Loki was bored. He finally had everything he’d ever coveted, the power and prestige of the Allfather with no Thor around to spoil it, the awe and respectful dread of the Aesir, and a chance to rule Asgard the way he’d always planned. But it wasn’t exactly a social life: Odin didn’t have friends, and since Loki had to act with the age and dignity of the king he couldn’t associate with the younger members of the court even if he’d wanted to. He needed a companion, someone to provide intelligent conversation, who wouldn’t be frightened by his status or notice if his pretence slipped for a minute.
He was thinking the problem over as his eyes swept the feast hall. The warriors were on their best behaviour in his presence but there was still laughter and cheering, and he felt more apart from them than ever. An older noble approached his table, bowing as he reached the dais.
Loki inclined his head. “My lord Finnr.”
“May I sit?”
He waved towards the empty chair beside him. “You have something you wish to discuss?”
Finnr sat with a soft groan, twisting to get comfortable. When he regarded Loki, his face was deeply furrowed with concern. “I only thought to ask how you fare. You seem...saddened, of late.”
“I find myself lost without Queen Frigga. Without my sons.”
“All Asgard feels your loss as keenly as their own.”
“I appreciate the people’s concern, but it does not ease my troubles.”
Lord Finnr looked down at the tablecloth for a moment, suddenly hesitant. “Could you not take another queen, Your Grace?”
“What?” Loki frowned.
“I mean no disrespect, of course. But if you require some solace, you might think to remarry.”
Finnr shrugged. “No one would dispute your love for Queen Frigga. You are the Allfather, Defender of the Nine. It is a heavy burden. You deserve someone to take care of you.”
Loki sat back, pursing his lips. “You think anyone would wish to marry a maimed old brute like me?”
“I think if you sent word you were looking for a bride, we’d have ten thousand maids at our gates by the end of the day.”
Loki huffed out a laugh and took a sip of his wine. The idea had merit. He’d never really thought of marriage before but it suited a king to have a queen, someone to look good by his side. He might even father some new heirs on her, since Thor had run off to Earth and he was supposedly dead. It was worth thinking about.
“It is too soon. I am not inclined to open my heart again.”
Lord Finnr ducked his head. “Of course, my king. No one could blame you for that.”
“I appreciate your counsel.”
“It is only my duty, Your Grace.”
Alone in his chambers, Loki stripped off his golden armour and considered the problem. As Finnr had said, he could send an open offer for candidates to all the realms and receive hundreds of responses, but it was too public. If Thor heard his grieving father was looking to wed again, he would have questions – probably outraged ones. So Loki would have to select his choices personally and quietly.
Where to look? Jotunheim was out obviously, as was Mulspelheim. He wasn’t keen on a dwarf bride either. Asgard was full of suitable women but Loki knew them all and wasn’t impressed by any. Frigga had been of Vanaheim, and it would make sense for Odin to look there again – not to mention that their women were versed in sorcery. That could be dangerous though. If he picked one too clever, she might see right through his illusion.
Which left two options – the elves of Alfheim and a Midgardian. Humans were very short-lived, which could suit his purposes or be a bother depending on who he picked. They had no appreciation for magic and no understanding of the many realms, so asking one to be queen of Asgard was ludicrous. He’d look much better with a stately elf on his arm than some awestruck mortal. Loki studied himself in the mirror, letting his guise slip into his true face. He conjured up a shimmering elf, her hair long and silvery-gold, her arm linked with his.
“What a pair we’d make. Light and darkness.” He chuckled to his reflection, banishing the illusion as he resettled into the Allfather’s form. Yes, starting tomorrow he would seek out the highest noble elf maidens and see if any caught his interest.
Loki couldn’t go to Alfheim as Odin. It would stir up too much interest and too much trouble. He left a semblance of the Allfather in his chambers and slipped through the crack between realms, heavily cloaked against watching eyes. It was as a fine, barrel-chested blond Aesir that he approached the palace, the dust of the path falling off his boots as he reached the gates.
“Your name, stranger?” the guard asked.
“Hákon of Asgard. I come as a messenger from Odin Allfather.”
“Aghi,” the elf called to someone in the courtyard, “Escort this honoured guest to our lord.”
A boy who looked about eleven or twelve hurried over, bowing to Loki with a wave. “This way, my lord.”
He followed the boy into the building. It was nowhere near as grand as Asgard, nor as ethereally beautiful as Vanaheim, but there was a certain light to the towering spires and the pale brickwork. Nature seemed to overrun the palace, ivy and moss covering the stone in places, small gardens tucked against the walls. Aghi led him through the main doors to a tall airy reception chamber. Lord Frey sat on his throne talking to a group of servants. He was an older elf but still handsome, his hair completely white and worn braided back. It was similar enough to Malekith to give Loki a chill. His tunic was silver, otherwise unadorned and with none of the armour Asgardians favoured in their dress. He looked up as they entered, tilting his head to listen as Aghi ran forward to announce the new arrival. Frey clapped his hands and the servants scattered. He stood, stepping off the dais with a smile.
“Greetings, Hákon. The Aesir are always welcome in these halls.”
“Your hospitality is praised throughout the realms.”
“What can we do for the Allfather?”
“It is a rather sensitive matter. Have I your assurance of total discretion?”
“King Odin is looking for noble elven ladies of a marriageable age.”
Frey raised his brows, dropping his voice. “For Prince Thor? We would be only too happy to oblige-”
“His Highness has taken up residence on Midgard. I will not be indelicate but I’m sure you’ve heard the rumours.”
“That he has a woman there, yes. Well we can’t begrudge him that – he is young. He has many years to find a wife. But if you are not here for him…”
Loki nodded subtly. “The Allfather.”
Frey’s mouth dropped open. “You cannot mean-”
“Yes,” the trickster whispered, “I come to find the next queen of Asgard.”
The elf rubbed his hand over his mouth, looking away. “We are privileged indeed to be considered. You are to look them over?”
“If you would introduce me without telling anyone why I am here, I would appreciate it. I shall take some time to get to know something of their character before reporting back to the Wise One.”
Frey gave a short laugh, shaking his head. “This is truly a remarkable thing. But I will not delay you and risk incurring Odin’s displeasure. Let us go find the young women.”
He clapped a hand on Loki’s shoulder, heading for the stairs. They went up a couple of levels to a long hall and then into a bright sun-filled chamber where several women sat sewing or playing instruments, one sprawled over a chaise with a thick tome.
“Lord Hákon, this is my daughter Ingríðr and her ladies. Gentlewomen, this is Hákon of Asgard. He is a guest, and a most welcome one at that.”
The ladies eyed him speculatively, Loki noting more than one expression of interest amongst the stunning faces. He smiled at the Lord Frey.
“I think we shall get along nicely.”
It took everything in Loki’s considerable powers of persuasion to extract himself from the parlour. The elven women certainly liked to talk, and Lord Frey gave him an unhappy look every time he mentioned going. He followed Loki out into the hall, falling in step as the god headed for the stairs.
“I trust you found them pleasing?”
“Yes,” he nodded, “Lovely, all. And very accomplished.”
That wasn’t a lie. The elves were skilled in music and literature, well-educated and possessing a good knowledge of strategy despite their peaceful natures. But they were dull. Loki had tried unsuccessfully to bait a few of them into challenging him and they’d just given the same enigmatic smile and continued talking as if he hadn’t said anything. He needed a wife who would be stimulating, not window dressing.
Lord Frey looked relieved at the compliment, hurrying after him. “Tell the Allfather we shall pay him a visit if he desires to make a more personal acquaintance with any of our ladies.”
“I have still to visit Vanaheim, but I assure you I will let you know if he requires their attendance.”
“Our blessings on you, Lord Hákon.”
“And you, my lord.”
The old elf grasped his hands, squeezing amiably. Loki managed a half-smile and broke away, escaping through the palace gates. No, even if they met all the criteria for a good queen (beauty, grace, good manners and common sense) the elves were not suitable for him. The list of women who had caught Loki’s eye over the years was exceedingly short and they were always high-spirited or sharply intelligent. He couldn’t marry someone meek and boring. It would be worse than his current situation and he’d probably end up tiring of her in a week and offending the elves by sending her back.
He moved through the space between Yggdrasil’s branches and stepped out into a Midgardian city, clothes changing to match the nearby humans. Loki glanced around for some clue of where he was. All his knowledge of Midgard came from Barton’s explanations but judging by the climate he was somewhere to the North, Europe perhaps. It was a good place to start; from what he remembered most of the surviving monarchies on Midgard were centred in the Old World. There was no question of him marrying a commoner, since he was already lowering himself by picking a human at all.
Loki headed down the street, eyeing the Midgardians until he spotted a flustered-looking man hurrying along with a plastic bag in each hand. Loki smiled to himself and moved closer, bumping the human’s shoulder roughly as he brushed past.
“Hey!” the man shouted.
“I’m terribly sorry – forgive my clumsiness.” Loki gave a bashful look.
He shook his head and stalked off, muttering angrily, and the god ducked into a side street. Once he’d covered some distance he found a bench and sat, taking out the phone he’d pickpocketed while the Midgardian was distracted. He didn’t have much practice using the Internet but it couldn’t be too hard to run a few searches for young single royals.
Loki watched the two redheads climbing out of their car, guards close behind. They were very similar, the sisterly resemblance obvious. They were also young, possibly too much so for him. He moved down the block and crossed the road, heading into the restaurant behind them.
The princesses were at a table in the upper corner with several people their own age. He walked over with a smile but the second he got close a guard stepped in his path.
“Go around please.”
“Maintain your distance, sir.”
“I only meant to introduce myself. I am Lord Hákon of Asgard, and I wish to say hello to Their Highnesses.”
“Nobody approaches without prior arrangement.”
“Ah. I understand. Who should I contact about arrangements?”
“The princesses’ secretary. You can find her number on the royal family’s website.”
He backed away with a rueful smile, scowling as soon as he turned. The more contact he had with the humans, the more likely word would spread about his venture, and the last thing he needed was Thor hearing about it.
He found an unattended computer in a nearby shop and pulled up the website, finding the right address. Loki popped himself to the offices and walked in with a huge smile for the receptionist.
“Good afternoon, how may I help you?”
“Lord Hákon of Asgard to see the secretary for Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice.”
“I’m sorry, where were you from?”
The receptionist blinked at him. “Asgard.”
“Surely you have heard of Prince Thor?”
“Yes. May I say what it’s in relation to?”
“A possible offer of marriage.”
Her brows shot up. “Take a seat and I’ll let her know you’re here.”
He perched on the edge of an armchair and glanced over the glossy magazines on the table while he waited. After about fifteen minutes a blonde women in her forties with a very severe suit came out and spoke to the receptionist for a moment before heading over, hand out.
“Sarah Winters, secretary for Their Highnesses.”
“Lord Hákon of Asgard.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. Come this way.”
She led him into a large comfortable office, half given over to a desk with lots of computer screens and half a library-like parlour area with bookcases and couches. They sat, the woman crossing her legs, Loki arranging himself casually but with the proper dignity for an Aesir.
“How can I help you?”
“I have come as a messenger from King Odin. He is looking to take a bride and is considering one of the Midgardian princesses, and he has selected me to meet them and decide if any are suitable. To that end I will require you to arrange a meeting with Their Highnesses.”
Ms Winters pursed her lips. “I’m sorry. As astounding as it is that His Majesty would make an offer like that, the princesses aren’t interested in arranged marriages of state.”
“What do you mean, they aren’t interested?”
“It’s been made very clear that they wish to live the most normal lives possible outside their royal commitments.”
“I am offering them a chance to be Queen of Asgard, highest sovereign in the Nine Realms,” he gaped, “And they would pass that up for the sake of normality?”
“It’s very important to them.”
“Your royal women clearly have strange ideas about what is expected of them.”
When she spoke it was with obviously forced politeness. “Our society has changed a lot over the last hundred years or so. Naturally we mean no offense to your people, but I believe I can say with confidence the princesses will not be changing their minds.”
He huffed and stood. “Well then. I am sorry for wasting your time.”
He got the same story from every aide and assistant he spoke to. Apparently Midgardian women met his strong-willed criteria a little too well. Loki spent a week going from court to court trying to find one princess who wasn’t determined to marry for love and couldn’t find any that were sufficiently awed by the Allfather to change their minds, even in the Norse countries.
He found himself at a charity ball in Buenos Aires, sipping champagne as he meandered through the crowd and kept an eye out for his target. He passed the groups of CEOs and bankers and moved to a table in the middle of the room with several similar-looking blondes clustered together. There was a woman in the middle of about thirty, her dress expertly tailored to fit her and her jewellery clearly antique and expensive. He made his way closer and bowed.
“Good evening Your Highness.”
Theodora of Greece and Denmark looked him over speculatively, exchanging a glance with her siblings. “Good evening.”
“I wondered if I might be so forward as to introduce myself. My name is Lord Hákon.”
“An interesting name.” she mused.
“Not where I come from. May I sit?”
“Certainly,” she waved to an empty chair, “And where is that?”
“Asgard?” she raised a brow, “As in the realm of the gods?”
“That is what the mortals called us many years ago, yes.”
“So you know Thor and Odin?”
“No offence, my lord, but what are you doing here then? I doubt your people care much about our charities.”
“I am here to meet you, Your Highness.”
“Oh?” Theodora frowned, “Why would you be interested in me?”
“Tell me princess, what is your view on arranged marriages?”
Loki walked into the room to find King Constantine and Queen Anne-Marie sitting at a long table, discreetly holding hands under the edge and looking very concerned. Princess Theodora was noticeably absent; however the rest of the room was occupied by several people in black. Some he took to be the royals’ own security but the others were definitely SHIELD. There was a dark-haired woman he didn’t know with thick-rimmed glasses and a colourful streak in her hair, and beside her looking nearly demure in a plain black dress was Agent Romanov. She had a short stack of manila folders and a notepad, a pen in hand. Loki had no doubt she wasn’t there simply to play secretary.
“My greetings, your majesties.” He bowed respectfully.
“Lord Hákon?” the woman said.
“Indeed. And you are?”
“Agent Victoria Hand of SHIELD. You may have heard of us?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“We’re an agency tasked with handling special…situations. As the group with the most hands-on experience dealing with Asgard, His Majesty asked us to sit in and help facilitate your discussions as much as possible.”
“You have experience with Asgard?”
“With princes Thor and Loki yes, as well as some artefact finds.”
“You understand, this is all so new to us,” Queen Anne-Marie said, “We mean no disrespect to your king but it’s hard to believe such a place exists.”
“I do not blame you for your scepticism. Asgard’s glory can be overwhelming.”
He took a seat at the head of the table between the two groups. Natasha’s eyes dragged over him subtly and he almost chuckled. Did they really think he was up to something or was Agent Hand’s little speech true?
“We understand King Odin is extending an offer of marriage to Princess Theodora?”
“Pending a meeting. Neither party should agree to anything until we have established some compatibility. And of course it will be very hard for Her Highness, having to leave her friends and family for an unfamiliar realm.”
“We may have lost our lands,” Constantine said, “But Theodora was raised a princess. She knows what is expected.”
“Times have changed on Midgard. I am not certain any of your young women would relish giving up their freedom for the much stricter hierarchy of the Asgardian court.”
“We agree the princess will need to see your world before she makes a decision.” Agent Hand clasped her hands on the table.
“When would be a good time for her to visit?” Loki looked at the monarchs.
Constantine and Anne-Marie exchanged a glance.
“I believe she will need a week or two to make arrangements, but we should be able to clear her schedule.”
“There are things to consider,” Agent Hand took over, “What kind of entourage will the princess need? How long will she be staying? You understand we’ll need to be able to communicate with her and some way for her to return early if necessary.”
“Her Highness shall not lack for handmaidens or guards, but she may of course bring her own if it makes everyone more comfortable. She may stay as long as she likes, or as little. Communication will be trickier but not impossible.”
“We’ll need to discuss the ramifications of any marriage between the princess and your king. What would her responsibilities be? How much contact will there be with Earth and her parents?”
“Agent Hand, all this can be settled once they have met. It is useless to talk details if Her Highness does not take a liking to the Allfather.”
The agent looked at Constantine, who nodded succinctly. “Alright. We’ll discuss this with Her Highness and organise a date in two weeks. I imagine she’ll be travelling by Bifrost?”
“You are well informed, Agent Hand. Yes, the gatekeeper will collect your group from wherever you choose,” he stood, bowing, “I shall carry these tidings to the Allfather, with your blessing.”
“We look forward to meeting him.” The queen smiled nervously.
“And he you, I am certain.” Loki’s eyes raked over Natasha again as he let himself out.
He waited for them to finish talking, following the agents invisibly as they left. Loki slipped from shadow to shadow until they were outside, the two women climbing into a waiting car. He drifted into the empty front seat, smirking to himself.
“What do you think?” Agent Hand asked as the door closed.
“It’s hard to tell with Asgardians but from what Thor says they’re mostly honest people.”
“He certainly seemed on the level, though I admit I was expecting more pomp and fanfare.”
“I don’t know…” Natasha trailed off.
“There was something he wasn’t telling us.”
“Look, it’s dangerous. Once Theodora’s up there we have no way of getting her back. But we have to ask what motives the Asgardians could have anyway. Who is she to them? Nobody. Her only interest is as a potential bride. I’m inclined to buy his story, if only because nothing else makes sense.”
“I don’t believe Odin would do anything to start a conflict with Earth. He’s sworn to protect it. But I also find the idea of him looking for a wife here slightly odd when he has nine realms to choose from. Princess or not, she’s a bit ordinary for him.”
Hand shrugged. “Maybe he’s looking to strengthen ties with us after the incident with Loki. He knows he needs the goodwill.”
“Excuse me, but he doesn’t. He’s Odin Allfather. If he wants something, we can’t stop him taking it.”
“I’ll suggest to Director Fury we send some people with Theodora. They can scout around, get a feel for the court, perhaps offer the king some overtures on SHIELD’s behalf. You and Barton will probably be selected thanks to your association with Thor.”
“We’re not diplomats.”
“But you are shield-brothers of the crown prince, as they say. You’ll make a good impression.”
Natasha pursed her lips and glanced at the window. “Don’t send Barton. After Loki…it’s best he stay far away from any of that talk. He’s not so good at censoring himself.”
“Understood.” Agent Hand said plainly, no judgement in her tone.
Loki pinched the bridge of his nose. Having Agent Romanov in Asgard was an unseen complication, but it needn’t be too much of a bother. She didn’t know Odin and as long as he chose his words carefully she’d have no reason to suspect he was anything more than he appeared. He just had to focus on wooing Theodora and convincing her it was worth marrying a much older man. Life would be much simpler if he could only use his true form – but then, the traitor Jotunn’s list of suitors was considerably shorter than the Allfather’s.
He popped himself out of the car and back to Asgard. They had a princess to prepare for.
A fortnight later he found himself posed patiently on his stolen throne, spear in hand, the court arranged before him. They talked quietly amongst themselves, knowing better than to gossip about the king within his earshot. Loki was wondering if he should have specified a time when the doors opened and a group of Midgardians entered. Princess Theodora wore a long evening gown, the trailing purple satin very regal. There were guards at her shoulders and a trio he assumed were SHIELD behind, Natasha just to the side. She looked stunning in a green dress that he suspected hid several weapons, formal without being too showy. She was still playing the unremarkable character, her posture and gait changed to hide her training. Loki could see a certain something in her gaze though, something too observant as she swept the crowd.
They stopped before the throne and he stood, nodding as they curtsied and bowed. “My greetings, Your Highness. Welcome to Asgard. May you feel at home here.”
“You have our gratitude for the invitation, Your Grace.”
“It is I who should be grateful that you accepted. We have prepared a feast to welcome you and your retinue. My people will take your things to your chambers, if you will accompany me?”
He offered his arm and she took it lightly, the Asgardians and humans following at a polite distance as they made their way into the main banquet hall. Loki led her to the head table. It was only set with four places. It was meant to look less intimidating for the princess but really it let Loki keep SHIELD at arm’s length. Lord Finnr took the one to Loki’s left and after a quick silent discussion between the agents Natasha sat on Theodora’s right.
“Tell me about yourself, my dear. Lord Hákon informs me you are interested in theatre.”
“I’ve studied drama for several years now and I’m on a daily soap opera.”
He raised his brows. “I cannot imagine you are very keen to leave such prospects.”
Theodora frowned. “My father may no longer have a throne but I understand the importance of an alliance between Earth and Asgard. I’m flattered to be considered out of the millions of women who might suit you better, and I’m certainly prepared to give up my career for such an enormous opportunity.”
“Good, good. I would not want to think I was tearing you away from your passions. Tell me about your origins. You were born in London?”
“Yes, I’ve spent most of my life there.”
“It was much damaged in the recent Dark Elf attacks.”
“Unfortunately, but they’re working on the repairs.”
“It is a resilient city,” he smiled, “So often destroyed and yet they continue to rebuild.”
“They’re strong people.”
“Like my Aesir. I think you will come to admire them. They are loyal to the point of insanity, and always willing to make the noble sacrifice.”
“They sound wonderful.”
“I’ll introduce you to a few after supper. I imagine you have questions for me?”
“Well, yes,” the blonde looked at her plate, “I mean this is so new to us on Earth. Until recently we thought it was all just stories. Maybe you could sort out the fact from the myths?”
Loki noticed Natasha listening attentively and smiled. “I believe I can accommodate you.”
He spent the next few days getting to know Theodora. They had meals together, sometimes with other Asgardians and sometimes alone, and they took walks through the palace. He found her quite bright - if a bit shy - and very compassionate. She had the essentials for a good queen and just enough pep to keep him interested, though she was nothing mind-blowing. Everywhere they went Natasha shadowed them like a scent on the breeze, always just out of sight but her gaze burning a hole in the back of his neck.
Loki was wandering in from the training yards one morning when he ran into her outside the guest wing. She curtsied and Loki smiled.
“You do not need to do that every time you see me, Lady Natasha. It is too much effort if we must pass each other ten times a day. Are you enjoying your stay?”
“Asgard is beautiful,” she said, apparently sincere, “And everyone’s been very nice.”
“And your mistress?”
“I can’t speak for her, sire.”
Loki grinned wryly. “I suppose I don’t have much to offer her in the way of charms.”
“If you don’t mind me being too bold, sire, there’s a lot you have that no man on Earth could match. Centuries of knowledge and experience, a reputation as a good ruler but also as a loving husband. You are known to be loyal and attentive. She could do much worse.”
He laughed. “You are bold.”
“No, it’s refreshing. You remind me of Frigga actually. She was never afraid to tell me when I was wrong.”
“I was sorry to hear of your loss, Your Majesty.”
Loki sighed. “Yes. You probably think it strange I should be looking to wed again.”
“I know what it’s like to be alone.”
“Your sentiment is appreciated, Lady Natasha.”
She curtsied, taking it for the dismissal it was, and continued down the hall. Loki watched her go for a moment. If any of the Aesir heard her speaking to the king like that, there would have been an outrage. It was thrilling. Natasha was never shy about her words, and she was one of only a handful of people in the Nine who left him guessing about what she really thought.
She was beautiful too, he gladly admitted that. And she fought but she preferred stealth and intellect, like himself. A thought glimmered at the edge of his mind, an image of him on the throne with her beside him. Loki snorted. That would be a disaster – Natasha Romanov might bite where her owners instructed but she was no wilting flower. She’d never agree to an arranged marriage unless it was a cover, no matter how important the groom.
Oddly it made the prospect even more appealing. He’d told her once he’d make her suffer, and what better way than to strand her far from home, out of her element, helpless in his power? It would be foolish bringing a woman he knew to be dangerous and mistrustful into his palace when so much rested on the enduring belief that he was Odin. But how would she know the difference? What could she do even if she figured it out? He had magic and she had none; she had no way of telling anyone on Earth and the Aesir wouldn’t believe her.
Loki ran his tongue over an incisor and strolled back to his rooms. He could have Theodora, a woman trained to rule, a woman who knew her duty but wasn’t completely two dimensional. Or he could have a tamed spider, magnificent and fierce. It was a difficult decision, but then Loki had always preferred mischief to the safe route.
He accompanied them back to the Bifrost on a palace mare. Sleipnir still refused to have anything to do with him, sensing something off in the illusion. Loki would have to find a way to fix that before he needed the mount.
Theodora kept glancing at him sidelong as they rode. He could tell she was weighing the glory and prestige of Asgard against having sex with a man older than her civilisation, no longer young and handsome, marked by battles and more than a little gruff. It wasn’t a flattering summary. Loki didn’t care; he’d already made up his mind.
They reached the observatory and dismounted, the king helping her down from the saddle chivalrously. He clasped her hands.
“Princess Theodora, your presence has been a great pleasure. I hope you liked Asgard’s hospitality?”
“I have no complaints, Your Grace.”
“My emissary will visit you and your family tomorrow to discuss our thoughts.”
He kissed her hand and she smiled, walking to the Bifrost opening. Natasha passed and Loki nodded, the redhead returning the gesture. He signalled to Heimdall and the god thrust his sword into the mechanism, the orb beginning to spin. The light of the bridge flashed and the Midgardians were gone. He stood for a moment, contemplating his next move.
“She is stunning, my lord.” Heimdall said.
“The princess is lovely, yes. I am not sure she feels the same about me.”
“I was not talking about the princess.”
He eyed the tall Aesir suspiciously and Heimdall looked back straight-faced. “I do not attempt to guess what you imply.”
“Only that the master of Asgard is free to choose as he likes.”
“And you think you know what I like?”
“I am skilled at observation, sire.” He tapped his nose with a finger.
Loki smirked. “That you are. We can only hope you are as right in this as in everything else.”
Loki entered the palace in his Hákon mask and was promptly directed to a private parlour. Theodora sat on the couch beside her mother, her father by the window. Agent Hand and Natasha were both also present, tucked in a corner.
“My lord, it is good to see you again. Theodora’s been telling us so much about her trip. I am almost sorry I missed it.” The queen smiled at him.
“I am glad to hear Her Highness was pleased with our showing. If you will excuse me though, I have a few words for Agent Hand before we conclude our talks.”
The king frowned, glancing at Victoria. “Very well. You may use the study next door.”
“My lady?” he waved a hand.
She followed him, Loki closing the connecting door quietly. Agent Hand looked him over and he gave a regretful sigh, schooling his face into an uncomfortable expression.
“Agent Hand, the Allfather harbours no misconceptions about Princess Theodora. She is young and beautiful, and though she will agree to this marriage from duty – an admirable trait – she will not be happy in Asgard.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. The princess has been quite positive about her visit. I believe she means to accept his offer.”
“My king feels he needs a companion without the ties of kith and kin, someone who will embrace life in Asgard, able to adapt to the many new people and ways of life. He has taken a shining to one of your agents.”
Hand’s brow twitched slightly. “An agent?”
“You understand why I cannot say this in front of Their Majesties and the princess. It would be insulting to hear that his eye roamed during an offer of betrothal, and to a commoner no less. But that is the case, unfortunate as it may be.”
“May I clarify which agent?”
She blinked. “Natasha.”
“Yes. He was taken with her wit and poise. She presented herself well.”
“It need not. I will break the engagement to Theodora and her royal parents, and the Allfather’s terms stand open for Lady Natasha to accept. You will receive your alliance with Asgard and any dowry your Director sees fit.”
“No offence, my lord, but she’s no princess. Agent Romanov hasn’t been raised for the role you’re trying to put her in.”
“I’m sure it hasn’t stopped her in the past.”
“And her value as an agent is immeasurable. The director’s not going to want to give her up.”
“Can he offer her the life of a queen?” he arched a brow.
“Not to my knowledge, my lord.”
“Then you will convey Odin’s offer to him and the lady. Send your verdict tomorrow with this,” he handed her a golden scroll, “And if the result is marriage Agent Romanov will need to be ready to leave for Asgard in a week.”
Agent Hand pressed her lips together and nodded. “I’ll let him know.”
“Now if you’ll excuse me, I must inform the others of His Majesty’s decision.” Loki swept out.
“This is nuts.” Clint crossed his arms over his chest.
“You’ve already made your opinion quite clear, Agent Barton.” Fury glowered at him.
“I just thought I should mention it again, since you don’t seem too concerned by how archaic and misogynistic this all is. You know, treating Nat like property.”
The redhead shrugged. “It’s not the first time.”
“This is Agent Romanov’s decision, and she is under no pressure to accept.”
“Right, she just might be jeopardising future Asgardian/Earth relations if she doesn’t. No pressure.”
“Clint.” Natasha said softly, arching a brow.
He went silent, pouting as he avoided her gaze. They were in a hotel suite overlooking the Thames, Fury standing watchfully by the window while the two agents sat on the couch.
“I doubt Odin is going to taint his position as protector of Midgard with any kind of scorned reprisals,” the director replied, “Especially with Thor here looking for Loki’s sceptre. But that’s why we’re talking to him before we make any agreements.”
As if summoned by the thought, the suite door opened and Agent Hand walked in with the thunder god. Thor smiled when he saw Natasha and Clint, waving a hand.
“Hey Thor,” Nat smiled, “Good to see you.”
“I did not expect the visit, but it is welcome.”
“Prince Thor,” Fury straightened, “Please take a seat. I’m glad you could join us.”
“How could I refuse when you have come all this way? And your agent was most cryptic. I was intrigued.” He sat opposite the spies, resting his leg on his knee, as Agent Hand moved to stand near Fury.
“We’ve had some contact with Asgard.” The director said.
“Contact?” Thor frowned.
Agent Hand took over. “A representative extended an invitation to Princess Theodora of Greece and Denmark on behalf of Odin. Do you know her?”
He shook his head. “I cannot say I do. But the Allfather knows everyone.”
“He wanted to meet her to see if they were compatible.”
“Compatible for what?” the blond blinked.
“Marriage.” Natasha said.
Thor burst out laughing, looking between them all expectantly. “It is a good jest, my friends.”
“It’s not a joke, Thor. The princess went to Asgard and spent several days with him. Agent Romanov reports they got along great.”
Thor’s smile flickered, brows furrowing. “You’re not serious? Why should the king want to take a wife of Midgard?”
“We were hoping you could tell us.”
He looked between them again, finally settling on Fury. “My father was wed to Frigga for over a thousand of your years, and she has been gone less than six months. He would not think to remarry so soon, I am sure of it.”
“Well he didn’t propose to Theodora anyway,” Victoria made a face, “He offered it to Agent Romanov instead.”
“To Lady Natasha?” Thor’s brows shot up, “Not that I fault his taste, but she is a commoner.”
“Yeah, we thought it was weird too.” Clint snorted.
Fury tapped his fingers against his belt. “Any chance you could talk to Odin, find out what he’s thinking?”
Thor grimaced. “I am afraid not. I have sworn to him I will remain on Midgard as this realm’s protector, and distanced myself from his affairs. To get involved would be overstepping – I have renounced my birthright as his heir, and as such have no say in Asgardian matters. But Odin is wise; I am certain if he plans to take a bride, he has good reason.”
“It doesn’t have to be as his heir – you’re his son. Surely your dad getting married is family business.” The director pointed out.
“Perhaps. I have many questions about his decision…but I know my father well enough to know he means no harm. Indeed, he honours Midgard, and that may well be his purpose. He may only wish to strengthen the ties between our people after the damage both Loki and Malekith have caused.”
“What benefits would the marriage give us?” Fury asked, ignoring the way Clint’s glare burned into him.
“Protection, though that you have already. Greater representation in the other realms, and greater glory. What dowry has he offered?”
“Whatever Director Fury sees fit.” Agent Hand said.
Thor whistled low. “You could gain much then. Weapons, technology, warriors. Knowledge from the great libraries of Asgard, ambassadors to the other realms. Trade agreements. It would be very valuable to your people.”
“Sure, we just have to sell Nat to get it.” The archer growled.
“It would not be the slavery you envision, friend Clint. Arranged marriages are common in Asgard, and both participants are held equal in all things.”
“You think I should do it?” Natasha pursed her lips.
“I will give you no illusions – the Allfather is a difficult man,” Thor leaned forward, eyes on the Russian, “He is not always as sympathetic as we may desire him to be, but it is because he must think of the good of all realms. He was a devoted husband, in his own fashion. You would never be mistreated or unheeded; you would be a queen in your own right, with responsibilities and authority.”
“So you think she should do it.” Clint scowled at him.
“I would never suggest a shield-maiden give up her freedom against her will. All I can say is that it is a great opportunity for Natasha and Midgard, and for the Aesir too. I think she would make an excellent queen. And beyond such diplomatic motivations, I do not like to think of my father being lonely. Our family is…much reduced. Perhaps he truly does seek a wife simply for company.”
“There must be other women Odin could marry that would make more political sense.” Fury said.
“On Earth? You do not have one central government, so choosing between the few monarchies left may cause more problems than it solves. And he does seems set on a Midgardian, asking first your princess and then Lady Natasha.”
“Would she be required to have any children?” Agent Hand asked, voice as flat and disinterested as if they were discussing the weather.
Thor frowned. “I do not imagine she would need to. Father has never expressed any wish for more.”
“But he had you then, and Loki,” Fury leaned on the back of the couch, “And now he’s a king without any heirs.”
The prince looked thoughtful. “Then it may be a condition of your union. I cannot speak for the Allfather, though I am sure if you addressed it with his emissary he would make things clear.”
“You wouldn’t resent me if I said yes?” Natasha’s lip curled, “I don’t 3ant you to feel I’m trying to replace Frigga.”
“I should be delighted to have you as a stepmother, my lady.”
“I think I’m a little young for that.” She smiled.
“Nonsense. You are both beautiful and wise, and fearsome too – as all mothers should be.”
“If I agree to this, I want to know what I’m signing up for,” she got closer, “What else can you tell me about Odin?”
Clint found her on London Bridge, gazing out over the murky water below. He leaned on the parapet beside her, squinting at the clouds.
“You don’t have to do this. Who cares if Odin’s king of the alien whatevers? You’re not anybody’s to barter away.”
“I haven’t said yes yet.”
“You haven’t said no either. It worries me.”
“I haven’t made up my mind. Thor’s right, this could huge for Earth.”
“Like you care about intergalactic relations.”
“What’s the matter Clint, afraid you’re gonna miss me?”
“You know it,” he nudged her, “I don’t wanna have to find a new best friend. Took me long enough to find you.”
“It’s just n assignment, really,” she shrugged, “It’s permanent, sure, but it’s not exactly tough being waited on hand and foot.”
“It’s not an assignment, Nat – it’s the end of assignments. It’s your life. You wanna give that up for some royal existence with a dude you don’t even know?”
“Maybe it’s my calling.”
“Going a nunnery is a calling. Marrying the Defender of the Nine is fucking insanity.”
He sighed, rubbing a hand down his arm as he looked away.
“I just want you to okay.”
Natasha wrapped her hand around his and squeezed gently. “I know.”
“Promise you’ll be smart about this – that you’ll put yourself first for once?”
“There are no promises in this business, Barton. They only get you hurt.”
Loki regarded himself in the mirror again. He wore Odin’s finest gold mail and a long white cape, his helm on the bed behind him. It wasn’t a patch on his own form but he was guessing Natasha wouldn’t care – they weren’t exactly doting sweethearts. Somewhere in the palace his bride was being dressed in her wedding gown, attended by the noblest Asgardian ladies and probably hating the whole thing. It was enough to make him snicker.
“My lord,” a guard knocked respectfully, “They are ready for you.”
“I shan’t keep my betrothed waiting then.”
He slipped the helm on and headed for the hall. An honour guard surrounded him, though the corridors were empty with everyone in place for the ceremony. They crossed the courtyards and gardens to a separate structure that stood against the palace walls, the tall columns of the temple rising up above the ramparts, its low curved roof sweeping across like a dove’s wing. Loki stepped through the doors and the heralds blew their horns, the crowd standing to bow as he passed. He barely glanced at the Aesir but quickly spotted Agent Hand and her SHIELD flunkies in a row near the front. He hoped she went back and told Fury all about the splendour of Asgard, never suspecting what they’d left poor Natasha to deal with.
The whole city had been done up more magnificently even than the displays for Thor’s aborted coronation. Everyone in the chapel wore their very best jewels and robes, the warriors’ capes in every colour. He sat on one of a pair of backless thrones on the dais and signalled that he was ready. There was a short interval while they fetched his betrothed, and then the doors opened again and Natasha walked in.
She was unbelievably beautiful in the Asgardian clothes. They’d braided her hair as best they could at its current length, twisting the small plaits up behind her head and topping it with a long veil of gold. The dress itself was a gaudy affair, the sleeves long and trailing and the skirts flowing out into a train that swept along the marble floor. It was white with dense embroidery, whole sections given over to gold and silver vines. It was finished with jewels and a few pieces of golden armour on her upper arms and shoulders. She looked dangerous and delicate and he was supremely glad he’d chosen her over Theodora.
She made her way up the aisle followed by her attendants. When she reached the dais he stood and took her hands. The sorceress chosen to preside over the ceremony stepped between them, her hands clasped before her.
“We are gathered today for the joyous union of our king, Odin Borson, Allfather and Defender of the Nine with his chosen bride, Natalia Alianovna Romanova of Midgard. Such a marriage is a serious thing for our beloved lord and his people. To be accepted into the House of Odin is an honour for any woman, regardless the realm of her birth.”
He could feel Natasha bristling beside him and hid a smile. The priestess beckoned to Lord Finnr and one of the SHIELD men, both holding a sword in a leather scabbard. Finnr’s was stamped with Odin’s raven crest on the hilt while Natasha’s had a spider.
“The exchanging of blades represents the protection you extend to one another. From this moment, you will promise your life to the other’s safety and happiness.”
Loki took the blade Finnr held out and offered it to Natasha. She bowed her head and raised her arms for him to belt it on. She took her own weapon from the agent and Loki nodded in acceptance, holding himself so she could put it around him.
“The exchanging of rings symbolises the fidelity and trust you will share, the love binding you together.”
Finnr held out a small gold and diamond band and Loki slid it onto Natasha’s finger, delighting in the way he held her hand so easily when she would have gladly killed him if she’d know who he really was. She returned the gesture and turned to face the priestess, and he wondered what exactly was going through that head. How long would it take him to know her well enough to guess?
“May the Norns bless your marriage with health, happiness and children, and may the people of Asgard find in Lady Natasha a loving and adored queen. You may kiss the bride.”
Loki saw the tiniest tic in her jaw, too small to be noticed by anyone but him and too small for her to stifle. He gently took her face in hand and kissed her, the whole thing lasting maybe a second before he stepped away. The king took her hand and led her to one of the thrones, helping her adjust her sword so she could sit. He waved Finnr forward again and the lord presented him with a golden crown on a cushion.
“Natalia Alianovna, daughter of Midgard, wife of Odin, I pronounce you Queen of Asgard. You are bound to its land and its people, and they to you, from now until Ragnarok.”
He set it gently on her head over the veil and the crowd erupted into applause, with cheers for the queen as Loki sat beside her and took her hand. A herald read out a statement that the marriage was official as the trumpets blared and Loki looked to his new wife.
“It is time to say goodbye to your people.”
He stood and she followed, leading her down the aisle to mass applause and shouting. They crossed the courtyard outside and into the palace, turning into a small ante-chamber. They were only there for a moment before servants led in Agent Hand and the rest of her party.
“I shall give you a moment.” He bowed his head.
“It’s quite alright, Your Grace. We won’t take long.” Natasha smiled at him.
“All the same, I shall give you your privacy.”
Loki waited in the hall, curious about their conversation but not overly worried. Agent Hand was probably just giving Natasha another run through to make sure she was really prepared to stay here. They weren’t friends as far as he knew, so it wasn’t likely to get emotional. After five minutes the door opened and Victoria walked out.
“Our thanks again, majesty.”
“My thanks to you and to SHIELD for this opportunity. There is a carriage waiting to convey you to the Bifrost. May the Norns speed your journey and keep you safe.”
“Thank you, sire.”
They headed for the waiting horse and sleigh, and Natasha stepped out of the chamber with an expectant look. Loki held out his hand.
“Come, my dear. There are many people anxious to meet you.”
He led her on a huge tour of the feast hall, greeting all the nobles and watching her expression as the Aesir poured compliments on her. He could tell the flattery meant nothing, perhaps even grated on her, but she maintained a perfect smile and kept up the chatter, remembering everyone’s name and position as soon as he’d said them. They retired to the head table to share the traditional mead, servants taking the wedding swords and hanging them on the wall behind their chairs where they would stay for the duration of the marriage.
Natasha didn’t eat much but she did it in a way that looked like natural nerves, so no one could have blamed her for rejecting Asgardian hospitality. Her conversation was polite; he could tell she was trying to get some idea of his character, looking for safe topics and interests. He answered broadly and turned the questions back on her, looking to extract the stories she didn’t want to tell him. They weren’t going to get anywhere being well-mannered all the time.
The drinking turned into dancing and singing and Loki started to tire of being glanced at with knowing smiles. Loki extended a hand towards her. “Shall we retire, my queen?”
Natasha took it with careful courteousness. “As you like, Your Grace.”
“You need not use those titles with me. We are husband and wife. That is a good enough address.”
He stood and she copied, the hall quieting as the Aesir noticed. They bowed in their seats as the monarchs passed, Natasha’s hand light on his as they swept along. She was fitting into the role already, nodding to the watching crowd and holding herself straight and elegantly. Loki bit back a smile, thrilled. He directed her towards his chambers, the rest of the palace empty compared to the feast hall. Outside the city was rowdy with celebration but they saw almost no one other than the guards as they reached the door.
“Wife.” He flourished an arm, holding it for her.
Natasha entered and Loki closed the door behind them, locking it silently with a touch of his magic. She examined the room with its large windows and golden drapes, the runes carved into the ceiling, and the extravagant dressing mirror. The bed was an enormous grand creation, the headboard curving up like antlers, the covers gold satin.
Loki stepped behind her and raised a hand to stroke the curve of her neck. Natasha moved to give him better access and he wondered how many times she’d given herself unwillingly in the name of the job. He felt a tingle knowing he would be the only one to touch her now.
“You did splendidly today.”
“Thank you, husband.”
“I must confess I am curious though. Why did you agree to this?”
“You asked me.”
“I am not a fool, Natalia. I am an old man even if I am a king, and you are young and striking. You must have had other prospects, and I don’t pick you as the type to seek prestige or power.”
“We needed the alliance. It was a good offer, and I respect you.”
“That is good. Respect is important in a marriage. I can only apologise I have nothing more enticing to offer you than this wrinkled frame.”
“Appearances mean nothing in my experience, husband.”
He walked around her, close enough that her skirts brushed his knees. Loki wanted to see how far she was willing to go. He raised a hand, cupping her face as he pressed his lips to hers.
“I hope you learn to enjoy my company, Tasha. In time perhaps you might even love me but I don’t expect miracles.”
She was silent as he stroked a hand along her collarbone.
“Ideally I would not ask you to lie with me until you were ready but as you have surely noticed, I am short on heirs and not growing any younger. It is important for the kingdom that we have a child as soon as possible.”
His eyes bored into hers. “It doesn’t bother you?”
“It’s my duty.”
He saw the determined spark in her eyes for a second. Her duty – yes, to Natasha this was just the next mission. No harder than any of the others and probably a lot more pleasant in some ways. She kissed him, hands flat against his chest, and he chuckled to himself. She really was prepared to lie with Odin, all in the name of what? The greater good? Following orders? The whole thing was too delicious. Her hand drifted lower and he broke away. Loki did not intend to take his new bride with his father’s body.
“Husband?” she frowned, “Is something wrong?”
“No, no, you were wonderful. But I have a confession to make, wife.”
She looked up at him patiently, perhaps expecting he would say he needed more time. Instead Loki let the illusion drop, smiling delightedly as her face fell. Natasha took a step back, treading on the edge of her gown.
Loki spread his arms. “I thought you might appreciate a prettier face to look at.”
She took a shaky breath, clenching her jaw, the surprise replaced by cold hatred. “You’re supposed to be dead.”
“I’m sure the same could be said for you on several occasions.”
“You should know by now death doesn’t seem to stick when it comes to me.”
“Relax. I didn’t kill him, though he deserves it. He’s currently enjoying a taste of exile.”
“Has no idea. He knelt before me and renounced his place without ever noticing, like the fool he is.”
“How does this fit into your plan?” she waved a hand at her wedding dress.
“I needed a wife, and you’re so marvellously twisted - almost as deranged as myself. It seemed like a good match.”
He took a step closer, steadying her with a hand at the base of her skull as he ran his nose across her cheek.
“And I was serious about needing some heirs.”
“You’re insane if you think I’m going to sleep with you now.”
“Why not? You were willing to do it for the decrepit Allfather. Why should the truth discourage you?”
“Because you’re a monster.”
“That word can be quite subjective,” he hissed, hands closing around her waist, “I am Asgard’s benevolent ruler and you are my new queen. Far from home, unarmed, out of reach. You are very much mine now, dear.”
“I’m not carrying any spawn of yours. I’ll kill you first.”
“Come now, wife,” he murmured it against her ear, “I thought it was your duty.”
She slammed her arms against his, breaking free. It was only a few steps to the doors but he’d sealed the opening and she couldn’t pry them apart. He wondered for a minute if she would try calling for help but the redhead must have realised that wouldn’t end well because she spun, eyes flicking over every surface for some kind of weapon.
“Tasha, Tasha. I meant it, you know. I don’t want to force you.”
“Go to hell.” Natasha spat.
“Only if you come with me.”
She laughed hollowly, bringing her fists up. “Try me.”
Loki shrugged, making no move towards her. “There are several realities you must accept here, Natalia. Firstly, you have no way of making contact with anyone on Midgard. Secondly, if you try to tell any of the Aesir about me, I have a little charm that will sew your lips together at the first syllable. So here you are, married to the king – my own regal self – with no way of enlightening anyone and no way back to Earth. I think you will agree this puts you at a certain disadvantage.”
“I’ve been in worse spots.”
“I highly doubt that but your obstinacy is adorable. No, you are at my mercy, Natasha. Worse, you are at the Allfather’s mercy. I could claim you committed an act of treason and have you thrown in a dungeon, and no one would question my right to do it.”
“Go ahead then,” she dropped her arms, “If you want to bully me and make it clear I’m out of options, fine. Take what you want like the psycho you are and let’s get on with it.”
“That would rather defeat the purpose of marrying you, don’t you think? You won’t be much company if I give you such a reason to loathe me.”
“I won’t be much company regardless.”
“Here is my bargain, Natalia. In public you will assume your role as Queen of Asgard. You will be a credit to my house, compassionate, warm and graceful. You will give no indication of any discontent between us. And in return I will allow you your freedom to rail at me in private, and vow never to assault your virtue – or what remains of it.”
“Why? What are you getting out of it?”
“Someone worth talking to.”
She stared at him, the silence dragging on. When it became apparent she wasn’t going to reply Loki started shedding his armour. He stripped down to his trousers and kicked off his boots, glancing over.
“Do you require assistance with your dress?”
“You don’t expect me to share a bed with you after this.”
“You are welcome to sleep on the couch but Asgard expects its king and queen to consummate their union. You are not leaving this chamber until morning.”
“How do you know I won’t kill you in your sleep?”
“I don’t. But it won’t get you very far – an instant execution and chaos all round.”
Natasha considered him and then the bed, taking the crown from her head as she crossed the room. “Untie me.”
“As you wish, wife.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“It’s what you are.”
“Officially maybe, but never when we’re alone.”
“As you like.”
His fingers wrestled with her laces, tugging them through the eyelets gently. He opened it down to the base of her spine, spreading the back until she could slide it off. Natasha stepped out of the flowing fabric in just a chemise, walking over to the mirror to take the many pins out of her hair. Loki threw the dress over a chair and slid between the covers, watching interestedly as she undid her braids and placed her jewellery on the dressing table with distaste. Natasha looked around and spotted a blanket at the end of the bed, dragging it over to the couch.
“You can share with me, you know. I won’t bite.”
“I’d rather sleep in a ditch.”
“Please yourself.” He rolled over, dimming the lamps with a wave of his hand. He could hear her getting comfortable and couldn’t help smiling at her stubbornness. She was taking it well though – he had no doubt there were a million schemes blossoming behind that blank face but she was sensible enough to see there was nothing to be done right away. She’d play along until she thought she had an opportunity.
“Good night, Tasha.”
She huffed scornfully and he grinned again. This was already fun.