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The In-Between Hour

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The poets sing of it: how Loki Laufeyson, bastard son of the frosty king, took Odin's scepter and laid waste to the place that was once Jotunheim. The story is passed, mother to child and sung to the babes in the womb like totems, the scars in their histories fading into a smooth unblemished line.

What follows after is an era of unparalleled peace. Those who remember that day praise King Loki's strength, recounting how the Bifrost split that world like shards of crystal, the uncertain tumult of Odin's reign ending in a single flash of brilliant light.

 

*****

 

He has ruled for centuries, but Loki still hasn't gotten used to it: the sheer number of men, warriors and scholars both, who crowd the meeting hall and bustle quietly amongst themselves, each with their own agenda and own ideas, each awaiting their turn for an audience with their beloved king.

Loki waits behind a crack in the door, watching quietly as the attendants argue amongst themselves: there is drought plaguing the regions of Nidavellir, and the kingdom's resources are spread thin. "I demand an audience!" one man says, and there is a desperation in his eyes that warns him, they are this close to brawling, the men of his small council too dull to pick up on the threat.

Loki sighs, adjusts his helmet, and opens the door.

"It is a brilliant move," his advisor says, after the meeting has adjourned. "Imagine! A bridge between the district regions of Nidavellir. It is truly an elegant solution."

"Of course," Loki says. His advisor smiles slowly, fawning and insincere, no doubt believing he above the others had more sway: Loki has to resist the urge to roll his eyes.

"And what will you do, your grace, when the peoples of Midgard try to make contact?"

Why is this man still talking to him, when the meeting had long adjourned? The helmet feels heavy today--he wears it more as a ceremonial piece than anything, the strong lines and great horns underscoring the fact that he is a king--but today it feels tight and the metal digs into the sides of his skin.

"I shall have to think about it," Loki says, though he already has a plan, which he is not about to share. "But for now, I pray, I must take my leave. There is much I must now think over."

His advisor bows low and deep, and Loki nods the man's dismissal, wondering how many more meetings were left and how many more old men to whom he'd have to pretend to listen, and he feels tired, just thinking about it. In truth, Loki has no need of old men giving him counsel, but the politics of the realm dictates he keeps them around.

Loki doesn't mind. Better to let them think they can persuade him, rather than to throw it in their faces that he is, in actuality, smarter than them all.

 

*****

 

There are rumors in the kitchens: "He's never taken a woman to bed, they say. An odd thing, for such a young king."

Eyes and ears are everywhere, and among his own servant staff, this is no exception: "He refused the marriage to the daughter of the House of the Grail. She was so beautiful, I wonder why?"

"I heard their motives would do ill for the kingdom," the other maid says. "Our King would refuse anything that did not benefit the realm."

"He seems lonely," another one says, and at this point Loki stops listening, turning his attention to the scrolls and ledgers open in front of him.

No less than a few minute's reprieve, before representatives from the citadel come to meet him. Thor once said, when he is king, there would be no meetings, only feasts and songs of glorious conquest. Loki thinks about that sometimes, and his mouth quirks, because if Loki was ill-suited to the throne, then Thor most certainly was, always shouting and carrying on about some such or the other.

And now? Sitting through meetings and listening to old men natter about their own agendas, trying to sift out the best for the realm? Thor would bash his brains out. Of that much Loki was certain.

"Your grace?" His councilors look up, expectantly.

Loki is surrounded by men. Scholars and advisors and warriors from all corners of the nine realms, talking to him constantly. At times it feels as if he is the fixed point of a world turning about its axis, a single stone seated in torrents of whirling water.

"Forgive me. I believe I shall retire early today," Loki says, and he stands.

The men in the hall rise and his guardsmen look sharp, and Loki nods to them all, his cloak billowing smartly behind him as he walks down the hall.

 

*****

 

He is giving a speech today. An Asgardian feasting day, a celebration of the glory and honor of the old gods. Outside the people stand outside the palace gates, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of him on horseback, alone and riding atop a white steed, while his guardsmen flank beside him. There is a hush in the crowd as Loki dismounts at the town center. The people rush around him, clapping and cheering and throwing petals of wildflowers at his feet. Fingers splay, arms outstretched, reaching toward him so that they might brush hands with their beloved king.

It is the anniversary of his father's death. Not Laufey's, whose name Loki had taken out of spite, but the day Loki had looked into his brother's eyes and saw a graying skyline, dark and despairing before the threat of rain.

The day they realized the All-Father would not wake: that was the date the people used to mark their hard-won prosperity. The irony is not lost on him. No king before him had done what Loki's done, the peace of Loki's reign uninterrupted for hundreds of years.

He must have been frowning, because his advisor peers up at him, curiously, then clears his throat in a self-important manner.

"Nerves, your grace?" his advisor says, as if he's never seen a young king clench at the thought of speaking in front of a crowd.

"I'm afraid you are not wrong," Loki says, and he smiles as if to say, This is your king. One whose deeds are far-known among the realm, but who locks up at the thought of speaking to a large crowd. "They call me silver-tongued, but I fear even I can feel the cold sweat of nerves, when faced by the thousands standing here."

It is calculated, one meant to disguise the disquiet in his heart, and all at once his men smile back at him with utmost sympathy.

"You will do well, my king." His advisor leans into Loki's ear, voice dripping guile like drops of dew. "You are beloved by all who know you. Warriors sing tales of your conquests even now."

"I have not done much," Loki says. "A few aqueducts, a few building projects--"

"A few policies and treatises that secured the peace and prosperity of all the realm! Surely you are too humble," his advisor says, and the guards all look at him with love in their eyes, and though it is a calculated manipulation, Loki has to look away.

He doesn't speak first: first is a lofty introduction by one of the leaders of his council. Loki doesn't listen--he catches a few phrases, "Laufeyson," and "the glory of all the realm!"--and he is too-warm in his armor. Sweat stings his eyes and Loki is tempted to use a cooling spell on himself, except he is unsure if he would inadvertently reveal the true complexion of his skin, which he is sure would not go well, given the nature of the occasion.

"--and in that moment, after the death of the All-Father, he released us from the tyranny of his brother, Thor!"

There are children playing in the courtyard. Loki stops, craning his neck to look at them. He sees them as a man looking through the film at the surface of a pool water, unfocused blurs then flashes of startling clarity. They are young and running barefoot in the grass, laughing and holding hands.

For a moment, Loki's throat tightens. He has to blink hard to catch his bearings.

His guardsmen step into his line of vision. "Your grace. The platform."

"Yes," Loki says, and he turns automatically, using the scepter as a cane as he ascends the wooden steps. There is a man with a hooded cloak, watching him.

He stands on the platform, and below him, the crowd cheers. Rose petals fall, floating gently on invisible currents, as if everything stands still and then slow motion.

And then he sees it: the cloaked man lurching forward, the hood falling from his eyes as the veins pop up from his temples; one spear, thrust forward, the spear tip arching into the air.

He reacts quickly. The spell catches his would-be assassin off-guard, throwing him off balance in a sudden burst of light. The man's face is red as he shouts, guardsmen shoving him onto the ground as the crowd screams, women crying hysterical and men throwing themselves through the crowd.

"Debased usurper!" the assassin says. He struggles against the guardsmen. "Fatricide and dishonor!"

A strike. The guardsman's staff knocks into the assassin's face, a spurt of blood pouring down his temple.

"We must go, your grace," the guardsman says, the sound of the crowd rising to a deafening roar.

"Long live the king!"

"Long live the king of the realm!"

Loki's hand is shaking, but he doesn't show it. He pushes past his guards, his face a perfect stone.

 

*****

 

He tucks his helmet under his arm, ascending the long spiral staircase where his mother is kept. There are torches of orange light illuminating his path, flickering torchlight casting strange shadows and pooling at the steps by the wall.

"Mother," Loki says, and his mother looks up. Her eyes are wild and her hair is disheveled. Her nightdress, which she still refuses to remove, is soiled, the hem of her skirt fraying and starting to tear.

"Where is Thor?" his mother says. Loki's jaw tightens. "Where is my husband? Where is my son?"

"They are not here," Loki says, gently, hoping to stave off the madness that is creeping in his mother's eyes.

"Murderer!" his mother says. Jumps to her feet, hysterical, the whites of her eyes showing and baring her teeth. "You killed them! You killed all of them! You!"

She sobs, and Loki makes a move to hold her, only to be pushed back. "Don't touch me!" his mother says. She hugs herself, shaking and sitting heavily on the bed, rubbing her arms and shaking her head like a stubborn child. "There's so much blood," his mother says, and she starts tugging on her nightdress, rhythmically. "There's so much blood, it's staining my clothes--"

"Mother," Loki says, and his mother cries, fat, greasy tears rolling down her face.

"He's bleeding," his mother says. "Your brother is bleeding. Why won't it stop?"

Loki doesn't say anything. Her mind was lost years ago.

 

******

 

They are arguing in the meeting hall. Loki sits, leaning against his arm, as his councilors shout at each other, each old man's voice growing louder and more caustic as the meeting wears on.

"Enough!" Loki says, and the hall stops, silent. Loki stands, cape falling over his shoulders, as he glares across the table.

"Hoder. You and your men will meet with the Svartálfar and engage with them further negotiations. Einarr and Hjortr will see about the skirmishes in the periphery. We cannot spare a hundred men, but we can make do with fifty," Loki says, and the advisors nod, dumbstruck. "Will you be able to ride?"

"Y-yes." Hoder blinks, then nods, quickly. "Of course, my king."

"Good," Loki says. "Now leave, all of you. Your bickering has left my patience thin."

Chairs scrape against the stone floors as the councilors leave, glancing warily at Loki and each other, frightened by both Loki's change in mood but also at how swiftly he came to such a sound decision.

Slowly, Loki pulls off his helmet, wiping the sweat from his bangs and setting the helmet on the table.

The night is cool, and the moonlight is a frosted white, filtering through the oblong windows carved into the rocky wall. Loki takes a moment, rising to look out the window and at the darkened skyline there, the irregular shapes of turrets and spires rising out from the earth and touching the nighttime sky.

He never misses his brother more than at nights such as this: when the stars turn in a fierce gyroscope of rotation, the landscape around him desolate and empty and a forsaken waste. That night, Thor bled profusely through the wound in his belly and the hole in his chest, and Loki wept, lost and exhausted and just so broken, because his brother did not move when he plunged the sword. "You could have blocked it," Loki said, horrified, as Thor wheezed and shivered and coughed up blood. "Why did you not defend yourself?"

The focus of Thor's eyes seemed to wax and wane.

"I could never hurt you, brother," Thor said, and he smiled, the cut on his lip smearing blood on his teeth.

He looks at his scepter. Blade tipped with gold and white. Slowly he runs his thumb along the sharpened edge, and considers.

It would take but a moment. But he has no heir and there is no clear line of succession, and there are the thousands who depend on him, now more than ever.

His eyes are wet. Loki watches, impassive, as one tear drips onto the wooden table, then another, the drops dissipating as it hits the wood.

"There will be no hardship when I am king," Thor said, and he threw his arm around Loki's shoulder, a congenial movement. Loki closed his eyes and breathed the scent of his brother's skin, which was warm and dark like the scent of dampened earth, and it was as if all the world had narrowed to this: the stars turning and the worlds around them moving center, and the two of them, tethered by promises and oaths and vows thicker than blood.

He has never loved anyone such as this: his brother, broad-shouldered and looking with steely eyes, the plains of his face rimmed with wondrous light.

And if he were brave, he would bridge the spaces between them, pale hands clasping at calloused palms, flattening his hands over warm skin and ridges and scars. A kiss on the brow, eyes closed and broken gravity, celestial bodies colliding, finally free.

"Brother," Loki says, hoarsely. "Forgive me. It is not how you thought it would be."

And indeed, he was a glorious king.

 

end.