The cage is thinly tapered, slender, and hardly larger than a single one of his fists. For the longest moment he simply stares, afraid to apply the slightest pressure. He has known since he was a child that he is stronger than he means to be. He is too forceful.
Loki grows tired of watching his awe. “Brother, you are embarrassing me.”
“Did you craft this yourself?”
“The cage, yes. The bird, obviously not. Give it here.”
He passes it over like he’s passing over eggshells. The light from the fireplace sets the side of the cage burning with a fierce, lusty orange.
Loki takes it from him almost carelessly, but he knows that it is just how Loki is. Carelessness is Loki’s particular brand of grace. To make all things appear easy. The cage, for instance, must have taken Loki weeks to create, but when he mentions this Loki waves him away: it is nothing of consequence. A toy. A whim, whittled together from spare scraps of time. Do not think on it.
A hook appears in the air, suspended from the ceiling by a thin thread of gold.
“The bird, then,” he says, watching as Loki hangs the cage up on the hook. “Where did you find it?”
“I did not. I left the cage open for a morning, and when I returned, the bird was inside.”
“Magic,” he says.
“Not all things are magic,” Loki murmurs. Loki is already dressed for the feast, a bright circlet of gold clasped beneath his throat, the shadows pooling. “Some things are given willingly.”
The Thildra have made the All-Father a gift of a long, curved sabre, the hilt brimming with rubies.
“Loki!” he bellows as he rounds the corner. He is still much too far from Loki’s room to be heard, but he has never been good at swallowing words – they come too unwillingly for that. They are too rare to be held back. “Loki, you insufferably leaden-minded hermit, come out, there is something – ”
“He’s in the library,” Cressida says. “He said he didn’t want to be found.”
“He only says that when he knows I shall come looking. He won’t turn me away.”
Cressida adjusts her basket of herbs, already moving down the hall. “No, but he might throw a knife at you. Do not say I have not given you warning.”
He laughs. He feels like he is soaring, like the whole universe is laid out before him on a map.
He makes his way through the palace by muscle memory. As children, as young warriors, they had staged phantom battles in the corridors – he a thick-hided, tusked beast from the swamps of Ridden, and Loki the hero Yidrigar, wielding the spear Llineth that was the terror of the Three Lesser Realms. They’d flushed the kitchen maids shrieking out of the back passages and sent the rats scrambling. When the heat got into their blood, they forgot it was play; he knows the pattern of Loki’s teeth on his skin, the harsh smile, the hot scorch of a sorcerous fire from Loki’s fingertips.
He barrels into the library and nearly knocks tiny Simdaal over. “Loki?”
“You are more trouble than a herd of Grarl,” Loki says, curled up neatly by a window. “Go away.”
“There is a sabre, Father has not yet named it – ”
He snatches the book from Loki’s lap, flipping it to read the cover. “What is this that holds your attention so? More fairytales?” Loki hits him and steals the book back. “Brother, would you but listen – ”
“I am listening,” Loki says. “But you are not being very interesting.”
“It is a great sabre from the smithies of Thildra!” he repeats, baffled. “How is that uninteresting?”
“I do not care for sabres.”
He scrambles about for something useful: “Perhaps it is enchanted.”
Loki laughs, a clear, clean sound. From the other side of the library, Simdaal gives them a hard look; he has forever been at the brunt of Simdaal’s hard looks, ever since he could toddle more than a few feet.
“When you are king,” Loki says, swinging his feet down to the floor, “you must promise that you will leave the diplomacy to me. You could not persuade a fish to take a bath.”
“But I have persuaded you,” he says.
“That will not always be enough.”
“When I am king,” he says, threading an arm through Loki’s and yanking him forward a little just to see him stumble, “I shall make it a law that feast days be held every week. And I will ban Cressida from scolding you. And I will send out parties to search out all the ancient texts that you covet, so that you may have them at last.”
“But then you shall never see me again. I will barricade myself into my room and never come out.”
“Then I shall burn them,” he says brightly, steering them into the hall. “I shall make a fire.”
“There is a lady at court,” Sif whispers to him out of the corner of her mouth.
“Only one?” Loki says, one eyebrow arched in amusement. Forever eavesdropping. “Are you slighting the Queen, dear Sif, or yourself?”
“I am slighting no-one,” Sif says. “I am also not talking to you, Loki, so keep your ears in your own head.”
“Sif is no lady,” Fandral interrupts. “She wields a sword.”
“You are only sore because I bested you – ”
“Peace,” he says. And then out of the corner of his eye he catches sight of the lady in question, moving blithely between two tables. “Is that her, Sif?”
“She is from Elamond. She came this morning in a chariot pulled by three lions.”
“She is very beautiful.”
Fandral puts his goblet down, slowly. “I think I have relatives in Elamond.”
“Haven’t you exhausted your family line yet?” Loki says, dryly. “This is the seventy-eighth time you’ve made claim to a maiden’s home planet. And to other things of hers as well, I suspect.”
Sif jostles him underneath the table, hissing between her teeth. “Loki! Have a care what you say.”
“Were we not at war with Elamond last year?”
“Brother mine, for once your memory is a credit to you. I am astounded.”
He watches, perplexed, as Loki pushes himself up and away from table. There is something almost mocking in Loki’s smile. He thinks, I am behind again; I have missed something. Around Loki, he is always wrong-footed and most of the time he is not even aware of it until weeks after. Loki is the only person he knows who can hold a grudge for months.
Sif puts a hand on his shoulder as he rises as well. “Thor, I would be careful.”
“Perhaps. He may put beetles in your soup.” Her face softens, turning serious. “I mean, have a care for the lady from Elamond. She is here with two of her brothers. I think she means to marry you.”
The laugh is stunned right out of his body. “You speak as if I may be married without my consent.”
“Elamond is a land of sorcery, Thor.”
“Asgard is a land of sorcery,” he says. “The All-Father – ”
She sighs, letting go of his shoulder and leaving him standing there, blinking in the firelight.
He weaves on his way back to his room. He takes the long route, winding on and off several balconies that overlook the city, taking in the spiralling turrets. The ghost light makes everything unrecognisable. Loki finds him an hour later trying to puzzle out the stars, the stiff wind battering his cheeks.
“That is Astoria the Greater,” Loki says, an inch away.
He jumps a mile. “Loki – ”
“And that, over there,” Loki says, ignoring him to lean out over the balcony and point into the distance, “is the Lioness. The one who swallowed ten whole worlds in her hunger, before she was banished.”
“How do you even do that? Move with absolute silence?”
“Not everybody has your simian talent for blundering about and yelling.”
He lets it pass, barely feeling it. “You left the feast early.”
“As did you.”
“I was concerned. You did not look yourself.”
“You were not supposed to be looking at me,” Loki says. “You were supposed to be looking towards your enchantress. Do you know, they say that the gold flecks in her eyes come from a star that Elamond won from the Karaj-Myor?” Loki’s knuckles are pale. “They say also that she cannot age. She shall remain young, and beautiful, for the remainder of Time.”
“Is it a spell that she casts, to remain so?”
“It is within her blood – she was born golden,” Loki says. “You would make a fitting pair.”
Down in the city, a boy is riding a black horse down one of the roads with a torch in his hand, half-asleep in the bobbing saddle. A maid comes out of her house to tip water into the street. He watches her push her cap back with a pale arm, and then he says, “It is too early for me to marry.”
Loki laughs at him. “You choose a strange time to grow shy of women.”
“Father would not make me marry if I did not wish to.”
“Father will do what protects Asgard from Elamond’s army,” Loki says to him, patiently, like he is still a child. “I would not place bets in that quarter, if I were you. We very barely won that last war.”
“Then we shall war with them again. They cannot be so ready to fight, if they lost the last time.”
Loki stares at him for a moment in open surprise, lips parted and wordless.
In the starlight Loki’s skin is bathed a gentle blue. The city glitters beneath them.
Loki reaches for him suddenly, a savage movement, five pin-point bruises digging into his nape.
“Oh my brother,” Loki whispers harshly, dragging him in to place a rough kiss on his forehead. He is too stunned to move; he can feel Loki’s breathing, hot and violent, against his eyelids. “There is nothing and no-one in all of the Realms that I love more dearly than you, but you are not ready.”
“It is true,” he agrees, almost blindly. “I am not ready to take a bride yet.”
The grip on his neck disappears. Loki makes a wrecked sound against him and vanishes.
He enters the hall with Sif at his side, and Loki is sitting at the table of honour that has been set for the siblings from Elamond.
“Ah,” Loki says as he approaches. “My brother, Thor. This is the Lady Ila, of the House of Halbeth-Valr, and her brothers, Ilad and Ilun, of the line of Elamond. I have been keeping them company in anticipation of your arrival.” Sif is ignored, and she bristles before peeling away to another table. “Won’t you sit, brother? They have heard many tales of your exploits already, but I fear I tell them badly.”
Ila’s gold eyes glint like two jewels. “You undersell yourself, Loki Silvertongue.”
“My brother excels me in all things, it is a truth widely known in the Realms. Sit, Thor.”
He sits. Something unruly is clamouring inside him but he cannot find the words. Ilad pulls him graciously into a discussion about the hunting, battles lost and won, grave wounds sustained for honour and for sport, and all through it Loki does not look at him.
Loki speaks to Ila alone in tones too soft to catch.
Ilad pauses mid-sentence, following his line of sight. “My sibling is taken with yours, it appears.”
“I would have more mead,” he says.
“Before today, she did not speak for fourteen months. Not even our mother could persuade her.”
“Tell me about your native planet,” he says, feeling the All-Father’s eye heavy on the back of his neck. Sif, two tables down, is gripping her meat-knife too tightly. “Tell me about your journey here.”
“What is there to say about a journey?” says Ilad, watching him carefully. “We were, and now we are.”
Frigga’s handmaidens are gathering flowers from the lowest boughs of the White Tree.
The garden is thick with perfume. Frigga will sew each flower shut with her own hand, working by the evening fire. Afterwards, they will place each blossom in a box under the ground, sealing the scent into the soil. Legend says that each blossom of the White Tree contains the milk of Brezgul, the Mother Wolf who found the infant Wraun the Elder abandoned in the forest, and raised him into a king.
He takes the basket from Frigga’s arm. “You wished to see me, Mother.”
“My son. You are not with your brother today?”
“He is with the Lady Ila.”
“And you do not join them?”
The five bruises on his neck are invisible, hidden beneath his hair, but they flush hot like five coals. He thinks, I would overstay my welcome. My brother would not wish me there.
“You have probably heard,” Frigga says, fingers nimbly searching out another flower amongst the leaves, “that the Lady Ila is to be wed to a son of Odin. To join our lands in brotherhood and peace.”
“I have heard.”
She looks into his face. “But she does not please you.”
“She pleases me very much,” he protests. He holds out the basket and Frigga lays the flower carefully inside, arranging it against the wickerwork. “She is beautiful beyond measure. And she laughs very sweetly, and sings well.”
“She is also very clever,” Frigga says. “An enchantress raised in the old ways, like your brother.”
“She is unparalleled,” he says.
“But you would not have her still, though she would make you happy.”
He shifts, uncomfortable. The heavy fragrance of the Tree makes him unsteady on his feet. He is five years old again, caught in the kitchens with a bunch of grapes in his hand, wishing Loki were there to place an explanation on his tongue.
“It is nothing against her, Mother,” he says finally.
“No.” Frigga sighs and takes the basket back from him. “She is a fine woman, and her brother will soon inherent Elamond’s throne. It is a prime match.”
“She prefers Loki.”
“It is not customary to marry a second-born son before the first, Thor. You know that.”
“Will Father not make an exception?”
“He will,” Frigga says, turning away. Her eyes are sad. “But still I worry.”
He finds Loki in his room, hands folded neatly behind his back, watching the little gold-caged bird.
The creature is coal-black with a small patch of green on its breast like a teardrop. It does not sing – it knows only one note, low and plaintive, and he tells Loki as such.
“I did not choose it for its voice,” Loki says, straightening.
“I thought you did not choose it. I thought it flew in of its own accord.”
“It did,” Loki says, which makes no sense. And then Loki looks at him properly. “You are dressed in your armour. There was no war in these parts at breakfast, as far as I know. Have you managed to start one since then?”
A smile prickles his mouth. “Ilad and Ilun have expressed a desire to hunt on our borders.”
“And you are escorting them, I suppose.”
“You are more than welcome to join us. You could show them that cavern you told me of last time, the one full of insects that glitter like a net of stars – ”
“You forget the Lady Ila,” Loki cuts in impatiently. “Would you abandon her alone at court?”
He blinks, thrown. “She would not be alone, Loki. There is Sif, and many other maidens whom would be glad to be her friends. She will be well cared-for.”
“She would have nothing to say to Sif. Indeed, I find that I typically have nothing to say to Sif.”
“Loki – ”
A strange, flitting look goes over Loki’s face, as fragile as the wings of a bird. There and gone.
“Hush, Thor,” Loki says, sounding abruptly tired. “When do you leave?”
“This afternoon. I would’ve told you sooner, but I could not find you. Will you not – ”
“I cannot go with you, and that is settled. Do not ask me again.”
Riding out hours later with the sunlight slanting through the clean, brisk air, Ilad and Ilun’s lions padding silently beside his horse, he starts to dream. When I am king, the Lady Ila will have her choice of Asgard’s warriors, and Loki will be free. When I am king, there will be hunts all the Realms shall marvel at. When I am king, we shall ride on the backs of eagles, discovering new lands; we shall be as children again. The steady weight of Mjolnir hanging against his thigh pulls him back to the palace corridors, where Yidrigar and the dread-spear Llineth once smote him down, laughing, with a smile full of teeth.
“There was once a mountain on the east border of Elamond,” Ilun says, “that opened and spewed out flame for thirteen weeks on end.”
It is night-time and they are resting beside a small fire. They are not yet in the forests that hold the best game, but Ilad and Ilun are patient, and they have moved slowly.
The brothers sit with their backs against the flanks of their lions. “It was a sight to see,” Ilad says.
“We have no such mountains in Asgard,” he says, chewing on an apple.
“We did not know we had such a mountain either, until it erupted. The smoke did not clear away for almost a year. Our harvests suffered. And then there were the cities that were destroyed by the initial blast itself, or were buried beneath ash.”
“Our greatest sorcerers did their best to contain the damage,” Ilun adds, “but it almost broke us.”
He frowns, rolling the apple core into the fire. “What did this mountain look like?”
“Before? It was a lovely place, with waterfalls and streams, and a cap of pure ice. There were trees that grew only on that mountain. Herbs of healing that could not be found anywhere else.”
“But surely there was warning before the blast?”
“The earth trembled,” Ilad says. “But who can interpret such a thing? The earth will tremble before events both great and terrible. There is no way to predict the universe.”
“My brother says such things can be read in the stars.”
Ilad laughs, blue eyes bright and glinting. They have not stopped riding for over five hours, but neither of the brothers seem tired. Ilun is murmuring a ballad under his breath with his face tipped to the moon.
“The stars keep their own secrets,” Ilad says. “Fate is in our blood. It is in who we are born to be. We cannot even say with full certainty what is inside our own hearts – how then can we measure out truths that are larger than ourselves? It is not possible.”
“I do not believe in such fate,” he says stoutly. “No man is born into a life he cannot change.”
“You forget that the world is vast,” Ilun says. “It is beyond us, Odinson.”
“You speak like a prince,” adds Ilad, quietly; “You speak like one who has never known anything else.”
They fell a huge elk on the second day. Ilad is an archer with an aim he has never seen before. The last hunt he was on he saw Loki pitch a knife across a wide field and still strike the animal in the flank, but Ilad’s arrow whispers between the trunks of trees and takes the beast down through the eye.
“You think very highly of your brother,” Ilun observes, when he tells them the story. “The two of you must be very close.”
“We grew up together. I do not feel whole without him.”
“Is that why you hesitate to marry?” Ilad asks him curiously. “You are afraid of his displeasure?”
“I want him to be happy in all things,” he says.
“And what if he does not wish to marry?”
He wonders if Ilad is testing him. He does not know how to say it so that anyone else could understand – he and Loki are like two sides of the same blade. If he wishes to go south, Loki will always make an argument for north. If he wishes to spar, Loki will hide his armour from him, not giving it back until he wrestles the truth out with clumsy entreaties and a few scuffed knuckles.
In some things they are constant – in joy, or sorrow, or love – but in others, they are opposite.
“I would not make Loki do anything he does not wish to do. And neither would my Father.”
“But still you would not do it yourself.”
He looks over at Ilad’s carefully blank face, the lion with its fangs. “I mean no disrespect to your sister.”
“None is taken,” says Ilad. “If given a choice, she would wed your brother. But Loki will not be king.”
“The people love him.”
“The people have no trust of magic. An enchantress and a sorcerer joined in the House of Odin would not be looked upon favourably by Asgard. Nor, may I say, by Elamond. Or her future king.”
“You would separate your sister from her own choice of husband?”
“I would separate her from unhappiness,” Ilad says. “Your brother’s heart belongs to another; we fellow sorcerers see it plainly. I would not let my sister marry into a life of shadow, not when she was born with the gold of the Bjord-Star inside her veins.”
Sif seeks him out before he has even dismounted, her strong hand clasping his wrist.
“Thor, there is trouble,” she says. “Whispers have passed through the halls of the palace.”
“Whispers have always passed through the halls of the palace.” He is sweaty and sore, and on the last leg of the journey he did not drink as much as he ought to have – his head spins. “Sif, I am tired.”
“They say that Loki means to marry the Lady Ila,” Sif says, not letting go of him. Her dark eyes are urgent. “They say that he wishes to make a stronger claim to the throne – to the throne that should, in time, be yours. It is unheard-of for a second-born to wed before the first.”
“Has Father approved it?”
“It has not yet been proposed to the All-Father, but they say that is the way things shall go.”
He pulls gently out of her hold. “Who is they? Who spreads such evil rumours about my brother? Loki would not do such a thing – you, of all people, Sif, should know better.”
“I know nothing when it comes to Loki,” she says. “I fear that no-one does.”
His body is aching from the hunt and the ride, but he goes searching all the same.
Simdaal shoos him out of the library, brandishing a spell-book at his head. The kitchens, perplexed, offer up grapes. In the gardens, the White Tree – stripped bare of blossoms now – sways gently in the wind, but Loki is not there either, reading in the shade of the Tree’s brown-dappled trunk.
“Where is Loki?” he asks Cressida in the corridor, but she shakes her head at him.
“Where is Loki?” he asks Heimdall, but Heimdall only looks at him unblinkingly and says, “He is still in Asgard. He has not left this land, though others have.”
And then Heimdall will say no more.
Frigga, her palm cool against the side of his neck, says, “Your brother has not been seen for days.”
“Did no-one search?” he asks her, staring. “Did no-one seek him out?”
“You were always the only one to seek him out, my son. In your absence, the palace has been like a tomb, and nothing stirs.”
He retraces his path in the halls. He drifts in and out of rooms, stirring up soft whorls of dust. The sun drops slowly into a bank of white clouds on the horizon, and gradually Asgard darkens, its spires and citadels falling into dusk. He finds Hogun and Volstagg, on their way back from the sparring fields. He finds Sif, again. Ilad and Ilun’s two great lions are pacing outside the palace, their paws silent on the gravel, their eyes watchful and sharp. The sun drops and drops.
He takes his armour off in his room and splashes his face with water. Maidens have lit up his fire, and the gold of Loki’s gifted cage draws the light hungrily.
“Sing me something,” he says without turning, to the bird. “I missed your voice, while away.”
But the bird stays silent.
In the end, he finds Loki on the roof of the palace, sprawled elegantly beneath the stars.
“You,” he bellows. The bird with its breast of green darts away from him, flapping down to settle on Loki’s shoulder. “I have been looking for you for three whole days!”
“Only three?” Loki says. “I have been gone for eight.”
He lowers himself, grumbling, to the roof at Loki’s side. “Your bird only chose to lead me to you tonight. I have been searching everywhere. If you had wished to be found sooner, Loki, you could have given me some sort of message.”
“Haven’t I already?” Loki’s hands are folded placidly on his chest. “I have given you many things.”
He does not know what to make of that. It is a cold night; they lie quietly on the roof for a while.
The stars are bright and chill, and he shivers. “Are you trying to divine the future?”
“There is no future to be divined in the heavens, Thor. Only stories. Things remembered, things never to be forgotten. Heroes.” The bird utters a single, sad note. “Kings, perhaps.”
He says, “So you have married her.”
“I have married no-one.”
“But you plan to marry her,” he says. “Do you not? That is what they say.”
“I would not steal your throne from you, if that is what you are asking,” Loki snaps suddenly, jerking upright. “I am not what they say I am. Does the blood of Odin not also run in my veins, as in yours? Would I fight you in this, when all my life I have accepted the truth of your rule, once Father is gone? I am descended from a line of kings – my heart is greater than that.”
He is stunned speechless; he has never seen Loki so angry. “Brother – ”
“I would marry for your sake, so that you might have your freedom; but instead I am labelled usurper, a snake waiting to strike at your claim. Can I not act out of goodness without being doubted?” Loki pulls sharply away from his hand. “Can I not love you, but for someone will cry me false – ”
“I would never doubt your goodness,” he says, reaching out desperately again. “Loki, I would never question your heart. It is the only thing of which I am certain.”
“No, you are afraid – ”
“I would not lie to you in this, I swear it. Loki.”
Underneath him, Loki goes suddenly still. He stays tense for a moment, afraid it is a ploy to slip free once his guard is down – but Loki does not move again, staring back out at the icy stars.
By degrees he relaxes, until Loki puts a hand on his chest. “Would you have the truth, Thor?”
“Yes, I would.”
“Sometimes I am jealous. Sometimes I think that it cannot be fair, that so much is given to you, and so little given to me. Sometimes I fear that it makes me a beast – that it taints me.” Loki’s fingers tighten in his armour, knuckles white. “But by the Norns, Thor, and by everything that the universe holds dear, I would have you know it: I would never hurt you, but that I would hurt myself first; I would never see you unhappy, but that I would first make myself miserable. At times I know I am envious of you, and that at times I show it badly – but never doubt it for a minute in your heart, my brother, that I love you.”
“I have never doubted the depth of your love,” he says. His limbs tremble; they are so close that he is sure Loki can feel his heartbeat, thundering in his ears. “I would never – Loki, I wouldn’t – ”
“I know, Thor.”
He lets himself be drawn onto Loki’s chest, soft cloth and sharp muscle underneath his cheek. Loki’s fingers card gently through his hair. They were children like this once, they grew up together, and all through the ages as it happened, the skies and constellations watched.
“I would have you by my side for always,” he says, and knows the destiny, the fate, the truth of it.
Frigga laces her fingers through his and together they walk through the gardens.
“The Wrengrass is casting up stalks,” she says. She points them out, to their left where the shade of the Tree blocks out almost all of the sun. “I had thought it too late in the year for it to flower, but it seems it is not so.”
“I remember that they bloomed this late once before,” he says. “Loki had given them up for lost.”
Frigga laughs. The sadness has left her eyes, and as they walk down the path she puts his hand to her lips and kisses it. He feels a warm surge of emotion that he cannot name; a knot forms in his throat.
“When you were a child still, yes,” she says, against his knuckles. “But you are not one any more.”
It is early morning and Ilad stops him on the way to Loki’s room. He has two of Idunn’s apples hidden underneath his shirt, and when Ilad asks, he says: they are to be a gift.
“My brother and I will be leaving for Elamond today,” Ilad says, smiling faintly.
He is surprised. An apple slips in his grasp, and he has to stoop to catch it. “Today?”
“Asgard has been more than kind to us, but our hearts turn toward home.”
“But your sister, the Lady Ila,” he says. “Is she not – ”
“She wishes us home also. We have not seen her since she rode for Elamond four days ago, and though that is a short time, we have barely spent any of our lives apart. We sorely miss her.”
“I had thought she would not leave until betrothed,” he says. “Has she chosen?”
“She has chosen happiness.”
The dawn shines palely on the patterns of Ilad’s armour – loops and swirls, a mysterious map of stories untold. An endless possibility. Ilad leans in to grip him in a warrior’s farewell, and outside, on the rim of the nearest window, a small black bird with a breast of green tilts its head at him.
The city beneath them slumbers on. He thinks, suddenly: we were, and now we are.