At last Frigga asked, “Did you receive the package?” steering the silence after his outburst.
The youngest of her sons, a projection on the scrying weft, glanced at her. His glower relented: a miniscule quieting of his brow, set at such a steep angle.
“Yes,” said Loki, “thank you. I’m surprised the king allows you to get away with this generosity to a lowly criminal.”
“A mother has her ways.” Frigga stroked her fingernail along a glimmering thread, adjusting the focus that she might better see the details of his face. “And your father doesn’t want for you to waste away any more than I do.”
“Oh, I’m certain the king’s overcome with feeling for the misled and abused.”
Gently she countered, “No one and no thing’s abused you but your own expectations.”
“Mother, please,” said Loki, briefly again the exasperated child who’d questioned her methods of weaving spells, “we both of us know he’d less than charitable intentions when he stole an infant from a temple.”
“Whatever your father intended—”
“No more my father than the Jotunn who sired me—”
“He loved you as his son,” said Frigga, “as I love you.”
Loki turned from her. She watched as he felt at the books newly stacked upon the little table, busying his hands that he might avoid her gaze.
What was she to say to him? No one could be bent to another’s understanding. Frigga had nursed him and dressed him. The loss was always to be borne. She thought, as she had thought often of late, of the other mother he had known before Frigga.
She said, “Loki.”
“Where did you find this book?” He lifted the little tome to her for consideration. It was a child’s primer, an introduction to the tools an enchanter used.
“Among your things,” said Frigga. She folded her hands in her lap. “After you were … lost.”
“Thought dead,” she corrected. “Some time after that. We sorted your things.”
He was shaking his head very faintly. The tip of his finger tapped on the book’s spine, then he flipped the cover open. The inside of this cover was bare, unmarked but for a child’s scrawl at the very top: Loki’s own name.
“I lost this book years ago.” He brushed through the pages, skimming them under his nail.
“You would have told me, surely,” said Frigga. “I gave it to you.”
“Exactly why I wouldn’t have told you,” said Loki. “Imagine the embarrassment.”
Frigga ran two fingertips together, as if testing the heft of a thread. “Well, perhaps you misplaced it. Sif did bring it with the rest of the books.”
A moment, his finger stilled on the book.
“She was your friend,” said Frigga.
“Yes,” said Loki, looking at the book in his hand, “my very dear friend. Sif.” His teeth showed in the shaping of her name; then his lips compressed and he snapped the book shut.
“And how are you, Mother?” he asked.
“Grey of head,” she said, “but that’s the fate of mothers,” and Frigga smiled at her son.
Sif, dressed lightly for this last mundane task, pushed open the doors to the second prince’s study for the queen. She looked over her shoulder at Frigga then her eyes dropped.
“You shouldn’t have to bear it alone, my queen,” said Sif. She gestured for Frigga to precede her.
“No need to stand on formality now,” said Frigga, but there was no levity to it.
The thickness of the carpets swallowed her footsteps. Like a ghost she moved into the spaces her son had once occupied. Loki, lost and dead.
Sif touched the queen’s arm but fleetly. Her fingers withdrew, but Frigga turned and caught Sif’s hand in her own and folded those rough swordsman’s fingers between her own thread-callused palms.
“Thank you,” said Frigga, “for coming with me to do this.”
“Of course, my queen.” Sif held Frigga’s hand, but her eyes remained respectfully lowered, as she had not lowered them to Frigga since she was a child newly come to the palace. “The grieving has been … difficult for you. I would share your burden. If you would allow it.”
“Not only my grief here,” said Frigga, and she brushed two fingers lightly along Sif’s jaw, like she would a babe. “You called him friend, Sif.”
Sif’s gaze rose nearly to meet Frigga and then it fell again.
“Yes,” she said. Her mouth hardened. “I did call him friend once.”
Frigga squeezed Sif’s hand and then let her go. How hard was it to be then for one who had fought alongside Loki? I have lost my son, thought Frigga, and Thor has lost his brother, and Sif has lost her friend.
As Frigga lit the sun orbs hung on delicate unseen lines in the air to bring light into the darkened corners of Loki’s study, Sif moved to the bookshelves along the walls. She’d pulled her long dark hair up into its usual tail. The breadth of her shoulders seemed unaccountably fragile in its bending.
And here we’re left, Frigga thought, to navigate the empty spaces left behind. Her chest was weighted; it was ever so. Had she taken the babe to her arms only to lose him in the end? Had she failed Loki in some way as a mother, or he as her son? She rejected the latter as it came to her. Never. Never, as her son.
“It will get easier with time,” Frigga said after several minutes.
“Sorting these books?” asked Sif. She held three to one hand and two in the other and she was frowning at all of them. “How he ever meant to read so many books in his life…”
“He did like to read.”
“He was always reading,” Sif muttered. She stacked the books atop each other by her foot. “Even when we were children and he still pretended to care about learning the sword.”
Frigga smiled at the desk’s polished top as she cleared it.
“The grieving,” she said. “The grieving will get easier. With time. It always does.”
Four more books, Sif stacked. The pile leaned treacherously to one side. She’d put the last book on top with more haste than care.
“Watch the tower,” Frigga advised. “Lest it fall. Fix it up again slowly.”
Sif sighed but obeyed her, and Frigga, dropping pens in a jar, listened to the muted clinking of each pen as it fell in place.
“Thor’s forgiven him,” said Sif.
“He has,” said Frigga.
If he would forgive her when she told him the truth of Loki’s birth, she could not say. She knew the confessional hour approached. She saw it distantly, like a wave of heat on the horizon.
Sif finished emptying the first bookcase. “No,” she said.
“He didn’t mean to cause you pain.”
“Does it matter if he meant to or he didn’t?”
He had always been Frigga’s frail babe, her little black bird, the son who dogged her feet and took to Frigga’s magic as his brother had their father’s skill at war.
“No,” said Frigga. Then, carefully, she said: “Sif.”
The girl who had grown alongside Frigga’s sons, as much to her a daughter as any could be, lifted her head. Defiant as a child of Frigga’s would be.
“You may miss him,” said Frigga, “even as you resent him.”
“I would neither.”
Sif’s hair spilled across her shoulder as she turned away again.
“I would,” said Sif, her back to Frigga, “that I—” That tail of hair fell along her back as she raised her head to the wall. “That I had not known him.”
That was the trouble with loss. Ever selfish. She had not meant it to strike Frigga. Alone at the desk Frigga stirred the pens with her finger and then clasped them that they would still.
“I’m glad to have had him,” said Frigga, “and to have loved him.”
“I did not mean—”
“Sif, it’s all right.” Frigga smiled painfully at her, as Sif, stricken, looked up. “I just hope that—whatever it is you feel—that you will be happy again.”
Sif’s eyes wandered to the desk, from the desk to the floor, to the stack of books beside her. The guilt in her features shifted too, giving way to a pinched flatness.
“Thank you,” she said, “my queen.” Then the flatness eased and she said, “I hope that you may have the same,” and Frigga, looking at Sif, wondered.
Then Frigga stirred. “Thank you,” she said, “Sif,” and she crossed the room to touch Sif’s shoulder, this shoulder, the shoulder of the woman she might have called daughter.
“Ah,” said Loki. He took a sudden step off the path in the opposite direction, but Frigga caught him by the collar. She’d seen the storm brewing between Sif’s eyebrows same as Loki had seen it.
“What have you done now, Loki?”
She tugged him nearer and turned the restraint to an arm about his shoulders. He’d grown of late, her little boy, a reckless spurt in the legs, but he was still shorter than Frigga.
“I haven’t done anything!”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not lying!” he said hotly. “Why does everyone always think I’m lying?”
Amused, Frigga said, “Because you often do tell lies,” and she flicked the end of his thin nose so he frowned.
“Give it back!” Sif shouted as she came upon the path. All her ire had fixed on Loki.
“You’re supposed to curtsy to the queen,” said Loki.
Beneath her usual layer of dust and sweat, Sif reddened. Her gaze flicked to Frigga.
“My queen,” Sif mumbled, and she half-bowed.
“Curtsy, nitwit, not bow.”
“I’ll bow your head,” she snapped, mumbling even worse.
Frigga tightened her arm about Loki’s shoulders as he made to slip fish-like from her.
“And what must he return?”
“My hairpin,” said Sif. “He stole it. It isn’t yours.”
“How could I have stolen it?” Doe-eyed now, Loki looked up at Frigga. “She doesn’t even wear hairpins.”
The flush deepened, purpling in her cheeks even as her lips whitened. Any heed she’d given Frigga, Sif had turned upon Loki once more.
“Not since you took mine.”
“Can you even prove I took it?”
“Who else would take it?” Her lip curled and Sif took her chin back to look Loki over with profound skepticism. “Thor?”
“As a token of your love—”
“I don’t love Thor!” said Sif. “I don’t love anyone!”
“Enough!” said Frigga, and both children, drawing breath to shout, clicked their teeth together in contrition. Sternly she eyed them each in turn and then she relaxed to laugh.
“Goodness,” she said, “you two. I don’t know that I’ve enjoyed a single day’s peace in years.”
“I’m sorry, Mother,” said Loki.
“I’m sorry, too.” Sif was scowling at the cobblestones as she said it.
“Look,” said Frigga, “here’s Thor,” and there he was indeed, ruddy-cheeked and shouting for both Sif and Loki to come play swords.
“Hello, Mother!” he said. Her son grinned at her. “You could play swords with us too.”
“Why don’t we play something else for a change?” asked Loki.
“Like what?” asked Sif, but the edge of her ill humor had gone. “Cards, so you can cheat us again?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Loki.
“We’re not playing cards,” said Thor. “Mother hates cards.”
“Mother,” said Frigga, setting her hands on her knees to be at their level, “loves cards.”
“Don’t gloat,” said Thor.
“You don’t always get to tell us what to play,” said Sif.
Something like startled pleasure darted across Loki’s elfin face. Then he seized upon the suggestion of Sif’s complicity in his argument.
“See! Even Sif wants to play cards. And you know how she hates to agree with me.”
“I don’t hate agreeing with you!” said Sif. “I hate how you always think you know better than everyone else.”
“Because I do know better than everyone else.”
“It’s all the books he reads,” said Thor very gravely.
Frigga laughed and said, “Well, if not swords,” looking to Loki, “which Mother also likes, and not cards,” looking to Thor, “then why don’t we go inside for something to eat?” and she held her hand out to Sif. “And I’ll find a hairpin for you.”
“I don’t really need them,” Sif said.
“Ha!” said Loki.
“But I don’t like thieves!”
Loki stuck his tongue at her but Frigga saw how his ears had gone pale; he was embarrassed to be called so by Sif. She thought then with some fondness and some exasperation too that children could be just as guilty as adults of hiding things, even from themselves.
Frigga took Sif’s hand in her own and walked with Sif beside her as Loki grabbed at Frigga’s other hand and Thor, ever the hero, charged ahead and shouted at them all to catch up.
“Why don’t you?” suggested Frigga.
“All right,” said Sif.
“No, thank you,” said Loki.
But Sif, letting go of Frigga, grabbed at Loki’s other hand and yanked him with her, so he’d no choice but to follow her. Their fingers locked together. Stumbling, Loki fell in beside Sif.
“I’m right behind you,” Frigga called after them. That was a lovely day, as she recalled it, a pleasant, blustery spring day with more breeze than sun, true, but enough of both to satisfy the spirit, as she watched her children running before her, Thor yet in the lead and Sif and Loki not far behind.
“Sif,” said Frigga.
The woman lifted her head. She was surprised, a moment, to see the queen in the receiving yard of the palace, then she nodded to her fellows and went to Frigga, standing in the cool shadows.
“The battle went well.”
Her smile moved swiftly, like an archer’s shot. “Always.”
“Because of you, I should say.”
“Of course,” said Sif, “who else would you say?” and she laughed. She’d blood in her hair and a bruise on her arm.
Why have you never married? Frigga thought; then she did not think it again, for there was a strange silver thing moving in that thought, the underbelly of a fish as glimpsed in her scrying threads. Not a future set but a future wasn’t: the thing not to be had. She let it dart away into its dark waters.
“May I ask a favor of you?”
“Anything, my queen,” said Sif. “Though if it’s to best Thor’s count of heads, I already did so. Twenty-three to his nineteen. Thank you.”
“Very well done,” said Frigga.
Grinning again, Sif bowed her head as though to excessive praise. But that was where the joke ended, in an absence. It was not Frigga who would have murmured teasing deprecations in the guise of awe. She had him too much in her consideration now.
“Dear Sif,” said Frigga, walking alongside her, “do you remember the books we sorted from Loki’s study?”
A great deference came to Sif: the sort of averted gaze the rest of Asgard gave to the queen.
“Yes,” she said. “I remember.”
“Would you mind gathering a few of them?”
Sif glanced at Frigga’s shoulder. “May I ask why, my queen?”
She weighed lying and she weighed the truth and she weighed the heft of her husband’s word and in the end Frigga said, “Well, I mean to give Loki something to occupy his time.”
“The Allfather has ruled that the—” Sif wiped at the blood crusted in her hairline. “He isn’t to have company.”
“Books are hardly company,” said Frigga, eliding the issue of disobeying the king’s edicts. “Do you also remember where I put them?”
“Yes,” said Sif, “but—”
“You know as well as I do what he’d like to read.” Frigga looked sidelong at Sif, who grazed her gloved fingers over the bruise on her arm. “Just a few books will do for now.”
“Why do you not pick them out?”
As she had in the past Frigga took refuge in her known inscrutability. “I want to see what you choose,” she said. She stopped, and so too did Sif, for they were alone now in the long corridor, alone in the lean shadows of the gathering evening.
“If you wish to pass a message.”
“No,” said Sif so intensely that Frigga paused to study her.
Sif cleared her throat and dipped her head. The blood that had dried in her hair left it dull and clumped. Not her blood, but another’s, though she wore it as her own.
“My queen,” said Sif. “The Allfather has made the term’s of his imprisonment clear.”
That was all Sif had to say about that.
“Only a few books, Sif,” said Frigga gently, “as a favor to me.”
And Sif said again, “My queen,” and not once did she speak his name.
“Sif,” said Frigga, and Sif said, “Waurgh!” and knocked her elbow into a shelf. The crack of her joint on the wood resounded, clear as thunder on a sunny afternoon. With her lips gone white, Sif bent in half and clutched at her arm.
Frigga reached to take Sif’s arm then hesitated a moment at the cusp. Coming now near to womanhood Sif had begun to enforce her boundaries, and Frigga did not wish to cross them.
She settled for asking Sif if she was all right. “No broken bones?”
“No, nothing broken.” Sif tried at a smile as she flexed her arm. “I wasn’t—I didn’t expect you.”
“Well, it is my library,” said Frigga. She did cave then and brushed her hand very business-like over Sif’s elbow, just enough to push the suggestion of soothing into the aching bone.
“If anyone’s to be surprised, it’s me. Whatever were you looking for?”
Drawing her arm back, Sif balled her fingers then stretched them out again. “Thank you. If I intruded…”
“The wards wouldn’t have let you through if I didn’t want you wandering the floors,” said Frigga, dismissing this worry.
A certain redness stuck to Sif’s high cheeks. She was mortified to be caught. At what? Biographies?
“Um,” said Sif, “if you’ll excuse me,” then Loki’s voice carried over from the end of the row:
A pool of light preceded him. He held the little enchanted sun an inch above his palm, and this yellow shining illuminated the aisle brilliantly. Sif threw her hand up before her eyes and muttered something.
“Sif,” he said, startling backwards, and a few things fell from his pocket, one thumping as like a book. The sun dropped, fizzing hotly at his skin. Loki held it heedless in his grip. “What are you doing here?”
“What are either of you doing here?” To Loki Frigga said, “You’re supposed to be at your swords practices with your brother.”
“He hasn’t been going,” said Sif, “not for a month.”
Loki lifted his chin high, and the severe column of his tunic’s high neck pulled on his throat.
“Is this true?” asked Frigga.
“Of course not,” said Loki, but his gaze was fixed on Sif. “Ask the instructor. He’ll tell you I’ve been there every day.”
“An illusion’s been there every day.”
Frigga rounded on him. “You’ve made a mirror echo? To take your swords lessons for you?”
“He thinks no one will notice,” Sif said, as fixed on Loki as he on her, “because the instructor thinks Loki’s a shadow next to Thor.”
“He has natural talent,” Loki demurred.
“But the sword doesn’t hit anything,” said Sif, “because it isn’t real.”
“A mirror echo’s sword wouldn’t be,” said Frigga. Briefly she touched Sif’s shoulder, then she folded her hands together before her waist as she looked at her son, yet shorter than her though not for much longer.
“Is this true, Loki?”
He looked at the floor, the books, the light cast by his feet: at Sif, where his dark eyes lingered a time. Anywhere but at Frigga.
“Yes,” he admitted. “But Mother, I’m so much better at magic. If I can do the mirror echo now, then why put me through swords?”
“Is this what you’ve been doing?” Frigga touched the backs of her fingers to his cool cheek, always cool. “Sneaking into the library to practice magic? Reading from my books? And is that why you’ve come here?” she asked, looking to Sif over her shoulder. “To catch him in his web?”
Sif, too, evaded Frigga’s gaze, then she set her jaw and met Frigga evenly.
“Yes,” she said, “that’s why,” and it was Loki then that Sif met.
“The two of you,” said Frigga. She fluttered her fingers at them each in turn. “We will talk about this later, Loki. With your father.”
“Father will say I have to do swords—”
“Not if you’ve already surpassed the third levels,” Frigga said. “You’ve outgrown the curriculum the tutors have set you. So a new challenge is needed. Sif?”
Sif, bending to gather what Loki had dropped, with one of her hands in her pocket, stood again.
“Here,” she said, and she pushed a number of pens, a little enchanted soap glass ball, and a feather into his hand. “You ought to keep better track of your things.”
“Rich,” said Loki, “coming from you. Ever find your hairpin?”
“Yes,” said Sif, and she was suddenly in a good humor, mucking up her lips at him, “it was up your—”
“Careful,” said Loki, his finger at her lips. “Not in front of the queen.”
“Out of my library,” said Frigga, “out!”
She, too, was laughing, in humors fine. And why not? Everything had seemed very fine indeed in those days. The future was a glittering tapestry, a series of threads yet to be worked into the whole, and the prospects were to Frigga then weighted strongly in favor of joy. Yes, joy. Surely it would be so. Surely it would always be so.
The mirror echo of Loki glanced at her and said, “Not too apropos?”
“No,” said Frigga as she sat at her sewing table and began to pick out the shape of the game from the spooled threads. “In hnefatafl, the king evades capture.”
“But I am already captured,” said Loki. “How kind, Mother.”
“It’s no fault but your own.”
He paced: Loki, a ghost in her study with its windowless view upon Asgard. Of course Loki could not see the city from her balconies, nor did the sunlight illuminate his skin, for he was but a projection, as from his perspective Frigga was but a projection in his cell.
“You don’t understand the severity of this.”
“Do I not?” she asked.
“You act as if it’s a child’s punishment,” Loki snapped, “as if it’s a, a time-out.”
“Is it not?”
“You know it isn’t.”
“And yet,” said Frigga, “you still walk your temper.”
The younger of her sons frowned; then the corners of his mouth turned up, brittle. “Excuse me,” he said, “for being so rude. My queen.”
The king piece she enchanted from a patch of fabric was spotted and ragged, three delicate threads loose in the pattern.
“I’m sorry as well,” she said at last. “You were right. It was unkind of me.” She made to dispel the shaping charm, to make of the king a scrap of cloth again.
Loki flicked his hand through the air. “No. I’ll play. Just to have company with someone who isn’t a complete lunk.”
She smiled at him. On his side of things, he was at work creating a board as well: a fantasy from the air. This was how the game would have to be played, on two boards.
“Unimpressed with your guards?”
“They have little conversation.”
“Guards aren’t meant to converse with prisoners.”
“Then the Allfather has chosen them well.”
They began to play. The purpose of the game was for the king, here played by Frigga, to escape the center of the board while armies, controlled by Loki, closed in.
“You would be happier with someone who could keep up with your conversation?”
“I rather doubt the king has many educated common guards to spare,” said Loki.
“Perhaps an uncommon guard.”
“Yes,” said Frigga, dispelling one of Loki’s soldier tokens with her little finger, “such as Sif.”
His fingers stilled on the edge of the board: his board, conjured to fill a space matched to the space Frigga had filled with her board. Then Loki made a move, and Frigga countered, and Loki countered this, and Frigga moved again. He toyed with a token.
“And why would you punish poor Sif?”
“Is it a punishment to see an old friend?”
Frigga moved inexorably nearer to the board’s edge, following the circuitous rhythm she preferred. His offenses were incisive, but as ever he left too many small holes.
“Not so if a friend,” said Loki.
“And she is no longer your friend?”
“As I am no longer hers,” he said.
Frigga thought of the child’s primer, that small book added to the pile that she’d passed on to Loki in his prison. The inside covers had been bare; no note had fallen from its pages as he brushed his thumb through them.
What meaning had this, then? What significance that Loki might know? Had it a meaning at all, and had Frigga not known the name of the thing any more than she had known it existed?
As the king migrated between the flanks of two armies, Frigga thought: Did I ever wonder? Once. Yes, once, she had wondered if that was why Loki ever teased Sif and Sif ever scowled at him. There had been a time, when they had all accepted that Sif would never marry Thor, that Frigga had thought Sif might be her daughter in the end anyway.
And would she have pushed it, if she had thought more of it?
“Do you know,” said Frigga, “I can’t seem to recall. Did Sif ever find the hairpin she lost?”
“Did she lose a hairpin?”
“Yes, I believe she did. Or had it stolen,” Frigga said, “which amounts to the same thing.”
Loki hummed disagreement and rested his chin in his hand. “Not the same thing, losing something and having it stolen.”
“Well, she was very upset about it.”
“Ah,” said Loki. He saw, as Frigga saw, that he would not win. The king was certain to reach the edge of the board in twenty moves, perhaps nineteen.
“Perhaps,” said Frigga, as Loki silently contemplated his armies, “if whoever took it had returned it.”
“And are you certain someone took it?”
“Sif was certain.”
He smiled thinly, without pleasure. “Then if she was certain, it wouldn’t matter if it was lost or stolen. You’ve won.”
Loki scraped his hand over the board, and Frigga knew that it had gone on his end of things. He settled back in his chair, looking away from her: not to Asgard’s horizon, but to the confining border of the cell he’d won for himself.
“No,” said Loki. “I’m tired. Too much to do.”
Frigga set the king in its freedom off the board, upon the table. “Then tomorrow,” she said.
Softly Loki said, “Don’t send Sif.”
Frigga looked to him and said, very gently, so very gently, “She would not go. Lest I ordered her. And I would not.”
His eyes closed. He smiled again, as unhappily.
“You were right, too,” Loki said. “I should have given her back the pin.”
“Always,” said Frigga, “so quick to strike. So jealous. My little raven.”
He rolled his shoulder with a carelessness she knew false.
“What’s to be done with it?”
“Nothing,” said Frigga, with knowledge of the future.
For there were so few routes left to Loki now and so many channels filled with rubble. This was how it must end, she thought; and she wished that it were not so. Frigga thought now that she saw how it had been and how it might have been; but it was not so.
“So,” said Loki. “Tomorrow, then.”
“Then,” said Frigga, “tomorrow,” and she leaned forward to cup her son’s cheek in her hand.
His eyelashes dropped. The mirror echo shivered and then frayed and then it had gone. Her hand fell.
She was alone then, Frigga, and she thought how alone they all were. She closed her eyes. A fish moved, somewhere in the dark. Very nearly she caught it.
Without the tools of her craft to steady or guide her she lunged for this suggestion of movement, this ghost, and she brushed upon it. Her fingers felt the shape of it; her tongue knew the taste.
This is what could be or perhaps this is what could have been: the distinction was uncertain, here in the borderland. Frigga heard a name. Her lips moved; she sounded the name in her mouth. Ullr. Winter brushed at the back of her throat, cold air honed as like the edge of a glaive. A child laughed.
Then it slipped from her. She let it slip. These things could not be held, and as it slipped from her so too did the seeming reality of it. Frigga breathed in again and the air was warm, of early fall.
There is always hope, she thought. Frigga said it out loud, as she had said it once to Loki. She said it now to him, and to Sif, and to her self, and when she opened her eyes Frigga believed it.