They are riding in the procession when the woman pushes her way through the guards.
The horses rear, startled. She is a thin little thing, scraped together from bits of bone and blood, her dark hair wild about her shoulders. Her eyes flash, bright and dagger-like and fey. His first thought is: it is an attempt on Thor’s life: a changeling from the forest of Trelvinir has felt her way along the veins of Yggdrasil, and is here to destroy.
He throws a hand out before he’s thought about it. His magic hits Thor’s breastplate like a blow, knocks him bodily off Dram’s saddle and into the mud.
“Loki!” Sif cries out, enraged. “What are you doing – ”
His heart is leaping into his throat. His hand is still raised; behind him he can hear Sif dismounting, the crowd behind the line of guards surging forward and back like a tide of fury, how dare he, how dare he.
Thor rises. He is not much hurt. It would take a mountain, he thinks, to hurt Thor in any way. But for a moment he had believed it, he had felt a fear greater than himself. He is still jumpy from the campaign in Trelvinir; still too sensitive to treason, to shadows rising out of the dark.
The fey woman laughs, high and shrill. “I come only with tidings of the future, prince.”
“This is neither the time nor the place for stories.”
“But I have gone to great lengths to bring it to you. I have travelled very far.”
She steps forward through the mire of the street and his fingers tense. He can feel the weight of Thor’s eyes on the side of his face, the blunt confusion. Prophecy is his field – it is not Thor’s.
“You will be the one to kill your brother,” the woman says. Her finger rises and, like a needle, points in his direction. “He will not reign three moons, but you will kill him for his throne. You will be the one.”
This time it is Thor who surges forward in anger. “You dare accuse my brother – ”
“I speak only what the Heavens tell me, my prince.”
“Get her out!” Thor roars. Mud is still matted in his hair; the guards leap forward, jolted back into action. “I do not care for her lies. Get her out of here!”
He, Loki, sits very still on his mount. He watches the prophet-woman as she is led away – the crowds part for her, stunned, reverent, fearful, and even the guards seem afraid to touch her. Holy women are rare in these parts. The last one foretold the fall of Jotunheim; she came to Asgard in the form of a bird, eyes a gleaming, dead black. And then within a year the Great War had begun.
Thor claps a hand on his shoulder and he jumps. “Loki, are you alright?”
“I am fine. I am sorry that I – ”
“That you bowled me into the dirt?” Thor laughs. “The last time you did so, by the Frimahan River, you saved my life. I do not grudge it.”
“Cressida will. She will complain that you do not look after your armour.”
“But then she is always complaining,” Thor says, and smiles.
The procession has reformed around them. Blossoms tossed by the crowd crush beneath the hooves of their horses and the bells on the litter of Trelvinir’s youngest Princess flash in the sun. He wants to turn to Thor and say, you know that I would never harm you; but he is afraid of appearing guilty. He closes his mouth on the words and swallows them.
Wary eyes follow him as they press forward again, towards the palace.
Above them, a great black bird wheels up. Its wingtips cast arcs of shadow on the ground. It opens its maw and, like the shriek of a woman, lets out a cry.
“It is a pity she does not speak our language,” Thor says.
He, Loki, smiles into his wine. “Why? Do you fancy her, brother?”
“No! I mean, she is very fair, to be sure,” Thor quickly adds, bumbling through the diplomatic niceties though there is no-one here to care. “But it cannot be easy on her, to be alone in this place.”
“You mean, to be in the country which has conquered her own.”
“She has her own serving women.”
Thor wipes his fingers absently on the tablecloth. “How long shall we keep her here?”
“Until her father meets our Father’s conditions,” he says. The All-Father has demanded that Cor, Thirty-Ninth Ruler of Trelvinir, surrender up the capital’s great gold keys and abdicate himself from the throne. “She is his favourite daughter. He will comply.”
“And if he does not?”
He shrugs. The entire business makes him uneasy. “He will comply.”
There is some sudden commotion outside: a great shouting and scraping and howling of voices, a battering of doors. A man steps up to the All-Father’s dais and murmurs something into his ear. From a side entry to the court, there comes the flicker of lit torches as guards are dispatched.
Word of the prophecy has spread fast. All afternoon there has been a crowd gathered outside the palace. Servants have shrunken out of his path, afraid to look at his face, as if he might turn them to stone.
Thor’s hand underneath the table reaches out to grip his wrist. “Do not pay them any heed, Loki.”
“I do not. I have not.”
“We should have some music.” Thor bangs a palm onto the table, making the platters leap. “Music!”
They are all worn out from the battle. It has not been an easy war; Trelvinir is a hardened land, with harsh summers and terrible, lashing storms. Her people are seasoned warriors and are unafraid of death. Her god is a serpent with golden eyes, neither male nor female; all-seeing and remorseless, this god requires a blood sacrifice at the start of each moon’s cycle – and there are four moons. One of her generals would’ve put a spear through Thor’s throat at the mouth of the Frimahan River. Each spear is tipped with a poison sought from the nectar of the Gri, a flower found only in Trelvinir; only women are permitted to grow it and to pluck the deadly blossoms from the stems.
“If Cor will not abdicate, his daughter will be killed,” he says, and Thor looks over at him.
“Surely Father will not allow that? The killing, I mean?”
“He will allow it. He must.”
“Does the girl know?” Thor asks.
The Princess has finished eating. She has re-lowered her veil. Now she sits perfectly still, her dark eyes fixed unblinkingly on the court minstrels, undisturbed by the whispers flying around her.
“She must know,” he says, and gets up from table. “She is no fool.”
Outside the palace, the riot has broken out again. The people of Asgard seem to be convinced that he, Loki, will somehow murder Thor on the spot.
“Estroc ludwyn,” he says, and she looks up at him, startled. “It is a very good day to be out, is it not?”
She blinks at him. Up close her eyes are not entirely black; they are the dark, steady colour of wood, and her eyelashes have been fringed with decorative gold feathers. Small rubies have been plaited into her hair. Smaller ones gleam on the tips of her nails.
“Estroc ludwyn,” she says, returning the greeting cautiously. “They did not tell me you spoke Trelvan.”
“I learned it when I was younger. Nobody else knows.”
“Except me.” She smiles at him.
She shifts so that he might sit beside her on the bench. “How did you learn it? I do not remember that we ever sent ambassadors to Asgard. It was always too far, you understand. And the Crossing is perilous.”
“A bird from your country taught it to me. He’d come across to us as a fugitive in the hold of a ship.”
She laughs. It’s a pleasant, musical laugh. “Much in the same way as I have.”
“You are not a fugitive here,” he tells her, though he knows already that neither of them will believe it. Even now there is a guard standing surreptitiously across the way. “You are well-treated?”
“I am not beaten or starved, if that is what you mean.”
“We are not so savage, I should hope.”
“No, that isn’t – ” She bites her lip. “I am sorry. It is just – it is difficult to adjust to what has happened.”
“The people here are kind,” she says. The breeze, rising slightly, plucks at her veils and she clutches at them distractedly, tucks them back behind her coronet. “I do not lack for anything. But I am not given any news of my home. I do not know the situation there. I am not even permitted to write to my father and brothers, or to see their envoys.”
“Very few things are certain yet. Most likely my Father does not wish you to worry.”
“I worry more when I know so little of what is occurring!”
“I will speak to him, then, and see what can be done.”
She peeps up at him from underneath her lashes. He can tell that she is trying to work out how much of what he has said is true; how much is genuine, and how much is diplomacy.
“Asgard is a beautiful place,” she says at last. “We do not have mountains like the ones here. The ones at home open up every few years and spew out fire; once some of the fire ran into the sea, and turned an entire bay into rock.”
“But still you miss your home.”
“You grow accustomed to harshness after a while,” she says. “You grow to yearn for it in your bones.”
It is a thing that, surprisingly, he finds he understands. He has never been like Thor; when Thor comes across a ravine or a forest his mind speeds along the familiar neat lines of hunt, prey, bad ground for horses, loose stones, turned ankles and slippage, possible ambush sites; Thor does not know how to appreciate the stark, clean lines of a burned-out tree, or the lonely spill of boulders across a desert plain. There is a beauty in destruction, he thinks – if you know where to look.
“Have you ever been to the Lower Marsh?” he asks her. “There are many abandoned temples there.”
She shakes her head. “Perhaps when this War is over, you can take me to see them.”
When this War is over. He stands, bows to her in the fashion of her own people. In acknowledgement, she reaches out and in his palm, with one bright-jewelled nail, she traces the shape of a pentagram.
“Two more is hardly going to help them,” Thor says. “We destroyed their entire Northern Fleet.”
“Apparently their oracle has counselled them not to surrender.”
“But I thought we’d already won the – ”
“Don’t you find it strange,” he, Loki, says; half-sitting, half-lying, he is turning a feather over and over in his fingers, contemplating whether or not to turn it into a scorpion to be placed into Cressida’s laundry basket. “They pray to their gods, and we pray to ours. We both ask for victory.”
“It isn’t strange. We are hardly going to ask for defeat.” Irritated, Sif snatches the feather away.
“But only one side can win. Does that mean that some gods are more powerful than others?”
“Perhaps some gods do not exist.”
Thor is not listening. “Two ships will not help them hold the bay, in any case. And the armies – what of them? We have defeated them before in the field, and we shall defeat them again. It is their loss.”
“But many noble warriors were lost in our last clash, it is not prudent – ”
“If it is their oracle which prevents them from complying to Father’s wishes,” he interrupts, “perhaps it would be simpler to approach the problem that way. Poison the oracle. Alter the advice it gives.” Sif gives a startled shout as the feather in her hand becomes a python, coiling itself around her arm. “There is no rule against it. And they will not be expecting such a move.”
Thor pushes up onto his feet. “I do not feel that it would be honourable, Loki.”
“But if it succeeds, then it will win us the War.”
“We have no certain way of knowing they will obey a command to retreat – ”
“He has already risked the life of his youngest daughter, Sif, in order to obey the oracle’s command to fight.” The python, as he watches, dissolves into smoke. “A command to retreat will be, to Cor, a relief.”
He can feel Sif watching him with her careful eyes. Measuring him up. Later, he knows, this moment will be held against him; see our second prince, they will say, see how cunning he is, how ruthless, how entirely dead to honour. See how he is capable of anything. See what he will resort to.
He wants to say, well, if you would much rather bash each other half-dead in the name of an honourable victory, then go ahead. It isn’t my blood we’re spilling.
“I suppose we can mention it to Father.” Thor still looks troubled.
“Don’t,” he says. “Not yet. We still do not know the nature of this oracle, or how to influence it.”
“Perhaps the Princess will know,” Sif says, and gives him a steady look. “Perhaps you should ask her.”
On some basic level Sif has never learned to trust him. He inclines his head to her; he does not reply.
“I have heard that my father has chosen not to surrender,” she says, quietly, underneath the music.
He is surprised. “You have heard, from where?”
She doesn’t answer. Instead she reaches out a hand and, graceful as always, tips some of the untouched wine from her goblet into his. “I suppose then that I am going to die. It is not unexpected. Ever since my birth it has been said that I will die in a land far from home – but it has also been said that my death will bring about peace for my planet. So I am content. Will you not drink a cup with me? It is not a bad thing to fulfil one’s purpose in the world, is it?”
For a moment he is entirely lost for words.
“You are astonished,” she says at last. Then, unexpectedly, she smiles. “But then, I suppose in Asgard it is taught that every person may make his or her own destiny. It is not what we believe in Trelvinir.”
“What do you believe in Trelvinir?”
“That our fates are certain. That our paths are already made for us – we are left only to discover them.”
“And I suppose your gods determine these paths,” he says, taking the proffered cup. “Your people accept the fates that they are given? Without question?”
“Not all. Of course, some are given unfavourable ones, and then they fight.”
“You do not have to die,” he says. “If there were some way of getting a message to your father – ”
She lays a hand on his arm as if to placate him. “Odinson. You do not understand. The message has already been given – by the oracle, by the will of the divine. I cannot change it now. All things are connected. In Midgard, it is we who are seen as gods; but even we have our own gods; even we have beings who are greater than us. The universe operates in incomprehensible ways. We must submit to it.”
“But if all things are already decided, then what is the point – ”
“I do not know.” The torchlight catches the jewel in her hair, turns her eyes a liquid shade of gold. She nudges his cup: a gentle reminder to drink. “Perhaps there isn’t one.”
When he goes back to his seat he finds that he cannot look Thor in the eye. There are too many things inside him, clamouring for his attention. He cannot help but wonder how it will come about: a misplaced blow during training? He is afraid of his own unknown motives, afraid of the white-hot bead of jealousy that emerges whenever Thor is once again proved swifter, stronger, the better son, the more courageous; he is afraid of what he might do. He imagines his brother crowned King. He imagines the sly, silent entry, the darkened bedchamber, the bright knife or the poisoned vial or the green death-fire in one hand.
Thor jostles him companionably in the shoulder, almost knocking him sideways to the floor. “Are you alright, brother?”
“I’m perfectly fine.”
He sees himself finally through the city’s eyes. He sees in a moment how precarious things are; how could he not have noticed it before? He sees how he is dangerous.
So: Thor has found him. He is hidden up in the highest branches of a pear tree, in the furthest orchard from the palace gates; but still, Thor has managed to hunt him out.
Thor looks like he cannot decide whether to be furious or relieved. “You had best come down from there, Loki, or I shall shake you down. I promise you I will not be gentle. Not when you have had us all searching for a week. And during a war!”
“I’m seeking the ingredients for a spell I am making.”
“I do not care.” Thor glares up at him, crossing his arms. “Nobody knew that. You did not tell even me.”
“I’m not obliged to tell you everything.”
“I was afraid that you’d been – ”
He snorts, kicking idly at a branch. “Trelvinir wouldn’t hold me for ransom. Do you truly believe that the city would pay for my return? No – they would not miss me.”
“What are you talking about? Loki, if you will not come down, then I am going up.”
“You are too heavy. You’ll fall.”
He watches Thor climb out of the corner of his eye. Always, that fear that something will happen – a slip, a cracked branch, then the bone-breaking drop to the ground below.
“I do not see how you would find any ingredients here,” Thor says at last, carefully settling down onto the branch beside him. “And you have never been fond of pears. What did you mean, that Asgard would not ransom you?”
“Exactly that. You are sitting on my tunic.”
Thor obligingly shifts. “But you are a prince of the Realm – ”
“I am the future murderer of Asgard’s King.”
“You cannot deny it. You heard the prophet. As did half the city, I expect.” His tone is airy, careless, as if they were talking about the weather. “Did you see her true form? No, I suppose you were not paying attention. She was a bird, Thor, a great black bird, of the same kind that predicted the start of the Great War and Jotunheim’s downfall. She was not wrong in that instance. She will not be wrong in this one.”
“Loki, surely you are not trying to say – ” Thor stops, attempts to grapple with the thought. “No.”
“I will kill you. Once you are King.”
“No.” Thor takes him by the arm – shakes him. Leaves from the branch they are sitting on flutter towards the ground. “It is not true. It is a lie. You cannot give credence to such things, they are just – ”
“You would dispute the word of a god?”
“We are gods,” Thor says. “And not every word that we utter is infallible. And have you not – was it not your suggestion, in the campaign against Trelvinir, to poison their oracle? If such a thing could be done, how can we know that it was not done in this instance, to turn the city against you?”
“What use is there in turning the city against me? I am not important. A better strategy would’ve been to turn the city against you. That alone would break Asgard clean down the middle, would split us – ”
“I do not believe it,” Thor reasserts stoutly. “I know who you are.”
Thor shakes him again. It seems to be the only way Thor has of convincing anybody of anything: pure, brute, physical force.
“Yes,” Thor says. “You are my brother. You are – I do not feel complete without you. When I am King, you will be by my side to advise me, and you will make me a great ruler. It will be as we have always dreamed it will be. Nothing will alter that. And Asgard will grow to accept you – after you have helped me win all her battles, and saved her from ruin or from conquest, they will grow to love you. Perhaps it will not be soon: it may take decades, or centuries. But it will happen. I know it shall.”
He opens his mouth to argue. “Thor, you do not see – ”
Thor’s thumb presses over his lips. A petulant gesture, to silence him; but then unexpectedly Thor’s gaze drops to his mouth, and for a long moment they are frozen there, half alarmed, caught on the cusp of something.
A beat passes. And then another.
Thor takes his hand away as if he’s been scorched. “You shouldn’t – you should not listen – ”
Finally, Thor looks away. There is another stunned silence. It seems to stretch on forever; it seems to loop itself into the fading light, into the thin, uncertain line of the horizon. He is made uncomfortably aware of distance – of the centimetres between them, Thor’s thigh and his thigh, the rattle of Thor’s breath and the stilting gallop of Thor’s heart – Thor is so warm – around them the intimate, cloying scent of ripe pears, boxing them in.
It will storm soon and he can taste it on the air. He thinks it, for the first time, and he will never think it again except in this moment: I wish that we were not brothers.
He takes pity on the miserable look on Thor’s face. “Come on,” he says. “We should go home.”
Frigga sees them on the threshold. Her lovely face is pale and strained. “Loki!”
“What has happened here? Is somebody injured?”
“Yes.” Frigga takes his hand. Her fingers are sticky with salve and a medicinal scent rises up off her clothes: bitter, ashy, warm. “It is the Princess from Trelvinir. It is still not entirely clear what has happened, since nobody here can communicate with her or her ladies – she has taken ill.”
Thor is trying to stop one of the women rushing past, presumably to ask questions. He takes Thor’s arm and yanks him back. “No. Don’t stop them. They are busy. Mother, may I see her?”
“We have been waiting for you to return,” Frigga says. “She is just inside.”
The room has been warmed with several large braziers; sweat springs out on his neck the second he steps inside. They have laid her on a heated stone slab in the centre of it, so that her sheets and the silk of her nightgown spill down the sides, her hair loose and tumbling. Her veiled ladies stand sombrely by her side. None of them have moved an inch since he came in – they only watch, stone-faced, as Asgardian women press damp cloths to the Princess’ forehead, as they wet her cracked lips with oil.
He moves to the bedside. He directs the question to Frigga: “You are hoping to sweat the fever out?”
“If only we knew the cause of it, we might be able to do something more.”
“Did it come on suddenly?”
“Yes. Only this afternoon.”
The Trelvan woman standing closest to him is as slight as a sapling. All the same, her dark eyes fix on him coldly; her gaze bristles with dislike. The crest of the Trelvinir royal family has been embossed onto her coronet, and she wears it as if it were the crown itself.
“What brought this on?” he asks her. She says nothing. “Come, something must have happened. Has she been out in the cold? Perhaps the food here in Asgard is not to her liking?”
“Your people have taken our country.”
Thor grabs at his elbow. “What is she saying?”
He shrugs his brother off. On her makeshift bed, a bead of sweat trickles down the Princess’ hairline.
“Your mistress is dying,” he says to the Trelvan woman. “I am certain that you can see this for yourself. You could not possibly wish to betray your oaths to her by concealing information that may yet save her life. We are not your enemies in this.”
“She would not be this way if you had not invaded our lands. She would’ve lived many centuries yet.”
“She may still live many centuries. Tell me what has happened.”
“There is nothing you can do.”
“I may yet surprise you. Tell me.”
Suddenly, her face twists in rage, as if a mask has cracked. She spits at his feet. “Trafalwch. You cannot surprise me. You rode into our country on the pretence of peace, but you have brought only war. You have blockaded our ports, so that we cannot receive the wheat that would feed our children; you have slaughtered our men, and you have salted our crops, and you have trampled the grass that we rely on for our sheep and goats. You have burned every village that you have not been able to take by force. You have stolen the youngest daughter of our King, the Diol-Wryn, the Fate-Star – and you have tried to use her to topple our people. But we will not surrender to you. Do you not understand? As long as we breathe, as long as there is a drop left of Trelvan blood in the Nine Realms, we will avenge this. We will not fall to you.”
Thor is dragging at him, trying to pull him away from her. “She is mad, Loki. She is gone mad – ”
“She will die, because she believes it will save our lands from your people.” Even as Thor hauls him from the room he can hear her shouting after him. “She has taken poison. She will die. This is all your doing – ”
In the end, it is Frigga who heaves the door shut.
He can still feel the pentagram she traced on his hand.
“What did she say?” Thor has both hands on his shoulders; to steady him or to keep him pinned down, he can’t decide which it is. “Loki. You must answer me. Tell me what she said.”
“The Princess, she took poison.”
Thor sits down beside him. He barely feels it. He, Loki, he is thinking about fate – is it destiny that rules us, or is it our knowledge of it? A holy woman says to you, your death will bring about peace, so you die; but if she does not appear, if you never know that this is the time that you should die, if you are unprepared, then perhaps things will not be the same. Perhaps you will live. Perhaps your fate will be different. If a holy woman says, you will grow to kill your brother once he is King – is it this knowledge which creates the consequence? Or does it come from you alone? He is looking down at his hands; he is trying to look into his own future. He is trying to see what he might become. He is terrified.
“Brother,” Thor begins.
He doesn’t want to hear the concern in Thor’s voice. “We should never have waged this War.”
“But Trelvinir is such a strategic position – ”
“It does not matter.” He pushes up from the bed. He is jittery, inconsolable. “We could have turned them with diplomacy. We could have negotiated some form of treaty.”
“Brother,” Thor says, straining for patience. “You cannot so easily forget that, in the last Great War, Trelvinir fought for Jotunheim. Their warriors rode into our midst with the Jotun crest linked with that of their god. How could we form an alliance with such a country? They would betray us without a thought.”
“You do not know that. Where is it written, that they will betray us? Where is it foretold?”
Thor stares at him. “Loki, you are not yourself.”
“How can you speak of me as if you know me?” He feels caged and trapped – the room around him feels as if it is shrinking, the walls crowding down on him. The words snarl out of his mouth. “You speak with such certainty on all things, Thor. But nothing is certain. You tell me of our future – you say, oh, this is how things will be, but you do not know. You cannot see into my heart. How can you be sure, that I will not grow to destroy you?” He takes a step forward, a green fire flickering menacingly into his fingers. “Do you think me incapable of it? Because I can assure you right now, brother. I am capable of anything.”
“But you are not capable of this.”
He laughs, surprising even himself with how harsh it sounds. “Would you have me prove it?”
Thor’s hand darts out. On reflex he curls his own away – out of range, too far for Thor to burn himself – that ancient, primal, bone-deep fear, his body moving before his mind has commanded it.
There is silence for a moment.
“You see?” Thor says at last. “It is not within you to hurt me. Or to allow any hurt to come near to me.”
“It is not within me now. But once you are King – ”
“I will not be King for many centuries yet.” Thor’s hand lowers, wraps itself around his wrist to pull him back gently onto the bed. “Father may rule for many more millennia – he is strong, and he is a good King. Many things must occur before I ascend to the throne.”
“But eventually, Thor, you will ascend, that is inevitable.”
“We still have much time. Nobody knows what may happen. It is useless to think about it now.”
But still, he thinks about it. He lies back on his covers, Thor’s solid body next to his, and looks up at the ceiling.
Thor is still holding on to his wrist.
“Thor,” he says finally. He can feel the shift of space as his brother turns onto his side to look at him. “In future – whatever may happen, whatever may come between us – ” He pauses, trying to find the right words. “What I mean is, if there is a way to escape, or even to postpone – I will do it. So it will come to pass that my actions may not always be clear to you.”
“I trust in you, brother,” Thor says without hesitation. “In all things.”
Something in his heart untwists. Something within him gives way, like water. He can feel Thor’s fingers absently stroking along his pulse and he relaxes into it without even thinking: finally a foregone conclusion, a natural consequence, as simple and as necessary as breathing.
An idea is shaping within his mind. Obstruct, defer, delay – Thor need not be King for millennia yet.
From the depths of the palace, the mourning bell tolls out: the Princess from Trelvinir is dead.
He is standing in a temple. It could very well be one of the crumbling temples on the Lower Marsh – except the light is wrong, and the air tastes too pure on his tongue; frost is creeping across the cracked floor tiles, crunching underneath his boots. A full, cold moon is on the rise.
He feels entirely calm. There is a blade in his sleeve; there is blood, tinged an unearthly blue by the moonlight, under his nails. The wind rushes high in his ears. He can taste the hot thrum of his brother’s pulse in the next room over, rabbit-quick, frightened, cowering away; he steps forward. His magic inches along the icy walls. A great black-winged bird rises up outside and reels off into the night.
He realises that he is in Jotunheim.