“So this city seems like the most developed, but windspeeds are in the hundreds—that’s, uh, miles per hour—and visibility is approximately jack shit, to put it technically—”
This was Val’s life now: listening to the Hulk’s lesser half explain local weather conditions in detail she doubted anyone at the table could have fully appreciated even if they could be sure the Allspeak’s translation of his Midgardian terms were accurate.
At least she had company. Loki sat next to her with his fingers steepled below his chin, staring in the direction of Banner’s holographic display, though Val had her doubts about how much of it he was taking in. He was really present, though; she’d bumped against his elbow earlier. He dispatched a shade to these council meetings less often than she’d expected at the beginning.
“What do you mean? Of course I’m going,” Thor was saying.
“The king should not risk himself on a supply run,” Heimdall said. “As we’ve pointed out several times in the past. Nor should he leave his people undefended.”
“What my people need are supplies, and I have the strength to fetch them,” Thor said, more forcefully than he’d made this particular argument in weeks. Equal parts frustration and stir-craziness, probably. Gods, could Val relate.
“We could go on to Althus,” Banner said. “It’s only another couple of weeks, we’ve got basic food and necessities until then, no problem. But—”
“But we cannot wait that long,” said Sigrid, the people’s elected representative to the council. Val knew little of her, even by reputation; it seemed only Heimdall had been personally acquainted with her before the Fall. She spoke with quiet precision, and she clearly knew what she spoke of, as surely as if she’d spent all her life preparing for exactly this.
“I have two pregnant women whose time will come any day now, a half a dozen children with something infectious my healers barely recognize because they usually never let it progress so far, Olg who was injured crawling around on the outside of this space ship—” She said the words with that particular distrust of an Asgardian who’d never traveled any way other than the Bifrost.
“Of course we’ll get the medical supplies,” Thor assured her.
Val had reached that point she always reached in these meetings, sooner or later. “Look, I don’t see what the big deal is. Whatever the windspeeds are, the Commodore can handle them. We go down to the city, we get our supplies, we get out. It’ll take less time than this meeting has.”
Loki smiled to himself. Beyond him, Thor leveled Val with an even, one-eyed stare: a king’s sober regard for the counsel of his Valkyrie. The weight of that regard could break a person’s back, if they weren’t braced for it.
“It’s not that we can’t get to the surface,” Banner said. “It’s that the surface is like hell froze over—um, that’s an Earth expression, I don’t know how it translates to your guys’ Hel. Anyway. It’s really fucking cold down there.”
“So? The Commodore can handle that, too,” Val said.
“Sure, but I figured maybe we should send people who, you know, could survive that if they had to?”
Next to her, Loki stiffened for no reason she could see. When she glanced over, his bored blankness had sharpened to a glare.
“I agree,” Heimdall said. He met Loki’s gaze steadily. “You’re uniquely equipped, and you’re one of our better negotiators anyway.”
Loki appeared unsoftened by this rare praise.
“You put it in your play,” Thor pointed out, all nonchalance except for the watchful care that said different. Put what? “Surely—”
“Surely I’m over it by now?” Loki said.
“Fine.” Loki gritted out the word. “For Asgard. Now, I must agree with our Valkyrie here regarding the utter tediousness of this meeting. When you’ve sorted out the details, feel free to inform me.” And then he pushed back his chair and stalked out.
“Okay,” Val said slowly. “What did you all forget to tell me?”
They looked back and forth between them. It was Heimdall who finally explained.
“Huh,” Val said.
The meeting went on, endlessly. Sigrid had most of a list of healers’ supplies worked up. Loki and Sigrid would bargain for only the most essential items, the things that could be fit into the Commodore and which Asgard could not manage another three weeks without.
Val had nothing to contribute. She fidgeted. There’d been a time when she’d stood for hours in parade rest at Odin’s pleasure, but that muscle memory was clearly lost.
She considered Prince Loki Odinson: a Jotun of Jotunheim. What a glorious piece of gossip that must have been when it was discovered. How her sister Valkyries would have teased at it, tossed it about like cats with a mouse until it was near dead and all the entertainment of it exhausted—if they hadn’t all themselves been dead by that point, of course. If Odin’s prior childrearing foibles hadn’t already caught up to them all.
Finally the meeting did end. For some reason, Val found Thor accompanying her down the passageway. “Are you off to train the new Valkyrior?” he asked.
Val wanted to scoff at this description; she kept it to herself. “That’s right.”
Thor nodded to himself. “You’re doing good work, Valkyrie. Thank you.”
“It’s what I came back for, isn’t it?” she said.
He grinned sunnily at her, honest and open, as unlike Odin’s measured approval as Muspelheim was from—well, from Jotunheim. “And thank you for your work on the council, too.”
“Mm,” was all she could find to say to that.
In the cargo bay that had been converted to a gym, Val’s two dozen would-be Valkyries awaited her. Many were barely saplings and as good as untrained, but Hela had slaughtered the entire Einherjar, so Asgard would take what it could get. That meant boys as well as girls, at least for now; perhaps once Asgard found a new home, the boys would be broken off into a new Einherjar. Or perhaps not.
As soon as Val strode in, they scurried into formation: rows of them, eyes bright and expectant. Val tried not to scowl. “Gulla!” she called. “Lead us through the first foundation drill.” Gawky, red-headed Gulla had learned weapons handling from her brother, one of the first to die at Hela’s hand. Her form was marginally better than most of the trainees’. As Gulla called each change, Val filtered through the rows, correcting a sword grip here, a stance there. Then the drill was finished, and Val called on Gunnar next—the only surviving member of his family, still learning to use his father’s sword.
It was painstaking work, directing all those young uncertain limbs, keeping a white-knuckle hold on her patience. It crowded everything else out of her mind.
She wandered into the mess after, sweaty and starved. It was a half-hour yet before the bell called for the evening meal, and there were few people about. She took her rations with a nod to the man staffing the kitchen. She chewed laboriously through some unappetizing, artificial pseudo-meat.
By the time she’d finished, her sweat had cooled to a general stickiness on her skin, and she could still hear Sigrid repeating over her figures for the day—the patients helped, the patients they were yet unable to help because of these blasted supplies the frozen wasteland of Ondrace would hopefully provide them. Each item rang out in clear, cool tones, the voice of authority and competence, of someone who found herself exactly qualified for the task at hand. Damn her.
In this mood, Val had three options—two, rather, now that the bulk of the alcohol aboard had been drunk and the rest set aside for medicinal purposes. So she was down to fighting or fucking. Or both, ideally.
Cursing to herself, she trekked to Loki’s room and knocked.
“I’m not talking about it,” he said as soon as the door slid open.
It took Val a moment to figure out what he was he even referring to, to remember the day’s revelation of his parentage. “Good, because I don’t want to hear about it.”
Loki glared a moment longer and then stepped aside to let her in.
The first time, they’d met on the training mats, one dagger each and Loki with a promise not to manifest any more, which he’d stuck to, surprisingly enough. Loki had eyed her then with the same wariness as now, the same mulish determination. It’d taken her thirty seconds to knock the dagger out of his hand, another twenty to straddle him with her blade to his throat. She felt him shift beneath her, and she said, “You do the mind trick again, and I’ll kill you.”
He stilled. “Thor wouldn’t like that.”
“I don’t care.”
Something had shifted in his gaze. It took her a moment to place it, to recognize the heave of his chest under her thighs as something other than breathlessness from the fight. It took her a couple more beats to decide what she wanted to do about it.
“This is probably—” Loki had gasped later, between kisses, “—a very bad idea.”
“Why do you think I’m doing it?” she’d said. Then she bit his lip.
Since then they’d mostly skipped straight to the fucking. This didn’t look to be one of those times. Loki stood utterly still, not in any kind of fighting position but poised to drop into one at the slightest provocation. His stare was full of mistrust. “We going to fuck, or do you want a brawl first?” Val cast her eyes around his room, as small and sparsely fitted as hers. “Not that much to break in here, I guess.”
“Are you sure you want to?” Loki asked. He remained preternaturally still—frozen, a person could say. Hah. “There’s no telling what I might do to you, being a monster and all that.”
What little patience Val had left from the training sessions abruptly ran out. “What the fuck do I care if you’re a ruddy frost giant? The last time I was in Asgard, we were at peace with Jotunheim. You all must have cocked that up after I left. Anyway, you don’t even look like one.”
He scoffed, a dry little sound. “I suppose I don’t,” he said, like it was some great concession.
“Never mind,” she said, turning towards the door.
He grabbed her arm. The old familiar heat kicked up in her chest, deadly and joyous. She turned and swept his feet out from under him.
Neither of them tried especially hard: fighting to win, eventually, but not to injure. It was five minutes before she got him pinned to the floor. He grinned up at her with a feral kind of glee, all that fragile stillness forgotten. She leaned down and took his mouth with hers: her hard-earned reward.
“We could move this to the bed,” he pointed out.
“We could,” she allowed.
They stripped as they went, his informal leathers and her light armor, fit for sparring with children. The bunk was narrow, as they were in all the crew’s quarters, but the sheets were slick under Val’s knees as she climbed on top, because on the Grandmaster’s pleasure cruisers, even the crew slept on satin. Loki was a sight, stretched out beneath her, pink with exertion and his sweaty hair fallen into his face. He was as hot from the fight as she was. His cock stood flushed and ready—ridiculous, in the way of cocks, though she’d gotten almost fond of this one in the past month. She gripped it loosely for a moment just to watch him shiver, his eyes dark. Then she shifted into place above him and sank slowly down.
She rose up on quaking thighs and then settled again. Loki’s eyes screwed shut.
This was what she’d wanted: the stretch and the burn that came with it; the grip of Loki’s hands around her hips. Out there were interminable council meetings, children with piss-awful form and eyes barely dry of tears, and Thor, he of the nigh-unshakeable faith. Out there she was the Valkyrie, the one and only. Here, there was only Loki between her knees and heavy in her cunt. There was only their harsh joined breath.
At last he began to tremble beneath her, trying to hold himself together, his jaw clenching with the effort of it. That was Val’s signal. She touched herself at last, two fingers to her clit in time with the drag of Loki’s cock. When she came, Loki bared his teeth at her, triumphant, as if he were solely responsible. Well, she’d let him have this one.
When she was down to aftershocks, she began riding him again. She was oversensitive now. Every shift of Loki inside her was a burn that threatened to chafe, a satisfactory pain, one she’d earned along with the bruises from hits Loki had managed to land. Loki came soon after, hissing a breath between his teeth. When he’d finished, still gasping for air, Val climbed off and stretched out next to him on top of the sheets.
She drowsed for a little while, sore, sticky with old sweat and new juices. Everyone else was at dinner now. Oh, well, they'd learned by this point not to depend on her to help keep the social fabric mended. “So why don’t you look like a Jotun?” she asked abruptly.
Loki snorted awake. “What?”
“You run a little cold, I guess, but you look pretty damn Asgardian. Is it an illusion?”
But that theory had an obvious flaw. “I mean, clearly not, or I’d have found your cunt by now.”
Loki went very, very still. “What?”
She propped herself up on an elbow, just to get a look at his face. He stared warily back. “Your cunt,” Val said. Maybe the slang had shifted in the millennia she’d been away. “Your pussy? You know, like you just had your prick up mine twenty minutes ago? Jotnar all have them.”
Loki didn’t say a word, didn’t even seem to breathe.
“Loki,” Val said carefully, “you know you’ve got a pussy, right?” At least, assuming this whole son of Jotunheim thing wasn't some kind of elaborate metaphor.
That broke the spell. Loki rolled his eyes. “Of course I know. I had plenty of time recently, you know, in between impersonating my father and directing theater. I did some reading.”
“Reading,” Val repeated in disbelief. Loki flinched, and Val felt almost bad about it. “You mean you haven’t—”
“I’ve only known for a couple of years.” He paused. “Or six, now, but regardless—I said I wasn’t going to talk about this.”
“Right,” she said. “Whatever.”
Loki’s gaze sharpened, and that glimmer of unwilling sympathy she’d felt evaporated like mist in the sun. “If we’re exchanging confidences, tell me, why do you hate Sigrid so much?”
“I don’t hate Sigrid,” Val said, caught off-balance.
“You think no one sees how you start fondling that dagger of yours every time she speaks? You’re perpetually one slight away from challenging her to a match—which wouldn’t end well for her, I’d imagine. Did you know her from before?” His eyes lit with a canny brightness that held no warmth. “Were you lovers?”
“We’re done here,” Val said. She rose up and crawled over him to get to the floor, taking very little care with where she put her knees. Then, because she couldn’t bear Loki’s knowing smirk and because punching it off his face would only bring them right back here eventually, she said, “I never met her before I got on board this godforsaken ship.”
That dimmed Loki’s glee barely at all. She turned her back on him and began retrieving her clothes from the floor. Her thighs were tacky with half-dried spunk. A couple of times she’d stuck around long enough to use his shower; when she’d come out again she’d found Loki propped against the wall, watching her with a smile that seemed almost real—or what passed for real with him, anyway.
Tonight she bypassed all that and shrugged back into her rumpled trousers and tunic. When she turned, there he was, still with that smirk at his lips. “Enjoy your visit to the ice planet, Jotun,” she said.
That wiped the smirk away. She walked out with his glare blazing holes in her shoulder blades.
Val woke early. Another day, another round of putting the trainees through their lackluster paces. Another meeting, too, probably. She’d have to check the schedule.
In the kitchen, Korg’s blocky handwriting informed her that there were no high council meetings today, only one for the committee devoted to Asgard cultural preservation and another for the inventory committee. “Thinking of volunteering?” Thor asked, joining her.
“Oh, sure,” she said. “Counting things, I’d be first-rate at that.”
He cast her a sidelong glance. “I more thought perhaps you’d like to—to share your memories of Asgard. You’re the last who knows what it was like then, except for Heimdall.”
He seemed unperturbed by the curt refusal. “It’s just as well, today anyway, because I’m sending you down to the surface with Loki.”
“What? Why? I thought Sigrid was going.”
“One of the women went into labor in the night, and Sigrid says it looks to be a difficult birth. She wants to stay on the ship.”
Of course. “Pretty poor substitute I make,” Val said sourly.
“You’ll be fine,” Thor said cheerfully. Gods, Odin had been at his most odious when he was cheerful, but at least it hadn’t happened nearly so often. “Loki will have the list of what we need, and you were there for the meeting, so you can clarify anything that needs, you know—”
“Clarification?” Val suggested.
“I wasn’t listening,” she said. Thor blinked at her. “Yesterday, during the meeting, I wasn’t listening.”
“Oh.” That threw him. Maybe one of these weeks he’d quit coaxing her to the meetings in the first place. He rallied quickly, though. “Well, Loki will have the list. Anyway, I’ll feel better, you going with him. If anything happens—”
“Like what?” she asked, amused despite herself. “You think he’s going to pull a runner? Get kidnapped?”
Thor drew himself a little taller, clearly striving for a kingly gravity. He also wasn’t meeting her eye anymore. “I’d rather go myself, but if I can’t—”
“You can’t,” Val said, in case he got any ideas. She was firmly on Heimdall's side on this one.
“If I can’t, and anything happens, I’m glad he’ll have you.”
“Well,” Val said, nonplussed. “Thanks, I guess.”
“And I don’t like the look of the weather,” he said, all in a rush.
Val gave him a hard look. “You’re the god of thunder, and you don’t like the look of the weather.”
“Well, it’s more of a blizzard, you know? Not really a lot of thunder—”
“The Commodore passed through the Devil’s Anus with hardly a rattle. It can handle a little wind and snow.”
“You’re right. Everything will be fine.” He clapped her firmly on the shoulder.
Thor asked Val to wear the warmest clothes you can find, just as a precaution. Accordingly, Val dressed in her full Valkyrie armor and headed for the mid-ship airlock the second hour after breakfast. She was halfway there when hurried footsteps came up behind her. “Valkyrie!” It was Gulla’s mother. Gunnhild? Whatever her name, she held out a wrapped bundle. “You should take this. The wool is of that renowned flock on Vanaheim, specially bred for very cold climes.”
Val didn’t point out that she would be on Ondrace for a few hours at most, nor that she had no fucking clue what exclusive Vanaheim sheep Gunnhild was referring to. She took the bundle and said, “Thank you.” The woman smiled like Val had bestowed a blessing on her.
Val was, all in all, not in a great mood when she finally arrived at the airlock, and then of course Loki was already there. He appeared to be wearing nothing more than his usual fighting leathers. One eyebrow rose at the sight of her armor. “It’s got a heating charm woven into the mesh,” she said. “Warms on command.”
“And it still works?” he said. He sounded on the verge of being impressed. “After all those centuries in the armory?”
“Valkyrie armor was built to last,” she said stiffly.
He seemed to be weighing a comment she almost certainly didn’t want to hear, but finally he nodded and held his peace. Val adjusted the woolen bundle under her arm. “You got the list?”
He had the list, and he’d talked it over with Sigrid not half an hour ago, which Val was relieved to hear. The sickly, infirm, and expectant mothers of Asgard would not depend on Val’s memory for their medical supplies.
Thor arrived to see them off. He was clearly still ill at ease; he held them several minutes longer than necessary, repeating instructions he’d already given. It wasn’t until Loki and Val had cycled through the airlock and crawled up into the Commodore, perched atop the Statesman like a cowbird on a bull, that Loki resolved some of the mystery. “He doesn’t like letting me out of his sight now. So much for You go my way and I’ll go mine.”
Loki didn’t sound altogether displeased by this. Val said, “He did send me along to keep an eye on you.”
At this Loki turned, gaze sharp. “Did he. As my bodyguard or my keeper?”
“Well, we’ll just have to make sure you bring me back in one piece.”
Loki ceded the helm to her with only mild grumbling. After all, he hadn't spent the last millennium living by his piloting skills. “Although the way Thor tells it, you made a living by following weaker scavengers to the kill and then drunkenly shooting at them until they left you alone with it.”
“Well, you survived by schmoozing all the way onto the Grandmaster’s prick, so I don’t think you’re arguing from a position of strength here.”
“That was one of my more notable conquests,” he said, sounding exceedingly pleased with himself.
“Not like you were the first. Or the thousandth.”
“Now, now, let’s not be petty.”
Val laughed despite herself. “Check the controls on that side, will you?” She was the better pilot, no question, but she’d no interest in flying without a co-pilot in the winds Banner had described. She and Loki spent a few moments checking the gauges, the comms equipment, the fuel, until Val was as sure of the ship as she could be. Then she released the gravitational grapples and lifted off.
Once they cleared the Statesman, Ondrace spread out below them: a curved, indistinct horizon at the edge of a vast, stormy sea of cloud. Val flicked on the heat sensors to probe for the population center Banner had promised. She winced at the initial readings. He hadn’t been lying; it was, to be precise, really fucking cold.
“Wretched, isn’t it?” Loki murmured. “Almost as brutal as Jotenheim.”
There was a measure of—something in his voice that Val hadn’t the time to wonder about. A heat signature flared, but it was far weaker than Val would have liked. “I’m taking a loop around. Keep an eye on the scanner.”
They found no likelier candidates for a capitol city than this one; other heat signatures were even fainter, and they were widely dispersed. It was this or nothing. “Strap in,” Val said, and nosed down into the storm.
At first they were fine. The ride was a bit rough, but nothing the Commodore couldn’t handle. The light of the local sun faded almost immediately, the view through the glass turning a dark, featureless gray. Val had nothing but the instruments to guide her. As the atmosphere thickened, the winds grew heavier, shoving the ship around despite Val’s rigid grip on the controls.
"There," Loki said, hardly loud enough to be heard over the wind's roar, yet the word was as clear as if he spoke directly in her ear. She spared a glance to see where on the scanner he was pointing and head in that direction.
It was a hard fight to keep the Commodore on course. The topography became clearer as they approached: all jagged peaks and narrow valleys that Val was not excited to navigate. Shot through it all were the heat signatures they were looking for, though fainter than they ought to be at this distance.
The locals had to be underground; those must be heat vents showing up on the scanner. Fuck. “Look for someplace flat to land near one of those hot spots,” she said. “Or flat-ish.” She turned into the wind and began working to maintain a consistent altitude, giving Loki a chance to look things over.
It was another twenty minutes before he found a place. And it was actually flat—a landing pad, Val decided, as she cautiously set the Commodore down. When they were finally on firm ground, she set the grapples to keep the ship from flipping over into the nearby canyon, whose sides plunged into a swirl of snow and disappeared.
“Well,” Loki said. “My thanks for not sending us crashing into the side of a yawning abyss.”
“Like you’d have done any better,” Val said, without heat. “Let’s go see if the neighbors are home.”
There was a gate in the side of the mountain, level with the landing pad, and a little while after Val twisted the knob helpfully marked Bell, the gate rumbled open and let them inside.
The locals lived in an encampment of tents on the floor of a vast cavern hundreds of feet below the surface. It was the topmost of many such encampments, one of them explained—Tanoot, Val thought he’d said. Like most of his fellows, he was shorter than Val and easily three times as wide.
The people of Ondrace ushered Val and Loki inside a little warily, but Loki soon smoothed that over. He extended the Asgardians’ greetings and assured them that Asgard came entirely in peace. Somehow he gave the impression that the Statesman was simply a pleasure craft on a cruise without ever saying it in so many words: neither vulnerable nor a threat. Perhaps the name Silvertongue did apply outside the bedroom.
Val’s estimate of how long this process would last had been wildly optimistic, it turned out. It took Loki hours to explain their situation and needs to four separate local delegations, haggle quantities and prices, pause in the middle for a hearty meal of blood-and-root soup with a side of bite-sized cubes of chilled lard, and then haggle some more. Some of the coin Loki offered was information: the people of Ondrace, buried in their mountains for months of every year, were woefully behind on galactic gossip. But of course that took time to share, too.
There was little for Val to do but hang around within earshot. She kept her hands loose at her sides and let the weight of Dragonfang swinging at her hip speak for her. Nobody approached her. Loki would glance her way every so often, and she’d shrug her assurance: all clear.
Sigrid would have been a great deal more help to him. Then again, if Thor hadn’t sent Val along, Loki would have had to bring the Commodore in himself, and Val had no particular confidence he could have done it. So that was something.
At last the business was settled: ointments, syrups for pain, the more arcane, magical ingredients all procured and hauled up to the surface. “You should stay the week,” said Tanoot, who’d ventured out of the mountain to help with the stowing. “Weather might break for an hour or two, if you wait.”
“I’m afraid not,” Loki said.
“Can’t believe you outsiders came in from the sky, this time of the season,” Tanoot said, casting a dubious look upward into the dark. It was not the first time in the last few hours Val had heard the sentiment. “Can’t believe you want to go back into it.”
Val didn’t, frankly. “Needs must,” Loki said.
Tanoot gave them each a last, long look—possibly to remember their faces after they disappeared and were never heard from again—and nodded somberly. “Fair travels.”
As the Commodore’s hatch swung shut, Loki dropped has head back against the headrest and closed his eyes. “Hel,” he said. His glamour dropped away; Val hadn’t even realized he’d been wearing one. Without it, he looked weary and drawn. “Your turn,” he said, and gestured blindly towards the sky.
Val snorted. “As you wish, your highness.”
“Mm.” Loki smiled, eyes still shut.
The wind had died down some in the hours they’d spent underground. Thank the Norns for small favors. Val spent a few minutes going over all the sensors and controls again.
Eventually Loki noticed, of course. “Should I be worried?”
Val shrugged. “Didn’t like the ride in,” she said, though that felt like barely half the truth. Maybe she was a little spooked now, by Tanoot’s skepticism or Thor’s uneasy premonitions. Or maybe it was only their new cargo weighing on her, as the getting of it seemed to have weighed on Loki.
All the systems checked out, though—leave it to the Grandmaster to own a leisure vessel as durable as most battleships—and soon enough she’d exhausted all possible reasons for delay. “Right, then,” she said, releasing the grapples. “Call up the ship, will you? Let them know we’re headed in.”
She wanted altitude first of all, to get them out of this treacherous maze of mountain spires. She took the Commodore very nearly straight up into darkness, which seemed more total than when they’d landed. It was proper night now, probably. The wind had settled a little, and the temperature had risen just enough for snow. Tiny, icy pellets of it pelted the glass.
They’d gained a good two miles of height when Val discovered Thor had been wrong: there was lightning, down here in this endless murky soup. The first flash was off to her left, a momentary, localized brightening of the sky. Thunder followed far too quickly for comfort, rolling through Val’s bones and humming in her belly. The second flash was brighter still and dead ahead. “Hold on,” Val yelled, pulling hard on the wheel. She couldn’t be sure Loki even heard her over the next crack of thunder.
The third flash struck the ship.
Slowly, Val became aware of something hard pressing into her chest. Or perhaps she was pressing into it; she was a little unsure of the current orientation of up versus down. She tried to move, and her neck was instantly afire with pain. Maybe she’d just stay like this a bit longer. Or maybe not, because the next thing she noticed was the chill running down her back. Also, she couldn’t feel her fingers.
Then somebody groaned, and that was her cue to open her eyes. It didn’t help at all; the view was pitch black. Memory slowly filtered in. “Loki?”
“Fuck,” said the voice that had previously been groaning.
“Can you see anything?” Val asked.
“Of course I can’t see anything, it’s like an inkwell in here.”
Probably she hadn’t been struck blind then. Good news.
“Why aren’t the emergency lights on?” Loki asked.
On the other hand blindness might’ve been preferable. “Fuck,” Val said. Fuck. “Are you okay? Anything broken?”
A pause. “I don’t think so.” Val heard the metallic snick of a seatbelt clasp, and then a soft green light appeared, catching Loki’s disembodied face in its glow. He looked all right, at a glance. The light rested in the palm of his upturned hand.
The seatbelt was a good idea. Val fumbled for the catch of hers and clicked it open. She was fairly confident of up by now—not least because of the direction Loki’s little false-flame was burning in—and she pushed herself that way, ignoring the whiplash still screaming up and down her neck. In fact, up meant away from the wheel that’d been poking her chest, away from the dash, and that meant they were nose-down. In snow, probably. “Does that thing get any brighter?”
The false-flame grew until most of the cockpit was caught in its pale green light. Val braced her knees against the wheel and reached across the dash to flip the auxiliary controls, one by one: lights, environmental, navigation. She didn’t get so much as a spark or the smell of something burning. She didn’t get anything.
“Manual backup?” Loki suggested.
“We salvaged it, remember? To rebuild the Statesman’s port side generator—the one that got damaged in the battle.”
Val took a deep breath in through her nose. The chill air bit as it passed through, and she winced. “All right, well, we haven’t got any way to kickstart the power, even assuming there’s anything left of the circuitry. We’re probably miles from the nearest gate into the underground. We’ve got—” Val paused to count. “—maybe half a day’s rations stashed in my pack, plenty of water out there but that’s if we can afford the heat to melt it.”
“Come now, Valkyrie—” The word always sounded a bit mocking when he said it, no matter the context. “—it’s not quite as bad as all that.”
“No. For one thing, we have an abundance of rations stowed away this very hour by our friend Tanoot, in gratitude.”
“Gratitude for what?” Val asked suspiciously. They weren’t intended to pick up rations.
Even in the half-light with its underwater green tint, she could make out Loki’s self-satisfaction. “The Grandmaster’s complete collection of erotic holographica. He’s famous for his taste, of course. Or infamous, if you will. That little item has frequently sped our way across the galaxy, these last weeks.”
Val blinked at him. “That’s your big negotiation trick? That’s how we scored a full re-fuel at Knowhere?”
He slid her a sly little smile. “Don’t tell Heimdall.”
Somehow the prospect of not sharing secrets with the Gatekeeper of all people was what broke her. Or perhaps it was those sudden post-battle nerves that made a warrior useless after the use of her was no longer required, or the faint but now-visible prospect of dying here on this ice ball of a planet, or the fact she hadn’t had a real drink in two weeks. Whatever it was, it caught her by surprise and dragged laughter out of her, embarrassing shrieking giggles. It took her a good sixty seconds to get hold of herself again.
“Sorry, sorry.” She closed her eyes a moment against the light-headedness. Probably she should be careful of her oxygen usage from now on.
“Are you quite finished?” Loki genuinely looked a little bit alarmed.
“I’m good.” She took a careful breath, just to be sure. “Shall we hail Heimdall?” Although Heimdall was somewhat disadvantaged, these days. With the Bifrost gone, he could no longer temporarily gift someone his sight in order to speak with them; their communication could only be one way.
“I think I can do better than that,” Loki said. “I’m afraid I’ll have to let the light go for a bit.” With that, the little flame was gone, and Val was blind again, squinting uselessly for light at the bottom of an ocean. After thirty seconds or so, she realized the darkness was not quite total. She could just make Loki out, limned very faintly in green.
She’d scoffed when, their second or third day on the ship, Thor had declared his brother one of Asgard’s greatest sorcerers. She’d certainly never seen any evidence of it on Sakaar, nor in the battle against Hela. An assortment of minor glamours and healing spells in the days since had not gone far in persuading her.
Now she was watching him throw a shade across hundreds, probably thousands of miles. Okay, she was a little impressed.
Then that light was gone, too. Loki’s breath was harsh and heavy in the darkness. “All right?” she asked.
“Yes. I just need a moment.”
That was concerning. Val waited, and eventually she heard him shifting against the vinyl seat. The false-flame appeared again, very faintly. She didn’t ask him to brighten it this time. “We’re to stay here while they plan—something.” His tone did not suggest a surfeit of confidence in this potential plan. “I’m to check in again in twelve hours.”
“Right,” Val said. “Well, I guess we’d better inspect the rest of the damage.”
She crawled up into the first passenger compartment. It was even colder here than in the cockpit, and—almost as dark? “Lackey, get up here.”
“At my very earliest convenience,” he grumbled, but a moment later came the unmistakable sounds of his boots on the wall as he climbed through the doorway. Then he lit his flame, and Val had her worst fears confirmed. The Commodore was durable indeed, but not so durable that it could crash nose-first into (probably) an ice field without taking damage. The hull had warped, leaving a gap a foot wide between the starboard hatch and the frame. The draft blowing through it chilled Val right through her armor.
“Well,” Loki said.
“Gonna be a long twelve hours,” Val said.
They tried opening the doors into the circular rear cabin, but the warping of the ship made it impossible, short of breaking them open. Loki threw up a magical barrier to plug the gap at the door, which at least meant they weren’t actively losing heat through it anymore. Then they had only to contend with darkness, the cold already present, no convenient flat surfaces to sit or lie down on, and the worst of all: boredom.
They didn’t last nearly the full twelve hours, of course.
“Between us, we should be able to get it open, don’t you think?”
Val had been dozing, sort of. She’d stolen sleep in worse places than this. She squinted at Loki, who was standing before the wrenched hatch and tracing the edges of the gap with his hands. His light burned where he’d left it, anchored to a dagger he’d wedged between the seat cushions.
Val’s heat charm had gone cold again. Perhaps even Valkyrie armor couldn’t survive so many centuries of disuse entirely unscathed. She ignored the chill lodged in her spine and said, “Why?”
“Why not?” he said lightly.
He was bullshitting her about something. She wasn’t sure she cared about what it was. “It’s colder out there. And the food is here.” And thank the Grandmaster’s infamous predilections for that. She dug a packet of dried meat from the stores that were, fortunately, still firmly stowed in place.
“Hmm, well, I do see why you were the Valkyrie that survived.”
She had him against the wall in less than two seconds, her knife blade to his throat. Somehow he seemed surprised to find it there. His wide eyes met hers; they shone black in the bewitched light. She waited for him to try and knee her in the stomach, conjure up a dagger or some kind of trick with a curl of his fingers, anything.
He did none of that. His breath came harsh and loud. At last, very reluctantly, he said “I don’t like enclosed spaces.” She blinked at him, nonplussed. He clenched his jaw and met her gaze defiantly.
It was a kind of apology, she supposed. A very feeble one. She shoved off him, sheathing the knife. “Have you got no self-preservation instinct?”
“Not so very much,” he said, feeling at his throat to check whether she’d cut the skin.
“It’s a wonder you’re still alive.”
“You’re not the first to notice, I assure you.”
She blew out a breath. She hadn’t gotten this far in life by dwelling. Actually she’d gotten this far by running as far and fast down a bottle as she could, but that option was no longer available to her, for more reasons than one. “All right, so we’re going on walkabout, are we? I can’t say I mind.” Standing around in a cave half a mile underground hadn’t satisfied the need to stretch her legs, and she was even stiffer now. “Any chance you could give this heat charm a boost?”
Loki did not, somewhat contrary to her expectation, say anything snide about the armor. Instead he grimaced. “I’m afraid not.”
“I’ve never been, ah, very good at making things warmer.” He wasn’t looking at her anymore.
“Because of the frost giant thing?”
He shrugged. “That does seem the likely explanation, now that I have it. Of course I didn’t know that when I was ten.” Before Val could ask what had happened when he was ten, he added, “Haven’t you brought extra clothes?”
She blinked at him a moment, and then she remembered. In the cockpit, wedged between the seat and the hull, she found the woolen bundle. It was a cloak, it turned out, heavy and densely-woven, long enough to be awkward inside the cabin. She fixed the clasps and threw the hood back. She whispered the weakening heat charm on her armor. Then she filled her pack with rations and threw her canteen in, too. “Planning to be gone long?” Loki said.
“You never know,” she said, and waited for him to say one single fucking word about Valkyries that survived. If he did she’d knock him out and tie him up with his own trousers, and to hell with a walkabout. But he kept his own counsel for once, and so they made it out of the ship and onto the frozen plain without any more mishaps.
The wind had calmed some since they’d crashed. Sleet did not fly immediately into Val’s face, and enough light filtered through the dense canopy of cloud to yield a kind of twilight. Icy plains stretched out in three directions, all the way to the gently curved horizon, for Ondrace was not a large planet. In the fourth direction, far in the distance, dark peaks reached for the sky.
“Shall we?” Loki said, inclining his head towards the mountains.
“Aren’t you going to change?”
“Change,” he said carefully.
“Wasn’t that the whole point of you coming on this trip?” Aside from his secret porn bargaining chip, it turned out. “Thought you were gonna go all tall and blue. Or were you planning to freeze to death in a few minutes? Because I think I’m supposed to prevent that.”
Loki heaved a sigh, as if she were being very unreasonable, and then he closed his eyes.
The change came over him like oil spreading across the surface of a pond. One moment he was pale. The next he was a blotchy piebald. Finally his skin darkened to a color indistinguishable from any other color in this miserable light, but presumably blue. When his eyes opened, they were all one shade, iris and whites and all. His gaze had gone utterly unreadable.
A chill breeze swept across the plain, scouring it with flecks of ice and snow, a thousand minute impacts that all added up to barely a whisper. There was no other sound. Val wasn’t sure Loki was even breathing anymore. Maybe Jotnar didn’t; it wasn’t as though she’d ever been an expert on them. “Feel better now?” she asked.
Val nodded and turned again to those mountains, the world’s only visible feature. She started walking. After a moment’s pause, Loki caught up to her. “I kind of thought you’d be taller,” she said.
He eyed her warily. “Perhaps you can’t tell the difference from down there.”
“I don’t think you have any room to talk, frost giant.”
She’d never seen a frost giant smile before. Mostly it just looked like Loki smiling.
Loki lit his false-flame again and held it in his hand to light their way. He grumbled about missing Gungnir, which in addition to its more renowned qualities was apparently very convenient for anchoring a witch light to. Val turned every so often just to make sure the Commodore was still in view, half-buried in the snow’s crust and nearly vertical.
The Statesman orbited somewhere far above. Val found it hard to imagine now, the heat and pervasive tang of too many bodies, the sense of other people all around her, on all sides, constantly. She and Loki might well have been the only people in the universe: the last Valkyrie and an undersized Jotun. Certainly they seemed to be the only living creatures foolish enough to wander around on the surface of this ice ball of a planet.
Val’s only warning was the hiss, barely louder than the wind, of something moving across the ice. She drew her sword and spun on her heel, and even then she was almost too late plunging the point of her blade into the enormous shadow that had suddenly reared up behind them. “Loki!”
“Keep it occupied!” he shouted.
Easy for him to say. The creature thrashed, utterly silent but for the impact of its body against the snow. It was too large for her to make out the shape of. It thrashed right off her blade and reared up, three times her height or more. Dimly she was aware of a brace of Lokis stepping into sight in the corner of her vision. She braced for another attack.
It was a snake, she thought. It had to be as long as the Statesman, its head the size of the Commodore’s cockpit, and it was very, very fast.
The attack didn’t come. The snake turned unerringly to one particular Loki and struck. Loki cried a terrible screech of pain. The illusions and witch light vanished. Loki hit the ground with another cry, and now Val could just see the snake’s fang buried in his thigh.
Val screamed and ran straight for the snake. She meant to jump on its back, but before she could, something hit her from the side and she went flying. Her head hit the ice, and then she didn’t see anything more.
Val woke with a headache. For a moment she stared up at the sky and wondered what dark hell this was. The next moment, she remembered and sprang to her feet. She couldn’t have been out long, but the snake was long gone, and so was Loki.
“Fuck!” she yelled with all her strength.
The struggle had broken through the crust in places, down into the softer snow beneath. She stalked a circuit around the site and found curved impressions in the snow: the snake. One line followed Val and Loki’s path almost exactly before it veered off to wend among the shallow hills the snake must have hidden behind. Another pointed towards the mountains. That was the direction she went.
She heard Loki’s scream again in her head. It didn’t mean anything; any pain could seem unbearable in the moment. Loki was a Jotun and a sorcerer with some of the best weapons training in all the nine realms, and he’d survived what were by all accounts a thousand years of extremely poor decision-making. He wasn’t going to be taken down by a stupid ice snake or whatever it was.
He was fine. She hadn’t let him die.
She put that thought aside, gripped her Dragonfang a little tighter, and kept on. The track led her into the foothills and then took a turn, so now the dark peaks were on her left. It had begun to sleet again. She was climbing the foothills now, up and down and up again, as quietly as she could. Every couple of steps, she paused to listen for that tell-tale whisper of scales on the snow.
Even so, she barely rolled out of the way of the snake’s next strike.
The snake was fast, but not particularly bright. Still, killing it was a long and weary battle. She made dozens of cuts along its underbelly, where the scales were not so thick, and delivered one final thrust through its throat. The snake thrashed only weakly as it died, slumping ponderously to the snow at last.
As Val’s heart rate slowed, she realized a few things. She was exhausted and covered in gore—not red, she thought, though who could tell in this ghostly half-light?—and the wind had picked up, stinging her face with new snow. Her hands were numb. Even though she was currently standing on the top of a shallow hill, she could no longer see the horizon. “Well, damn,” she said. The wind stole her words away.
And, last: off to her right, nestled into the foothills, there was a hole even darker than the sky or the mountains. It seemed unnaturally round, and though it’d looked black at first, now that she could just make out a less-black region, far in its depths.
There could of course have been another snake, but surely it’d have come out during the battle—she hoped. She drew her sword and ventured in. She became surer, the farther in she went: that was a light. It might even have been green. “Loki?” she called softly. When no snake appeared, she called again, louder: “Loki?”
“Fuck,” she breathed, and carefully made her way towards his voice. The light grew brighter. She became aware of glimmers of reflection against the walls and of icicles hanging from the ceiling, as wide as pillars in the royal palace.
And then she turned a corner, and there, wedged in the far end of a passage too narrow for the snake, was Loki. For a moment all she could do was stare at him. He was seated, leaning more or less upright against a gleaming wall of ice, and holding a flame in his hand. He was alive. He was fine. “Fuck,” she said again, weakly. She stomped over and slumped down next to him on the floor, which was after all only another sheet of ice.
“Valkyrie? Are you injured?”
She turned to look at his face, whole and unmarked except for those decorative lines in his skin, raised like scars. “I thought you were dead.”
“Ah.” He grimaced. “If it helps, it’s a frequent misconception.”
“No, it doesn’t fucking help. Fuck.” She wanted to murder something—possibly him—but she’d just finished with a battle, and she was on the wrong side of an adrenaline rush. She was cold and filthy. She whispered the key to the armor’s heat charm, but it responded only weakly. “I thought I let you die. I thought it was only me left. Again.”
“Oh.” The word was soft. Val stared at the far wall, glistening in the witch light, and breathed very carefully. Any unusual wetness that came into her eyes, she blinked away. Loki shifted against her. “I should not have said that.”
She snorted. She’d recovered enough to do that. “What, like you’re apologizing?”
She pulled away to stare at him. He met her gaze squarely. His expressions in this form did not all seem to map directly to the expressions she knew; still, this one she was looking at now, she was certain she’d never seen before. “That’s something, I guess.” She settled against him without letting herself think much about it. It was cold, after all. After a pause, he draped his arm around her. He was comfortingly solid, whatever color and temperature he was. He was real and alive. He was fine. “Hey, what about the snake? It bit you.”
Loki sighed gustily. “Ah yes, the snake.” He shifted, and she noticed for the first time his shredded trouser leg. Peering closer, she expected a gory wound, but she saw only what appeared to be a scar, silvery-pale against his Jotun skin. “Its venom triggered some kind magical reaction. The wound healed itself and used up nearly all my power in the process. I couldn’t so much as draw an extra dagger.”
“Hel,” Valkyrie said.
“I think the poison’s run its course now, though. At first I couldn’t even call up the witch light.”
“So we just have to wait until your magic comes back.” Maybe by then the crew in orbit would have come up with a plan for retrieving them.
“So it would seem.”
“We’re not wandering out into that again,” she told him. “Thor made me your keeper, and I’m not allowing it.”
“If you insist,” he said, looking humored.
Frost giants did breathe, because his chest rose and fell gently. It was soothing. She was still drenched in snake’s blood, getting colder by the moment, and probably going to freeze all her extremities off soon, but in the meantime, Loki’s breath was soothing. There was also viscera stuck between her shin plate and the armor’s mesh. “You got enough magic to clean me off, you think?”
Loki considered her. His eyebrows pinched in concentration, and he curled the fingers of his free hand. For just a moment it felt as though she’d fallen into vacuum or as though a thousand tiny mouths were sucking at her, all over. And then the mouths were gone, and she was clean and dry again. So was Loki, she noticed; there were no smudges from where she’d touched him before.
When she settled back against him this time, it felt like it was for good. Fuck, she was tired. Surely her sleep shift had begun, up on the Statesman. Maybe it had even passed. She had no idea how much time they’d spent on this cursed, sunless planet. And she’d trekked across a frozen waste and killed a ruddy big snake.
“It’s dead, then?” Loki said, apparently thinking the same.
“Yup.” She pressed her cheek to his shoulder and let her eyes fall shut.
Val woke in the dark. After a moment’s alarm, she noticed Loki’s soft snores. Apparently frost giants snored, or at least this one did. She wondered if he snored in his other form, too; she’d never had occasion to find out.
She tucked her hands deeper inside her woolen cloak and pressed in closer. The cold was perhaps not quite as desperately bitter as it might have been. At least they were out of the wind. Eventually Loki stirred, and Val felt the moment he remembered where they were. “Valkyrie?”
The next moment, a light flared. He drew his dagger and folded his hand over the end of it, and when he took his hand away, the light stayed. He pressed the dagger’s blade carefully into what looked like solid ice. And there they had it: a weak green torch.
“How’s your magic?” Val asked.
“Recovering. I don’t think I’ll be able to visit the ship for a bit yet. Have you still got those rations you packed?”
She grabbed the pack from where she’d dropped it and dug out some dried meat for herself, as well as—oh yes, lumps of lard. Delicious. Then she handed the pack over to Loki. She was starving, she discovered. They ate in contented silence while the wind howled just a few dozen feet away. It’d have felt almost cozy if Val’s fingers weren’t so stiff, if she couldn’t feel her lips chapping between each bite.
Next they hailed Heimdall and explained the situation. Val ended up doing most of the talking, because Loki kept trying to use too many words to convey what were, to Val’s mind, very simple concepts: poor weather, stuck in a cave, magic temporarily offline, situation bearable for another day or two. It felt a little odd telling all this to the air, trusting Heimdall was listening. Val had gotten out of the habit.
That finished, Val found herself in very nearly the same place she’d started from, however many hours ago that was. She and Loki were stuck waiting out the weather, cold, and with nothing to do. Only now her rations were much more limited, and she was sitting on ice. “Enclosed spaces,” she muttered darkly.
Loki grimaced but didn’t rise to the bait.
Val pushed to her feet. “Well, we might as well take a look around, yeah?”
“I thought we weren’t going to go wandering off,” Loki said.
“Not far. Just—I don’t like sitting here, not knowing where we are.”
There wasn’t much to see. Ice, mostly. It’d been too dark to see before and Val too bent on finding Loki to notice anything that wasn’t a threat, but now the marbled walls of ice glowed and gleamed in the light of Loki’s false-flame. The ceiling was like the surface of a choppy sea, all crests and recessed troughs. Val wished she could see it in the daylight—but then it seemed this planet never had daylight. The cavern’s floor was concave in the center and oddly smooth: worn down by the snake’s comings and goings. Val hoped it was just the one snake.
The cave’s mouth was far distant now, the wind only a barely-audible whine. There was no other sound but their own breathing, loud in the narrow space. Valkyrie peered up and up the glistening icy walls. If they joined above her head, they must have done so far beyond the reach of the witch light.
She and Loki seemed to bring the stillness back with them when they returned to their little base camp. Loki, always full of observations and inconsequential commentary, had fallen silent. Even the sounds of their own footsteps were muffled. There might have been no one and nothing in the universe except the two of them. It was stifling.
“Well,” Loki said, looking down at the same patch of ice they’d woken up on an hour before. Val’s pack lay nearby. It was not an inspiring sight.
“How’s your magic now?” Val asked. “Can you cast onto the ship?”
Loki got a far-off look for a moment and then shook his head. “Not yet.” He sounded regretful and a little embarrassed. He really hadn’t grown any taller at all, she thought. His posture was still the same, as was the twist of his mouth, but now his lips were precisely the same shade as the rest of him. When she hooked a foot behind his ankle, he went down exactly the same.
He came up furious. “What in the hell?”
“Can’t break anything here,” Val said, settling comfortable into a fighting stance. “No walls, no furnishings, nobody fragile. Nothing but ice.” Loki kept on staring at her with that unreadable, colorless gaze until she said, “What, did you have a better idea?”
Suddenly her feet came out from under her. She fell flat on her back, while one motionless Loki gazed impassively at her and another stood by her head, looking very smug.
“No magic,” she huffed. “You’re conserving it, remember?”
Loki rolled his eyes. “A single illusion doesn’t take any more power than—” He blocked her blow just in time.
“Come on, then.” Val could feel herself grinning. Unfamiliar surface, nothing breakable, Loki opposite with that gleam in his eye—this was good. This was fun. She swept her cloak over her head and tossied it aside, to save herself from tripping on it. She didn’t need it anyway; her blood was hot with the fight and—well. With other things, too. It was a reflex at this point.
She didn’t think too hard about it. The next time she had him backed up to the wall, she gripped the back of his neck, tugged him down, and kissed him.
For a moment, it was a kiss. He’d always been decent at kissing, and the only difference now was how cold his lips were—but then, hers surely were, too. The next moment he startled out of her arms. Suddenly he was two feet away, an entire world of hurt in his eyes. “What are you doing?” he said.
“What do you think I’m doing?” she asked, exasperated. “I was going to fuck you.”
Loki huffed in disbelief. “Like this,” he said, spreading his hands—which looked the same as they ever had, except for being that dull gray-blue.
Val was tempted to misunderstand him. That’s what happened to a person, spending time with Loki: a little misdirection started to feel like necessary self-defense. Instead she crossed her arms and said, “I’ve never slept with a Jotun. I don’t think you’ve ever slept with anyone as a Jotun. Could be fun.”
“Fun,” Loki repeated witheringly.
“I’ll give you a good time, if you want it. Or if you’d rather, we can sit around and talk about our feelings.”
“We can?” he asked, mouth quirking.
“No,” she said flatly. “It’s fucking or, I don’t know, sleeping. Those are your options.”
“In that case, how can I resist?” But though Loki’s tone was light, he watched her approach as if she were the predator and he the prey. Another time, she’d have enjoyed that. Now it felt a little too near the truth for comfort. Maybe this was a bad idea—a really bad one, not just in the way ill-advised hookups with kings’ dubiously-loyal brothers usually were.
Thinking had never gotten Val very far before. She reached up and cupped Loki’s jaw. He exhaled shakily. She guided him down to her mouth, feeling his cold breath against hers, and she kissed him again as he held so very still. She tasted him, this Jotun she’d unknowingly been taking to bed for weeks.
She laughed softly.
“You taste like jerky.”
A pause. “How remarkable.”
“Mm,” she said, and leaned in again.
He started responding, after that; he began putting that silver tongue to good use.
They didn’t make out like this very often. Usually when she sought him out, her frustrations had already built to the boiling point, and all she wanted was to mark him with them. There was even less room between them for gentleness or patience on those rarer occasions when he sought her out, eyes blazing, lips pressed thin, furious with some inner turmoil he declined to ever discuss. He rarely said a word during those encounters.
Loki’s hands began to roam, brushing along her neck—his touch was very cold—and then along her armor, the vambraces, the shoulder plates. His fingers fell to the buckles holding her breastplate in place. Val caught his wrist. “You really can’t make anything warm?” Aesir hardiness only went so far in temperatures like these. She should perhaps have considered this earlier.
Loki paused, clearly thinking. “I have an idea,” he said finally.
His idea was this: the both of them stripped down to their skin in an efficient and unseductive striptease and then rolled together in the voluminous folds of Val’s cloak. Val caught only glimpses of him: blue and lean, his cock by all appearances still an ordinary cock, half-hard.
There wasn’t much discussion of positions or acts, just Hmm and What about? and I think not. And then Val was settled into Loki’s lap, the cloak’s edges tucked in around him, and she could see little of him. She could feel him, though, and against her Loki seemed hardly warmer than the ice or the air. She was already starting to shiver. “I don’t think—”
“Shhhh,” Loki said, closing his eyes. Val rested her head against Loki’s shoulder and clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering. It took her a few moments to realize the vicious chill was easing. It was no Sakaaran swelter, but it was bearable now.
Loki heaved a sigh. When Val looked, she found he’d opened his eyes. “If I make nearby things colder, the heat has to go somewhere.” He looked very pleased with himself, odd-colored eyes and facial ridges and all—a very strange expression indeed on a Jotun face. Val was struck by a pang of unexpected fondness. She kissed him again rather than think of it.
Soon enough Loki had grown hard against her belly. Maneuvering onto him without losing the cloak was a bit of a trick. Val sank down and gasped at the cold shock of him inside her. “Shit.”
“Valkyrie?” he said, voice sharp with alarm. His grip tightened on her shoulders.
She shook her head. “Just give me a minute.” She shifted minutely, getting herself properly seated, breathing through the ache of cold that began to fade to numbness. “Okay,” she said, draping her arms over his shoulders. Loki gave her a long, uncertain look, until she raised her eyebrows: well? Then he began to roll his hips.
It wasn’t one of Val’s more spectacular fucks, objectively, but it wasn’t terrible. Loki flushed an intriguing, dark shade as he got close, and by then she’d thawed them both enough that she could feel her cunt again. She came with his thumb stroking her clit, and he came just after, which brought a sudden new chill inside her.
She caught her breath with her head rested on his shoulder and his hands stroking her back. “Everything you hoped for?” she asked, still a little ragged.
“Surely I should be asking you that.”
“Eh. It was a bit frosty.” She regretted her choice of words immediately.
Improbably, Loki seemed to find it funny. He laughed softly, which made her laugh, and then they were just smiling at each other like a couple of idiots. At any rate, it must have been the idiocy in her that made Val say next, “Fuck, I really want to eat you out.”
Loki’s smile went stiff. “I’ll decline, I think,” he said, unconvincingly casual. His gaze slid sideways from hers, as if the glassy wall behind her were suddenly interesting.
“Suit yourself,” Val said. Now, suddenly, she felt hemmed in by the blanket and by Loki, by the entire situation. “Fuck. How’s your magic now?”
“Still depleted,” Loki said with a grimace. He shrugged a dark shoulder. “We might as well sleep after all.”
Claustrophobic or no, Val much preferred Loki and the cloak to the alternative, which was baring her skin to the air for the time it’d take her to get dressed. She fell asleep lying on top of Loki with her head on his chest, listening to him breathe.
At some point Loki stirred, and Val woke up just long enough to let him roll them over so he could wriggle out of the cloak. He tucked it close around her again, and she drifted away. It was another hour or two of determined dozing before sleep evaded her for good. Unwillingly she poked her head out of the cloak to an unexpected sight indeed: a Jotun sitting cross-legged on the uneven floor, dressed in Asgardian leathers and reading a book.
“Where did that come from?” Val asked, incredulous.
Loki didn’t quite drop the book, but it was a near thing. “I had it on me,” he said nonchalantly. How had a person this bad at lying earned the title God of Lies? Perhaps it was ironic, or a joke.
Val struggled upright. “Has someone come?”
Witheringly, Loki said, “I’d have woken you if someone came.”
Whatever. Wherever the book had come from, it didn’t seem like something Val needed to address. She was hungry, she realized—an unsolvable problem from inside the cloak. Fuck. “Could you toss me my clothes?” she asked.
She managed to get at least the underlayer on before she had to abandon the cloak. She shrugged hurriedly into the rest of the armor, pulled the cloak around her, and slumped next to Loki with jerky in one hand and lard cubes in the other. Fie.
“Anything to report?” she asked.
“I was able to talk to Heimdall. They’re working on a plan.”
“The weather isn’t cooperating, it seems.”
Val heaved a sigh and ate another lard cube. It melted slowly and sickeningly in her mouth. She’d have loved some ale to wash it down with, or failing that, water. They’d need to brave the storm soon to fetch some snow for melting—or perhaps Loki wouldn’t need to melt it. Val finished her meal and checked the supplies. They were down to maybe one more meager meal each. “I’m going to do some sword forms, if you want to join.”
“If only I had a sword,” Loki said. He didn’t look particularly disappointed to be without. “You go ahead.”
Val followed her and Loki’s little passageway out into the main cavern and found a place that was relatively flat. There was very little light, just the glow of Loki’s witch false flame from down the passage, but she’d be closing her eyes most of the time anyway. They were just the forms she’d been drilling the girls in—her Valkyrior. Once she’d known the forms innately, like her bones or her joints, but the habit of them was atrophied now with a few centuries of disuse.
She didn’t push herself hard; she didn’t want to afford the calories. She practiced precise control of her breath. Eventually she glanced over and found Loki sitting some little distance away, watching her. For a moment she felt the prickle of his attention, and then she put it aside. After a while he went away again.
It was an hour or so before her careful control began to feel taxing. She made her way back to base camp, where Loki was reading again. “I went out to the mouth of the cave earlier,” Loki said, without looking up. “It’s pitch black. I can’t tell if that’s because it’s night or just because of the storm.”
“Great,” Val said. She slumped down next to him. She’d burned enough energy that she might be able to sleep again now. Or maybe she’d be able to goad Loki into another sparring match, calories be damned. It was too quiet, with only the dull, distant, featureless roar of the storm to distract her from her own thoughts. She wished Loki had thought to bargain for some alcohol along with the jerky and lard.
She was morosely considering the possibility that Tanoot’s people somehow lived out their lives on this forsaken planet without alcohol when Loki said, “Is the offer still open?”
“Your offer,” he said impatiently. “Is it still open.”
It took Val a moment to drag her thoughts back to the present. It took a while longer to realize what Loki must be referring to. “You want to?”
“You were right. I haven’t much experience like this.” His words were stiff. So was the rest of him, gone rigid against her. “I suppose I am—curious.”
The day—or night, or indeterminate time period—was looking up. This was infinitely better than sleeping. Val considered the logistics for a moment, and then she shoved up onto her knees and swung around to straddle Loki. She caught his startled face in her hands and kissed him. He opened to her readily enough, but after a moment he said, “Is this a yes, then?”
“Mm,” Val said. “Come on, let’s get you out of this gear again.”
This time she got the fun of extracting him from his leathers herself. The coat first, slid off his shoulders and tossed aside. The vest next, its protective charms tingling against her skin. Loki stole kisses between each strap successfully unbuckled, each piece removed. He plucked at the fastenings of her armor, as if his fingers couldn’t help themselves, though he made no move to take any of it off.
Finally he shoved his trousers off, still torn all across one thigh, and then there he was, bared for her. He’d found some of his confidence again during the kissing and undressing; he leaned back on his hands and let her look, his chin tipped up in challenge.
Loki was very little different, after all, under the skin. His hips perhaps flared a little wider, but that could have just been the way he was sitting. He was still lean all over. His fingers were just as long as before. No balls, which she vaguely remembered hearing about Jotnar; they kept their seed inside, where it was marginally warmer. He was completely hairless except for what grew on top of his head.
“Well?” he said carelessly. “See anything you like?”
With a strange clarity, Val knew Loki would never have asked that question back on the ship, not looking like this. He wouldn’t have risked her honesty. “Yeah,” she said roughly. She knelt between his bent knees and found his mouth again, threading her fingers through his hair and drawing him in.
At last she drew back. Jotun lips could be kissed until swollen, she found, just the same as Aesir ones. “You’re not cold?” she asked.
“Just a bit chilled. I’d have goosebumps, except it seems I don’t get those.” He peered briefly at his arm. Then he shrugged, like it was no matter.
As he moved and shifted, the shallow, geometric patterns of light and recessed shadow in his face shifted, too. They were far easier to see by the witch-light than they had been outside. Val reached up to trace a line acros his forehead, a shallow ridge under her fingertips. Loki held himself very still, his breath harsh but deliberately steady. His eyes crossed to watch the movement of her hand. “Does it feel good?” Val asked, though she thought she knew the answer.
“About the same as if I did it to you, I expect,” he said, so casually, as if he weren’t afraid at all.
“Mm,” Val said. She stroked his bare side, along his ribs, and then down into his hip crease. Finally she closed her fingers around his cock, hanging there half-erect and flushed a little darker than the rest of him. Loki froze, but his cock was of little interest to her today. She let go and slid her fingers behind it, looking—there.
Loki inhaled sharply.
Val had explored every inch of Loki, had put her mouth on most of them, but this fleshy opening behind his cock was new. Val probed gently, alert for any flinch or expression of discomfort. Loki was a few degrees warmer than surface temperature there. “How does it feel?” she asked.
“Odd,” he said shortly. He’d gone a bit dark in the face. Val slipped her finger out and turned her attention to his cock. “I don’t think—”
“Hush,” Val said. “You haven’t got any lube, have you, in whatever hidey-hole that book came from?”
Loki scowled ferociously. Val waited, eyebrows high, until Loki reached into the air and from it plucked a light-colored tube, clearly of Sakaaran make. He squeezed some into her palm, and then she took his cock properly in hand. With the other hand she tugged him down to kiss him again. After a little while, when he was stiff in her grip, she said, “You want to come now, or you want to wait?”
No, she supposed he wouldn’t. Experimentation it was, then. She slid her hand down further, down behind his cock to that intriguing cleft, and worked a lube-wet finger into it. Loki took a sharp breath. He was slick now, where he hadn’t been before. Aroused, wanting—or at least that was the idea. She hoped he was. “How about you sit on my face?” she said.
There was a pause. “All right.”
Valkyrie spread out her cloak and bunched up Loki’s trousers for a pillow. She lay flat on her back and got herself as comfortable as she was going to be. She met Loki’s eyes. There was another of those moments of hesitation, where she wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t back out. He’d come up with some transparent lie about how he was actually rather tired, or hadn’t they better stay alert, or wasn’t she cold?
But he did not say any such thing. With sudden decisiveness, he rolled up onto his knees and straddled her chest. He grunted as pieces of her armor snagged at his skin in passing. There was something to be said for doing this when both parties were naked. Oh, well. He cast her one more glance and, at her nod, he inched forward until he was clear of her shoulders. Then he was above her, all of him, and just out of reach were his dark-flushed cock and a tantalizing glisten behind it.
She patted his thigh, encouragement and guidance both. “Come on, then,” she said.
Ever so slowly, he dropped until his cunt was within reach. That glisten hadn’t lied: he was already a little wet, and not just with lube. This close, Val’s nose was full of the promise of it. She licked over his opening with the flat of her tongue.
He shuddered around her. A virgin, she thought—true in this very particular circumstance, if not any other. She’d initiated a few virgins in her time, maidens who’d worked at catching her eye in mead halls the Valkyries were known to frequent. The Valkyrie were, after all, famously skilled.
A virgin, and no one had ever tasted him before. He had a tang to him that Val was not accustomed to—sharp, not too strong, just an extra piquant note. She licked over his cunt again, experimentally, and then in a careful circuit around the edges of it.
“Valkyrie—” he began, sounding impatient.
“Shh,” she said, blowing the sound across his skin. She licked a stripe all the way up him, from his taint to the root of his cock, just forward of his cunt. It was a different configuration than she was used to; probably there’d be some trial and error before she got him off. But he was delicious all the same, and now, finally, she helped herself to the main course: she pushed into him with her tongue.
He swore above her—because it was good, or just because it was strange? She pressed her hand to his hip and was startled when he gripped it.
Virgin, she thought again, with a fierce, unfamiliar tenderness.
Loki didn’t let go. She licked into him, drawing more of that wetness onto her tongue, sucking down the flavor of him; she teased along the base of his cock, standing smartly. All through it, Loki kept hold of her hand. His grip tightened every so often, which she took for encouragement.
He still held himself very still, despite the occasional gratifying quiver. Eventually she patted at his thigh with her free hand. He pushed up and peered down between his legs at her. “You can ride my mouth a little, you know. If it feels good. Just let me breathe once in a while.”
He nodded, his lips pressed together in a thin, determined line.
Carefully he descended, letting go of her hand as he did, settling his cunt just over her mouth. Finally, gingerly, he began to move, grinding carefully against her. Well, that didn’t serve at all. She gripped his hips with both hands and tugged him snug against her face. He swore again, thighs flexing as he struggled for balance, but finally Val was exactly where she wanted to be: buried so deep in him that there was nothing else. This time, her hands still guiding him, he ground down against her mouth with purpose. She sucked at him, savoring the way he clenched against her.
He did remember to push up every so often, to let her breathe. On the third or fourth iteration of this, she noticed his hand on his cock. He caught her looking. “I think—” he said, and stopped. His voice was strained, his mouth twisted in an expression she couldn’t read.
She could guess, though. She stroked his thigh. “It’s okay. I didn’t figure I could finish you off like this. Just, will you sit on my mouth when you come?”
She didn’t actually know how this worked with Jotnar. She was guessing. Once he’d settled back into place, she kept on sucking and teasing at his cunt, licking at the root of his cock. Her face was wet with him now, and every time he shifted, the frigid air stung her cheeks.
Loki’s hand moved more frantically on his cock. He grunted, and there it was, her hard-earned reward: a wet gush on her tongue. It was marginally warmer than his cunt. She pressed her tongue to him, and they rode out his orgasm together.
She began to lap at all the new traces of him. Before he was half clean, he pushed carefully up and off of her. Val rolled up onto her ass, newly aware of how nearly she’d been to lying on solid ice. Loki was slumped on the ice, breathing hard, his belly flecked with come. He caught her looking and seemed to fold in on himself, angling his knee to shield himself from view.
His slick was still drying into ice on Val’s cheeks. She still had his flavor in her mouth, that sharp tang that she could get used to in a hurry. In other circumstances she’d have kissed him, let him taste himself, but nothing about his posture invited it. “Was it good?” she asked.
“It was satisfactory, I suppose,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Satisfactory,” she repeated.
“Mm.” Loki gifted her with a smile, his lips pressed thin. Without any warning, he shoved to his feet. “I’m going to clean off,” he called behind him.
Well. Val’d had stronger affirmation of her skills. She watched him disappear down the icy passage, his dark hair swinging.
She took stock. Her jaw was a little sore. Her face was getting colder by the minute, thanks to Loki, and she didn’t even have anything to wipe it on. She settled for the inside lining of his greatcoat. It’d be fine; she had great faith in his magical laundering abilities.
And she was hungry again. That, at least, she had a fix for. She got out some jerky and some little lard cubes (why) and settled in next to the still-burning witch light to eat them. She was still hot with aimless desire that she’d never planned to do anything about, but which left her fidgety and restless now, alone in this fucking ice cave who knew how many miles from warm food and a warm bed and home.
“Arse,” she said, and viciously popped another cube of lard into her mouth.
Suddenly she stilled, her hand falling automatically to her sword. Either Loki had taken up talking to himself, or someone else had arrived. She crept down the narrow passage to the main cavern, and by the time she’d reached it, she was sure of who that other voice belonged to.
“—find us?” Loki was saying.
“It was no trouble,” Thor said. “Heimdall brought us right here.”
“Us, who?” Valkyrie asked.
Thor turned, smiling at the sight of her. He held a small torch that cast a yellow glow around him, like a very small sun. “Valkyrie,” he said warmly. “Uh, the ship. We brought the ship.” He thumbed behind him, towards the mouth of the cave.
“In these winds?” Loki demanded, echoing Val’s concerns. Thor’s light fell on him, too, and for the first time Val could see his color properly, his blue skin and red eyes. The contrast was pretty. It was an incongruous thought, and untimely, considering the way Loki’s gaze kept shifting just out of line with hers.
“They’re not so bad this hour,” Thor said. “There’s a bit of a window, Banner says—but we should get going, he didn’t know how long it’d be open.”
“The supplies,” Val said. She wasn’t going to go through all this and then not even take the fucking supplies.
“We’ll get those next,” Thor promised.
So that was that. Loki went to retrieve his knife and clothes—and Val’s pack, too, he assured her, no need for her to come along. She and Thor watched his bare blue ass retreat into the darkness. “He said they itched?” Thor whispered dubiously to Val. “His clothes.”
“Mm,” Val said.
“I never have seen one wearing much,” he admitted. Then, even more softly, Thor said, “I’ve never seen him before, either. Like that.”
He said the words like a confession. These Odinsons, so full of half-told secrets waiting to trip someone up. Val was weary of them all. Or just weary, period. Sooner or later the cold sapped a person’s energy no matter how much they ate, and her sleep the night before had been neither long nor deep.
“Everything well on the ship?” she asked.
He gave her a tired smile. Thor doesn’t like to let me out of his sight now, Val remembered. “Well enough. Our numbers are increased by one—Else delivered a girl just before noon.”
“She was Sigrid’s difficult birth?”
Thor nodded, glowing now with a quiet satisfaction Val had never seen in Odin, certainly not for some common woman’s successful labor.
“And now we’ll have the supplies we need.”
“Yes, thank you, Valkyrie.” Nor had Odin ever looked on her with such earnest gratitude.
She shrugged, awkward now. “I just flew the ship. Crashed it, mostly.”
“And slew the ice snake that nearly killed my brother.”
“Well,” Valkyrie said. Thor grinned at her, as if he’d won something.
Loki walked around the cavern’s bend to meet them, now clothed. He doused his light, and so it was Thor who led them out of the cave they’d fled into. There was some unsubtle symbolism there that Val chose to ignore.
Thor called down a bolt of lightning to recharge the Commodore and then rode along as Val flew to the top of the Statesman and set down the grapplers. She checked all their seals, too, just in case. They left the unloading for later; better to get out of the weather first. The winds were already picking up again.
The Statesman rose steadily through Ondrace’s heavy layers of cloud, as maneuverable as a barge and as fixed in its course. Lightning flashed around them, but none of it dared touch the ship. After all, they had the God of Thunder at their helm. Still, Val didn’t breathe easy until they cleared the atmosphere. It occurred to her at last to look around, but though a crowd had gathered on the pilot’s deck—Thor, Heimdall, and Korg among them—Loki was nowhere to be seen.
And that was that, Val supposed.
Val didn’t see Loki again for three days. She slept at least half of that. While she was awake, she ate her weight in things that were neither jerky nor lard; she led her would-be Valkyries in drills, though they kept getting distracted asking her about the ice snake; she returned Gunnhild’s woolen cloak, newly cleaned; she found reasons not to visit Else’s newborn or bestow the Valkyrie blessing Else had sent a message asking for.
She got herself off a few times. After a while she gave up pretending she wasn’t thinking of Loki: of his tangy blue cunt and the sounds he made when she licked it.
She looked for him. He was not on hand when she and Korg unloaded the supplies from the Commodore (hardly surprising; his disinterest in manual labor was sufficient for any two royals) or when she and Sigrid added them to the inventory (considerably more surprising). Val even took a meal in the mess on the evening of the second day, in case Loki might be there. He was not.
But of course there were still council meetings, and on the third day, Thor called one, to be held just after the noon meal. Val read the announcement in Korg’s blocky handwriting. She considered the time—early—and then she turned on her heel and headed back down the corridor.
Even if Loki hadn’t left his room yet, there was a nontrivial chance he wouldn’t answer. But moments after she knocked, his door slid open, and there he was, staring flatly at her, every inch of him unwelcoming. “Can I come in?” she asked.
He looked at her a while longer, and then wordlessly he stepped aside. It felt like an echo of that last tryst before they’d left for Ondrace, but now she thought she saw him a little more clearly than she had then. That tension in his jaw, that flat look in his eyes that she’d taken for suspicion: that was fear.
Seeing it eased the last of Val’s residual hurt over how he’d left things. She could admit that now: she’d let Loki far enough inside her defenses that he could deliver a blow that stung. But she’d known all along it hadn’t been deliberate or cruelly meant. She knew well enough what cruelty looked like on Loki, the way it gleamed in his eyes.
Maybe he knew how transparent his feelings were. Maybe it meant something that he gave her even this much chance to see them. But his expression was already shifting, his mouth opening to say something they’d probably both regret. Before she could think better of it, Val said, “I don’t hate Sigrid.”
Loki’s eyebrows rose. Well, she’d surprised him, so that was something. “Oh?”
“It’s not Sigrid,” she said, and paused. “It’s—do you ever miss Sakaar?”
He blinked at this. “The food was better,” he hedged.
“Food, drink, entertainment, the baths.”
“I was only there a matter of weeks—”
“Plenty long enough to get all settled in. I was there, remember? I saw you.”
“All right, for the sake of argument, let’s say that Sakaar held certain attractions the flying cattle pen on which we currently reside does not. What of it?”
She took a deep breath. “I knew who I was there, right? What I was. What I was for, exactly what I was worth. And before that, with the Valkyrior? I knew then, too. And then your brother comes along—“
“He has a habit of that,” Loki said with a certain degree of resignation.
“—and now I’m training little Valkyries? I’m going to fucking council meetings. I’m useless at those, why the hell doesn’t he see it?”
“You’re not useless.”
Valkyrie scoffed. “Don’t start with me, Liesmith.”
He paused. He was gathering himself to say something and doing it carefully enough that some instinct suggested that what followed might be the truth. “You’re a valuable addition.”
“I am not. You’re there. I don’t—I haven’t the temperament for them. And I never wanted to have, either.”
He laughed. “Valkyrie.” For once, the word sounded—warm. She didn’t know what to do with that. “The only people temperamentally suited to sit in meetings are the ones who should never at any cost be allowed to sit in meetings. It isn’t about temperament, it’s about what a person contributes. Your contribution is cutting through the endless tangles they talk themselves into like your vaunted sword cuts through a knot.”
“Sigrid is good at them,” Val protested feebly.
“Sigrid is an entirely estimable woman who would have nevertheless flown us into the side of a mountain if she’d been at the wheel a few days ago, who—” He paused. “—who wouldn’t have been of much use against an ice snake, either.”
That was not what he’d started to say. “Right,” Val said uncomfortably. “Well. That’s all I came to say.” She turned to go.
“That was it? You stopped by solely to satisfy my curiosity?”
“Pretty much.” She shrugged against Loki’s incredulity. “I mean, it’s fair, isn’t it? You satisfied mine.”
“Ah.” His hands closed loosely into fists and opened again. “I believe the satisfaction there was mutual. It was—it was very generous of you.”
“Don’t give me too much credit. I wasn’t being that generous.” She leered meaningfully. After a moment, as she’d hoped, Loki gave an incredulous huff of laughter. Val liked the sound of it. That’s who she was these days, it turned out—washed up, dried out, a little bit fond of Loki Odinson’s laugh. “I’d do it again,” she said. “Maybe somewhere warmer, next time.”
Only once the words were out did she realize they’d never done that before—made plans, spoken of next times. They’d never talked at all about what they did, as if it were a secret they were keeping even from each other. She’d gotten out of the habit of keeping secrets from him, though, these last days.
Quietly, Loki said, “I think perhaps that could be arranged.”
Loki flushed a completely ordinary shade of pink. “Not immediately, but—”
“Sure,” Val said easily. “Just say the word.” She took a deep breath. Next times. Plans. “In the meantime, you want to come to mine later? You could stay the night if you wanted.”
A cautious, hopeful light appeared in Loki’s eyes. “All right.”
Val had been treading very carefully since she’d walked in the door, but now she gave in to impulse: she cupped Loki’s jaw and leaned up. After barely a pause, Loki bent and let her kiss him—a brief kiss, just to give them both something to think about during the council meeting. According to Korg’s notice, they’d be talking about sewage. She pulled away and said, “I’ll see you in a bit, yeah?”
Loki made a face, which suggested he’d also read the notice. “And where are you off to?”
“Got something I need to do,” she said.
Val found Else rocking her newborn in a corner of one of the ship’s many orgy rooms, now turned to childcare. Else looked pale and exhausted with the burden of new motherhood, but she brightened when she caught sight of Val. “Valkyrie, thank you so much for—"
“It’s Val,” Val said, without any idea she was going to. Else looked as startled as Val felt. Fumbling, Val said, “There’s going to be lots of Valkyries soon, aren’t there, if the king has his way? Can’t keep going by the title like I’m the only one. Maybe this one’ll be one of them. It’s a girl, isn’t it?” She hadn’t the faintest idea whether it was; if she’d been told, she’d forgotten.
Else beamed. “Her name is Unni. You’ve come to give her the Valkyrie blessing?”
Val sat next to Else on the plush, green-striped divan. “You realize it’s been a few years since I blessed anyone.”
“I don’t imagine it was on a space ship, either,” Else said, amused. “Never mind that. I’m just glad you’ve come.”
“Sure,” Val said vaguely, staring at the child, her wispy hair and tiny clasped fist.
There’d been ceremony to this once: a hymn, a drawn sword, a bloody thumbprint pressed to the child’s forehead. Val didn’t much see the point in the swords or the blood—or in ceremonies, come to that. She hadn’t thought of this one in a very long time. Yet when she cast her thoughts back, she could still hear the words of the hymn, lifted by the joyful voices of her sisters.
Carefully Val palmed the child’s head. She cleared her throat and began to sing.