting back into the foyer floor with a crash. Milva rose to her feet, feeling drained somehow, and observed. What was once the valkyrie was now a charred and mangled trace of its former self. Genevieve was gone again.
The spiral of fire burst into a wide cluster of little embers that dissipated long before they touched ground. It was a sparkling, eye-capturing sight that Milva gazed at with awe. She was not the only one.
Agatha groaned. "...M-magic..."
Remembering her, Milva walked over to where she had been thrown. A gasp hitched in the girl's throat for she saw something else. The hatstand beside the two had been snapped into two. One rod lay beneath Agatha's gown. The other protruded crudely from her stomach. Red began to soak up the white of her nightgown and pool underneath her thighs. Her lips were bloody.
Milva was speechless.
"...I am... sorry..." her voice was less than a whisper. It was a ghost of itself. "I cannot... protect you anymore... but it would seem... you no longer... need me to..."
She jerked with an oily cough. "...Listen... Milva. You can... not... stay... here... too... dangerous. Go... to... Kreug... please..."
"I... I will." Milva said.
Agatha's head slumped. Milva felt an reflex to reach for her, to prop her up, and she had no idea what stayed her hand, but it was too late. Time resumed its natural course and the flicker of life behind Agatha's eyes was quietly quenched.
Milva stood for a moment; dumbstruck with the demise of the woman whom had been holding her prison for over four years. A sense of misery and naked liberty welled in thoughts. The background she somewhat perceived a constable's whistle, and the clatter of rifles being fired in chorus, and of course the shrieks of the valkyries. All these things were there but somehow the sight of Agatha, lying dead in the foyer, scared her more.
The joy of freedom and the disturbing unfamiliarity of it.
The sensation lingered in Milva's heart as she ran to the backdoor in the kitchen and left the flat behind. She ran as fast as her legs could carry her through the backstreets until the opus of shrieks and gunfire faded into a haunting memory.
"Here Miss Milva, drink this."
Charles handed her cup and saucer of tea. She was too shaken up to thank him for it. Professor Kreug waved him away. The aging butler bowed and excused himself. When the lounge door clicked shut Kreug rose from the leather of his armchair and reached toward a tin box at the centre table. A row of cigarettes lay side, along with an adjacent compartment for a brass lighter. Kreug set one of the cigarettes between his lips, lit it, then shut the tin away. Seconds later he sighed a cloud of smoke like a release of tension.
He put half of his face into his palm. "You say Agatha is dead?"
Milva slowly bobbed her head. The tea was still too hot to drink.
Kreug reclined into his armchair again. His face was veiled in various emotions. Anger, sadness, disquiet, bemusement. Knowing that he and Agatha were good friend Milva could hardly imagine what he must have been going through at that point.
He heaved another sigh. "I cannot believe this has happened. It was always a possibility that the valkyries might attack one of the major cities but I never thought it could happen so soon. If only my calculations were more exact I might have warned Agatha to be more prepared. I can't believe I failed her like this."
Milva wanted to tell him that it wasn't his fault, that perhaps no one could have predicted when the valkyries might strike, but she held her tongue. She had learned that some times it was better to let people say what was in their hearts than coddle them with niceties. Instead she blew at her tea to cool it while her feet paddled in a marble basin of water and bath salts that Charles brought for her. It took well over three hours to run from West Square and all the way across the Hochenflosse to the flats of Schäfer's Parade, where Professor Kreug lived. Her feet were so raw from running that her feet had blistered, so Charles set up that basin to soak them in. A blanket had been draped around her shoulders and back to keep her warm in addition to the fireplace, though after what happened back at West Square, Milva had had her fill of flames.
There was a radio box on the mantelpiece.
When there was silence between her and Kreug, they listen to updates on the valkyrie attack through one of the three state-owned frequencies. Piece by piece more information came in so that gradually the overall picture became clear.
The valkyries had come in from the east. No one knew how they had been quick enough to attack Grauheimian citizens but they were at least three miles deep into the city before an alarm was raised. There were no numbers about the dead or injured but at least two people had been killed. Milva knew that as a fact. The attack was repelled by an armed platoons of more than three hundred constables. The city was on full alert and an official curfew had been imposed. If the radio was right it would not be lifted until morning.
"How did it happen?"
Milva glanced across the lounge at him, unsure of what he meant.
Kreug further clarified himself. "How did Agatha die?"
She had little desire to speak of the events at West Square, but Kreug was one of her closest friends, he had a right to know. Milva explained to him all that happened, who she had heard a scream outside her window and saw the valkyries attacking people. She explained how she and Agatha had tried to hide downstairs before a valkyrie broke it, that Agatha tried to shoot it and had been impaled on the spike of a broken hatstand for her troubles. Kreug crumbled back into his chair as Agatha's fate was exposed to him.
"But how did you get away?" He asked.
That was the part Milva least wanted to think about. Not even Agatha knew that she studied magic in her spare time. The only one who knew was Genevieve and she was more than enough. For years now Milva had kept texts of the Arcane, of elemental symbiosis and thaumaturgy, but killing that valkyrie was the first act of mysticism Milva successfully performed. It was far from a conscious action. Indeed, upon reflection, it might only have been a feat of instinct. Yet no matter which way anyone saw it, Milva had used the power of magic.
Could she tell Professor Kreug that?
The Arcane was not a foreign subject in this world. There were colleges all across the Eleven Dukedoms where people learned to harness its power. In fact there had been such a such a college in Blauheim until it was destroyed eighteen years ago by some vengeful witch. All the same few people mastered the secrets of the Arcane and even fewer failed to be corrupted by them. If it had been more wieldy than science, humanity may have turned to the former after the Doom of the Gods, but there was no security it. Too many variables. No power in this day and age was more certain than that of the steam engine. Would Professor Kreug even believe in her abilities, abilities she herself thought absent less than a day ago?
She had to trust that he would. So Milva explained. She told him how the oil lamp caught fire and burned the valkyrie alive at her subconscious command.
He blinked his astonishment. "You mean... magic?"
Milva nodded. Her tea was now cool enough to sip.
"Incredible. Did Agatha know about your abilities?"
Kreug paused in thought a moment. Smoke pillowed from his nostrils as cogs began turning in his mind, animating hidden thoughts and musings unknown to Milva. He eventually stubbed his cigarette out in an onyx ashtray next to his half-drunk glass of whiskey. With a new and sudden energy in his step, the Grauheim professor stood upright.
"Can you move?" He asked, eying the basin.
Milva's toes wiggled in the healing waters. "...I'd rather not just yet."
"Very well," Kreug headed for the door. "I'll bring the equipment in here."
"...Where are you going?"
"I have something I want to show you, Milva."
Over the next fifteen minutes Professor Kreug carried in a vast string of instruments from some unseen place in his flat. Over a flat bit of plywood Kreug assembled some makeshift device from an assortment of iron coils and springs, wires, glass jars, gears, dials and pressure gauges. With every piece he needed he assembled them all into a unit of something Milva could not define for it was a contraption unlike any she had heretofore seen but clearly served some indefinite purpose.
With the device in place Professor Kreug unfurled something Milva had been curious about since she first saw it. The strongbox. The strongbox. The same one Agatha had at the Houses of Council and brought to this flat, the same one she left here, so she was a mite curious when Kreug finally unlocked it.
There was a single object inside.
A fragment of gold.
It was a raw yet sparking fragment of gold or at the very least some golden substance very similar in configuration to it. It shimmered in the light of the fireplace. Kreug gently put the fragment on the plywood and drew two wires from his device. He connect them to the fragment with two small clips. There was a piece of lead with the same clips on the other side of the apparatus.
"Milva," Kreug began. "Reach over here and touch this for me."
Although she had no idea what this was about she would ask him no questions. It felt wrong to quiz him considering how hospitable he had been thus far so Milva touched the golden fragment with her fingertips. It felt warm and, despite its rough-looking surface, very smooth.
"Do you know what you're holding?" Asked the older gentleman.
"This is a Rheinshard."
Rheinshard. Rheinshard? Milva felt a twinge of familiarity, not unlike when the Duke of Grauheim mentioned the name "Yggdrasil". She could not place it but "Rheinshard" had a strange air of nostalgia to it. Even the object itself somehow seemed... familiar. Yet Milva had no memory or knowledge of the Rheinshard before now. It was such an odd thing to speculate.
"I want you to do something for me, Milva. I want you to hold tight to the Rheinshard and think of a gemstone."
"A gemstone...? Like a ruby?"
Kreug nodded. "Yes, exactly like that. Think of a ruby, picture it in your mind, and will it to be."
All of this was happening so fast Milva barely had time to question it mentally. Still, she did as she was asked and pictured the image of a ruby in her mind. Her thoughts were like lumps of clay. They all coalesced into a prism form. That form became awash with the colour crimson. Her mind gave it glimmer. A deep rouge gemstone turned on its point in the endless black sea of her consciousness.
Unbeknownst to Milva, who concentrated so vigorously on the ruby gem in her mind's eye, the apparatus that Kreug had assembled sprung to life. The coils twisting up the four pipes began to heat and glow, watery liquid in the glass jars percolated to a bubble and released vapours into the air. The steam gauge's needle jerked from a lowly 0.0 to a throbbing 7.2 and a red glow began to encircle the bar of lead opposite the Rheinshard. Milva felt it getting hotter and hotter but held on until the professor exclaimed, "You can let go now, Milva". She did just that. Clouds of steam wafted over their heads. There was also a quaint smell, a little like hot metal, but not a bad smell.
Kreug pointed at something. "Do you see?"
Initially Milva didn't. But upon closer inspection, she saw something genuinely astounding. Where there was once a bar of lead there was now an unpolished, tremendously hot ruby. Lead had turned into ruby! But Kreug stopped her when she tried to touch it. "Careful," he said. "it's still very hot".
Milva blinked. "W-what just...?"
"The imprecise term is `transubstantiation'. The transformation of one substance to another. When one with magical resonance touches a Rheinshard and wills it, she can almost instantaneously affect the molecular structure of any mineral as she sees fit."
"That... is what the Rheinshard is for...?"
"Partially," He shut off the transubstantiation device. "The Rheinshard is one half of a greater whole, Milva. That whole is the Rheingold, the wish mineral."
Milva let the word roll off her tongue. "The Rheingold..."
"Yes. I know this might all seem a little overwhelming but try to bare with me. After the Doom, the Gods left behind a cadre of items as proof of their existence. Relics. The Rheingold is one of those relics. It is the last remaining piece of an ancient substance that bends reality into any form that a magically-gifted person wills, or in other words, grant the holder any wish they desire... hence `wish mineral'."
Now that it was beginning to cool Kreug picked up the ruby. "I suspect the Gods destroyed that substance when it became a threat to them. But they kept one last piece, perhaps as some sort of failsafe. The Rheingold. Even with my machinery and your magic, the Rheinshard alone pales in comparison to the Rheingold's capabilities. Or so the tale goes."
It was all so hard to believe. "Did it split?"
Kreug nodded. "Apparently. From what little I know, a cloaked woman brought the Rheinshard to the former Duke of Grauheim eighteen years ago, roughly around the time the Valkyries first appeared."
Then, oh so suddenly, Milva was beginning to understand why Professor Kreug was showing her all this. Was there a connection between the Rheingold and the appearance of the Valkyries? Milva wanted to ask him that, but he stopped her.
"You needn't ask me. I know what you're thinking. All I can say is that I don't know. It is possible the valkyries are a manifestation of someone's wish just as easily as its possible that the two things are unrelated. I don't know. But if the Rheingold did create the valkyries, then I'm convinced that it can be used to stop them."
"But how...?" Asked Milva.
Kreug put the ruby down again. "By finding the other half, the other Rheinshard, and re-forging it. I know it seems extraordinary but look at what the shard alone just did. Just stop and imagine what the whole thing is ultimately capable of. If I could forge the Rheingold I could stop the war before it even began."
For a moment the word `war' sounded foreign in Milva's head, as though the notion did not fit the conversation. Then she thought back to what had happened at the Houses of Council, the Dukes debating the necessity of war against the Valkyries, and the referendum that was to unfold.
"Grauheim has been attacked," Kreug mused, rising. "This is the first time the valkyries have been intrepid enough to assault one of the Dukedom capitals. If our people, reactionary as they are, were to vote now, they would most certainly vote for war."
Milva's heart sunk at the thought.
Kreug slunk back in his armchair, glaring at the Rheinshard. "Damn it. If only this hadn't happened. If only I had more time..."
"Is there not?" Wondered the Dark Elf. "Couldn't you re-forge it now, before the referendum?"
He shrugged. "I have absolutely no idea where the other Rheinshard is, Milva. My only lead is an old relic collector in the Realm Beyond the Scar, a man named Gaustenfolt. I planned to start with him and see where it led... but in that time the Duke's forces would already be deploying. Even if I did have time enough to locate the other Rheinshard, I do not have the funds to hire the expeditionary force necessary to make it to the Realm Across the Scar. I discussed this with Agatha this morning, asking her for the money, but... she refused."
Milva scowled, remembering how selfish she was. "But I'm not sure if I understand... if Agatha knew what you were planning... and had no intention of backing you... why did she give you the Rheinshard?"
"A compromise, I suppose." Kreug lowered his face. "State authorities see no value in it. But that's neither here nor there. Without the money I can lease neither a crew nor an airship and without those it is impossible to reach the Realm Across the Scar. The three people I hosted this morning, the ones you met, they were from the cheapest crew I could find. Even their prices are beyond me."
Milva remembered them. Tetra, Elberich and Flannery. Now she realized it. They were aeronauts. But surely Kreug's plan could not end with them? Surely there was some alternative.
"Have you tried the Duke? Maybe he would-"
"I already have," Kreug interrupted. "His representatives wouldn't even consider my ideas for Grauheim's proposal at the assemblage. Agatha warned me that they wouldn't, but..." he sighed. "Being laughed out of a building once is more than enough, Milva."
She frowned. "But-"
"No." He slumped in his chair, tired and forlorn. "There's no hope now, Milva. The Dukedoms are going to war with the Valkyries... and there is nothing we can do to stop it."
A Fortnight Later
Peering around, Milva noticed she didn't own very much. Beyond her many outfits and cosmetics (chosen for her by Agatha and worn only at her discretion) there was little else Milva saw fit to take to Professor Kreug's flat. Milva forsook her last toys and stuffed animals the day she was purchased from the orphanage. She had no hobbies to speak of, no interest in the arts. During her four years of captivity Agatha made a point of taking her to the Old Grauheim Opera House at least once a week, but in all that time Milva learned no affection for music or the performing arts. So much of her life had been lived thus far catering to Agatha's needs. Now that she was gone... it was like starting afresh all over again.
But, as before, Milva was scared of that freedom.
The past few mornings she had risen from her new bed at Schäfer's Parade expecting to make breakfast or mend linen. When Charles came into her room with a banquet tray of crumpets, eggs, grapefruit and tea; Milva almost thought it some cruel joke. She had never been catered to by a servant, not in her home, for that had been her role. Adjusting to a life removed from those indignations would not be the smooth transition she wished it to be, but Milva was certain of one thing. A yoke had been thrown off her neck and she had no desire to pick it back up.
That was why, when saw how little of her own life she had been leading, the Dark Elf took it as a sign of promise. Was it too late to re-discover herself? No. Far from it.
That was why she found the strength to leave behind the clothes Agatha always expected her to wear, those "conservative" outfits that kept almost every scrap of her flesh concealed... the gossamer negligee Agatha made her wear to bed all those vicious nights...
Milva felt adventurous.
Ever since the installation of the boilers and the underfoot pipework heating, Agatha's flat had no use for the old fireplaces. For the first time in two and a half years Milva saw fit to use one. It needed tinder, and when Milva remembered how Agatha stored firewood in the basement (just in case the boilers went out during the winter season) she went and got some. With that as its sustenance Milva set a roaring flame that filled her old bedroom up in a smouldering tangerine glow.
Then, one by one, Milva tossed those awful textile reminders of Agatha into the flames. Each wretched piece of clothing sent a new puff of smoke and gas through the flue. Milva waited for one piece to burn satisfactorily before hurling in another and with each piece thrown she felt a fresher surge of liberation rise inside herself. She couldn't help but spare herself a smile at this.
Then a shiver went up Milva's spine.
That was how she could tell when Genevieve was in the room; when she became colder. Wintry arms wound around her abdomen. A cold cheek nuzzled up the length of her pointed, elfin ear while an even colder voice whispered into it...
"Having a little bonfire, are we?"
Milva frowned. "Let me go, Genevieve."
"But the old woman is dead now," she leered. "What will do you without a human's hands touching you... making you feel less like an Elf...?"
Milva shoved away from Genevieve's embrace, dropping the lingerie in her hands and retreating. "I've never needed Agatha and I can survive just as well without her. I did so for fourteen years."
"You were a child, wallowing away in an orphanage, Elfling. If not for the matrons those other children would've beaten you to death. Your little show of independence here does not change who you are. You are weak, Milva. Don't ever forget that."
"If I am so weak, as you say, why do you cling to me? Why won't you leave me in peace?"
"Because, my little poppet..." Genevieve smirked. "You amuse me."
Milva would hear no more of this. She turned her back to Genevieve, to her poisonous words, and continued throwing her old clothes into the fire. When the room slowly returned to its natural heat Milva knew that she was gone.
She only kept a few essentials for Kreug's flat. Underwear, spare clothes bought without Agatha's say so, a few toiletries (though the professor had them in abundance it wasn't like Milva to take advantage) and of course, the magic texts. Milva folded them all into her leather valise. Anything she left behind was something she either had no need for or no desire for. When all the unwanted clothes had burned up Milva expunged the flame and left. She made no stops in any other rooms for anything, caring little if the house had been burgled after the valkyrie attack. This was the first Milva returned to the Agatha's flat in two weeks.
When Milva came down the stairwell she notice that much was the same as when the valkyries had attacked. There was little difference about the place. There were still bullet holes in the banister and door frame where Agatha had tried to shoot their intruder. The tile flooring was scorched where Milva's magic had burned the valkyrie alive. Whatever window that selfsame valkyrie smashed to get inside was probably un-patched. The only things missing were the rifle, the broken hatstand Agatha was skewered on, and of course, Agatha herself.
She glanced at the spot where her `mistress' had perished. The constables did a good job of mopping up the blood, though she hadn't known. Milva didn't help with the constabulary's removal of her corpse. The Dark Elf's only input was to confirm her identity at the coroner's office.
After one last look at that and the vestibule around her, Milva exited the building. Mr. Pipps awaited her at the foot of the steps. His horse and carriage stood in patient wait for the two at the corner of the street.
"Ready to go, Miss?" Asked the cabbie.
While he loaded her luggage into cab Milva glared at the streets around her. It was almost deserted. Only a handful of citizens returned to West Square after the valkyrie attack, and although all the blood and entrails had been cleared, there were still many visible reminders of what had taken place two weeks ago. Toppled chimneys, broken windows, torn weathervanes, lashed sills and hundreds of punctured cobblestones. In discreet corners one could still see the odd bullet round.
"Come now, Miss Milva," said Mr. Pipps. "No use fretting over what's passed."
He was right. It was pointless to look back. Now, if anything, Milva only wanted to leave West Square where it belonged, in the past. Under that resolve Milva climbed into the carriage and gave Mr. Pipps directions to a particular venue in Mullengonger she wanted to visit.
He asked her what was of interest to her there and Milva replied;
The Doom of the Gods was so important a subject of history that every child in the Eleven Dukedoms was required to learn about it during their schooling. It was clear to Milva however that what she and children like her had learned in their younger years was only a smidgen of all that had occurred. After hearing the professor's plans, suspended though they were, Milva began to see how little of the world she knew.
She was an orphan, born and brought up in the city of Grauheim. Not once had she left its limits. Not once. But she was also a Dark Elf. There was no mistaking that. She had origins beyond this city and the more she wondered about those origins the more she suspected she could learn. What was the culture of the Dark Elves? Was it so radically different from that of humans and Light Elves? Had they too made the great journey to the Realm Across the Scar or were there still some lingering enclaves of her people in the deserts and volcano ranges of the north?
How was it that Milva had come to reside in Grauheim in the first place?
Without Agatha in her life Milva was more alone than ever. Her liberty was priced as much, but right now her focus was on learning more about herself. Agatha's death and Professor Kreug's revelations stoked that fire, now it was her job to sustain it. It was because of this that the young woman currently strolled through the marble halls of the Mullengonger Museum of Natural History, a public exhibition detailing the mores and wildlife of the Olde World.
Milva was first to admire a taxonomical display on dragons. Below the ceiling-hung, life-sized sculptures of wyverns, wyrms and serpentines was a vast hundred yard gallery of dragon fossils and bone fragments.
In the next room resided an exhibit on the rituals and mating habits of Forest Faeries. More lifelike mannequins showed that they were a small (a full head shorter than any human being) but spry race of beautiful and androgynous winged creatures who reproduced by laying eggs and casting illusory dust from their rainbow-tinted wings to lure in a mate. That mate could be human, elf, or faerie; and once the alluring faerie captured its seed it would use it to fertilize its eggs. Milva left that room and turned a corner into the next.
There was no small amount of relief when she found pointed ears on these mannequins. The next exhibit regarded the Elvish Kingdoms. A welcoming plaque described them as a "feudal string of citadels spread across the bucolic realms of the west and ruled over by a steadfast council of kings". That council of kings was the inspiration for the modern day Dukedoms.
Milva walked around the circular chamber observing all the models and artefacts behind the glass. There was a to-scale terracotta model of one of the most famous elvish citadels, Eisenschloß der Elfe. For decades it was thought to be completely impenetrable due to the coppices of brambles and thorns guarding it from humans and orcs... until the Doom, of course. Beyond such sculptures were mannequin figures of elves themselves; who stood proud in scholar's robes and warrior's armour. It seemed odd to Milva... feeling a oneness with human-made replicas of her race. But was it odd to feel such pride about her Elvish heritage, at least here, where her ears were no more unusual than a baby's giggle?
"They were a people who lived off the vitality of the world's spirit," said another plaque, which Milva read aloud. "Unparalleled masters of the Arcane whose isolationist policies allowed them to thrive for thousands of years."
But as she circled around the rest of the elfin exhibit and veered near the next (a presentation on the 11,000 year old Dryad re-genesis of the potato crop) Milva saw no account of the magmatic north's Dark Elf populations. No relics, no models, no anything. In fact, as she toured through the rest of the Mullengonger Museum of Natural History, Milva realized there was no mention of ANY of the Olde World races whom had stood with Loki during the Doom of the Gods. Not even the Orcs, the historically relevant enemy of elvish folk, were given cable.
Why was that?
When too tired to keep searching Milva sat by an aluminium bench that stood in an extensive corridor display of the fossilized remains of a race of river nymphs who once populated the Hochenflosse's banks. An old wives' tale suggested that the collective spirits of long dead river nymphs was what kept the Hochenflosse so bountiful.
But did the Dark Elves have nothing to offer?
Milva knew her history. She knew what the legends said, that her people were sexual perverts and warmongers amongst the Elvish Kingdoms and had been banished to the fiery terrain of the north; thus carving the race in twain -- Light and Dark. But surely banishment and warfare was not their defining mark on history? There was something heartbreaking and sinister in this exclusion, felt Milva, but for the breath of her she could not put it into words.
"We don't see your sort here everyday."
Milva looked up and found a stooping older gentleman smiling at her in a sharply cut dress-coat and doeskin pantaloons. He lifted the bowler from his balding crown and sat, exhaling a sigh of relief at the gesture. Thick hung mutton chops and a broad moustache draped over his lip, bushed his balmy face in hair.
Milva stilled. "...M-my sort...?"
"The young, I mean," he clarified. "Although that is hard to tell with an elf. Immortality and all that."
"Perhaps a better word might be `agelessness'. Before the Doom it was known that an elf aged a great deal slower than other beings once he or she passed their twentieth year."
"Did you learn that here?" Wondered Milva.
The older man laughed. "No, dear. Even the informative know the word `discretion'. No, I won my knowledge through years of study. Thanks to those years I am now curator of Mullengonger."
Ah, so he was the curator. It made sense. Aside from a small handful of people at the lobby Milva had seen no other patrons thus far. She took him in a moment, wondering if he thought it was unusual for an elf like herself to be observing these distilled fragments of the Olde World, then looked away when she thought better of asking him that.
The Curator snorted. "It is refreshing, my dear, to see a youth here. I wonder if with all the luxury of our airships, our radios and our engines, we have forgotten where we came from."
"I wish I knew..." Milva exhaled. "...just where it was I come from."
"Well. Though I am grateful for your patronage, elfling, I must tell you. You will not find that here."
Even without his elucidation Milva knew what he was referring to; the absence of Dark Elves, Giants and Orcs in this museum. "Why is that?"
"Your race, the Elves, are a beloved one. It is remarkable given how utterly suspicious elves are of humanity that we could love them so, but we do. In the mindset of many, even in academia, elves symbolize the dignity of the Olde World. That there were elves who could `flounce this dignity' and side with Lord Loki in the catastrophic war he waged, well... it doesn't ring true to our image of what an elf is. This is why we refer to them, to you, as `Dark'."
Now Milva had her reason... and an understanding of why so very many humans were frightened of her. Genevieve's cruelty cycled back into her thoughts as the Curator smiled again.
"Chin up, elfling." He said perkily. "To borrow the old axiom, `history is written by the victors'. What we pervert or fail to know is our mistake, not yours."
She looked to him. "Do you believe we were evil?"
"The concept of evil is a superstition. What one might call evil is better defined as undesirable... and desires change from period to period. And where knowledge is absent, myth thrives. You see there are so many myths about the origins of the Dark Elves. Some academics theorized that they were progenitors the elvish race and Light Elves are descended from those who expanded into other territories. Some have argued that Dark Elves are the bastard progeny of a group of elvish maids sold to a 5th Generation Orcish Emperor through a peace treaty. Others believe that Dark Elves never really existed... of course your presence here today renders that argument false. The truth is... the only people who could tell you the truth about the Dark Elves are the Dark Elves themselves... and they left for the Realm Across the Scar long ago."
Milva cuddled herself against thoughts of the impending war with the Valkyries, heart-deep in the Realm Across the Scar. "...I see."
"I am curious, though. How is it that... you are here?"
"...I wish I knew. I am an orphan," replied the Dark Elf. For some reason she felt comfortable talking to him about this, matters which some would consider private. "I have no place."
The curator paused and ruminated. Milva watched the many contortions of his expression as he wrestled with something, some hidden concept he hadn't yet resolved, until he finally spoke again.
"Shall I tell you a story?"
Milva was curious now. "Please."
"Eighteen years ago, there was a college of the Arcane in Blauheim. It was destroyed by a sorceress, punished for misdeeds against another student. Have you ever heard about this?"
Of course she had. It is a well-known story. It was one of the reasons the Arcane was only taught in special privately run academies.
"Well one fact many do not know is that that student who that sorceress interfered with was a Dark Elf."
"...A Dark Elf like me? Are you sure?"
The Curator nodded. "Positive. Now I might only be grasping at straws, but I'm willing to guess that whatever factor brought that particular Dark Elf back to the land of steam, cogwork and humanity; is the same as the one that brought you back."
An interesting notion. If the curator was right and that person was a Dark Elf then her life in Grauheim couldn't be so terribly unusual. Perhaps more Dark Elves were scattered throughout the Dukedoms? Milva found some glimmer of hope in that... though it did not amend anything about her current solitude, nor did it give her any clues to the truth of the Dark Elves or by extension her heritage.
The curator yawned. "Well now, must press on. Unfortunately the board of trustees doesn't back me for my talkative nature. But before I go might I offer you a piece of advice, elfling?"
"Time spent on the past is only time stolen from the future. Don't let what was threaten what could be."
And with that he was gone. The old man set his bowler hat back on and with the help of his cane walked off down the corridor of nymph fossils to another gallery.
Although the Curator was gone his words remained, wise as they were. She spent more lingering moments sitting there wondering what her new path was to be. Then, when the sweet smell of lemon curd wafted down the corridor from the mess hall, Milva remembered having to meet the Professor for lunch back at Schäfer's Parade. Milva reached into her dress pouch and withdrew her half-skeleton pocket watch. It was almost noon. She had to be getting back to the professor!
Milva pocketed the golden apparatus again, hiked up her skirts, and jogged the rest of the way back to the lobby. Outside the museum Mr. Pipps and his carriage were still waiting for her. When she appeared he helped her climb in (as he always did) and followed her direction to the flat at Schäfer's Parade.
"Please be quick, Mr. Pipps." Milva said.
He was considerate. "Right-O, Miss Milva, `way we go."
But it was rather a long journey back across the Hochenflosse to Schäfer's Parade so Milva found herself peering out the side window of the cab, watching the city pass her by. They were halfway to the Silver Bridge when she first noticed the polling stations.
They were almost always makeshift, hobbled together out of places of congregation or trade. One could always tell a polling station by the long lines of people trickling out of an otherwise humdrum venue. Somewhere inside that town hall people were deciding whether or not to send troops, bullets and airships to the Realm Across the Scar to wage war again the Valkyries.
The very idea of war repulsed Milva but with the referendum already underway it seemed unavoidable now. The valkyrie attacks last fortnight were all anyone could speak of for days. With 239 people dead and many hundreds more injured; the people, their fears whipped up and amplified the jingoistic reactionaries on the radio, now lived in constant fear of a second attack. Nothing about their behaviour these past few weeks assured Milva they wouldn't use force to prevent that from happening... nor could she blame them for feeling so afraid. She resented the calls for war, the trepidation driving them... but she understood.
Milva paid Mr. Pipps two gold pieces when his carriage reared up at the Professor's flat. He helped her climb out, assembled her luggage, and saw her to the door where Charles was at hand to carry in her things. As she said goodbye to Mr. Pipps and greeted Charles, she peered over the butler's shoulder to the lounge. She heard voices; one of them Professor Kreug's, the other unknown to her.
"Is the Professor entertaining guests?"
Charles shut the door. "Yes, Miss Milva."
The aging servant seemed crestfallen somehow. When he carried Milva's valise up the stairs to her bedroom, the girl removed her gloves and her overcoat and inched to the door.
"Last chance, Kreug," the opposing voice was gruff and commanding. "My ship and crew have been rotting at anchor for nearly a month, suffering this city's ludicrous groundage, waiting for you to raise the necessary funds. Do you have the money or not?"
Kreug exhaled. "I'm sorry, Captain Quy. Can you give me anymore time?"
"No, I'm afraid not. We've already found someone else willing to lease The Octavia and we've wasted too much time already. We ship out in three days."
Captain Quy, as the professor called him, exhaled. "It would have been the voyage of a lifetime, friend. I wish I could've taken you there, but... I have my crew to think of. We just can't afford to wait anymore."
"No, it's... fine. I do understand," Said Kreug. "Thank you for your time, Captain."
The lounge door opened. The man called Quy, captain of The Octavia, was a tall and strident man with a dusky blonde beard so finely shaved you could wind your clock to it. He gave Milva only a cursory nod on his way to the door and left without a further word. Milva peered inside the lounge. Professor Kreug sat hunched in his armchair, face buried in his palms, shoulders heavily sloped. Milva thought against disturbing him now so she softly shut the door and retired to her room.
In this world a funeral was little more than a formality.
In the culture of the Eleven Dukedoms, death was a release. Flesh creates and imprisons consciousness for a brief period of time, but then that flesh must deteriorate and consciousness fade. Here one focused on the end of suffering rather than the end of life. That was the way of things.
A funeral was never given the pageantry of a wedding or an anniversary ball because doing so would "endow death with meaning". Thus funerals were formal, unceremonious things. Formalities and paperwork.
Milva dressed light. There was no corset beneath the folds of her ringless black dress as she'd stopping going to the trouble of lacing them a week ago. Her shoes were two black slips purchased yesterday morning (before Mr. Pipps took her to the old flat) along with her lace ebony gloves and bonnet. Milva observed herself in the mirror as she tied the straps under her chin.
Her eyes were blank but the emotions behind them were a disorderly mess. Milva was not sure how she felt. In the customs of the Dukedoms it was required for her to show as little emotion as possible so as not to lend death `credence'. She knew that. That was custom. Yet custom or no, she would shed no tears for Agatha -- nor did she feel any urge to.
Milva's dreams were infested by reminiscences of every degrading deed Agatha forced her to perform these past four years. Poisonous memories anchoring Milva to a hatred utterly uncharacteristic of her. If her humble conscience had a voice in these matters it was currently muted...
Her only interest was to bury Agatha and consign nearly half a decade of abuse to the void.
When dressed Milva went downstairs to the lounge where the professor waited for her. The colour black didn't much suit him, but after having shaved his stubble and groomed his hair a dash, it donated well to his melancholic air of formality.
Kreug shrugged a frail smile at her arrival. "Are you ready to leave?"
Charles was already opening the door for them when Milva took up her shoulder bag and followed Professor Kreug out down the steps to the waiting carriage of Mr. Pipps. Though he dressed no differently than he would on any other day, his downcast expression said all that needed to be said about his mood.
While helping Milva into his stagecoach Mr. Pipps asked her, "How're you holding up there, Miss Milva?"
"...As well as can be expected."
He nodded. It was all Milva could say. Agatha was a Janus who showed the world one face and Milva the other. The latter, that of the poisonous abuser, was unknown to Mr. Pipps and the Professor. In someway Milva felt it was better to let it stay that way. To dispel their illusions of the right honourable Agatha would serve no purpose now.
Mr. Pipps took them west of Schäfer's Parade to an undertaker's parlour on edge of Chamblechester Street. Converted from a centuries old manor house, the parlour overlooked a wide common used for burial. Mr. Pipps drove beyond the iron gates and along the gravel track to the parlour doors where the undertaker himself awaited them.
Grey skies, even in this early morn, had rendered the city dark. By the time Milva and Kreug came to greet the undertaker the clouds had begun to drizzle. Milva plumped up her bumbershoot and drew close to the professor to shield him from the rain. He thanked her for it but was rather more interested in his discussion with undertaker about Agatha's interment procedure. Since Milva had had little to do with the funeral arrangements and she let them speak in peace.
"I'll fetch the pallbearers," said the undertaker.
With his thumb he nudged the brim of his top hat closer to his brow and jogged left. Kreug and Milva watched him circle around to the very back of the funeral home for his colleagues.
Kreug glanced around, angrily. "...Where is everyone?"
"I sent nearly sixty telegraphs this weekend, telling all her old classmates and fleet captains that she had passed away. Why are we the only ones here?"
Unsurprising. Agatha had little in the way of `friends'. She had associates, contacts, fellow advisors, and acquaintances. The many lunches and wine parties she held were for enthralling people she viewed as stepping stools to greater positions of influence in the Houses of Council. Amongst those wheelers and dealers who was there that could be called a friend? Agatha had (in effect) closed herself off from the entire world -- and fashioned a cocoon for only herself and Milva to inhabit. As things stood Kreug was the only man who truly cared for the departed woman.
Milva sighed. "Professor Kreug?"
"I don't mean to upset you but I don't think anyone else will come."
Kreug swept his chin. Somewhere deep in his heart he must have known he was breaking custom by being so flustered; Milva sensed that he knew this, he knew and he no longer cared.
The pallbearers slowly ambled around the funeral home's left flank. Four strapping young men, perhaps sons of the undertaker, trod into the gravel track with a brasswork casket suspended upon their collective shoulders. Kreug draped his arm around Milva's shoulder and snivelled. She yearned to tell him that she needed no comfort, but that was out of the question, for doing so would invite the deeper question of "why?" and if Milva answered that... well, needless to say it would shatter whatever pleasant image Kreug had of Agatha from their academic days. Better to keep him in the dark than tell him the truth.
The Professor took Milva by the hand and walked with her behind the hearse and the pallbearers, from the doors of the funeral home to the grassy knolls of the graveyard. The plot chosen for her burial site was in one of the common's rearmost sections. Once the undertaker's pallbearers were there they lowered Agatha's casket into the ground.
There were no military rites. Despite being a former Lord Admiral of the Fleet there were no officials on hand to oversee the burial.
As Milva saw the casket containing her former mistress sink into six feet of earth, she suddenly realized how small and empty Agatha's life had been. There was so little to show for it, aside from an old friend who knew little of her since their graduation, and a Elf slave she bought four years ago.
The Professor read an elegy. Milva was too wrapped up in her thoughts to pay attention to it. Instead she watched the men pick up shovels and fork lumps of earth from the soil mounds back into the grave. She was so in tune to their actions she failed to notice a third `mourner' joining them. It was only when Agatha's grave had been topped to the surface that she at last spied his presence.
A thin, long-faced and almost snake-like man in a gravel grey suit strode around the soil to Milva and Kreug as the pallbearers left with their shovels. He greeted them by name and offered his hand to the professor. He looked familiar.
"I know you. Have we met before...?" She wondered aloud.
"Yes we have," he said. "At one of her dinner functions, I believe. It is good to see you again. If you recall, I am Edmund. Agatha's solicitor."
Kreug frowned. "Solicitor. Is there a problem? And if there is, couldn't it wait?"
"These are matters better discussed elsewhere," Edmund's shoulders were already soggy from the rain. "I know of a teahouse nearby. Perhaps we might retire there for the moment?"
Whatever suspicions Kreug may have had of this man were allayed by Milva's partial familiarity with him. When she told him this might be important, the Professor relented and (after a brief congress with the undertaker for all his help) went with them to the teahouse Edmund mentioned. It was a stretch of a way down the hill, tiring to walk yet to close to bother calling for Mr. Pipps. They clamoured inside just as the drizzle worsened into downpour. Edmund found them a table in one of the corners and drew Milva's chair, asking her to be seated. Kreug took the seat beside hers and Edmund the one across from them.
Milva untied her bonnet. Her bumbershoot, soaked to the stem, was drying amongst others in a depository by the glass doors. Kreug slowly unbuttoned his coat. During these moments of silence, when the three allowed the under floor pipework heating to warm them up again, a matronly serving girl arrived at their table to take requests.
"I'll have a summerbeane coffee, please." Said Edmund.
Milva set her hands in her lap. She was too cold and too concerned with Agatha's solicitor to notice the serving girl staring at her ears. "Some tea with a squeeze of lemon."
"I'm fine, thank you." Kreug said. "You may leave us."
The serving girl bobbed and turned heel to prepare their beverages. Once she was out of earshot the professor focused on the solicitor again. "Care to explain yourself, `Edmund'?"
"I know that this cannot be an easy time for either of you," he offered. "I was shocked to hear what happened. However... there is business to be discussed and the sooner we iron it out the better."
Kreug tapped the table impatiently. "Very well then. Unburden yourself."
"Very well, I shall be blunt. As Agatha's legal aide I am required to carry out all necessary proceedings in the event of her death. One of those requirements was to enact a clause in her testament she requested I add three months ago. I have the documents here."
Edmund withdrew a manila envelope from a pocket inside his coat and passed it across the table to Kreug. He did not open it. Edmund continued regardless;
"The clause I speak of required me to transfer all capital from her three savings accounts at the Grauheim Banking Institution to the mortgage lender with whom she had purchased her flat at West Square."
"...What purpose does that serve?"
Edmund smiled at Milva. "To bequeath full ownership of the property to Agatha's chosen beneficiary, including the 3000 gold pieces left from the imbursement. According to my documents, Milva was Agatha's sole beneficiary."
"...What does that mean?" She asked.
Kreug, astounded, answered for Edmund. "It's means you've inherited Agatha's estate."
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