When scandals grew tired and news from around the realms tapered to nothing at all, the finer families of Asgardshire could, with gratitude, always rely upon the status of the Aesirs’ offspring to keep their minds and tongues occupied. Though they were, each in their way, fine of form and a credit to their family, the fact remained that Mrs. Aesir had birthed but two sons, neither of whom could, in the eyes of the law, inherit Mjolnir Manor without a wife to sign the deed. It was a truth that grieved Mr. Aesir daily, and while Thor, the firstborn, was so good-natured that no one begrudged him his sex, Loki, the younger and last child, nursed a suspicion that his father blamed him for not being born a girl.
There was much Loki felt was unfairly heaped upon his head. He had a reputation for moods and sullenness, but only, he felt, because he was not bright, fair, lively Thor. In any case, his mother loved and valued his wit, and while Mr. Aesir traded war stories and advice with his elder boy, Mrs. Aesir spent hours with Loki dissecting books and debating the nature of the world. Besides, the brothers adored each other and each was privately certain that Thor, at least, would find a wife willing to inherit Mjolnir and secure their place in the county.
The law, however, in its wisdom, had imposed a deadline on these proceedings, and Thor was fast approaching his five-and-twentieth birthday. Though he was a delight to his parents, he had little interest in matters outside the regiment, just as Loki could hardly be coaxed from the library (save by his brother), virtually guaranteeing that neither would encounter a lady of suitable stature in time. More and more, this weighed on Mr. Aesir’s mind, and the day finally came when he could not help bringing it up at breakfast.
“Mrs. Aesir,” he said, as he slathered marmalade on his third piece of toast, “I wonder, have you heard the news that is about town this week?”
Mrs. Aesir did not look up from her paper. “I daresay, Mr. Aesir, that there is quite a bit of news about, much of which, I am sure, I have not heard.”
“Let me be the first, then, to assure you this is no rumor, my dear, for I heard it from none other than Heimdall himself. The Lady Sif is returned to her mother’s house.”
“Lady Sif?” Thor swallowed the substantial lump of buttered scone he had diligently packed into one cheek. “The same gangly Sif whose hair Loki snipped when we were children?”
“Let us hope she does not remember our family by that incident alone,” Mr. Aesir said. “Yes; she is, I imagine, quite as grown as you two are, and quite eligible, now that she has come into her majority.”
Mrs. Aesir made a small noise of interest and sipped her tea.
Thor remembered to speak before filling his mouth again, and kept his fork in hand. “Where has she been all this while?”
“Abroad with a wealthy aunt, I believe, though Heimdall was somewhat more circumspect on that account. I have it on good authority that she comes with an eye toward putting down strong roots.”
“Congratulations, Thor, you’ve been conscripted to marry a tree.”
Mr. Aesir’s one eye looked across the table to his wife. “Though it would, of course, be proper for the elder to marry before the younger, we are increasingly open to whatever solution best presents itself.”
Loki, discomfited by this early morning direness, turned to his mother, still blithely scanning the farm report. “We cannot be the first to know of her coming, though. Nor would our aims be unique.”
Mrs. Aesir shook her head. “No indeed.”
“So, we must act quickly,” Mr. Aesir announced, “and expose our family to her affections as soon as can be arranged.”
“I quite agree,” said Mrs. Aesir. “The county is full of young men in want of a rich wife.”
Mr. Aesir gripped his knife, still glistening with marmalade. “You are teasing us, Mrs. Aesir. Surely you of all people share my deep concern.”
Mrs. Aesir folded the newspaper and set it aside. “Of course, Mr. Aesir. Which is why I have already invited the Lady Sif to dine with us at six o’clock this evening.”
“Here?” said Thor, at the same time Loki exclaimed, “Six?”
“As I have said,” replied Mrs. Aesir, and Mr. Aesir allowed himself, at last, a smile and a bite of his toast.
“I hope at least she is interesting,” Thor grumbled as they marched toward the front hall. “It is the least courtesy she could afford us for cutting short my falconing.”
“She is unmarried with twelve thousand a year,” said Loki mildly. “I believe she will be exquisite and fascinating.”
They joined their parents in the foyer, whereupon Mr. Aesir fussed over the state of Thor’s hair and Mrs. Aesir told Loki to save his more charming quips for after dessert, if not later. Their timing was quite precise, for not a minute after, the footman announced the Lady Sif’s arrival.
True to Mr. Aesir’s prediction, Lady Sif had matured into a very fine specimen. Gangly had become tall, and the sharp, awkward features Loki remembered now fit together quite handsomely. Her lavender gown did not mask the strong line of her shoulders. Loki also noted that she wore her black hair long and down. Their eyes met as she approached, and he might have sworn he saw her eyebrows twitch.
“Mrs. Aesir, Mr. Aesir.” She smiled wide and bowed. “It delights me no end to be in your home after so many years away. Thank you both for your very kind invitation.”
“My dear Lady Sif, we are all of us delighted that you have joined us, and so soon after returning to town.” Mrs. Aesir nodded toward her sons, who straightened where they stood. “You may remember my elder boy, Thor, and my younger, Loki.”
“I do, fondly,” said Lady Sif. She surveyed them with an air of approval. “Gentlemen, a pleasure to see you again.”
Thor, though he could be unkept, and boisterous, and prone to rash decisions, stubbornness and spoiled behavior, could also, given proper stimulus and incentive, exhibit remarkable charm. Lady Sif was treated, at close range, to his winningest smile, and a well-executed bow. “Likewise,” he said, and Loki fought with every fiber of his being not to let a smirk betray him.
Lady Sif, perhaps expecting a complement to Thor’s efforts, eyed Loki. “I hope the years haven’t made you shy, Mr. Odinson.”
“My lady, not in the slightest,” he replied, and dipped his head.
“Mannered, then.” Her mouth curled. “How refreshing.”
At Mrs. Aesir’s urging, they repaired to the dining room, though Mr. Aesir made a cursory effort to engage Lady Sif on a tour of Mjolnir Manor first. “Now that you are old enough, you must see our trophy room,” he exclaimed during the soup course. “All the wild armaments of our youth, put away for gentler times.”
“I should find that very agreeable.” Lady Sif glanced at her hosts. “My aunt and mother have recommended I ply you both for tales of your exploits in Jotunham.”
“They were not very great adventures at the time,” Mrs. Aesir remarked, somewhat wryly.
“And we have spent years vetting those stories,” Loki interjected. “We must have some new talk, now that you are here.”
“I enjoy them!” Thor made an impassioned gesture. “Father lost an eye, after all.”
“In a duel,” Mr. Aesir concurred.
“He did not lose the eye so we might hear of it over supper,” Mrs. Aesir said. “And Loki is quite right, we must not bore Lady Sif by talking all over her.”
“I shall be very glad to hear them all the same.” She smiled. “I have never met a frost giant, or any inhabitants of the cold counties.”
Thor snorted. “You cannot be missing much. Brutes and savages. I daresay you’ll meet none here.”
“Thor.” Mrs. Aesir’s voice was warning enough. “Respect is the first rule of engagement.”
“Still, she must see Gungnir,” said Mr. Aesir, half to himself. “We have a beautiful collection.”
The conversation veered again into inquiries after Lady Sif’s family, during which she promised to deliver Mrs. Aesir’s regards to her mother. “How long are you staying in Asgard, Lady Sif?” inquired Mr. Aesir.
“My present answer must be vague, I fear: for as long as my business in town keeps me.”
The proposition seemed to distress Thor. “But surely you cannot not be entirely occupied with business?”
“That is the case.” She smiled at him. “I am quite determined to see it through.”
Thor leaned against the table. “I hope we may tempt you away from your duties for a little leisure, at least. If there is a pastime that affords some particular delight, I know you will find it in Asgard.”
Loki watched (with some dispassionate approval) the calculated manner in which Lady Sif held Thor’s gaze while she spoke. “I am very fond of riding, actually.” The corners of her eyes crinkled. “I would have come on horseback tonight, had my father not insisted on the carriage.”
“Why, you must come riding with us!” Thor cried. “You have not been on a horse until you have done so in Asgard.”
“Quite a boast,” she declared with a laugh. “I should be happy to see it proved.”
“We may do so at your earliest convenience.” Thor winked at Loki in a parody of slyness. Loki toyed with his soupspoon, rather than roll his eyes.
“Given the Lady’s travels, I imagine our competition will be stiff.” He glanced at her now, and at the crooked twist of her lips. “She has been so long away, with ample opportunity to be satisfied.”
“How quickly you assume that I hold the destination dearest. My years away have taught me a great deal about journeys.” She nodded to her hosts. “But I contradict myself, for at heart, yes, I have always counted on returning to Asgardshire.”
“As well it should be,” Mrs. Aesir concurred. “I was a wide traveler in my youth, after all.”
Mr. Aesir spoke up. “What other diversions have you planned for your stay?”
“This afternoon I was all but waylaid for the crime of my absence from the assembly hall,” she said, quite dryly. “I intend to come tomorrow, and indeed, have already been claimed for three whole dances.”
“Three?” said Thor, who began to chuckle.
“Only three?” said Loki. “Brace yourself, my lady: news travels fast. Every lad in the county will be fussing over his cravat by now.”
“Will they all? I do hope so.”
The Sif of their youth would not have so blithely parried his remark, nor invited a challenge to continue, as her bearing did. The servants filed in with the main courses, interrupting any elaboration of the matter, and Thor steered further conversation toward his liking of each provided dish. Lady Sif’s company was, it seemed, a fair compensation for a curtailed day of falconing, and Loki found his interest in the display of forming acquaintances considerably renewed.
Asgardshire society was, by common knowledge, the envy of all the Nine Realms. The elders of the county took pains to impress upon the younger how blessed they were in every regard, while the younger generations, burdened with a surfeit of peace and prosperity, committed to their available diversions with great fervor at every possible opportunity. Thus the assembly hall was, as it could only have been, the very nexus of the gentility. Within its walls and after each gathering, hearts, matches, reputations and futures lived and died with all the fury of stars.
Mrs. Aesir sent her sons off into town the next evening sure that each looked and behaved his finest. Both agreed to extend Lady Sif every courtesy. Mrs. Aesir made Thor promise twice. The assembly, of course, was no habitable place for secrets. No sooner had they arrived at the vaunted gathering than Fandral, Volstagg and Hogun, lifelong companions of each other and the brothers Odinson, descended upon them with the force and enthusiasm of hungry pigeons. “We must hear it from your own mouths!” cried Volstagg. “Is it true that you have dined with her, and will do so again?”
Fandral clapped a hand on Thor’s shoulder. “Yes, and what, pray tell, did you dine upon? Despite his excitement, I am sure Volstagg dearly wishes to know.”
Thor greeted them with a hearty laugh. “It was a fine lamb, but mostly we feasted upon the Lady’s company.” This he punctuated with a broad grin, at which Fandral crowed.
“You rascal! I demand every detail.”
“In good time, my friends. Is she arrived yet?”
Volstagg wagged his considerable eyebrows. “No, though you may thank us for her presence when she does.”
“I will have the first dance,” announced Hogun, with all the vim of an executioner.
Loki, as yet unacknowledged, folded his hands at his back. “Hogun, pursuing pleasure for its own sake? Tongues will wag in no time at all.”
Thor stepped back a pace, ready to both rebuff his brother and admit him to the circle. Whatever merry retort he had planned was cut short when a young lady, indifferently dressed and mid-exclamation, quite collided with Thor, who pitching forward with an ungainly grunt. “Sorry!” the young lady cried, even as she staggered back herself.
She was a slight lady, albeit one with sparkling eyes and a fine figure. What must surely have been a handsome face was, at the moment, agape with horror. A second lady, fuller of figure but no less lovely, caught her and helped her up. “Mind where you stand!” she snapped at Thor, and made a show of dusting off her companion’s sleeve.
“My sincerest apologies,” Thor stammered. To his great alarm, Loki saw Thor’s face grow slack, a sure sign of misplaced admiration. The lady herself was surely of no great rank, and the company she kept had lost no time exhibiting unmannered rudeness.
Loki inserted himself beside Thor, edging him back slightly. “Have we met?” he inquired coolly.
“Miss Jane Foster, a scholar and scientist,” the lady announced, pushing stray strands of hair back from her face. “And Miss Darcy Lewis, my assistant.” Miss Lewis refrained from looking too pleased at the introduction.
Thor pressed one hand to his heart. “Miss Foster, I am, as my brother here often reminds me, a lummox. Allow me to make amends with the honor of a dance.”
Miss Foster seemed to have recovered some of her bearings as she took in the sight of Thor’s penitence. “A lummox, perhaps, but an honest one.” She bit her lower lip, openly assessing her company.
Miss Lewis registered profound perturbation. “You would dance with him?” To Loki’s relief, she bade Miss Foster come away in no uncertain terms. Thor wilted a little, puzzled by the encounter. Loki glanced at him. “Now there is an innovation in the art of meeting a wife,” he remarked in the two ladies’ wake.
“Surely newness is no cause for glibness,” spoke a familiar voice. An excellent retort was halfway to Loki’s lips as he and the others turned.
Lady Sif stood before them, not in the expected raiment of a woman of status, but in the close-cut finery of regimental uniform. Her black boots would shame an officer; her tailor deserved medals of valor. The lines of her shoulders, the proud angle of her chin, the neat arrangement of her dark locks, all of it showed Loki for the fool he was, for who could have missed, in all her talk of the prior evening, that of course, Lady Sif had grown up a shieldmaiden?
Thor was the first to recover his wits, or rather, the first to forget his manners, for the smile he wore could not have been more delighted had he been presented with a fleet and fiery horse. “My lady!” He clicked his heels smartly and bowed. The rest followed suit, and Lady Sif returned the courtesy.
She indicated the reel which distracted and engaged the better half of the county. “I hope I have not kept you waiting.”
Volstagg gallantly dipped his head. “Even if you had, it could never grieve us.”
“I shall learn to like your sweet nothings.” She turned her wry gaze to Loki. “That is an elegant cravat, Mr. Odinson.”
He crooked an eyebrow. “Is it? I spent hardly any time on it at all.”
“Lady Sif,” Thor interjected, “I am amazed that for all the talk we had last night, we did not hear more of the reason for your years of travel!”
She folded her hands at the small of her back. “Forgive me, for I mean no offense, but my mother has more faith in the country’s love of convention than I do.” She mirrored Thor’s smile. “I am delighted to see my doubts rewarded.”
“Why, we must surely discard all the idle talk we had planned,” exclaimed Fandral. “There is so much more to discuss now! What manner of arms do you favor, my lady?”
“Yes, and have you been to the grounds yet?” Volstagg inquired, leaning quite forward.
Loki turned to Hogun, suddenly annoyed. “Hadn’t you promised the lady the first dance this evening?”
Hogun gave him a long, level look, and finally pronounced, “We can talk instead.”
For Thor’s sake, and, he decided, for Thor’s sake only, Loki endured the endless dissection of diverse and favored weaponry, even as his own contribution on the merits of throwing knives went largely unheeded. Lady Sif held forth on a range of related issues more than capably, and earned the undivided attention she was afforded with aplomb. Satisfied that Thor was as attentive as Loki himself was bored, he excused himself, on the premise of catching up with another acquaintance. The flurry of laughter at his back set his jaw on edge, but he swallowed his resentment and called himself gracious, if the family should benefit.
In truth, the air inside had become rather close. He navigated his way through the lovers, revelers and gossips until, after a few brief pauses in which he took greetings for his parents, he found his way to a side exit. A number of coachmen jumped at his appearance, but as their services were not immediately required, they resumed their odd card games and small-stakes debates.
Loki was no devotee of the almanac, but he knew the harvest was still a ways off. Yet the air smelled of sharpness, and upon reexamining the servants, he saw most were huddling against their summer-weight coats. He peered toward the far end of the lot. One pair wore no livery that Loki recognized, and glowered at him in no uncertain terms. They struck him more as farm lads than footmen, given their obvious bulk. A little light spilled out from the windows above. Their faces — his mind grasped at the notion — seemed to carry a bluish tint. One of the nearer individuals, of a more conventional form, asked if he was lost. Loki did not press the issue, but retreated back to the hall.
The evening progressed, rather rapidly, to the point at which Loki took up his station near the punch bowls. A few of the regulars nodded, but did not engage in fruitless conversation. One fellow was new to their fraternity: an older man, tall, with bowed shoulders and a face given naturally to moroseness. He could not be swayed to look away from the dancers, and Loki, somewhat idly, tracked his line of sight, only to find his spine go rigid, for now they both could observe his brother, very much engaged in a spirited rondo with Miss Jane Foster.
“Damn,” he said, quite unthinkingly.
The morose fellow spared him a brief look. “Miss Foster is an acquaintance of yours?”
“Only just this evening,” Loki admitted. “She is dancing with my brother.”
The stranger examined him more closely, then said, “I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure.” He held out his hand. “My name’s Selvig.”
Loki took it; Mr. Selvig had a firm grip. “Loki Odinson, of Mjolnir Manor.”
“Then that must be the mighty Thor.” Loki found he liked the sardonic note in his delivery. Mr. Selvig indicated the floor with his empty cup. “Miss Foster is a colleague of mine. I am here tonight at her behest.”
He sighed. “Yes, though I cannot imagine whom she thought I might meet.”
Above the music and the enthusiastic percussion of feet, Thor gave a particularly loud laugh. Loki unclenched his jaw yet again. “You are a naturalist, then?”
“More of a mathematician, but yes, I am a student of all the sciences.” He sighed again. “Miss Foster’s father was also a dear friend to me. She has taken up his interrogation of the cosmos with great vigor.”
“There you are!” Lady Sif emerged from the crush, her color high. “I was told I might find you here.”
Over her shoulder, Loki watched Thor twirl Miss Foster, who also had an exuberant laugh. “My lady,” he said quickly, steering her away from the floor, “might I introduce the learned Mr. Selvig?”
He cleared his throat. “It’s Dr., actually.”
“Dr. Selvig,” Loki continued, “the Lady Sif, recently returned from abroad.”
“Good evening,” she said, as Dr. Selvig took in her attire. “Good doctor, I must beg your indulgence and rob you of your company. I cannot dance with only one of Mrs. Aesir’s handsome sons tonight; it simply will not do.”
“By all means,” Dr. Selvig generously allowed.
Loki’s mouth thinned even as he crooked his arm. “Yes, I am delighted to fill out your set, my lady.”
“I knew a mule once as reliably contrary as you.” She accepted his arm and, with exquisite timing, turned toward the dancers just as the rondo concluded. Worse, at the precise center of the floor, Miss Foster was allowing Thor not just to bow gymnastically before her, but also to kiss her right hand, the other being pressed to her heart. As a man versed in the courses of natural phenomena, Dr. Selvig took the opportunity to quietly excuse himself. Lady Sif, to her credit, did not falter. “Quite the gallant, isn’t he, your brother?”
They took up their positions on the floor. “The fault for which he makes amends is hers,” he said, noting the surprise of several couples around them. “Call that what you will.”
Opposite, Lady Sif watched him, straight and unwavering where she stood. “A generosity of spirit, then.”
“Certainly one of us must be agreeable.”
The dance was a stately one, rife with fleeting looks and glancing hands. Loki observed the Lady Sif’s footwork with interest; there was something of the fencer in it, true, but she also understood the aesthetics of the act. She circled him smooth as a sea creature, her wake nearly tangible. When she reappeared from behind him, she felt very close. He took up her hand and set the other upon her waist. So little fabric gave beneath his fingers.
“Assure me something, Mr. Odinson.” She tilted her chin up, and he caught hidden flashes of skin beneath her collar. “Tell me you are not plotting our whole exchange now. Leave some of our talk to chance.”
He engaged her eye to eye, to avoid the impression that he was staring at the bareness of her neck. “Is that what you think of me?”
“That is what I have observed.”
He swallowed. “In truth, my lady, I draw connections as they come to me. Perhaps I seem a schemer to the untrained and unengaged eye.”
They parted and reunited as the beats prescribed. “Your pardon, sir, but I know better than to believe that.” She shook a lock of hair off her shoulder and wagged her eyebrows, at which he laughed.
“I am touched that you wish to settle so old a score.”
“Humiliation to a child is ironclad and eternal, Mr. Odinson.”
“You are counter evidence today, my lady.” Now he took his paces around her. She did not budge, though she did trace his path with her eyes; they flicked back on his face as he completed his steps. They took up hands again.
“I should entertain a touch of fear if I were you. Might I not entrap you and enact retribution?”
“You seek to surprise me by warning me?”
She chuckled then, from the center of her chest. “I would not have you surprised for all the Nine Realms, Mr. Odinson. I would rather have you ready.”
“Ah, the journey rather than its end.” His hand came to rest on the small of her back.
She met his eyes again. “We understand each other.”
“I should not be so hasty.”
Lady Sif merely smiled, and Loki, struck by the force of his own reaction, quashed the hope that Thor would not think to look.
As the other half of the household was not given to rising early, it was the longstanding tradition for Mrs. Aesir and Loki to take breakfast together. When he was young, he assailed her with unending volleys of questions and flirted for her attention, as beloved children will do. Now their ritual had evolved into something much friendlier. Conversation often sprang from the far corners of their interests and lapsed into long, mutually agreeable silence.
Mrs. Aesir had already set aside her plate in favor of the mail, and now nursed a fragrant black tea just in from Vanaheim. Last night’s goings-on had not yet been addressed; more often than not, to hear of the assembly from Thor meant rousing encomia, while Loki delivered scathing and often unnecessary commentary. Thus when Loki volunteered that some acceptable follies had emerged the previous evening, Mrs. Aesir set down her letter opener and put her envelopes aside. “Was Lady Sif then in attendance?”
He stirred his own beverage. “She cleaves to her promises. She honored both of us with turns at dance.”
Mrs. Aesir threaded her fingers and propped her elbows on the table. “And Thor, was he suitably attentive?”
“I was perfectly steadfast and diligent.” At his mother’s smile, he relented. “Thor, yes, he held on her every word.” He studied his plate of sausages. “Did you know she has been a shieldmaiden all this time?”
“I suspected as much when she dined with us. An unusual profession for a woman,” she mused, “but certainly not beyond the acceptable. It is, after all, a high rank of an elite corps.” She picked another letter from her pile and worked at the envelope. The material was tough, and, from its texture, surely waterproof. “Has she made any further appointments with us?”
“We are engaged to ride with her later on this week. I proposed a date, and she is to confirm after consulting her schedule.” Mrs. Aesir gave no indication that she had heard. The letter engaged her entirely, whatever its contents; her complexion had paled and her mouth was tight. Loki, eager for once to discuss fripperies, furrowed his brow. “Mother?”
Mrs. Aesir set the letter aside and pressed her knuckles to her lips. She scrutinized her son, who resisted the urges to squirm and to ask for an answer she would not give. When she spoke, her query surprised him, which was his opinion on organizing a ball, in Thor’s honor. “A ball?” Loki sat back in his chair. “But his birthday’s weeks away. Not,” he added, “that he would not take every chance to enjoy it.”
“It is not so far, and yours is not so far after.” She stroked her upper lip. “Your father trusts in our standing in this county, but I will speak to Orboda. We have trusted too long on this matter. It will not resolve itself.”
Loki put his hands in his lap. He tried to steal a look at the envelope. “It will not be the last ball we host here.”
“Then you must help me.” Mrs. Aesir tucked the letter back among its fellows. “Ensure that Lady Sif enjoys herself on your ride.”
To rouse Thor earlier than he was accustomed was no easy task, though Loki had, over the years, developed a repertoire of tricks to ensure the process. This particular morning he found success with a straightforward feather up the nose, and the ensuing chase energized Thor greatly. Their parents finally saw them off by nine o’clock. The weather was fine, their horses were eager, and the brothers Odinson took particular pleasure in the scenery as they made their way toward the estate of Lady Sif’s family.
“Fine luck for us,” Thor remarked as they took a shortcut through an open field. “The weather is on our side.”
“The country will certainly speak for itself.” Loki urged his steed forward. “Let us hope it persuades her to stay here.”
Thor grinned broadly. “Ever dogged, brother. Everything has a purpose.”
“If I must hound you to remember our ultimate purpose, so be it. There are far worse options than securing an engagement in so short a time.”
“One never knows,” said Thor. “She may have intentions for either of us.”
Loki laughed. “I think we both know that the course is already set.”
His brother was silent for a time. “She is a remarkable woman,” he confessed. “I have never felt so comfortable in a lady’s presence in all my life.”
“Good.” Loki glanced sideways. “I am glad to hear it.”
The silence grew full. It was Thor whose face first broke with mischief, but even as he dug his heels into his horse’s side, Loki was already racing him, and the two arrived at their destination somewhat earlier than agreed upon. Lady Sif was delighted to welcome them nonetheless, and after a brief introduction to her well-traveled aunt, the three of them set out for the wilder swaths of Asgardshire.
“It is grander than I remembered it!” she exclaimed from an overlook above a rocky gorge. “A fair feat now that I am bigger.”
Loki saw fit to quote his favorite poet’s lines on the matter, which Lady Sif, to his surprise, completed. “You’re familiar with the Eddas?” he asked.
“And many others besides. Are you surprised?” Loki would almost chance to call her smile a smirk. “Shieldmaidens are as cultured as any landed gentry. Why fight on an empty heart, I say?”
“Exactly true!” Thor cried. “How pleasing that we are of one mind on the topic.”
Loki thought to remind Thor that a little subtlety was not so out of line, even given the urgency of ensuring nuptials, but the delivery was so earnest he could not justify a rebuke. Besides which, Lady Sif was a superb athlete, and both brothers were soon occupied in proving they were equal to keeping up.
The horses, of course, were not inexhaustible, and the trio took a more leisurely pace on the trip home. Loki proposed a detour, to show Lady Sif the wooded park that abutted their property. “We’ve had many happy hours here growing up,” Thor said as they picked their way down a well-worn path. “Every corner of this wood is some place we played as children.”
“For instance,” Loki remarked, “if you look to your left, you may see the exact spot from which, as a boy, I leaped from a tree onto Thor and nearly lost my hearing for his screams—”
“That is not so!”
Loki smirked. “He has never been good at surprises. He prefers to charge head-on, outnumbered, outclassed or no.”
“Whereas my brother will spend more energy avoiding a fight than is necessary to end one.”
“I’m quite impressed with you both,” said Lady Sif dryly.
Thor’s horse began shuffling and tossing her head. He leaned forward to stroke her neck. “I give him too little credit. He fights very well if you lure him to the yard.”
“We are, in some ways, demonstrably related, I confess.”
“I will have to visit the regiment, then. I never did as a girl.” She looked again to the trees arching overhead. “Such a strange thing to come home again. There is so much I have forgotten. The climate, for instance, is most baffling. Are all your forests quite this dry and cool?”
Thor chuckled. “Of course not, my lady. We still have some summer left—”
Loki felt the hairs at his neck prickle. He rose up in his saddle, scanning the wood for he knew not what. Had he glimpsed a flash of blue between the trees? There was not time to brace himself: the temperature plummeted with the suddenness of a gale. A cannonade of noise engulfed them. The horses reared and shrieked; wood shattered and exploded from every angle.
Thor’s horse nearly unseated him. Lady Sif grabbed the bridle and spurred her own mount. The panicked gelding lunged forward, leaving Loki to herd them both down the path.
They beat their way to the other side of the park, and emerged in sight of Mjolnir Manor. Shards of wood and sap coated their skin and clothes; both Thor and Lady Sif bore scratches, and Loki was sure they were as sore and throbbing as he. Thor wrestled his skittish horse, his anger already towering. “What was that?” he demanded, face blazing. “Have we just been attacked on our own property?”
“Quiet,” Loki snapped. “Let me think.”
Lady Sif’s jaw was tight. “Does this often happen in Asgardshire?”
“Not in the slightest, no.” Loki looked back over his shoulder. Scattered pops and cracks echoed still behind them.
Thor nearly rose in his stirrups. “That was not an act of nature. We must go back at once and confront the perpetrator!”
“And you are equipped to settle such a matter?”
“Enough, both of you.” Lady Sif shucked the roughness from her voice. “Let us look to ourselves first. If that was an assault, then it was a trap, one that we have eluded.”
Thor gaped at them. “But why? Who would do such a thing?”
Loki made no answer. He turned his horse toward the soft expanse of lawn, his thoughts bent on coldness.
Dr. Selvig’s household doubled as a laboratory: on that note Loki had been warned when he enquired after its location. He was not prepared for the full scope of disarray and eccentricity that greeted him when he called at Pinzgauer Place the next day. Miss Lewis admitted him to the house, singing to herself even as she opened the front door. Both spent a moment in shock, she for recognizing him, and he for finding a woman to whom Dr. Selvig was not married living at his place of residence.
“Oh,” Miss Lewis said. “Did your brother forget something?”
“I beg your pardon?” Loki peered behind her. “I hoped I might speak with Dr. Selvig.”
“Oh. Oh.” She nodded, and admitted him to the foyer. Where normally a family might keep portraits and landscapes, this particular interior was given over to mathematical scribbles and scientific notes, not framed but pinned to the wall itself. Miss Lewis guided him through the house, past mislaid instruments and charts of the stars. Upon arrival to the ostensible lab, Miss Lewis yelled Dr. Selvig’s given name and announced their visitor as Mr. Odinson’s brother.
Dr. Selvig emerged from behind a shelf crammed tight with glass plates, a stack of equations in one hand. The baffled expression became a puzzled smile as he greeted his guest. “Mr. Odinson, such a surprise. I hope you are well?”
“In a general manner of speaking, yes.” He cast about the space. “I apologize; I was led to believe you lived here alone.”
“Ah.” Dr. Selvig’s mouth twitched. “I am Miss Foster’s guest, in fact. She has asked me to assist her with an issue that has arisen in her work.”
“Indeed.” Loki glanced over his shoulder. “Miss Foster is not in this morning?”
Dr. Selvig cleared his throat. “No, she is taking measurements all day.”
Finally understanding, Miss Lewis straightened abruptly and wandered out. Loki dismissed a number of other questions, none of which would be polite, given the directness he felt they deserved, and continued. “I have need of your expertise, as you are the only naturalist of my acquaintance.”
“I shall see how I can help.” Dr. Selvig crossed his arms, papers still in hand. Omitting his own suspicions as to the cause, Loki described the exploding grove, and the manner in which it came about, before asking Dr. Selvig what could cause a group of otherwise well-behaved trees to react in such a manner. “That makes no sense,” he announced. “The temperature at which sap freezes is lower than would ever occur in Asgardshire.”
Loki could not contain his incredulity. “Freezing sap, you say?”
He nodded. “Water expands when it freezes, yes? Well, there is water in tree sap, of course. The wood contracts as the sap expands. But this isn’t normal even in winter; the temperatures must be astronomically low.”
“Could such conditions have been caused by intent?” Dr. Selvig’s expression tightened. Loki folded his hands behind his back. “I trust you understand my meaning.”
Dr. Selvig chewed his lower lip. “I cannot imagine there are frost giants in the county. Their claim on Asgardshire was disproved quite conclusively. It would be foolish for them to assert it again.” He dropped his eyes and looked away. “Was that all you hoped to learn from me?”
He hesitated. “Miss Lewis mentioned a curious thing in passing. Did my brother call on Miss Foster this morning?”
“He did not mention it to you?” Dr. Selvig shuffled his papers. “It was not so much a call as a chance encounter. Mr. Odinson was out walking quite early, and passed by as Miss Foster was leaving.”
“I see.” Loki bowed. “I thank you for your time.”
“Let me walk you—”
“No.” He held up a hand. “I have interrupted your work enough. I can show myself out.”
He passed Miss Lewis in the hallway, dutifully correcting a representation of the borders of Svartlhampshire. He gestured at the map. “An exercise in futility, is it not?”
“Adjusting your parameters to reflect a complex and ever-shifting reality when it is in your best interests to do so? I believe you’re quite right.” She pushed a pair of spectacles up her nose. Her fingers were smudged with graphite. “Did you find what you needed?”
“And more besides.” Loki tipped his hat to her. “Good day.”
On his way out of town, Loki passed Lady Sif’s sister and heir to their mother’s property on the street. He bowed and made his inquiries after the lady’s health. Lady Sif’s sister assured him that, save for the cuts she sustained riding too hard through a pine forest, she was in perfect condition and high spirits. He thanked her and passed along his own greetings, and his family’s. This was the only talk he sustained for the next hour, at which point he finally arrived at Heimdall’s post.
Loki was never entirely sure of Heimdall’s official position in society. He always assumed he was connected to the regimental regulars, though he never saw the fellow at the grounds, or about town. Nor was he an officer, though he was afforded the most extraordinary respect. Perhaps the greatest mystery was how Heimdall knew every passing detail of any proceedings within their borders, though he remained alone far out on the county’s main road, with only his rifle for company.
“Loki Odinson,” he said by way of greeting, “your hurts are healing well.”
“My hurts?” Loki halted before the guard. “And what do you know of them?”
Heimdall’s odd golden eyes betrayed nothing, nor did his calm rumble of a voice. “That you share them with two others. Your brother was out this morning as well.”
“Yes, earlier than accustomed,” Loki muttered. He pressed his hands to his sides. “Good Heimdall, I have a query for you, if I may.”
Heimdall’s hand closed on the barrel of his rifle, propped against his shoulder with all the solemnity of a sword. “I will help if I can.”
Few inhabitants of the county were taller than Loki. Thor was one; Heimdall was another. Loki planted his feet as he looked up to him. “You see all that comes and goes in Asgard.”
“That is true.”
“You know of all county dealings, common and landed alike.” Heimdall’s silence was his assent. “I wish to inquire after a pair of coachmen I witnessed at the assembly last week. Do you know anything of frost giants coming here?”
Heimdall’s voice was calm, but his brow did not remain smooth. “Any frost giant within our borders comes as a private citizen and is free to move about as our guest. It is our law.”
“Even though we were at war with them within your lifetime?”
“And yours, Mr. Odinson, though you were very young.”
Loki’s mouth thinned. “Can you tell me who employs the two Jotnar coachmen? I do not think it is widely known, else I wouldn’t have come.”
Heimdall paused. “Wealthy and respected as your family is, you do not have the authority to command such knowledge from me. What would you intend for such an employer besides?”
“Merely to initiate a private exchange of words, nothing more.”
“If you had come to me with the name of this employer, I might direct you to where she or he could be reached, at my discretion. Otherwise, I cannot say more to you.” He shifted his rifle. “If you feel this is a personal matter, perhaps it would be fitter to make these inquiries closer to home.”
“Ah.” Loki folded his hands. “I know you are wise, Heimdall. You must know that the particulars of that period are more personal than my household gives out.”
“That is true.”
The watchman chose not to continue. Loki began to press his case again when the implication hit him. “Ah,” he repeated. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” His smile was fleeting. “I hope you will keep this conversation private, Heimdall. The county need not have cause to whisper.”
“There will be no panic on my account,” said Heimdall. Loki thanked him, bowed and commenced his long walk home.
Mrs. Aesir had learned long ago that her sons were more curious than they were sensitive, and thus she had developed, over time, a virtually impenetrable system of defenses for her most private affairs. Loki did not waste time rifling through her desk drawers; instead, he chose a slim volume from the library on theoretical engineering and set out for the gardens behind the manor house. He positioned himself on an out-of-the-way bench, hunched forward, and draped his jacket beside him.
For nearly an hour, he read, the very picture of absorption. When his space was disturbed by the tread of his father’s footsteps, he rose from his seat in a hurry, and greeted Mr. Aesir, propriety seasoned with distraction. Mr. Aesir remarked on his surprise at finding his younger boy during his morning walk. Loki fingered the edges of the book, his neck bent, and made some muted reply. Mr. Aesir observed him closely, asked after the contents of the book, then invited him to walk a bit. Loki summoned a fleeting smile and fell into step beside him. At last, after failing to engage his son with discussion of his plans for the hedges, Mr. Aesir asked what was troubling him.
Loki shook his head. “I am sure in the end it will give us no cause for worry.”
“Ah. Then I might reassure you that this is born of needless fretting, and save us both some trouble.”
“I hope you are right.” He drew his shoulders in. “It’s only I heard a rumor that inquiries have been made about the estate. Formal inquiries, to our solicitors.”
Mr. Aesir affected a bracing smile. “I wouldn’t grieve yourself, my boy. There will be wedding guests here sooner than new tenants.” Loki did not answer him. Mr. Aesir’s expression faltered. “Are Thor and Lady Sif getting along?”
“Yes, yes, they are perfectly amiable toward each other.” Loki took a well-timed steadying breath. “But you know me, Father, I am a creature of doubt.”
“Thor will come through for us. Who could resist him?”
“I fear our prospective buyer may not have purely indifferent intentions.”
Mr. Aesir tilted his head. “Why would you think that?”
Loki set his eye on the row of foxgloves at their left. “The other morning, Mother received a letter that seemed to cause her great distress.”
“What letter? She mentioned no such thing to me.”
Loki thinned his lips. “She did not divulge its contents, but it was then she proposed Thor’s ball to me.” Mr. Aesir’s face had grown cloudy; Loki pressed on. “I did not recognize the postmark, but I saw the script. If a frost giant was to use the post—”
“Laufey!” Mr. Aesir growled. His stride quickened. Loki caught up with him.
“Laufey? Who is that?” The name felt strange and unfamiliar in his mouth.
“The fellow I was dueling when I lost my eye!” he snapped.
“In Jotunham? You never named him before.”
“His name was never important!”
“And he has an interest in our estate? Why?”
“Who can say?” Mr. Aesir huffed. “He is not the one who lost an eye.” He stopped and laid a hand on Loki’s arm. “You have the silver tongue in this family. You must convince Lady Sif to propose to Thor, if not before the ball, then at it.”
He bowed his head. “Father, if I am able, that is my intention.”
“The fiend!” Mr. Aesir exclaimed, and forged ahead to walk off his passions among the chrysanthemums. Loki let him go.
“Laufey,” he murmured to himself.
To call the regimental grounds a camp was both a misnomer and a solid truth. To be sure, quarters were available, and weapons masters offered training in a dizzying array of arms, popular and obscure. But while the men who frequented the place were willing and able to defend the county should the need arise, its primary purpose was socialization. A certain kind of gentleman found great pleasure in mixing easily with sport-minded folk, and though he was adored wherever he went, it was here Thor truly felt himself at home. When directly approached, not only had Lady Sif accepted Volstagg’s invitation to tour the grounds, she actively endorsed the visit. While Loki could hardly admit to tolerating the general culture of the place, he found no fault in attending in a quietly supervisory role.
Volstagg was a lusty fellow by nature, whose appetites for both material and companionable pleasures outmatched even Thor’s. Paired with Fandral, who fancied himself dashing, and Hogun, whose tastes confounded Loki, the three provided Lady Sif with a bellyful of laughs and eager conversation. While Loki wished Thor would not leave all the flirting to Fandral, he was satisfied that her comfort with the self-proclaimed Warriors Three was not of an amorous nature.
“And here is where we like to spend most of our time,” Volstagg proclaimed, indicating the sunken sparring yard. “Even Loki can’t keep himself away for too long.”
The whole party turned to look at him. Lady Sif’s mouth curled. “If Mr. Odinson condescends to use it, I trust his assessment implicitly, for he reserves praise, even unspoken, for only the most deserving.”
He gave a curt bow. “My lady, you see me quite through.”
Thor laughed, then turned to Lady Sif. “Might we convince you to give it a try yourself? I should very much like to see what training kept you from Asgard all this time.” Loki looked to his brother, who winked at him. He hated to see his brother sly; it never ended well.
Lady Sif roamed the edges of the yard. “The construction is very suitable. Well maintained, too.” From behind, they watched her roll her shoulders before she turned and smiled. “I should be glad to test it, but who will join me?”
“Loki, why don’t you have a turn?” Thor wore a mask of perfect innocence. Before anyone could stop him, Fandral crossed his arms and agreed, no doubt partway out of spite. Volstagg declared it a capital proposition, and Hogun dipped his chin in the facsimile of a nod.
Loki found himself worrying at his palm. “You do me wrong, gentlemen. Lady Sif deserves a challenge, and you overstate my expertise.”
“Let me be the judge of that. Come, sir, what is your weapon? No — let me guess.” She made a show of studying him. Fandral snickered, but Loki felt his spine straightening. “Not a one for close combat, if you can help it. Something that keeps your enemy back, if it comes to blows, but truly, anything that works will do.” She turned to her audience for a wink. “We all have heard your fondness for the knife, but I am no carnival dodger and would not wish to attempt the feat.”
He clasped his wrist behind his back. “In truth, my lady, I am an opportunist, as these four may readily attest, and will rely on whatever is at hand.”
“Oh, we are none so unkind!” Volstagg cried.
Lady Sif glanced at him. “Who called it unkind?”
Loki shifted on his feet and sighed. “I suppose I have agreed,” he said after a silence.
“Here.” Thor put out his hands, quite eagerly. “I will hold your coats. Let us not dither and forfeit the yard.”
Lady Sif shrugged her jacket off with ease. Though Loki had seen her in far fancier garb, the plain cotton was a shock to him. The lines of her corsetry ghosted beneath her shirt. He slipped out of his sleeves in a hurry and nearly threw the jacket at his brother, who whistled under his breath.
He kept a pace behind Lady Sif as they approached the arms rack. “I will make allowances if you are not confident, Mr. Odinson,” she remarked, her fingers trailing over a row of blades and bludgeons.
“I wish you would not,” he said, examining the selection. He finally settled on a spear, taller even than he was. Lady Sif gave a laugh, open-mouthed with delight.
“How very old-fashioned of you. Like father, like son?”
“Gungnir puts this to shame.” He pretended to study the weapon’s shaft. “If you prefer, we may do this with pistols. But I took you for an old-fashioned brawler, if we are being honest.”
“You are half correct. There is pleasure to be found in such things.” She faced him, one short sword in each hand. “Shall we?”
The cheers and whistles of their companions greeted them in the yard. Loki took one despairing look at the amphitheater before facing his opponent and offering the customary bow, which was returned. Lady Sif lifted her blades, and Loki positioned his feet; hardly was he settled than she launched herself upon him.
The chief feature of the shieldmaidens whose rank Lady Sif had attained was their relentlessness. Loki sensed rather than saw the ways to block her in her opening gambit. She made ample use of her blades in every regard; he jumped back from the point, dodged the butt, pushed aside the flat and caught the edge with his spear. Lady Sif was not a quiet fighter either: she kept him so close that he heard every grunt, huff and laugh. It occurred to him, as he extricated himself from her onslaught by sliding under it, that she had, in fact, warned him of this, and all at once his strategy came to him, and he bared his teeth in a grin.
The center of the yard was open, but the periphery had its fair share of obstacles. Loki led Lady Sif on a merry chase over all of these, warning her off with his own blade. By chance alone, he managed to swipe her feet out from under her, and nearly made to pin her to the dust. The crowd had grown in the minutes since they’d started; the heckling and cheering had accordingly bloomed as well. Thor, however, was not among those giving voice. Loki’s thoughts raced. Lady Sif was to be Thor’s wife, his better half. The moment stretched. She rolled out from under him and pushed herself to her feet, both blades flashing.
Loki charged. Lady Sif nearly did not fall for his feint, but his aim was true, and one sword skidded along the ground. He met her eye, held it and kicked the sword away. She shot past him, almost a blur; he turned just in time to see her vault off the wall, one leg outstretched.
The ground met him with dizzying force. He lay there, supine and breathless, as Lady Sif leaned over him, her expression unreadable. Applause and commentary roared behind them. “You did that by design,” she murmured, and helped him to his feet.
“In the future,” he replied, with a slight wheeze in his chest, “we must not go so easy on each other.”
Lady Sif steadied him for a moment. “I will hold to it if you will,” she said.
Any venture in the yard is customarily followed by a stop at the regimental public house. Loki and Lady Sif were provided with drinks and spirits in honor of the fine round they’d played out. Loki had little to say for himself, but Thor enjoyed himself uproariously, and Lady Sif responded in kind. The merriment persisted well after they parted. All the ride home, Thor chided Loki on the state of his clothes, in disarray and thick with dust even after a number of brushings, and Loki hounded Thor for his primness at the yard, as if concerned, perhaps, with appearing at his own ball with a black eye or a sore leg. They tumbled inside and through the halls, ages and station forgotten, until Orboda stopped them, and informed them that their mother requested their presence at once.
They directed themselves to the parlor. Cold air seeped beneath the shut door and pooled at their feet. Thor rapped twice, and Mrs. Aesir bade them enter. The scene fell into place: upon a settee, with Mrs. and Mr. Aesir nearby, sat a frost giant, blue and marked and brutal of face. He wore a suit so finely tailored, the incongruity left Loki reeling.
Thor barreled forward, his gait stiff. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. Loki took his shoulder, his eyes darting from father to mother to frost giant.
“Thor,” said Mrs. Aesir firmly. “Grundroth is a guest in our house, and you will treat him accordingly.” Thor glowered, but held still. Mrs. Aesir looked to Loki, and spoke. “Grundroth, my two sons, Mr. Thor and Mr. Loki Odinson.”
“Good day to you both,” Grundroth rumbled. He rose and bowed his head.
Loki kept his chin high. “To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?”
“In truth, I come with an apology, and an explanation. There was a regrettable incident on your property for which I have come to made amends.”
“Regrettable?” Thor snorted. “I’d call it—” Loki gripped his shoulder harder. Grundroth smiled tolerantly.
“Allow me to explain, gentlemen. Two associates and I are in Asgardshire on the business of our employer, Laufey of Jotunham, and his wife, Farbauti. As you may surmise, the climate is somewhat warmer than we are generally equipped to find comfortable, though with practice and self-control, we may mingle with your kind freely. One of my associates took refuge in your park, not realizing he was not on public land. The results were quite unexpected for all parties; we do not have trees as such in Jotunham.” He bowed. “On behalf of my employer and myself, you have my apologies. I see you have not come to much harm.”
“Thank you, no,” said Loki. “Just a good fright to our horses.”
“I am glad to hear it. And of course, it will not happen again.”
Loki did not look away. “We are all wiser for it.”
Grundroth’s red eyes danced. After a pause, he said, “It is good to see that the sons of Frigg and Odin have grown into such men.”
“We are honoring Thor at the end of this week,” Mr. Aesir interjected. Mrs. Aesir flinched at the suddenness of it.
The frost giant folded his hands at his back, an incongruous gesture. “Indeed?”
Mr. Aesir schooled his face. “With a ball,” he said calmly. “Here. We hope very much to make an announcement too.” It was a reckless statement, but it could not be taken back. Loki looked to Thor, who remained stock still.
“Yes,” Mrs. Aesir concurred. “You must attend, sir. You would be quite welcome.”
The temperature dropped again as Grundroth smiled. “I would be delighted. Your generosity will not go unremarked to my employer.”
Even through his jacket, Thor’s shoulder rippled with tension. “I am very sorry,” said Loki, tugging him back, “but we are not presentable. It has been a pleasure, sir. If you would please excuse us.”
“But of course.” Grundroth dipped his head. “We may get better acquainted at your ball, I daresay.”
“Come, brother,” Loki hissed. Mrs. and Mr. Aesir watched them both. For a moment, as Thor continued to glare, Loki feared he might unbalance an already fragile situation, but he exhaled at last and stalked after him.
“What business would a frost giant have in Asgardshire?” he snarled when they had put some distance behind them.
“Isn’t it obvious? He wants the estate.” The words came out with far more calm than Loki thought himself capable of mustering. Thor growled and sped up. Loki hurried after him. “I fear such visits will become more frequent if we do not accomplish something by your birthday.”
Thor pounded a doorframe, which shook beneath his fist. “I am sick to death of it! What does the law care if a son inherits a house?”
“Nonetheless, there must be a marriage.” Loki set himself before his brother, who only reluctantly met his eye. “Thor. We are short of luxuries now. I hope you realize what you must do.”
“If it were that easy, I’d have done it already,” he groaned.
Loki looked away. “If only any of this could be easy,” he said.
“Brother,” Thor murmured, “you can barely keep your feet under you.”
“I am not tired,” Loki insisted.
“You’ve been saying that for days.” Thor smiled at a passing guest. “How will you possibly manage to enjoy yourself this evening?”
He folded his hands. “It’s not my duty to enjoy myself, it’s my duty to ensure tonight is a success.”
The guests had streamed through the front hall of Mjolnir Manor for nearly an hour past. Virtually without interruption, Thor and Loki shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with the building tide of Asgard’s finest. In the days leading up to the ball, rest had eluded the youngest member of the household. Thor, of course, could sleep through anything and had never been anxious in his life. Mrs. Aesir was far too practical to lose time fretting, and Mr. Aesir had given over his every waking moment to the preparations. Loki, however, could not strike his impression of Grundroth from his mind. For the humiliation of a lost duel, Laufey would have their estate by any means, and every ordinary moment became fraught with possibilities.
Yet the first surprise to assail Loki tonight was to find himself confronted with Miss Foster, with Miss Lewis and Dr. Selvig in tow. He could only watch them approach, though he had not recalled their names from the invitation list.
“We feared we might not be able to come,” Miss Foster exclaimed as soon as Thor made his welcomes. “ Someone has vandalized my laboratory and destroyed every item of glass that we use. Even my telescopes have cracked!”
“That is most vexing,” Thor interjected. “But no one was hurt?”
“No, no.” Miss Foster waved it off. “Though it will take some time to refurbish my supplies. And my notes, thoroughly waterlogged, for no reason we can discern.”
Loki blinked and came to attention. “I’m sorry?”
“Yes!” Miss Foster gesticulated forcefully. “It cannot be borne. I am quite irate at this delay! My work is at a critical juncture—”
Dr. Selvig shook Loki’s hand and spoke in a low voice. “Perhaps we may discuss the matter when you are less occupied.” Loki dipped his head in assent, his heart racing again.
“Even so, I hope you enjoy yourselves triply tonight,” Thor declared. Miss Lewis grinned and assured him she would comply with such a wish, so long as there was plenty of dancing to be had. They swept inside on Miss Foster’s lead, and Loki had time for one skeptical look at his brother, who smiled and shrugged, before another flock of guests crowded toward them.
Grundroth arrived alone. Thor, unsmiling, offered his hand. Grundroth paused, then laughed softly. “I thank you, Thor Odinson, but it is best if we do not. A fault of biology renders my touch painful to your kind, though I know you are not a weak man.” He gave a small bow. “My every wish for a joyous evening, sirs.” He strode past them, towering over the other guests. Loki put a hand on Thor’s shoulder.
“Let it go,” he murmured. “We all have our tasks tonight.”
Great had been Loki’s agitation, now that he understood the attempt on their lives, but he had only redoubled his efforts to ensure that Thor maintained his focus on Lady Sif. Loki had not known what to expect from her arrival, but when at last she came before them and dipped low in a graceful curtsy, he found himself quite mute to see her. Her cobalt and gold gown whispered as she moved; pearl-colored ribbon bound up her hair in elaborate fancies. A bare stretch of collarbone glowed beneath a wrought and airy necklace.
“My dear Lady Sif.” With perfect poise, Thor took her gloved hand. “How very glad I am to see you this evening.”
“It cannot possibly match my pleasure, sir.” Her eyes flicked onto Loki, and her lips parted further. “Mr. Odinson, good evening.”
All he could think to do was bow. “My lady.”
From the corner of his eye, he saw Thor glance at him. “Lady Sif, if you would so honor me with a dance tonight, no man could be happier.”
“Consider it done, whenever you should ask.” She looked again to Loki, who cleared his throat.
“The music will be starting soon. You will not want to miss the first dance.”
“No indeed. Gentlemen.” She inclined her head and moved past them, into the great hall. Loki began to feel his weariness unspool within him.
Thor pounded Loki on the back, beaming. “Brother, is she not the finest creature in all the world?”
“Inarguably,” he replied, waiting for the knot in his chest to loosen.
Those who praised it took care to note that Thor’s ball was merely the event of the season thus far. All of society fully expected an opportunity would soon present itself for the evening to be outdone; Mrs. and Mr. Aesir spent the entirety of the night fending off congratulations as a down payment on inevitable upcoming invitations. Only late in the evening did Mr. Aesir find his way to his younger son, who watched the proceedings from the sidelines. “A decided triumph,” he proclaimed, his hand upon Loki’s shoulder.
“We are all honored by your hard work, Father,” he supplied.
Mr. Aesir smiled and patted his shoulder again, then drew him close. “Did you see Thor with Lady Sif?” he said quietly. “As handsome a couple as ever I’ve seen. I cannot tell you how happy and relieved I feel.”
Loki’s mouth twisted, fondly. “It is no use telling you to plan the wedding after the engagement, is it.”
Mr. Aesir chuckled. “My doubting boy. Tomorrow we may breathe easy again.”
Loki excused himself and left Mr. Aesir to congratulate himself. While the evening had gone very well indeed, little else had been truly extraordinary. Miss Lewis seemed to have taken up with Fandral, to her apparent bemusement and delight. Judging by the crowd at the tables, the punch was proving very popular. Dr. Selvig and Miss Foster were engaged in rather a furious bout of gesticulations, oblivious to the gaiety around them. Looming over all, apart and half in shadow, was Grundroth, who might have been statuary save for the darting of his red eyes.
Instinct drew Loki to him, and he was greeted in turn by his full name. “This must be very different from your fêtes in Jotunham,” Loki remarked.
“There are certain similarities,” Grundroth mused. “For instance, I note an outsized expectation of a predicated arc. As rumor has it, a multitude of issues will be solved at a single word from our hosts.” He made a noise at the base of his throat. “Show me the society in which we are so easily fixed.”
Loki kept a level eye on the dancers. “Sir, if I may, I cannot but imagine your stake in hoping otherwise.”
“You do me wrong, Mr. Odinson,” Grundroth said dryly.
“I respect that you must be polite with my parents, but let us not pretend you or your employer is entirely disinterested. Nor can I conclude that the outcome will not be unhappy to you both.” He nodded toward a lively cluster, wherein Thor and Lady Sif both had thrown back their heads to laugh at one of Volstagg’s yarns.
Grundroth fixed his gaze upon him. “Can you not?” he rumbled. “It is true, Thor is admirably attentive.” He watched the group for a moment more. “But observe the Lady Sif, on whom your hopes all rest.” Loki humored his guest. She had one hand upon Thor’s shoulder, easy and intimate, until Hogun, of all people, said something, and she set her attentions on him. “She cannot marry them all,” Grundroth said softly. “Which one shall she ask?”
His brow knitted. “Do you presume to know the Lady Sif’s intentions, or my brother’s?”
Grundroth inclined his head. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Odinson. Of course I do not have your familiarity with the parties involved. I merely comment as an interested cataloger of relations. But I believe you recognize the love Lady Sif bears your brother. It is the same fraternal affection you hold.” He folded his hands behind his back. “I think she will not ask him.”
Loki canted his head. “Your employer, Laufey. He is responsible for my father’s eye.” Grundroth did not deny it. Loki’s mouth twisted. “I am very glad our relations are so far progressed that you feel comfortable holding forth on my family in our own home.”
Grundroth remained mild, in his way. “You must ask your parents, Mr. Odinson, what my employer lost in that encounter. Then we may talk on equal footing.”
Loki turned more fully away from the dancers and toward the frost giant. “I am committed to ensuring the protection of my family by whatever means necessary. That includes the continuity of our interests in this estate.”
“By whatever means? I shall tread carefully, then, sir. You are an excellent son.” He smiled. “Do not think that Laufey would be an ungenerous landlord, once Farbauti signs the deed. He is very good to his tenants in Jotunham, and well regarded.” Grundroth examined his enormous hands. “And as you say, we have all of us progressed.”
The words hung between them, unadorned. Loki thanked him for his perspective on the matter and parted his company. He spent a good while stalking through the crowds, ignoring any who happened to mark him or call his name, until he cornered Thor as he refilled his cup. “Ah!” Thor clapped him on the back. “Loki, I have been inquiring further with Miss Foster and the matter of her laboratory breach. Could not her papers have been soaked by melting ice?”
Loki stared at him. “You think frost giants broke into her property?” Thor’s face was open and earnest. Loki frowned. “Why should they have anything to do with Miss Foster?”
“I don’t know,” Thor stammered, and Loki cut him off with a wave.
“Has anything happened yet?” Thor blinked at him. “Lady Sif!” he hissed. “Has she made any indication that she would speak privately with you?”
“Not as such,” Thor replied, apologetic but light of heart. Loki pinched the bridge of his nose. Thor’s expression gentled. “Loki, you cannot be enjoying yourself tonight. Come, brother. Forget this for an evening.”
“Of all evenings to forget!” He forced himself to exhale. “You would do well to remember it a little more.” He stormed off before Thor could aggravate him any further. He remained in a high temper for the next half-hour, until, across the room, he saw Thor exchanging whispers with Lady Sif. His heart slowed to a more bearable tempo, only to twist in on itself. He shook it off and kept moving. The musicians were in high spirits, escalating their reel until the giddy dancers tripped all over each other.
He turned. Lady Sif stood watching him, her face a beacon. Loki paused, then bowed to her. She closed the distance between them and slipped her arms around his. “Thor has promised a quadrille is next, and that is one of my favorites. I wonder if you might condescend to a dance with me.”
For a long moment, he wondered if he had misheard her. The words seemed not to make sense in themselves. “Your pardon, my lady,” he said at last, “but might I speak with you privately?”
A line flitted between her brows, but fleetingly. “Of course.” She accompanied him into a vestibule, her steps light.
Loki took a deep breath and removed his arm from hers. “My lady, what are you doing?”
Lady Sif smiled. “What I please, Mr. Odinson. Is something wrong?”
“Only that it is not I who deserves these attentions.” He pointed toward the hall. “We cannot be seen dancing if Thor is to be your husband.”
For the first time, her mouth thinned. “What jurisdiction do your guests have over our dancing?”
“My lady, what are you here for?” he cried. He watched her cross her arms. “Surely you know how this ball is meant to end—what is the purpose of your delay? Could you not have it in your heart to set this family at ease?”
Her face darkened. “Mr. Odinson, I am sorry if my attentions have caused any distress or confusion. My business in Asgardshire—”
“Is almost concluded, I am aware.” He shook his head. “This week I lived more closely than ever with the prospect of a frost giant as master of this house. You must speak to Thor, or else apologize to my mother and father.”
Lady Sif’s eyes narrowed. “I am being very patient with you, Mr. Odinson. Could it be possible you so willfully misunderstand my actions?”
“What is to understand? It was all laid out from the moment you returned here. You were supposed to court my brother and then marry him, and then you might put down strong roots in Asgardshire, as you professed to want.”
“I was supposed to? Supposed by whom?” Now her voice began to rise. “I should not have to explain any of this, nor endure the supposition that I meekly assent to what has been planned for me.”
“That is a gross misrepresentation of—”
“Is it?” Lady Sif shook her head. “If anyone was to understand my situation, it was to be you.” Before he could comprehend her statement, she turned away from him and strode not for the door back to the ballroom, but for the exit. Loki felt his heart seize.
“No, Loki,” she snarled, and slammed the door behind her. Loki stood alone in the vestibule, listening to the sounds of celebration on the other side of the wall. Numbness engulfed him; his own breath shuddered as it escaped him.
Presently he returned to the ball, where his mother found him. “What is the matter?” she asked, her hand light on his arm. “We saw you step aside with Lady Sif. Has something happened?”
“I apologize, Mother,” he said softly. “We must send our guests home disappointed. Lady Sif has retired for the evening. I do not believe there will be an announcement.”
He did not stay to see her react, but disentangled himself and, careful of his balance, walked away.
By the very early hours of the morning, long after the last guests had climbed into their coaches and left the family to itself, Loki found a kind of clarity in his exhaustion. The lines of the world hummed at the edges, but in the center he had sharpness. Thor had long since given up beating down his door, demanding to know what had happened, and Mr. Aesir had ceased yelling some time before. Loki was alone with the manor. With no delay between the decision and the first step, he rose from the stiff-backed chair he’d occupied since leaving the ball behind him.
When he and Thor were small, the trophy room was a prime midnight attraction for two young boys. Loki learned early how to pick the lock and admit the pair of them, so they might ogle the shining arms in the odd, constant glow of the room. A trove of treasures reposed here, strange artifacts and ancient weapons — there, the hammer none could lift, and there, the casket which shimmered liquid blue. And there too, the more priceless artifacts: his mother’s sword, his father’s helm. Loki did not linger long: he chose his weapons and locked the door behind him.
Grey light was already leeching night from the sky. Dew soaked his boots as he strode across the lawn. His father’s spear was a reassuring weight in his palm. The evening jacket admitted some chill, for it was not made for the elements, but Loki kept moving, past the line of trees into the park.
The grove in which he, Thor and Lady Sif had been attacked glistened with beads of sap. Raw trunks with splintered ends and browning leaves still thick on felled branches cluttered the trail. Loki pushed his way clear to a boulder that jutted up from the loam. He climbed atop it, as often he had in boyhood, and sat, Gungnir in hand.
The sun continued to rise. Birds sang. Loki’s breathing slowed. A figure was picking its way along the path toward him. Only belatedly did he recognize the silhouette—and that it was much closer than he had supposed.
Lady Sif emerged into the clearing, no longer wearing her gown and gloves, but riding pants and a worn leather jacket, her hair pulled back and high. She smiled at his jaw grown slack. “Good morning, Mr. Odinson.”
He rose to his feet. “My lady Sif, what on earth brings you here?”
She pushed her sleeves back and adjusted a set of armored cuffs. “I think we both did not entirely have our say last night. There are still words we ought to exchange, if we are to remain friends.”
“How did you find me?” He glanced to the side. “With apologies, but this may not be the best time.”
“You left a path a mile wide through the lawn. Do not pretend you did not wish to be found.” Her eyes were hooded; he saw that she had had as little sleep as he. Lady Sif nodded to the spear. “Still as antique as ever, Mr. Odinson.”
He studied the gleaming point. “If I have ruined one chance at security,” he said softly, “the least I might do is ensure our family is safe from without.”
“Indeed.” Her mouth twitched. “If you are not too busy, I hope you will allow me a small speech.”
Loki’s hands twisted on the shaft of the spear. “I must hope that you will be quick about it, Lady.”
She nodded. “Pray, come closer.”
There was something fey and dangerous in that moment then, which Loki found he did not care to resist. He slid off the rock and approached her, stopping just beyond arm’s length. She smiled at him again, briefly showing her straight white teeth.
“My business here in Asgard was, and remains, the acquisition of a husband. There is no use in staying coy about that. I returned from my travels reluctantly, at the ceaseless urging of my mother, and did not entirely relish being so ordered. My sister will have our estate, and I was happy where I was, little though my mother could believe it, without a spouse. When first our reintroduction was made, I admit to resigning myself to pursue your elder brother, as was only proper. And in truth, over these past weeks I have grown to love Thor dearly. He would make a fine mate for me, and I should be pleased to have him at my side.
“I was not, however, properly warned of you, sir. I readily admit that I was prepared to find you as I recalled you from our youth, but you have surprised me at every possible opportunity, most of all when I examined what was in my heart and my head and found it was not Thor whom I loved most of all. What is true is that there might have been an announcement last night, if I had not let my temper get the better of me.”
“The insult was not imagined,” he said, quiet. “You were not wrong to take offense.”
She did not look away. “Even so, though our words were rash, I hope you will still consider my suit.”
The woods were quiet, devoid even of birdsong. The sound of his own breathing was loud in Loki’s ears. “My lady,” he said, “I have heard all that you’ve said, but I must advise you that we are no longer alone.”
Lady Sif’s face did not falter. “I know,” she replied. “I have come to help.”
“Exceedingly touching, Lady Sif,” a familiar voice rumbled. “And, I grant, unexpected.” Grundroth stepped into view, astonishingly silent for all his bulk. Two more frost giants emerged from the other side of the clearing. At once, Lady Sif and Loki drew nearer each other. Grundroth began to unbutton his jacket. “Mismatched and charming as this union might be, I protest it is not in the best interests of my employer. Therefore I must advise Mr. Odinson against accepting her hand.”
Loki swallowed. “Clearly we are at an impasse, then. I find myself quite inclined to heed the Lady.”
The Jotnar coachmen advanced further. Grundroth shrugged off his jacket and draped it over a fallen tree. “Tragic indeed, for while Odin was robbed of an eye, Laufey was deprived of an heir, and I have been authorized to equalize this matter in whatever way I best see fit.” He stretched forth one arm and rolled up the sleeve of his shirt. “I see you have not spoken to your family as advised,” he continued in the silence.
Wordlessly, Lady Sif reached behind her back and produced a short metal staff. Grundroth laughed, rolling his other sleeve. “Stand down, little shieldmaiden. This does not need to be your fight.”
“I am prepared to defend my family, Grundroth.” Loki gripped his spear. “I very much hope you are prepared to walk away.”
All Loki saw was Grundroth’s curt nod. In that instant, Lady Sif grunted and bared her teeth; with a quick jerk, the short metal staff became a double-bladed spear, and Grundroth, for all his bulk, lunged at Loki as light on his feet as a hound.
Among men, Loki was counted large, but compared to Grundroth he found his slightness a great advantage. A fluidity of movement came naturally to him, and he ducked, dodged and injured quickly and efficiently. Lady Sif was holding her own against Grundroth’s henchmen, and he no more worried for her than he would for Thor.
What he could not count upon, however, was Grundroth’s immunity to common sense. Loki struck out with his spear, driving it home toward his shoulder, when Grundroth grabbed the point and flung Loki across the clearing. His aim was good, for Loki collided bodily with an intact trunk and lost the use of his lungs. Grundroth loomed over him and remarked musingly, “No matter that you are the younger. A household in mourning may not enter into engagements for a year.” He reached down and, with no more effort than he might exert for a doll, lifted Loki to eye level by the throat.
Perhaps the hurt was so great that his senses were overwhelmed; aside from the pressure on his windpipe, Loki did not feel the pain Grundroth claimed he would at his touch. Nor was Grundroth making a true effort to throttle him; indeed, the frost giant frowned and brought Loki closer, his red eyes intent.
Several things happened at once in that instant. Lady Sif shouted Loki’s name. Loki reached inside his jacket. The two Jotnar assailing Lady Sif paused to watch the scene unfold. And Loki drew the dagger he’d concealed and plunged it through Grundroth’s fine tailored shirt into his heart.
It would be an untruth to say that Loki did not relish the look of astonishment of Grundroth’s face as he dropped to his knees and released his hold. As soon as they saw their leader fall, the two other Jotnar lost no time abandoning Lady Sif and fleeing the grove. Loki let out a laugh as he watched them; he looked to Lady Sif, half expecting her to draw a pistol and pick them off from behind.
She stood and she stared at him, her eyes round as wheels. Loki surmised he might be covered in gore and glanced down at his hands.
His hands were blue.
He reached for his face. Raised scars pressed lightly on his fingertips.
A second look to his hands showed his normal color spreading back. But Lady Sif’s expression had not changed, nor had the sudden pit opening up in Loki’s stomach. He stumbled back a pace. Lady Sif said nothing.
When he turned and ran, it was not toward anything for certain, only away from that awful gaping silence.
Toward the back of the garden lay Mr. Aesir’s fashionable freestanding hedgerows, neatly trimmed and quite secluded. Loki directed himself thence more by memory than by will. All around him flowers unfurled, bees hummed and birds called out to each other, but all he could think on was the sudden insurgence of his own skin. He lowered himself onto a stone bench and propped his hands on his knees. For the first time he noticed there was, in fact, blood on his jacket. He struggled out of it and dropped it to the ground.
With what focus he could summon, he stared at the fountain, which had not been turned on yet. The scope of the inevitable conclusion, a lifetime’s worth of misrepresentation, to say the least, overwhelmed him. He bent forward, staring at his hands again. The gravel walk swam behind them.
A voice intruded on his reflections from the other side of the hedge. Loki’s heart skidded. The voice was quiet and low, enumerating the relationship between the atom and the various states of matter. He rose to his feet, circled the hedge and found his brother, holding hands with Miss Jane Foster, scholar and scientist.
“What is this?”
Thor and Miss Foster scrambled to their feet. “Loki!” Thor exclaimed, the very picture of ecstasy. “Our problems are solved!” He crushed Miss Foster to his side. “Congratulate us, brother. We are to be married!”
Their faces fell as Loki failed to react. Once he processed the words, a laugh escaped him. “Her? You’ve accepted a proposal of marriage from her?”
“Very happily so,” Miss Foster said buoyantly. She pressed her cheek to his shoulder.
Thor spread his free hand. “I took your advice, brother. You urged me to follow my heart and do what I knew I must, and so this morning I confessed my feelings to Jane. Only it is imperative that you tell no one yet. Mother and Father do not yet know.”
Loki looked between the two of them. She was very small, especially next to his brother. “I don’t believe this,” he said at last. “All this time, and during your ball especially, you have led us to understand that the Lady Sif was your primary interest, and now here you are engaged to Miss Foster, in secret?”
Thor frowned. “Have you not spoken with Lady Sif? She assured me—”
Loki gaped. “What?”
“It is not entirely unexpected,” Miss Foster interjected, twining her fingers through his. “We have been meeting in the mornings.”
Loki’s anger rose with each word. “Thor, this is not the way. You cannot just marry the first woman who asks you.”
Miss Foster frowned at him sharply. “I’d thank you to remember that we have both acted and consented upon the matter.”
“Loki, I love her.” Thor took her hand again, all joyful helplessness.
The unreality of it all offended him even further. “She is to be mistress over our house, the house of our mother? It’s insupportable!” He gestured wildly. “She is not even in trade! She is an eccentric!”
Miss Foster tore herself from Thor’s side. “I am a hair’s breadth from comprehending the structure of the universe!” She placed herself squarely in Loki’s path, eyes aflame. “What are you?”
Loki flinched. Thor knit his brow, and stepped forward. “Brother—”
“No,” said Loki. “She is correct. More than she comprehends.” He laughed again; it sounded hollow and desperate even to him. He skirted around the happy couple, ignoring Thor’s plea to remain and grateful, at least, that Miss Foster urged him not to follow.
The trophy room was windowless; Loki was not sure how long he had been within it when Mrs. Aesir entered the room, his evening jacket folded over her arm. “Do you remember the story Father told us about how he came to have this?” he asked, his hands loose at his side. The blue casket sat innocently on its pedestal, with its lifetime of warnings that it must never be touched.
Mrs. Aesir shut the door behind her. “He claimed it from Laufey, after he lost a duel, in Jotunham.”
“And then Laufey, now that he is named, fled.” Loki hated to hear his voice break, but there was no use in denying it. He turned to look at Mrs. Aesir, whose face was schooled and neutral.
“Laufey fled,” she confirmed, “and I gave your father over to a physician.”
Loki laid his hand upon the casket. He did not have to check to know what effect it had on him. “What did you do next?” he said softly. “I have never heard that part of the tale.”
Mrs. Aesir set the jacket atop a glass display case. “I walked through the house where the duel took place. Laufey had taken much with him, but there was something left behind that was quite unforgivable.” She took up Loki’s free hand in her own. His heart battled at his ribs. “You were just a baby. An infant. We had been away from Asgardshire for so long, no one would know that I had not been pregnant again.”
“You and Father always protest that you favor neither of us.” He searched her face. “Did you set Lady Sif in Thor’s path because only your real son could inherit the estate?”
“You are our real son,” she said sharply, then softened. “Oh Loki. So quick to give weight to what hurts.” She stroked his face, unconcerned with the markings, unmoved by his red eyes. “We have always loved you equally well as Thor. There is little more I can say that is not an embellishment. You may believe me or you may not, but your place in our family is as it ever was.”
He glanced at her. “Who else knows?”
“Only your father and I.” She exhaled slowly. “I am sorry we never told you. We never thought we should need to.”
His voice came out ragged and harsh. “For why would there ever be a frost giant in Asgardshire?”
Mrs. Aesir did not look away. “I’m sorry.”
The knot in Loki’s center throbbed. Mrs. Aesir waited, calm and solid beside him. His hand slid away from the casket. Mrs. Aesir rubbed his shoulder. His eye wandered. “Aren’t you going to ask where Father’s spear is?” he said at last.
Mrs. Aesir did not answer right away. “You know,” she said, “I find myself quite in error. I thought its place was somewhere else, but I quite like where it has emerged.” He frowned at her, puzzled. “It’s upstairs,” she said mildly.
The meaning of her words knifed through him. Mrs. Aesir took his hand. “We will have time to talk later.” Loki dipped his head and hurried out of the room.
The house seemed larger than ever before as his steps quickened. Each hallway and stairwell seemed specially designed to thwart his progress. But as the front hall opened up before him, there at the door stood Lady Sif, dirty, disheveled and leaning on Gungnir, gleaming and clean. She straightened when she saw him, but let him come to her where she stood. “The body is gone,” she said, as calmly as a remark upon the weather.
“It is disposed of. I remind you, I am extensively trained in the arts of war.” She canted her head. “Are you quite well? It is not every morning a man starts his day with such a stabbing.”
“That remains to be seen.” Their eyes met; he found himself overwhelmed, and looked away. The corners of his mouth twitched. “It occurs to me that this is a peculiar thing to feel so grateful for.”
“You seem destined for a peculiar life, Mr. Odinson.” She smiled.
He gave a soft, short laugh. “I cannot fault your observation, my lady.”
Lady Sif pressed her lips together. “I am glad to see you.”
He bowed his head. She was very near. “I did not think you would come here again.”
“I was taken aback, yes. But then, so were you.” She watched him. “My feelings are not changed, Loki. My hope remains undimmed.”
He said nothing, nor did he lift his head. Lady Sif unwound one hand from the spear and reached for him. When she took his hand, his fingers curled. “You would not get the house,” he said quietly.
“I do not want the house.”
Loki felt a tendril uncurl somewhere. “Sif,” he allowed himself. He ventured to touch the hair which fell at her shoulders. She chuckled, and he felt their closeness as a thrumming, tangible thing.
“Besides which, do not worry yourself,” she added. “I am heir to my aunt’s properties. You may have the life to which you are accustomed.”
He crooked an eyebrow. “That does not sound so peculiar to me.”
“Then you and I will make it so,” she said, and pulled him in for a long and most definitive kiss.