Another glittering evening spent among the most elite of London’s high society and Loki was bored. His long, dramatic black gown was cutting into his torso and his hands were growing sweaty in his black silk gloves. The rooms were over warm and crowded and he had been politely refusing to perform a séance for the last two hours. His antsy host, Lady Dorset, had been frantic since eight o’clock because the young lord she had thrown the welcome party for was late. In her desperation, Lady Dorset came to Loki, Madame Melusine as he was known, hoping that his mystic gifts might entertain the guests until her errant lord’s arrival. Unmoved, Loki declined, as he was a guest and not an entertainer that evening.
As far as anyone knew, he was Madame Loki Melusine de Villeduval, a wealthy Parisian widow and sought after spiritualist. Fashionable, mysterious, and bohemian, the Madame was popular wherever she went. Every few years she traveled to some new, fascinating city and took the high society by storm. She had a string of rumored, but totally unproven, lovers, and the most fashionably scandalous acquaintances. It was a delicate balancing act, but Madame Melusine always skirted the line of propriety, staying just shy of infractions too great to be overlooked. She made the most scintillating gossip. Secrets and rumors Loki wore like petticoats, many and layered, creating an elegant and artificial form. No one would guess that under the silk and satin, the Madame had not been born a woman, or, not fully, anyway.
While not a lady, he had money and beauty to recommend him and a stylish Parisian accent that put many a better born woman to shame. Slim and statuesque with creamy skin and black hair, his eyes were Paris green and his smile coquettish. Madame Loki Melusine, the beautiful young widow with the mystic gift and clever tongue was at the top of every guest list in London. He had caused a fashion for black lace and emeralds that could be seen reflected in the gathered ladies.
“Really, my dear lady,” Loki purred in his smooth, honeyed voice. “Did you not say this lord— Odinson, was it?—has spent the last six years in darkest Africa? The man is probably as wild as the beasts he hunted.” Fanning himself gracefully, Loki shrugged, “He’s likely off howling at the moon.”
Wringing her plump hands, Lady Dorset tittered, “You are such a wicked creature, Madame! Lord Odinson is a well-educated and well-bred young man. The earl of Asgard, you know.”
Chuckling, Loki suggested sweetly, “And very well endowed with a great inheritance, I hear. How lucky that he returns to England now, after your daughter’s second season. For her sake, I do hope he is handsome,” Loki teased with a smirk. And has a fondness for silly girls, Loki did not say.
Julia Dorset was a sweet girl, if simple, and prone to becoming over excited. At sixteen, the girl had become enamored with Loki and did her best to copy his style, though being short and plump like her mother, her efforts bore limited results. Tonight, little Julia was trying to carry off a green silk gown and failing. Parisian green was not everyone’s color, poor dear, and mutton sleeves were certainly not for every body type. Loki could make a Gibson girl cry—and might have done so if bored enough—and was the object of much envy and admiration, while Julia Dorset was all creampuffs and frills.
Spotting another friend, Miss Victoria Fowlhurst, Loki made a swift escape and went to speak with the young woman. Giggling, he flicked his long dark hair off his white shoulder and took both his friend’s hands in his. Making a show of being surprised to see her, Loki covered his flight and ensured Lady Dorset did not follow.
“How glad I am to see you,” Loki whispered as he drew Victoria into a window alcove. “This evening is so dull I wish I had stayed at home. Have you heard anything about this mythical Lord Odinson who has been running wild on the Dark Continent? From the stories, I expect him to be the offspring of Hercules and Adonis!”
“He has a large estate in Essex and more money than the Duke of Buckingham,” Victoria gossiped delightedly. “They say he is very handsome, but with that kind of money, he could be a monkey in waistcoat and they would sing his praises.”
Snorting, Loki snatched a glass of champagne from a passing server and retorted, “A monkey in a waistcoat would at least liven up this drab affair and might have arrived on time. Apparently this lord has left his manners in Africa.”
Just then, there was a small disturbance by the door and Loki heard the victorious crowing of Lady Dorset, who soon ushered a strapping, blond man into the room. The Lord Odinson, obviously, was very well dressed and a head taller than the rest of the party and as broad as an oarsman with the carriage of a fighter. He was an impressive specimen, but wholly out of place in such fashionable and polite society. A dandy fop this was not. This was a man who had killed his own food and slept under the stars, all things the genteel of London would swoon to contemplate.
Loki had been imagining some rough, craggy faced hunter in a pith helmet with powder burns on his cheek. The man he had been picturing would look out of place among the aristocracy of London high society, which was correct, but not for the reasons Loki thought. This man was beautiful and wild, a lion in a suit, a god among mortal men. He was huge and powerful, more than a sportsman, and he did not look like the fashionable men in the magazines who were all slim dandies. This was a man made for a different, rougher age.
“Well,” Loki purred darkly. “Un beau sauvage! He is a giant! Poor little Julia Dorset can stand no chance, even with her dowry.”
Twice her height with eyes that burned like blue flames, this man would never take a second look at a sweet little thing like Julia. This man was a wild creature in the form of a human. It made Loki’s body grow hot and a tingle trip down his spine. Smirking, he fanned himself, feeling his cheeks heat.
Without a doubt, this was the most boring evening of his life, and Thor was including the night he spent in a tree waiting for a leopard that had never come. The tree would have been preferable to attending a stuffy high society party packed with desperate, eligible ladies. Six years in Africa had done little to curb his wild streak and he had no interest in being shackled to some insipid virgin who would be as enthusiastic in bed as a dead fish. Africa had been an adventure, but now he just wanted to live easy and spend some of the inordinate wealth left to him by his late father.
Had it not been for his great aunt’s nagging, he would not have bothered to attend. He suspected the whole evening was schemed up by the old lady because she was hoping to match him with her friend, Lady Dorset’s, dullard of a daughter. To be sure, he had never asked anyone to throw him a welcome party and if he had, he would not have chosen this host or venue. Not even a bull rhinoceros was as ornery and stubborn as little old ladies determined to marry off their young relations. Well, his aunt could browbeat him into attending, but she had not dictated how he must act when there.
Being deliberately, rudely late had been a calculated move to put Lady Dorset off him, as was arriving smelling of brandy and cigars, but the woman was tenacious. He had whiled away three hours drinking at White’s Club before deigning to arrive and the lady had welcomed him like a returning hero. He might have been Alexander entering Egypt the way she carried on. It made him wonder if there was not something the matter with the daughter if her mother was so desperate to marry her off.
Normally, when a family was that determined to marry off a girl after only her second season it meant she was used goods, which did not bother Thor much, but the possibility of being saddled with a girl carrying another man’s child was not at all appealing. The girl could be mentally unstable or borderline mad, that was another reason families rushed to rid themselves of their young women. Perhaps she was just very dimwitted. Whatever the reason, he had no desire to become better acquainted with Julia Dorset.
When Lady Dorset insisted on introducing him to every guest, he snatched a flute of champagne from a passing server and began trying to drown his boredom in drink. Being towed around the assembly by Lady Dorset was rather like being escorted by a very chatty chintz armchair; both were squat, overstuffed, covered in obnoxious floral patterns, and topped by a white lace doily. Had his mother not raised him to be a gentleman, on pain of her eternal displeasure, Thor would have escaped out the nearest window at the first opportunity. Only his conviction that the ghost of Countess Frigga Odinson would very likely return from the grave to chastise him kept him polite.
God, but parties like this were dull! Trapped in a one-sided conversation with an elderly gentleman who had been somehow acquainted with his father, Thor let his eyes wander around the room. There were many advantages to his unusual height, one of which was being able to see over the heads of any crowd, and he used it now to search for attractive women. If he could not spend his evening with his friends at White’s he could at least pass it enjoying the sight of a beautiful lady. No doubt, Lady Dorset hoped he would favor her daughter Julia, but she would be disappointed. The girl was a younger, quieter version of her mother and the very notion of spending the rest of the evening, never mind the rest of his life, with her was utterly insupportable. Julia Dorset was pretty enough for him to consider wooing her for fun, but never for marriage.
Lost in his own thoughts, and still unable to break away from the nattering old man, a spot of black suddenly caught his eye. Amid the multitude of vibrant colors and excessive frills, the simple black gown stood out sharply, as did the woman who wore it. Sitting in a window alcove with another young lady, the dark woman seemed perfectly at ease, despite looking so very out of place. Then she turned, as if sensing his gaze, and met his eyes with a coy little smirk. In that moment, Thor was reminded of a black leopard he had hunted. It was something about the steady, unblinking green eyes with which she regarded him. Without breaking eye contact, she turned back to her friend, as if daring him to come to her.
Not caring, he interrupted the gentleman’s droning to asked, “Lady Dorset, the women over by the window, the one in black. Who is she?”
“Oh, that is Madame Melusine,” she told him conspiratorially. “She is the most celebrated spiritualist in London.”
Waving her fan dramatically, Lady Dorset clucked, “Yes, my lord! A mystic, a seer, a spiritualist. She reads cards and palms, conducts séances, and speaks with the dead. No one has been able to prove how she does it.” Seeing how his eyes lingered on the Madame, she added dryly, “She is very odd, but then widows often are.”
“Is Madame Melusine her stage name,” he asked, amused.
“The Madame does not perform for the public and as far as we know, that is her name,” she said dismissively. “As I said she is very odd…and French," she concluded, as though the seer’s nationality was somehow more reprehensible than her peculiarity.
Humming thoughtfully, Thor said, “I should like to be introduced. This spirituality craze is new to me. Perhaps I should have my fortune told.”
Reluctantly, Lady Dorset ushered him over to the window and introduced him to Miss Victoria Fowlhurst and Madame Loki Melusine. He kissed the girl’s hand first, though he kept his eyes fixed on the other, who regarded him with exactly the expression he imagined a sphinx might have. When he kissed the Madame’s hand, he dared to linger a moment longer than was seemly, and saw the challenge lurking behind her serene, porcelain mask.
“Lord Thor has expressed an interest in the mystic arts, Madame,” Lady Dorset told the lady in black, who merely smiled at him and said nothing.
“I have been reliably informed that you are the best spiritualist in London,” Thor put in, offering her his most charming smile. When she only inclined her head a little, he went on, “Might I trouble you for a reading, Madame?”
She blinked up at him slowly, exactly like a cat, and purred, “You’re in luck, my lord.” Her voice was surprisingly deep, but smooth and musical, like a cello. “I happen to have brought my deck. Lady Dorset,” she said without breaking eye contact with him. “May we make use of your drawing room?”
With a sly and knowing smile, Loki stood and drew the man into a small, dimly lit drawing room down the hall. He sat gracefully and gestured for Lord Odinson to take the chair on the far side of the small card table. Removing his gilded tarot cards from a dark green velvet bag embroidered with gold symbols, he separated the Greater Arcana from the deck shuffled them expertly. Then he spread them carefully on the expanse of mahogany between them. They glimmered in the candle light; the cards waited in a pregnant silence.
When the young lord reached out to pick up a card without thought, Loki stopped him with a small sound, warning, “No, no, My Lord, do not be hasty. Let them work on you. Feel their pull,” he instructed silkily as he demonstrated the proper manner of moving one’s hand above the deck.
Lord Odinson tried again, more judiciously, and slowly chose five cards all the while holding Loki’s gaze. Without blinking or looking down, Loki knew the cards he had drawn. A good reader knew their cards and could sense the ones chosen before looking at them. Loki was a very good seer. Taking the five cards, Loki slowly placed them in the shape of a cross. A mixed deck, Loki knew, not surprising of a man whose aura was as charged and heavy as a thunderstorm.
Flipping over the first card, he said, “Death, interesting.” He flipped each card in turn, saying coolly, “Temperance reversed, The Wheel of Fortune, The Sun, and Strength,” Loki read calmly, a smile playing at the corners of his lips. “You needn’t worry, I see no death in your future…though it does cling to you like a lady’s perfume.”
Tapping the Death card, Loki explained, “This means there are changes in your future; new beginnings, a metamorphosis. Now this,” he gestured at the Temperance card where it sat upside down. “This tells me you have lived a life of extremes and excess, lacking balance. You grew up wanting for nothing. After the death of your parents, you sought out change and challenge. Fortune’s Wheel signifies change and the coming of your fate. The Sun and Strength say you have good fortune to come, if you navigate these changes wisely…You have it in you to be compassionate and good…Noble, even…though I think you have not cultivated these gifts as you ought.”
Stroking the glossy cards, Loki considered telling the lord what else he saw. The longer he looked into those sky blue eyes, the more of the man’s character he could read. This was a man capable of greatness with the heart of a true king, but that was also his weakness. If Lord Odinson had been a tarot card he would have been the Emperor. Upright, he was brave, loyal, and kind, but reversed, he was arrogant, proud, and selfish. This handsome lord was a savage, but not totally beyond redemption. He had allowed himself to become dissolute and spoiled, but at his core, there was good, if he chose to nurture it.
“Choose one more card, my lord,” Loki ordered sweetly. The smirk that curled his lips was wicked. Without looking, he knew which card had been drawn. “The Lovers; partnership, duality, and union. Tread carefully, my lord, you have a great future ahead of you, with the promise of joy, love, and success, but you must be wary. One false step and all will go awry,” he warned solemnly.
Taking up the lord’s right hand, Loki followed the life line he found on his broad, rough palm, and examined it closely. Humming thoughtfully, he noted each line as he appreciated the strength he found there. They were good hands, Loki decided, though he could feel they could be cruel.
Nodding, he said, “A long and powerful lifeline, good. You have danger in your past and in your future and many loves…Though, this one here, promises something special. There is a great love in your future.”
It was likely just good showmanship, but her words resonated within him. No wonder she was so sought-after. She almost had him believing in all that nonsense. Her voice was like no other he had ever heard; deep for a woman, but silky and musical. He wanted to scoff at her talk of love, but she foretold it with such calm certainty that he could say nothing. A thrill ran down his spine and he barely repressed the shiver. Thor had no interest in love, he was having far too much fun carousing, but it was a little amusing to be promised some great romance.
While she had been reading his palm, he had been scrutinizing her face. She was beautiful, but not pretty; her features were sharp and elegant like a Grecian sculpture and her skin nearly as white. She had not a very feminine face, in all honesty, her jaw a little too defined and her lips too thin. Despite those flaws, she was lovely. It was a face so elegant and well-formed that it defied gender. Those large, expressive green eyes and the rosy color in her high cheeks and lips spoke of vitality and passion. He had never seen a woman like her.
Her smoke and silk voice was almost hypnotic and he could see why people would flock to her as they did. Though not very feminine in sound or tone, it was not so deep that it could not be a woman’s. The sweet, cultured Parisian accent lent a certain mystique to her words. Her thin, rose colored lips formed each syllable with deliberate grace.
Shaking himself from such thoughts, he said, "You're very entertaining, Madame. That was quite a performance. I'm sure your tricks work well on these impressionable ladies,” he commented dryly, one thick brow arched ironically.
Shrugging elegantly, Loki packed away his cards, very aware of the lord’s eyes on him. It was not uncommon for men to look at him with lust and admiration, but there was a heat in Lord Odinson’s gaze that made him feel as if the eyes appraising him belonged to something other than a man. Glancing up from under his dark lashes, Loki caught those piercing blue eyes and could not help thinking of the lion at the Tower zoo. Big and golden, just like this man who smirked at him and chased his figure with his eyes.
“I assure you, my Lord,” Loki purred sweetly. “My gifts are very real. You are not the first to doubt me, nor will you be the last, but I can promise, you will come to believe. This is a new age of science and reason, but the ancients had their wisdom.”
Rising, Loki smoothed down his skirts and moved to stand by Lord Odinson’s knee. For a moment, he scrutinized the man’s handsome, tanned face. Delicately, Loki took his bearded chin between his thumb and forefinger. There was something lingering on him, an ill-wishing of some kind, but it was strange and unfamiliar. Even so, Loki could sense its purpose easily enough. It would grow stronger in the weeks ahead, of that he was sure. Smirking, Loki knew the skeptic would learn the truth and to his cost.
Stepping back, Loki said, “It was a pleasure meeting you, my lord. I am sure our paths will cross again before long.” He gave a little teasing curtesy and sauntered to the door. Pausing at the threshold, one hand resting artfully on the door frame, he called over his shoulder, “Oh, and when that…little problem of yours becomes intolerable, do come see me. I may be able to help.”
With a tinkling laugh, Loki slipped back into the assembly and made his farewells. It was always best to leave before the mystery faded. With a quick promise to come round for tea, Loki left Victoria and called for his carriage. As he was being helped into his coat, Loki caught sight of Lord Odinson over the heads of the crowd and broke into a knowing grin. They would see each other again, of that he was sure.
Though this was a wilder example of the species, Loki knew his prey well. Accustomed to getting whatever they wanted, they were always intrigued by a challenge. Such men were prideful and easily lead, prone to spending lavishly in the pursuit of a difficult woman. Loki had married and been widowed and had no interest in real romance, but flirtation was his favorite game. What was the point of being beautiful and clever if he did nothing with it?
"Little problem," he repeated and raised an unbelieving brow.
Thor looked up at the mystic smugly. Being a bit over dramatic, wasn't she? He watched her leave, then followed soon after only to see her being robed and leaving the party. He made brief eye contact with her and gave her a nod. Oh, they would meet again, he was certain of that, though it would not be for any problem.
Intrigued, Thor did what any good hunter would when first considering a new quarry; he learned everything he could about her. From the other young men at the party, he learned that she was a rich widow from Paris who arrived in London like a prima donna two years ago. She had a reputation for consorting with a very bohemian crowd and was even rumored to have spent time in the infamous cabaret, Moulin Rouge, though if it was true, no one knew. What was certain was that she was well acquainted with Oscar Wilde, he of infamous repute, and spent a good deal of her time in the artistic enclave of London, Chelsea. Opinions on the Madame ranged from the very positive to the highly scandalized, but on one thing they all agreed. She was odd, possibly even a touch mad. Far from putting Thor off, the information only fascinated him more.
Though Madame Melusine was a topic of interest, it did not prevent Thor from continuing with his wild and bon vivant lifestyle. After years in Africa, he was eager to sample all the delights the great city of London had to offer. During the day he frequented social clubs, played tennis and polo, patronized the arts, and did everything else a sophisticated lord ought. At night, he caroused with other young men of means, drinking, gambling, feasting, and enjoying the company of loose women. For several weeks after his first meeting with the Madame, Thor lived as a jovial libertine without a care in the world. His wealth and station meant that he was all but beyond reproach as long as he avoided violent crime and the great pox.
Then something strange happened. He was enthusiastically enjoying the company of a pretty ginger courtesan when he found himself unable to find completion. Despite his efforts, he could not finish, though he remained hard long enough to see the girl had no such complaints. That soothed his pride a little and he shrugged it off as a consequence of too much whiskey. Until it happened again. Soon, he could not even rise to the occasion, no matter the inducement. Since his body had first woken, Thor had been potent and virile. This was highly irregular and disturbing, to say the least.
Eventually, he could no longer dismiss it as a side effect of drink or mood. Something the mystic had said began to niggle at his mind. What had she meant by his “little problem?” Thor was an avowed skeptic, but there was something uncanny about the woman, and he began to suspect she had foreseen this happening. Perhaps, he reasoned, she had even been the cause. If she really did have strange powers, there was no telling what she could do. No, he mocked himself; that was absurd. Magic spells were for silly children and bored housewives with too much money. Still, when the problem showed no signs of abating, he could not help wondering about the Madame and her parting words. He meant to ask her, but they did not meet again and he began to despair of ever seeing her again.
Eventually, his situation became such a cause for anxiety that his rational skepticism could no longer outweigh his wild suspicions. Though he had decided to confront the Madame, it was still difficult for him and he bolstered his courage with several drinks before he attempted it. By the time he found her home in Belgravia, he was more than a little drunk and burning with indignation. That trollop had done something to him and then laughed about it! Well, he would stop her laughing soon enough.
Leaning heavily on the fine green door, he slammed his fist on it, causing an awful commotion. The house was dark and it had occurred to him that the lady might be out, but that did not deter him, he would wait. It was late enough in the evening that she would have to return before long. There was no immediate response from within, so he kept knocking, determined to be admitted. Finally, the door swung open and he nearly fell into the foyer before righting himself. At the door was a young woman clutching a robe to her neck and glaring at him in obvious distrust and alarm.
“Sir, it’s the middle of the night, do you need the police,” the maid asked warily.
Unfazed, he demanded, “Does Madame Melusine live here?”
“Yes, but –”
“I must see her right now,” he insisted, cutting her off. “Is she at home?”
Not waiting for a response, he pushed past the woman, who cried, “Sir you need to leave before I summon the police! It’s far too late for the Madame to receive guests and you are in no state to be received!”
He had enough sense not to go barging into the rest of the house, but he looked around frantically, as if he might find the Madame hiding behind the grandfather clock in the front hall. The maid was still trying to see him off, but he ignored her. The foyer tilted before his eyes and Thor could not tell if it was from his distress or the whiskey. His head was reeling but he was certain he had to find the Madame. As though conjured from the night itself, the Madame appeared suddenly at the top of the grand stairs, clad in a black robe, her long, dark hair falling loose past her shoulders. For a heartbeat, he forgot why he had come. She was alluring and otherworldly in the darkness of the hall, like something from a dream.
Recalling himself sheepishly, he began, “Madame, I apologize for the intrusion, but I must speak with you. Now. It is a matter of some urgency.”
"I'm so sorry Madame, he forced his way in,” the servant explained, brandishing the coat rack, which he assumed she had intended to beat him with.
“That is quite alright, Darcy,” Loki assured his harried housekeeper gently. “I employ you to mind the house, not defend it against the Tartars. Go back to bed, I shall be perfectly alright on my own.” When Darcy made to protest, Loki shushed her, “I insist.”
Reluctantly, the young woman returned the coat rack to its proper place and retreated upstairs, leaving her mistress to show their late night guest into the parlor and light the lamps. Without asking, Loki poured the lord a finger of scotch, knowing it was his preferred drink. Odinson had been drinking, Loki could tell, though it was clear he could hold his drink quite well. Very glad he had taken the time to change into the black silk dressing gown from China, Loki lighted gracefully on the divan and looked the flushed and agitated man over critically.
The curse on him ought to have taken effect much sooner and Loki was impressed by the young lord’s vitality. A lesser man would have been rendered limp weeks earlier. Now that it had grown, he could see its purpose more clearly. The ill-wishing was designed to punish a man for falling to his base urges by robbing him of the one and enhancing the others. That might explain his behavior, the cavorting and carousing; dangerous excesses were a hallmark of such curses. It was not a spell to cast lightly and Loki could guess the reasons why Lord Odinson might have been afflicted in such a way. That sort of hex was normally cast by jilted lovers or their angry family members. It was an ill-wishing for those who were angry at faithless lovers. Primly crossing his ankles, his white toes showing under the silk hem, Loki let the man seethe for a moment longer. He would help, but he could still find the situation amusing.
“Well, my lord,” Loki asked politely. “Am I to guess the reason for your unexpected call? At nearly midnight, I should hope it is serious indeed.”
Eyeing her darkly, Thor downed his drink, ranting, “What did you do to me? Did you curse me the night you read my cards?”
There was rather a lot of liquor in his blood at this point, and a little voice in his mind wondered if he was not making a fool of himself. He was torn, his rational, sober side telling him that witches were not real, while his irrational, drunk side howled that the seer was to blame. For a moment he glared at her, warring within himself. Figuring it was in for a penny, in for a pound, he stomped over to the sideboard and poured himself another measure of scotch while she continued to regard him with the sort of unreadable intensity he normally associated with cats.
He tossed back the liquor and came to loom over the Madame again, demanding, “Reverse whatever mischief you caused, witch. Now.” When she only blinked at him, her resemblance to a cat truly uncanny, Thor grew angry. “Listen well, Madame,” he growled, leaning over her, breath stinking of alcohol, “just because you are a lonely widow and too strange with all your ghosts and spells to attract male attention doesn’t give you the right to quash – err –” He faltered, a little sheepishly as he searched for a more delicate way of phasing the issue, but he found none. “The amours of others. I have a reputation to maintain and I cannot be found wanting,” Thor snarled, pointing an accusing finger under her haughty nose. “Don’t try to lie, I know you’re involved.”
Loki could not help himself, it was the most absurd thing he had ever witnessed, and he laughed in the angry man’s face. Men could be so fragile sometimes and it never ceased to be amusing. Large and furious, Lord Odinson loomed over him and Loki threw his head back and laughed sweetly. He knew he was being threatened, but Lord Odinson was not nearly the most frightening man to ever bully him.
Loki had not survived homelessness and poverty on the streets of Montmartre at the tender age of fifteen to be cowed by an overgrown school boy with a temper and too much whiskey in his blood. Working as a server and stagehand at the Moulin Rouge, Loki had learned to deal with entitled drunks and angry fools. Even if Odinson struck him, Loki was confidant he had taken worse and walked away. The taste of blood was as familiar as cabernet on his tongue.
“Really, my lord,” he chortled, deftly adjusting the lay of his robe, the tissue-thin silk rustling quietly. “A witch! Oh, that is droll. Why on earth would I care one jot what you do? The efficacy of your manhood is of no consequence to me. You assume I am without suitors, but you could not be more wrong.” Sniggering delicately behind his hand, Loki teased, “You have quite an imagination.”
Snorting like a bull, he snarled, “I have never struck a woman, but you test me beyond endurance, Madame!”
What a pity he was such a fool, Loki lamented. The young lord was extremely handsome, even when his face was red with rage. Those blue eyes burned in a way that made Loki a little weak in the knees. He could imagine being pinned by that gaze under very different, more pleasant, circumstances. As they said, experience could recommend a man, and if the talk was true, he had plenty. There was so much strength coiled in those bulging muscles he looked more like a titan from mythology than a proper British lord. So much power and beauty and all the good sense of a concussed ram; so much for perfection.
At his ease, despite the threat, Loki stretched out on the divan and said, “I have done nothing to you. This – problem – of yours is not of my making. When I read your cards, I saw the first sign of this ill-wishing, nothing more.”
“Who else could it have been?” it was an accusation, not a question.
Bearing his teeth suddenly, Loki cupped the front of the other man’s trousers in one hand and hissed, “You have been sticking your cock where it has no business being and someone has taken issue. Now, if you want my help, I suggest you ask nicely.” He gave a little squeeze for emphasis, his gaze fixed on the lord’s crazed eyes.
Though unable to become hard, he could still feel arousal as keenly as ever and when she palmed his member, he bucked his hips forward instinctively. This was no demure gentlewoman! No lady would be so bold! Then again, she was French, and everyone knew French women were all whores, but still. The minx was playing with fire. She had been the only one who knew about his affliction, even before Thor himself, and now she was all but stroking his cock. This was some twisted plot to entrap him; well, he would show her. As soon as she broke her spell, he would have her and she would enjoy every moment. He had never taken a woman by force, but by god, this woman was pushing him.
Snatching her hand away from his groin, he held her wrist firmly and bent her arm over her head, forcing her to lie back on the divan. The Madame did not resist but her eyes became hard and defiant, her pupils dilated in pinpricks the longer Thor pinned her in place. With his other hand, he grabbed a handful of her skirts and began sliding the fabric up to reveal her slim ankles. She gasped and squirmed, but it seemed like only a token protest. If the lady had wanted him to stop, she need only have said so, or given him a swift kick. This was a game, the man pushed and the woman yielded.
Chuckling darkly, he rumbled, “You say I should be nice? Well, that’s up to you. If you undo your curse, little witch, I’ll give you what you want.”
“Every man thinks he knows what women want,” she mocked, her voice husky and dark.
“Madame, you have made your desires perfectly clear.”
As he spoke, he ran his hand slowly up her long leg, marveling inwardly at her perfectly smooth skin. A little cry escaped her lips; she was enjoying it. When the robe and nightdress were pushed up past her knees, he paused to admire the effect of white flesh, on red velvet, and black silk. As he resumed lifting her skirts, she tried to pull her legs together, but he was not put off by her coquettish display. She clawed at the hand that pinned her to the divan, twisting away, but she did not cry out or ask him to stop. She played the game beautifully, arching her back and parting her lips suggestively. Thor swayed, palming the warm flesh of her inner thigh,grinning before moving to cup her sex.
What greeted him was not what he expected. He had been eager to find wet folds and a welcoming heat, not this. She made a strangled noise as he stared at her in horror. For a moment, he was too stunned and confused to move. They stared at each other, frozen in mutual terror. Then Thor lunged away from the divan and the person on it as if burnt. Wild-eyed, he watched her scramble back, putting the divan between them.
“Witch,” he whispered shakily. “What are you? What did you do to me?”
Paler than death, Loki clutched his robe to his chest with a shaking hand and pressed himself against the nearest wall. This man was a savage, a beast, and now he knew his secret. The lord looked at him with such disgust and horror, as if he had found a snake beneath his skirts. It should not have hurt, but the expression of horrified revulsion on Lord Odinson’s face would be carved onto his heart. He had nearly been ravished and the memory of those rough hands lingered like the strands of a nightmare. Shivering, he breathed hard, trying to collect himself.
World collapsing around him, Loki thought furiously of how he might save everything he had worked so hard to build. One word of this and it would spell disaster; his hopes, his freedom, his very life were at stake. The man was staring at him as if he could not quite believe what he had discovered. Perhaps, if Loki was very persuasive, he could convince the brute he had been mistaken or, at the very least, that it was in his best interest to stay quiet. He would have to outperform the best on the London stage.
“What are you talking about,” he demanded of the lord fiercely. “You barge into my home in the middle of the night, ranting like a madman, you dare lay hands on me, and then you presume to demand anything of me? I should call the police and have you arrested!” Blinking back tears of humiliation and fear, he hissed, “Never mind helping you! Get out!”
“You should call the police?” Thor repeated in disbelief, his voice rough with shock. "YOU? You should call the police?” he sneered, pointing at the so called lady of the house. “What you are—what you just did,” he said gesturing angrily at the chaise where the seer had tried to seduce him. “It’s not only illegal but... you're … you're an abomination!”
He was sure of what he had felt, but his mind was still trying to deny it. To look at the creature, one would never guess they were anything but a woman. What sort of man paraded around in dresses and flirted with respectable gentlemen? Unable to stand the uncertainty, he rushed the mystic and grabbed the front of their robes. He had only meant to pull the fabric aside, but the little minx fought back and in the struggle, robe and nightgown both were shredded. The cloth was tissue fine and tore easily, revealing, not the flat chest of a man, but a pair of small, round breasts.
Baffled, Thor could only gape at the pretty little tits as they rose and fell with each ragged breath she took. They were pert and pale as cream, topped by tempting, pink rosebuds. It did not seem possible, not when he had felt… Deciding this was some sort of trick, he roughly fondled the left breast, expecting to find a counterfeit. The skin was warm and soft, just as any woman’s breast should be. Under his palm, the small nipple stiffened, proof that it was indeed real.
“I-If you leave now,” she said desperately, in the deep, smoky voice he had found so inviting. “I swear I will never speak of this to anyone. You are not yourself, my lord. Please…”
He faltered. Though he had his faults, Thor had always prided himself on maintaining a chivalrous code of conduct, as his mother would expect. Since returning from Africa, he had been running a bit wild, but this was the first time he stopped to consider his behavior. Dear gods, had he just assaulted a defenseless woman?
The person staring up at him with beseeching eyes and a trembling lip certainly looked like a woman. Delicate, porcelain-skinned, elegant, the seer had every trait Thor would want in a lady, and more besides. It made his gut churn with guilt as he looked at her torn clothes and tear streaked face. Staring at the pale figure in mounting horror, he watched as she shakily tried to cover her small breasts with her hands.
The room spun as he whirled around, desperate to look anywhere but at her. No, he shook his head, trying to clear away the fog. He knew he was no villain! He knew what he had felt. This person was a fraud, a deviant posing as a lady. Determined to vindicate himself, he spun back around, falling into the Madame, pinning the mystic to the wall with one hand on their throat as he yanked up their skirt with the other. She fought, beating at his hand and thrashing, but he tightened his grip on their neck to still them. Lifting the fabric away, he saw that he had been correct. Between those long legs was a shaft of decent size and shape for a man, though it was oddly hairless. Stranger still, he saw no sack, just the shaft. Something was very wrong with this creature.
Hauling the seer around, he bent her over the arm of the sofa and kicked her legs apart. He was greeted by the sight of a fine, round backside and a little, pink cunny. Again, Thor stopped short, mystified by what he was seeing. None of this made any sense to him. He knew a woman’s parts could be deformed, but he had never heard of one having both cock and quim. Half convinced he was seeing things, he reached out and ran his finger along the slit. The little cry it elicited, along with the warm softness of the folds, told him it was real.
Tossing the witch to the floor, Thor growled, “What are you? You’re some kind of creature, a freak!”
"I am as I was born," Loki argued tearfully from the floor. He lifted his chin, glaring at his attacker, though his face remained ashen and his lip quavered. He drew his legs up under him like a coiling snake, and demanded, “Do you think I would choose to be this way? I have suffered for it, I assure you."
Lord Odinson’s hand reared back, preparing to strike. He was a large, powerful man and Loki knew he could not fight him. The man could crush him with his bare hands.
Loki had known for a long time that he would likely die young. A violent end had always seemed likely; the world reviled what it did not understand and sought to destroy it. Even so, he was still frightened. Death was so very permanent and a beating was a slow and painful way to die. No romantic death for him. He had hoped to end his life bravely, but he could not quell the tears streaming down his cheeks. Lying on the floor in the tattered remnants of his favorite nightgown and robe, Loki tried to cover his face and waited for the first blow to fall.
When it did not come, Loki dared a glance at his attacker. The expression in his cold blue eyes was one Loki could not read. His hand was still raised as if to strike him, but he seemed to be reconsidering. He must have been a sight with his disheveled curls, tear bright eyes, bare breasts and torn skirts rucked up to his white thighs. Shivering under that steely glare, Loki covered his exposed chest with his hands and tried to work his skirts back down.
"Please, my lord," Loki said quietly. "I did not place the ill-wish on you, but I can remove it…”
Closing his eyes, Loki tried to banish the memory of cold, barren rooms that reeked of bleach and piss. He could still feel the leather restraints drawn tight on his wrists and ankles. Nausea bubbled in his belly and for a moment, Loki thought he might be sick. Drawing in a ragged breath, Loki clenched his fists and exhaled slowly, forcing the panic down as he had before.
Lifting his hands in a gesture of prayer, Loki pleaded, “Just, keep my secret. I would do anything to avoid being found out."
It was the saddest face Thor had ever seen and he could not bring himself to raise his hand against it. This was not like him; the Madame was a deviant, but she did not deserve the rough treatment he had inflicted. Despite what he had seen, he could not see the mystic as anything but a woman and it went against everything he believed in to hit a woman. Certainly her reactions and mannerisms were feminine and all things considered, she was more woman than man in form. Guilt was already hounding him for what he had done and he knew he could not strike her, especially not when she looked so vulnerable and terrified.
Huffing out an irritable breath, he stumbled back, falling onto the divan. He was still furious at her for her deception and so unsettled by what he had seen. It was perhaps unfair to judge a person for a birth defect, but he could not help being shocked by her body. She was unnatural. There was also the question of the curse; Thor was still not wholly convinced that she had not been its author. Even if she had not been its origin, she had mocked him for it and tried to seduce him, which was reason enough to be angry.
“My lord, please,” she begged piteously, still on her knees. Green eyes filling with tears, she whispered, “You cannot imagine what they will do to me.”
Crossing his arms over his chest, Thor retorted wryly, “Oh, I believe I can. They just threw your friend, Oscar Wilde, in prison for this sort of thing.”
The Madame shook her head, explaining, “Years of hard labor would be a kindness. They would cage me, studying my abnormalities, like some exotic creature. It is not prison I fear, my lord, but vivisection.”
Thor had seen some of the specimens the anatomists used, the preserved corpses of the unclaimed poor, and knew she was right. Once convicted of a crime, she would have no rights, her warders could do as they pleased and no one would champion her cause. When she died, no doubt conveniently, they would sell her body to the anatomists, who would use her desiccated body to teach medical students about anomalous biology. A truly ignoble end. No matter how angry he was, Thor could not damn her to such a fate.
Heaving a sigh, he rubbed his beard in agitation. A vein throbbed in his temple as Thor watched the mystic. She was terrified and battered and it was his fault. For a moment, he pictured the Madame pinned to a board like a dead butterfly, her fragile body on display for detached examination.
Taking a deep breath, Thor said, “There’s no need for that, Madame…I will keep your secret, provided you cure my ailment.”
She nodded jerkily and stumbled to her feet, holding the tatters of her robe to her breasts. Not knowing what else to do, Thor remained on the divan and waited. Again, he felt the sting of guilt, but his mind quickly leapt to defend him, arguing that while he had gone a little too far, she had provoked him. Getting comfortable, he watched her, doing his best to seem authoritative and imposing. If she could solve his problem, he would find some way to make amends.
Sore and lightheaded, Loki stumbled to his feet and over to the bookshelf on which he kept many of his basic tools. With shaking hands, he collected a stick of incense, some dried sage, a small silver bowl, seven white candles, and a stub of white chalk. Setting his horde on the floor, Loki drew a wide circle in chalk and inscribed the runes for healing and cleansing at the cardinal direction points. Around the circle he arranged the candles at intervals.
Trying to ignore the throbbing in his bruised lip, Loki ordered, “Stand in the circle and don’t move until I say.”
When the lord was in place, he looked around at the ritual preparations and said with no small amount of awe, “So you really are a witch.”
Loki handed him the stick of incense, saying, “That is one word for it, yes. Though all the lore is wrong. Hold that out for me,” he said flatly of the incense.
Leaning forward, Loki cupped the stick like a cigarette and when he drew back, it was lit and a thin trail of smoke flowed between his lips to the smoldering end. Exhaling, the smoke danced over the candles like a rolling fog and each sprung to life as it touched the wicks. Lastly, Loki breathed on the sage which began to smoke in its silver dish. The smell of sandalwood and sage mingled in the air around them like perfume, leaving the room feeling warm and close.
“Breathe deep,” Loki instructed in a very calm, almost hypnotic voice. “Relax and let the smoke move through you…Try to think why someone would want to hex you like this. The best way to break such a spell is to learn the lesson it’s meant to teach…Now breathe out. Feel the ill-wishing leaving you like the air in your lungs...Envision it flowing out of you…”
To the observer, it would appear that they stood on either side of the chalk circle breathing slowly, but Loki knew every touch of the smoke on the lord’s golden skin would feel like a caress. Though he had no desire to give his attacker pleasure, there was no getting around it with this sort of thing. Sexual spells were often like that. The heavy smoke coiled around the man like a cloak. Judging by the flush on his cheeks and the way he shifted on his feet, Loki knew Lord Odinson was feeling the effects.
Wrinkling his nose, Loki watched as a malignant looking haze began to waft out of the man with each exhale. He waited until he saw the last of the hex leave before going to the window to let out the cloying smoke and the ill-wishing with it. The cool air broke the trance and they both sighed. When those blue eyes opened, Loki saw a flash of lust before he regained his senses.
“Well, you are cured,” Loki told him dismissively. Clinging to the tatters of his robe and his dignity, he waved him away. “You can leave now.”
Instead of hurrying away or making threats, Lord Odinson hesitated, seeming to waver. He could not be sure, but Loki thought he saw remorse in his expression. The ill-wishing had been a nasty thing and he had allowed it to grow freely for at least a month, if not longer. Such a curse could cause a man’s baser urges and animal impulses to take control. Freed from its corrupting influence, his behavior might be altered for the better. Though that was wholly dependent on his fundamental character. Call him a cynic, but Loki was not going to hold out hope for the man’s improvement.
After a protracted pause, Lord Odinson said awkwardly, “I…must apologize for…ah…”
A muscle in his jaw twitched and he clenched his teeth. Standing stock still, his fists opened and closed as if he did not know what to do with them. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but instead, he turned on his heel and made to flee the parlor.
Loki glared at that broad back as he tried to escape. Stripped, bruised, frightened, and humiliated, he felt his self-control fraying. This beast had stormed into his home, assaulted and threatened him, and now could not even muster an apology for any of it. Wiping furiously at his flushed and tear-stained face, Loki felt fresh tears welling in his eyes. Good sense would have counseled he stay quiet, but he was overwrought and indignant.
“If this is how you behave, it’s no wonder you were cursed,” he hissed, his whole body trembling with fury. “I would have helped you if you had simply asked! Why,” he demanded, his voice breaking as he gestured at his torn clothes and bruised skin. “A-are you going to tell anyone about me? If you are, I would prefer you kill me now.”
With his hand on the front door’s knob, Thor stopped, struck by the anguish in the witch’s voice. He had been the cause, and the more he thought about it, the more he was appalled by his behavior. Cursing himself, he turned to face the sad apparition in the parlor. She made a most convincing specter with her unearthly pale skin and tattered clothes; he could imagine her haunting him, a constant reminder of his sins. Though he badly wished to be gone from the place, he knew he could not leave her like that and maintain any semblance of self-respect. He approached her as he would a fawn, slowly, with his hands at his sides.
He kept a respectful distance and said, “No. No, I will not.” Turning stern, he added, “As long as there are no more supernatural shenanigans.”
“It was not me,” she insisted tiredly. “I had no reason to.”
“That’s as may be, but…” He trailed off, seeing the fear return to her eyes. Overcome with pity and shame he relented, “Alright, I made a mistake. You should sit down, you’re very pale.”
Without waiting for a reply, he gently guided her to an overstuffed armchair and made her sit. She wilted into the cushions, still trying to protect her modesty with the shreds of her robes. What had possessed him to be so violent? Looking down at her trembling before him like the last autumn leaf, he knew he had to say something, though what might salvage this disaster he did not know. Kneeling beside her chair, he struggled to think of anything that might soothe her.
Huffing in frustration, he said, “I was very upset and I acted rashly. You have no idea how distressing that sort of ailment is to a man…or…ah…” She had a shaft, maybe she did understand, Thor did not know, but felt it was a bad subject to broach. “What I mean is, I should not have treated you like that...but you must see that I was very distressed.”
Snorting derisively, she cut her eyes at him and retorted, “Your inability to rise justifies this?” She gestured at the bruises blooming on her skin and the tatters of her night clothes. “I did not hex you,” she insisted vehemently. “There is more than one practitioner of the arts in London and thousands upon thousands in the world! And even if I did, you put your hands on me, tore my clothes off. If I had not been—you would have—you were going to—”
“I have never forced myself on anyone,” Thor told her seriously. “Had you told me to stop, I would have.”
Shuddering, she stood and quickly put distance between them. Shock was setting in now that the immediate peril was over and she looked near ready to faint.
Darting to another chair, she retrieved a shawl and wrapped herself in it. She looked like a caged animal with her wild eyes and hunted expression.
“Go, please, just go…” She whispered, pressing herself back against the wall.
There was nothing to be done for it; he would not make amends that night. Defeated, he escaped the house and surrounding Belgravia as fast as he could. She needed time to calm down and compose herself and he needed time to sober up and consider his options. For a certainty, Thor would see that he made things right, he was just not sure how. It was not going to happen overnight, at any rate. Feeling very unsettled, he went back to White’s for a few drinks to calm his nerves.
After a very steadying glass of brandy, Thor began to wonder if the spell had really worked. After his deplorable behavior, Madame Melusine might have felt she was doing the world a service by insuring his member remained limp permanently. He could hardly blame her after what he had done. Rightfully concerned by that line of thought, Thor wasted no time in finding the nearest willing serving girl. She was a pretty, buxom girl with freckles and a mop of copper hair and she had been quite willing to let him lift her skirts. He was more than a little relieved to find himself responding eagerly to her touch. In the privacy of an upstairs room, Thor tested his stamina and found he was fully restored. Then he tested it again, and then a third time just to be sure. All went as expected and it was a very satisfying end to the evening.
The only trouble was, no matter how he tried to concentrate, his mind kept furnishing him with images of the Madame. Though he knew it was wrong, he could not help thinking of her porcelain perfect skin and long slender legs. He had wanted her, been ready to have her right there in her parlor, and not even the knowledge of what she was could totally erase his desire for her. Even as he plowed into the pretty serving girl, all he could think of was having the Madame beneath him instead. A second and third round proved his manhood was functional, but did nothing to rid him of his sinful thoughts about the strange Frenchwoman.
By dawn, Thor had thoroughly worn himself out and was all too happy to hail a cab and go home. Though Belgravia was not on the way to his home on Saint James’ Street, he still had the cabbie drive past the Madame’s house. All was quiet and still in the first glow of dawn. What he had been expecting, Thor was not certain; maybe a swarm of police and the Madame loudly accusing him for all to hear. That was just his guilty conscious haunting him. The Madame would keep her silence, if only to protect her own secrets. There was little chance he would see any sort of reprisal for his misdeeds, which did not sit well with him.
As soon as he was home, he crawled into bed half-dressed and did not stir until after midday. He would have slept on, but he was expected to attend an assembly that evening, so his valet woke him at half past the hour with tea and newspaper. Loathe as he was to rise, the prospect of food and a bath was inviting and with a little effort on his valet’s part, Thor was chivvied from his bed in due course.
While he ate, Thor perused the paper idly, only half interested in the articles. Then his eye caught on an editorial; it had been written by none other than Madame Loki Melusine du Villeduval. Such an unusual name was not likely to be shared, so the author must be the woman he so recently met. The editorial was entitled A Defense of Mr. Wilde which only strengthened his theory, for it was well known she was a friend of the disgraced playwright.
The Madame did not gentle her words for the readers of the Times. Firstly, she argued that the government had no business dictating what happened between consenting adults in private and pointed out that it was a dangerous precedent. Then she took the government to task for prosecuting men like Wilde while ignoring the rampant problem of child prostitution, arguing that here there was a clear victim in need of protection. “That it is legal for a grown man to purchase a child as young as seven and have carnal knowledge of them in the mistaken belief that a virgin’s touch might cure his pox is abhorrent,” she wrote. Her argument continued, “When such great depravity is taking place all over the city, it seems utterly mad that the government should spend its time prosecuting men who have done no harm.” After that, she very succinctly dismantled the biblical arguments.
It was an eloquent and impassioned piece of rhetoric. Had it been on any other subject, Thor would have expected her to make quite a few converts; however, she was trying to convince people to overlook sodomy. While he, personally, found her arguments compelling, well researched, and was willing to agree with her, few others would. It was admirable that she would stand by her friend after he had been so shamed and he respected it. What a pity she would likely pay dearly for her loyalty.