The king's sons were both short, though Loki, thinnest, nearly reached Sif's nose. She'd thought they would be taller. Standing to either side of the queen, they looked down at her from the steps. Thor, the bright one, smiled. The other pursed his lips and said, "Are we supposed to play with her?"
"Who wants to play with you?" Sif snapped.
Her father laughed and drew her back. He bent to her, his hair brushed her brow, and he whispered, "Behave yourself." His fingers bit into her arm. Through the dark curtain of her father's hair, she saw Loki smile at her.
Her father shook her. "Do you hear me?"
"All right!" She scowled and looked away. "Fine."
What the queen thought of Lieff Hoffson and his graceless, skinny daughter, she did not show. Sif's father turned to her and the queen smiled graciously at them both, as if Sif had not insulted the second prince. Far from insulted, Loki looked amused.
"Please," said her father, "forgive my daughter. She's very demonstrative."
Sif frowned. 'Demonstrative' was one of her father's nice words; it meant "unladylike and rude." The queen did not hear this.
"She's fearless," said the queen, "and confident in herself." She smiled at Sif then, and Sif thought perhaps she loved the Queen Frigg a little for the way her eyes crinkled as if to say, And I think that's very good indeed.
The queen turned to her sons, first Thor then Loki, and said, "Won't it be nice to have someone new to play with?"
"Yes!" Thor cried. He grinned at Sif and then looked around his mother at Loki. "I like her already. She thinks Loki's rude, too," he teased.
Loki's eyes lidded. "I don't care what she thinks," he said.
Then, and Sif nearly laughed for the surprise, the queen pinched Loki's ear. He jumped and yelped as she dragged him about to face Sif. Sif's father turned his face away, either out of respect for the prince or mortification.
"You are a prince," the queen said quietly, "and you will treat our guest and your new friend with kindness and respect."
"Yes, Mother," said Loki quickly. "I'm sorry." His eyes flicked up to Sif and then away again. Sif bit back a laugh. "I shouldn't have been cruel."
Sif's father touched her arm. "And what do you say?"
She glanced back to Loki, who'd grown pale - paler, anyway - and refused to look at her. Indignation welled in her; why did she have to accept an apology the queen had ordered? He stared down at his boots. The tips of his ears stuck out from his head.
The thought startled her: he was only a boy. They were both only boys, for all their airs and titles. Sif made a face.
"I accept your apology," she muttered. "Thank you for making it."
"There." The queen beamed. "That didn't hurt at all. Now, go play nicely, all of you. I have some business to discuss with Sif's father."
As her father rose to join the queen, Thor descended to meet Sif. He was short, but already thick through the shoulders, and when he smiled his whole face lit up.
"You're tall for a girl," he said frankly.
"You're short for a prince," she retorted.
Thor shrugged. "I'll get bigger. Loki will, too. He's already tallest."
She looked up to Loki, who lingered a few steps behind Thor, like a thrall or a shadow. He was looking at her, frowning a bit. Loki started when their eyes met and snapped his head around to look instead to the sky.
"He's rude, too," said Sif.
"He's just shy," Thor said easily. "He doesn't know you, that's all. Do you know how to use a slingshot? You have big arms."
She tossed her hair. "A slingshot and a bow. And I can wrestle, too."
"Ha!" Thor crowed. "I knew it! Best two out of three."
"If you can get up again," she shot back.
Thor laughed and dropped into a stance, knees split, arms wide. Sif grinned and mirrored him.
"You're going to ruin your clothes," Loki called at them.
"I don't like them anyway!" Thor shouted.
"Mother won't be happy."
What a baby, Sif thought. She bet he couldn't even lift a wooden sword without hurting himself. He probably cried when he had to use a knife to cut his meat. Now he stood on the last step, arms crossed, his mouth pulled down at the corners. His hair shone like a raven's wing in the muted yellow light.
"Three-two-one-go," said Thor, and he lunged for her.
Sif, caught off-guard, thumped his back furiously and shouted, "That's cheating! You're cheating!" and struggled with Thor in the grass without thinking to pull her punches.
Father scolded her later for bruising the prince's eye, and Mother cried, "What have you done to your dress!" but Sif found she didn't much care. She fell into the bath and shouted at the heat, and she thought of Thor yelling, "All right! All right! You win! Let go!" and Loki standing at the edge and saying, "You got beat by a girl!"
When, to her father's repeatedly expressed surprise, the queen asked the day after if Sif Lieffdottir wished to come to the palace again, Sif shrugged and said, "I guess." Maybe she'd get to bruise Loki's eye, too.
"Have you considered whether there's more to life than trying to kill each other?"
Loki said this politely, as if it were as neutral a thing as the weather. Sif looked up at him from the ground. At this angle she could see up his nose. His lashes had fallen down over his eyes.
"Why?" she asked. "What do you want to do?"
Then Sif got her arm up under Thor's shoulder and broke his hold. He shouted at this and fought to pin her again, but Sif was quick. She took advantage of the opening and brought her knee up into his ribs, and as Thor coughed she threw him off and rolled over on top of him.
"Give," she said triumphantly.
He was red-faced and his brow knit in a glower, but he grinned so his teeth showed.
"You think you can defeat the mighty Thor?"
"I don't think," she said. "I just did."
Sif shook dark locks back from her face; too long, her hair got in the way whenever it unwound from its pins. She looked to Loki, who started. A moment, then, as he went still, then he looked away from her. Her breath came quickly, and a wisp of hair had settled in her throat. Who was he to look away from her?
Thor ran his elbow into her chest and knocked her off. Sif swore and turned her fall into a tumble. Beside her, Thor rose up onto his hands.
"What did you want to do?" he asked Loki.
Loki blinked and turned to Thor, and not to Sif. Sif flexed her fingers and wrists. She thought of socking him hard in the delicate place between his throat and his shoulder, where his collarbone showed even through his shirt. He was so scrawny.
"Well," he said, "I thought if you weren't too busy punching each other, we could go explore."
He glanced at her, a little sort of flickering under his eyelids, but it was Thor who clapped her on the back and said, "Loki finds the best places. Once we found a dragon's nest!"
Sif shoved him. "You did not."
"It's true! Loki spotted a scale the beast had shed. Brother, tell her." Thor lit up. "No, let's show her."
That was the way of it. When Thor decided a thing was to be done, that was what he did. Loki rolled his eyes and briefly he looked to Sif, as if to share this with her, then he seemed to realize who it was he'd looked at and his mouth pinched.
"Does my face offend you?" she snapped.
Both Thor and Loki looked at her then, Thor's round face creased in bewilderment and Loki looking like nothing so much as a rabbit in a trap.
"Does it make you sick?" she pressed. "Do me the honor of being honest."
"Sif," Thor said hesitantly, "did I hit your head?"
"Look at me!" she shouted at Loki, who had turned again from her.
He stopped and lifted his face. His cheeks were red and his lips were flat, as if to look at Sif was to look upon a thing which ripped at his gut. She was on her feet before she'd thought of anything more than how badly she wanted to break his nose.
Loki sidestepped her lunge. She reoriented and lashed out with her foot, but he slid away once more, light on his toes. His hair fell black against his brow. She came at him again and again he danced about her.
"Stop running and fight me, you coward!"
"I am fighting," he protested.
"My brother is very tricky," Thor told her as she tried to catch Loki by the throat. "You'll have to do better if you want to catch him."
If she could beat Thor, Thor who knew how to fight like a warrior, a true warrior, with pride and honesty, then she could box Loki's ears and kick his knee back. He turned on his toes and ducked beneath her arm. She felt a light pressure at her side and only realized he'd struck her when a moment later heat blossomed between two of her ribs. He smiled wickedly, lingering. Sif caught his shirt, dragged him to her, and smashed her head against his.
Loki stumbled back and fell. So, too, did Sif. Thor howled, laughing, and didn't stop even when Loki shouted at him to have some respect for the gravely wounded. Sif clutched at her head and wished she'd never come to the palace.
"No one's ever headbutted Loki before," Thor said.
Sif rolled onto her side and jabbed Loki's forehead between his fingers. He flinched away from her. His palms pressed to his eyes.
"Why won't you look at me?" she demanded.
"Because you look like a horse," he snapped. "I think you are a horse. How thick is your skull?"
"How thick is your nose?"
She brandished her fist. It wavered slightly. Her eyes stuck.
"If you're going to kill me," Loki said, muffled, "please do it later. Thank you."
"Should I take you two to the healing room?" Thor asked, still laughing. "Would you like me to carry you?"
"I hate him," Loki told her. "He's like this all the time. He's so disgustingly cheerful about everything."
Had Sif known all she had to do was break her head on Loki's face to find him bearable, she would have headbutted him weeks ago.
"Make him shut up," Sif said, "and I'll never call you a coward ever again."
"I knew you two would get along," Thor said happily.
Private tutors lived in the palace and saw to the princes. They'd classes in the morning and training in the early afternoon, then, if no other appointments dotted the schedule, hours to themselves. Sif came on the third day each week, then the third and fourth days, then whenever permitted.
"Can't stay away," Thor gloated.
"Someone has to keep you from getting cocky," she said before kicking his legs out from under him.
Loki had applauded politely and awarded Sif nine points on a grading scale which he refused to divulge. Thor insisted he was in the lead.
"Isn't that right?" he'd asked Loki.
Loki had smiled, and his eyelashes had shown dark on his cheeks - Sif's skin prickled all along her back and arms as if he looked at her - then he opened his eyes and he was looking not at Sif but Thor. It was an ambiguous and, she was learning, perfectly Loki answer. Thor took it as an unqualified yes. She was learning that was perfectly Thor.
Sif came early one afternoon. The training yard was in the left wing of the palace and access to the yard proper was restricted. She went instead to the balcony which looked over the yard. Below, Thor stood with his head turned up to a tall, thick soldier who demonstrated a twisting step with a wooden sword away from the prince. The blade flashed; it cut through the air evenly, with force enough to break bone though the edges were flat, dulled to lessen injury. The soldier's heel ground into the dirt and he spun, whipping the blade out again.
A longing so vast Sif thought she might die burst inside her belly. She wanted to choke on her tongue to stop it. Her fingers tightened on the railing. If she leaned far enough out, perhaps--but of course she could no more change the world with her will than she could make herself a boy. She bit the inside of her cheek. Stop being a stupid child, she thought viciously.
She turned. Loki stood in the right corner, where the balcony opened onto the stairs. He'd one glove on and the other tucked in his elbow. His leather training coat flapped as he crossed to her. He tugged the other glove off. A bitter taste filled her mouth. Even Loki was trained to fight, to really fight. She turned her back to him.
Loki folded his arms over the rail. The fingers of his gloves stood up over his elbow. Sweat beaded his throat, and his hair curled at his nape. His ears were flushed.
"I felt bad for you," she said at last. "Stuck here all alone."
The leather coat groaned. He looked to her. Sif stared at Thor as he mimicked his instructor. The tip of his sword dropped.
"Again," said the instructor.
Thor raked a hand through his hair. His head dropped. Then his shoulders straightened and he stepped back to his starting place. Sif wished she could lift the sword from his hands, the coat from his shoulders.
"He's very good," Loki said.
Her jaw ached. Thor began to walk through the steps. Abruptly, she turned about.
"I wouldn't know," she said. "My father won't let me hold a sword."
Wood thwacked against leather. Even with her back to the yard, she could see Thor staggering under the blow, catching the sword on his knee.
A finger on her arm.
She looked down to it then to Loki, whose expression she found incomprehensible. His gaze was steady, then he blinked. He looked to his hand and took it back. Loki cleared his throat and raised his chin.
"I think you'd make a fantastic swordsman."
Sif stared at him. No one had ever said this to her before.
He went on: "You're much better than I am. Thor thinks so, too. That you should be a warrior, I mean. Obviously you're better than me."
He lowered his eyes and picked at the railing, then stilled his hand.
"If you'd like," he said, "you could sit in on our practices."
It was too much to think of. She wouldn't think of it. Her belly siezed and so did her chest and she wanted to hit him across the mouth for teasing her so. She had thought-- For a time, she had thought they were nearly friends. She had even thought Loki not so bad, even as he called her name wrong and teased her for her hair and her long nose.
"Don't joke about this," she said.
"I'm not joking."
Then Loki smiled at her in a way she'd never seen him smile before. The thought that he wasn't teasing even a bit struck her then. Her chest tightened.
She said, "My father--"
"Don't tell him," he said, as if it were the most obvious thing. Perhaps for Loki, it was. Sif had never lied to her father before.
Her tongue tangled up. She wasn't clever with words like Loki; she didn't know what to say or how to say it.
"We're friends," Loki said. He hesitated then. His face tightened; she didn't understand it. "Aren't we?"
He was an insufferable brat, and if he called her Sybil the horse one more time she swore she would beat him blue with her bare hands. He filched sweetmeats off her plate and pins from her hair. He wasn't at all like Thor, who was loud and honest and threw his arm about her as if they'd always been friends.
Sif said, "Yes. We are," and it was true.
The thing about being friends with Loki was he took it as license to behave even more abominably. He thought he'd permission to hide in trees and drop wriggly things on her, or to nick candies from her fingers and pop them in his pink mouth.
Sif dropped down beside Thor in the dirt and said, "When I see your brother, I'm going to kill him."
Thor stretched out his golden-brown arms. He'd tanned terrifically over the long summer, and his shoulders had widened. She thought he looked like a goose when he pulled his arms out like that.
"Why? What's he done?"
"He stole my strawberry tarts yesterday."
"He steals everyone's tarts," Thor said mildly.
"It doesn't matter to you," Sif accused. "You're used to him. You let him get away with it."
Thor looked at her as if she were stupid. He accomplished this mostly by squinting and frowning and looking as if he'd got the sun in his eyes.
"No," he said. "I just don't leave my things out."
Thoughtfully, she said, "I thought you ate so quickly because you were a horse."
"You're the horse. Remember?"
Sif punched his arm where she knew it would hurt most, and Thor, who was increasingly difficult to shove over, reached out and pushed her onto her back. Her head thumped down on the hard, packed dirt of the training yard. The sky was a pale sort of blue, and it was clear. She wondered when it would rain again. She felt hot and dusty and thin, but not quite so thin as Loki, who'd shot up again over the summer. How he stayed so skinny when he ate all her sweets, she didn't know.
"I really like strawberry tarts," she said.
Thor leaned back on his elbows. He smelled of exertion and grime, but then so did Sif. She liked that smell. Loki, she thought, smelled like books and a different sort of sweat, the perspiration of simply breathing.
"That's why he takes them."
Thor laughed. "You should tell him that. I think he'd like it."
"You're both perverse," she told him. "I don't know why I talk to you."
"Because you like us," said Thor. He stretched his legs out. His nose wrinkled; he grunted.
"Goose," she said affectionately.
"Horse," he said. "You should tell him to stop taking your things."
"You should tell him to look out," she said, but that afternoon when Loki reached over and took a bit of sweetened cheese from her plate she said, "What do you think you're doing?"
He paused. Loki blinked so very prettily at her. The cheese was at his lips.
"Were you eating it?" he asked her, as if he cared one way or the other.
This close, she could count the little yellow spots in his green eyes. She felt, or imagined she felt, his breath on the length of skin which showed between her throat and her shoulder. He'd cut his hair again and slicked it back against his scalp; still it stuck up in ragged spikes.
"No," she said, thinking of Thor saying, "That's why he takes them." She said, "I don't like sweetened cheeses."
Loki smiled. His cheeks creased, and the corners of his eyes deepened.
"Then you won't mind if I eat the rest," he said, and he took the plate from her.
Sif caught it as it passed her elbow. The jolt sent a number of wedges tumbling to the floor, where they were lost to one of the princes' opportunistic dogs. For a moment, Loki looked surprised, then he looked only slightly confused.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she demanded.
"You said you didn't like them." He tugged on the plate again. Sif held fast. Another wedge fell. "I thought I'd spare you having to eat them."
Another wedge gone.
"You can't keep them all to yourself," he reasoned. "That isn't fair."
Across the table from them, Thor looked up from his bowl and said, "Sif, let him have some of your cheese."
She gaped at him. The little traitorous-- Sif grabbed one of the wedges and bounced it off Thor's head.
"What!" He made as if to flick a spoonful of stew at her.
Without so much as a sigh, Loki let go of the tray, and the remainder of the cheese went flying through the air. Sif spilled back in her chair and caught the tray against her chest. She looked at Loki, who had the grace to lower his eyes.
"What was that for!"
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm not hungry. I thought you had a better grip."
"Well, I didn't," she snapped.
Loki pinched his lips. Another apology. He rose then and held his hands out for the tray. She'd a bit of cheese smeared across her clavicle. His eyes flickered to it then back to her face, and Sif felt suddenly, hotly bare.
"I'll get a cloth," he said.
In Loki's wake, Thor said, "You should've just let him have the cheese."
Her heart beat weirdly. She wished she'd followed Loki out. She didn't know why. She wished she'd hit him over the head with the tray.
"Shut up," Sif told Thor.
In the last handful of summer days, they went to a pool in the woods a half hour's walk from the Ninth Road. It was Loki's idea. He'd come over to Thor and Sif as they fought in the dirt over where to go to wash off. Sif had looked over Thor's hulking shoulder and seen Loki standing there, eyebrows raised, the first few buttons of his sweat-stained shirt opened so the dip in his collarbone showed. She'd been surprised to see him there and so missed a chance to stick her fist in Thor's gut and flip him off.
"You aren't even trying," Thor said as he pressed his arm over her chest. A shadow fell over them. Thor looked up and grinned. "Brother!"
"If you're done trying to strangle each other," Loki said, "I have an idea."
The pool was a small one, but deep, and it was fed by a creek which ran down from the Mountain of First Rain.
"No one else knows it's there," Loki explained.
"How long have you known about it?" Sif asked.
She ducked beneath a branch which came swinging back at her courtesy Thor. She ran up at him and kicked his calf. Thor swore.
"Oh," Loki said to her back. Sif had her arms around Thor's waist and her toes pushing into the dirt as she tried to bowl him over. "I don't know. A while."
"Try harder," said Thor. "Make it a challenge."
"I'll show you a challenge," she snapped, and she drove her hand into his armpit. Thor shouted and jerked away.
They were scuffling still, Sif and Thor, when Loki passed them. He glanced at them and then away, and she wondered at that. Then Thor had his hands around her waist and he was stepping to flip her over his shoulder, and she'd more pressing things to worry about than Loki's strange looks.
"We're here," Loki announced as Sif came crashing down to the ground. She'd her hands hooked in the back of Thor's shirt; he came crashing down, too.
"If," Loki added, "anyone's still interested."
Thor groaned. "Moment."
"Ha! Weak," said Sif. She tightened her gut and pulled herself up.
Loki stood there between the slender, half-grown trees, their branches heavy with early reddening leaves. Sif brushed dirt from her arse and straightened, and Loki, his face shadowed, turned away. She followed him. He parted a bush for her, its twiggy branches complaining, and Sif stepped out of the trees.
"So," Loki said to her, "what do you think?"
The pool glistened, so clear and pure and very blue. It filled, very nearly to the brim, a deep basin of ragged stone, and the creek which cut through the trees from the north poured into it over a worn lip. The small waterfall shimmered.
Loki leaned over her shoulder. She felt his gaze on her, saw the narrow line of his cheek. Thor swept through the brush, but Loki remained, looking at Sif. She thought, suddenly-- But that was silly, and it was stupid, and this was Loki.
"How do you like it?" he asked again.
She breathed in. The clearing smelled of fresh water and green things and fainter still of Loki, who stood beside her and smelled of salt, that old leather coat, and something sweet besides.
"I like it a lot," she said.
"This is fantastic," Thor cried. "Loki, you should have taken us here ages ago. Come on." He clapped Sif's shoulder. "Last one in's a jötunn, Járnsaxa."
Furious, she swung at him. Thor skipped back, laughing. He yanked his shirt over his shoulders and managed to kick off both his trousers and his boots in one go, then with a shout he leapt off the rocks and into the pool. Sif had one of her boots off and her trousers down her thighs. She reached for her shirt, but the weight of her breasts stopped her. She'd grown again over the summer.
Loki stripped beside her. His shoulders flashed, bared, and the musculature there was thicker than she'd expected. He was still so thin and awfully pale, and if she grabbed him around the waist she could throw him over her shoulder, but when he bent to undo his belt the knobs of his spine hardly showed. Her chest felt tight.
Stop it, she thought harshly. Thor was like her brother, and she didn't care what Loki thought.
Sif tore her shirt over her shoulders. She picked the pins, long ones with ornamental heads like flowers, from her hair and set them down more carefully, and as Loki turned she threw herself over the edge. The water swallowed her. Another splash sounded dully through the water, and she opened her eyes to see Loki, silver like a fish. Sif kicked up.
Her hair clung wetly to her face, and the air on her skin was like a blast of winter wind. She clawed the hair from her eyes and swore at Loki as he resurfaced.
Loki laughed at her. Water dripped off his nose, and his eyes shone brightly green. Sif splashed him so he fell back, gasping. He vanished beneath the surface again, a little ripple closing over his head.
Then fingers brushed the underside of her foot and a hand closed on her other ankle. Sif dropped. She lashed out at Loki - the light underwater played over his skin in shimmering waves - and he grinned at her. He let go. Sif made as if to swim to the surface again, then, as he looked to her foot, she lunged for him instead.
They broke the surface together. Loki spluttered and said, "What--" and Sif ducked him underwater. His legs kicked. Grimly, she held onto his knobby knees.
"Sif," he said, half-laughing as he came up again. Then his eyes widened, and she dropped his head again. His mouth worked furiously. Little bubbles popped.
She brought him up again. Loki gasped and wiped at his face. His chest expanded violently under her hand.
"Say you're sorry," Sif said, "and I'll let you go."
"Never," he vowed.
He started to swear, then the water closed up over his lips, and Loki's curses fell silent. His lips flashed. Flailing, he threw his hand out. His palm smacked her ribs; his fingertips swept the side of her breast. Sif dropped him entirely.
He came up again, wet and squinting. Sif kicked at him.
"Watch where you're putting your hands!"
"Peace!" He threw his hands up. "Peace! It was an accident!"
Sif splashed him again. Loki covered his face. She swam over to Thor, who was laughing beneath the waterfall and didn't look as if he intended to stop laughing any time soon. He looked like a sodden dog. Sif told him so.
"Loki looks like a frog," Thor said cheerfully.
"I thought horses liked the water," Loki shouted at Sif.
"I don't know why you put up with him," Sif said loudly so Loki would hear. She didn't permit him a look. He'd think she was playing. "I can't stand him."
Thor shrugged. "He's my brother." He smiled at her as the water poured down his brow, his square nose. "He's your friend, too."
"No," she said. She crossed her arms over her chest. Her skin hurt where his long, long fingers had grazed it, her breast sore with the memory of his touch. "He isn't."
Loki left her alone after that.
The warm reds of the afternoon shaded to a violet which deepened as the hour passed, and as bluefall threatened, Loki spoke up: "We should go."
Sif hauled herself naked and dripping and wrinkled onto the rocks. Thor followed, and lastly Loki, and as they began to dress Sif touched the winter's breath flowers someone had left on her clothes. None of the flowering bushes which grew by the pool were the right sort, and anyway, winter's breath was out of season. She looked to Loki, who'd bent to button his shirt. His black hair flipped out from his temples and his skin glistened, damp.
Sif frowned and swept the flowers away. If he wanted to apologize he could do so properly without any of his little games. Sif dressed with more anger than care. A stitch in the shoulder of her tunic tore, and she blamed that on Loki, too.
She gathered her hairpins up, counting them between her fingers. Then she counted them again.
"Loki!" She rounded on him.
He looked wary, but he held his ground as she loomed over him.
She shook her fist of pins at him. "Give it back!"
"Give what back?"
His face cleared. "I don't have your hairpin."
"Then where is it?" she roared.
"Give her back her hairpin, Loki," Thor called. He tested his boots.
"But I don't have her hairpin," Loki protested. He gestured. His wrist flashed, white and wet and thin. His fingers fanned. "A bird must have taken it."
Sif turned from him and wound her hair up. She thought of Loki, smiling at her in the water as he touched her foot, and stabbed the pins into place. She stepped hard on the flowers as she went for the trees.
At home that evening, Mother unwound Sif's hair for her. Bits of grass and dirt fell to her shoulders. Mother only said, "Did you lose one of your pins?" and reached for the brush.
"A bird took it," Sif said.
"Birds do like their shiny things," Mother said diplomatically. She worked at the knots in Sif's hair, her hair which fell half down her back and pulled on her head when it hung loose. Sif laid her cheek against her mother's knee. Her mother's skirt scratched her skin, but her fingers in Sif's hair were light.
"Wash up before your father gets home," Mother said.
"I will," said Sif.
"You mustn't be so forward," said her father. "What do the princes think of you?"
Mother whispered to Sif to pass her father the bowl of grapes, which offering he ignored. He'd gone off. Sif dropped it by his elbow. Mother slipped a bit of cut cheese onto Sif's plate.
Sif knew full well what the princes thought of her. To Thor a sister, to Loki a friend or, perhaps, a plaything, she was only Sif. She didn't see how it mattered to her father.
"Think of what distinction," said Father to Mother, "if one of the princes were to favor Sif. Thor would be best, but the second prince--"
Sif shoved back from the table. Her chair screamed over the stones. Mother said, "Oh, Sif, please--"
"I'm not going to marry Thor," she said loudly, so her father at last looked at her. She felt colossal standing there, looking down at her father with his dark hair cut short and his beard so neatly trimmed. He was a small man and in that moment she hated him.
"I did not speak of marriage," Father said, "only of an arrangement which might--"
"I won't marry him!" she said. Her heart beat fiercely. She thought of Loki, Loki of the dark hair and the green eyes, Loki who stole ribbons from her hair and wore them about his wrist. "I won't marry Loki, either. I don't want to be a princess or a lady or a queen, I--" Her throat closed up.
Father said, "Will you please take her to her room."
Mother rose. Her hair glimmered, braided and bound, laced through with silver beads to make it shine. She took Sif's hand and asked, "Why don't we step outside?" and gently, she led her from the table.
Outside was dark and humid, the air thick with the lingering heat of summer. Asgard glowed beneath the stars, their many muted lights mirrored in Mother's hair. Mother breathed deeply.
"I won't," Sif said. "I won't do it."
Mother touched Sif's hair, which she'd worn tied high upon her head.
"Then you needn't," Mother said.
Sif turned and hid her face in her mother's shoulder. Mother sighed and wrapped her arms about Sif, holding her as if she were still just a little girl. Soon Sif would be taller than her mother. The thought made her chest ache. She did not want to outgrow her mother.
"If you don't wish to marry a prince," Mother told her, "then you shan't marry one. You must do what it is you want most to do."
She rocked with her mother for a bit, listening to her mother's soft breathing, how her heart beat in her throat.
"What if what I want most to do makes Father angry?" she asked at last.
"Then I shall take him to his room," said Mother.
Of what her parents thought of her returning home in torn skirts with bruises on her arms and scabs on her knees, she'd no illusions. If it weren't for the distinction such an association with the royal family brought to their own house, her father would have very kindly forbade her going to the palace.
"He doesn't think a maiden should be a warrior," she explained to Thor.
Thor swung his sword round to rest it across his shoulders. She sneered and said, "Show off," but it was a very smooth move and he knew it.
"Has he ever seen you fight? Surely if he'd seen you fight he'd know you're suited for nothing else."
She snorted at this. "I could take down an entire army of jötnar and he'd still tell me to have a care." She tipped her nose up like Father and droned, "'Think of the shame it would bring our house, to have a daughter who would shirk her duties to play soldier."
"He can't be that stupid," said Thor. "If you just showed him--"
"He'd lock me up in a tower," Sif finished. She weighed her own practice sword. "He isn't like your father. He isn't reasonable."
"Then he's a fool," Thor said simply. "You'll just have to prove him wrong. You've already proved half the other boys training wrong."
"And what of you?"
He grinned. "You've proved me wrong once or twice, too. But no more!"
He flipped his sword about and held it out in invitation. Sif kicked her sword up and brought it about in the corresponding position. Thor was larger by far, but single-minded and given to aggressive pursuit without tactics, and though he was improving, slower perhaps than he ought, he had far to go. Sif blocked a blow and spinning on her heel, rapped him across the knuckles. Thor swore and went thoughtlessly on the offensive.
Later, after she'd knocked the sword from his hands and sent him sprawling, she crouched beside him and asked, "Still breathing?"
"Don't touch me," he growled.
"So," she said. "Still breathing."
Thor opened his eyes and squinted fiercely at her.
"You can't scare me," she said. "I just beat you."
He closed his eyes again.
"What will you do when your father finds out?"
So very long ago, Loki had said, "Don't tell him." She'd thought it shocking, lying to her father.
"He won't," Sif said. She shrugged and said, "It's not like we talk."
"What does your mother think?"
She hesitated. Sif thought of her mother, tall and plain and gentle, and said, "I don't know."
"Then I hope she doesn't find out, either," said Thor.
Loki looked up at the sound of her feet. He'd claimed an alcove as his own and filled it with books; this was where she found him, alone on the seat. A thick tome filled his lap. Dust showed pale against his dark tunic.
"Here you are," she said. "I should have known."
She made a show of looking around at the stacks of books, the tall shelves, the ancient, ever-glowing lamps which hung from the vast, vaulted ceiling of the king's library. The hugeness of it never ceased to astound. She could not imagine how so many books could exist, nor how one place could be so thick with quiet.
Loki marked the page with his finger.
"Where's my brother?"
"He had to stay behind," she said. "To do exercises."
"Ah," said Loki. He relaxed. "He lost his temper again."
"He called Gunnrún a stupid, old man and a liar, and then," she added as Loki looked to laugh, "he wanted to know who'd knocked Gunnrún's wits out."
"Not even Thor could be so idiotic as to say that."
"He didn't say the last bit," she allowed.
Loki clucked his tongue and said sadly, "Oh, Sif. How cruel you've become."
"Oh, shut up," she said. "You're the worst."
"The worst of what?" he asked her back. "You have to qualify it to give it meaning."
She trailed her fingers along the nearest shelf. The books were clad in a rich, red leather which had lost its luster, and they smelled of the dust which stained Loki's clothes.
"Fighting manuals are kept in another section of the library, I'm afraid," Loki told her. "Everything here is dull."
She looked over her shoulder at him. He'd slicked his black hair back, but a little curl peeked over his ear. Ink stained the corner of his mouth and the tips of his first three right fingers.
"Theoretical magics," he drawled. "Interdimensional mathematics, also theoretical."
Sif drew a book out, then pushed it back in as a cloud of dust threatened to consume her.
"Is any of it useful?"
"Not if you're Thor," said Loki. She glanced sharply at him, but his expression was one of pleasant civility. "But yes, to the right reader, it's all very useful."
She left off the shelves and came to perch upon the seat beside Loki. A large and very dusty book poked her shoulder, so she shoved the pile closer to the wall. Her hands lingered. Loki waited.
"How many of these books have you read?"
"Not all of them," he said.
"That isn't an answer."
"It's not the answer you wanted."
"A real answer," she said.
"More than Thor has," he suggested.
Sif smiled, which was of course a mistake; it would only encourage him.
"That's not much," she said.
He'd taken his boots off and set them down below, in the corner by the seat. His toes, which were long and knobby and showed thusly even through his stockings, brushed her thigh. She shifted. Her knees knocked.
"What are you reading now?" she asked.
Loki blinked and looked down, as if he'd forgot he'd the book in his hands. He smoothed his hand over the page and said, "Oh. Just some light reading. Minor Enchantments Pursuant to the Exploration of Additional Spaces, by Víðarr Aelfson."
Sif pulled a long face.
"You're as bad as Thor," she told him. "You're both show-offs."
"Oh, I think I'm much worse," he said lightly. "You said so yourself."
The corners of his eyes pinched. He'd a way of smiling which made it seem as thought he'd a great secret, and perhaps if she asked in just the right way he would share it. The library's silence weighed on her like stones stacked high on her shoulders. His eyes were so very green. He made her belly itch.
"What are you doing here anyway?"
His smile eased.
"Reading," he said. Then: "Hiding. Hiding from Hallormr."
She tipped her head back and thought. Loki followed the angle of her throat.
"Big," he offered. "Stupid. Bears a strong family resemblance to a troll. Thor beat him in axes last week and said he was pig-headed."
"And why," Sif asked pointedly, "are you hiding from him?"
Loki looked so very innocent she might have bought it if she didn't know him to be a consummate liar and a thief.
"I'm sure he thinks he has reasons," he said vaguely.
Sif slapped his foot. Loki, outraged, drew his knees up to his chest and looked her over as if she'd turned to a frost giant before his eyes. Sif ignored him.
"And what if he finds you?"
"Please," Loki said. "He's as bad as Thor. He hates books and so he thinks everyone else hates them. He'd never think to look here."
"Someone needs to beat your face in," Sif told him.
The other thing about being friends with Loki was he took great pleasure in antagonizing people who didn't like him.
She cut through the orchards to save time on the way to the practice yard. Father had wanted her fitted for a new wardrobe. There was no accounting, he'd said, for how tall she'd grown, "or how big your arms are getting." Under his gaze, she had felt small and clumsy and thick with anger. Her mother had watched from the door as the tailor clucked over Sif's strong shoulders.
The orchard smelled of autumn and late-season fruit. Rounding a bend, she heard a cut-off shout and stopped.
Sif knew the sounds of a scuffle: a boot scraping over dirt, a grunt, the fleshy crunch of a fist striking someone's jaw. She backtracked and followed the trail around the corner and deeper into the orchard. Dark hair showed between the trees; light shone off it. She turned to it.
"Is that all you've got?"
She stopped abruptly and ducked behind the nearest tree. Loki. He laughed, then someone struck him and he gasped, breathless. She heard him fall back against a tree.
Sif made to step out, then she heard Thor's fighting instructor telling them, "Don't ever run into a fight without knowing who you're going up against." She grit her teeth but waited, as she thought of Loki bent over and scraping for breath.
"You can't even take one hit." That was Hallormr. She knew the voice now and the face to go with it. Tall and mean, older than them but not by much. "Look at you. I bet your father's embarrassed--"
"Not as embarrassed as your father," Loki said loudly. "How angry was he when you came home without his seal? How much did it cost him to replace it?"
"Shut up, you little snake!"
Another blow, an awful one. Loki choked and made a sound, a wet one deep in his throat. Something hot and cruel opened inside Sif.
"Where's Thor?" Hallormr taunted. "Who's going to protect you?"
Sif came charging out from the trees, fist cocked and teeth bared, and said, "I am!"
He began to turn toward her, the idiot. She drove her fist into the side of his head. Hallormr stumbled sideways and clapped a hand to his ear.
"Get out of here before I break your face," Sif shouted.
"You think I'm afraid of you?" Hallormr scoffed. He straightened but still held his ear. "I'm not afraid of Thor," he said, though she knew full well he was, "so why should I be afraid of some stupid girl?"
He was cocky, so sure of himself he'd left absolutely everything open: his chest, his face, his knees, his groin. Sif went for his throat. He fell to the ground, gagging.
"Get up!" She kicked him hard in the ribs. "You coward! Get up so I can break your nose!"
He cursed at her, so she kicked him again, harder.
She looked around then for Loki and found him leaning against a tree to her left. He'd fingers to his nose, blood showing red on his knuckles, and his green eyes were huge. He stared at her. Light through the branches cast shadows on his face, shadows which shivered and broke apart and came together as a wind shook the leaves. Dirt showed on his vest and he held one of his legs as if he couldn't put weight on it. When he drew breath, he sneezed blood into his hand.
Fury filled Sif; it made her half-mad, made her want to break Hallormr's arms so he couldn't fight again, made her want to box his ears so he couldn't hear. He struggled to rise. Sif dropped to her knees and struck him hard across the face so he fell back.
"Don't you touch him again!" she snarled.
"You can't tell me what to do," Hallormr shouted. His voice caught in his throat and he coughed. Still, he glared. "You're a girl, and he deserves it, the little lying--"
His nose broke under her fist in two places; she heard the snap and felt it on her fingers. Hallormr screamed. Blood gushed over his lips. Shocked, and like all bullies, he began to cry. She felt calm, so strangely, oddly calm.
"If you touch him again," Sif said, "I'll throw you off the world's edge. You won't have to worry about Thor."
She stood and brushed the dirt off her knees. Loki looked up to her as she approached.
"I'll tell my father," Hallormr swore. "I'll tell my father what you did."
Sif rounded on him, but it was Loki who said, "You'll have to tell him why she did it, too," through a nose and mouth thick with blood. "Surely your father would be proud."
Hallormr, struggling to rise, colored and took a half-step forward before faltering under Sif's gaze. She squared her shoulders. His blood cooled on her hand.
"Run away," Sif told Hallormr. "Before this girl changes her mind."
"Listen to her," said Loki. He said this as if in confidence to a friend. "If you've ever feared my brother's wrath, then you should learn to fear Sif's, too."
Hallormr turned, but he wasn't done.
"Coward," he shouted. "Letting a girl fight for you."
Sif made to follow him, but a light touch on her shoulder stopped her. "Sorry," Loki breathed near to her, then he fell against her. Sif stumbled beneath his weight. She threw an arm around him and lowered him to the ground. Her fingers curled against his nape. His skin was cool but slick with sweat.
"Thank you," he said. He grimaced. "I twisted my ankle on the root. Stupid."
She helped him straighten his leg. Loki made a little pained noise. Sif pulled the lines of his trousers even around his shin before she looked up to his thin and bloodied face.
"I thought he'd kicked your knee."
"He did that, too," Loki admitted.
"Why was he beating you?"
She felt his ankle, testing it. Gently, she began to rotate it in a shallow circle. Loki winced but only said,
"Oh. Well. It's sort of a boring story."
"Does this hurt?" She pushed his foot forward.
A muscle in his cheek fluttered. His eyelashes fell black over his eyes, then he met her gaze.
Sif let go of his foot. "I don't think it's sprained. What's the story?"
A silverfish smile darted across his wet mouth. She'd learned to brace herself when he smiled like that. Loki was far too clever for his own good and often too clever for anyone else's good.
"He was showing off his father's seal last week," Loki said, "which he'd taken without permission. I thought he needed a lesson, so I borrowed it." He spread his hands, one of them red with his own blood, as if to say, And that was that.
That was too simple for Loki. She poked his ankle.
"And then what did you do?"
He moved to scratch his nose, flinched, and thought better of it.
"Hm," he said. "It's a little hazy. I do so many things. But. There may have been an accident, and it might be at the bottom of the reservoir."
Lords, she thought. Save Asgard from its second prince.
"And how did it get there?"
"I suppose," he said slowly, "it fell out of my hand."
If he weren't so hurt and so very pathetic, she would have punched him in the stomach.
"You idiot," she said, disgusted.
Of all things, he looked offended. "Thor's the idiot."
"You're both idiots! You knew he'd get mad at you."
"Yes," Loki said patiently. "He's beat me loads of times before. But now he'll be too afraid to beat me."
Sif considered Loki, smiling with his hair a dirtied mess and blood drying on his chin, blood staining his collar. Too clever by far.
"Didn't you hear?" she asked him. "Hallormr isn't afraid of anything."
Loki laughed, then choked on the blood in his nose. Without really thinking of it, Sif rose onto her knees and leaned forward to cradle his face. Loki startled. His eyes were green and very close. Her face went hot, and she pretended she hadn't noticed.
"Don't move," she said. She ran her thumb beneath his nose, cleaning the blood away. It smeared across his cheek and she frowned.
"I can take care of it."
"Don't be stupid," she said. She dragged her nail over his cheek. "You can't even stand."
He was quiet another moment. Sif touched her fingers to his lip, which had split against his teeth. His breath was warm on her knuckles. He was very slender, almost delicate; he'd always been so. She remembered how he'd looked when she first saw him, and she was unsettled to realize how much taller he'd grown. The hollow in his throat held a shadow now. She drew her hand back. Loki licked his lip.
"I'm glad it was you who found me," he said, "and not Thor. Thor would have thrown him off."
"I would've thrown him off," she snapped. "He shouldn't have hit you."
Loki smiled at her. His lips were cherry red, shining with blood.
"You hit me."
"That's different," she said.
She didn't know if it was. Something about the way his eyes showed, all dark and soft as he looked right at her, made her want to pick him up and shove him against a tree so the branches shook and the leaves fell down on him. He was smiling still.
"Is it?" he wondered. "In what way?"
She showed him the blood on her fingers, some of it Hallormr's, most of it Loki's. "I don't hurt you!"
He caught her hand between his and brought her hand down to his chest that she might feel his heart fluttering against his ribs. He'd worn a thin, white shirt, and his skin burned her through it. Her hair fell dark along his breast.
"Oh," he said softly, "but you do. You hurt me very badly."
Sif snatched her hand back. "Stop it! I don't want to play any of your stupid games." She brushed irritably at her hair, but still it fell before her ear.
Loki reached for and tugged a lock; he wound it about his finger. Lightly, smiling, he said, "But I'm not playing."
Everything was a game to him.
"Yes, you are," she snapped. "You're always playing with people." She batted at his hand.
He let go of her hair. Sif stood and rubbed her hand on her trousers. Loki watched her as she cleaned her fingers off on her thigh. She couldn't get the blood off her knuckles.
Hesitantly, he said, "Thank you. Sif."
She wanted to say, "I didn't do it for you" - she still felt his finger stroking down her hair, winding in it, pulling as he smiled, his bloodied lips twisting, her hand warm where it had rested on his chest - but: how he'd looked at her as she beat Hallormr into the ground for him.
"Don't make me have to do it again," she said.
"I'll do my very best," he assured her.
His knees bent; he tried to rise. Sif caught his hand and pulled him up. He staggered against her.
"Sorry," he said.
She wound her arm about his waist.
"Idiot," she said again. It came out kinder than she expected it to. "Come on. Let's get you inside before you piss someone else off."
Gingerly he touched his nose. His fingers fluttered over the swelling bruise.
"Let's," he agreed.
Her father filled the doorway, blocking the morning light. His mouth was creased, his eyes narrow. Mother's hands stilled in Sif's hair then she began again to work the plait. When Sif made to turn, Mother pulled on her hair and said, "Shh. Be still."
So she looked at her father from the corner of her eye and asked, "What is it? Am I in trouble?"
He remained, a shadow in the door.
"I have just had a very illuminating talk with Askrðr."
She craned to look at Father's face. Mother yanked one of the folds tight. Sif hissed and touched her scalp where it ached most. Mother slapped her hand away.
"I've just told you to be still. So be still."
"I am being still!"
"Not still enough by half," said Mother.
The door slammed and they both of them jumped. Sif turned then and Mother, whose fingers had gone boneless, allowed her.
Father rose like a thunder swell. Light from the window at Mother's back threw his shadow against the far wall, and it danced like one of Loki's hands behind a lamp, a long and spindly thing that moved weirdly in the light.
"Answer me truthfully," said Father. "None of your lies. Have you been fighting?"
"No!" Sif said hotly. It was the wrong thing to say.
Father banged his hand against the table. Mother's things, her brush, her comb, her box of ribbons and pins, leapt. The box turned over, spilling pins across the table; three fell to the floor.
"I said I wouldn't have your lies!" Father shouted. "Would you know what Askrðr said? You fought with his boy, Hallormr. You broke his nose!"
She wished she'd broken more than that; she wished she'd cracked his jaw open so he couldn't talk.
"He was beating on Loki!" she cried.
"That doesn't matter!" Father smacked the table again. "You are a lady, and it isn't your place to fight on behalf of the prince."
She gaped. "What-- Then who would? No one else was there! I couldn't just let him break Loki's thick skull!"
"You will not talk of the prince like that!" her father thundered.
"He's not a prince!" Sif shouted. "He's just Loki! And if I hadn't stopped him, Hallormr would have crushed his nose!"
"So you crushed Hallormr's nose," said her father. "You could have gone for a guard, someone whose duty it is to protect the second prince, and instead you--"
Sif tore free of her mother's hands. Her mother gasped - her fingers ghosted across Sif's shoulders as if to hold her - then Sif screamed, "I fought! I broke his nose! I'd do it again if he tried to hurt Loki! He's a bully and a troll, and I wish I'd broken his arm, too!"
"You are my daughter--"
"I wish I weren't!"
Her father fell silent then. Mother touched Sif's elbow. Sif shook her off.
"I'm not a lady," Sif said. "I don't want to be! If another girl wants to be a lady, then fine, but I don't. I want to fight!"
"Like a boy!" her father scoffed.
"No!" she snarled. "Like a girl!"
Her father's face was like winter. His mouth compressed.
"You will go to your room," he said, "and you will stay there."
Sif drew breath to shout that she would not go to her room and she would not stay there. But her mother took her wrist very firmly and pulled her down.
"No," said Mother. "Sif is not going to her room. I am going to finish braiding her hair and then she will go to the palace. The princes will be expecting her, and," said Mother, who had washed and mended all Sif's dirtied clothes and clucked over her bruises and her scabs, "I suspect the swordsmaster expects her, too."
Then she began to unpick what she'd plaited of Sif's hair.
"You," said Sif's father, his voice shaking. "You would encourage her to cast aside propriety, to, to--"
"Someone must," said Mother. She parted Sif's hair into three long hanks. "Won't it be nice to have a warrior in the family?"
"A maiden cannot be a warrior," said Father quietly, cruelly.
"Perhaps," said Mother. "Perhaps not. Now be still, Sif."
Loki came upon her in the gardens. A small, shallow pool filled a basin of white stones which shone many colors if looked at under the right light and at the right angle. It was the sort of thing she thought he'd like, tricky Loki who pretended one thing and meant another.
He crouched beside her. His trousers were clean and neatly pressed. Dirt and grass stained the knees of her own trousers.
"Exercises," she said shortly.
"Ah," said Loki. "The famous temper. Better him than you."
Sif stared hard-eyed at her reflection. The Loki who showed in the water looked at her reflection as well. She supposed he saw the same thing she did: a lean girl, taller than most, her face long, her mouth narrow, not much to look at though she'd promise somewhere in her nose, the shape of her eyes. Oh, but her hair! So long, so dark, how it gleamed so even coated in sweat and dirt.
Loki clasped his hands between his knees.
"You're upset. Should I be worried?"
She looked away from her reflection. Her braid was heavy at her back; it pulled on her scalp. A maiden never cut her hair, Father said.
"It's not your fault."
"How relieving," he said. "I feared for my life. Has Thor said something stupid again?"
"Thor always says stupid things."
"It's his curse," said Loki agreeably. "To be so brave and so strong and so very dearly loved by the whole of Asgard, and so stupid besides."
For a time they were both quiet. Sif reached to her ear, to tuck a loosened strand back into her plait. Her fingers stilled at the root of her braid.
Loki rolled up on his toes. He leaned nearer.
"Is there anything I can do to keep you from breaking whatever it is you're thinking of breaking?"
"No," Sif said.
He settled on his heels.
"Then is there anything I can do to help you break it? Assuming," he added, "it isn't me."
Sif felt her braid, thickly woven. The fluff at the very end nearly touched the small of her back. Her scalp itched, run over with grime.
"Do you have a knife?" she asked him.
He did, tucked in his sleeve, a little silver one with a fine edge. Sif eyed it critically then returned it to Loki.
"It'll do," she said.
"For what, exactly? I'd rather not kill anyone," he said.
Sif turned her back to him and bent her head so her neck showed. She heard or thought she heard his breath catch minutely.
"I want for you to cut off my hair," she said. She stared fixedly at her thighs, at the tiny red flowering weed crushed beneath her left knee. "I don't care how high. I only want it gone."
For a moment, he did not touch her.
Then his fingers swept up her nape, light as a kiss, and he caught her braid. The blade bit into her hair. A little rip sounded. His thumb pressed to a knob in her spine. Sif held herself still, so very still, and closed her eyes as Loki took her hair from her.
When the last of her braid separated, she felt as if she'd fly from her feet, so unweighted, so light, so bare. She began to turn. His fingers spread over her neck; his thumb, bent, touched her throat.
"I'm nearly finished," Loki said.
Ghostly wisps tickled her neck, her shoulders. The flat of the knife brushed her skin. She shivered beneath it. Loki made soft noise behind his lips, and another delicate length of hair slithered down her back. If she had felt bare before, now she knotted her fingers in her trousers.
The blade withdrew. Loki ran his fingers down her neck then up again through her cropped hair. Hairs showered down upon her neck. She felt his breath on the back of her ear.
"There," he said.
Sif turned. Her lips nearly touched his jaw. Loki smiled and held her braid up between them.
"Your hair, my lady."
A sword was heavier. She had thought, with how it had pulled on her head for so many years, it would weigh more in her hands. It shone, still, apart from her. Sif touched her thumb to the ragged ends where he'd cut it from her head. Loki stood; she did not watch him go.
What had she expected? She thought of the lightness she'd felt when it had fallen from her. Now she felt dizzy and unrooted. But it was only hair. It was only hair. How silly was she to mourn something like this? She tightened her hands about the ends.
A shadow passed over her, then Loki knelt before her. He touched her wrist. His fingers were light.
"I have a gift for you," he said. "One fit for the mightiest of Odin's warriors. A golden headdress enchanted that only Sif may wear it."
He held out a string of yellow flowers, knotted in a circlet. Sif laughed. She bowed her head.
"I'm not a little girl," she said. "I don't wear crowns made of flowers."
"But it isn't a crown," he insisted. "Think of it as a token of my esteem for you."
She huffed, amused. "Oh, well, then by all means."
And Loki cast the ring of flowers about her head. She reached for it, and her fingers touched her cut hair.
"It'll grow back," Loki said. "In time."
Sif dropped her hand. "I don't care what it does. It's only hair."
He smiled then, and sitting there by the pool with Loki's golden headdress light upon her brow, her neck truly bare for the first time in all her memory, Sif thought--
"Here you are!"
Thor bounded down the hill. A bird shot out of one of the manicured trees, shrieking its surprise at his approach. He laughed, astonished, when he saw the braid in Sif's lap.
"I got my hair cut." Sif touched the short hairs at her ear. "What do you think happened?"
"I don't know," Thor said. He smiled. "But it looks good. You should have cut it sooner."
She turned her nose up. "I didn't want to cut it sooner."
"Fair enough," he allowed. "Loki! Did you see Sif's cut her hair?"
Loki looked to Thor and then to Sif, who pursed her lips to say, Really, how stupid is he? Loki blinked owlishly, and it was as if a great distance had spread between them, as if Loki were no longer kneeling close enough to touch her brow. He considered her with interest.
"Has she?" he asked. "I hadn't noticed."
Mother said only, "I wish you'd let me do it. Such a mess!"
Father said nothing at all.
Sif washed the dirt, the sweat, and the clipped hairs out. Her nails dragged down her neck. She thought of Loki at her back, his fingers in her braid, then she washed that, too, from her hair.
In the morning she woke to find her head was still light; her hair was dry all through. Sif dressed and touched her nape again and again, the little hairs there coarse. The ends of her hair turned up behind her ears.
At the palace that afternoon, when she next saw Loki, she shouted up to him from the training yard. He paused and looked down to her. She'd dirt on her nose and her hair stuck up wildly from her hands; she couldn't stop running her fingers through it.
"Thank you," she called.
Then Thor jogged over to her, his sword over his shoulder, and said, "Ho, brother! What are you thanking him for?"
She smiled at Thor and touched her hair again at her ear.
"Nothing," she said. She slapped his arm. "Let's go. I bet I can knock your sword away in four moves."
"I bet I can knock yours away in three," Thor boasted.
He knocked it away in ten, but Sif caught his arm and flipped him over into the dirt.
When she thought to look again, Loki had gone.
The queen, in raiment of gold, came to the yard another afternoon, as the instructor shouted out steps. Sif bit her lip and rose through the stances unmindful of the sweat stinging her eyes.
He cut off. Sif blinked the sweat away and followed the direction of his bow.
Frigg stepped out from the stairwell. Her hair shone like sunlight, and the hem of her golden dress dragged through the dust. For a heartbeat or two, Sif was so surprised to see the queen here in such a dirty, violent place she forgot to kneel.
Then Thor said, "Mother! What are you doing here?" and it was too late to bow her head to the queen.
The queen smiled. She nodded to their instructor, who bowed again and stepped away. Frigg folded her hands together.
"I had heard from Lieff Hoffson of his daughter's aspirations," said the queen. Her slippers showed beneath her skirts. Delicate beadwork decorated the toes. "To be truthful, he requested a boon of me: that I would speak to his daughter, Sif, of her course."
Sif colored under the queen's warm gaze. Frigg's smile deepened. What could she say to the queen? Frigg was not like Thor, nor was she like Loki. She was queen of Asgard; she was sovereign, her word second only to the Allfather's.
Thor set his hand on Sif's shoulder and said, challenging, "Sif is the finest opponent I've ever faced. She has as much right to train as I do." Then he ruined it all by saying, "Her father's a fool."
"Shut up," Sif hissed at him.
"What?" Thor looked indignant. "He is. If he can't see you're a born warrior, then he's an idiot."
"Thor," said the queen.
He grumbled but held his tongue.
Queen Frigg turned to Sif alone then. The queen's eyes were soft. She smiled, still, and the corners twisted in upon themselves, like Loki with a secret.
"I told him it wasn't my place to tell Sif she was wrong," said the queen. "I told him, too, I thought her very brave and very skilled if she can best my firstborn son in swords."
Thor cut in: "Not always!"
"And I thought," the queen went on, "I'd like to see this young maiden warrior myself." She held her hand out to Sif. A great ring on her finger flashed, the band gold, the gem a dark emerald. "Would you show me?"
Sif thought her heart might burst from her throat.
"Yes," she gasped. "Yes. Of course. My queen. Your majesty. Thank you. Thank you." She bowed once, twice, again, and stood dizzily.
"And when you've finished," said the queen, "perhaps you could join me and my sons for dinner in my hall," which offer Sif could hardly decline.
The queen's hall was splendid, a vast, fine thing which gleamed like the heart of a star, and still Frigg shone brightest of all. Sif felt filthy and ragged to stand in such a grand hall of high ceilings and glimmering crystal facets, but Thor, who walked beside her, also carried in dirt and the stink of sweat.
Loki joined them at Frigg's little table on the balcony. His hair was perfectly coiffed, and the high collar of his tunic framed his throat well. He bowed slightly to his mother and to Thor said, "When did you last bathe?"
"I don't remember," said Thor. "It may have been last spring."
Loki looked to Sif. With that collar nearly at his jaw, he looked terribly narrow and very sharp. He bowed his head. His eyes lowered.
She thought to ask him what he was playing at, but the queen drew out her chair and said, "Everyone sit, please."
Sif sat. The chair was beautifully wrought. She felt a horror sitting on so lovely a thing.
"Relax," Thor whispered to her.
"I can't relax," she whispered furiously back. "I'm dirty!"
Thor leaned closer. His breath was hot at her ear. She wanted to scrub it and then dig her finger in his ear to teach him a lesson about keeping his breath to himself.
"The chairs are enchanted," he told her. "You could dump them in mud and they'll come out fine."
He said this as if he were the one who enchanted them, all smug and full of it. Sif dug her thumb into his side. Thor flicked at her, but whether it was for his mother's sake or not that he didn't pursue a more thorough revenge, he sat back. He gave Sif an evil look, though. She crossed her eyes at him.
"Children," said the queen, amused. "Please, behave yourselves. Loki, dear, would you mind filling my goblet?"
"Not at all," Loki murmured.
He rose, took the wine pitcher in hand, and leaned across the way. His collar parted, drawn to one side. The hollow in his throat deepened. Tucking one hand beneath the other arm, to keep his sleeve from trailing through the dishes, he poured his mother her wine. The tendons in his long wrist tightened.
Sif turned to her own goblet, sipped, and choked. Coughing, she covered her nose and rounded on Thor.
"What is this stuff!"
"My mother's wine," said Thor. He grinned hugely and drank easily from his own goblet.
Her eyes stung, her tongue, her nose. "Is it watered? At all?"
"Oh, yes," said the queen, "quite severely. Three parts water to every part wine. Thank you, dear."
Loki bowed his head - Sif had never seen him so amenable as he was to his mother - and set the pitcher down again upon the little stand beside the table. When he looked up, his eyes passed over Sif then Thor, who leaned to Sif and, mocking, asked, "Would you like water instead?"
"Would you like me to beat you in front of your mother?" she retorted.
"You could try," Thor laughed.
"Oh, no," said the queen. "I'd rather you not. This meal looks so lovely. It would be such a shame to ruin it."
Thor subsided, still grinning. He looked sidelong at Sif and said, "Of course, Mother. I would have won anyway."
"And Loki's a pig," Sif snapped.
"Leave me out of your little contest of brutes," said Loki. He stared steadfast at his plate and cut neatly through his meat. The knife flashed between his fingers. This he set aside. His eyelids flickered once, then he turned to the queen.
The back of Sif's neck itched; her skin prickled. Loki smiled at his mother, his cheeks creasing. Sif could not account for how she wanted to throw her spoon at him. Her head felt naked, her neck bare, her ears too large.
"Oh, thank you, Loki," said the queen fondly. "That's very thoughtful of you. Thor, please pass the bread to Sif. She hasn't any on her plate."
At practice, Thor wouldn't look at Sif. She'd more pressing concerns at the time.
"Bring your sword up!" the instructor shouted. "Don't drop it! Again!"
His blade rapped her knees and Sif stumbled. She landed on her hand and pushed up, and turning, she swung wildly. He knocked her blade back once, twice, and struck her across her ribs. The breath burst out of her.
"Cover yourself!" he yelled at her as she bent over. "Your neck is exposed. What should you do?"
Sif snarled and lashed out at his ankles. The instructor leapt back, skipping as she lunged again. Her sword slashed across the dirt. He laughed, rumbling. Sif scrambled to her feet.
"Yes! Creative! Drive me back. But--" His foot snapped down on her sword as she raised it. "Keep track of your weapon."
His sword smashed into her arm. Her fingers numbed; her wrist spasmed. Sif swore.
The instructor picked her sword up and tossed it to her. Her fingers ached, but she caught it; she held it.
"Try again," he said.
So she brought her sword about again and fought until he kicked it out of her hands then kicked her, too, to the ground, where she lay gasping upon her back. Her chest twinged. She'd caught him twice, though, on his thigh and again low across his abdomen. The soreness in her ribs did not seem quite so terrible.
"Very good." He held his hand out to her. "You're improving. Young prince," he called, "it's your turn now."
Sif sat up slowly, wincing as her gut pulled.
"Good luck," she called to Thor as he passed her, but he did not acknowledge her. Instead his shoulders drew up; his head turned fractionally, not toward her but away.
And what was that about? she wondered. Then she made to stand and the pain in her side blossomed so she gasped and fell over again and wished she were dead.
"Rat bastard," she swore. She clutched her side. Her fingers twitched.
She did not think of Thor's strangeness again till he staggered toward her and sank to the earth. He, too, held his side as if to keep his guts in. Their instructor turned his sword about and tsked at them.
"I'm going to smash his face in one day," Sif said darkly.
Then Thor, who she expected to offer to break his legs for her that they might seek out their vengeance, turned from her. He rose clumsily. His shadow fell over her; he looked away. Thor had never done so before.
"What is wrong with you?" she demanded, but of course he wouldn't answer. Thor wouldn't answer, and she found the thought of Thor avoiding her so comically strange she nearly forgot to be angry at him for it.
Sif sat upright. He made to leave her there, and she grabbed for his ankle. Thor staggered - she pulled hard at his leg - he fell to his knees. Sif crawled upon him before he could roll over onto his back and make another go for running. She stuck her hand between his shoulders and shoved him flat into the dirt. He tried to grab for her.
"Sif! Let me go!"
"So you remember I'm here?" she asked sweetly. "You didn't forget my name?"
Thor tensed beneath her. Sif drove her knee into the small of his back to prevent him bucking. His hand slapped against her thigh.
"Sif, I'm warning you," he snarled. "If you don't get off me--"
"Oh, I'll get off you," she said. "But only if you tell me why you're being such an ass!"
"Fine," he gritted through his teeth. "All right!"
Then his hand closed around her knee and he twisted his shoulders so they both turned. Sif kicked at him and Thor cursed, and they fell, fighting, into the dirt again. Thor got his arm around her neck and pinned her against his side.
She hooked her fingers in his hair and yanked his head back viciously. Thor shouted. His arm tightened around her neck.
"Why," she shouted as she struggled to drive her knee between his legs, "are you--being--an ass!"
"You know why!"
"Because you're an ass!"
"That's not why!"
She got her leg up. Thor groaned. His arm squeezed her throat painfully tight, then it relaxed and he fell away from her, curling about his core.
Sif punched him hard in the shoulder. "Then why? What's got into you? You're acting like a little coward."
He rolled over and threw a fist at her, but the blow was weak; his hand glanced off her arm. Thor grimaced and bent again. Still, he wouldn't look her in the face.
"Why?" she demanded. "I'm your friend! You could at least look me in the face."
Thor scrubbed at his face then, his fingers thick in his hair. He groaned again and right as Sif thought she'd have to knee him again to get him to stop being so mystifyingly stupid, he dropped his hands and said,
"I don't like you like that."
"What?" For a moment the world greyed around her - not his friend, he didn't think of her as his friend - then Sif blinked and the sun was shining in Thor's flaxen hair and he was staring down at her feet.
"Loki told me," he said to her shoes. "That you--" His mouth screwed up. Color rose in his face. Thor swallowed and said, hushed, as if he were repeating a hideous curse: "That you were in love with me."
"That I what!" The roar of it shocked her. Then she took a breath and said: "Are you mad!" and that, too, tore out of her.
Thor winced and said, "You told Loki to tell me, because you were afraid--"
"Afraid of what!" she shouted. "I'm not in love with you! Are you stupid? Why would I be in, in love with you?"
"Why wouldn't you?" he asked, stung.
"Because you're Thor," she said witheringly, "and you're stupid. What? Do you want me to love you?"
He looked suddenly, thoroughly ill. His mouth drew down. A shudder ran through him.
"No," he said.
"Is that why've you been acting stupid? Because Loki told you I loved you?"
"I didn't want to embarrass you," said Thor.
"Good job," she said. "That wasn't embarrassing at all."
"At least you aren't in love with me," Thor said encouragingly, and he clapped her on the shoulder.
Sif tried to think of the person who would look at stupid, proud, goofy Thor and think him handsome and romantic and dashing instead of all the things he was, really. She couldn't imagine it.
Thor leaned back beside her. Their shoulders brushed. They lay there, arms touching, their elbows sticking with sweat. Then Thor nudged her. He reached into his trousers pocket.
"He gave me this," he said, "when he told me yesterday. He said it was a token from you."
He pressed a pin into her hand, a small hairpin with a decorative head in the shape of a flower.
She broke through the doors to the library. Her heart pounded to deafen. A roaring had come over her, and she felt both terribly, cruelly calm and incandescent with anger.
He turned to her. His fingers wandered along the spines of books. In the shadows cast by the shelves, he was pale and slim and dark, too, in his black coat with his hair so carefully slicked behind his ears.
"Sif," he said politely. "To what do I owe this timely interruption?"
She threw the pin at his head. It struck him above his eye and he flinched, his lashes swinging low over his cheeks, his lips compressing. The pin clattered on the stones and was silent.
"What in all the nine damned realms is wrong with you!"
Her voice filled the deep vaults of the ceiling; it echoed, ringing off the lamps. Loki opened his eyes. He'd gone very still. His eyes shone, pale as green marbles. He smiled; there was no warmth to it.
"You'll have to be more specific," he said. "Is there a particular reason why you're threatening me, or is it just how you've chosen to show your gratitude?"
She caught his collar in her hands and slammed him back against the shelves. A book tumbled loose and fell with a thump to the ground by his foot. A wisp of hair trembled against his brow. Loki's face did not change.
"You're welcome, my lady," he said.
Sif leaned against him, her weight bearing him harder still back upon the shelves. The corner of one of his pale, cold eyes pinched. Her breath was ragged; it caught on her teeth.
"Why," she said, "in the fuck would you tell Thor I was in love with him? Is that one of your jokes?"
"Did you laugh?" he asked, interested. "I did think it funny, but only for the thought of you and my brother. You must love him dearly. Were you planning to tell him yourself?"
Her hands tightened in his shirt. His chest rose and fell more quickly than the unwavering, amused distance in his smile would suggest. She wanted to pull at his shirt until it tore, until the seams ripped, so the buttons popped free and Loki fell apart in her hands.
"If you don't shut your stupid mouth--"
"You'll shut it for me?" he drawled.
"You stole my pin!"
At this, his eyes flickered. A muscle in his long, smooth throat shivered.
"I found it."
She shook him. Loki danced with the motion, swaying forward and back again. His head lolled. His throat flashed, white behind his collar.
"You stole it," she said, her tongue thick, her teeth hard, "and you lied to me."
He looked up at her through his dark lashes. His eyes rounded. Such innocence he dripped.
"That's a very serious accusation."
"And then you lied to Thor," she snapped, "and I want to know why you did it!"
"When did I lie to Thor?" he wondered.
She shook him again, and this time Loki put his hand on her arm and did not roll with her. His fingers, so long and cool, tightened on her wrist.
"You told him I was in love with him!"
Loki laughed. It was an ugly sound, and it made her want to stick her fingers behind his teeth and make him silent.
"But you are in love with him," he said mockingly. "You're so obviously in love with him. Oh, I've seen the way you stare at him. The way you turn to him. How you smile at him. It makes me want to puke."
"How could you tell?" she shouted in his face. "You're so stuck up in yourself you can't see anything past your stupid nose."
"Oh, please!" he shouted back. His fingers bit into her arm, and Sif wound her hands more tightly in his shirt, so tightly he rose on his toes and leaned toward her. "I don't have to look far to see it. You care so much of what he thinks of you--"
"Of course I care! He's my friend," she said, "he's like a brother to me."
Loki rested his head back against the shelves. His eyes lidded. A little sneer pulled his lips back from his teeth. He said, "Oh, but he isn't your brother. You should thank me. I've done such a great kindness for you."
She wanted to shake him until his head rolled forward. She wanted to push him back against the shelves until his eyes closed and he gasped. She wanted to stop his tongue, his games, his lies, the things he wove about himself; she wanted to strip it all away until only Loki stood before her.
"You've never thought of anyone but yourself," she said. Her throat hurt with it.
"You don't have to pretend anymore," Loki said poisonously. "You should take the pin back to him and tell him how ardently you love him, and when my brother is king then you will be queen."
"You idiot," she said, "you stupid, selfish idiot. I don't want to be queen."
His lips parted - she saw his tongue rising behind his teeth - and Sif pushed him back against the shelves so they shook, and she mashed her mouth against his. Loki's hand closed about her wrist like an iron band. He stared at her, his eyes huge, and his breath fluttered hotly on her lips. Sif turned her head and kissed him again, harder, and fitted clumsily to him, her leg between his legs, her hands crushed between their chests.
She leaned back. Her lips ached where she'd smashed them against his teeth. Loki stared at her. His tongue flashed; he licked his lip.
"But what of your love for Thor?" he asked. His voice trembled. He did not look away from her. "Sif. I wouldn't have thought you fickle."
"Stop it," she said. "No more of your games."
His hand slid up her arm. His fingers stroked her elbow, lightly.
"Why do you think this is a game?" he asked her softly.
"Why," she asked in turn, "would you ever think I wanted to do this with Thor?" and she kissed him again. Her tongue caught on his teeth.
Loki shook against her; he laughed. Sif clung to his shirt. He pressed to her. His hand rested on her shoulder, and his mouth opened, and Loki, at last, surrendered.