“I will convey your proposal to our King.” Ambassador Thrivaldi’s voice was as frigid as his icy world, but his manner remained entirely proper.
“Please convey our wishes that he accept our generous offer.” Frigga, seated on Hliðskjálf, Loki at her side, gave him a smile perfectly calibrated to demonstrate respect but still containing the implication that her offer was overly-generous and Laufey should certainly seize on it as an end to this impasse.
Laufey King had taken his time with his reply to her first overture of peace; time which Heimdall reported had allowed him to build up his weapons supply from the meager resources Jotunheim possessed. And still Frigga had waited and taken no action, while tensions kept rising in the court.
Thor, the people whispered, would have taken action. Thor would have taken their army and destroyed all the monsters.
But Loki had sent out subtle whispers among the people. Remember the last war. Remember the sons lost, the husbands slain, yes, all very honorably, but how many more did they want to lose? This matter could be taken care of without bloodshed. Why not enjoy their well-earned peace and prosperity?
And there were those among the populace – tradespeople and artisans, who began to speak about the wisdom of the Queen’s course of negotiation, not war.
Then Laufey King’s ambassador had arrived with his rejection of her offer of weregeld of 100 weight in gold for every Jötunn slain, and made a counter offer: the execution of Thor and one Asgardian for every Jötunn who had been slain during Thor’s invasion of their realm.
The Queen and Loki had sat with their council and let the Jötnar await their pleasure.
Then she made her counter offer: 1000 weight in gold for every Jötunn slain.
So Ambassador Thrivaldi took his leave again.
Midgard, North America, 1968
Blake didn’t know if the four people dressed flamboyantly in some kind of armor were from a local theatrical production or just some older-than-usual hippies who had raided a costume shop somewhere. He’d expect to see this kind of thing in New York City, not here in his small hometown many miles north of the metropolis. When they walked across the hospital’s parking lot heading right toward him he hoped they weren’t looking for a handout. He had a busy schedule, as always, and didn’t want to be bothered, so he turned to go inside.
“Thor?” The woman’s voice was insistent, hopeful, and worried all at once. It was, also, oddly familiar, and he turned back to them.
“Thor,” the woman said again, looking at him eagerly. She had a pretty face and lovely long dark hair, and was dressed in some kind of Roman soldier costume. Both the blond man, clearly attempting to copy the look of an old Errol Flynn movie, and the huge man with red hair and a ridiculously overgrown beard, grinned at him eagerly, while the Oriental man offered a tentative smile.
“There’s no one named ‘Thor’ here.” He gripped his cane tightly. Maybe they weren’t looking for handouts, but he had such an odd feeling about them.
The huge man stepped forward. “We’re your friends,” he said, voice and eyes pleading.
“I’m sorry,” he said, wondering what kind of con job they were trying to pull. “I don’t know you.”
Their expressions fell. The woman spoke again, her eyes earnest and hopeful. “I’m Sif, Thor. We’ve known each other for centuries.”
Either this was a practical joke, maybe even a Candid Camera setup, or else these people were crazy. “Excuse me,” he said, and turned , heading toward the hospital door.
He heard them calling after him, but by the time the door closed behind him the memory was already fading.
It wasn’t long, though, before he had the strong sensation that someone was watching him. That so-familiar prickle at the back of his neck, that crawling sensation on his skin. But when Blake turned to look all he saw was the bustle of a busy hospital at work, white-coated doctors and nurses in their uniforms and starched caps, gurneys and IV hookups passing up and down the halls, with no one giving him a second glance.
It was the feeling that he had when he passed a mirror, that glimpse of someone else’s face inside the glass that wasn’t there when he looked at it directly.
This feeling – which had plagued him at widely separate times in his life – was back now, full force.
And he’d do the same thing he always did. Ignore it. He certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone about it. He had enough burdens to deal with without adding rumors that he might be crazy.
Ignoring the strength of that feeling now, he headed on down the corridor to make his rounds.
As soon as Loki realized he could make a game of it, to view the petitioners as pieces on a game board, he began to find the weekly audience with the citizens entertaining.
The goal, of course, was this: bringing the people to view him as a wise king. Wiser than Odin, long may he sleep.
Take these two before him now. The man with a face like a toad, and the scrawny woman dressed in somber grey, some of her white hair caught in a simple bun with the rest falling unrestrained and wild down her back.
Mother, as always, sat remote and watchful, silent in one of the two elaborately carved chairs in the petitioner’s chamber, chairs that were meant solely for royalty. Loki sat in the other, and listened to each case with an eye on how best to enhance his reputation.
The two petitioners had attempted to argue their case at length, which he’d put a stop to by asking a few well chosen questions. It all came down to one simple thing: Raakeli, a simple hedge witch, had sold the farmer Hródolf a potion guaranteed to increase the yield of his crops. It hadn’t worked and he had slandered her name and demanded a refund. She demanded a public apology for his ill words, which were ruining her business.
It was simplicity itself to remind Raakeli - hadn’t there been a blight in her favorite herb-gathering area recently caused by excessive rain? Surely this had affected the potency of the herbs. Best to refund half his money, try again, and surely it would be effective this time. If not, refund the rest. And, he suggested to Hródolf, that if her new potion worked, surely it would be a favor to her to sing her praises to others in the neighborhood so as to increase her custom.
He could perceive she had some small talent in seiðr, and given good materials she should be able to do the working on her own. However, just in case her charm wasn’t effective on its own, he would cast a spell which would attach itself to her charm and if hers did not work his casting would give hers a boost to achieve the desired result.
Then they were gone, and on to the next group. Loki listened and judged and decided on everything from the rare cases of inheritance issues to fathers displeased with the new interest many of their daughters were showing in becoming shield maidens and what this meant for marriage arrangements, for which they blamed Sif and her lenient parents.
Overall, the people seemed pleased. He used his silver tongue to judge cases, saw the complexities beneath the surface, found ways to come to solutions satisfactory to all, and grudging respect turned to the genuine article. He knew his talents: to manipulate the truth, to give multiple shades and hues to meanings that seemed straightforward. And when one person came bearing a grievance against another, best to find a way to please them both and win something for Asgard as well. Why not appear to be wiser than father? Why not be wiser than father?
All the while he was aware of Frigga’s gaze upon him, her watchfulness reminding him of her training him in childhood in magic. And now he frequently saw approving looks on her face, exactly as it had been before as a child, when every day had brought new learning, fresh successes, and even his failures had taught him things he could learn from. She’d had the same encouraging look on her face back then as she did now, and something inside him thawed and warmed under her regard.
Then, one day, he realized he no longer felt like a stranger, sitting on this secondary throne, but felt he was there by right, doing things that Thor simply could never do.
That Thor would never want to do. But if his brother were to return – he could hear him now, deriding him for wasting time on petty quarrels when they could be out killing Jötnar and defending the realm from rock trolls and Norn knows what other trouble Thor could find if he searched hard enough.
And then the people would forget him, and he would be lost again in the shadow of the golden prince. Who would remember Loki only when he wanted him.
Thunder roared an instant after a sheet of lightning filled the sky. Cool air rushed in over Loki’s naked body, a demanding lover’s caress. “Brother…” Thor’s deep lustful voice, so very close, its timbre sending thrills of desire along his nerves. His body arched under his brother’s phantom touch, enjoyed the touch of fingers and lips that explored every expanse and convexity and crevice, his skin prickling in goosebumps at each gentle caress, and an equal pleasure, the flow of loving words whispered into his ears, of “beloved”, of “love”, of “I need you so much…”
Loki woke achingly hard, and rolled to one side, already reaching for Thor, tender words ready on his lips.
Thor was not there. He was alone in the bed.
Alone, except for dozens of books spread out by the side of the bed Thor normally slept on, his constant bedmates for the last many months, some still open to tantalizing hints about the complexities of the spellwork Odin had crafted.
He rolled back, clenching his hands in the bedsheets, and stared straight ahead. Outside the pillars of his chambers, past the lip of the balcony, the vast nebula spread its colors across the sky, its clouds obscuring Yggdrasil’s branches. He could pinpoint exactly where in that glory Midgard lay.
Restoring Thor’s memory had become a game, too. If he could unwork Odin’s working, what an achievement that would be! Such delicate, complicated work. Such a challenge. The thought of besting Odin at his own game filled him with pleasure.
He reached for one book and trailed his fingers over its open pages, feeling the power of the spell it contained like a running stream brushing across his fingertips. The answer was here. He knew it.
He read some of these pages over and over, trying to figure out some way around the very specific requirements. It had been difficult enough to attempt to master what was called the unlock-exchange, the latching on to and temporary possession of an aspect of the one bespelled in order to gain entry to the soul and restore it to itself. The spell was complicated, the text full of cautions about distortions in the perception of space and time. However, a strong seiðmann should be able to maintain his temporary access to the other one’s power; it would be like controlling a powerful and balky stallion, challenging and exciting and so fulfilling when final mastery was achieved.
Those other requirements, though − they were the sort often mentioned and often ignored. Intention was all. He knew that with certainty. These other requirements were inconsequential. No one possessed that much in the way of singlemindedness of purpose and purity of heart.
He traced a jagged line in the air. Somewhere at the edge of his vision lightning flashed and died again. Above, he heard a raven call. Nothing but silence followed.