The object of the game was to pretend it was a game. Dice were passed in cups, cards handed out, marks made on sheets of paper and elaborate hand signals flashed around the table. And sharp words in friendly voices played the true game. Not much fun, perhaps, for normal folk, but to the creatures and people, the spirits and gods in this room, the rules of the game were only ever a guideline to be ignored.
Tonight they played in Jack Mary Ann's house, and kept score on the backs of bailiff's notices.
The fox Reynard tapped his frayed claws against the tabletop. "Your bet, Puck," he said to the man in the crown of meadowsweet.
Puck scratched his pointed ears and grinned. "I have..." he fished a coloured glass bottle out of the matted fur at his hips, where it was unclear what was clothing and what was goat legs, "here. I harvested this myself. The laughter of a bishop. Not much of that around these days."
"It's rare, perhaps," admitted Reynard, "but I believe you're the only one who wanted it, Goodfellow."
Against the wall, a man whose dark glasses hid the nature of the serpent in his eyes unfolded himself to lean forward. "I'd take it if I could get it. There's a lot you can do to get in a man's head when you know what makes him laugh, and the lads downstairs are going on at me again about the clergy."
But Crowley had been bet out of the game a half hour ago, and no one else seemed impressed by his offering, so Puck grudgingly rolled a cup of dice and then bet an unrelated amount of fairy gold. Everyone knew it was false money, but the betting passed on, to the man on his left with wild hair and wilder eyes.
Gwynn ap Nudd scrutinised his cards with narrow lips and finally twitched the raven feather cloak from around his shoulders. Underneath he wore campion red and speedwell blue. "I'll bet this."
"That ain't yours to bet," grunted Papa Legba, an old man in matted dreads and clacking bone jewelry, from the corner of the room, and Gwynn shrugged.
"Loki lost it to me these past two hundred years and more."
As one, the room smiled, and Jack Mary Ann dutifully recorded a mark against Gwynn in his book. Loki hadn't even arrived yet, so it was clumsy to bet his cloak. If Gwynn had shown a little more patience he could have milked that for round after round. Still, it did open the table up to talk behind the Lie Smith's back, and that was always fun.
"Of course he did," laughed Reynard as Gwynn pretended not to see Jack make his mark. "Does anyone know what he told his father had happened to the poor birds?"
"I think he attempted to blame the giants," said Legba. Jack scoffed genially.
"Oh, that always works well for him, that does! I wonder if he stayed in touch with that Svadilfari bloke?"
Crowley winced and snorted in laughter at the same time, and Jack looked pleased, warming into his turn. "Well, they ought to have stayed together, didn't they? For the little one? It does take all kinds, you know, and if being mounted by the nearest willing horse is his thing..."
" Svadilfari was a consummate gentleman, I'll admit," said a voice from the doorway, "But I feel our time has passed." Jack let out a tiny choking sound and proceeded to turn an interesting shade of yellow. Loki folded his cloak over his arm as he entered, followed by a petite woman in rainbow colours who was hiding a smirk behind her hand. "Oh, but Jack - I met your landlord on the way in. He wanted me to ask you if you knew what was scaring the sheep so in the valley. Now, I'm aware that it takes all kinds, but I wasn't sure quite what to tell him..."
"Oh, very nice. Welsh jokes." Jack threw up his hands in feigned offence. The woman in the coloured coat sent him a disdainful look.
"Then maybe steer clear of the Jotun jokes for five minutes, Jack? At least for tonight--"
"Thank-you-Eris, shut up," said Loki smoothly and pulled up a chair to the table. "Someone deal me in?"
Reynard reached for the deck, but Gwynn plucked a card from his own hand, stole cards from the other players and handed them diffidently to the newcomer. "Betting stands as such."
The fox dealt Eris her own hand, which she promptly ignored to lean over Puck's shoulder and peer at his cards. Loki narrowed his eyes at the pot on the table. "That's my cloak. My... father's cloak."
"Not just at the moment, Silvertongue." Gwynn kept his eyes demurely fixed on his own cards. "Give it some time." Loki looked away, and the room recalled how Gwynn remembered so many things in the wrong order. Jack adjusted the marks on his ledger. Everyone agreed without speaking that Loki won this hand, and bet lower than they had been.
"So," Crowley ventured when Loki was once again wearing raven feathers, "you two came together tonight. That's unusual, isn't it?"
"Indeed," said Reynard. "Might we expect a happy announcement?"
"Eris is pregnant," said Loki without missing a beat. "Congratulations, us."
"Oh, please." Eris casually signalled to Loki the cards in Puck's hand, and Jack adjusted his ledger again. "We all know that if you and I were knocking off, I would not be the one getting pregnant." Loki rolled his eyes and muttered, once, it was once, but Eris continued as if she hadn't heard. "I had to pick up our wayward lie smith on my way in. He fell off a rainbow, so I rode the colours to collect him."
Loki shrugged uncomfortably. "And I appreciate the effort, of course, but... is travelling through the colours always so... eventful?"
"Not always, darling. I added extra events just for you."
"Wait, wait," said Jack, catching up. "You fell off a rainbow? The rainbow bridge? Like, your Bifrost rainbow bridge? You fell off? "
"It was my undertandin' that you could not fall from a bridge of that type," murmured Legba.
"And you just fell off it?" continued Jack, nodding. "Did someone push you?"
Loki glared, and motioned to Reynard for new cards to hide it. "Nobody pushed me. I left Asgard of my own design."
"They finally kicked him out." Eris pouted sympathetically, but her eyes shone as she stirred the pot like chaos goddesses are so prone to do. "It was brutal. You have no idea."
"They did not kick me out," Loki insisted. "And I left them enough to think about. I can be equally as brutal." There were a few approving nods. No trickster worth their title would be ejected from a place without revenge.
Gwynn rearranged his cards carefully. "You finally discovered the truth, then?" he said.
Loki gave him a mild look, one that would have been perfectly convincing in any other company. "The truth?" he asked. You know, said his eyes.
"It's nothing to fear. Your own self can't be anything new to you, not really." A gentle smile stretched his lips. "White bird featherless."
Loki tapped his cards against his own lips, eyes slipping from Gwynn's to stare at something so very far away. "Fell from paradise," he murmured, almost to himself.
"Flew, I think."
"You'll forgive me if I say fell."
Puck made a small noise of confusion in the back of his throat. "White bir-- what are you talking about?"
"Nothing," said Loki and Gwynn in the same breath.
Puck rolled his eyes. "No one knows what you're saying. Include the group, dear friends, in your merry discourse." He let a faint whine of petulance seep into his voice, and Gwynn raised a hand in silent apology. Loki rolled his shoulders and kept his eyes on his own hand, but Reynard reached over to lay a paw against his wrist.
"I think we ought to have this from the beginning," he said. Loki's lips pressed thin.
"Oh, we must."
Loki would not be party to these games of theirs if he were a timid man -- or if he was the kind of person to show it. He met Reynard's eye with a small smirk. "Tell you what," he said, "I'll wager for it." He held his fingers together and produced from thin air a strip of paper. On it he wrote the word truth in perfect calligraphy, and threw it to the centre of the table.
The other players rose to the challenge to meet that wager, and Loki spent a few betting rounds playing each of them off the others to raise the value of the bets. They let him - truth from the lie smith's lips was worth the price. Eventually, though, Puck bet seven years' servitude and the bubble collapsed. The other players all folded and Puck reached first for the slip of paper marked truth.
He presented it to Loki with a flourish, and Loki pouted. "I suppose I did promise, didn't I?"
Puck grinned. "You did, Lie Smith. So tell me some truths."
Loki pulled Puck's hand close and blew a soft breath over the paper. As it burst into flames in Puck's fingers, Loki pushed his seat back from the table and leaned his elbows on his knees, ready to talk.
Reynard dealt the next hand as slowly, reluctantly, Loki told them the story. If he had been telling anyone else he would have lied, used pretty words and sophistry to downplay his own insanity, perhaps cast his father and brother as aggressors. But there was no need to lie here. Not amongst such accomplished fraudsters, where everyone was practised at recognising the ring of truth. Besides, he deserved some recognition for his deviousness, and who better to look to than the liars and cheats who built history?
"The mistake I made - aside from all of it - was thinking I could control Heimdall. If I could play him, we would have never reached Jotunheim. He'd have sent us back to the Allfather the moment we asked to use the Bifrost, and that would have been the end of it." And Loki would still be Odin's dupe. Nobody said it, because everybody knew it. "But I've never been able to get a trick past that man. And what did I get for trying? He finally figures out how to betray the king of Asgard -- while I'm on the throne."
"You're not the only one, my love." Eris rubbed his shoulders soothingly. "I've never been able to get a single thing past Athena. I swear she sees everything, just like your bastard gatekeeper."
"You should do what I do," drawled Reynard. "Take a stupid man as your nemesis. Ysengrin can barely keep up with me on his best days."
"I don't get to choose..." Loki trailed off with a bitter ha. "I suppose I do get to choose, now. I have the pick of all the realms, because there's no way I'm going back to Asgard. I suppose there's never really any way to go home after a thing like this."
There was a short uncomfortable silence. Aside from Jack, and maybe Eris, Loki was the only one of them who had really bothered with having a home. It made a trickster too vulnerable, when people knew where you slept. They all remembered what it was like to have a home, though, because that was a thing you never truly forgot.
"Could have been worse, though!" said Crowley with forced cheerfulness. Loki looked up at him under his hair.
"I lost everything I have," he said flatly. "Please tell me how this could have been any worse?"
Crowley blinked. "Well... you could have had more to lose?"
At least three people around the table visibly winced, but Loki laughed despairingly. "You are, as always, accurate. I could have had more to lose. And what did I lose? My brother's friends, a family with whom I share no blood..." He sighed theatrically. "I will miss that library, though. And... having a place to sleep."
He toyed with a pair of dice for a moment, suddenly looking like nothing more than a lost child. He seemed to realise that, and briskly deposited the dice in a cup to roll them, all business. "I suppose I never truly belonged in Asgard in the first place." His smile was bright as day, and fake as it ever was. "One of the reasons I'm glad I have this to fall on."
"And why would you think you belong here?" Papa Legba said softly. Loki stilled and around the table a fragile silence fell.
Of all the spirits who came to these games, Legba was perhaps the cruellest. They all of them revelled in causing harm, from time to time, but for the most it was only the desire to prove that they could. They did not turn that urge against their own, no matter how easy it became. People with so many enemies as they had needed a place where they could make mistakes. Crowley sat away from the wall and pulled the shades clear from his yellow eyes to hiss, "Because he does, cock-for-brains."
There was a silence as Crowley looked at Legba, Legba looked at Crowley, the gathered spirits at the table looked at Legba and Loki looked at no one at all. Then Legba inclined his head slightly.
"My apologies, of course for suggestin' otherwise."
Loki set his cards on the table with a gentle snap. "Well," he said brightly, "I fold." After a second, Jack marked his ledger again, though it wasn't immediately obvious whether it was in Loki's favour or against. Loki smiled anyway.