Bitter 257

Britta set off at a quick pace. Everyone had run off, but she didn’t fancy getting caught by a straggler or someone who had doubled back.

Dennis’s mum was currently the main focus for the Garbolum thugs, but there was only one of her. She might easily lose track of a couple of them.

It was clear to Britta that Clara had followed her to make sure she was okay going home. She probably expected the dwarves to try something, even though they’d said they wouldn’t. The fact she would put herself out like that was sweet of her. The fact she was some kind of homicidal maniac was a little bit less sweet, and slightly more terrifying.

The night had closed in, and it was properly dark. The only light was from windows, and mainly from fireplaces which produced a soft orange glow that didn’t help much. Britta had the option to make some light using her Glamor spell, but that would make her stand out more than she’d like.

She was following her map. With the Mayor’s mansion marked, she had a glitter trail to lead the way. Assuming it didn’t lead her into a dead end (a very real possibility), it was a handy way to find your way in the near-dark. She just had to get there without being spotted.

Somewhere, somebody screamed. And then suddenly stopped. Britta kept moving.

Progress had been made. She had the book that seemed to be at the centre of events. At least, she was pretty sure she had. She wanted to stop and check, but here probably wasn’t the best place.

She looked up at the tall, ramshackle buildings and thought she saw something moving between them. Ninja dwarves swooping through the sky like Batman? Unlikely, but not impossible.

The ghetto area wasn’t densely packed, but not all that big and she was soon back in the open streets, where she felt both more secure and more exposed. Now she could see the sky properly, and couldn’t help but stop to stare.

It was like a piece of art, stars swirling around colourful nebulae. She had never seen anything like it.

Sounds of yelling and screaming from behind got her moving again.

Having the book, knowing it was important, made her feel like she was on the right track. The game had given her the book, so in some ways it had ensured she was on this track, but that didn’t mean she was guaranteed to succeed. But she felt good about her chances.

Did that mean the game would always push answers into her lap? In the real world, most people wouldn’t have that luxury. But in the real world you could also find a lot of answers just by going online and looking them up.

The main difference seemed to be that in the real world, everything interesting had already been done by somebody else. You learned about it by reading a book about them. It was definitely more interesting to go out there and do it yourself.

It was like she had a key, but she still had to open the door and see what was on the other side. Hopefully not a small chest with another key in it, like every other game, ever.

A bell rang in the distance. She counted eight tolls. She wasn’t too far now, so more or less on time. She hoped the Mayor wasn’t the type to get mad at a little tardiness. There were some teachers at school who were like that, taking personal offence at a late arrival.

She was at the mansion a few minutes later. The dwarves had been true to their word and hadn’t attacked or killed her. In fact, they hadn’t bothered her at all. Clara really had an effect on the local hoodlums. No wonder the Mayor wanted her back on the job.

Britta knocked on the door and checked out the sky again while she waited. Obviously it was some design on a computer, but Photoshop had never looked like this. She could almost feel the dark depths of space, crammed full of other worlds.

Light flooded out of the house as the door opened. A tall figure filled the doorway. A woman.

“Yes? Vhat is it?” she asked in a harsh accent. It sounded German or Eastern European.

“Hello. I’m here for the Mayor. I mean, I’m B. I have a dinner da… appointment with the Mayor.” Even in silhouette, Britta could tell the woman was glaring at her disbelievingly. “For eight o’clock. B. Didn’t he mention it, Mrs….?”

“Frau Magda. And no, he did not mention it. He isn’t home.”

“Oh,” said Britta, disappointed. She hadn’t expected to be stood up. The date had been set a few days ago, at least by her calendar. Perhaps she’d missed it, even though, technically, it was the first night darkness had descended. “Um, I suppose I’ll go then. Could you tell him—”

Frau Magda stepped back. “Come in. You may vait for his return.”

There was a crack of thunder that made Britta jump. Strangely, there were no clouds in the sky.

“I could come back another time,” said Britta.

Now that Frau Magda had backed into the hallway, Britta had a better view of her. She wore a heavily starched dress with a high collar and frills in unusual places. Was she the housekeeper? The children’s tutor? The wife? It was hard to tell. One thing was clear, though. Her face was even harsher than her accent.

A hooked witch-like nose protruded from below a pair of overgrown eyebrows that had joined forces. Her hair was pulled back into a severe bun, and her eyes seemed to be set to permanent disapproval. She was somewhere between thirty and sixty; it was impossible to be any more accurate.

“The Mayor vill be home soon. If he made an appointment with you, he vill be here on time.”

He was already late, but Britta didn’t feel comfortable mentioning it. “If you’re sure,” she stepped forward.

“In. Schnell, schnell,” barked Frau Magda. Why would someone in this world know German? It made no sense.

She hurried inside, regardless. Frau Magda shut the door behind her and then swished around, although none of her clothes did. Everything she wore was stiff and lifeless. She walked over to a door and opened it.

“Please vait in the library.”

Britta nodded her thanks and entered the room. Inside, all four walls were lined with shelves heavy with books. As she walked in looking around, the door closed, followed by the click of a key turning in the lock.

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