The wind changed through the apple blossoms in the orchard, and just like that Loki was back.
He braced his feet against the truck of the apple tree and reached out to pluck a sprig of the heavenly blossoms.
“Not all the flowers come to bear fruit,” a voice interrupted him, “but of the dozens of such buds, perhaps one will yield up a golden apple. It would be a waste if you denied them that chance.”
Loki paused, looking down at Idunn, who didn’t look very alarmed. Neither did she make any sudden move to call for the guards.
After a moment’s hesitation, Loki jumped out of the tree. Idunn curled her hand through his arm and led him through the orchard to the swinging gate, where they sat on the low stone wall and looked up at the shining spires of the city crowned by leis of fluffy white clouds on an otherwise impossibly perfect day.
She offered him an apple.
“For the likes of me?” he asked, and she smiled serenely back at him.
“For a prince of Asgard, of course.”
“Loki, a prince of Asgard?” he said. “Not a thief and a scoundrel, a lying, cheating, shameless bastard of a troublemaker?”
“All that, yes, and much worse, I’m sure,” said Idunn, “but also a prince. Eat your apple, Loki. It will bring the color to your cheeks, and fill them out properly. You’re much too thin. Are you so unsure of your welcome here?”
He bit into the golden fruit, licking the juice as it trailed down his hand, and let it work its delirious magic on his body. Like golden spirits rushing through his veins, the apple breathed new life into him, and he ravenously chomped down on the precious fruit, eating up even the seeds at the core. Then he breathed out deeply, overwhelmed by a rush that felt almost orgasmic.
Loki opened his eyes, and Idunn was grinning at him, pleased with her powers.
“I try not to take things for granted,” said Loki, gathering the vestiges of his dignity. “At least now I know my prison will befit my station. And here I was, dreaming up punishments so terrifying they would make children wake up in the night screaming.”
Idunn squeezed his arm. “A word of advice, Loki. If I were you, I would not look up good Theoric for old time’s sake. But then, I did not count myself as one of those who thought him so very dashing. Oh dear, please don’t run off to tell him I said that, would you?”
It was within the realm of probability to be so unquestioningly received back into the bosom of family, a family he had cut to the heart as soon as he’d discovered he belonged to them. But it surprised Loki nonetheless.
In a corner of the private gardens, Odin looked up from sorting through a box of what looked like onions.
“So, you’re back,” said the Allfather, sitting back on a cushion placed on the dirt, and gnawing on a cuticle.
“Son,” countered Odin with a nod, and fiddled with his bulbs. “Do you know anything about cultivating black tulips?”
Loki was taken aback. Perhaps this was a riddle with a hidden meaning at the core. “Keep crossing dark purple strains until you get closer to black?”
“That is the general consensus, yes,” said Odin, “but just when I think I have it, the odd red flower keeps popping up.”
“Is that all you have to say to me? Tulips?”
The Allfather gazed up at his wayward son with a searching look on his face, as if he was the one trying to puzzle Loki out. Then he shrugged. “Don’t be late for dinner,” he said finally, and went back to smelling a pinch of soil between his fingers. “Damp. Just a drop too damp for this time of year.”
At the palace, a suite of rooms were prepared for Loki by the queen, who insisted he call her mother.
“I know you already have a mother,” said Frigga, “but if you will let me, I would like to be a mother to you as well.”
From what he had read about the Aesir, as well as mortal halfthings, ‘mother’ seemed to connote a kinder, more nurturing being, and Loki had never thought of the Laufey-king that way.
“Of course, I would dare not try to take Queen Farbauti’s place in your affections, but, to be honest, I despise the term stepmother. Perhaps I am selfish that way,” said Frigga, misreading his frown, and Loki had to laugh and explain that, no, Laufey had given birth to him, but yes, the Farbauti-king would fit the bill as the evil stepmother.
Then, Frigga took over.
A half-grown boy named Eric was presented as his personal servant, as well as a small troupe of servants who, he found over the next few days, would tend to innumerable small things before fading into the background.
Frigga led him through the maze of chambers leading from one to another, an antechamber, a receiving room, a study, a bedroom, and two more whose purpose was completely lost on him, and a wardrobe where she had the servants open the cunningly hidden cabinets and closets to show him a dizzying array of casual, hunting, sparring, daily formal, and very official attire. He would be fitted for his ceremonial armor shortly. Frigga suggested he might like horns curving backward on his helmet.
And then, there was a nook in a corner tower which seemed to be built from bricks of ice.
“In case, you feel the heat of Asgard too much,” said Frigga.
Loki frowned. “I am always too cold. Ever since I was a boy, I could never get enough heat,” he said. “None of the other jotunns were like this. I always thought there was something wrong with me. But the ice is in my veins.”
“I shall have the ice removed from the chamber, then.”
“No, keep it. It will remind me of home. And….” He hesitated. “And the thought was kind. Why are you doing this? Why are you being so kind? What am I to you that you should treat me with kindness? I have done nothing to deserve it.”
Frigga led him to sit down on the bed, and stroked his cheek. “You are our son now, Loki, and this is your home. We want you to be happy here.”
“I am your son? The way Thor is your son?” His voice didn’t quaver at the name, and he pretended it took no effort to say it. “The way Balder is?”
Frigga shook her head. “I did not give birth to Thor either, though I raised him as my very own. Balder, who is the son of my flesh, grew up not knowing his true parents, and came to us in maturity. You are a prince of Asgard as much as they are, and you are my son.”
“But what does that mean?” asked Loki. “A bastard jotunn half-breed, a prince of Asgard? Surely, you don’t consider me equal to your other shining sons.” He refrained from mentioning Thor by name this time.
“It does not matter,” said Frigga. “You are a son of Odin. As a prince of Asgard, you will have to live up to the position, of course. You will have your own duties, and take time to develop your own special gifts. I know you will make us proud, Loki. I have every faith in you.”
And just as easily, the machinery of the great throne of Asgard swallowed him up. It was a far cry from the outrage for which he had steeled himself. And it was far easier to accept, to sink back into the cushions and allow himself to be coddled by their soft Aesir ways.
The fact of the matter was, Loki was tired.
He’d broken his left ankle a few years back, and it still ached when he favored it. The old knife wound in his shoulder didn’t like being reminded of not having been healed properly by the new burns that flayed the skin off of there. And it had to be in that annoying spot he couldn’t reach with either hand. It wasn’t as if he could show his back to anyone for more than a second. Recently, he’d made a few too many enemies, erstwhile friends who’d not appreciated his sense of humor or questionable loyalty, who’d sooner fuck him up as well as fuck him.
And since that fateful day in Asgard, he hadn’t managed to turn fully jotunn without a great deal of pain. Loki missed his horns, though he didn’t dare show his face in Jotunheim, not just yet. The lines of Laufey’s house were gone from his jotunn skin.
In the end, there was only Asgard left. Loki had been willing to put up with a storm of angry words and perhaps a sound flogging in exchange for a quiet corner to rest his head, even if it was in prison.
He hadn’t expected a seat at the high table.
When he came down to dinner, Old Tyr dropped his goblet, and some of the grizzled beards muttered darkly. A few of the older matrons turned aside to whisper and titter, but Loki took his seat at Frigga’s left as if he had always belonged there, and after a moment, everyone else went on as if nothing was amiss.
Frigga looked pleased, though she became a little strained at the mouth when Kvasir and Honir thumped the table and recalled the old campaign in Jotunheim. They had expected this all along. They wouldn’t be surprised if Odin got up and revealed a string of half-breed jotunn princelings from under his cloak. Anyway, there was peace with Jotunheim now. Those blue-skinned bastards weren’t so bad.
Loki scowled into his cups, but after five years out in the Realms, he wouldn’t turn his nose up at a good square meal. He took third helpings of everything.
The first week went by in a harmonious flow as Loki adjusted himself to this new ease and abundance. The healers clucked their tongues over old scar tissue and badly knit bones and worked him over until his body was a blank slate again, bland and perfect as anything in the golden city. He felt a brief pang of loss at being erased like this, but he wouldn’t miss the pain. Once fastidious to a fault, he found that a layer of grime seemed to have sunk deep into his skin, and it took five steam baths before he felt clean again.
And Loki learned again how to be a member of a royal family.
To stand still as servants dressed and undressed him like a doll; to be present for meals that were little short of public performances; to pretend to be interested in polite conversation with bores he scarcely knew; to accept gifts from different quarters, with none of the childish joy he had once taken in them, and grant favors and process petitions according to their worth; and to sit a step down from the Allfather in the great hall and listen to the endless line of complaints and grievances from the people.
He remembered how to hold his breath, breathe shallow, and mince his steps like a cat walking through a ballroom littered with broken glass.
If Jotunheim had pushed him aside to observe only from the shadows, Asgard brought him to the center and strapped him down tightly to the machinery of rule. Idly, Loki wondered which of the two was the sturdier prison.
There had to be more than this, more than the many petty duties that filled up his hours, more than feeling sifted finely through a tea strainer. Yet, the secret of what would make him a true prince, and a worthy prince of Asgard at that, eluded him. So, he went through the motions and held his tongue.
Then, Thor returned from the house in the country where he had been visiting the jotunn Jarnsaxa. After all, it had been five years.
Though he was itching for a good drawn-out brawl, Loki had taken to avoiding the sparring rings.
The Einherhar were not so forgiving as the queen, and then there were Thor’s friends, the enormous red-bearded man, the grim silent one, and the woman. All that dislike made him twitchy.
So instead, he wandered off again through the grounds beyond the formal gardens, where the woods spilled over into a patch of wilderness.
He kicked off his boots first, remembering with smile how he had dreamed of walking barefoot on grass when he was a boy in Jotunheim. Even after all these years, the green light slanting through a cathedral of boughs made his breath catch, as if he was setting foot on hallowed ground.
He was tugging open the collar of his stiff high-necked tunic and his elbow was caught in the sleeve of the coat as he was pulling it off, when he heard a burble of laughter.
“Shhh, dearest, if we don’t disturb him, perhaps he will continue to disrobe,” came a woman’s voice, with another giggle and a rustle from behind a growth of azaleas.
“Quiet, sis, he’s heard us. He’s coming this way, lie still and perhaps he won’t see, no, no, dash it, he’s found us,” said the man, and making no move to lower his voice or hide himself, he smiled up at Loki from a bed of ferns, propped up on one elbow. “Didn’t I see you last night at dinner, little jotunn? You were hogging the pickled eel like some starving beggar.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Loki, priming for a fight. The man looked vaguely familiar, but his manner was more than that, bordering on insolence. “Did I use the fish fork for the roast boar? Did that hurt your finer feelings? Who the hel are you?”
“Don’t be rude, Frey,” said his sister, and the goddess Freyja rose from the buttercups where she’d lain entwined with her brother. Her long red hair spilled over her breasts in glossy curls, which did more to hide her figure than the thin white shift she wore, seemingly as an afterthought. Wrapping her plump brown arms around Loki, she plucked at the buttons on his tunic. Teeth bared, he swatted her fingers away.
“See, dearest? He still has a spark of spirit left. Asgard hasn’t whipped it out of him completely.”
“I don’t see much of that vaunted spirit.” said Frey. “All I see is a prim little boy, afraid of getting his clothes dirty.” Unlike his sister, Frey didn’t bother with clothing. “Maybe I wouldn’t mind a turn at that whip. There’s nothing prettier than a screaming jotunn, especially when you’re fucking him.”
Frey leapt up, and he and Loki circled each other snarling. Loki was taller than him by a hair, but Frey was solid, well-fed and well-built, and his arms were thicker than Loki’s thighs. Loki ducked, reaching for his knife, and grasped at air – he’d thrown off his belt along with his boots. Less than a fortnight of this spoiled easy life, and he was getting sloppy. In that half-second of a pause, Frey lunged and threw him to the ground, knocking the breath out of his lungs. Frey pressed his big toe down on Loki’s windpipe, and grinned.
“Too easy,” said Frey. “Shall I put this one on his belly and take his arse, sis? Would you like to see that?”
“Hush, love,” said Freyja, pulling him away. “He’s just a baby. Don’t be mean, or nobody will want to sleep with you.”
“Who said anything about sleeping?” But Frey relented and held out a hand to help Loki up, laughing when Loki slapped it out of the way.
Freyja wandered down the woodland slope, humming and trailing her hands over the bark of pale birches. “The sun’s too hot, and I’m all sticky now. I feel like a swim. Are you coming, Loki? Don’t mind my brother. He doesn’t bite.”
“Not even if you ask nicely,” said Frey, and he grabbed Loki by the arm and dragged him, slipping down a dirt path down to the stream. He let go at the bank, or Loki yanked it out of his grip, and with a joyful yodel, Frey jumped into the water like a cannonball, making a terrific splash all over his sister.
She splashed him back, and for a while they played like happy children, the water sloshing around them. Freyja’s cotton shift clung wetly to her ample curves, dark where her nipples and her snatch showed through. She smiled beatifically at Loki, who had climbed atop a flat of a boulder and pulled his knees to his chin primly, not quite feeling left out, but not wanting to walk off just yet.
“Come join us, Loki. The water feels wonderful!”
“You can even keep your clothes on, baby,” said Frey smirking, and Freyja dunked him under water. “Behave, love, or he won’t like us.”
Loki shook his head.
“I’m afraid water doesn’t agree with me.” He’d tried swimming when he’d first walked away from Jotunheim, and had found it wasn’t as fun as books made it out to be. It made him dizzy.
Freyja laughed and splashed more water around her as Frey swam on his back, hands folded over his stomach like an otter. His dark red pubes floated around his prick like a sentient orchid.
“That’s because you’re fighting it,” said Freyja. “At first the water pulls against seið, and it feels like the tide will drag you under. But you have to swim with the current, Loki. Let the water and the seið flow through you. Lose yourself in them, let go. It’s not a weakness when giving in will give you strength.”
Freyja let herself fall back, and as her head hit the water, she became a red leaf bobbing on the surface. When Frey cupped the leaf in his hands, she turned into a little silver minnow and dove back into the stream, almost indistinguishable from the flashes of light glinting on the water.
The minnow followed the rush of water down to the dip in the stream, and just when Loki thought he had lost sight of her, she turned into a salmon, and with a powerful leap, she flapped up, against the force of the current and made her way back. Then, rising from the water, dripping, she was Freyja again.
“How did you do that?” gasped Loki, and laughing, Frey came up from behind his sister and draped his arms around her soft stomach, one hand slyly sliding up to play with her breasts. “Yes, how did you do that, you wicked little witch? Come into the water and find out, little jotunn.”
Freyja slipped out of her brother’s embrace, wriggling her hips just enough to make him groan, and held out her hand to Loki. “Yes, come into the water, Loki. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I’m not afraid,” said Loki sharply, and bowed his head with a softer tone. “I am more familiar with smoke, and I can vanish when I need to. But I’ve not managed to make myself into another form.”
“Perhaps you have found smoke more natural because you’ve found the need to flee too often,” said Freyja. “Disappearing comes easier to you. But water is fluid. It can be air and liquid and solid, and it is the best place to start.”
“I’m not too fond of it.”
But Loki was already pulling his tunic over his head, and then his breeches, and with a second’s hesitation, he removed his smallclothes. No amount of sloppy Vanir groping was going to make him act like some scandalized nun. Gingerly, he dipped his toe in the stream, and waded his way into the stream.
The water was cool, and he shivered as he felt it tap into his seið and tug at the strands that lay dormant. As before, he felt faint in running water. It was different from the baths. There, somehow his body knew that the water was still, contained. But out here, he knew he was faced with a living thing, a monstrous snake that would rush right through him and it would be the end.
He must have fallen in. He wasn’t conscious of it.
The water closed over his head and sapped him of the strength to struggle. His arms at his sides were dead things. He was helpless as it took him apart and overwhelmed him. The water would bear him off in a million little pieces, and he would be nothing. The roar of silence filled his ears, and his lungs burned.
He thought he heard a voice cutting through the din. “You poor thing. But you’re broken, aren’t you? Where do you belong?”
But there was light ahead, and he let go, let the current carry him into it. There was a glimpse, as he floated along, of being part of something greater if only he could let go of this small, selfish thing that was Loki.
When Loki came to, he was trapped between the two Vanir. Freyja was trying to revive him, it seemed, by breathing life in through his lips. He jerked his head back in surprise, and knocked Frey hard on the chin.
“Ow, easy there, little jotuun. I didn’t know you liked me that way.”
Scowling, Loki tried to pull free, but Frey held him tight in those rather impressive arms, and was rubbing circles into his skin. “Keep struggling, princess, it’s turning me on,” said Frey. “Let’s keep this one, sis. He’s starting to grow on me. He’s so… dainty.”
“I’m just as tall as you are,” said Loki, feeling ridiculous that he had to resort to this level, and elbowed Frey in the ribs to break loose.
“For a jotunn, you’re a charming little morsel,” said Frey. “And I should know. I married one.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Frey,” said Freyja. “And stop goading him. He’s only trying to keep your blood going, Loki.” She sat up and touched his cheek gently. “You did very well. You were close to the source, weren’t you?”
“There was a light, and it seemed to call me into it,” said Loki. “Is that seið?”
“We all see it differently, but yes. Once you let go completely, you will be able to make yourself again. But you have to lose yourself first. You’ve come far for someone who’s self-taught.”
Freyja was soft the way no jotunn was, but gentle in a way that reminded him of Helblindi, and Loki let her run her long plump fingers over his stomach. “But you were taught,” he said. “You were trained properly in the ways of seið.”
“She’s the weirdest of all the far-seeing sisters, darling. Will you whisk him away to your bower, sis, and whisper witchy little secrets in his ear? Can I watch?”
Loki ignored him, and got up to retrieve his clothes. “But working in seið is looked down upon by the Aesir, and set aside as the purview of women.”
“But you don’t hold with that, do you, little ice princess?” said Frey. He lay back on the grass and leered, as if Loki putting on his clothing was a more lascivious sight than his taking them off. “Man, woman, it’s all halfthing nonsense to you jotunns, isn’t it? These Aesir,” spat Frey. “They think they’re so high-minded, so moral, with all their uptight rules. Don’t do the girly magics. Don’t get fucked in the arse. Don’t fuck your sister. Don’t fuck the goats. That was an improper use of octopus. No wonder they look pissed off half the time. They can’t get any without pulling out their little rulebook to check if it’s not forbidden.”
Freyja smiled at her brother. “Not all of them, dearest. But we need not abide by all the rules of the Aesir, Loki. We need not embrace them at the expense of our true hearts. You are not the only captive prince in this court. You will learn to choose what is important to you.”
Her eyes had grown fond and hazy, and her brother came over to her on all fours and she leaned over to kiss him. But before he could grapple with her again, Freyja grabbed her brown and white speckled cloak, and Loki’s hand, and they took off running.
“What are we –?” She threw the feathered cloak over his shoulders, and they fell off the hillside, but when they soared back up, they were not Loki and Freyja, but two brown falcons with speckled bellies.
Falling into the sky was not so different from falling into the water, but here, he slowly gained control of his wings, to shift them to change direction in the air and rise and fall and glide. It wasn’t flying so much as riding the wind and losing himself in the motion itself. He opened his mouth, but all that came out was a screech that resounded down in the valley. A pair of riders on the road looked up and pointed.
There were no words, and for a second, his mind – the mind of a falcon – tried to remember his name, and he broke out of trance.
With a sudden sharp panic, his wings faltered, shifting back into arms even under the falcon cloak. Falling, and then panicking some more didn’t help turn his arms back into wings, and Loki plummeted.
The cloak flapped behind him as he spiraled downward, and he gathered his wits desperately to turn to smoke before he dashed his brains on the ground.
Again that day, he felt Freyja’s arms around him, half-feathered this time, and though their form could not bear flight, she slowed down his fall somewhat in a gradual curve.
Loki hit the ground first with his shoulder – it was the bad one, only just mended; the healers would not be pleased – and they went rolling, tearing up patches of grass until they came to a stop in the underbrush.
The world stopped spinning, though it took longer before the dizzy motion in his head stopped, and he felt a dozen different places where he was stuck with broken twigs like a pincushion. But not on his stomach.
Crushed beneath him, her thin cotton shift tattered to shreds, Freyja was breathless with laughter, and the strange soft things that were her breasts wobbled under him. With a yelp, he was toppled off as she rolled them over again and came out on top.
“Not too bad for a beginner,” said Freyja, leaning down to wipe the blood off his lip. “Next time, fall better.”
“I didn’t mean to fall at all,” said Loki rather helplessly, and he had to laugh because she was laughing, and because he had been a falcon, a creature of wind and air and boundless freedom, and it had been so brilliant, and he took her face in his hands and kissed her deeply, Freyja’s long hair falling forward to veil them like a curtain.
There was someone awkwardly clearing his throat over the top of the bushes, but Loki didn’t care. Frey could eat his heart out.
But it wasn’t Frey. With the wingspan of falcons, they had come farther away from the palace grounds than he had thought, and two riders were looking grimly down at them from their horses.
Hurriedly, Loki got up and covered Freyja’s nearly naked body with the feathered cloak. And he managed a crooked grin at his Aesir brothers.
“This really isn’t what it looks like,” he tried to explain, and Freyja smothered a giggle behind her hand at the look on Balder’s face. Balder was square of jaw and still just as good-looking as Loki remembered, but red really wasn’t his color, especially not the way it stained his face all the way up to the roots of his snowy hair.
Thor didn’t spare a look his way, but held out his hand to Freyja.
“My lady, if you would like a ride back to the castle? The road is dusty, and,” said Thor, with a small smile and a bow, “you seem to have misplaced your shoes.”
Freyja bowed back, but her smile turned impish.
“I’d rather ride with Prince Balder,” she said, holding out her arms to be swung up on his saddle. “But I have a friend who would appreciate your offer, Thor.” And she kicked the spurs to Balder’s horse herself before any of them could protest.
They listened to the sound of hooves fading in the distance, and Loki raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sun glinting off Thor’s helmet. The silence dragged on. Murderously, it felt.
Thor’s face was in shadow and he didn’t deign to speak, letting his disdain beat down as inexorably as the heat.
Loki swallowed hard and turned away.
“You know, it’s a fine day and I’d rather walk,” he said tightly, and started down the road putting an extra spring in his step. He’d left his boots behind – he remembered – in the wildwood by the stream, and the gravel was sharp under his soles.
Behind him, Thor pulled up his horse sharply.
“Suit yourself,” he said, and rode on ahead without a second glance.