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Blood Feather

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“You are back,” he says.

Thor is grooming the chestnut with broad, gentle strokes, but he pauses at the sound of Loki’s voice. He is looking the worse for wear – mud splattered on his boots, a small cut on his cheek, the blue of his doublet soaked through with rain.

But Thor’s face splits into a smile.

“Loki!” Thor says, dropping the brush. “They told me you were still in Antwerp, looking after the accounts. Or I would’ve gone straight into the house to see you.”

“I returned only last night.”

Thor comes towards him, all grime and wet hay and exuberance. Loki is wearing fine black wool that should not touch the water; he allows the crush of Thor’s body, the brief scruff that Thor gives his hair.

“I missed you, brother,” Thor tells him, mumbled haphazardly into the side of Loki’s face. Thor smells like the road. “Everything is tedious without you.”

He struggles away. “Uncommon, for the French court to be tedious. How were the ladies?”

“Beautiful. Gracious. Wild.”

“I have heard that they bite, but only in the most pleasurable of ways.”

Thor laughs. Behind them, the chestnut stamps and snorts, pulling at the rope. “All women bite.”

Thor is slightly taller than before, broader in the shoulders. There is a gold tinge to his skin now that he has been abroad. Loki can imagine him in France, mounted atop the chestnut charger, spine straight, shattering shields, climbing effortlessly up the lists of the joust. In the last tournament held on English soil the ladies had sat with their fingers clenched around their tokens, their breath caught in their throats. Watching.

They are together in the musty stalls, listening to the cry of morning birds. It will be a bright, hot day. In the household pots are being scrubbed, drapes thrown open, water basins filled and carried room to room, fires lit, carts clattering, boys beginning to run errands, the ledgers peeled open by bleary clerks, the soles of boots dusted off in the halls, mice scampering in the kitchens, pages running still asleep on their feet and hoping for breakfast, Frigga’s hair laid out to be combed, the sun rising, the thin gelatinous blue of the sky against the oncoming day. The fresh scent of uncut grass, last night’s rain. A boatman’s yell from the river – perhaps there is fighting, though it is still too early for an argument.

Thor slings an arm about his shoulders, still dirty and wet, so he says: “Welcome home.”

--

Whisper of quill across paper. The lazy spill of sun over his desk.

“Out,” Loki says flatly, and then looks up. There is Thor, going curiously through a ledger, the blunt little shape of Frigga’s spaniel weaving in and out between his legs. Dogs in the counting house. “Thor – ”

“Sif says you did not sleep last night,” Thor says, amused. “She was upset with you.”

“I don’t disturb her by staying up.”

Thor does not understand the business of accounts. What Thor understands is this – gold coins spilling into the coffers, beautiful inlaid jewels sewn into Sif’s gowns and seeded across her hair, the best horses, heavy wine imported from Madeira, currants and figs and shanks of venison and fire in the hearths. Thor does not worry about how the jewels are cut, or the price of coal.

Broad hands, tracing the rows of figures: “I cannot understand how you could do this all day, Loki. I think if I had to look at numbers for hours on end, without stopping, I would go mad.”

“The world operates on numbers,” Loki says. “Wars are won with numbers.”

“Wars are won by men and arms. And courage.”

“Numbers,” Loki insists. “The number of men. The number of arms. Supply routes, powder, the cost of metal, the shipping, exchange rates, the distance between two camps – ”

“Come out and ride with me,” Thor says.

The sunlight, heady and close. There is a bright thread of it in Thor’s hair. A sudden ache blooms out of Loki’s chest – Thor has been gone for months, across the sea, letters slow to land and fly and Thor not good with words anyway: all is well. The weather is well. How is Father’s health? You must take care.

Loki with words pinned under his fingers, with clauses and sub-clauses and phrases honed to a point – he could turn an empire with them, and yet: I am well. Father is well.

We are all well.

Thor is watching him from under his gold lashes, steady and artless.

“I can’t,” Loki says, swallowing the knot in his throat. The light trembles on Thor’s shoulder and down across his sleeve, like a creature with a mind of its own. “I am busy.”

--

Down into the kitchens for some almonds, and Volstagg says, “Now what about this Lady Anne?”

“They say she’s a witch,” Hogun says. The reason why Hogun is here is a mystery; there are no horses in the kitchen, no falcons. “All up and down the banks of the Thames, they are calling her a whore.”

“How much flour do you have down here?” Loki asks. “How much sugar?”

Volstagg swats at him. “Have you not inventoried this place from top to bottom already?”

“I’ve heard stories that the Lady Anne has scales underneath her clothes like a snake.”

“Fandral,” Loki says, “you are much too pre-occupied with what is underneath ladies’ clothes. It will land you in trouble one day. Or more trouble than you are already bogged down in. These pheasants,” he starts, pointing, and then Volstagg grows tired and pushes him bodily out of the door, scattering almonds.

There was a woman, he remembers. A Lady Jane Foster: shy, straight-haired, dark and incorruptible eyes. Thor danced with her gently, a small, private smile on his face and his hand lingering on her arm. She wore cream brocade embroidered with lilies and a string of pearls. Her dainty feet made no noise in their slippers. Thor, lying on the grass with his head pillowed on Loki’s stomach, had asked him seriously how to court a woman – it had seemed absurd at the time to Loki that Thor would not know, but then Thor had twisted to look him full in the eye. This girl is different. She is nothing I have come across before.

“Write her a sonnet,” Loki had suggested; thinking to himself, this will be a disaster.

Where is Lady Jane now? Sent up North, married to some old lord or other. Loki can see her shrivelled up in a dank, cold castle, the roads turned to slush, saying her prayers in Latin to a slipshod moon.

Vincent rounds the corner, carrying a tray of pastries. “Sir?”

“Go on,” he says. “I am only thinking.”

“These are for you. From your brother.”

They are orange tarts glazed with honey. He takes one from the tray, thinking vaguely to himself that Vincent has had a bad time of it – from the kitchens to the rooms where the accounts are kept, perhaps out to the stables, and now back to the kitchen again. There is a thin sheen of sweat on Vincent’s brow.

The tarts are too sweet – sugar, he thinks, Volstagg is always running out of sugar. “Where is Thor?”

“I think he is in the garden, sir. With the Lady Sif.”

“Have they been there long?”

The boy fidgets. Loki waves him on with a hand, the smooth glide of honey running over his tongue.

--

Summer, the soil springy and fragrant and loose. Apple trees, fountains with fish that blow jets of water, paths paved with shells, a little bridge that courses over a stream that could be stepped over by any man or maiden – the latter if she hiked up her skirts.

Sif, squirming in her gown and underneath her hood, toying with her gloves. “This weather.”

“Don’t you like it?” Loki says. The three of them are walking along the path. “Do you prefer the rain?”

“I like it very much. That is the problem. It is the perfect weather for going out and riding, or otherwise enjoying oneself, but there is a stone in Casper’s shoe and I can’t lead him out.”

Thor is shredding a twig of its leaves. “You can take my Percival.”

“Percival doesn’t like me.”

“Then don’t dig in your heels so,” Thor says, patient.

“Sif,” Loki says, and for a second he sees the doubt in her face as she anticipates him offering up his grey gelding. The last time, it bit her. “I’ve heard that Lady Mary Winston has asked you to visit.”

“How do you know these things?” she asks him suspiciously. “Have you been reading my letters?”

“You would do better not to question Loki’s methods,” says Thor. “They might give you nightmares.”

“I haven’t been reading anyone’s letters. I’ve been listening.”

“Skulking about the kitchens again,” Thor says.

If there is anything of use to be heard, Thor is always the last to know of it. Lady Jane’s marriage had been relayed to him three months late. He had sat at the table, blinking carefully, ponderously, like a great charger trying to pick out the next spot of solid ground. It is my fault, he had said at last. I should’ve made myself plainer to her. I should’ve written her a sonnet.

“Father isn’t going to send you off again any time soon, Thor, is he?” Sif asks.

“I hope not. I’m not really minted for an education abroad.”

“You’re not really minted for an education at all,” Loki says. “I’ve seen your Latin.”

“We can’t all be lawyers,” says Thor.

The sun dapples the grass and shivers on the bark of trees. There are little statuettes that Loki brought back from Italy and from Florence; pale goddesses with their hands outstretched, balancing jars of water, robes billowing out to show just a glimpse of bare feet.

“We can’t all be everything Loki has been,” Sif says, nudging him. “Lawyer, soldier, clerk, banker, who knows what else. I certainly don’t. What haven’t you been?”

His thoughts are never still; they are never completely silent. Letters. Dispatches. Contracts to be signed, totals to be checked. The bushes along the right side of the garden need clipping. There is a book by Machiavelli that is being talked about widely; he needs to read it. A small bird in the branches to the left. A thin shred of birdsong, trilling. Sif with the emeralds that glint in her hair. Thor, footfalls scattering gravel, frightening the birds off, the price of wool is escalating again, Father with that cough that is keeping him in bed, the slight nick on Thor’s jawline from the spaniel perhaps, the blue of Thor’s eyes, a blue he’d like to commission someone to paint one day, but that is mad, a statue that he found in Greece, a young woman bent over her lover’s dead body and weeping.

He shrugs at her, keeping apace. “I can’t say.”

--

It is said that Queen Katherine will not yield her position; she will not retire quietly to a convent.

There is the hovering edge of a fight in the air, like an early scent of blood. The morning clambers up into the sky. There is unease in Antwerp; in the Venetian banks; in the great counting houses of Florence.

Thor comes yawning down the stairs. “Up so early, Loki? Have you had breakfast?”

The sun has stained the edges of the windows red. He saw a burning once, a man they said was a heretic, his hair sheared off and great chunks gouged out of his scalp – the flames blowing the wrong way, he had taken a long time to die. Recant, he thinks, recant! Sometimes he cannot understand the things for which people die. Queen Katherine says, I will not say that my marriage to King Henry’s brother was consummated, for it was not and I will not allow my soul to be damned. In Florence he had killed a man who had tried to rob him. A dim hand with a knife in the dark. Thor looks at him, eyes bleary with sleep, lit up around the edges by the slanting sun, are you alright, brother?

“I am fine, Thor,” he says. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “I am going upstairs.”

Ships, sailing from the east with silks. The Turks are pestering the Emperor again. He has been to Turkey, to Constantinople; there was a woman there, he remembers, her face hidden by veils. They are standing on the brink of a cliff here in England – the whole of Europe knows it.

“What shall we do today, sir?” Richard asks.

He sighs and pulls open a drawer. There is an ink-smudge on the edge of his thumb. “What we’ve done every day for the past year, Richard. No need to keep asking.”

They say Lady Anne’s eyes are hooks for the soul. He thinks, settling down: she would never catch me.

--

Another burning. Thor has never seen one. “Can’t we go?”

“There is nothing to see,” Loki says, frowning at a list of figures. There is a headache beginning somewhere behind his temples. “It’s actually rather unpleasant, if you must know.”

“Well don’t just sit there, then. Come and play tennis. Come and do something.”

They ride out, find a patch of meadow underneath an oak tree. Thor sits down like falling down, with a great amount of noise, knocking the clods of mud off his boots.

“You still haven’t told me much about France,” Loki says, easing to the ground.

“I wrote you.”

Loki snorts. “Were those letters? I’m sorry, I thought they were exercises you’d plucked out of a Latin workbook.” Stay well. Do not catch cold. Take care of Mother. I am out of time. I must go. “Did you polish up your French, at least?”

“Now you are starting to sound like Father.”

“Go on, tell me about everything. Tell me what it was like.”

“You’ve been to France,” Thor says, turning to him. He flinches back when Thor reaches out a hand, but it is only a stray leaf in Loki’s hair. “You know what it’s like. It is so different to home.”

“Is it better, or worse?”

“Neither. Just different.”

There was a woman there, too. The daughter of an innkeeper, small and frail, who had looked at him with the eyes of a lost animal. She did not speak English and he did not speak French. She had put her hand on his wrist and tried to tell him something, but it was all a song to him, a lilting melody with no words – he had thought, perhaps she is hungry; perhaps she wishes to run away; he had tried to give her money.

“Don’t tell me you were sick for home, Thor,” he says, smiling.

“I was sick for old company.”

“You missed us?”

“How could I not?” Thor stretches out a leg, then the other. “It was the longest I had been away from you since you ran off to Venice, to try your hand at banking.”

Venice, two years, and when Loki had returned they had silently agreed upon it: never again.

“I don’t know how you do it,” Thor says. He is squinting out at the sun, watching the horses meander in and out of the trees. Rooting for the windfall apples, perhaps. “Leave for months on end to a country where you do not know the language, living in strange houses. Learning all the strange customs.”

“It is not so hard,” Loki says, “once you have done it before, as I have.”

“But you do not simply suffer through it. You thrive.”

“Perhaps it is in my blood,” Loki says lightly. “I am rootless. I am not like you, with something to tie me down to a particular place. I make my home wherever I can.”

Thor looks at him, startled. “You do not see us as family? Though you have lived with us for years?”

“You know I am grateful.”

“You are not any less valued than I am, Loki, surely you must know it.”

He says nothing, letting the warm air ghost his skin. Thor has always been convinced of absolutes. There is a Heaven and a Hell. There is a right and a wrong. Sitting astride Percival’s shining flanks, looking down the length of the jousting field – an enemy, in plain sight and at the end of a straight gallop.

“I know it,” Loki says, to keep the peace. “I know it well, brother.”

--

Frigga comes into the corridor looking harrowed. All through the night, there was coughing. Loki, passing to his room with a candle well past midnight, had heard it – the moist, rattling sound, an old man on his deathbed.

“Loki,” Frigga says, drawing him aside. “Do you have time to speak?”

“Of course, Mother.”

There are jewels in Frigga’s hair but they only make her look tired. She has aged these past months. There is something inside of her eyes now; acceptance, perhaps. Defeat.

He had thought of her in Antwerp, staring up sleepless at the weather-cracked underside of his ceiling – and then the next morning he’d gotten up onto his horse and ridden somewhere, anywhere.

“I fear,” Frigga begins quietly, and then stops. “I suppose that is all. I fear.”

“I can have the doctors make him something that will ease the pain.”

“It is not your Father for whom I worry.”

They pass, slowly, down the stairs. “You worry for Thor?”

“You know how your brother is, Loki. He is not made for these abrupt changes. He has never been brought up to take care of the things he must soon understand – land, tenants, the running of a household, a title.” Frigga’s hand, thin and delicate as paper, tightens in the crook of his elbow. “It is my fault, I know it; I was always too lenient on him. Too eager to indulge his whims.”

“It is no blame, Mother, to have loved a son so.”

“But sometimes I fear it is not love I have given him. Sometimes, I fear – ”

He stops them on the landing. There is a boy’s laughter swanning up from downstairs, cut off suddenly by a closing door. “There is no need to fear for Thor’s future. I will not abandon him.”

“You are all that he has,” Frigga says. “He loves no-one as he loves you.”

He leaves her at the foot of the staircase. It is mid-afternoon; in the kitchens they are scrubbing the spits and the stockpots, sprinkling flour on the boards. The wind hisses through the apple trees. The sky is brimming with a violent potential, hot and heavy as a storm, though there are no clouds.

A letter from Antwerp that had come in the morning: Do you think this will hold?

He wanders out into the sunlight, calls out at a boy who is running past: “Where is Thor?”

“He is out hunting with his friends, sir. He will not be back before sunset.”

Last time he was in France he had brought Thor back a gift. A crossbow. Thor had looked it over with wide, appraising eyes, then pulled Loki to him and held him crushed there, warm and close. Oh, Loki had thought then; the things I have seen. After the burning he’d walked about the edge of the ashes and smelled the dead man’s bones and fat and hair. He was in a brawl in Venice; he was drunk and he knifed a man to death, short and sharp between the ribs.

Lawyer, soldier, clerk, banker. Murderer.

A lady with no title but her eyes on the crown. Usurper.

--

They go out with the falcons. Thor is wearing a cap with a feather in it, in the French style, his cloudless face tipped up to watch the birds dip and soar.

“Thor,” Loki says, the gelding stamping beneath him, “there is still the matter of the servants’ wages – ”

“You handle it,” Thor says. He does not look away from the sky. “I trust you in these things.”

It is impossible to get Thor to focus on such days. Perhaps Thor is simply not made to focus. Thor is a man for generalities, for the overall effect. The bright sunlight coats the field, a broad, open gesture, like the spread of Thor’s palms when he comes across something perplexing – ask Loki, Loki is sure to know.

“I cannot understand why you favour this sport,” Loki says, as up above the falcons swivel and dive.

Thor grins at him. “It is the joy of the hunt.”

“But you are not doing any of the hunting yourself. You are watching others do it.”

“There can be a joy in that too.”

The birds return, their breasts spotted with drying blood and their claws dripping. They hold out their gloves. The falcons alight, silent and steady, looking about with eyes that have seen movement from miles away and pounced. “Shall we go back?”

Thor nods. “Alright.”

There is a familiar look in his falcon’s eye – a steadfast devotion. She flexes her claws on his arm.

They ride for home.