Chapter 1: Irritating Uncertainty and Unwelcome Discovery
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Eldred Hall was decked out in finery in preparation for Victory Day. Loki knew the histories well enough to say that it was no coincidence the final battle against Jotunheim took place when it did. The Aesir armies were beating the Jotnar so soundly by that point that Odin really could pick the time and place for it. In truth, Odin could have stormed the temple that housed the Casket of Ancient Winters and ended the war weeks prior, but there was a certain poetry to defeating the Realm of Ice and Crystal on Yule Eve. Loki liked to think his birth had a thing or two to do with the timing as well, since his name day was on Yule itself. It was all so convenient, after all, for the King to come home triumphant and then name his son the next day.
There were other things that were not so convenient. With the fully translated texts at hand and his own observations of their culture, Loki was having a very hard time re-categorizing the various things he had been taught about Jotunheim over the years as propaganda, fiction, or fact. There were the stories he'd been told as a child of terrifying beasts, of course, which needed to be put into perspective. With Victory Day approaching he found himself listening to others, many too young to have clear memories of the war itself, telling those same types of stories to small children gathered in the gardens. During his language lessons, Father was always challenging the text as if every symbol had been written with the intent to deceive the reader. It was not Father's fault that he thought Loki had received these documents from someone who knew who Loki was and selected them with the intent to paint Jotunheim in the best light. Sure, some of the lessons taught to the young of any race would be steeped in propaganda - something that he now needed to apply to the Aesir stories no matter how difficult it was - that was the way of things. A fair portion of such slanted perspective naturally came from subconscious bias rather than malicious intent. Nevertheless, it was inconvenient and uncomfortable that these were in fact standard education texts from a variety of subjects, given to a confused little girl in the hopes that she would find her passion in one of them and return to their source for further training. There was no strong motivation for the Jotnar to intentionally give "Logn" inaccurate or misleading texts, and a good reason for them to be wary of being caught in a lie as they wanted the lost little girl to trust them and were hyper-aware that she withheld the full extent of her knowledge base.
It also didn't help that Loki found several of them quite interesting. He'd thought his previous opinion that Jotnar were dumb brutes had died a painful death at Mother's hand, but going over these texts flipped his view of them all over again. Odaric was a big, meat-loving, highly observant, terrifyingly strong old soldier. Loki could grasp that. It fit into the view of reality he'd had when he arrived on Jotunheim. So did the chaotically carved tunnel city of Tonder. He could not grasp the whip-sharp old woman who drilled him during his last week in Tonder, or the complexity of some of the crafts that were described in the texts she had him copy. Nor could he find an easy place for the sculpture garden or the lavishly decorated Public Library in his view of them.
He had also been suffering highly inconvenient recurring dreams about the clerk who evaluated his mental health on Jotunheim. The story of Loptr, the fact that Odin had been taunted with that name, and Odaric's memory of it's aftermath was chilling. It seemed clear enough, after taking some time to sift through his long memory and review a couple of his oldest journals, that some of the generals thought a curse was set on the house of Odin for the crime of infanticide. They blamed the death of Loptr for how odd Loki had turned out - and possibly for Baulder later on. He took the risk and broached the subject with Njor, who confirmed that Odin had been accused of infanticide by Laufey very publicly when he came to parley. Njor assured Loki that it was nonsense, as the Temple had been struck by ranged weaponry to destroy the lens that focused the Casket's power. The suggestion that Loki's life was cursed due to the accidental death of a princess who was deliberately placed in harm's way by her parents was not something he should even consider. There was also no evidence the child ever existed in the first place considering that Laufey's mate had been leading the army at the time. By Njor's reckoning it was a bastard child the Jotun King had with some random Jotun woman at best, likely killed by rubble or a stray arrow and not Odin's own hand. It was very inconvenient indeed to know that practically all of the Jotun nobility could birth a child, knowledge he didn't burden Njor with.
King Laufey was Loptr's mother, after all. Loki wished he could wash that thought out of his head. It just did not fit with the illustrations in the history books. It did fit with the time lines in the history books that gleefully recounted Laufey removing himself 'in cowardly fashion' from the front lines shortly after the first battle on Midgard, no matter how much Loki tried to prove Loptr's birth impossible. To preserve his sanity Loki decided that what was true didn't matter anymore. It was many centuries past, so after all this time the only thing that mattered from a political perspective was how much weight Laufey choose to put behind the story. Realistically speaking there were only so many ways to check on that, and only one open to him.
Flying through Jotunheim's thinner atmosphere was exceptionally challenging. The wind was erratic, and he was forced to use a form with a larger wingspan than he wanted to in order to maintain any kind of speed. Birds were uncommon here, but not unknown. He rather hoped that the people of this realm held enough reverence for the dead princess to think twice about making a bird into a meal the day before Victory Day, or whatever they called it. With the difference in the calendar Loki only had until the next Jotun sunset to get home, so this had to be a short trip.
The capital was a wreck. Loki thought he'd found some military outpost between Tonder and Utgard to take a rest in when he first arrived, but there was a very large crowd gathered amid what he first thought were abandoned ruins. He watched the people for a time. A procession arrived at a small temple building not long after he arrived and held some sort of ceremony within while the crowd prayed outside. It was a somber event, so quiet the soft rustle of his feathers called attention to him in the stillness. Someone pointed and called him Loptr's Eyes. He immediately found another broken spike of ice to perch on. This was a day for grief, with the names of the dead called out in pained voices as painted priests passed by. The priests and priestesses answered back that they would pray for the named person's soul with ritualistic precision.
As the sun rose the people of Utgard sought their homes and beds underground, leaving the ruined city to shine jagged patterns of refracted light on the abandoned surface. Loki felt that he was trespassing in a graveyard. Rubble had been cleared enough that the streets could be used easily, but other than that the damaged buildings had been left to gather dust. Even the old palace with its large throne of dark blue stone was little more than a ragged ruin open to the elements. It had been cleaned, and was clearly maintained for periodic use, but the larger segments of broken roof were still laying against the walls half on display, half left where they fell. An excited shout from someone nearby startled Loki from where he had sat dumbfounded in the middle of the shattered throne room.
He turned himself back toward the temple. The green dress Odaric gave him was all simple dyed-in-the-wool fabric. Given the nature and prevalence of the color he wondered if whatever animal or plant fiber it came from was naturally sea-green. It was no more difficult to land as a Jotun girl and dress himself as it was to clothe himself in Ranger cloth. No one seemed to be around this part of the city anymore, but even so he had to be cautious when he entered the temple. Even if he was in another realm with a different structure of beliefs, it would not do to visit a holy place without giving the proper offerings of respect. The last thing he needed was to anger the Norns, and the above-ground portion of Utgard was clearly treated as consecrated ground.
Loki entered the temple as quietly as he could. The large doors blocked all the sound from the ruins outside when they were closed, the same as the temples in Asgard did. It wasn't large as such places went when he considered the average size of a Jotun. On the end of the room farthest from the doors was a rounded dais. On that, offerings were gathered behind a podium decorated with a rough fractal-inspired pattern of braided lines resembling two black wings. The ceiling had similar markings, all in very simple black on white stone, in the dim light Loki couldn't tell if they were painted or inset. There was no seating as usual and the only light was a crystal focusing sunlight embedded in the roof aimed directly at the small podium, but there was a large pile of furs off to one side of the raised dais just outside the bright circle of light. Loki pulled some fish and dried fruit out of his hidden storage as he walked carefully up to the dais and respectfully placed them with the other offerings.
He stood back a little, eyes roving over the small podium. There was no alter or other obvious structure in the room, aside from a single pair of columns that held up the roof. So much in this city had not been rebuilt or even repaired, but this clearly had. The large clear area outside showed obvious signs where the old foundation lingered under a thick coating of ice, and the temple that used to stand here would have been massive. This modest little place, rebuilt from fresh stone, had replaced only a small corner of the old temple while all the other buildings in the city had been left in a disorganized heap. In time, when resources were more plentiful, the remaining foundations might be used to reconstruct the rest of the temple. This was a tomb, it had always been meant to be one, and at this distance he could see that the white stone pedestal had a semitransparent compartment in it. He looked away from the podium housing the shaped and frozen ashes of a dead infant, but the only other thing to look at was the pile of offerings. There were toys, cheaply made by commoner's hands, as well as small scraps of precious food and even children's clothing in both male and female styles. He stood staring at them for a long time, his mind trying and failing to put the facts into a less painful shape.
Loki shivered a little and wondered if just coming here was an insult to the Norns, given that his father had killed this kingdom's firstborn. He couldn't doubt that it happened, standing here in the only fully rebuilt structure in the entire capital city of Jotunheim. Even if it was only on Odin's order and not by his hand, the firstborn heir to the Jotun throne was entombed here. He pulled his flute out and set it down among the other gifts. That was a cherished personal item, and the emotional worth would make the simple metal flute of great magical value. It was clearly Aesir make, and whoever tended this place might remark on that. Maybe it would make it to the royal family's ear that an Aesir slipped into their realm to leave it here, and did no mischief to their people along the way.
"Are you really here?" a small voice startled Loki out of his contemplation. A small child with extremely intricate lines was standing next to the podium. He had Ymir's crown on his forehead and wore a simple cloth sash.
"I… hello," Loki greeted awkwardly, "I didn't mean to disturb you."
"You haven't," ze whispered, looking surprised.
"I should go, I'm sorry for bothering you," Loki replied, suppressing shivers and willing his voice to come out evenly.
"Wait," the child said, a little louder, "please stay."
"Only for a little while," Loki replied evenly, though his heart raced with fear. Where had the child come from? He would have heard the doors open, and there was no other way in. The room was dark except for by the podium, but surely he would have noticed the child's brightly glowing eyes. There was only one other in this tomb when he arrived, and Loki ruthlessly repressed the knowledge. No, best not to think about that until he left this haunted place.
"Do you like it?" ze asked. When Loki didn't answer right away the child gestured toward the pile of offerings. "Does that make you happy?"
"I wish it didn't need to be," Loki said diplomatically. "I wish everyone involved had made better choices, but there is nothing I can do about that."
"No, I suppose not," the child sighed. "Is there something you need, that we can do?"
"I wander," Loki said, almost reflexively.
"That's bad," the child frowned. "Can't you stay and be happy here, with us?" Loki did shiver then, and zir's concerned look grew. Not malicious, then, but that didn't make it any less creepy. The child probably didn't understand the implications. Ze died while too innocent to comprehend, and zir spirit remained strongly tied here by its deification. Loki had heard of such things happening on Alfheim amid the Fae races, where the energy and time put into the care of a shrine could sustain a soul for many years before it finally crossed over.
"I am happy when I am traveling, and unhappy when I stay too long in one place. Wandering does not make me feel badly," Loki supplied honestly. The child thought about that for a moment, and Loki hoped ze decided not to insist Loki stay. Then again offering to take Loki away would be equally unwelcome.
"Did you fly here?"
"Yes," Loki replied honestly, hoping to keep it simple. The child looked much happier.
"Can you show me your wings?" ze asked. Loki hesitated. This was a holy place, and while inters were considered blessed in this realm he wasn't quite sure what the rules were for changelings.
"I'd rather not, indoors," Loki said.
"It is rude to have animal parts while inside," the child said as if reciting a scolding he'd heard many times. Good, then, Loki didn't especially want to compare wing size with the infant Jotun equivalent of a psychopomp.
"Do you like the flute?" Loki asked, unsure of what to say. The child hadn't moved from beside the podium. While ze wasn't exactly blocking Loki's path to the doors, one simply was not rude to the ghost of a princess your father murdered while in zir own tomb. Fleeing in terror before given leave to do so would certainly be considered gauche.
"I like music," the child answered.
"I could play you a song, but then I really do have to go," Loki bargained.
"That would be nice," the child agreed. Loki turned back to the pile of things and picked up his old flute. He played a simple lullaby, as gently as he could. The child's eyes blinked sleepily despite zir clear interest in talking more. When the song was done Loki put the flute back down, right where he'd first laid it.
"I have to go now," Loki said gently.
"I understand," the child sighed, a tear falling from one eye. "I wish we could play together more."
"I'm sorry," Loki said with feeling.
"Goodbye," the child said, and patting the side of the podium gently. Loki walked toward the doors without looking back. When he was close enough he pulled them open wide with his magic and changed back into an eagle, his large black wings contrasting starkly with the bright daylight on white snow outside. The child had asked nicely, after all, and the House of Odin owed a large debt. He pulled the doors closed behind him in the same way and flew directly back to the branches of Yggdrasil without stopping.
psychopomp: a guide of souls
Chapter 2: A Chat over Lunch
Loki puts some of his old magic tutor's advice into practice during the Victory Day Celebrations.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Loki didn't have time to dwell over seeing the ghost of a child his father caused the murder of since he'd gotten home with barely enough time to bathe and nap before taking a skiff into the city for the Victory Day parade. The parade started at first light in decorated skiffs. It stretched from the palace gate out to the edge of Greater Gladsheim, then back along the main road that curved halfway around the city through various prominent holdings. They ended the parade at the Temple for a noon blessing, by which point Loki was more than ready to devour the feast spread out for them.
"It seems the younger Prince has found his appetite since embracing his natural talents," General Tyr commented as Loki finished off his second plate.
"He's certainly in better health," Njor agreed. "If you have eyes you can see how much improved he is, and going to the Training Grounds much more often besides."
"Thank you, gentlemen, I have been feeling particularly well these last few months. However, I would put more emphasis on my Ranger training. I joined them for a cleansing ritual recently, and adopted a couple healthful habits as a side effect of their teachings," Loki answered easily.
"I have not seen Loki at the training grounds at all," Thor chimed in after hastily washing down the venison he'd been chewing. A number of people's faces twisted a bit at that, gaining the conversation a wider audience as others noted their confusion.
"There is always one prince of Asgard at the training grounds these days," Tyr informed the table. "When one leaves on assignment, the other appears." Thor and several others who had not yet noticed the pattern gave Loki odd looks.
"If we are there together I end up joining in whatever Thor has planned for the day even if I don't want to, so I got into the habit of doing the basic exercises elsewhere," Loki explained. "When I go to the Training Grounds I am usually looking for the sort of treatment appropriate for a man of my own age."
"Aye, and we're happy to give it to ye!" the gravely voice of Captain Fenris echoed from far down the table, slightly slurred since he had not spent the morning on display waving to the common people. "We'll run ye into the ground any day ye like!"
"You've not got the better of me yet, old man," Loki called back.
"If you're so ungrateful for my efforts, maybe I'll have ye doin' the drills with stones tied to yer royal hide!" the man shouted. Some of the high-born warriors smirked and angled themselves to get a good view of whatever spell Loki would use to punish the man's insolence. The lower born warriors edged subtly away from the drunk captain. Loki burst out laughing.
"Sounds like an unfair enough handicap. Perhaps then I'll actually need the mandatory breaks," Loki answered, and the far end of the table cheered and drained their mugs. A few of them quietly congratulated Fenris for his daring. Loki responded by grabbing a hen from a tray a servant had just brought over and tearing into it with gusto.
"Now that's how you start a new year of your life, boy," Njor chuckled. "Healthy as a yearling horse and full of the same fire."
"You can try and get me pinned down all you like, but I still can't decide if I want to rush through the next few years and get to the part where I have a wife and child, or savor my last days of childhood as much as possible before my beard grows in," Loki said between devouring the drumsticks. "I will agree that number nine-hundred-and-forty-nine is shaping up to be better than its recent predecessors."
"You aren't supposed to choose," Frigga chimed in. "One will happen, and then the other will." The queen was the only woman seated at the first table, the traditional separation of genders during holy observances sending all the other women to the next table down from the entrance to the Throne Room.
"Of course, but he can either spend this time industriously setting up for his future or he can spend it in frivolous revelry as Thor did," Tyr chuckled. "Though, I can't actually envision Loki slowing down the pace of his studies. From his first word he was taking in information as a fish takes in water. Take his books away and he'd thrash just as violently as a hooked shark."
"More like, he can continue to study whatever things catch his fancy, or he can buckle down and get another medallion up to master level," General Ull chimed in.
"It is not my fault my studies make other's look slack by comparison," Loki joked lightly. A few good-natured chuckles answered his ironic tone.
"Eh, how hard can collecting a pack of women's Apprentice medallions be?" General Halvard asked.
"Halvard, I wouldn’t speak ill of such training where your currently pregnant wife could hear me talk if I were you." Njor muttered to the much younger man seated next to him. "Besides, no matter what subject a young man or woman studies, going through the ranks as aspiring, to novice, then apprentice is four examinations for each subject - two practical and two written, each performed by a different master of the craft in question," Njor said. "Not to mention that after the first couple, the masters started to get a bit unfair with their questions trying to beat the prince at his game without being too obvious about it."
"I found the challenges enjoyable," Loki shrugged off. "I must say your description is very apt, General Njor, it was a bit of a game for me. I suppose I was trying to find out what I was best at. I discovered instead that if you put enough effort forward, almost anything can be achieved."
"He has settled down," Odin declared. The reactions ranged from those who obeyed their king too much to question anything he said verbally to those who were comfortable enough in their position to laugh outright at the idea of Loki 'settling down.'
"Yes, I have," Loki confirmed. "At least, I have narrowed my fields of study for the time being."
"It is truly Architecture for you, then?" Tyr asked.
"Yes, I plan to focus my studies much more on construction methods from now on, but in a way that makes use of my other skills. To put it plainly, I've decided on archeology - that's the Vanir word for the practice of digging through ruins to discover lost relics and pulling the lies from old myths to reveal true history," Loki explained.
"Ha! That's a life of noble quests for lost treasure!" Thor cheered. "Only you could make such an exciting thing sound like a dull afternoon of sifting through old books."
"It is that, but also the tedious and careful unearthing of delicate items buried by time and arraigning for specialists to analyze what is found. Not all relics can be found in a cave guarded by ogres, their more valuable properties clearly written onto them, and even fewer have much worth beyond the history they represent," Loki pointed out. "It also takes a fair amount of dedication to sift through what is often kin to a graveyard without causing damage to anything sacred or otherwise angering the Norns. I've been assured by my contacts on Vanaheim that the majority of what I will find will be broken pottery and bones."
"Then why do it?" Halvard asked.
"There is much lost knowledge that can be reclaimed from such places, forgotten histories from generations past. The Amphitheater I unearthed in my hold is one such example. Yes, the structure itself is a big find, and I believe the Norns put it before me as a sign, but such discoveries are quite rare. There were a few smaller things we dug up with the soil that are closer to the day-to-day discoveries. Yes, broken pottery and animal bone was the majority, but we also have a few buttons and baubles that were likely shed off wedding clothes. The seals engraved on a couple of them will likely make for a good story once I can confirm a few dates and house symbols," Loki explained. "There was also a hairpin with an interesting luck enchantment one of my colleagues in the mage's wing is working on reproducing."
"It is still hunting down rare treasures," Njor chuckled.
"And rebuilding structures that have fallen into disrepair," Loki added. "That is the final step, after all, as well as the part that generates the continued funding for the next projects."
"Generating funding is always good to think about at the start of things for such a large project," Halvard said with some relief. "Particularly if you don't expect to dig up anything of use to anyone for long periods of time. No one would stand for tax revenue going to that."
"You have to see the whole process, not just the impressively shiny bits," Loki insisted. "It is more systematic than simple treasure hunting, and far less focused on piles of gold. First, I find a ruin and gather some preliminary information. That part is all dusty old books and maps. Then, I comb through it one handful of dirt at a time. Next, categorize and send off everything I find that is small enough to remove for study - be it a tarnished silver shield or a cracked bowl covered in half-illegible writing. After that, take care that the rest of any dead who I may have disturbed is properly restored. Finally, study anything too big to move and rebuild any worthwhile structures so that they can once again be of use to the realm, or else set them up as attractions. Such sites are actually quite popular destinations for Dwarves on holiday, so long as there is adequate documentation on hand to tell the story of the location. They apparently like looking at broken pottery provided it is old enough. Along the way certain roads might also be repaired, first so the proper equipment can be used and later for the travelers. Some of the minor races of Alfheim also prefer such places as unique outings for families, and the more exotic or distant for them the better. Tourism, as they call it, is an industry Asgard generally lacks that is in high demand in some other realms."
"Archeology," Frigga said with an air of deep contemplation. "That is a word I've not heard in centuries. Some of the most beautiful temples on Vanaheim are built around such historical treasures – lost and found again. You want to design similar places here?"
"We are in an age of relative peace," Loki launched into his planned speech for his reveal. "The nine realms are in harmony with the balance between them needing only a few small adjustments from year to year to remain stable and prosperous. My generation may never see battles fought the same way as in the days of old, but that does not mean we should let them fade in our memory. We are Aesir, and battle is in our blood. There are places, scarred hills covered by trees and overgrown fields full of broken walls, where grand battles once took place. They should not be left to rot away to nothing. I would dig up the rusted swords and polish them. Set them on a plinth with an engraving explaining what battle was fought there and why. History tutors can direct bored and overexcited students to seek out those places, or else include trips to them in lessons."
"Don't be so despairing, brother," Thor laughed. "There will be battles and wars for us as well. You don't need to revel vicariously in glories long past when we have plenty ahead for us."
"Unless Jotunheim decides to commit suicide or Nidavellir suddenly decides the complex web of trade agreements which they rely on miraculously no longer hold value, I doubt it," Loki scoffed. "Even without that there may be battle, surely, but never here. Not of the kind our grandfather fought in. We may send soldiers to other realms, or even face off against ships that try to breech Yggdrasil's boundary, but our position is as close to unassailable as physically possible and our realm is strongly united."
"There are always rebellions," Thor suggested. Several of the warriors around him nodded sagely. Tyr gave Loki a pointed, subtly pleading look. Loki had discussed this at length after Tolfdir spoke to him, as Tyr had seen much more of Thor at the training grounds than any other. At least he now understood why the Grandmaster of the training grounds favored a flighty sorcerer over the bold warrior.
"If you are expecting to be such a bad king that rebellion against you rivals the battles fought when this realm came to power in the nine, then out of love of country I fear I must tie you to a chair in the library and have tutors drill you on intra-realm politics and resource management from now until your coronation," Loki chuckled back at him. "It is a matter of scale, brother. You can't imagine I am suggesting the military is obsolete." Loki paused at the round of laughter that comment kicked off. "The battles fought by our father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did great things. If they can be maintained, then such costly internal upheavals as our Father dealt with during the beginning of his reign can permanently become a thing of the past."
"I'll drink to that," Tyr hurried to add.
"To Odin Allfather's hard-won peace in the nine," Njor chimed in, raising his glass. "May it last for many centuries to come." The toast made its way down the table.
"I quite like your optimism, Prince Loki," Halvard commented after the repeated toast died down and servants ran around refilling cups. "I'd never thought of your ways in that light before, but it makes a certain amount of sense."
"Optimism?" General Tult spoke up. "The young Prince can be described many ways, but he is hardly known for a consistently bright and sunny disposition."
"If a young man does not think there will be much need for a certain thing in future, and knows his elder brother has already chosen and excelled in that craft, isn't it far better for him to find another thing to do with himself than to compete needlessly in the same trade?" Halvard asked. "Prince Loki's unique behavior suddenly seems quite optimistic, if he feels he must invent a new industry for himself. The idea that tacticians will have little work to do in the field is a rosy outlook, don't you think?"
"It is naive, and that is also a word I'd not stick onto him," Tult spat.
"That is not how it happened," Loki defended, "and I prefer practicality to optimism. If my brother ever has need of me, it will likely not be for fighting on the front lines. That is not to say there will never be another war or that I would not fight if that is what is needed of me, I have not taken leave of my good sense. It is simply that Thor would not need aid from me in the form of a blade."
"I shall always want you at my back," Thor argued.
"And I will always watch your back, brother, but there are plenty of men gathered here that can swing a mace or sword with more strength than I can. That is a fact which once caused me great pain to admit to myself, but its truth stands immutable. You don't need more muscle than you have." Thor flexed happily, and Loki chuckled at him. "I watch your back so that I can sound the retreat when needed or set off distractions to confuse our enemy. That is what I excel at, and you'd be in a sorry state indeed without such precaution."
"Bah," Thor dismissed, as he always dismissed Loki's caution. "You retreat too soon. We're often just moments away from turning the tide when you spirit us away."
"I would not half-kill myself with magical exhaustion if I had a better solution than blinking us away from battle," Loki argued before too many could solidify their agreement. He hadn't tried to argue this point publicly since his conscription began, and he really hoped Tolfdir wasn't wrong about the benefits of being more assertive where his brother was concerned. He hadn't been able to make a convincing argument against this tactic without feeling like a coward now that he'd been prompted by his old master to speak up again. "Nor do I ever do it while we are all standing. I clearly remember the most recent time I used that power, not four years ago. In that battle: Lord Hogun nearly lost his arm to a well-placed bite and nearly died from the blood loss, Sir Fandral was also gravely injured and has the scar on his leg to prove it, and Lord Volstagg was at his limit for exhaustion. Even you were injured, if less severely, and would not have lasted long once the rest of us fell. I avoided a permanent limp only by planting myself in front of a stack of books and refusing to move more than absolutely necessary for the half-year it took the poison in my ankle to clear properly. I will remind you that I am a Journeyman Healer. I know when wounds can be ignored and when they cannot."
"It was not so dire," Sif argued from somewhere behind Thor at the next table over.
"Says the woman who was unconscious and half a moment from being eaten alive by giant spiders at the time," Loki called over to the women’s first table. How Sif retained her seating there with the current political climate around her was beyond him. "Or do you not remember waking up still half-wrapped in their silk with your head in my lap as I carefully revived you? Next time, I'll remember how much you despise the idea of being rescued and leave you behind."
"Don't say that, brother," Thor chastised. "You are not supposed to talk to her, besides."
"It was on topic. I saved her life. I've done it more than once, and for you as well. I do not deserve to be called a coward for it. Why do you think I don't ask to go with you on your unofficial trips anymore?" Loki said as he stabbed at his food unhappily. "You are more cautious when I do not go with you, putting proof to how well you mark my skills. When you are pulled out of a poor situation by way of the Bifrost you are usually still standing, and I don't have to spend hours worrying if your wounds won't close properly as I do when you are more reckless. If I stay home I can be called a coward by the less intelligent members of the court and get something productive done here in the palace, if I go with you I can be called a coward by my brother and spend several evenings getting drunk with people who dislike me. It is an easy choice."
"I do not call you a coward," Thor defended.
"You just did, not a moment ago!" Loki shot back. "I retreat too soon, you said, and many here were nodding without a thought. You do it constantly and without shame. Where else in the nine realms do you think people get such ideas about me? Certainly not from my years as a conscript, the bandits and assassins I regularly take down, or the dragon I slew. Whenever I use magic to aid you in battle or retreat it is as if I have done nothing of use at best, and shamefully used cowardly tricks at worst."
"Brother, you know I…" Thor started.
"No, Thor, I am tired of having this conversation in private," Loki talked over Thor in a breach of etiquette for the formal setting that raised several eyebrows. "If dragging it into public is what it takes to make you see reason then so be it. I use those types of magic to retreat from combat as a last resort or when fighting a battle where I am vastly outnumbered and defeat is otherwise inevitable, full stop. I do it to survive in situations that are already lost or to stall for time until reinforcements arrive. It is only part of my tactics, not the whole of them. Beyond that, the weapons and spells I wield are no more or less potent than any other type of enchanted weapon on the field. If I alter the enchantments I use during battle that means I am dividing my attention for a few moments, a distraction that puts me at a disadvantage until I am done. That is why such things are only done by Masters - it takes more skill to do it, not less! Battle Magic is not easy. It is not free, as it exhausts me just as surely as any other fighting style would. Nor am I cheating when I use it any more than you are cheating by using Mjolnir."
"It is quite different to use a mastered weapon than to cast a few flowery spells," General Tult scoffed.
"Shall we look at how?" Loki asked, leaning his elbow on the table and setting his chin in his hand a pose of pure disdain. "If you use your enchanted blade it drains your natural energy. It taps into your seidr through the threads of it that have become tangled with the enchantment on the blade over time and drains you to produce a shock wave. If I use one of my long knives to stab a spider and burn it with a hot blade, then it also drains my energy. However, I am intentionally weaving my seidr into the blade and heating it. So, you can use your seidr to knock back or kill a foe you had never physically touched with little concentration, while I had to actually hit the creature and split my attention to manipulate metaphysical energies. Tell me again which method the easy cheat is?"
"They are both valid battle tactics," the voice of Queen Frigga squashed whatever comeback Tult had ready. Loki and Thor blinked at their parents, who had stayed out of this argument since the brothers became too large to drag apart by their collars. "Thor fights like Odin did in his youth; Loki fights like his Uncle Vili. How he fights so much like a man who died long before he was born is the better discussion."
"I did not know my Uncle was a Battle Mage," Thor said. Loki narrowed his eyes at him. He never used such reverence when talking about Loki's mastery of the art.
"He was not, but he fought with shorter blades: long knives and daggers as Loki does. Vili carried at least a dozen of them, often twice that number when he had means to transport them, and no two had the same enchantment on them. He lacked the skill with a spear Loki has, favoring a flail when such blades were completely unsuitable to a task," Odin grudgingly explained, the glance he gave to Mother expressing that he didn't actually want to talk about his elder brothers. He never did. "Loki has… cut out the need to forge that many different blades."
"It is essentially the same style of combat," Mother reiterated. "Villi was also the one who sounded the retreat when needed and poured ice water on his brother when Ve's berserker nature got out of hand. Ve never could control that part of himself."
"I am glad Prince Thor is better at that control," Tyr chimed in. "Though of course, there is no such thing as full mastery over such a thing."
"I still meditate," General Ull nodded along. "It has great benefits for my old bones now that my days of swinging a war-ax in a rage are largely behind me. It is also a good way to make time for your wives and daughters, provided they are sorceresses who meditate for other reasons."
"How can that count as spending time with them?" General Tult asked. "You are sitting with eyes closed not talking to one another."
"It puts us all in one room, and then we will talk and have some refreshments afterward," Ull answered. "I'd say it could be done before, but then one tends to lose track of time and never get around to meditating in that case."
"Thor and I used to meditate together. Though, I have been spending that time with Rangers since I began training with them. One of their elders is always within visiting distance of Eldred Hall these days," Loki added, leaving out that there had been a very long period between those two habits where Loki had done it alone.
"How is the Hall fairing?" General Ull asked. "I have not been out that way since, let's see, I think it was before you were born."
"I fear very little had been done to it in even that length of time, before I decided to make it my home. The renovations have been progressing steadily. All of the essential areas are finished, as is the ballroom of course," Loki answered politely. "Will I see you there this weekend?"
"For your name-day party? Yes, my wife and I will attend," Ull nodded. "I'd ask why it is so late in the week, but I doubt many would come if you had it on the day itself."
"It would be unreasonable to ask anyone to leave the capitol during Yule," Loki agreed with a light-hearted chuckle. "Particularly since I wouldn't miss the celebrations here myself. Truly, I have been using my old apartment here in the palace during most of the feasting days and will likely continue to do so for some time since my friends and family are all here. In reality, the party is more akin to the house-warming parties the common people have than the usual feasts we have here."
"House warming?" Halvard asked. "They hold parties to light their hearth fires in winter?"
"A house-warming is for when a family moves into a new or refurbished home for the first time," Tyr jumped in. "Often it is used by the young as a way to ensure all their friends know where their new home is, and as an excuse for older members of a family to pass down useful things. It is primarily a party used to celebrate having their own house. They do it because most young couples remain in the man's family home for a time, and either build a new house or save up to buy one over a couple years. How did the notion get into your head?"
"My servants asked my permission for them to have their house-warming party a couple weeks back, since the last of their apartments and common areas were finished," Loki explained. "I looked in on their revelry, and it seemed like a good tradition to bless their living space by gathering good will. It is also done by Artisan families, who must set up their trade in addition to their family in a new home and so it is also a time to bless the new business."
"I think it is done by everyone who doesn't have high noble blood, actually," Ull corrected. "We tend to stay forever in ancestral homes, moving only when there is already some bigger thing to celebrate such as a marriage. In a case like that, a separate party to celebrate a newly finished roof is either redundant or out of place."
"Ever the exception, aren't you Prince Loki?" Tult added in.
"In a way, he did it backwards: moving into a new home because it was blessed rather than having it blessed because he moved in," Ull pointed out with good humor. "It was the Norns work, clearly, and it is good for him to take inspiration from the place."
"Why move to Eldred Hall to be a Ranger?" Tult shot back. "They are meant to live ascetic lives without homes, and he's already abandoned that path in any case."
"That is an old stereotype, and was never true," Ull argued. "My wife was counted among their ranks and she certainly never slept in the dirt like a vagabond."
"To be a Ranger is more of a state of being than a profession," Loki argued. "There are things that are expected, and certain responsibilities one must carry out should they run with them, but on the whole it is not the source of one's livelihood."
"It is a religion," Halvard nodded.
"Not a different one that what anyone else in Asgard practices," Loki hurried to clarify. "It is simply a different part of it. I would never choose the priesthood, but it does hold me to a higher standard than a layman."
"It is a bit of middle ground," Njor spoke up. "Rangers are not chosen so much as they are found. As I understand it, their test checks to see if they have a certain quality to their souls - an ability to become aware of things you and I could never perceive. The Norns have gifted them that ability, and they are expected to use it properly, but they can also live their lives normally with some other profession to provide their daily bread if they so choose. It is a spiritual post, but less demanding than that of a priest or priestess."
"That is similar to how my wife would describe it, were she still alive to do so," Ull agreed. "They are very tight-lipped about exactly what it is that marks them, but once they begin their training they see it in each other at a glance."
"Tight-lipped by necessity," Loki assured. "How can you explain color to a blind man? I have witnessed and participated in conversations about the trial and what it looks for in the company of non-rangers and only those who already understood it all could make any sense of the descriptions."
"Ridiculous," Tult scoffed.
"If you doubt me, ask Thor. Freki discussed what the trial is and what it does to one who passes it quite explicitly in his company."
"He did?" Thor asked, flabbergasted.
"During the Hunt, when he was teaching me," Loki prompted.
"That was…" Thor began, and then huffed. "I would have sworn you were talking nonsense, but then you were tracking the herd of deer with your Ranger abilities and his advice clearly meant something to you. If I had not seen the results of it I'd have called you both mad… and I still do not like what it did to you."
"I have advanced beyond that early stage already, and you were there to ensure I was not taken advantage of in that vulnerable state."
"It was disturbing to witness," Thor asserted.
"Would you rather I had been alone?" Loki asked.
"Of course not!" Thor boomed.
"Then you understand how much I trust you," Loki quipped, and the warm expression on his brother's face was reward enough to counter any embarrassment he'd endured over this very public conversation.
"I suppose you have a point. If I had the choice of who would be at my side during such a thing, I would want it to be you as well, brother," Thor agreed.
"Wait, Thor was there when Loki went through his trial?" Njor asked, his eyes wide with shock.
"No," Thor answered.
"Yes," Loki said at about the same time.
"Hold on a moment," Halvarrd begged with a pinched face.
"For the first part of it, Thor was there and did not mark it due to the chaotic aftermath of the battle where I manifested the ability unknowingly for the first time. I was completely alone for the trial itself, as many are, but then Thor was there for my first hunt as a Ranger and the first time I intentionally used their magic for purpose," Loki explained. "In short, he was there for the more obvious parts of it. As I said, it is like color to a blind man or music for the deaf. My brother has long been aware there is something I do from time to time, usually in moments of great need while moving instinctively, yet is impossible for him to perceive easily. Only the side effects can be noticed unless you are attuned to that specific type of magic."
"Side effects?" Tult asked suspiciously.
"I have just begun learning, so sometimes I fail," Loki dismissed.
"He goes odd," Thor said. Loki wanted to stab him for the choice of words. "Like he hit himself in the face with a hammer or is suddenly very drunk."
"It isn't that dramatic," Loki groused.
"Freki gentled you," Thor reminded him. "How else do I describe that being done to someone who is not a berserker or gone rabid from fever, but odd?"
"That was beforehand, and not as a result of my reactions," Loki argued.
"Exactly," Thor shrugged. "It is odd to gentle someone before they have gone rabid."
"An ounce of prevention, brother," Loki scoffed. "It is a one-time risk for the first time such technique is deliberately used, being affected is more common than coming through unaffected, and so it is more efficient to apply the cure beforehand than to try and do it after the fact."
"I heard Freki explain that it takes great effort and long years to heal the wounds sustained by this magic turning on its user," Thor countered, disapproving. "When you first told me of your interest in the Rangers I thought only that it was a good description of skills you already had, but after seeing you using their magic I don't like what it does to you."
"Such is the opinion of soft-hearted mothers upon seeing their boys bruised during their first day of training," Loki spat back. "There is a such thing as loving your brother too much." Much of the table chuckled at that, though the teasing did nothing good for Thor's temper. "Don't make me regret having you there."
"Now, boys," Mother warned, "I am certain that if Freki was pushing Loki too far or taking liberties where he should not Loki would say so and your Father would step in to ensure there was no malice against the crown involved. Since Loki seems to be having no trouble with the training I don't see any issue to address."
"You have not seen what it does to him," Thor countered.
"What makes you think I haven't?" Mother countered. "I am often at Eldred Hall, checking up on the sorceresses examining the amphitheater there. Often times Loki is likewise busy with the tradesmen studying its construction when I arrive, but other times he is training nearby with one of the Rangers. There was nothing wrong with any of the training techniques I have observed. They are no more or less harsh than the discipline of the training grounds proper."
This is going to be a short one. Next Chapter: Yule Eve.
Chapter 3: Yule Eve
Loki arranges to have some fun. It goes poorly for him.
Victory Day was also Yule Eve, and so was a blend of old religious and new military-themed traditions. After lunch there was a mix of people going between the Mage's Wing or Temple to admire certain artistic displays and going to the exhibition matches being fought on the training grounds or courtyard. Loki found Thor was too ruffled from the conversation over lunch to be good company, and since Alec was one of the men whose martial skill was on display he ended up flitting between the offered entertainments mostly on his own. He saw Brelyna briefly in the shuffle to find seats before Alec's match, but the gender segregation carried over to the seating arraignments, so they only spoke briefly in the time before and after the show. He made sure not to miss Amora's display either, the transformation of what looked like a simple pot of dirt into a beautiful floral display twice the height of the average man in a matter of minutes one of her more visually impressive talents.
There was generally less drinking on Victory Day, but only because so many of the nobility were tired by all the running around or by being on display and wanted to be fresh for Yule itself. However, in the words of Tolfdir, a sober celebration in Asgard has as much flowing wine as any two rowdy parties elsewhere in the nine. Loki spent the first half of the feast trying to decide if this was the day he'd finish off the first set of tasks the time-traveling letter gave him. He was fairly certain the women he had been bedding recently were well pleased with the experience and spreading a few favorable rumors already, but one could never be completely certain of such a thing going in. If he tried to finish off his appointed task and failed… Well, it would likely be easier find a new realm to live in or swap over to courting men than to live such a thing down. Still, it was his Name Day tomorrow and as the feast turned over from the majority of people eating to the majority of people making merry a large number of dancers drifted in his direction.
The dancing girls allowed to perform in the Palace were of higher quality than the average tavern whore. They were dressed finer, for a start, came from houses of reputable business and knew their craft as well as any other skilled worker. There they were properly trained, not only in the real arts of dancing, entertaining, music, and acrobatics; but also in the 'oldest profession' as many called it. Silence was one of the skills cultivated in those esoteric halls of learning, and most of them would do no more than giggle the names of their clients among themselves behind closed doors. Loki had actually been worried that he would have to burn one of his options for a serious relationship to find a suitable gossip to finish his task. A little digging, the liberal application of illusions to make himself go unnoticed, and cashing in on a favor owed him by one of the independent tailors in the city got him the name and face of a dancing girl who had a penchant for talking. A whisper in the ear of a man who thought Loki was a servant of a woman who looked to take the measure of the prince, and the girl was almost guaranteed to be here and looking for him with a strong motive to talk openly afterward.
Too much alcohol would hinder him, so Loki only had only a single glass of proper wine before his servants switched to a brew that had been severely watered-down, as he had previously instructed. He flirted with the dancers broadly, making a show of being indecisive until he spotted the woman. She was older than he would have liked, but not enough to break any laws. Her blond hair was done up attractively in complicated braids and clips, and she was quite shapely.
"Happy Name Day to you, Prince Loki," she greeted him. Loki looked her over quite obviously.
"Thank you, care to join the fun?" he answered back with a tipsy-looking smile. Over the next hours, the woman claimed a place at his left side and made a show of pampering him. It was a bold seduction: feeding him fruit, rubbing his shoulders and back, and offering to take proper care of him in ways not explicitly related to carnal pleasures. It was quite nice, actually, and even if he had set it up he found her flattery and almost romantic behavior more realistic than he was used to. A brunette woman had been seated on his right for nearly the entire night, and was in no way deterred by Loki's apparent preference for the older blond. She started to play off the older woman's comments and even passed over a fresh bowl of sweets to aid in Loki's pampering.
Walking back to his old apartment with both of them that evening hadn't been planned, but it was certainly a welcome way to celebrate. He did his best to show the women a good time, peeling off their skimpy clothing slowly and giving as much pleasure as he received. After a truly wonderful hour of shared passion he lay panting between them amid the scattered sheets and clothing, sliding his hands lazily over skin as they all recovered enough breath to continue. The brunette reached over the side of the bed and started rummaging around in her dress. Loki sat up to see what she was doing, playfully enticing her with a kiss to the nape of her neck. Her elegant hand swung around, a sharp pin sticking out between two of her knuckles.
The next thirty seconds were a rush of surging magic and violent thrashing. The assassin's poison sent the blond into convulsions when Loki shoved the pin away from his own neck and it clipped the older woman's arm. Knives materialized amid vibrant green magic. She tried to leap away from him, some other concealed weapon catching the light amid her discarded clothes as she pulled her dress along, but Loki's knives slammed into her chest before she could do anything further.
An alarm rung through the apartment, triggered by the deadly magic. The guards burst in seconds later, two of them grabbing the naked blond and rushing out. She wasn't likely to recover. Loki knew enough about poisons to realize she was probably already dead, but it was good form to try.
"Brother, are you alright?" Thor's booming voice startled him out of a haze. He found himself wrapped in a dressing gown standing outside his apartment door, a guardsman standing patiently at his side.
"No, yes… I am unharmed," Loki stumbled, blinking at his brother and trying to collect himself.
"Prince Loki, you might follow me to the healing rooms. It is possible the brooch was not the only poisoned item in the assassin's possessions," the guard suggested.
"I am just startled," he answered, still looking at Thor. "The normal course of such events is such that, well, they normally pull out their weapons beforehand don't they?"
"Prince Loki," the guard said, waving a hand to try and get Loki's attention, "that is why we are concerned. She may have used some other drug to try and dull your senses while you were distracted, or something more slow acting in case her main attack failed. Please come with me."
"I am unharmed. I'm just a bit tired, and understandably wrong footed."
"Come, brother, I'll walk with you," Thor offered, grabbing Loki's shoulder and pushing him. Loki lashed out without thought, striking with a fist and knocking his brother's arm away.
"Don't, just, don't do that," Loki said, breathless.
"Loki," a feminine voice shouted. He twitched around to see Amora running up to them in a simple, practical dress. "Did she get a hit in?"
"I'm unharmed," Loki shouted, becoming angry at repeating himself.
"Come on then, Eir will have a change of clothes brought up from the laundry for you," Amora encouraged.
"How do you know what happened?" Thor asked, tightening the ties on his own dressing gown.
"I was on call," the enchantress shrugged. The words buzzed Loki's scattered magic. Liar. "Someone has to pull the short straw, even if it just means remaining sober and napping in a cot for the duration of the evening."
"I was just a bit startled. Assassins masquerading as dancers don't normally wait until after you have lain with them to reveal their intentions," Loki spat out.
"Right, well, come on and let's have you checked out. All boring procedure, of course, I'm sure nothing is wrong with you, but it's an excuse for us to have a chat isn't it? I missed being able to wish you well earlier. Besides, you don't want to try and sleep in there while they are cleaning up the mess. You'll want something more substantial and cleaner to wear, as well," she babbled, offering her arm without actually touching him. Loki chose to walk without assistance, flanked by his friend and a few guards earing their pay by being a living barrier between him and the rest of the world. Eir had been pulled out of bed for this farce, so he would have to comply. He sat down on a bed in a private room and let her magic poke at him, Amora leaving them to go fetch the promised clothing.
"The daze isn't a drug. You've torn yourself a bit," Eir declared. "It is your ranger magic. You have been reordering how seidr flows through you and the assassin used it to her advantage. You weren't quite all inside your own skin, I'd wager, and the sudden burst of magic you used to defend yourself backfired a little. No worries, you'll get better control over that sort of thing with a bit more practice and you will be right as rain in a couple hours. The last of the dizziness should fade before morning."
"Thank you, Eir," Loki answered mechanically.
"It has been some time since you were caught out so dramatically. Most of these attacks are foiled before they have a chance to begin, and don't warrant you coming down here."
"I was… I let my guard down, I suppose."
"What?" Loki challenged.
"You are normally very alert, nearly to the point of paranoia, and it is a bit unhealthy to keep yourself in such a high-stress state. It is good to see you calm down a little, it bodes well for how much you are healing from the geas and all that entailed. Since you just proved you are still perfectly capable of defending yourself in the worst situations even with your guard lowered, you now know that such a state of high alert at all times is unnecessary," Eir reasoned.
"How am I doing with that? No platitudes, and I won't repeat it if you say something that isn't politically prudent. How much… how bad was it to begin with? I didn't actually look at the details when you showed me the scans before," Loki admitted.
"I said before that I was proud of my Prince and Queen for how well you were healing under her care, and I stand by that," the healer soothed. "You were in quite poor shape, and the scars remain bright. I wish I had thought to check on you that way before, but it is the nature of magic that it can only be seen so clearly when specifically looked for. You had not complained, but I still should have noticed the signs that something was wrong in your behavior."
"It is better, though?"
"You are healing. It will take time. I understand that you have plenty of privacy living in your own home, and that allows you to exercise these abilities freely in a way you felt you could not here. Please keep that up," Eir said, her advice half an order as it ever was.
"I haven't tried changing genders since I moved there," Loki reluctantly corrected the healer. "I know I had promised to make time for it, but there always seemed to be something pressing I needed to do."
"Would you prefer it go like it did the last time? After the celebrations are over you could be easily excused for the necessary time," Eir suggested. "It is understandable if you don't want to lock yourself alone in your own home while you are still healing, and we can easily accommodate you here."
"That might be for the best. Just until I have the hang of it." Loki conceded this point to the corner of the room, shamed for needing so much assistance with something that ought to be completely natural for him.
"I'll make the proper arraignments with the Queen," Eir spoke gently. It occurred to him that throughout the examination she hadn't once touched him physically. "Would you be fine sleeping here tonight? I could activate the monitor, and you could review the results with me in the morning. It might set you at ease to see your health laid out concretely rather than just in relative terms."
"Thank you, but…"
"It is not uncommon or ignoble in any way to feel uncertain in one way or another under the circumstances," Eir assured him. Loki blinked at her a moment. "Nor do you have to submit yourself to the monitor if you would rather not, but you are exhausted and I would prefer to know you slept through the night. You clearly have not been."
"I'll decide in the morning," Loki parried and laid down on the well-cushioned medical bed. When Amora returned with proper nightclothes he rose only long enough to make a show of being fine before chasing her out and laying back down under the active monitoring spell.
Chapter 4: Sif Apologises
For the rest of the Yule celebrations Thor oscillated between being irritated at the teasing he'd gotten thanks to Loki's comments on Victory Day and putting proof to the jokes about how overprotective Thor could be by intrusively worrying over the night Loki spent under Eir's watch. This predictably spread rumors about how badly injured by the assassin he'd been that had no basis in fact whatsoever and put Loki in a sour mood whenever they came back to him. He hadn't looked at the reports from the medical monitor Eir gave him. Rather than discarding the data as he had before, Loki had simply put it into a folder on a shelf in his room along with a summary of the original data that Eir had made for him out of her private notes. Reviewing them would give him something to do while he was indisposed, or perhaps he'd leave it for a decade or so when he wasn't quite so upset about it all.
Due to all that tension, the party Loki held for his name-day in the newly finished ballroom of Eldred hall was a welcome end to a rather uncomfortable week. The guest list to the private party had first been cut down to a minimal number of those he counted as family, friends, colleagues, and shield brothers collected not only from his conscription but also from his new habits on the training grounds. He added a few sorceresses and librarians he studied alongside, as well as a few well-to-do craftsmen who had recently become interested in befriending him thanks to the amphitheater, ensuring the number of singles attending the party was plentiful and the gender balance wasn't too skewed in either direction. The guest list was then rounded out by those he could not avoid inviting without giving offense. Besides, letting General Tult and others who disliked him get drunk on rather expensive wine was an easy way to sooth their opinion of him for a time. Most of the guests arrived in groups via flying boats, a bit of pre-party revelry on display in the bright decorations streaming off the railings.
Things went quite smoothly from there, with a fine dinner and dancing before the guests were returned to their homes or, for a select few of those who traveled further, took up space in one of Loki's mostly serviceable guest rooms. The majority of the crowd was near Loki's age, the most notable difference from the usual palace gatherings. Many of the soldiers he'd served and become friends with during his conscription were not normally in Gladsheim for major holidays or else were not normally invited to the formal parties in the palace. Those young bachelors wouldn't mind so much that the rooms were largely undecorated, many featuring only clean linens on the all-important bed and the minimal necessities in the bathrooms.
After a tasty brunch and a bit of rowdy chatter, those who were surprised at the sparse furnishings started offering to help him finish the guest rooms off. He hadn't taken into account that the men he served with were of age with him because they had also failed their first few combat trials, most of them because they were artisan's sons who had focused more on learning their father's craft than combat much how Loki had been too absorbed by his mother's magic to focus solely on swordsmanship. After some light-hearted ribbing over the state of the place, he wound up hosting most of them for several days as they all worked together to fill out the unfinished rooms with simple end tables and wardrobes or at least installed proper shelves in the closets. In the mornings, they worked out what they would be doing and gathered whatever they needed onto the lawn or in one of the larger empty rooms on the second floor that was quickly dubbed 'The Mill' by some collective understanding. It was swiftly outfitted with various tools he wasn't certain he owned before they appeared and a long table pilfered from Loki's workshop, which was similarly christened 'The Lab.' One of their number was a good enough locksmith to fix some of the less reliable locks they had discovered on the Jack-and-Jill style bathrooms most of the guest rooms used. Loki put some of his growing knowledge of stone cutting to use making polished tops for some of the small tables out of the bland gray stone he'd been using to practice with and used his magic to properly curve and shape some of the straight pieces of wood faster than would otherwise have been possible. The results were simple and not all of them were terribly attractive, but it was nice to spend time with people he usually only got to exchange letters with and they all enjoyed the freedom of making something however they fancied without a design set by tradition or a picky client.
In the evenings, they remembered battles they had been in and exchanged tales of what they had done in more recent years over short dinners and leisurely hours of sipping hot cider and nibbling cakes by the fire. Loki was not the only one among them thinking about life as the head of a family, though he was the first to actually put a hammer to a nail in readying a home. Promises were exchanged to gather when the time came for the next of them to need similar assistance, and by the time they realized how long they had been hanging about Loki had resolved to invite the whole lot of them back as often as was practical.
When Loki finally returned to the palace it was for his Sunday meeting with Mother. He couldn't tell if he was gushing over how well things went and she was just carried away by his excitement or if she really was thrilled by how his former shield brothers had stayed with him most of the week. She did point out that Odin would be glad to hear that Loki had spent the week having fun with his old military friends, even if most of them had quit the second their conscriptions ended to remain artisans dedicated to a craft.
Thor appeared around noon, trailing Fandral and Volstagg while loudly wondering where Loki had run off to after his party that made him absent from the tail end of the Yule celebrations in the capital. When Loki informed them that the last of his guests had only left two days ago the other men were nonplussed. Loki admitted he'd slept most of Saturday, but then he imagined a lot of people had. He ended up retelling the highlights to his brother over lunch, though it was clear that hosting house guests as he had for the better part of a week was a bit soberer than anything Thor counted as an after-party. Volstagg seemed to think that there was a point somewhere before three days had passed where you started encouraging people to leave by shoving them out the door with a broom, but Loki didn't yet have to worry about children being underfoot and the 'party' had gone from the usual feasting, drinking, and debauchery to something more easily sustained and mutually beneficial rather quickly.
Loki decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in the royal garden sorting his agenda in a notebook. Eir expected him after dinner. She intended to keep him as a woman under a medical monitor until the necessary biological process began, and Loki was only slightly suspicious that she meant to ensure he didn't suddenly back out of it. Most everyone had been informed that the Queen needed Loki for a special task that would take him off realm for a time. He wasn't even sure father knew the truth, and hadn't seen the man for more than a few moments at his Name Day dinner. He had tried to come up with a reason to spend more time with the man as Tolfdir insisted he needed to, but he couldn't come up with anything beyond 'I haven't talked to you properly in five weeks.' That accusatory statement was sure to start an argument. Loki had nearly convinced himself that telling his father about the furniture he helped make with his former shield brothers was good enough reason to seek the man out for a brief chat when he heard footsteps. For a startled moment he thought Odin had come looking for him, but the smile fell of his face when he saw Sif walking determinedly toward him.
"I need to talk to you," Sif declared.
"We aren't supposed to be speaking," Loki replied, standing up to leave.
"I know that, but I think it is better if we settle this properly first," Sif said, marching up to the heated fountain Loki had been sitting next to.
"What is there left to settle? We cease to communicate, that solves the entire problem," Loki said as he walked away.
"No, that ignores the problem." Sif followed Loki as he moved swiftly through the high trellises, dormant flower beds, and frost-kissed hedges. He slipped around a blind corner and Sif almost walked past him as he leaned on the balcony railing on the other side.
"Will you just go away?" Loki huffed when she spotted him.
"I came here to restore my honor."
"By disobeying your king?" Loki dismissed her with a flick of his wrist. "What a novel approach."
"Your parents separated us because you had a problem. I was just caught up in your dramatics," Sif corrected.
"Funny how courting works, what with needing two people involved and all."
"You were playing a game and we both know it," Sif countered, arms crossed and brow furrowed in a determined stance.
"No." Loki turned away from her again.
"What do you mean, no?" Sif seethed. "Look, I'm here to apologize for messing up whatever convoluted mess you've gotten yourself mixed up in. I tried talking directly to the Queen, but she won't see me."
"I told you exactly what I was trying to do and why," Loki said, spinning on his heel to glare back at her. "As I am sure numerous people have told you over the last months, there was never a plot to make you Queen."
"Then what was all that about possible assassins?"
"So, you haven't heard about the numerous attempts on my life in the last months?" Loki challenged. "That is actually a fairly regular hazard in my life, and an annoyance that has grown more frequent recently for reasons well beyond my control."
"You were hiding things from the King!"
"I was scared of something that turned out to be a much smaller issue than I thought it was, and he knew full well that I was. Nothing was hidden, nothing was going on in the shadows, and those things I did not have in hand were swiftly brought under the King's control," Loki said bitterly. "My only mistake was in greatly overestimating you."
"I didn't do anything to you, you did it all to yourself!" Sif shouted back.
"You told me to wait while you thought it over. I did exactly that, and perhaps flirted with you a little more boldly than I usually would have while I waited. I would have waited much longer, but my parents weren't so patient. They set a time limit, and when you didn't give me a clear answer they told me to keep away from you and let you take the next action," Loki explained slowly, as if to a small child. "Had you come to me with the smallest shred of decency instead of accusing me of plotting my brother's murder this wouldn't have happened. Now go away. You've already admitted you don't actually want to talk to me, as I'm not the one whose opinion you are trying to change."
"You still claim to love me?"
"I did love you! Norns only know why!" Loki shouted into Sif's dumbstruck face. He immediately turned back to the railing, looking out over the city far below.
"Is… is that really true?" she asked slowly.
"Just go away," Loki sighed, defeated.
"I really thought it was a game to you," Sif said quietly. "If I thought you actually… I wouldn't have made the same assumptions I did."
"Most of the palace assumes you were trying to fuck your way to Thor through me, you know," Loki accused bitterly. Amora had ensured her theories reached every ear that would listen with greater efficiency than Loki thought possible without some clear public statement or dramatic evidence. The courtiers of Gladsheim certainly knew how to make a whisper carry when they wanted to, and it seemed most of them were quite happy to believe the sordid tale.
"That is absolutely ridiculous. I'd never stoop to such petty tricks!" Sif replied, indignant.
"Is that really true?" Loki drawled, still not looking at her.
Sif growled wordlessly at hearing him repeat her own words back at her.
"It is well known that due to the resonance of sound along the jawbone and through the flesh of one's own head, most people find recordings of their own voice to be strange, jarring, and far harsher than what they experience when they hear themselves speak. In certain cases, those who are incapable of singing properly have the unfortunate situation of sounding perfectly on key to their own ears while the rest of us hear a harsh collection of offensively sharp and flat notes. This is, of course, part of the mechanism that forged my silver tongue. I know before I speak what my words will sound like to the person listening. Furthermore, I know that while this is an innate talent for me, it is also something that most people are clever enough to learn to do to a reasonable degree of accuracy so long as they respect the person they are talking to enough to put in the effort. When I tease my brother for being especially thick, it is usually in reference to demonstrations of his inability to master the art of conversation, though I am sure you have realized that by now."
"I am not stupid."
"I didn't say you were, but that leaves only one other option doesn't it? How many times and how many ways do I have to tell you that I don't want your hollow apologies? Nearly every word you have said makes it clear to me you are here to sooth your own guilt and find a way back into the Queen's favor, but not to actually atone."
"Amora snatched up your heart fairly quickly," Sif accused.
"We are friends, nothing more," Loki said with a pout. "She is… policing those who want to take the place I offered you while I am yet unready for them, for lack of a better description. Mother is the final gatekeeper, of course, even above Odin."
"I really hadn't thought I could hurt you that way." There was finally a hint of the appropriate emotion in the woman's voice.
"What twisted logic was behind your actions, then?" Loki asked, as it seemed letting her speak would be the fastest way to be rid of her.
"I suppose I didn't think about it," Sif said with a shrug. "I thought you were scheming something and didn't want to be involved in whatever it was. You were acting strange - much stranger than normal - and I thought it could only be because Thor was announced as Crown Prince and you weren't happy about it."
"You think removing the geas on me didn't factor into my changed behavior at all?"
"I didn't think about that. I couldn't think about it, first because of the spell on me and then," Sif cut off her words with a frustrated growl. "I was also enchanted. I still don't know how I am meant to feel about that."
"Who cares how you are meant to feel?" Loki asked, heaving as much scorn into the words as possible in the hope that he might believe them himself. "What do you feel? That is the more important question."
"Like a fool. Like I've been lead about by the nose only to find myself in a slaughterhouse with the blade already at my throat," Sif said. The hollow defeat ringing in her voice was honest and clean. "I never thought you wanted to kill Thor."
"You must admit that what it sounded like to most people was quite foul."
"Only when my words were twisted around in the worst ways and taken out of context. Everyone who knew me well…" Loki cut her off with a sharp gesture.
"Everyone who thinks ill of you enough to do so can be counted through the number of attacks directed at your honor in recent months, and they are legion. You are either being obtuse or willfully twisting things to sooth your own guilt. There are those in Gladsheim and beyond who would gladly see one or the other of Asgard's princes cut down if only so there will be less ambiguity over the rightful heir."
"That, I do not understand," Sif declared, coming to lean on the railing next to him. Loki sighed and decided to voice the reasoning behind some of his current worries.
"Thor and I are too close in age. For generations now there has been whole millennia between the heir and his brothers. There is no law that the eldest must take the throne as there is in other realms, it is the one best suited to the position as chosen by the previous King and supported by the Thanes. This was simplified by spacing out royal children. Bor had the twins Ville and Ve while he was young and Odin when he was quite old. Bor was an only child born when Buri was middle aged. Buri was the middle child out of seven, but there were a good five centuries between each of his siblings and most of them were girls. Each of his brothers was tested and measured in turn. Asgard simply can't remember two princes coming of age so close together. No matter what the facts or our personal opinions of the matter are, plenty of people argue over which of us is more suitable in their spare time," Loki said, keeping his gaze out on the city below. "Anyone in a position to actually know us is watched, and anything said by them marked well. Thor and I are different enough that comparing us becomes difficult: deferent factions favor one of us over the other for very valid reasons."
"It is still difficult for me to think about your talents. After so long dismissing them without even the slightest consideration it may have become habit," Sif apologized, clearly frustrated with herself. "Not just for your magic, either, but for nearly anything you do. Grandmother has been forcing me to talk through some of my memories as a way to find out if I have been permanently damaged in some way by the spell put on me, explaining my reasoning down until I reach the basest instinctive reactions. For hunting trips Thor brought us both on, I cannot remember what you brought down. I know you must have gotten something or the others would have made a big deal of the failure, but I can't remember if it was a bigger or smaller catch than the rest of us. Often, for time spent in the palace, I remember only that you were there and next to nothing of what you did. Pranks, I remember easily. Songs and haggling with foreigners, that is more difficult but still there. Your magic in times where you ended a battle is… strange. Like looking through events through a distorted lens. It was too important for the spell to completely block out, yet it is all blurry and I cannot trust it. You claim to have saved all our lives multiple times through strategic retreat, and sometimes there is good evidence that that is true, yet I only remember fleeing from battle in the most cowardly terms."
"That is troubling," Loki said. They were standing quite close, which was very nice. Loki had always enjoyed Sif's company quite a bit when she wasn't being antagonistic toward him, and that was still true.
"We are strangers, in a way," Sif said sadly. "Or perhaps you are a stranger to me, even though we've known each other for centuries and you seem to know me well." Loki found that his left hand was resting on top of hers and snatched it back.
"We are not meant to be speaking to one another," he said again. "I have somewhere I have to be shortly, and… In the interest of rebuilding, or perhaps forming for the first time, trust in a shield brother I will tell you one thing on the condition that you not repeat it to anyone."
"What is that?"
"There is no special mission I am being sent on. I'm to be cloistered under Eir's watch for an extended time, to monitor my health," Loki whispered.
"You are still ill?" Sif asked incredulously.
"I have eight centuries of spell damage to undo. From the sound of it, so do you," Loki said. "Try to be as patient about it as I am, if only because neither of us has any choice in the matter, and if my mother won't speak with you yet then perhaps you should take that to mean you should spend more time working on mending the damaged parts of your reputation."
Loki left Sif staring out at the city as if willing a simple solution to manifest in front of her. He still had some time before he was expected in his mother's chambers, but he had yet to collect the books he planned to read over the next few weeks. Picking them out in person instead of having servants fetch them would be more expedient, in any case.