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Sulfur and Silk

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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.”

“Spiritualist?”

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.

Chapter Text

Madame Loki Melusine

Chapter Text

“You should go to Rome for the season,” Darcy pleaded as she poured him another cup of chamomile tea. “Or maybe Florence, or Madrid, or Malta, anywhere but London. I know you did not want the police called, but he could have killed you, Madam.”

Nodding slowly, Loki sighed, “Ah, Darcy, you are probably right…Valletta is lovely this time of year. Perhaps we should go back to Malta.” Burying his face in his hands, Loki shuddered and breathed out. “Can you write to my solicitor there and see about letting a house? Nothing too grand, but comfortable,” he specified.

“Right away, Madam, but it’ll take time,” she warmed him. “What will you do until then? He could come back. Should I make some calls, there must be someone we could hire to guard the house in the meantime.” Rubbing at the bridge of his nose, Loki agreed before returning to his cup of tea. “Oh, hell, Madam,” Darcy exclaimed. With an apologetic grimace, she reminded him, “Mrs. Crowley’s party is tonight and you agreed to perform a séance! I’ll send word that you aren’t well.”

“No,” Loki cut her off. “I will not cower in my house because some man was a little too rough with me. Have Ms. Hill fetch my new gown from the shop. There are a hundred parties and salons happening tonight, surely Lord Odinson will be at some other event.”

After seeing the ill-wishing crawling out of the lord’s mouth and nose, Loki realized what he had taken for a minor impotence curse was, in fact, a much more insidious creation. And as he had not known the man before being cursed, there was no way for Loki to know exactly how that terrible ill-wishing had affected Lord Odinson’s behavior. It may have only amplified his already bad habits, but it could have forced his flaws to take control of a once good man. Loki could not be sure, but he had little desire to become better acquainted with the lord.

Lord Odinson was in attendance, predictably, much to Loki’s dismay. The moment he caught sight of that blond mane above the heads of the milling crowd, Loki had nearly fled, but there was no good reason to excuse himself without drawing attention to himself. He had only just arrived; he could not simply reach the front door and retreat. Bolstering his courage, Loki took a glass of champagne from a passing server and reminded himself that Lord Odinson could not accost him in public without doing more damage to his own image than Loki’s. Comforting himself with the knowledge that there would be no chance for the man to get him alone, Loki did his best to mingle and socialize while avoiding the lord. It had to be done carefully or people would start talking. Of all the parties in London, Lord Odinson had to be at this one, Loki lamented in frustration.

Despite keeping the ballroom between them, he could not hide from the man’s hawk like gaze. The high collar of black lace on his gown hid his bruised shoulders and gloves hid his wrists, but even in the more modest dress, Loki felt naked every time he found those blue eyes on him. Holding back a shudder, Loki tried to ignore him, keeping his eyes averted and his smile polite and easy. He would not let that oversized schoolyard bully run him out of a party he had been invited to first!

When midnight approached, Loki had the lady of the house call the guests who wished to witness the séance into the parlor and dimmed the lamps. A small table and seven chairs were brought into the room and Loki took his place at the head. Smiling enigmatically around at the finely dressed people hovering in the gloom, he let the silence hang for a few long moments. Building the tension was paramount and Loki was a master. Hands resting on the tabletop, Loki cast his eyes around the room, meeting the gazes of a few of the bolder members of the audience, but carefully avoiding Lord Odinson entirely.

“Who will join me in communing with the spirits,” he asked sweetly.

There was always a second of hesitation. His séances were famously dramatic and, for all their interest in the occult, London’s elite were still a little afraid of the unseen. Shaking his dark curls off his neck, Loki smiled serenely around the room, an open challenge to anyone brave enough to join him.

“I will.”

Loki did not need otherworldly abilities to know who spoke.

Turning just enough to see the lord’s broad form, Loki said coolly, “By all means, Lord Odinson, take a seat…”

Sporting a cocky smirk, the Lord Odinson swaggered over to the table and took the seat opposite, his eyes glittering with mirth. To look at him, no one would have guessed what passed between them the night before. He looked perfectly at ease and Loki did his best to reflect that. Though his heart hammered at his ribcage, Loki kept his face calm and unreadable. After a few moments spent holding his dancing blue eyes, Loki turned his gaze to the rest of the audience as if the lord meant nothing to him. A few more people joined them, filling the table.

Grinning, the lord spoke up, “I am very interested to hear from the netherworld.”

“I welcome skeptics, my lord,” Loki rejoined in his most mystical tone. “Though, I warn you…I have no control over what is said by the spirits.” Holding out his hands, he instructed, “Place your hands, palms down on the table, touching only the tips of your fingers. Until I give the word, do not break the circle.”

Leaning his head back to expose his graceful neck to the sharp gaze of the lord across from him, Loki took a deep breath in and hummed a long, low note. It resonated around the room, making the candles flicker and dim. Around them, the smoke swirled and embraced his slender body. For a long moment, he let the silence hang after the note died away, the room suspended in time.

“I call upon the spirits of those once living to come into this place,” Loki’s voice was low and hypnotic as he spoke. “While our circle holds, you are welcome. Speak through me or make some sound to let us know you are among us…” A knock sounded from above their heads and the dimmed chandelier swung gently. Several people jumped and a lady gasped audibly. Smirking, Loki asked, “If that was a spirit, please give us another sign.”

Again there came a knock and after that, the séance went on as they normally did. Mostly, Loki used the barest of his gift to perform these little displays. It was easy speaking to the dead; the difficult part was avoiding them. The dead were not quiet for those who could hear them. He spoke to a few departed loved ones and passed on a few messages of love. After fifteen minutes of clairvoyant work, Loki was about to end the séance and move on to some fortunetelling when he was gripped by a sudden clammy, ill feeling, as if fevered. Inhaling sharply, Loki sought out Lord Odinson as if drawn by an invisible hand. Jerked straight back in his chair, his eyes widened. Something was wrong, very wrong. Cold flooded inside him along with a sense of another’s consciousness.

Meeting coolly amused blue eyes, Loki told him in a waving voice, “The day I read your cards, I said death clings to you…Now I see his hands more clearly.” Arching as if stabbed in the back, Loki moaned, “Ah – ah. He is a young man, tall and blond, though not made as you are…” Without warning, his head dropped to his chest and his whole body shook. When Loki’s eyes opened again, they were blue. “My friend,” Loki said, his voice strangely unctuous and cheerful, his grin lopsided and teasing. “It has been a long time, Thor. Don’t look so glum, I am just fine. Shame about that fight, though.” When Thor paled, Loki laughed, “I don’t blame you, old chap. You might have given me a proper burial though. Bad form, that… Though, I suppose there was a dearth of churches in the jungle.”

As if shoved in the center of his chest, Loki slammed against the back of his chair, his head rocking back wildly. Limp, he hung in his chair like an abandoned marinate. Chest rising and falling rapidly, Loki slowly sat upright again. Pale and ashen, he met the young lord’s astonished eyes.

“I did warn you.”

***

It had been quite the show, the Madame was truly an impressive actress, and Thor had to give her that. Even after seeing her work some spell, he could not believe the mystic was actually speaking with ghosts. What was dead was dead; if the departed could return from beyond, then why had he never received a message from his mother and father? That sort of thing should happen all the time if the Madame was to be believed, and yet, he was not receiving messages from dead loved ones like he received invites for tea.

The sudden change in the Madame’s demeanor had brought him up short, but he remained aloof until she began speaking in a tone that sent chills down his spine. Fighting the urge to shudder, he tried to explain away the situation. Everyone knew he had been in Africa and on safari with other young men of his rank, he rationalized. It could have been a guess, though how the mystic would know what Fandral had looked like, Thor could not know. Chillingly, the mannerisms and tone she used were exactly those of his dead friend.

Ice filled his belly when the so-called spirit spoke to him, mentioning the manner of his dear friend’s death. No one but Thor and a few locals knew how Fandral died. Not even the young man’s family knew he had been stabbed during a card game in a seedy hunting camp in the jungle of the Congo. It was all but impossible that the seer could know that information. Most unsettling was the shocking blue color of the mystic’s normally green eyes. For a long moment, the room remained silent after her warning.

“Warn me,” Thor scoffed, his hackles rising. Frowning darkly, he growled, “Warned me of what? This is just nonsense!”

Thor woke that morning to look back on his past action with mounting horror and shock. While he had always been a bit wild, he had never behaved like a libertine possessed by a spirit of excess and selfishness. Since returning to London, Thor realized he had been running mad, drinking, whoring, and fighting. Yes, he had always enjoyed his wine and pleasurable company, but not like this. He had been dismissive and discourteous to everyone, particularly women which was not like him at all. The whole day he had been searching for a way to redeem himself and had meant to throw himself on the Madame’s mercy, but then she had chosen to punish him in the cruelest of ways. If she wished to torment him, that was fine, but involving Fandral he could not abide. His friend’s memory would not be disrespected for cheap entertainment!

Fleeing the awkward situation, the other people at the table quickly moved away and the guests quickly removed themselves to the adjacent room for more food and drink. Thor remained seated, his glare pinning the seer to her seat. He would have words with the Madame and a damned explanation from her. She sat stock still, her catlike gaze meeting his unblinkingly. It would be unseemly for a man and woman to be alone together, even so close to a large party, but he did not care.

When the last person had crossed back into the well lit room adjoining the parlor, Thor stood and said quietly, “I would speak with you in private, Madame.”

Without waiting for her response, he crossed to the doorway and closed the doors in the faces of the curious onlookers. Speculation exploded on the other side of the doors, no doubt they were already cooking up scandal, but Thor did not care. He was still half convinced the seer had cursed him and now she was toying with him again. Fury simmering under his skin, Thor stalked back to the mystic and stood to block her from leaving the table.

“I have no time for your tricks,” he hissed, his face turning crimson with his barely suppressed wrath. “How you came by that information, I don’t know, but you will tell me at once,” he ordered.

 

“You of all people should know my gifts are genuine,” the mystic retorted tartly, her fine eyes flashing with repressed anger.

Thor snorted, “Your gifts! You mean your witchcraft...for that's what it is. Anyone that has been afflicted as you have...is most certainly a witch.”

Bristling, despite her apparent fear, she snapped, “I could point out that I had no way of knowing you would be here tonight, or that I had only a few hours to procure this information, or that I have spent all day trying to find ways to avoid you, but I will simply ask you this. Why, in the name of all the gods, would I do anything to anger you after your display of temper last night?”

“My temper,” he scoffed, waving his hand in a wide, irritated arc. “After that stunt, you have earned my temper, Madame. Why do you insist on antagonizing me?”

Her eyes darted between him and the door he blocked and her cool demeanor crumbled, revealing panic. In her face, he could see the fear of a cornered animal. He could almost see the memories of his rough treatment playing in her mind and guilt twisted in his gut. She feared him, Thor realized with a jolt of nausea. Shuddering, she regarded him apprehensively, her hand on her chest as if clutching a crucifix.

“I have no reason or desire to antagonize you, my lord,” she told him cautiously. “You hold my life in your hands. Had I known you would be here tonight, I would not have come. I want nothing to do with you and will be very glad to quit London before the season is over,” the seer swore tremulously. Standing, she implored, “Now, please, let me pass.”

Still looming over her, Thor did take a step back, asking, “You are leaving London? Are you afraid I will give away your...little secret?” he demanded in an undertone, glancing at the door.

 

***

“Yes, of course I am,” Loki snarled, acutely aware of the gossips on the other side of the door. “I also fear you will come to my home and assault me every time anything remotely inexplicable befalls you. I would prefer not to be brutalized and stripped whenever the mood strikes you. Not to mention, had you behaved like a gentleman, it would still be my secret to keep!” Even in yards of satin and lace, Loki felt naked under that burning blue glare. Instinctively, he covered his chest and hunched in his shoulders as if he were as bare to his gaze as he had been last night. Shivering, he pushed himself out of his seat and tried to get past the lord who still blocked his only means of escape. Breathing hard, Loki pressed a hand to his side as a stitch formed under his suddenly too tight corset. With little sleep and far too much stress, Loki was already feeling a little off and after the spirit hijacked his body he was feeling lightheaded and shaky.

Drawing in a deep, calming breath, Loki said, “Please, the longer you keep me here, the more they will talk. Channeling a spirit takes a great deal of energy and I would like to go home, so step aside and let me pass.” The young lord made no effort to move and Loki began to feel a little hysterical.

He calls you an abomination, a witch, but given the chance, he would take his pleasure of you just like the so called doctors in the asylum.

The voice was deep and rough, echoing up from the darkest corners of Loki’s mind. The words slunk against the inside of his skull like a cat. Suddenly he could catch a hint of fire and sulfur in the air. The pop and crackle of a burning building groaned in his ears. It was a voice he had hoped he would never hear again. Icy claws raked down Loki’s soul and ripped a small sob from him.

Already wound tight enough to snap, Loki panicked and threw himself at the door, trying to knock Lord Odinson out of the way. He was in danger.. He had to flee, and he would crawl over that mountain of a man if he had to. Fighting back tears, Loki clawed at the huge man who blocked him as effectively as a stone wall. “Why are you so set on tormenting me,” Loki whimpered in terror, his eyes wide and bright with unshed tears. “Please, just let me go. I-I feel faint, please, my lord.”

Burn him.

Burn them all. Kill him and be done with it. What is one more sin to a damned soul?

“You’re clearly upset,” the lord said reasonably. “I cannot allow you to leave in such a state, Madame. You look ready to faint. What would people think?”

They would think Lord Odinson had harmed a young widow. The man was not going to allow that sort of gossip. Loki knew that, even in his state of panic, so he did not resist when the other man gently, but firmly escorted him to a chair. Shaking and half-crazed, Loki searched the room for the first sign of a dark figure. Were the candle flames dancing in a draft or were they moving on their own?

Daring to touch his bare shoulder, the lord said, “You’re pale. Let me fetch you something to drink. You will feel stronger for it.”

Loki only nodded, his eyes still darting from shadow to shadow anxiously. Holding himself tightly, he watched as the large man strode to the door and requested a glass of wine or brandy for the Madame. Around his broad form, people peered at Loki who did indeed look ill. Lady Dorset squawked like an upset hen and loudly called for a drink, her strident tone making Loki flinch. The small crowd muttered to each other and politely tried to talk their way past Lord Odinson; he was not having it.

“There, Anderson,” Lady Dorset shrilled, pointing a servant to the parlor. “Have the Madame sip this wine. It’s very restorative.”

With his back to him, Loki could not see the lord’s face, but he could hear the irony in his voice when he drawled, “I shall, thank you, my lady. It seems the Madame has overtaxed herself with this difficult séance.” He took the glass and politely shut the door in Lady Dorset’s face. Returning to his side, Lord Odinson offered Loki the drink and told him, “I am skeptical of all this…but I have seen shamen in Africa bring forth spirits from smoke and flame and they were always ill and exhausted after.”

Sipping the wine, a very dry red, Loki spoke quietly, “Yes, the spirits feed on the energy of the living as fire feeds on wood.” He finished the wine swiftly and leaned back in his chair.

“Madame,” the young lord began awkwardly. “I… I must apologize for my behavior last night. I was unusually cruel and aggressive with you, not at all how I was raised to treat a lady,” he admitted awkwardly.

He lies to save his own skin.

Burn him.

Loki sobbed and covered his ears, but he could still hear the lord say, “You still seem unsteady. I will see you back to your home since you came unaccompanied.”

“N-no, I can make my own way home,” Loki insisted, but when he tried to stand his knees buckled and Lord Odinson had to catch him and deposit him back in his chair. “I must go home… My defenses are weakened more than I thought.” Slumping back in his seat, Loki closed his eyes, murmuring, “I am in more danger than you know, my lord.”

“In danger?” Odinson echoed skeptically. “In danger of what, Madame?”

“The supernatural, my lord,” Loki told him, though he had no hope the man might believe him.

Letting out a frustrated huff, Odinson set his jaw, determined, “Then I am taking you home. I will not leave you to fend for yourself, not in this state.”

That was not a prospect Loki relished, but he was not sure he had the strength to make it home by himself. The voice had not troubled him since the death of his husband and even then, he ran from it. In the darkness of the asylum, the voice had told him how to survive. The stress of being found out and threatened had left Loki vulnerable. In his defenselessness, the voice returned, as it always did. When he was young and alone, he had trusted the voice and it had led him astray. Again, Loki tried to stand but swayed and Odinson once again forced him into his seat.

“Take me home, please,” Loki begged, his resolve crumbling. “I need to protect myself.”

Nodding briskly, the lord agreed. “Very well.” He offered Loki his arm and supported his weight by looping a strong arm around Loki’s willowy waist. Pushing the doors open with his free hand, Odinson announced, “Madame Melusine is unwell and I shall be escorting her home. No need to worry, I’m sure a little rest will see her quite recovered.”

It was more than a little scandalous for an unmarried man to escort a lady home alone, but his position, size, and wealth seemed to be enough to keep everyone quiet. Loki was dimly surprised to see that no one dared speak up though they were clearly aware that this was highly improper. He was too exhausted and dizzy to say anything himself or to ask anyone else for help. Whispers followed them out onto the stoop.

Leaning heavily into the lord’s side, Loki sighed and blinked slowly into the night as he called for a carriage. Judging by the size and opulence, it was Odinson’s personal coach, which would have been impressive, if Loki was not so dazed and sick. There was even more strength in those big hands than he would have guessed when the lord easily lifted Loki into the carriage as if he was only a child. Even with a corset, Loki drooped against the backrest.

“Is your head hurting you?” Odinson asked with honest concern. The lord gave the coachman the address then rapped sharply on the roof to give the order to drive on. “Is it often like that?”

Turning his glazed eyes to regard Odinson owlishly, Loki mumbled, “This was more difficult than most and I was not at my strongest.”

They rode in silence for a time, the carriage rumbling alone towards the Belgravia residence Loki let for the season. He was so exhausted that if it were not for the dark whispers and the crackling of flames in his mind, Loki would have been tempted to curl up on the seat and go to sleep. As it was, he could only clutch at his head and try to ignore the hiss of ‘burn them all.’ There was a red hot poker jammed behind his left eye which was causing the bile to rise dangerously in his throat. By the time the carriage came to a halt at Loki’s home, he was close to fainting. Glassy-eyed and white-faced, Loki had to be helped from the coach.

When Loki lost his footing and toppled forward, Odinson caught him, saying, “I’ll just escort you to your door, Madame.”

“You are not as charming as you think,” Loki mumbled irritably.

“Is there someone to look after you?”

“My housekeeper, Darcy, will be at home,” Loki told him weakly. His whole head throbbed as the voice continued to whisper poison in his ear.

Burn them all. Dance in the wreckage and paint your face with their ashes.

With Odinson’s arms full, Loki clumsily handled the door knocker, the brass banging echoed deep into the house. In only a few minutes, the door was flung open. Darcy gasped and glared at the lord who held her Madame. Small and pretty, Darcy could hardly be called imposing, but she did have a look of danger in her eyes that was serious enough to make the big man pause. She had been perfectly willing to crack his skull with the coat rack, after all.

Before she could call for the police, Loki said, “It’s alright, Darcy, let us in. The séance was more taxing than I planned. Please, put the kettle on and fetch me something to eat.” Still regarding Odinson with a dark look, Darcy stepped aside and shut the door behind them. “I need the tools in my study,” he told the lord as he pointed to a door down the hall.

Kneeling in the middle of the floor in his study, Loki directed Odinson to all the things he would need. Six candles, three white and three black, white chalk, a chunk of black tourmaline, a bowl of salt, sage, and a vial of sea water. With unsteady hands, Loki drew a circle of protection and marked it with the symbols for banishment and protection, then followed the chalk with a line of salt. Placing the candles around the white circle, Loki set the tourmaline in the center. Summoning his inner fire, Loki bent forward and blew lightly on the sage, which caught fire and began the smoke. A second breath lit the candles. In the center of the circle, Loki anointed himself with seawater and quietly chanted a spell for banishment.

His gift came from the sea, his grandmother had taught him that when he was only a child, and he often used seawater in his rituals. He always preferred to live in cities near water and was strongest when near the ocean. Grandmother had told him that their family was descended from a sea spirit, a siren or mermaid, and it was this other blood that gave them their magic. It was the reason he had chosen Melusine as his surname when he reinvented himself.

Embraced by the smoke and salt, Loki felt the grip of the dark voice loosen on him. Breathing in deep of the sage and sea, Loki’s back arched until he was nearly bent double, his hair pooling on the floor around his feet, his hips in the air. For a moment, he felt burning claws tearing at his insides before it vanished and he was again free. Slumping back, boneless, Loki lay there on the floor and tried to catch his breath.

“Are you well, Madame?” the lord asked.

When he pushed himself again into a sitting position, Loki looked to the lord, saying, “Thank you… I overtaxed myself and it left me vulnerable. There are dangers in being even a practitioner of white magic. There are things that live in the dark.”

Just then Darcy entered the room bearing a tray with tea, a sandwich, and a curt, “M’lord… Can I fetch you anything else, Madame?”

“No, thank you, Darcy.”

Awkwardly, the young lord stood and straightened his coat, saying, “I shall take my leave, then. I trust you are in capable hands,” he added with a swift nod. For a moment, he paused, then he knelt by Loki, saying, “I must apologize for my actions last night. I have never in my life behaved in such a despicable manner and I cannot account for it,” Odinson told him.

The young man’s face was a mask of guilt and shame and Loki could hear the disgust in his voice. Loki stared deep into his beseeching eyes and saw a very different person looking back at him. The shame and self-loathing he presented was real; Loki could almost taste it in the air. Looking closer still, Loki detected something else lurking behind Odinson’s blue eyes. Fear; the lord was afraid of the things he had done.

“That ill-wishing was more insidious than I realized when we met,” Loki said very cautiously, his face wary. “It did far more than just cause impotence; it encouraged your worst traits. Wrath, lust, gluttony, pride,” he explained, ticking them off on his long fingers. “All the seven deadly sins, I suppose. It would affect you, though how much, I don’t know.”

At Loki’s words, Odinson seemed to sag, as if the weight of his guilt had lifted from his shoulders. Loki was not going to lie, but he was also not ready to fully absolve him yet. A flare of annoyance burned in Loki’s heart, but he ignored it, telling himself that it was a good sign that the lord was upset about what he had done. Odinson ran his hands over his face as if trying to wipe away the mix of emotions so clearly displayed there. A shaky gust of air escaped his lungs and he bowed his head under Loki’s direct gaze.

Thickly, he asked, “So, how much of what I did was because of the curse?”

“I cannot say for certain,” Loki told him honestly. He hesitated before adding, “Though you are still a spoiled, arrogant, selfish popinjay,” he said frankly, unfazed by the lord’s wince. “However, you are not a villain or the monster I feared you to be,” Loki allowed.

Once again meeting Loki’s eyes, Odinson said wryly, “You have the right to call me whatever you wish. I deserve it. Though, I hope to prove myself worthy of your forgiveness.”

Loki relaxed and even dared to squeeze the lord’s forearm comfortingly as he said, “I believe you will. I was right when I read your cards; you have it in you to be more than you are. You have a good heart, my lord, strive to follow it,” Loki advised solemnly.

“Wise council, Madame,” Odinson said with a flash of a true smile. “I am sorry you took ill, but I am very glad I went to that séance. I attended only in hopes of pleading for your forgiveness. Your face has haunted me since I woke this morning.”

Taking a long breath, Loki considered his next move. What Odinson had done to him, stripping him like that, was terrible. His cruel words had hurt far worse than the cut in his lip. Odinson had called him a freak and an abomination. Yes, the ill-wishing would have affected his behavior, but Loki did not know how much. Perhaps Lord Odinson would not have assaulted him without the influence of magic, but that did not mean the man would have thought any differently about Loki’s body. Was the man under the curse worth trusting? Exhaling slowly, Loki held his gaze and made up his mind.

“I can see you are sincere, my lord,” Loki said tiredly. He was very serious as he asked, “Will you keep my secret?”

Without hesitating, Odinson pledged, “I will take it to my grave. You have my word on my mother’s soul.”

Sighing in relief, Loki smiled, “Thank you, my lord.”

“You need rest,” Odinson said, standing again. “I shall leave you to recover,” he said with a formal bow. He seemed to flee, but stopped at the door to the study. Turning back, Odinson said, “I am sorry to hear you mean to quit London, Madame. It will be less… colorful without you. Good evening and swift recovery.”

With another curt nod, he strode from the room.

After some restorative tea and a ham sandwich, Darcy helped Loki upstairs and into bed. At his direction, his housekeeper drew a salt circle around his bed and left him to rest. She promised to let him sleep late and went to clear up his casting circle. As ever, Darcy was on top of things in her own way and loyal to a fault.

Part of the reason Loki employed Darcy Lewis, erstwhile American suffragette, was because she was as unshakable as the Alps. While she had no real magic of her own, she had grown up with an Irish grandmother who had the gift and after fleeing New York ahead of a murder charge, Loki had taken her in when they met in Nice. She had only stabbed a lout who tried to force himself on her; hardly a crime in Loki’s book and Darcy was an excellent housekeeper. Considering the shortcomings of some of the other applicants, manslaughter was nothing. And he liked Darcy, she was bright and funny and the nearest thing he had to a friend.

Within minutes of collapsing into bed, Loki was asleep, but it was fitful and troubled by the reek of smoke and brimstone. When he did wake, the sun was high and his head no longer throbbed, but he was still a little weak. Getting to his feet, Loki wandered about his room, coming to stand before the long mirror in the corner. Naked, he regarded himself in the glass critically. He was objectively beautiful, all slender lines and silky white skin. His face could have been sculpted by one of the Greats. With eyes as green as summer and glossy black curls like midnight, he was lovely. Yes, his body was strange in its form, but he could give no end of pleasure to any partner, man or woman. Surely beauty and the giving of pleasure counted for more than conforming to one mold or another.

“No mortal can appreciate what you are, my sweet.”

Loki startled at the voice and the hands on his hips, though only for a moment. He had not heard Thor enter, but he relaxed into his hold soon enough. It was good to be held and he smiled back at his lover in the mirror. When Thor’s arms encircled his waist, Loki melted.

“You should be cherished, your powers respected and feared. No one as special as you should be forced to hide and live in shame,” Thor rumbled against Loki’s neck, a hand trailing up that pale stomach.

Rough fingers circled around Loki’s small breast, causing his nipple to harden without being touched. Letting his eyes fall closed, Loki gasped and arched into the strong hands. Thor moved to cup both breasts, playfully running his thumbs over the pebbled flesh that begged for his attention.

“Give me what I want and you will never again feel shame or fear,” the lord swore his vow hot against Loki’s ear.

Looking over his shoulder, Loki met those blue eyes and murmured, “What do you ask of me?”

“I want you, Loki,” Thor told him fiercely, his hands tightening a little on his small breasts. “I want your heart, your mind, your body, your very soul. Together we could make magnificent children…children who could chase down the sun and swallow the moon. Submit to me and I will love you for all that you are. Your honey and your venom. Only agree to be mine and I will give you everything you have ever desired.”

“My soul?”

“Oh yes, your soul, my little viper. Give me your soul, and the rest of you, and you will be loved and treasured always. I would let you bear your fangs, flash your scales, twist your coils around my neck. You would be free.”

It would be so easy to tilt his head up and accept the kiss hanging on Thor’s lips and all the promises with them. What was his soul anyway? He was already damned. His submission would mean love and safety. Thor was strong and powerful; a stone wall behind which Loki could live in comfort. It would be so good to be loved for all he was. No more hiding, no more lying. His lips were parted, ready to accept, when a thought wriggled its way into his mind and he pulled up short.

Full lips only a hair’s breadth from Loki’s, Thor breathed, “Accept my love, Loki. I have loved you from the moment I saw you.”

That did not seem right, but Loki could not quite understand why. Thor’s embrace was warm and safe, his touch gentle, and yet, something in the deep recesses of Loki’s brain was screaming that he was in danger. Why? The edges of his vision became blurry as he shook his head.

“No...no! You called me a witch, an abomination,” Loki recalled, his mind’s eye suddenly full of the look of horrified disgust on that handsome face. This man had thrown him to the ground and threatened to beat him. The world tilted dangerously before his eyes as he said, slowly, “…You do not love me. You nearly forced yourself on me. Why do you want my soul?”

“That was the ill-wishing, not me. You said so yourself. I want all of you,” Thor answered smoothly as his fingers moved to lightly twist Loki’s nipples, making him squirm with pleasure. “All of you, Loki.”

“No, you said my soul,” Loki argued, his mind working uncommonly slow.

Something was wrong, very wrong. When Loki tried to pull away, Thor’s hold on him tightened until it was painful. He whined in pain as his nipples were twisted hard. Struggling, he beat his fists against the man holding him and thrashed to no avail. The reflection in the mirror was no longer Thor, but something else, dark and twisted, wearing his face like a mask. Loki screamed and the thing pressed him against the cold glass of the mirror.

“No! No, you cannot have me,” Loki sobbed frantically. “Leave me be, demon! I am not yours!”A rough hand slid between his flesh and the glass and forced its way between his thighs and sharp teeth pressed into his neck. Though he fought, he could not stop the now clawed hand from finding his most private place as he shrieked, “No! I am not yours!”

“You will be mine, little viper,” the thing promised, its breath burning the nape of his neck. “One day you will find yourself alone and lost. On that day, I will be waiting for you. It is fate. Our fate. Run if you want, hide, I will always find you.”

“No,” Loki cried, throwing himself out of bed. Swaying, he looked around wildly, confused to find himself alone in his room. It was early morning, the light coming in through the window still grey. “A-a dream,” he realized dazedly.

Relieved, Loki collapsed back on his bed and plucked at the nightgown that sweat had pasted to his skin. The fabric pulled on his hips and it stung. Confused, Loki carefully pulled the nightdress up over his legs. On his hips, just where the meat of his thighs joined, were three long scratches that had not been there when he went to bed.

I will always find you, little viper. Your little salt circle cannot keep you from me

When Darcy came to check on him later, he was still in his nightgown, surrounded by his tarot cards, books on dream divination, rune stones, and star charts. He had consulted each and received the same answer. He could not leave London and he could not hide from the dark thing that had marked him. Holding up the Lovers card, Loki felt a pit open in his stomach. The portents had all been clear about one other thing; he needed Lord Odinson.

***

Thor slept poorly that night, his dreams haunted by his friend. The night was sweltering, the air so thick it was like breathing underwater, their shirts painted to their backs with sweat. A camp of Belgian soldiers ready to drink and talk and gamble had seemed like fine company after their own small party had been alone in the jungle for days. It had all been good fun, until Fandral, drunk and overconfident, had accused a man of cheating at cards. One moment, Thor was trying to defuse the situation and the next, his best friend was choking on blood. Fandral died in his arms, a knife in his back.

He woke in a cold sweat and poured himself a whiskey. After a drink and a splash of cold water on his flushed face, Thor returned to bed and went back to sleep. At first, he drifted in half formed dreams until a figure in black ghosted towards him through the mists of unfinished dreams. Loki, she glowed like the moon, her eyes bright, and lips turned up in a wicked smile that made his heart leap. Suddenly, she was beneath him on the divan as she had been the other night, but she was eager and welcoming. Her breasts were bare, he long legs wrapped around his hips. He wanted her, even knowing what she was. Just as he was about to lift her skirt, she began to laugh and shoved him away. Though not as disturbing as the first dream, it still robbed him of his rest and left him staring at the ceiling as he lay in bed.

When he did wake, Thor was irritable and short with everyone but his staff. Mood seriously dampened, he spent the morning hunting grouse with his friends and riding through the countryside. Even after excreting himself and socializing, Thor was still not feeling himself. The moment his mind was not fully engaged, it returned to the dreams that had haunted him that night. His rough treatment of the Madame still made his skin crawl. Though Fandral’s death did hound him, it was Loki who truly preoccupied him. He could almost smell her perfume, even while standing in a field amid horses and hounds.

Once she was in his mind, he could not banish her and soon Thor found he had so many questions. The Madame was some kind of witch and she had magic, but how? Of course he was skeptical still, he was a logical man and he knew magic and witches were not real. But then, he had witnessed Loki work magic, hadn’t he? Then there was the entire city of questions he had regarding her life. Her body was unlike anything he had known was possible. Could she truly have had a husband? He knew he was not at all in a position to ask such questions, but he still burned to know the answers.

“Honestly, Thor,” his friend, Volstagg complained. “Where is your head? You missed that grouse completely!”

Rolling her eyes, Lady Sif shouldered her riffle and said, “He is still thinking about his encounter with the Madame.”

Sif was one of the most impressive shots Thor had ever met and despite the mixed feelings about women joining the hunt, no one who had seen her shoot ever complained about her presence there. Of course, Sif would not have paid them any mind if they had. She walked through life with her head held high and stride even. Now that he was looking at her, Thor realized there was some similarity between his friend and Madame Melusine. They were both ladies who refused to bow to social norms. It was part of what drew him to Sif, and the Madame, he supposed.

Thor harrumphed as his friends laughed, “I did not sleep well last night. It has nothing to do with her or any woman.”

“Are you feeling well,” Hogun asked, his dark eyes penetrating, reminding Thor of a crow. He cocked his head to the side and commented, “You have been acting strangely in the last few days.”

“Perhaps you have worn yourself out,” Volstagg suggested thoughtfully. Stroking his beard in his pensive tick, the big man commented carefully, “Well, you have been…sewing your wild oats since you came back to England.”

The others made noises of assent, but said nothing more. Thor looked closely at his friends, the people he had known his whole life, and realized they were all acting as if they expected him to fly off into a fit of temper. Gods, only a few days ago, he probably would have. His temper had always been a bit short, but since leaving Africa, he had been increasingly erratic and prone to rages. Now that he was really looking back on his conduct, he realized they had every reason to be wary of him. He had been a wild thing, careening from lust to greed to fury without warning.

Again beset by shame, Thor told them, “I think I have done just that. No more carousing for me, I’ve worn myself out,” he decided.

“What will you do with all your free time,” Sif joked sardonically. “Come now, are we hunting or having a tea party? There’s game afoot.”

Thor grumbled and lifted his gun, but even after being coaxed into focusing, he was still not on form and the hunt went poorly. His friends teased him, clearly trying to lighten his mood, but it did not help. In his mind, a list of sins and crimes was growing by the minute and even the Madame’s words did not ease his guilt. He cut the hunting trip short and returned home where he was at least be free to brood in peace. A few hours cloistered in his study did little to lighten his heart, though, and his mind remained on the mystic with the feline smile. Was she well after her ordeal? He found he needed to know.

As he was sitting down to tea, he called his most trusted servant, Jenkins, and said, “I would like you to take a tin of the lavender tea around to this address.” He handed Jenkins a slip of paper with an address and added, “Do not tell whoever receives you who sent it, but enquire after the lady’s health.”

“Very good, sir,” Jenkins responded with only the slightest twitch of an eyebrow to note that he knew who lived at that address.

Drumming his fingers on the table, Thor had an idea, “Oh, and bring some of the pears that came from Italy today.”

He waited impatiently for Jenkins to return and paced a rut in the polished parquet floor of his study. With every tick of the grandfather clock, his unease grew. Surely Jenkins should have returned by now, unless the Madame was terribly ill. She had spoken of something dark hunting her and she had seemed almost crazed. What if she was suffering some sort of mental break after what he had done to her? He had heard of women going mad after being assaulted and, if he was frank, she might have been a little mad before they met.

The longer he thought on it, the more likely it seemed that Thor was the cause of the Madame’s distress and possible illness. As if he had not trespassed against her and basic decency enough, he might have driven a woman of delicate mind raving mad. If that were the case, Thor despaired of ever redeeming himself. Sick to his stomach at the very idea, he was in a state of barely contained hysteria when he heard a clatter in the yard that warned of a visitor.

Not five heartbeats later, his Butler, Mr. York, entered wearing a harried expression and accounted, “Lady Gertrude Aslög, to see you, sir.”

Groaning, Thor waved to signal that York could show his great aunt in, not that he could have turned her away. The woman was a Viking in taffeta and not one to be gainsaid. Sensing an impending rebuke, Thor crossed to the sideboard and poured himself a brandy. He heard her before he saw her, the irritable click of his aunt’s cane coming before the woman herself. She was tall and handsome, a beauty in her day, with grey hair and the sharp eyes of a hawk.

“Aunt Gertrude,” he welcomed her with a forced smile. “I did not expect to see you today. To what do I owe this surprise visit?”

Instead of answering him, Gertrude gave him a haughty sniff and perched on one of the armchairs by the fire. She looked him up and down critically, her blue eyes catching on the drink in his hand as her mouth turned to a thin, severe line. Thumping her cane on the Oriental rug in irritation, she glared at him as she had when he was a boy, waiting for him to confess his crimes to her and accept the punishment.

“As though you cannot guess,” She harrumphed, fixing him with the sort of disapproving glare only old ladies are capable of. “Your conduct these last weeks has been shameful, to say the least, but now you have gone too far, Thor.”

Genuinely bemused, Thor asked, “To what are you referring?”

 

She scoffed and bobbed her head like a chicken as she snapped, “Where do I begin? From the moment you staggered off the boat from Africa you have been living like a libertine! Carousing with loose women, drinking, gambling! To see you carrying on, one would assume you were a sailor on shore leave and not an earl!”

“Aunt Gerddy, I’m hardly the only young man who—”

“You are the only young man who I care about,” she shot back, cutting of his half hearted platitude. “Don’t think I did not hear about your shocking behavior at Lady Dorset’s party and that is not the worst of it.”

Thor was honestly confused now. All the accusation she had leveled against him were just, but he could not think what more there was. His dealings with the Madame were a secret and Gertrude had listed his other sins. What other grave sins had he committed?

“Do you deny it,” she demanded.

With a heavy sigh, Thor confessed, “I have been drinking more than I ought and perhaps keeping company with less than reputable women, yes.”

“And that French trollop, what have you to say of her? That Melansene woman or whatever her name is.”

His mouth hung open for a moment before he could find his voice and he said, “The Madame is hardly an acquaintance, I don’t know what you are implying, aunty, really.”

“Oh don’t you,” she shrilled, narrowing her eyes over her spectacles. “Did you no go with her to her home, unaccompanied, last night? It’s the talk of London,” she clucked and punctuated her accusation with another thump of her cane.

Damn the woman was like a gossip magpie.

“She fainted and I escorted her home,” Thor told her in his most reasonable tone. “That is all, Aunt Gerddy, I swear. The gossip mongers will turn anything into a scandal, you know that. I admit that I have behaved poorly since my return, but you have my word that I mean to change my ways from here on out.”

Sneering down her aristocratic nose, Gertrude sniped, “And to what can we attribute this sudden change of heart? Henry V you are not. Before you left for Africa, I would never have believed this of you, but since you came home, I hardly recognize you.”

“It was actually Madame Melusine,” he admitted. Choosing a delicate path between truth and fiction, Thor went on, “I was rude to her at Lady Dorset’s party and she very articulately told me exactly what she thought about that. The words spoiled, arrogant, and reckless were used,” he recalled when a grimace. “We next met at the assembly last night. I was still smarting from her dressing down and offered to escort her home when she took ill as a means of making amends for my past behavior.”

After what felt like an age, Gertrude asked, “And you swear that was all? You haven’t been dallying with that French charlatan? Do you know what they say about her?”

“No, aunty,” Thor moaned as he dropped into the opposite chair. “No, there was no dallying of any kind. She was in no state for anything like that, ask Lady Dorset. And I know she’s a spiritualist.”

“And an advocate of buggery,” Gertrude hissed, reminding him of an angry goose. “She is friends with that degenerate Irishman, Wilde. And there are worse things said of her. This Madame associated with the scum of Paris. Prostitutes and artists and writers,” she told him.

Thor resisted the urge to ask if she thought those three were on the same level of moral degradation, instead saying, “I read that editorial and she merely pointed out the hypocrisy in the system. As for past deals, I know no more than you do. There is a lot of talk and no substance behind it. Even if there was, I only helped her return home safely.”

“Swear it, Thor,” his aunt demanded. “Swear to me that you will have no further dealings with that woman.”

Mild irritation at a meddlesome old lady turned into indignation. Throwing himself from the chair, Thor reminded her, “I am a grown man, aunty. You cannot forbid me from associating with anyone. Besides, Madame Melusine might be a bit bohemian, but she isn’t the depraved harlot you seem to think she is. If we cross paths, I have no intention of further insulting the woman.”

“Your actions reflect on this family, Thor,” she argued sourly. “I have a right to speak up when your behavior reflects poorly on me and our family name.”

Swiftly running out of patience, Thor said, “Yes, but I have the right to ignore it. The title, the estates, the money, it’s in my name, you can’t punish me like when I was a boy.” Ready to be done with the conversation, he sighed, “I mean to comport myself with dignity going forward. No more drunken carousing or whores or gambling.” She opened her mouth, but sensing her next words, he interrupted, “And I will think about…” He drained the last of his drink, knowing his next words would come back to bite him, then confided, “I will think about finding a wife.”

“Julia Dorset,” she suggested pointedly.

“Not Julia Dorset,” he retorted. “But I am open to the idea of marrying, just not one of your friends’ cow-eyed daughters. You’ve always said I need a wife who will keep me in line like my father,” he joked, hoping to lighten the mood.

Her elegantly wrinkled face twitched and then broke into a grudging smile before she relented with a small laugh, “Oh very well, you wicked boy.”

With the storm receding, Thor could mollify his aunt with contrite words and lavender tea. He loved Gertrude, for all her meddling, and Thor knew he had been acting like a barbarian since his return to England. Of course, he could hardly tell her that his wild and desolate lifestyle had been part of a curse. It sounded like a pathetic attempt at a lie, or worse, the first signs of madness. Once he had allayed her fears, they actually had a fairly enjoyable visit. By the time he handed her back into her carriage, Gertrude was smiling, though she wrung another promise of good behavior out of him before she left.

 

Once again alone in the peace of his study, Thor sank into his chair for a much needed moment of quiet, but a tap on the door brought him up short. The footman had been waiting after returning from the Madame’s. Thanking the stars for Jenkins’ good sense not to interrupt while Gertrude was in the house, Thor waved him in. He did not want to think of the kind of explosion that would have occurred had his aunt found out he was sending the seer gifts.

Relieved, Thor greeted him, “Ah, Jenkins, were you successful? Was the Madame well?” he demanded, ignoring Jenkins’ bemused expression. “Did you see her?”

Nodding deferentially, Jenkins said, “Yes, my lord. I caught a glimpse of the Madame as she dined, but her housekeeper told me her lady was well.”

“Did she ask who sent you?”

“She did, but I did not say,” Jenkins assured him politely. When his lord indicated he wished to hear more, the servant said, “Ah, she sounded pleased; I could hear her from the other room. Miss Darcy thanked me.”

Foot tapping briskly, Thor thanked Jenkins and dismissed him.

At least Madame Melusine was not driven to madness, thankfully. Relieved, Thor exhaled deeply and took a few minutes to regain his composure. He had a chance to make things right, at least. The how of it would be more difficult, but not impossible. At least, Thor fervently hoped it was possible. At the very least, he would try.

***

“Pears,” Loki trilled brightly, his humor improving dramatically with the unexpected gift. Reaching into the box, he plucked one up and breathed in its sweet, warm scent, savoring the ripe flesh brushing against his lips. “Did he say nothing else?” he asked curiously.

Darcy shook her head, “No Madame, only that it was a gift and the sender wished to remain unknown. It’s very mysterious.” Poking around in the shredded newsprint bedding, she exclaimed, “Oh, there’s tea as well.” The housekeeper lifted up a shiny tin with a bright red label and posh lettering. “They sent the good stuff,” Darcy told him conspiratorially.

“The pear blossom means friendship, unity, and hope,” Loki said thoughtfully, rolling the fruit between his hands gently. “An odd choice, really. If a suitor heard I was taken ill, I would have expected oranges or limes… I wonder who sent this.”

“Well,” Darcy said bracingly. “Since we aren’t to go to Malta after all, you’ll have plenty of time to discover them.”

Loki stuck his tongue out at her and made a face, “I know. I was looking forward to a change of scenery too, but all the signs warn against travel. Whether I like it or not, I am meant to be in London.” Tugging playfully at her apron strings, Loki sighed wistfully, “Ah well, next season perhaps. Maybe even Greece, if the place is stable, if the Ottomans haven’t invaded. I’ve heard delicious things about the island of Crete.”

Grinning, Darcy bustled off to make tea and, no doubt, wait for the nervous young postman she had been tormenting lately. The poor boy was totally unprepared for Darcy’s American forthrightness and ample charms. It was a daily source of entertainment for him to watch his pretty housekeeper bat her lashes and turn the postman scarlet. Last week, the poor boy had tripped over his own feet and fallen off the stoop. With the post arriving ten times a day, the height of modern convenience, there was no shortage of good drama on his doorstep. Eager for a good laugh, Loki peeked out the front window in hopes of spotting the pitiable man.

Disappointed, Loki returned to the little wooden crate and the mystery it held. He had more than one admirer and this was not his first unexpected anonymous gift. The difference was, all those before had been sent by people who actually wanted to be found out. Generally there was some clue that hinted at the sender’s identity or, at the very least, a note. The men who had been paying him court recently would all have given him a hint. After searching through the paper packing, Loki called for Darcy, but his hunch that some clue had been left in the tea tin bore no fruit. Thwarted, Loki dropped into the chair at his tea table and regarded the box pensively.

He did have one theory, though it seemed rather silly. Running a finger over the stamp burned into the wood, Loki considered. The mark was Italian, the fruit perfectly ripe and unblemished, which meant the giver was someone of great means and connections abroad. That narrowed the field a little, but not nearly enough. Giving up on mundane means of discerning the truth, Loki took up one of the pears and again breathed in its sent.

After a moment, he closed his eyes and he brushed his tongue against the cool flesh as he would the skin of a lover’s neck and murmured, “Tell me your secret.”

He tasted fresh air, rain, ozone, leather, something exotic, and clean aftershave. Behind his eyes he saw sunlight golden hair and eyes as blue as the summer sky. Smirking, Loki pressed a hot kiss to the suddenly warm flesh of the fruit, knowing the sender would feel it against his skin as acutely as if Loki had kissed him on the cheek. Chuckling under his breath, Loki broke the connection and bit into the pear and enjoyed the sweet juice running down his chin.

When he finished his treat, Loki sat at his writing desk and penned a short note;

My Lord,


Thank you for your kind gift. It was as greatly appreciated as it was unexpected. Perhaps, next time, you will recall that I am a seer and put your name on the package.

Warmest Regards,

Madame L. Melusine

A few hours later, Loki was reclining on his favorite chaise lounge reading his old copy of Pride and Prejudice when Darcy brought him a letter. Judging by her grin, the young postman had delivered it and the housekeeper had pestered him to her great delight. Disappointed to have missed the show, Loki insisted she regale him with the tale before he even looked at the letter. Only when he was wiping tears from his eyes did he bother to read the name of the sender.

Dear Madame,

I fear I cannot take credit for the gift you received. Though I am relieved to hear your health has improved. No doubt you will be well enough to delight us with your gifts at the next party Lady Dorset throws.

Best regards,

Thor Odinson

“Oh, honestly,” Loki chortled as he read the short note Lord Odinson had sent by the evening post. “What a terrible liar. What can he mean by it?”

The next day was Lady Hurley’s charity picnic at Kensington Park and Loki was expected to attend. As little as he liked outdoor events, it was necessary that he show himself during the day every once in a while for the sake of propriety and to quell the rumors that he was some sort of vampire. He even wore white, choosing a lace blouse and deep green skirt. Darcy took great pleasure in affixing the jaunty, wide-brim straw hat to his head and tying the silk ribbon under his chin. She knew how little he liked wearing anything that did not fit with his usual dark aesthetic. It was bad for his brand.

“Gardenias and pear blossoms,” Darcy noted as she adjusted the foliage in his hat. “What will people think?”

Loki laughed, “What is the purpose of my life if not to make people talk?” Darcy snorted in a very unladylike manner and grinned at him wickedly.

Pear blossoms meant friendship and hope, while gardenias symbolized purity, love, and refinement, but that was not why his choice would make people talk. There was another meaning commonly used for the gardenia; a hidden love or secret admirer. It would certainly have people hot with speculation, but the true joke was only for one person.

Looking over Darcy’s smart green and white striped dress, Loki commented, “You look very pretty in your Sunday best. Do you have some other victim in your sights or is the postman to meet you there,” he teased as he tugged on one of her curls.

“No,” she said in mock offence. When Loki treated her to a disbelieving look, she chuckled and admitted, “Oh, alright. That footman who works in the Grant household, the one with the freckles, I was hoping to turn his head.”

“Vicious siren,” Loki accused as if shocked. “Perhaps we should leave London before you break the heart of every young man in the city!”

“Only the handsome ones,” Darcy countered, her smile wide. “And you’re sure to break your fair share of fragile male hearts.”

Taking Darcy’s arm, Loki headed to the door as he asked, “Well what else would we do with our time? Embroider cushions? I think not.”

It was a lovely day, if a little too warm for Loki’s taste. It was one of those rare early summer days where the sun shone bright in a sky the color of a robin’s egg. The scent of flowers and fresh cut grass perfumed the breeze and excited voices echoed from the open park. Loki straightened his hat and scanned the crowd for acquaintances. Oddly, there seemed to be more unfriendly faces than he had expected.

The park was full of booths and games meant to fleece money from wealthy people so they could say they had given to charity. Such events were a nice way for London’s elite to show how caring they were without actually having to interact with those less fortunate. There would be money raised today, but Loki could not help but think that more good would be done if these people actually went and volunteered at the church missions and slums of London, though the peerage of the realm would be as likely to set themselves on fire as rub elbows with the truly poor. Having been in such desperate straits himself, Loki often gave his time to such missions, not that he publicized it as these people did.

“Do you need me, Madame?” Darcy asked excitedly as she shielded her eyes from the sun.

“No, my dear, go and enjoy yourself.”

Walking through the crowd of gaily dressed people, Loki searched for his friends and tried to avoid losing his hat to a brisk wind. He caught the eye of Anne Basset, a young lady with whom he frequently socialized, but she turned away sharply, giving him her shoulder. Julia Dorset waved tentatively, but her friends quickly drew her away. As he walked among them, Loki became aware of a hissing whisper going through the crowd.

“Wilde,” he heard someone mutter disapprovingly.

Ah, now he understood. He was being shunned for his public defense of his disgraced friend Oscar Wilde. With everything else going on in his life, Loki had forgotten about the letter he had written to the papers. Poor Oscar, the delicate dandy, condemned to hard labor and societal stigma for daring to love another man. Loki had to stand up for him, even if had not been able to dissuade him from his foolish tactics in court. Though it looked as if his social currency was all but spent, Loki could not regret defending his friend.

Curious to see just how badly he had damaged his reputation, Loki continued to wander through the crowd, looking for anyone who might be sympathetic. He saw several people he had considered the sort of shallow friends of high society, but they all turned up their noses as if he carried a foul stench. Among his new detractors was the young Sir Andrew Manley, who had so ardently courted him only last week. All the constancy of a weathervane, Loki snorted derisively.

Loki was not particularly hurt by this sudden plunge of his popularity, he hardly cared for most of those people anyway, they were silly and vain. It did annoy him that women whose husbands frequented brothels and kept mistresses could turn on Wilde for his affairs with another man. What was the difference, really? No one had been harmed, none of his lovers accused him of assault or rape. Gods knew more than a few of the gentlemen of the court were guilty of worse and they were still warmly received by all these hypocrites.

“Loki, my dear,” a voice called, the greeting pointedly loud. Turning he saw Victoria Fowlhurst coming towards him, her expression troubled. When she reached him, the girl said, “Well, you’ve ruffled some feathers this time. What possessed you to write the Times?”

Folding his arms stubbornly over his chest, Loki rejoined, “You know damn well Oscar did nothing to deserve the punishment he was given. It’s a terrible miscarriage of justice.”

Looking around furtively, Victoria whispered, “That may be, but you throwing away your social standing isn’t going to help me, Loki.”

“Perhaps, but I couldn’t just pretend it was right,” Loki huffed. “If they’re so determined to shun me I will just go back to the Continent. I’ve nothing to keep me in London,” he lied easily. Victoria did not need to know about demons and curses. “Should you be associating with me?” Loki asked seriously. “I would hate for you to catch my social leprosy. It’s catching you know and you can hardly afford it while trying to secure that boy of yours.”

Lifting her chin, Victoria said with surprising conviction, “If you can stand by Mr. Wilde, Ican stand by you, Loki. They will find something else to be offended by in a few weeks.”

Resolutely, the normally mild Victoria looped her arm through Loki’s and marched him to the refreshment stand with all the dignity a nineteen year old girl in pink muslin could muster. Loki was honestly touched by her stalwart friendship. He would not have begrudged her for avoiding him; her father was a strict man and Victoria was still in the market for a suitable husband. Taking Loki’s side would cost her.

Squeezing Victoria’s hand, Loki said earnestly, “Thank you, dear friend. I cannot express how grateful I am, but please, do not risk too much on my account.”

Stopping to get them both punch, Victoria sniffed, “I risk losing fair-weather friends and nothing more. What have I done, anyway? Kept faith with a dear friend who only spoke the truth?”

“You are a lily among thorns, Miss Fowlhurst.”

Waving her fan at him, she laughed, “Oh hold that silver tongue of yours, Madame.”

Once they had cheese and cress sandwiches, pound cake, and punch on their ridiculously dainty plate, the two wandered down to the shady trees beside the pond to eat in peace. They found a little bench and watched the swans glide across the green water like fine ladies across a dance floor. Loki had always admired swans; they were beautiful and graceful and perfectly willing to bludgeon fools with their deceptively strong wings.

Sipping at his dainty cup of punch, Loki spotted an unusually tall figure among a cluster of young men. Lord Odinson stood some five yards away, closer to the water, with a group of his friends. When their eyes met, Loki raised a hand in a tentative greeting and was relieved to receive a smile and a respectful nod.

“Well, it seems our little party of exiles might have company,” Victoria noted slyly.

Chapter Text

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Chapter Text

The day was fine and bright, perfect for hunting, and Thor had no desire to waste such a lovely afternoon making mindless small talk. These charity events were always dreadfully dull, but there would be a flock of pretty young ladies whom he could make a show of considering for marriage. He had no desire to marry just yet, but it would please Aunt Gertrude and keep her off his scent for a time. Of course, he would pay for that suggestion, as she had run to tell all of her friends with eligible daughters that he was in want of a bride.

Thor had hardly arrived before he was accosted by various acquaintances of his aunt’s and their young female relatives who all batted their eyelashes and giggled at him attractively. While he enjoyed feminine attention, he did not take pleasure in it when they were all trying to rope him into matrimony. It was not that he was totally against marriage; he had always assumed he would marry someday, but these people all seemed to think his voicing an interest in the institution meant he wanted to find himself at the church doors tomorrow. Jane Austen was not exaggerating, he reflected regretfully.

Much to his relief, salvation arrived in the form of his friend’s younger sister who was without an escort. Jon had been a little hesitant to let Thor accompany his sister, and Thor did not need to wonder why, but he swore on his mother’s soul that he would be a proper gentleman and Jon relented. If nothing else, it was a step in rehabilitating his reputation. Miss Lucy Aster was a pretty and vivacious girl and good company. With a young lady on his arm, he could at least hope to avoid the more tenacious women looking for a husband. She was a very pleasant shield indeed, though it soon became clear that she too had heard the rumor that he was thinking of settling down.

Lucy was a proper lady and his aunt would no doubt take this as a sign he meant to court the girl, though she was barely seventeen and too young in his opinion. Even so, she was a very pretty thing with a heart-shaped face and large brown eyes and a warm smile. She wore a demure, but frilly frock of pale pink with an equally lacy hat perched on her abundant blonde curls. The entire time their party was strolling down to the park, Lucy kept her eyes on him, making Thor feel a little uncomfortable, but he ignored it. She was just a girl after all.

Pleasant though she was Thor was more interested in meeting up with his friends than entertaining a young girl all day. It was honestly a relief when he was able to pawn her off on a group of her friends and escape to a place where the men were congregating. Thankfully, two of them were smoking, which meant the women would steer clear, as it was considered rude to approach a man with a lit cigar as he would be obliged to put it out to speak with her. Using the smoke as a cover, Thor breathed a sigh of relief to be free at last. Escaping to the lakeside for some masculine company, Thor joined his friends and was soon drawn into a debate involving a polo match played a few days before. In their small herd, he was mostly safe from ‘eligible’ ladies. Volstagg, who was no horseman, was loudly arguing his point between bites of finger sandwiches. It was entertaining to see the large man get worked up over a sport he could not play. The conversation got heated and Thor rather enjoyed the boisterousness of it.

Their talk turned more serious when Volstagg asked about the situation in the East End. Apparently there was a terrible case of influenza that was sweeping through the poorest parts of London and the local authorities were overwhelmed. It was rumored that London’s elite might flee the city for safe havens like Bath and Ramsgate.

As he scanned the crowd of well dressed elite searching for other acquaintances, Thor spotted two women sitting alone on a bench. They were clearly part of the charity festival, but something set them apart, almost as if they were being avoided or avoiding others. It took him a moment to realize why. In delicate white lace and gilded by sunlight, Madame Melusine was transformed from mystical spiritualist to charming young lady. Out of her dark clothes and usual setting, she seemed like a totally different person, more approachable and softer somehow. Noticing his interest, the Madame gave him a graceful wave which he returned with a slightly surprised smile.

With her letter defending Wilde fresh in everyone’s mind, he was not surprised to see the Madame was suffering some backlash. It was unfair, of course, but there was little he could do about high society chastising her for her radical views. She was not alone, he was glad to see, as one other lady seemed to be sharing her banishment. Thor thought he had met the other woman, but he could not be sure.

Noting the object of Thor’s attention, Hogun remarked, “The Madame.”

“What of her,” Thor asked a little more defensively than he had intended.

Shrugging, Jon Aster said, “Well, everyone is talking about how you went home with her the other night. Speculation is rampant,” his friend warned.

Thor snorted, “I did not go home with her. She fainted and I helped her to her door as a favor, nothing more. You’re as bad as Aunt Gertrude with the gossip.”

“Oh, don’t be sour,” Volstagg cajoled, slapping Thor on the back. “We only worry for your reputation. Even you admitted you’ve been acting rashly of late and the Madame is known for having a string of suitors.”

Thor turned on his friend sharply, demanding, “And these suitors claim she allowed them liberties? That is a lady’s reputation you are threatening with that talk.”

“Good gods, Thor,” Jon exclaimed. “You haven’t been courting her have you?”

Bristling with irritation, Thor retorted, “No, but as gentlemen we should be above spreading gossip that might ruin an innocent woman. Do you have proof she has done anything more than flirt like a Frenchwoman?”

Though he was right, Thor knew he had convinced no one. Even he was not sure why the suggestion of the Madame’s affairs would anger him so much. Despite his efforts, it did look like he was defending her because he was secretly among her suitors and his escorting her home only added fuel to the fire. Aunt Gertrude’s wig would catch fire from the sheer heat of her displeasure when she heard that one, Thor had no doubt. Still, he could not simply bite his tongue and let people slander a good, if admittedly odd, woman.His friends shared a concerned look before Hogun said, “There is no proof, but she has a herd of suitors, or she did before that letter to the Times.”

“Have you seen it?” Jon asked, scandalized. “She defended Oscar Wilde in the papers. That’s why she’s off on her own instead of holding court like she normally does.”

“Yes, I have read it,” Thor snapped. “And the Madame acquitted herself very well. Her arguments were well executed and I tend to agree with her. What right does the Crown have to dictate what grown adults do in private?”

The moment the words were out of his mouth, Thor knew he had just succeeded in convincing all of his friends that he was, in fact, having an affair with Madame Melusine. Really Thor was almost impressed with his own flexibility for so perfectly sticking his foot in his mouth. His only consolation was that his friends would not spread the gossip.

“Are you condoning sodomy?” Jon demanded in a hiss as he quickly checked to be sure no one could hear them.

In frustration, Thor grunted, “I am only saying that she had a point. There are crimes that cause real harm and the Crown does nothing, while taxpayer money is spent incarcerating harmless men like Wilde.”

“I…suppose that is one way of looking at it,” Volstagg allowed awkwardly.

It was a good thing Aunt Gertrude had not attended or he would have never heard the end of it. Just then, Lucy Aster arrived with her mother to collect her brother, Jon, and Thor for a picnic lunch. He had planned to avoid sitting with the family for the meal, but now he was grateful to have a polite bulwark between himself and his friends’ speculation.

“I am famished,” the girl announced as she took Thor’s offered arm. “Mother packed her jam tarts. We have a quilt laid out under a willow by the lake,” she told him excitedly.

More interested in the food than the company, Thor allowed himself to be towed towards the picnic. While Mrs. Aster was a bit dull, her kitchen was good enough to make up for it. Miss Lucy was agreeable, the food would be good, and Jon would not be able to needle him about the Madame. Thor could think of worse ways to pass the day. Looking away from Lucy, he realized they were about to pass close by the Madame, who was chatting with her blonde friend.

Gasping excitedly, Lucy cooed, “Oh, my lord, Jon said you are acquainted with the Madame! Would you introduce us, please? I would love for her to read my palm.”

Loosening his collar, Thor allowed, “We have met before, yes.”

“Lucy dear, come away,” Mrs. Aster ordered. “That woman is a disgrace.”

Lucy rolled her eyes and chirped, “She’s a spiritualist, mother, of course she is odd. Please introduce us,” she begged, clinging to Thor’s arm. “I would just adore it if she could tell me who I will marry,” she said excitedly as she batted her lashes up at him.

Over her wide hat, Thor met the eyes of her brother and mother, but neither moved to stop her. Apparently, they were not going to tell the innocent girl why the Madame was in disgrace and Thor certainly was not going to. Seeing no other option, he cursed under his breath. Thor agreed and angled them to pass close to the mystic’s bench while Jon escorted his mother onward. He cleared his throat politely to gain the two women’s attention and paused waiting for the Madame to acknowledge them. After patting her friend’s hand, the seer turned to them and smiled in that feline way she had.

“My Lord Odinson,” she greeted pleasantly as she and her friend stood.

“Madame Melusine,” Thor said coolly, taking her slender hand to press a kiss to the knuckles. When she smiled at him, he explained, “May I introduce you to Miss Lucy Aster? She has expressed a desire to be acquainted with you. Miss Aster has heard all about your gifts.”

The Madame turned her leonine smile on the girl and purred, “Bonjour, mademoiselle. It is lovely to meet you. This is my dear friend, Miss Victoria Fowlhurst.”

“I was hoping you would read my palm, Madame,” Lucy simpered, eagerly holding her hand out to the seer as though she expected her to read it right there.

Embarrassed, Thor tried to interject, “I realize this is not the most opportune moment. Perhaps Miss Aster could make an appointment with you, Madame.”

“Oh, no!” Lucy whined. “Oh, please. I have been dying to know who I shall marry,” the girl pleaded, her big eyes darting between the seer and Thor himself. “Please, Madame Melusine. Everyone says your predictions are the most accurate.”

***

It was almost too amusing to keep a straight face. The girl was a blushing virgin enjoying her debut season and here she was making cow eyes at Lord Thor Odinson, the great hunter and womanizer. She was a lamb flirting with a hungry lion and she had no idea. Foolish child, he needs more than you could ever give, Loki thought pityingly.

Fear no longer bubbled up in his stomach when he saw Odinson after their conversation the other night. Loki believed he had been earnest when he apologized. Maybe it was foolish, but he hoped Odinson would prove to be a good person without the influence of the ill-wishing.

Smiling as sweet as poison, Loki gracefully took the girl’s hand, saying, “Miss Lucy, how good to meet you.” He only glanced at her soft, pink palm for a moment before answering, for he did not care, and needed no magic to know she would never marry the man beside her. “I see your love line is long. You will have good fortune in love… You are young and pretty and know little of the world. Beware mistaking a wolf for a prince. It is not always easy to tell them apart.”

The girl seemed a little disappointed and on the verge of asking again when Loki said, “I cannot foresee everything, my dear. If I could, I would invest my money, make a fortune, and retire to Malta after I bought it from the Crown.”

Odinson’s face was colored a light shade of pink and he tried to avoid Loki’s gaze. The man seemed embarrassed to be seen with the silly young thing, which only made Loki want to laugh all the harder. She did seem rather young for Odinson and Loki wondered if he was escorting her as a favor or if he knew her family well.

“Is that all you see, Madame?” the girl pressed.

Smirking coyly, Loki finished, “You will marry for love, I am sure. Only take care to fall in love with a kind man of good fortune.” Before Miss Aster could ask for more, Loki said, “Good day, miss, my lord.”

He and Victoria had been about to go play some of the fair games when Odinson and the girl had walked by and Loki was getting bored of the little bird. Normally, he did not give readings on the spot, or for free. Odinson had received a reading the night they met only because it was a welcome party in his honor. Loki would have refused the girl, but he was just thankful to have someone willing to speak to him. Not to mention, the discomfort Odinson displayed had been quite entertaining.

Seized by a need for mischief as they parted, Loki threw over his shoulder, “Oh, my lord, you are coming to the assembly at Saint James’ tonight, are you not? How will I pass the evening if you are not there?” Giggling darkly at the girl’s crestfallen expression, Loki and Victoria swept away from them, arm in arm.

She and Victoria continued their stroll down to the picnic area with Victoria giggling behind her fan at the girl’s pouting face. There was a reason they were friends, Loki reflected as she sniggered into his shoulder. Even Victoria had seen how mismatched the pair was. It was obvious that they would not make a happy marriage.

“Poor Miss Aster,” Loki whispered. “How disappointed she will be when Lord Odinson takes a fancy to some other young lady.”

Fanning herself, Victoria commented, “Can you imagine if they did marry? She would be miserable as Lady Odinson. The man is a notorious womanizer.”

“Perhaps he does mean to take a wife now that he has returned from Africa,” Loki conjectured, his lips twitching. “Their wedding will be very grand,” he joked, laughing at Victoria’s undignified snort.

As they came to the place where the games were set up, Victoria asked, “Are you really going to Saint James’ tonight or were you just tweaking Miss Aster’s nose?”

“Well, I am now.”

***

That evening, dressed in complementary gowns of blue and yellow, Loki and Victoria arrived at Saint James’ just as the sun went down. At first, it seemed no one would speak to them in punishment for Loki’s letter to the Times, but then a few of the more progressive young ladies plucked up the courage to approach them. In the lead was Lady Wilhelmina Chandler, the daughter of a baronet. After Lady Wilhelmina greeted Loki, a few more wandered over to join their conversation. Many of the older ladies continued to turn their noses up at them, but Loki was heartened to have support.

“I was shocked to read your letter,” Wilhelmina told him seriously. “But you made some valid points, Madame. There are worse crimes being ignored.”

They discussed the details of Wilde’s case and the issues Loki had highlighted in his letter. Some of the more conservative ladies said the topic was inappropriate, but the suffragettes among the group quickly shot them down. One of Lady Wilhelmina’s friends argued that it was their duty to be educated and involved in the rule of their realm. Eventually, even Lady Dorset drifted into Loki’s circle. Loki knew he was not totally forgiven, but at least he would not be run out of London by a mob with torches and pitchforks.

The conversation turned from such inflammatory subjects to the disappointing lack of gentleman in the main rooms. With only a few older men in attendance, they could not have a dance or even flirt. Most of the young men were off in the billiards room with the tri-fold doors closed to keep out the rest of the gathering. Beyond the doors, the ladies caught glimpses of the gentlemen weathered in a cloud of cigar smoke, no doubt celebrating their social superiority.

After half an hour of inane small talk, he and Victoria were plotting an early escape when he spotted Odinson weaving through the crowd. They met each other’s eyes and Loki smiled as the gentleman changed course to meet them. After their last encounter, Loki was actually pleased to see him as he might also be prevailed upon to shoo some of the young men out of the billiards room to start a dance.

“Good evening, Madame,” Odinson rumbled as he bowed over Loki’s soft hand. Smiling, the lord said, “You are looking particularly enchanting this evening.” With a teasing smile, the lord murmured, “Could I interest you in a game of billiards?”

Loki laughed, but Lady Dorset, who could scent a scandal from a mile away, came out of the crowd and gasped dramatically, “My lord! You know ladies are not allowed in the billiard halls!”

Over the whispers of shock, Odinson reasoned, “Well, perhaps it is time those rules change. Besides, Madame Melusine is a forward thinking woman who does not let such outdated customs constrain her,” the lord said with a cheeky grin. “What do you say, Madame? Are you in a gambling mood?”

Feeling the heat flood up his neck, Loki removed his hand from Lord Odinson’s grip and cast him a cutting look, saying, “My Lord, I do gamble, but only with what I care to lose. I fear you would have me at a great disadvantage. Billiards is not a lady’s game.”

Being salacious for his own amusement was one thing, but to have this arrogant prig suggest that he might consort alone with men was quite another. Irreverent and a little outrageous, he might be, but no one could call his conduct unseemly when it came to men. Flirting and teasing, yes, but nothing that could be used to prove that Loki was loose. He was a well-known flirt with a reputation as something of a vamp, but that was all part of his persona as a fashionably bohemian Parisian. High society would only tolerate so much mischief before he was branded a scarlet woman and shunned. He could feel the gossip breeding behind him and he knew he had to find a way to staunch the flow.

Smiling darkly, Loki tilted his head to the side coquettishly and called to the young women of his acquaintance, “Well, this rogue seems to think I am a lamb lost in the woods to be so easily led away from the flock.” Tapping his smirking lips with one black gloved finger, he said, “I think that deserves some form of punishment, don’t you?”

“Quite right,” clucked one of the old hens. “The young men these days have no decorum.”

“I think such an offence deserves a response of some scale,” Loki told them seriously. “Ladies, our sacred honor has been attacked, I believe this calls for an invasion.”

There were titters from the ladies before Victoria asked, “Whatever do you mean?”

Grinning wickedly up at the lord who now looked rather less sure of himself, Loki told her, “I mean we storm the billiards room. We shall take the hall like Wellington took Waterloo and teach this scoundrel that we ladies stand together.”

“Here, here,” declared Miss Georgette Darling, a scandalously vocal suffragette and one of Loki’s supporters. She was echoed by a few others.

“Ladies, to the billiards room,” gasped old Lady Edmonton.

Laughing brightly, Loki rejoined, “Oh, my lady, don’t look so horrified. It’s the dawn of a new age; the Queen is still on her throne, London is full of electric lights, and before long we might even be able to vote! If our empire can be led by a woman, why should we not play billiards?” When Lady Edmonton puffed up like an angry hen, Loki joked, “Come now, my lady, if I behaved myself whatever would you talk about at tea tomorrow? The rising cost of sugar?”

The older women spluttered and protested, but Loki had stoked the fires of the younger ladies and saw he would succeed tonight. No one would remember exactly what had been said; by tomorrow, it would be reported that one of the gentleman had tried to tease Madame Melusine by suggesting she play billiards and the Madame had lead a joyful assault on the bastion of male supremacy to much amusement from her peers. That was a story Loki could live with.

Tucking his arm through Lord Odinson’s he said dramatically, “Lead on, my lord! Vive la révolution!” Crossing the parlor as if it were a triumphal progress, Loki called for a servant to open the doors to the billiards room and he and seven other ladies entered.

An hour later, Loki had won two rounds of billiards, scandalized many onlookers by teaching Victoria Fowlhurst and Georgette Darling to shoot pool tolerably well, and took £15 off the young men of the assembly. With the doors to the billiards room open onto the main hall, their activities could be monitored and rumors of impropriety kept to a minimum. Ladies playing pool was still sensational, but under the watchful eye of their elders in a reputable assembly such as Saint James’, it could be relegated to the level of scandal reserved for women who rode bicycles in parks and traveled unaccompanied.

Odinson quickly became the lightning rod of the gentlemen’s displeasure when the ladies invaded. There were some flustered complaints, but it was difficult for them to be too unhappy about a bunch of pretty young women joining them. Loki turned on his sparkling charm and soon had everyone at ease. Lord Odinson quickly moved among the men, assuring them the ladies would soon grow bored and return to the main rooms.

While Loki sharked pool and flirted with all the men, he could tell the young lord was watching him as he moved about the room. He seemed to be a little on edge, though that might have been because he was losing money. The cut of Loki’s dress was just low enough to display a little décolletage, which kept drawing the lord’s eye. Before sinking a particularly impressive shot, Loki flicked a playful smirk up at Odinson.

Feeling very smug, Loki sauntered over to Lord Odinson and held out his hand and purred sweetly, “I believe the wager was £2, my lord.” When he dug for his billfold, Loki smirked and leaned close, whispering, “Have a care, sir, with how you handle my reputation, for it is not yours to risk.” When he produced the notes due, Loki offered him a most winning smile and held out his hand. “Let’s shake hands. Shall we be friends?”

Before the lord could answer Georgette Darling rushed up to them, flushed with the £3 she had won and the glass of brandy someone had passed her, trilling, “Madame, where did you learn to play so well? I never would have guessed!”

“My husband was much taken with the game and taught me so that he could practice at home,” Loki lied carelessly. Of course, he was not going to admit to learning to cheat at billiards, and cards, while spending his nights at the Moulin Rouge. What he had done with his life before he had become Madame Melusine was no one’s concern but his own.

Nodding sagely, Georgette exclaimed, a little too loudly, “Oh! They’re playing a waltz! I haven’t had a dance all night!”

“But you have had a glass of brandy and I think that is quite enough,” Victoria said, easing the mostly empty glass from her fingers. “Though a dance would suit me just fine. It is why we came here, after all.”

There was quick agreement among the young people that they had all won, or lost, enough at billiards for the evening and there followed an exodus to the dance floor. Tossing his hair over his very white shoulder, Loki cast a coy look up at Lord Odinson. Most of the others had paired off and taken to the floor, but they lingered behind.

“Should we dance, do you think,” Loki asked thoughtfully. “Or would that be too predictable? I do abhor doing what people expect of me.”

Smiling languidly, Odinson offered his hand saying, “Dancing would be most agreeable, Madame.”

Beaming, Loki took the offered hand and allowed himself to be swept onto the dance floor. It was rare that Loki found a dance partner so much taller than himself. In fact, it was one of the things he and Oscar Wilde had first bonded over as they were both above average in height. Odinson was even taller and broader, which made Loki feel honestly dainty in comparison. It was a pleasant experience.

“Are you pleased with your winnings, Madame,” Odinson inquired politely as he spun them across the dance floor. “Perhaps you should invest it. Or purchase another fine gown like this one,” he suggested as his blue eyes once again traveled over Loki’s body.

“Oh, I am very pleased,” Loki told him brightly. “Even if I had lost money, it would still have been worth it to see the consternation on everyone’s faces.”

They chuckled together before Odinson commented, “You dance very well, Madame.”

“Thank you, I have practiced a great deal. It is a lovely change to have a talented partner who is taller than I am.”

“I can imagine that would be a problem,” he conceded. “Are you enjoying the waltz?”

“Very much, my lord.”

Lord Odinson was a very fine dancer and Loki was enjoying himself immensely. Being taller than most of the men in her circle, Loki did not often dance as few men wanted to look up to their dance partners, and he did not rather enjoy stooping to accommodate. In contrast, Lord Odinson was tall enough to necessitate Loki tilting his head back just a little to meet his eyes. His partner seemed to be enjoying the dance as well, though the slight stiffness in his posture told Loki he had not forgotten what lay hidden under his skirts.

In another life, Loki would have been very taken with the charming, handsome young lord with the easy smile and the sky blue eyes, in fact he rather was, but he would never do more than flirt and tease. Even though Lord Odinson knew his secret, it changed nothing. Though his eyes lingered on the curve of breasts and his big hand held Loki’s back gently, the attraction was superficial. Loki could hardly imagine the man would be able to get over his having a cock. Executing a graceful turn, Loki cast his partner a pensive glance under his dark lashes.

“Tell me, my lord,” he said quietly. “And be truthful, for I have no one else I can ask. What do you see when you look at me? I often wonder how I am perceived by others, but I can hardly get a fair reading…”

Using the steps of the dance to take in Loki’s full appearance, Odinson inquired, “Does it concern you, Madame? How others see you, I mean?”

Moving through the next form in the dance, Loki said quietly, “It could mean my life.”

After another few seconds, Odinson answered, "I see a stunningly beautiful, mysterious, confident woman of means. Well educated and poised, with class and good breeding but with a mischievous side that might frighten some but intrigue others."

Loki smiled at the description Lord Odinson gave and he deeply wished it were true. If he were the woman he described, this night might lead to a very different end. But he was not a woman, not truly, and they both knew it. Despite the full social calendar and numerous acquaintances, Loki was lonely. His steamer trunk of secrets required he keep everyone at arm’s length. His marriage had been built on lies and deceit, but at least with En, Loki had never had to pretend to be anything but what he was. He was always putting on an act for someone and it was so tiring. Lord Odinson was attractive and charismatic and though his temper led him astray, Loki could sense a great deal of good in him. In another life, they would have made a fine match.

Smiling warmly, the lord ventured in an undertone, “Might I ask you something…a bit improper?”

“You may,” Loki rejoined in an undertone. “Though I may choose not to answer.”

Nodding with amusement, he asked, “Your late husband...I have heard several versions of how he passed. He was a young man, was he not?”

“Monsieur Melusine was in his fifties when we met. I fear I was exactly the sort of second wife rich men hope for and old ladies warn against,” Loki explained between turns. “It was consumption; we even moved to Algeria and then Egypt in hopes of improving his health, the warm, dry air, you know.” Sighing, Loki continued his lie, “Sadly, my poor husband lived only a little more than a year after our marriage.”

They talked throughout the dance, and continued on to another, and then a third. When the third song ended, Loki gave a little curtsey before saying, “I need a drink.” It was written all over Odinson’s face how badly he wanted to ask if Monsieur Melusine had known how his body was made.

At the refreshment table, Loki sipped his wine and fanned himself lightly. It was a bit warm in the assembly rooms and being so close to a handsome man was only making his blood run hotter. He knew people were talking, two people could not dance three waltzes together and not raise a few eyebrows, but he could not care. It felt good to be in the arms of a man again and he did not want to give it up just yet. Lord Odinson had stayed beside him, even after they left the dance floor and it pleased Loki more than it should that he kept close enough to brush his arm against his when they moved.

As they stood to the side, watching the next dance, Odinson asked, “What made you ask me about…that?”

Over his wine, Loki said quietly, “I do not care exactly what people think of me in the way most do…but, I do sometimes find myself worrying that someone will guess my secret. There is no one else who knows…that...about me. So I have no one else to ask.” Forcing a cheerful smile, he inclined his head towards a knot of young ladies not far off, observing, “Your admirers will be plotting my death after I’ve monopolized your dance card like this. Perhaps you should ask one of them to stand up with you next.”

Cocking his head to the side, Odinson shrugged, "If you insist, Madame. Though, I would escort you to your friends first.” Despite that, neither of them made any attempt to move. Instead, Odinson took Loki’s hand again and said earnestly, “Once again, I find myself required to apologize for my behavior. My comments were made in jest, but I should have thought of how it would look…Although, I can see you are more than capable of protecting your own reputation. You would never know the scandal you caused this morning. People clearly adore you.”

“Consider it forgotten,” Loki said, subtly running his fingers over Odinson’s broad palm while he held his hand. Loki smiled sadly, “But you are wrong. I am not adored. I am the entertainment.” Inclining his head, he drew his partner’s attention to the many faces turned towards them, whispering, “See how they watch me? The Bard said ‘all the world’s a stage,’ and for me, it’s true. No one knows what I might say or do and everyone enjoys gossiping about my antics the next day. Inviting me to your ball or assembly ensures your guests will be talking about it tomorrow.” He shrugged delicately. “I do not mind. Being salacious is what I do best…though, it does grow rather wearisome at times. When you perform, there is always a sheet of glass between you and the audience.”

Putting on his best, most stage-worthy smile, Loki shook his hair out and said, “Thank you for dancing with me. As many balls and parties as I attend, I rarely dance and I do so enjoy it. It’s not often I find a partner taller than me, and even rarer when I needn’t worry about them treading on my frock and tearing it.” At the lord’s surprised laugh, Loki joked, “See, I am always saying something very wicked, even when I don’t mean to.”

Sighing theatrically, Loki lamented, “Ah well, I suppose I must release you to go pay court to one of those young ladies over there.”

The ladies in question had shuffled closer while they spoke, all looking as if they simply happened to be congregating there by chance, despite their eyes constantly sliding towards Lord Odinson. Ah, young girls, never as subtle as they think, Loki laughed to himself. Repressing a knowing smile, Loki gestured in their direction with his fan, acting as if it were a mere flick of the fan instead of pointing.

“That one in the pink taffeta, Miss Sarah Anderson, is giving you cow eyes so hard I wonder they haven’t fallen out,” Loki told him without looking. “Her father owns a block a factories and her dowry is very large. Pick her if you like nice, bland virgins. She’ll make a lovely, if unremarkable, housewife.” Under his breath he went on, “Her friend in the blue satin is Miss Eliza Beauchamp, she on the other hand, is a social mountaineer. I can respect her ambition, but she’s a little vicious, even for me. This is her second season and she’s getting hungrier by the day. Beware.” Warming to his subject, he teased, “The other one, Lady Jane Crowley, is sweet, but I have more scintillating conversation from my horse. Poor dear is not very bright at all; too many cousins marrying in her family tree, I think.”

Winking cheekily at the lord, he finished, “Unless you wish to take another turn with me and really scandalize the room, I suggest you pick one. My advice is Miss Anderson, she’s lively enough and she has no fangs.”

Odinson smirked, his eyes bright, and stepped a little closer to Loki. He could feel the heat radiating from the larger man. When his gaze dropped to Loki’s lips, he smiled darkly. Loki sensually toyed with his string of pearls, wrapping them around his finger.

“Fangs,” he rumbled, deep in his chest. “What if I like fangs, Madame?” His full lips twitched up at the corners and he said, “Lead me, and I shall follow, be it the dance floor, your choice of replacement, or anywhere else.”

“Oh, that is a dangerous thing to tell a witch, my lord,” Loki laughed and looped his arm through the lord’s much thicker one. “And equally dangerous to tell a lady who enjoys ruffling feathers wherever she goes. Lucky for you, I fancy another dance and not some real mischief.”

They glided past the knot of unhappy girls and Loki smiled serenely as they took their place on the dance floor. Standing up with the same man four times in one night would be a scandal, but Loki hardly cared. He loved dancing and more people would be talking about his leading young ladies into the billiards room anyway. As long as he and the lord remained in public and did nothing more improper, there would be little enough said about it.

As the music picked up, Loki commented, “I hope you enjoy being the center of gossip, my lord. If you continue to associate with me, there will be talk. There is always talk wherever I go,” he warned softly, his regret clear in his voice.

“They think I am a feral creature,” Odinson reasoned, unconcerned. “I’ve lived in Africa for too long and run too wild. My reputation is not exactly sterling,” he said as he turned Loki gracefully.

“Yes, but they will likely assume…”

Odinson shook his head as he pulled him close, saying, “Yes, but your company is worth it.”

Flushed and surprised, Loki cleared his throat and changed the subject quickly, “Did you hear, there’s been a spike in cases of influenza in Whitechapel? There is some relief work in place, but the disease is so contagious and the area so lawless they are finding it difficult to find anyone to volunteer. “

“I heard that, actually,” Odinson said seriously. “There is a church in Whitechapel that has agreed to host some of us for a few days so we can help them set up clinic space, build bed frames, and haul supplies.”

Brightening, Loki exclaimed, “I have wanted to offer my help, but no one will escort me.”

“Well, it’s hardly the sort of place a lady should go,” the lord explained, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Whitechapel is a cesspit and perilous without the added danger of an influenza outbreak. What if you became ill or ran afoul of some rogue?”

Rolling his eyes, Loki retorted, “Well, I could catch the illness in my home in Belgravia or be attacked on the road. And I want to help those poor people. If some strong, respectable gentleman were to form a party to go to Whitechapel,” he suggested.

Catching his meaning at once, Odinson said sharply, “I will not take you to that godforsaken place, madam. It’s absurd! What would you even do there? You are not a nurse.”

“I volunteered at a hospital in Cairo and Biskra. I have more experience tending the sick than you might think, my lord.”

“That’s as may be, but Whitechapel is –”

“Nothing to the slums of Cairo,” Loki said sharply.

When the dance finished, they were still arguing, the lord unwilling to even consider taking Loki to the affected area despite it being in their city and hardly a journey. Loki, for his part, was sure he could handle himself and only needed a male escort for the sake of propriety. It was so tiresome! Lord Odinson was a huge, imposing man who would scare off any potential criminals. Loki would go alone, but there was no way he could do that safely.

“I want to help those people,” Loki told the lord fiercely. “You even said you and your friends were planning to go!”

Scowling at his wine, Odinson said, “We are going to be doing hard labor; carrying in supplies and building beds for the local hospital. Work for men, not the sort of thing for a lady. You would be more of a burden than a help as I would need to keep an eye on you.” Loki bristled with a sharp response, but the lord hurried on, “If you joined my party, it would be my responsibility to keep you safe.”

Loki would not be gainsaid and by the time they parted ways, it was Lord Odinson who had lost the war. Before departing for the night, they shook hands and agreed to include Loki in the volunteer effort. They agreed to meet a week hence to set out for Whitechapel with the group, bringing supplies with them. The lord was a bit sour when the assembly ended, but Loki was deeply pleased.

***

Thor spent the week trying to come up with some sort of explanation for why Madame Melusine would be joining their company or some way to persuade her not to come. Though she had waved his concerns off, the truth was, it would look questionable. He had sent more than one letter hoping to change her mind, but the woman was stubborn to a fault. It was infuriating, but eventually, Thor gave up and accepted that she would be coming along. She had, at least, found a few other ladies to join her, which would make the situation look more reputable.

Monday morning, he met his friends early to help load the wagon with supplies and ensure they had everything they needed before entering the worst part of London. There would be no nipping to the shop for oranges and tea from Whitechapel. They would be lodging in a local church, sleeping on cots. It was difficult to imagine the refined and delicate Madame sleeping on a cot anywhere. Thor could only hope she would be uncomfortable enough to return to Belgravia after one night of roughing it.

His party was made up of hardy men, most of whom had some experience surviving in the darker parts of the world. Edmond Volstagg was a genial fellow and the only married man of Thor’s close acquaintances. He was a big man, in stature and girth, with a deceptive amount of strength. Next to him, the slightly built archer, Clinton Barton, was easily overlooked, but the man was an amazing hunter and excellent gent with whom to share a pint. The American journalist, Steven Rogers, was nearly as large and well-built as Thor himself. A former soldier, Captain Rogers was a good man who preferred sketching notable events to making them. His old friend, John Hogun, was as competent as he was quiet. All of those men had been with Thor in Africa at some point or other and had proved their mettle. What these hardened men would think of the ladies joining them, Thor could only guess.

Feeling anxious, Thor had sent his party on ahead of him while he made some excuse to check over the second wagon one more time. They had been irritated to be hurried on, but they did not put up much of a fight. Thor was relieved to be greeting the Madame alone. His friends were already making jokes at his expense regarding her.

Whether the Madame could handle the rustic living quarters or not, she showed up right on time and in the company of four other ladies. She disembarked the coach like a queen, her smile wide and unworried. Her companions looked far less pleased, he noted and had to wonder if they would survive the first day. The housekeeper who had threatened him began bossing around his servants as they unloaded the packages from the ladies’ coach.

Irritated, Thor stomped over to the woman and demanded, “What is all this? We aren’t going on holiday! Your Madame will not need a ball gown.”

With more sass than a servant should be capable of, the housekeeper told him, “Those aren’t the Madame’s things. She has brought clothes for the people, blankets, salted meat, hard cheese, dried fruit, and loaves of bread. There’s medicine too.”

“Oh…” Thor mumbled. Huffing, he said, “Alright, I’ll have them make room in the wagon. Are you joining us too, miss?” Thor asked dubiously.

Shaking her head, the housekeeper told him, “No, I’m for Ramsgate, just helping Madame on my way out.” As if summoned, Madame Melusine glided towards them.

Arching a brow, he frowned at the Madame and asked, “Are you sure you want to do this? You could go back with your friends.”

Giving him a tart look, she said, “Yes, let’s get on with it. Have a wonderful holiday, dear,” she told her housekeeper before dismissing her with a kiss on each cheek.

Unlike her fine friends, the Madame was dressed to work. Her glossy black hair was twisted into a prudent bun, her plain black dress and coat covered by a thick apron. She even had face masks tucked into her pockets. The Madame helped to load the wagon while the other ladies sat by. It was obviously not her first time doing something like this; her face was set and her posture determined. If she really had volunteered in places like Egypt, she would have witnessed crippling poverty and human suffering, but it still sat poorly with Thor that he was going to be complicit in the act.

While he could almost imagine the Madame rolling up her sleeves and working hard, Thor was certain the other three had never broken a sweat in their lives. The woman with the ginger curls, Croft, had a sour, pinched expression that told him she was here under duress. The other two looked squirrelly at best.

The ladies and their belongings took up all the space in the coach, meaning Thor would have to ride in the wagon. After taking a long look at the coach, the mystic turned on her heel and announced she would ride with him. With all the provisions, they were forced to cram together, thighs touching so that they could both ride inside the wagon. She was pressed close to him on the hard wooden seat. He could smell the sweet scent of her hair and feel the warmth of her body beside him.

As the little caravan drew nearer Whitechapel, the seer said, “Thank you for allowing me to join you. As difficult as this sort of thing can be, it does the soul good to lend one’s fellows a helping hand. I know you are not happy about it, but I assure you, I have been to worse places, and with less reputable company.”

“But your friends have not,” Thor rejoined, still a little frustrated.

“No, they haven’t, but it might just make them slightly better people,” she told him with a small smile.

Beyond the wagon, the buildings were growing smaller and less well cared for, the signs of privation growing more evident with each street they passed down. Factories dominated the skyline and choked out clouds of black smog to pollute the air. As hope waned, filth took its place, making for a very dismal and oppressive view for their ride. The Ripper was still the talk of the East End and the signs of his presence could still be seen. Penny dreadfuls and newspaper clippings were plastered to the crumbling brick facades, all talking about the mysterious killer of fallen women.

“If it makes you feel any better, I will be sure to stay by the soup line and content myself with passing out supplies and medicine. Don’t worry,” she promised solemnly. “I have no intention of wandering off into the Ripper’s territory. My gifts offer some forms of protection, but I am as vulnerable to a madman’s knife as the next girl.”

Thor snorted, “And in your pretty clothes, you will stand out more than any girl in the East End.”

As they trundled along, he watched as she pulled off her fine gloves and primly folded her hands in her lap. Her skin was snow white compared to the tan of her apron and the stark black of her coat. The sight held his attention for longer than it should. He admired her beauty, her profile, her hair, hands, and neck whenever she turned to look the opposite way. If he had not seen it for himself, Thor would never have believed she was anything but a woman. He did not need to wonder why she chose to live as a woman, even though it meant less freedom, she was so elegant and lovely that the idea of her in a suit was ridiculous. Even her fairly deep voice and above average stature did little to take away from her feminine persona.

Overcome with curiosity, Thor asked, “where in France are you from?”

“I was born in the country,” she answered lightly. With an elegant shrug, she said, “My family sent me to boarding school for most of my childhood and after I was orphaned, I moved to Paris.”

“I imagine you were a good student and a holy terror in school,” Thor teased, imagining a little girl with wild dark hair and that pointed little chin.

Throwing her head back, the Madame laughed brightly, “I was difficult and headstrong, I admit. My teachers either loved me or hated me. Something tells me you were the sort of boy who got his knuckles rapped for avoiding classes.”

“Guilty,” Thor admitted with a rueful chuckle. “I spent more time thinking of ways to avoid my lessons than I did attending them.”

“I loved learning, but hated being told what to do,” the Madame confided.

She was witty and amusing, but Thor could now see a sadness in her eyes. She had said that she was a performer, the entertainment, not truly a part of her social group. It must be terribly lonely to always live on the outskirts while being the center of attention, he thought. Thor wanted to say something, to ask if she had no real friends, not even Miss Fowlhurst, but there was no tactful way to broach the subject. Aside from her physical differences, Thor could not understand why she was so isolated. There had to be more than just her body preventing her from forming real attachments. The Madame wore her secrets like perfume; always present but never defined.

When they arrived at St. George-in-the-East Church, it was to find the yard full of the most unfortunate of London and the healthy volunteers in their crisp aprons and face masks. The Madame passed him a face mask before tying her own into place. The air was a miasma of unwashed bodies, rotting garbage, and soot. Looking down the rambling road, he could see doors marked with signs of quarantine. The other ladies were clambering out of their carriage, their noses wrinkled.

“The smell is terrible, but not as bad as the leper hospital in Cairo,” she commented bracingly.

His mouth was open to reply when he heard a loud, “Thor, we were starting to wonder if you had abandoned us.”

“Volstagg,” Thor greeted his friend and waved over their other friends. “These are the honorable ladies who have volunteered to help. The misses Victoria Fowlhurst, Gloria Croft, Edith Thomas, and, eh...” Thor suddenly could not say her name, his face growing hot.

Smiling warmly, the mystic stepped forward first and offered her hand as she said, “Bon matin! Forgive our interloping. I have been wanting to help with the relief effort but no one would escort me. When Lord Odinson told me he meant to come here at Saint James’ last week, I simply had to entreat him to allow me to join you all and he generously agreed. I’m Madame Loki Melusine,” she added as he shook Volstagg’s meaty hand. “I am so pleased to meet you all.”

Volstagg cast him a quick, wry look and Thor glowered over the Madame’s head. Their other friends were also giving him dubious looks. Yes, he had told them that several ladies would be joining the party, but Thor had not told them exactly who it would be. They had been making jokes since he stood up with her four times in a row.

“Madame Melusine and these ladies are here to help,” Thor told his friends flatly.

Once he saw the ladies safely ensconced in the church hall, doling out soup to the hungry people who had been forced from their homes by influenza, Thor and the other men were put to work fetching and carrying supplies and building cots for those escaping sickness. As they worked, his friends kept trying to wheedle information from him about his relationship with the Madame. It was good he was flushed from effort or they would have seen him color with each joke.

Finally, Thor turned on his friends and said sternly, “Madame Melusine is a friend and nothing more. I-if even that! We just run in the same circles and know the same people,” he reasoned.

Influenza was hardly the worst thing ravaging the area. Aside from the ever present specter of poverty and desperation, there was the scourge of the great pox, which left more than a few of those unfortunates Thor and his friends saw horribly afflicted. Syphilis caused the skin to rot and the brain to wither; the late stages involved the nose rotting off and the sufferer to go mad. Those not ill were dirty, hungry, and uneducated. Chances of improving their situation were slim. It left Thor’s heart aching and his soul weary.

Five long hours of hard labor later, Thor and the other men were sweaty, tired, hungry, and very ready for a break. Trudging into the church hall, they were given soup, bread, cheese, and ale by the women volunteering. While blankly eating his meal, Thor’s eyes followed the flow of activity around them and found Madame Melusine among the women. She was a flurry of motion, her skirts rustling briskly as she went from task to task. It was impressive that she still had so much energy after working for five hours at that pace. As soon as they had finished their food, the men were shooed back outside and back to work. He did not see the Madame again until the sun set and the day ended.

Thor and his friends escorted the ladies to the parsonage where the group would be staying while they volunteered. The priest’s wife had made them a simple supper of Shepard's pie and fresh milk which was one of the finest meals Thor had had in weeks. Thor had not been so worn out since he returned from Africa. The ladies had retreated to the kitchen to help clean up while the men moved to the adjoining barn to wash up and sleep. The barn was far below the sort of accommodations that the gentlemen were used to, but Whitechapel was poor and they would have to travel back to the good part of town to find proper lodgings. It was simply easier to rough it for a few days, not that Thor minded much.

For the ladies, the situation was a little more comfortable, as the parsonage had an attic large enough to sleep all of them. As they were all unmarried, it would have been seen as highly inappropriate for them to take lodgings anywhere else in Whitechapel. Despite their good fortune, the other ladies had not seemed very pleased with the situation. The Madame, as she had been all day, was in good spirits, though her pretty face was a little grey from fatigue.

A barrel of rainwater, a bar of soap, and some old cloths were all the priest could offer, but the men were all just glad to get the stink of illness off their sweaty skin. While they took turns washing, they talked little. They had witnessed such suffering and hardship that none of them could find much of which to converse. They did all agree that they would be glad to be quit of the place and very thankful for their good fortune.

As Thor busied himself rinsing out his shirt he heard the barn door creak open and saw the Madame in the doorway. She was loaded down with an armful of quilts and Thor supposed she had pushed the door open with her foot not thinking of what she might see. For a moment she stood frozen, her eyes wide and her face flushed, and Thor was momentarily baffled by her reaction. Then he realized he was standing in nothing but his under things in full view. He could not help preening a little under her stunned but admiring gaze.

“Oh, s-sorry,” she exclaimed, spinning to face away from him. Blushing like a girl, she held up her cargo, saying, “I brought extra blankets. Mrs. Whitman said it will rain tonight.”

Shooting a quick glare at his sniggering friends, all of whom were dressed, Thor said, “Thank you, Madame.”

He had nothing to be ashamed of; Thor knew that he was well built and handsome, so he did nothing to hide himself. The Madame was no shy virgin after all. Despite knowing what she was, he still found the mystic attractive and was pleased to see her responding to his body so strongly. If they had been alone, well, Thor was not at all sure what he would have done. She did look particularly sweet backlit by moonlight, her hair loose.

Practically glowing, she held out the stack of bedding and mumbled, “I hope these are enough.”

Not willing to miss such an opportunity, Thor strode forward and took the blankets from her, giving her a closer look. It was not the gentlemanly thing to do, but this was the woman who had cupped his manhood and chided him for sticking his cock where it did not belong. In a way, it was only fair she saw him in a state of undress after he had gotten such an intimate look at her.

“Might I help you with anything, Madame,” he asked, his voice low and just a little suggestive.

Scarlet-cheeked, she fled, stammering, “Keep warm, my lord.”

Smirking at her retreating back, he pulled to barn door closed and returned to his friends to pass out the extra bedding. They were all giving him looks, but Thor hardly cared. While he had known she found him attractive, it still stoked his ego enormously that the normally quick-witted Madame had been rendered speechless by his body. Somehow, having such an effect on her felt like a greater victory than with most women.

“Oh yes,” Volstagg drawled. “Whatever were we thinking? You and the Madame are clearly only the most casual of acquaintances.”

***

Warm all over, Loki retreated to the bathroom to wash up, still pink cheeked and breathing hard. He had never seen such a beautiful man and it left his knees a little week. Odinson was the best looking man in London, Loki had known that since first laying eyes on him, but to find him in possession of a truly magnificent body was enough to leave him a little shaken. DaVinci would have wept to have had such a subject. If his hands lingered on his own flesh a little longer than was necessary while washing, he could hardly be blamed.

As clean as he was going to be, he took to his little cot in the attic and tried to sleep. But try as he may, his mind would not settle. It was full of the lord’s perfect body and the knowing gleam in his sky blue eyes, and it made Loki’s heart race. Unbidden, he imagined sneaking out of the vicar’s house and stealing into the barn. Of course, in his imaginings, Odinson slept alone on his bed of hay, and would welcome Loki under the blankets. Biting his lip to stifle a moan, Loki fantasized about running his hands over the taut planes of his chest and tasting the sweat on his skin.

Loki shook his head gently. What was he thinking fantasizing about Odinson like that? The man had assaulted him, he reminded himself sternly. Although, since being freed of the ill-wishing, he had been a different person. The more they interacted the more sure Loki was that it had been the ill-wishing’s influence that had made him act so cruelly.

Quite sure the lord would not be so enthusiastic in his welcome, Loki tried to force the sinful images from his mind, before he really worked himself up. For all his appreciative glances and flirtatious talk, Odinson had been very clear on his feelings about Loki’s body. If Loki was the woman he seemed to be, he had no doubt he would find an eager bed partner in Odinson, but the problem of his cock was not likely to go away.

Sighing loudly, Loki rolled onto his side and closed his eyes. Tomorrow would be long and difficult and he needed his sleep, he reminded himself firmly. He was tired after such a hard day, but the image of Lord Odinson bare-chested remained behind his closed eyes.

“Loki,” Victoria whispered from the cot next to his. “Are you well? You aren’t feeling ill?”

Knowing exactly what worried his friend, Loki promised, “I feel fine, just tired after a long day. I am not getting sick.”

Victoria opened her mouth to answer, but her cousin Gloria said shrilly, “Well I wouldn’t be surprised if we all took ill.”

“These people need our help, Gloria,” Victoria chided, though her tone indicated she too was concerned about being exposed to the sickness.

“I didn’t think it would be this awful,” Edith Thomas admitted miserably.

Loki had not wanted to invite any of them, truth be told, but he could not have come by himself without risking ugly talk. Victoria meant well and she had a good heart, but she was soft and slightly spoiled and this was difficult, dangerous work. The other two ladies, Victoria’s cousin and future sister-in-law, had been added at her suggestion. Loki did not mind Edith. She was a little boring, but nice enough. Gloria Croft, however, he had disliked before and was coming to rather loathe her the longer they were in close contact.

“No one here is going to catch influenza,” Loki snapped. “We aren’t even working directly with the sick. Honestly, where is your sense of Christian charity?”

Gloria sniffed, “I donated handsomely to the relief effort.”

“Then tomorrow I will have one of the gentlemen escort you home,” Loki said decisively before rolling over to face away from the other women.

Frustrated, he huffed and forced himself to bite back his more scathing comments. He had had quite enough of Gloria Croft and would be happy to see the back of her. Loki would gladly toss the woman in the Thames, but she was Victoria’s cousin. Between seeing Odinson in his under things and Gloria’s selfishness, Loki was rather wound up. Closing his eyes, Loki breathed out slowly. Eventually, he did drift off, but not for long.

The barn was dark and chilly when he slipped inside. Under his coat, he wore only his camisole and petticoat and his stockings. He found Odinson sprawled on a thick pile of hay, wrapped in a warm quilt and sleeping peacefully. Dropping his coat on the floor, Loki joined him under the blankets and pressed his lips to his slack mouth. Thor came awake with a little sigh and a start, his eyes flying open. For the length of a heartbeat, they stared at each other. Then Loki leaned forward and kissed him again.

This time, Odinson returned his kiss, tongue quickly finding entrance into his mouth. Loki shuddered and pulled him closer, wrapping his arms around his neck. Loki made no protest when Odinson rolled him onto his back and pressed him into the hay with his weight. His mouth was on his neck, leaving hot, open mouthed kisses on his throat and collar bone. Raking his nails through the thatch of golden hair upon his chest, Loki took a moment to appreciate his lover’s powerfully built form. After another long kiss, Odinson pulled back just enough to regard his now flushed face.

Dipping back down to kiss along his jawline, the lord returned to the task of driving Loki wild. Loki’s slender hands slowly followed the curve of his massive biceps up to the broad plane of his shoulders. Grinning mischievously, Odinson tugged down the front of his camisole and cupped his little breasts so he could lavish them with his mouth. Those big, rough hands quickly found the hem of his petticoat and pushed it up over his pale thighs. Unlike the last time that man had bared him, Loki let his legs fall open eagerly.

There was no hesitation, no reaction of disgust when Odinson’s fingers trailed over his straining cock on their way to his quim. Loki moaned and arched his hips up, his own hands fumbling with the front of the other’s trousers. He was big, Loki knew that, but hard, Odinson was even more impressive. Panting, he gave the shaft a few teasing strokes before lining it up with his entrance. When Odinson pushed inside him, Loki cried out and dug his nails into his back hard enough to leave marks, but he did not ask him to stop or wait. Enthusiastically, Loki wrapped his long legs around Odinson’s hips and dug his heels into the small of his back.

It was rough and quick, the culmination of all the tension and flirtation building up between them, but it was so sweet he could have screamed. Odinson was almost too big, but it did not matter. It felt good, the thick cockhead grinding into just the right spot to make him see stars. When Loki came, he was staring blissfully up into those intense, blue eyes. Throwing his head back, he gave a little cry and tumbled over the edge. Seconds later, Odinson followed, biting down on Loki’s exposed neck as he did.

When Loki woke at dawn, he was alone in the little cot in the attic of the vicar’s house. The snoring and murmurs told him the other ladies were still asleep, which was good. He had made a mess of himself in his sleep, which was embarrassing, and ran to the washroom to clean himself before anyone noticed. The dream had been so vivid Loki was honestly surprised it had not been real. With shaking hands, he brushed out his hair and twisted it back into a serviceable bun. It was then he noticed the shadow of a bruise on his throat. The bruise was round and a soft red, about the size of a small biscuit. Looking closer, Loki noticed something inside the mark; the impression of teeth. It was a bite mark. Suddenly recalling how his dream had ended, Loki stared at his reflection in shock.

For a moment, Loki was seized by fear, wondering if he had been visited by the demon, but as he thought over the dream, Loki realized there was no sense of fear in it. At no point had the dream of Odinson asked for his soul or professed his love. It had been a dream of passion and sensuality and nothing more. If not for the mark on his neck, Loki would have dismissed it as a dream born of his lust for Odinson’s body. As such, there was only one other explanation.

“We shared a dream,” he realized as his fingers probed the sensitive skin of his throat.

Dream sharing was something a witch might do, but the other person had to be thinking about them as intently as the caster. Furthermore, both minds had to be receptive to the idea being shared unless the witch used more magic to force the images into the receiver’s mind. That was dangerous and difficult; not something he could have done in his sleep by accident. They had experienced the same dream from their own perspectives as if it had truly happened and the memories would be just as vibrant. How was he going to look Odinson in the eye now?

More than his embarrassment, Loki had to hide the morning rose blooming upon his neck. Gloria Croft’s sharp eyes would certainly spot it quickly and her unpleasant mind would spin it into something nasty. Fortunately, he had a dress with a high, lace collar that would obscure the mark. If he could simply get dressed without anyone noticing, Loki could put off the problem for several hours and hopefully by nightfall Miss Croft would be gone and the other two would be too tired to notice anything odd.

Loki managed to dig out his dress with the high collar before Miss Croft could be pried from bed, which provided a useful distraction for the other two. Once they were all up and dressed, the ladies ventured downstairs to find breakfast prepared and the vicar’s wife waiting for them. Victoria and Loki were quick to thank her and offer to help, but Gloria sulked and Edith looked nearly ready to cry. Loki was sure the girl would be catching a ride back to Chelsea with Miss Croft; she just did not have the strength of character to face such suffering. He did not judge Edith, as she had come with good intentions and not everyone had the mettle for such work.

As they were setting the table, the men joined them, still looking a little rumpled. Loki did his best to avoid Odinson, but somehow the man ended up sitting across the small table from him, much to Loki’s bemusement. The meal was bacon, eggs, and fired toast, simple but delicious and filling. There was tea, thankfully, as they would all need their energy. Despite his best attempts, Loki’s eyes kept wandering to the young lord’s face and each time it made his heart skip.

Strangely, it seemed Odinson was also suffering some embarrassment. He was avoiding Loki’s eye and looked a little flushed. Odd, considering how confidant he had been when Loki found him nearly naked the previous evening, that the man was now so bashful. Frowning, Loki tried to pretend he noticed nothing amiss and chatted with the vicar’s wife.

“I hear you have been called home, Miss Croft,” Mrs. Whitman asked politely, acting as if she did not know Gloria had thrown a fit to have a proper coach called as soon as may be.

Gloria, having the grace to look sheepish, replied, “Oh…yes. I am so sorry to leave.”

“I will be joining her,” Edith Thomas interjected quickly. “It would be unseemly for her to travel alone,” she reasoned, her pretty face pink.

“Of course,” Mrs. Whitman agreed gently.

Victoria began squirming nervously and Loki felt his heart sink; she was going to leave too, which would mean Loki would have to go. Sighing, he met her brown eyes and saw the fear and guilt there. There were other volunteers, but none staying with the vicar. Being left alone in Whitechapel would not look good. It would not matter that Loki was putting himself to the hazard for the sake of the poor and suffering, they would still question why the Madame would stay alone in a house with a married man of the cloth and several single men.

Once they had eaten, one of the gentleman named Barton hitched up the wagon and helped both Miss Croft and Miss Thomas up onto the bench seat. The ladies were more than happy to be putting Whitechapel behind them, though Edith did seem a little ashamed of herself. Loki did not blame her really; it was difficult and soul crushing to face the truth of human suffering. As soon as Mr. Barton drove the wagon around the first corner, the rest of their party walked to the main church hall.

More than tiredness weighed them down as they walked. Loki was sure Odinson remembered the dream they shared. The man was acting awkward and nervous, keeping at least two people between them as they walked. Rubbing at the mark on his neck self-consciously, Loki blushed and tried to act like a sane adult instead of a sulky little girl. Though he knew he ought to avoid the lord, part of him deflated at the obvious shunning.

When they reached the main hall, Captain Steven Rogers, the American reporter said, “We have enough supplies for today and Barton will come back with more this afternoon. You ladies should have enough to get through dinner.”

Loki nodded tightly as he pulled out his freshly washed facemask. Before he could head into the hall, Odinson stopped him with a brief touch to his forearm. Puzzled by his intense expression, Loki frowned and cocked his head to the side, waiting for him to speak

“Are you feeling well?” the lord inquired seriously.

“Yes, I’m quite well, thank you.”

Still confused, Loki turned to leave but caught the conversation that bloomed the moment his back was turned.

“Are you feeling well, Odinson,” the captain asked, his tone implying he very much doubted it.

Lord Odinson huffed irritably and said, “I just want to get the work done so we can go home this evening.”

“I thought we were staying for at least two more days,” the big redheaded man intoned as Loki stepped into the hall and hid himself to continue eavesdropping.

Victoria shot him a questioning look as she continued on to the makeshift kitchen, but Loki waved her on. He had thought the group would be staying for another few days and Odinson’s words were a surprise. Was he cutting the venture short because he was too embarrassed to be in Loki’s company? That was an unpleasant thought.

Pretending to be struggling with his apron, Loki listened as Odinson told his friends, “We are, but I want to get Miss Fowlhurst and the Madame out of Whitechapel. I am responsible for their safety and I do not like the feel of this crowd.”

“Madame Melusine seems rather set on staying,” Rodgers commented. “I don’t envy you the job of telling her she’s to be banished back to Belgravia.”

Loki smirked to hear the chorus of agreement that statement earned. Odinson would not be rid of him so easily. Loki had every right to be here and they needed the help. Still, Loki had to wonder if he or the lord was the more stubborn of the two. Honestly, it was a near thing.

“I don’t care how she complains,” Odinson responded dryly. “I will take her and her friend home today. They never should have come.”

“What will you do if she refuses,” the quiet man asked.

There was a bullish snort before Odinson replied, “Throw her over my shoulder and march her back to Chelsea if I must.”

Unable to hold his tongue a moment longer, Loki stormed back out into the little yard and faced Odinson with a dark glare, saying, “You, my lord, have no say over what I do. It is my business alone. I appreciate your concern, but I will not be bullied by you.”

“Bullied,” he echoed indignantly. “You and your friend have no business being here! You could come down with influenza or run afoul of unscrupulous men. This is Whitechapel – the bloody Ripper could find you.”

“It’s no business of yours where I go,” Loki argued sharply. “If Jack the Ripper wants me, he can damn well try it.”

Growling, Odinson decreed, “I am taking you and Miss Fowlhurst home this evening. I will not be gainsaid, madam.”

Loki was vibrating with rage and it was only years of practiced self-control that prevented him from making a scene. For a few heartbeats, he stood stock-still, his fists clenched in his skirts, his eyes fixed on the lord’s. The other men shifted and muttered awkwardly to each other in an undertone about female emotions and etiquette. His face was bloodlessly white and his eyes burned as he fought to master the indignation coursing through him like liquor.

Through clenched teeth, Loki hissed, “I am not a child to be sent away at your command. You do not own me, my lord. Leave if you will, but I shall stay,” Loki snapped, turning on his heel and marching back into the church hall.

It was a relief to throw himself back into the work of the soup line. When his heart again beat at a normal rate Loki could think clearly enough to come up with an explanation for Odinson’s behavior. The man recalled the dream they shared and was so desperate to be away from Loki that he was willing to make an ass of himself. Twisting himself into knots, Loki had to assume the lord was disgusted by the dream, by the idea of having sex with Loki. Flirting with him while he was swathed in silk and lace was one thing, but in the dream, Odinson had been confronted by the strangeness of Loki’s body. No doubt it had reminded him of the revulsion he had felt upon first seeing Loki naked. Odinson might not have reacted to Loki’s body in the dream, but in the waking world, he must have felt differently. Blinking back tears of shame, Loki brought himself up short and forced his mind to shun thoughts of Odinson.

It should not have cut him so deeply that a man should be repelled by him, it was hardly the first time, but Odinson’s rejection still hurt. When he had asked Odinson for his opinion on his appearance, he had called Loki beautiful and happily stood up with him four times in a night. How dare that glorified barbarian turn his nose up at him? Though he tried to push his hurt into anger, the hollow, miserable feeling remained. He might not wish to admit it, but Loki had felt something for the man. Heart heavy, Loki continued his work and did his best not to think about how good it felt to be held firmly against Lord Odinson’s chest.

The time ticked past slowly, but eventually midday crept closer. Loki’s spirits still remained low, but he had tried hard to busy his mind with work. There was a commotion outside on the street, largely ignored at first. Whitechapel was busy and loud, after all. Before anyone could think more of it, three men burst into the church hall. His first thought was that some calamity had occurred, a fire or another Ripper attack, but then he saw they brandished knives and another possibility occurred to him. This was one of the poorest parts of London and he was by no means the only person of wealth donating his time here. Gods, they were being robbed!

“Alright ladies,” yelled one of the men, his voice muffled by the scarf wrapped around his lower face. “Give us yer valuables an’ we’ll be on our way. No need for anyone to get ‘urt,” he announced, his cockney accent heavy.

The three men spread out, positioning themselves between the doors and the several women who had been stationed in the soup line. While the hall was full, it was mostly women and children waiting for food and other supplies. There were a few men among the crowd, but none of them seemed inclined to face the armed burglars. No heroes here, Loki realized. In his old life in Montmartre, he had always carried at least two knives and eventually a lady’s mother of pearl handled revolver, but now he only kept a small knife in his garter.

His hand inched down towards his thigh, thinking he might be able to ruck the back of his skirt up enough to grab the knife. In most hands, it was not a lethal weapon, but Loki knew where to stick it to make it lethal. He could kill the robber, but Loki was not sure he was in enough danger to risk exposing himself or ending a man’s life. If Loki just injured him, he and his cohorts would punish him and possibly the other women. There were three robbers and only one of him.

The robbers prowled back and forth, eyeing the women before one of them came forward and yanked a gold cross from around an older lady’s neck. He took her wedding band and the silver brooch on her breast as well. Loki had no jewelry aside from the talisman he always wore beneath his clothes and when it was his turn to be robbed his assailant was disappointed.

“No earrings, no necklace,” he complained. “Dontcha have anything fine on ya, lady?”

Loki shook his head and pressed himself more firmly into the wall behind him as the man’s gloved hands checked for any valuables he might have hidden on his person. It was invasive and Loki tried to struggle, but the brute put a hand around his neck to still him. Unarmed and unable to fight without putting the others at risk, Loki could do nothing but submit. Under the thin collar of his dress, the beaded necklace of his talisman could be easily felt.

“Been keepin’ secrets,” the bandit crowed. Without hesitation, he took hold of the delicate lace of Loki’s collar and tore, opening the dress to his clavicle. Pulling out the talisman from under his clothes, the thief eyed the gold charm at the end. The amulet was a small circle formed by a snake twisting around its own tail on a string of tiny obsidian beads.

As the robber stared at the gold charm, Loki watched his eyes change. They had been an unremarkable hazel, but in moments they were swallowed up by a sickly, inhuman yellow. Terrified, Loki grabbed at his protective charm, trying to free it. He could smell ash and sulfur. The thief leaned in close and, like an animal, sniffed at Loki’s exposed neck.

“Pretty lady,” the robber purred, the voice totally unlike the one he had used only moments before. Cockney accent gone, he whispered, “You shouldn’t be out in places like this, lady. You should be home, cherished and protected.” His gloved hand pressed firmly against Loki’s middle, forcing his back into the brick wall. “You should be with the Master; giving him children…Mother of Monsters…Lady of Darkness…” His tone turned sing-song and haunting. “Queen of Corpses…” He sang in his ear as he pulled down his mask.

Biting back a terrified sob, Loki tried to get away, but the creature possessing the man was holding him firmly by the throat. The amulet stretched between Loki’s white-knuckled fist and the marauder’s, neither side willing to release it. The charm protected Loki’s third eye and without it, the monster might wriggle its way inside his mind. Staring into those unnatural yellow eyes, Loki clung to his courage to withstand the creature’s assault.

Distantly, he knew the other men were busy robbing and looting, totally unaware of what had befallen their comrade. It was as if he and the creature were separated by glass. If he called for help, Loki was not at all sure anyone would hear him. The rough hand on his throat tightened slightly, but not enough to bruise or strangle.

“The Master is waiting for you, lady,” the robber sang quietly. “He’ll reward me if I bring you to him. He wants his Dark Lady.”

“He can keep waiting,” Loki spat, daring to swing at the possessed man’s face.

Anger flashed behind his eyes, but before the creature could respond, the side door banged against the stone wall, revealing Lord Odinson and his friends. Everything happened so quickly that Loki could not recall much of what happened after. There was yelling and screaming, the loud sound of bodies hitting the floor and furniture breaking. One moment, the creature was pinning him to the wall, the next, he staggered back clutching at his chest.

Blood! There was blood bubbling from the man’s mouth and the yellow was melting from his now human eyes. As he staggered back, he pulled at the amulet still around Loki’s neck, dragging him forward. Gasping, Loki tried to claw the man’s fingers from his charm, but his death grip could not be broken. Then another hand appeared, prying the man’s fingers loose. Shocked and confused, Loki turned to find Lord Odinson with his hand on the robber’s wrist and the other on his collar. There was blood on his hand and face, Loki noticed.

“I…Oh…” Loki mumbled, grasping his amulet tight to his chest.

Time seemed to shift back into normal reality then and Loki watched as his would-be assailant crumpled to the floor at their feet. There was a knife protruding from his back surrounded by a rapidly growing crimson stain. Breathing hard, Loki felt his eyes burning with tears. Gaping up at Odinson, Loki realized the lord had committed murder to protect him. Shivering and in shock, Loki blinked hard and tried to make his sluggish mind function but it was like wading through a quagmire.

With his heart pounding in his ears and his eyes blinded by grief, Loki was unsure of what he was seeing. Was the body before him in a brown coat or a white? The air was black with smoke, stinging his eyes and choking his lungs. Under the smoke was a sickeningly familiar scent; alcohol, bleach, and ozone. It was the scent of the asylum. There was blood on his hands and the fire was consuming the building as he watched. He did not fear the flames, but the damage they would cause. The asylum kept the wards locked in and he knew few would escape. Steel-hard hands grabbed his shoulders and Loki thrashed as the blackness drew in on him. He screamed and collapsed.

Chapter Text

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