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Upon the Mountains Like a Flame

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“Oh guard me close, because I have said wicked things tonight.”
– W.B. Yeats, “The Land of Heart’s Desire”

600 years before Ragnarok...

It was in a small, cozy tavern to the south of Asgard’s capital, well-positioned to supply the local garrison of Einherjar, in an upstairs room above the tap room where men and women normally caroused and sang loudly over their cups, but where tonight they drank in solemn remembrance to those who had fallen in the final battle against the sorceress Lorelei, that Loki, son of Odin, prince of Asgard, fell to the floor of his rented chamber, and sobbed.

“Hush, my prince,” said Sigyn Styrkarrsdottir forlornly, kneeling beside the young man. She was both bodyguard and friend, had been his teacher in the prince's boyhood, and latterly had become his most valued confidante, trusted with the secrets of his heart. A heart which now bled invisibly with a cruel, cruel wound.

“I loved them both… and their children might as well be mine… but now she all but accuses me of murder and casts me away like some common skirt-chaser.”

“I know. I heard everything she said.”

“Everyone in the village will have heard what she said. By tomorrow…”

“By tomorrow we will be away,” Sigyn promised.

“No. No, we should leave tonight.” He dragged his green sleeve over his wet face and started to rise. “I have a portal in the wine cellar of this place, a secret path—”

But Sigyn caught his arm. “You are in no condition to travel tonight, either by horse or by portal. We have the room for the night, and our faces are known here, if not our names. It will only raise the suspicions of the innkeeper and the soldiers in the tavern if we leave now.”

“I’ll not stay here. Never again. I never want to come back to this place. I’ll not stay here, do you hear me?!”

She looked up at him with an expression so calm and sensible, she appeared as though she felt nothing on his behalf at all. The perfect royal retainer, who kept her own counsel and did as she was ordered.

They both knew that she was no such thing.

“And if you were to return to the palace tonight, what would you do? How long would it be before your brother discovered you, or your mother? And from them, whether they willed it or no, the king would find out that you have been defying him, these last two hundred years, meeting in secret with Harald and…” She trailed off with a sigh, as Loki’s eyes filled again with tears. “Come here,” Sigyn said tiredly, tugging at his arm.

He all but collapsed back to the floor, hiding his face against her shoulder. “I would have given up anything,” he said roughly, his voice choking in his throat, “everything, for them. I would have taken her and the children back to the palace, given them a home…”

“I know,” she said, trying to soothe him, and ignoring the growing lump in her own throat and the widening ache in her heart. “I know you only ever want what is best for those you love.”

“…I never wanted him dead, Sigyn. She said… she said I wanted him dead so that she could never have Harald again.” She felt him tense horribly against her as he gritted his teeth, trying to maintain his control. “How could she say such a thing, after all that we… I love her.”

“People in pain say terrible things, my prince,” she murmured, running her fingers gently through his tumbled black hair. “She will regret her words soon enough.”

“Enough to send for me?” asked Loki bitterly, between sobs that shook his body so violently, Sigyn feared he might send himself into a fit. “Enough to take me back? She is not a woman to renege on a vow given. When she makes a decision…”

“I know, Loki.” She held him close, as a fresh wave of tears overtook him. “I know.”

She let him weep against her shoulder until he was weary and her tunic was soaked, and then helped him to the room’s chair and went to call for hot water and food for him, for he was in no condition to take supper downstairs or make his way to the inn’s bathing room.

He was calm when she returned with bread and cheese and beer, and a servant bearing a steaming basin, but from the way his skin was pulled tight around his mouth and eyes, he wouldn’t stay calm for long.

Sigyn made him wash his hands and face and stood over him while he ate a little, and then pushed the unprotesting prince into bed. “Try to sleep,” she told his, squeezing his hand.

Loki’s smile was a pale imitation of itself, and died before it reached his eyes. “Things will look better in the morning?”

“I doubt that very much. But at least you will have slept.”

He clung to her when she would have moved away, to fetch her own bedroll and spread it before the door, as was her custom. “Stay with me, Sigyn. Please.”



She froze. It was not Loki’s way to ask, let alone plead.

She struggled a long time with her duty versus her desire, but in the end, there was no choice. He was her prince. Moreover, he was her friend. She pulled off her boots and her belt and slid under the covers next to him.

Sigyn held him in the inn bed, letting him cry himself into exhaustion, and then cast a quiet spell to help him sleep. When he was unconscious, she slipped from the bed and lit a candle to scry a message to the queen.

“It is done. Gudrun did as you ordered her to.”

When they returned to the palace, the prince was required to present himself to the king, to account for his actions at the final battle against Lorelei, the sorceress and would-be conqueror who had once been his confidante.

Upon being released from Odin’s council, Loki retreated to his private chambers, barring the door and admitting no one, not his mother nor his brother, not even his servants. He spoke to Sigyn, but only once and only briefly, to give her a message for his family, to say that he would not present himself at any of the official mourning rites.

“My father has made it clear that my grief is none of his concern,” said Loki shortly, “so I cannot see that it would be the concern of the realm, either.” He waved an imperious hand to dismiss Sigyn, and turned away from her worry.

“I know you care, old friend,” he said to the empty room, when she had gone. “But even that is too much.”

And after she left him, it was days before he spoke to another living being. He buried himself in his books and his experiments, and apart from the servants who brought his meals, whom he ignored, no one came. His mother, he knew, was respecting his privacy. Thor was most likely glad to have an excuse not to seek Loki out, after the way he had behaved on the battlefield.

Of course, Father did not come.

And neither did anyone else, not for days. Not until the golden spires of the city were shrouded in so much black that they looked like the remains of some ancient forest fire, as burned as the bodies of the warriors that covered the waters of the harbor on their journey to Valhalla.

Loki could not bring himself to look outside, while the dead boats were on the water. All he could do was sit with his back to the windows, and hide his tears in his folded arms.

“It must be a fine thing, to be a prince,” said a voice from the balcony. “To be able to shut yourself away whenever something hurts you, and hide your grief.”

Loki looked up and glared at the intruder with bloodshot eyes. “Get out.”

“Lorelei is in the dungeons, if you wish to see her.”

“Why would I have any desire to see that treacherous creature?”

“You and she were… close,” said Sif carefully, “once.”

“The way you and I were close once? I was not even worth the trouble for her to enchant, was I? No, she went after Thor. As you did.”

“And we got your brother back,” she continued, as though he had not spoken. “It was a near thing, though. A very near thing.”

“Yes. So the king informed me. And no thanks to me. He’s already made me aware of that, as well, so you can save your breath, Lady Sif. I already know the general opinion as to my uselessness and cowardice, I do not need to hear your undoubtedly very detailed and specific thoughts on the matter as well. Now get out of my chamber, before I call the Einherjar to...” The threat choked and died in his throat, and he turned away.

Sif slipped from the balustrade and came to stand behind him. “I know you, Loki,” she said quietly, “and I know that you would never have countenanced the Warriors Three and me riding off to rescue Thor and bring Lorelei to justice without you, if you had been able to join us.” She hesitated. “If you had not been struck down by grief.”

Loki drew an unsteady breath, and when he spoke again, there was agony in his voice. “Who told you?” he asked hoarsely. “Was it Sigyn?”

“She told me nothing, nor did anyone else. I know none of the specifics of your loss. But... it is not hard to see that you mourn for someone.” Sif laid a tentative hand on his slender shoulder. “As do I.” She took a deep breath of her own, refusing to give way to tears. Not yet. “Haldor is dead.” Loki turned slowly, an expression of horror on his pale, wet face. “He fell under her thrall, the spell of her voice. Thor was able to break free of it, but my betrothed… I… we could not save him. He was too far gone.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, beginning to tremble. “I never thought it would come to this. I should have... I’m sorry, Sif. I’m... why have you come to me?”

Sif drew him closer, and he had no will to resist her. She wiped the tears from his face and kissed his lips. It was a restrained caress, but he could feel the want humming under her skin. “We were close once, Loki. I’ve come to you in memory of that. I need, for one night, for you to pretend that I mean something to you, the way I once did. Something more than a shield-friend to trade barbs with. I need to feel... that someone cares whether I am alive or dead. Because right now, with Haldor gone, it is hard to feel like that. It’s hard to feel anything, except—”

“Except the loss,” Loki murmured, resting his forehead against hers. He still cared for Sif, though he would never again love her as he once had, and the longing to merge their two griefs for a night was so sharp he almost felt the blood leave his body wherever their skins touched. “But... Thor? Surely he—”

“I traded Haldor’s life for your brother’s. I can’t go to him for this... I can’t.”

Loki let out a helpless little sound and slid his fingers into Sif’s hair. “Then I am here,” he promised softly.

Far from the halls of the king and the streets of people in mourning, a single hooded figure stood in a dark chamber, in a circle of brilliant flaming braziers. Within the flames were faces that only she could see.

“You all understand your orders?”

Their voices, neither quite male or female, chorused as one: “Yes.”

“Then may the All-fathers guide and protect you until we meet again.”

One by one, the images in the flames wavered and then faded entirely, leaving only the flames and the shadows they cast upon the walls.

The figure in the center of the circle let out a low sigh, and for a moment, seemed to droop.

“Are you well, my queen?” asked a voice from the corner.

Straightening, the figure pushed back her hood and turned to her companion. “Yes, Sigyn,” Frigga said quietly. “Only tired.”

“In body or in soul?”

“Both, I fear.”

Sigyn said nothing, only passed her queen a flask that she might restore her spirits for her return to the palace. She waved on the chamber’s automatic lights and set about tending to the fires. The light from the charcoal flames made her skin glow, and her pale yellow braids shine golden.

“Give me your counsel, old friend,” Frigga said, after a moment. “For I see plainly that there is something on your mind. Something about Loki, no doubt. Tell me.”

“The king spoke too harshly when he condemned Loki for cowardice,” Sigyn replied, dousing the flames and covering the braziers methodically. “He does not understand what the prince has lost.”

“And how do you know what the king said to his son? Is it your custom to spy upon Odin as well as for him?”

“My lady, it is my custom to spy on everyone. That is how I was trained,” she added, a little too dryly.

The queen gave her a sidelong glance and let the matter drop. As well she might, since it was Frigga herself who had trained Sigyn.

“And you are certain that Gudrun never knew of your connection to the Koronaugu?”

“She knew me only as Loki’s bodyguard and confidante, nothing more. She never knew aught else about me. No more than anyone does.” Sigyn snorted softly. “No more than I do.”

Frigga looked at her with an air of thoughtfulness. “You know I’ve always considered you more than merely another court spy. I have always thought of you as family.”

Sigyn managed a tired smile, though her heart was not happy. “I know. And I will always be grateful for that,” she said, sincerely enough. “But there is a vast chasm of difference between being of your family and being of the royal family. And I cannot forget as easily as you may, that I am always an eye of the crown first, and Sigyn, only second.”

“You are always Sigyn, first, to my younger son, and for that, I will always be grateful. Now that the matter of Gudrun and the Einherjar is finally over, though in so sad a fashion, you need not spend as much time with Loki.” Frigga smiled and touched Sigyn's arm fondly. “He is grown now, and has less need of your teaching and attention, and your other duties—”

“With respect, All-mother, I fear he will need my attendance now more than ever. He is in mourning.”

“Of course,” the queen said, not unkindly, “and I would not have you forsake him when he is in need of your company. But he is a legal adult now, and with his lovers... gone... he no longer requires constant watching. And should it become necessary, I will call upon another. You have given enough of your years to the care of my son.” Frigga hesitated. “So many of the rest of my retinue of guards have retired to lead lives away from needs of the court. I had assumed you would wish to do the same, one day, and so I had thought to...”

“To what, my queen? To free me? Or merely to send me away so that the memory of my face will fade, so that I will be of further use to you in a millennium or two, when no one here remembers me?”

Frigga's face was a mask of coolness, and Sigyn realized she had overstepped herself. “Forgive me,” she murmured, bowing her head. “My life is yours, as it always has been.”

“Is it your lack of freedom that so weighs upon you? Or is there another matter we should discuss? Something else pertaining to Prince Loki, perhaps? Speak your mind freely, Captain – or should I say, continue to speak freely, since you have already begun.”

A sudden chill wind ghosted through the chamber. For a split second, Sigyn feared that the queen's temper, for temper she absolutely possessed, had gotten the better of her, but it was merely the onset of night.

She raised her head defiantly. She had been but freshly invested in Frigga’s service as one of the new queen’s bodyguards when the Frost Giants invaded Midgard, and had been sworn to secrecy and inducted into the Crown’s Eyes upon being told the secret of Prince Loki’s birth. She had known the second Odinson since he was three months old, had taught him the art of the dagger when his hunger and excitement began to outstrip his mother’s ability to instruct him, and had latterly been his own bodyguard, companion, and friend, and she knew his heart and mind as few others did.

“It was a mistake to hide so much from the prince,” she said frankly. “His heritage, the reasons why so much effort was made to separate him from people he loved...” She felt the magic of the geas laid upon her flare in warning. She and the queen were both bound by the same spell of silence, but she was able to speak a little of this matter in private with the queen because Frigga was the leader of the Koronaugu, and as court spies, they had to be able to speak freely with one another on all subjects. “And this first rupture in his heart will make it that much harder for him to accept the truth of his past, when the king does see fit to tell him.”

“I can’t help but agree with you,” Frigga admitted, “but the king has made his orders plain. He believes that it is for the best. The All-father is wise, Sigyn, and he has a purpose to all that he does. You must trust him.”

“He fears his son. And that fear will only grow as Loki grows in power. He’s only just reached his fourth century. He’s barely a man now, in strength, but he’s a man in his grief, and that trauma will only grow, the longer the king chooses to keep him in darkness.”

Frigga was silent, moving to the balcony to gaze out over the shrouded city. “Loki’s heart is a good and compassionate one, but it was born to dwell in shadows,” she murmured. “He needs to come to an understanding with that part of his nature, before he can learn anything else.”

“And would you leave him to discover this alone?”

“Alone? He has his parents, always. He has his brother. And he has you, his beloved teacher and friend. Together, we will guide him.”

“But to what end?” Sigyn insisted. Her fists clenched at her sides. “I cannot continue to do this to him. I have known him too long, and to do this – when he finds out, and he will, in spite of my silence – it will destroy the trust that has come to exist between us.”

“I see. And you... value... the trust of your prince.”

“I do.”

“Do you love him?”

“That is not my place, my queen, and if—”

“Drop the pretense, Captain,” Frigga demanded, “and speak freely. Do you love him?”

“I do,” Sigyn admitted, after a moment. “I love him as a friend and a comrade-in-arms. And all that you are doing to keep him in ignorance speaks not of love, but of fear.”

“They are not often separate states,” said Frigga, with a pallid smile. “I only hope that, one day, you will both understand, and, perhaps… forgive me.”

Chapter Text

Fifty years later...

It was early spring on Asgard, and the morning sun's tendrils were well-woven through the spires of the capital and of the palace, when the ring of horseshoes on stone warned the market-goers to clear the streets in haste.

The mounted warriors thundered along the thoroughfares, with the two princes at the head of the group, and their smiles were so bright and their laughter so infectious that no one quite had the heart to be annoyed with them. Especially not when Loki turned and threw a spell over his shoulder that enchanted the sparks flying up from the horses’ hooves, turning them all into butterflies, delighting the children and causing all manner of harmless confusion among the market stalls.

“Show-off!” Thor shouted.

“You’re too kind, brother!”

“Yes, a terrible show-off!” Captain Sigyn chimed in. “So garish!”

Loki held up a fist and the entire party reined in their horses and clattered to a halt. “Do you think you could do better?” he asked, the light of battle in his eyes.

“I could indeed, my prince.” She smiled easily at his challenge, confident in her greater experience and the fact that she had taught him at least half of what he knew, and knew a good deal of the half that the queen had taught him. “And if you want me to embarrass you in front of all your friends…”

“There’s no need for that, Sigyn,” said Volstagg heartily. “He’s more than capable of doing that himself.”

The Warriors Three, Lady Sif, and Thor all burst out laughing.

“Normally, I would scold each and every one of you, but alas, my prince…”

“He does have me there,” Loki agreed, rather ruefully.

As they prepared to continue their ride, one of the market guards hurried up to Sigyn. She dismounted and spoke with him briefly, then sent him on his way.

“What’s the news?” asked Thor.

Sigyn turned to him with a grimace. “The captain of the All-father’s guards sends word that the princes are to return to the palace.”

The brothers looked at one another blankly. “Theoric? Why?”

“The message did not say, but if I had to guess, I’d wager you boys have probably forgotten something important.”

The Odinsons, who were both fifty years and more past their majority, scowled at the word ‘boys’, briefly stamping their entirely dissimilar features with the illusion of resemblance.

“If the captain of Odin’s guards requires your presence, Thor,” said Hogun, in his gruff way, “then we should go.”

“Yes, of course…” Thor heaved a sigh. “Such a waste of a fine day, too.”

Sigyn remounted her mare and the party set off for the palace by the quickest route, down the city’s main thoroughfare.

The quickest route, but not the quickest pace. Peeved at having their morning ramble cut short, neither Thor nor Loki appeared in any hurry to find out what Captain Theoric wanted.

None of them knew much about Theoric Geirson, or what to make of him. He had come to the palace from the western garrisons, perhaps nine or ten months before, to take service in the king’s guards, and to the surprise of everyone connected with the court, within a very short period, had been promoted to captain of Odin’s personal guards, over the heads of many with more seniority and arguably more qualifications. It was whispered, and Volstagg – being of a sociable, domestic nature, took great pleasure in repeating such whispers – that he had some sort of hold over Odin – proof of some scandalous rumor, perhaps, though no one could agree on precisely which rumor – or that his father had done the All-father a great favor and the high position was the repayment of that debt.

“I’ve even heard it said,” Volstagg continued, “that some believe him to be Odin’s bastard. It’s all nonsense, of course,” he added hastily, after both Thor and Loki each shot him a positively deadly look.

“Oh, I wouldn’t bring that rumor up around the princes if I were you,” said Sif. “They’ve already dealt with more than one unwise courtier who gossiped about that within their earshot.”

“Is that so? And what did they do?”

“We flung them into the harbor, Volstagg,” Thor replied, with an easy grin and a warning in his eye.

The rotund warrior only chuckled. “Oh, those two. I remember that jest.”

“It was such a fine jest,” Loki agreed dryly, “that those particular courtiers decided that palace life was no longer good for their health.”

Amid the chuckling and good-natured ribbing, Sigyn’s eyes met Thor's, and they shared a moment of understanding.

They both knew full-well that Loki was sensitive to ill-mannered rumors about illegitimacy, with all the talk that had followed him throughout his life. His premature birth while Odin was away from Asgard, fighting Frost Giants, and his dark hair and emerald eyes, had quickly given fire to the notion that he was no son of Odin’s at all.

And as Sigyn had often observed, as she suspected Thor had not, the way the king tended to favor his elder son in public and in private, at the expense of his younger son, did nothing to quench those fires.

“Well, I still say that this rapid rise up the ranks of the Einherjar from a western nobody was a blatant insult to Captain Sigyn,” said Fandral, not loudly enough for Theoric to hear him as they approached, but certainly loud enough for Sigyn to hear. “Especially after you earned your place through centuries of hard work and selfless loyalty to the queen.”

His companions all grinned at his obvious flattery, but Sigyn merely rolled her eyes. “Thank you, Lord Fandral, for the ten thousandth time. Nepotism is a glorious thing, is it not?”

The subdued chuckling burst into full-on laughter. To his credit, Fandral – who was the distaff son of one of Odin's late brothers, and was more indulged by Odin than both of the Odinsons put together – grinned sheepishly and then joined the merriment.

“Personally,” Sigyn continued, “I am less concerned about Captain Theoric’s rise to his current place and more annoyed by his persistent attentions.”

“Truly?” asked Loki, in some surprise.

“Truly. Flatly, my prince, I am not interested in Theoric.”

“There, Fandral, you see? You’ve still got a chance.”

Fandral glared at Loki coolly, and then gathered up his dignity and spurred his horse on ahead of them, to be the first over the harbor bridge onto the palace grounds.

“That,” said Sigyn, “was mean.”

“Only a little,” Loki demurred.

The rest of the party followed Fandral across the bridge, to where a single Einherjar was waiting for them. He held his helmet under his arm, and the morning sun gleamed on his mane of red-gold hair and on the broad shoulders of his golden armor. “My princes!” he cried as they and their entourage thundered to a halt. “Well met!”

“And to you, Captain!” Thor said with a bright grin. “But for what reason have you called us all back? If you’d wished to join us on our travels, you need only have ridden out and asked.”

Sigyn cursed under her breath at Thor’s genial invitation, but to her obvious relief, Theoric shook his head. “I am afraid not, your highness. I am sent to bid you and Prince Loki to come in and make ready.”

“Make ready? For what?”

“For you to attend your father the king during his hours of open court. You did promise to attend this week,” he reminded them.

Thor and Loki looked at one another in dismay.

“Ah,” said Thor hesitantly, “did we?”

Theoric grinned. “I am afraid so.”

Loki’s face twisted into a grimace. “Oh, what fun.”

It was Odin’s custom to hold open court once a week, so that any citizen with a simple grievance or a request to put to the king may do so without needing to go through untold layers of bureaucracy.

There were always those issues that were too complex to be dealt with in a matter of a few minutes, but the majority of the complaints and requests could be handled by the king and his advisers easily, by light of day, without need of a council meeting or convoluted diplomatic arrangements. And if any of the All-father’s people took exception to an unjust or over-harsh ruling on the part of the legal system, he wished to know of it. It was also a time for dignitaries from the other realms to make formal appeals to Odin for assistance or advice.

For all of those reasons, Odin often required his sons to attend open court – both of them, for although Loki was not likely to ascend to the throne, his quick and agile mind was well-suited to the task of cutting through legal tangles.

Sometimes it was interesting, particularly when the queen chose to attend, as it was not unknown for Frigga to intercede with the king on behalf of a petitioner, either for mercy or for a harsher sentence, but more frequently it was tedious and dull. It was not one of Loki’s favorite royal duties and it was certainly not a favorite of Thor’s.

The princes grumbled and cursed but dismounted their horses and handed them off to grooms, so that they could go and make ready for another practical lesson in the official business of kingship. “Stop whining and behave prettily,” Sigyn told Loki, giving him a friendly cuff on the shoulder. “Your mother will be present at today’s hearings, which means I will be there, so you had best conduct yourself as befits a prince.”

Judging by Loki’s grin, he did not appear to think that threat an especially weighty one.

“The All-father extends his invitation to his nephew and to Lady Sif as well,” said Theoric, turning to Sif and the Warriors Three. “As members of the royal household, your presence and counsel would not be amiss.”

Fandral leaned on his saddle pommel. “My uncle is too polite. But he knows I have no interest in court matters, and would no doubt deeply regret any counsel I might give him.”

His friends chuckled knowingly, and Sigyn whispered something to Loki that had the prince choking with repressed laughter.

“And you, my lady?” Theoric asked, turning to Sif.

She was not laughing. “No, sir, I will not attend. I trust the All-father knows why.”

Her quiet words softened the merriment of her companions. They all knew, as well as Odin must, that Sif had personal reasons for wishing to avoid the duty – her father was the king’s lord chamberlain and chief adviser. Lord Audun conducted the hearings for Odin, and she and her father were not on speaking terms.

“Surely you can be civil to your sire for the space of one royal function,” Theoric began, but he got no further.

“And surely you should remember your place, Captain,” said Sigyn sharply. “The girl has given you her answer. Leave her be. Unless you wish to settle the matter with swords.” She narrowed her eyes and smiled a little, as the other warriors drew in to flank Sif in support. “I need not tell you who would win.”

“No, my lady.”

“Captain, if you please, Geirson. Leave the ‘my lady’-ing out of it.”

“My apologies, Captain.” Theoric eyed Sigyn appreciatively. “I’m glad you will be there, at least. I think that today's session will be most entertaining.”

Of all the frequent and mundane duties of kingship, Loki thought to himself as he sat in the audience chamber that afternoon, fighting to stay awake, hearing and rendering judgment on grievances had to be the worst. If only the complaints that people brought to lay at the king’s feet were more interesting

He was so very bored, listening to a long, droning complaint from a representative of the traders’ guild, that he was tempted to cast an illusion and slip away under a spell of invisibility. With Odin’s attention distracted, he might even have gotten away with it.

But with Frigga on his right and Sigyn standing in attendance at his mother’s back, there was no chance of escape. He simply had to sit, and suffer, and wait.

At last, at last, Odin proclaimed his judgment on the traders’ guild problem, and the spokesman was dismissed back to his associates. Out of the corner of his eye, Loki saw Thor stifle a yawn and prepare to rise. Clearly he had also had enough of duty for one day.

Audun, the lord chamberlain, raised his voice. “Are there any other petitions to be heard?”

There was no answer from the assembled.

“Then I declare this court—”

“I wish to speak!”

Every eye in the hall turned to the source of the ringing, authoritative voice.

Theoric Geirson, the captain of the king’s personal guard, stepped away from his place at the hall’s great doorways and strode through the center of the court, until he stood before Odin and Frigga’s thrones.

At the queen’s right hand, a pace behind her throne, Sigyn stiffened and muttered something highly derogatory under her breath. Loki pressed his lips together to hold back a snigger. Frigga did not look at them, but her posture radiated disapproval at their behavior.

“You, Theoric?” Odin regarded his guard captain curiously. “What complaint do you have, that you could not lay it before me in private, but must air it in public?”

“I have come, Odin All-father, to ask you to release Sigyn Styrkarsdottir from royal service.”

From behind him, Loki heard Sigyn mutter, very softly, “What the fuck is he doing?”

“If this is his idea of wooing,” Loki murmured back, “I’m not impressed.”

But Theoric was not finished. “Further, my king, I am here to make formal petition for you to honor the marriage agreement contracted between my late father, and Sigyn’s father, Styrkar Alfarinson.”

The assembly of petitioners and witnesses rippled with startled murmurs. Loki suddenly felt as if a frozen river had given out beneath him, plunging him into cold water. Instinctively he looked back over his shoulder, at his friend and confidante, the woman who had stood with him through the worst tragedies of his life.

Sigyn’s face was so pale that her blue eyes looked nearly black. He could not read her expression, and the blankness only made the feeling of cold worse.

“You know, All-father,” Theoric continued, “of the betrothal agreement.”

Loki looked at his father in dumb shock.

“Yes,” said Odin quietly. “I know of it.”

“What? Father,” Thor sputtered, “this is nonsense. Mother—”

“Be quiet,” his mother ordered, under her breath.

“No, the prince has the right of it,” said Sigyn, stepping out from behind Frigga’s throne, to confront the man who had the temerity to claim her. “What is this betrothal agreement that you and the All-father seem to know all about, and yet I have never heard one word of?”

Theoric took a step or two forward, then – when Sigyn’s hands twitched over the knives in her belt – stopped where he was. “My father, Geir Njallson, glory to his name, was in life a good friend of our king. And to your father.”

“Who my father’s friends were in life makes no difference to me,” said Sigyn, her lips quivering as she worked to keep them from curling into a snarl. “I was raised as a servant in the queen’s household, almost from infancy. As far as I am concerned, he’s nothing but a name.”

“Yes,” said Theoric, “I know. But the king will confirm what I say.” He turned to Odin. “For he was there. A thousand years ago, when we were both mere babes. Our fathers signed a contract that one day, their children would marry, and Odin witnessed and approved the contract himself.”

Odin’s face was utterly impassive, but after a moment or two, he was forced to nod. “I did.”

“And then Sigyn’s father died,” Theoric pressed, “and contrary to the agreement, which stated that she was to be given to my family to foster, instead she was taken into royal custody. And my father objected to that decision – shall I continue, All-father?”

“No, Captain. You have made your point.”

“Like Hel he has! If there was truly some long-ago secret betrothal, why was I not told before now?” Sigyn demanded. “Why did not the king and queen tell me? Why did you, Theoric, not tell me so, in all your clumsy attempts to woo me?”

“I was bidden by the king not to reveal it, but to try and win you myself, openly.”

“And as that clearly hasn’t worked, you thought you would reveal your secret weapon, is that it?”

“I have waited! And I have done all I can to make you think well of me! But I will have my rights! So now I must bring my case to the king, lest some other man set his sights on you.” Theoric’s gaze traveled suspiciously round the court, seeking out the faces of those he considered his rivals, before finally coming to rest, to Loki's surprise, on him. “There are already some who think they have more right to claim you...”

“Enough," said Frigga sharply, speaking aloud for the first time. “Your case will be dealt with, Captain, but you will leave my son out of the matter.”

“Forgive me, my queen, but how can I? I was promised by the All-father himself that when Prince Loki reached adulthood, that Lady Sigyn’s time of royal service would be at an end, and she would be free to marry. But it has been fifty years since the prince reached adulthood, and yet the lady is still acting as his squire.”

“She is my friend,” Loki snapped, “not my body servant.”

“And is that not an oddity?” Theoric’s eyes narrowed. “A woman who has known you since your earliest days, and is now in your intimate confidence, to the exclusion of all others, who is old enough to be your mother... Am I truly the only one who sees the impropriety of such a relationship?”

“You forget that she is in the queen’s confidence as well,” said Odin, by way of warning. “And casting aspersions on long-trusted servants will not help your case.”

“What about this Yule just past?” Theoric continued, jealousy plain in his voice. “When you were both missed from the feast. We hardly needed the servants to confirm that she dragged the inebriated prince to her bed!”

Loki rose slowly to his feet, pale and trembling with rage. “You have the order of things wrong, as it was I who ‘dragged’ Captain Sigyn off last Yule. And with a good deal more willingness and friendship than many maidens you’ve brought to your chambers, I’d wager – drunk or sober.”

The crowd roared, and so did Theoric. “My king, I will not stand here to be insulted!”

“You did insult the lady first,” said Odin shortly. He leaned forward a little and turned his eye on his second son. “Be seated, Loki. I know there is no blame to be bestowed on you.” His gaze shifted briefly to Sigyn. “On either of you.”

Then he rose to his feet, Gungnir clasped in his hand. “This court is dismissed,” he announced to the assembly, his voice ringing from the vaulted ceilings. As the murmurings began in the gallery, Odin motioned for Theoric to step forward. “I will inform you of my decision at another time. You will not have to wait long.”

Theoric bowed low. “Thank you, All-father.”

Odin swept from the dais and strode towards a side door. “Come with me,” he said curtly to his wife and sons, and to Sigyn. “All of you.”

Chapter Text

The royal family swept into their private solar, with Sigyn following like an angry storm cloud, and the two princes barely holding back their outrage.

“My king,” she said, as soon as the doors were closed, and before Thor or Loki could explode, “I beg leave to speak.”

Odin waved an imperious hand. “Then do so.”

“All-father, please, I – this is all so horribly sudden.”

“Of course. You need time to come to terms with it.”

Time? Your Majesty, do not force me to do this. Please. I have no liking for him, no respect for him at all, either as a fellow warrior or as a husband. I have no desire to leave the queen’s service! I’ve told her so, many times!”

“It’s true,” said Frigga. “There have been many instances where I have offered to release Sigyn from her service, and she has refused.”

“I am the only one of the queen’s guards left – you know as well as I that she will replace no guard who falls in battle or leaves by choice.”

“I know it. A mark of respect.” Odin glanced at his wife, who returned his stern gaze. “Or so she tells me.”

“If I marry Theoric, she will have no one.”

“Then that is the queen’s poor planning, not yours. In any case, there is no reason why a married guard cannot serve the queen as well as an unmarried one,” said Odin, with a dismissively reassuring tone that made Loki’s hackles rise. He’d heard that voice more than once in his life. It was his father’s “be quiet and go away” voice.

“No reason at all,” Sigyn agreed, “but I cannot see Theoric allowing me to continue in my role as a royal retainer. He would marry me and then leave me to run his manor, at the mercy of old family servants and weighted down with children. He is a conservative and reactionary man.”

“She has the right of it,” said Thor stoutly.

“Speak carefully,” Odin warned. “I will not hear ill spoken of the son of a friend now in Valhalla. And Theoric is still my trusted captain.”

“There is no ill to be said against Theoric’s prowess as a soldier,” Loki agreed, casually pouring himself wine from the sideboard. His voice was as calm and smooth as the most practiced courtier’s, but it was taking all his effort to maintain that outward unconcern. “But the fact remains, he and Sigyn are so marvelously ill-suited to one another, and Mother’s need for her presence so vital—”

Odin’s eye fastened keenly upon his younger son. “And your need for her presence, Loki? Is that so vital?”

“I – that is—”

He hurriedly gulped his drink to buy himself time, but the truth was, he had no clear idea how to answer. It had been fifty years since he had lost Harald and Gudrun and their children. In that time, in spite of his accession to adulthood, he had come to rely on Sigyn more, not less, and the things he would have once confided to one of his lovers, he told to Sigyn instead.

It was not passion, or love of the heart. He doubted he would ever feel such things again. It was the love between shield-mates that bound them, that was all.

And yet, that was everything.

“Is there nothing you can do, Father?” Thor insisted. “After everything Sigyn had done for our family – and she means so very much to Mother, and to Loki, too.”

Loki darted a surprised glance at his brother, and then just as quickly wiped the emotion from his face.

“Loki speaks the truth when he says that is no ill to be said against Theoric the soldier,” said Sigyn. “But Theoric the man is not something that has been much seen, at court. But I have seen him, when the king’s attention was elsewhere. He is arrogant, cruel, presumptuous, and has no great like of women in combat roles.”

“Enough,” Odin snapped. “You will be respectful of him or you will be silent. As your guardian—”

Sigyn looked directly into the king’s face. “My what, All-father? You’ve chosen a very strange time to remember that you have a daughter, even if only a foster daughter.”

Odin paled. Good, thought Loki grimly. Though why Frigga should also look so stricken, he had no idea.

“And that! This woman has been a loyal retainer for as long as I have been alive – longer,” said Thor angrily. “She has been my teacher – she has been Loki’s friend – and yet, in all that time, not once have I ever heard that she was a royal ward.”

“Nor I,” added Loki quickly, shooting a confused look at her.

Sigyn shook her head. “Nor I,” she replied, her eyes darting from Odin to Frigga and back.

The queen said nothing; the king seemed uncomfortable. “It was of no importance,” he muttered.

“No importance? Father, you are her legal guardian! If even a royal bastard like Fandral is considered part of the family, surely Sigyn ought to have at least been of the same rank as he is!”

“If Sigyn is a ward of the crown,” Loki chimed in quickly, his words tumbling over one another, “then by rights, she ought to have been raised as one of the family—”

“But she was not,” Odin snapped. “She is not family.”

“And in that case, it’s not right that she should submit—”

“This is a legal manner, not a family one, and if I make no decision, it will be referred back to the courts.” The king shook his head. “I dislike this as much as all of you, but… No. I am bound by Asgard’s laws as much as Sigyn is.” For a moment, as he looked at her, the king’s implacable face showed dismay. “I never anticipated that Theoric would make his claim in such a way. It’s true, I told him to try and win your heart on his own merits.”

“But why?”

“Because I did not want to bring the matter back into the courts. Because I knew that if it was brought back before a judge, there would be no choice for anyone. Neither for you or for me. And yet, that is where we find ourselves.” Odin let out a sigh, and clasped and re-clasped his fingers around the spear in his hand, as though he were judging the weight of his responsibilities and finding them heavier than he remembered. “Your parents were good people. Worthy people, of a fine family. And Frigga and I were fond of them. When they died, both Theoric’s father and the queen claimed you for their households. And I… overstepped myself. I overruled the judge presiding over your custody. It was against my office, and not well-done, but for the queen’s sake, I did it.”

“And Theoric’s father… what? Objected?”

Odin snorted. “Vociferously. He brought a suit against me.”

Loki’s eyes went wide. “He did… is that even legal?”

“Kings are subject to the laws of their realms,” said Odin quietly. “Do not forget that. …I did, to my cost. The court ruled that Frigga might keep the child, and raise her as a member of her own household – not of the royal house – and when she was of age, she was to be sent to Geir’s estate, to be married. Geir never spoke to me again.”

“But when I reached my majority, I was already—” Sigyn foundered on how to describe what she had been doing, six centuries prior.

“Deeply woven into the fabric of my royal duties,” Frigga supplied. “And as I might remind the king, she still is.”

“Yes… and when Geir died and Theoric discovered the truth of the suit, he came here.”

“And that is why you made him captain?” Loki stared at his father, plainly appalled. “To give him access to Sigyn?”

“To give him a chance to win her honestly!” Odin snapped. “To keep his mouth shut for as long as possible! I did the best I could for her, under the circumstances.”

“The circumstances you created!”

For a moment, Odin looked as though he might strike his defiant younger son. But all in a moment, the fury passed out of him, and he looked merely tired. “Yes. And now Sigyn must pay for my lapse in judgment. It is out of my hands.”

“My king, I…” A shudder went through her proud frame, and then to Thor’s astonishment and Loki’s horror, she fell to her knees before Odin. “I beg you, grant me the privilege your son speaks of. Claim me as a daughter of your house, legally, before the court, and I will be henceforth obedient to you in all things, save this! If you do this, it will supersede this foul betrothal, agreed to by a father I never knew—”

“I can do no such thing,” Odin said bluntly. Then, “Leave me,” he barked, sweeping his arm towards the door. “All of you.”

For a second or two, Sigyn did not move, only stared up at him, aghast. Then she leaped to her feet and stormed from the room, followed closely by the two incensed princes. Frigga, though, lingered, none too thrilled with her lifemate.

“I wish to be alone,” said Odin gruffly.

“I will leave, when I have answers. Why are you permitting this? You can’t begin to believe that she will be happy with him.”

“I have my reasons,” the king retorted. “Many of them. And I cannot afford to hold Sigyn’s needs over any of them.”

“And what of my needs, husband? If she is forced to marry Theoric, I will have to give her up, not merely as my bodyguard – the last of my guards – but I will lose the best of my spies!”

“She can continue her work as one of the Koronaugu after her marriage.”

“How?” Frigga scoffed. “Her usefulness as a spy is centered on her autonomy and freedom of movement. A man like Theoric, who stands before king and court and demands ‘his’ rights will demand with equal determination that his wife stay at home, running his estate and bearing his children. Such a marriage will ruin her for intelligence work. And I still have work for Sigyn to do. A great deal of delicate, long-term work, in point of fact, as you well know!”

“I do know. I am aware of all of that, Frigga. But as I said… I have my reasons for remaining committed to upholding this marriage contract.”

Frigga stared at him. “And what are your reasons?”

“Chief among them is that Theoric is captain of my personal guard. He is a friend and the son of an old friend, a man who trusted me to uphold his wishes. And this has already been brought before the law courts once. Another suit might bring into the light secrets that I do not wish to reveal – things that neither of us wish to reveal,” he added pointedly. “But I tell you, Frigga, none of this makes me any easier about my decision.” Odin shook his head. “While you may consider Sigyn family, my love, I have never been able to trust myself with another daughter. And if I would not have those of Hela’s get in my court, I cannot make room for those of Bragi’s.”

“You would have had the Haraldsborns brought here,” Frigga reminded him coldly, unwilling to let him displace blame on that account, “but for Loki.”

“True enough. But I would remind you, my lady: that was your choice. Not mine.”

In the corridor, Loki tried to speak to his friend, but Sigyn shook off his comforting hand. “No, I – I can’t right now.” There were no tears, but there was confusion, and anger. “I need to stab something.”

“Well, Thor is right here…”

She didn’t even acknowledge Loki’s jest. Instead, she stormed off alone.

Loki made a motion to start after her, and then stopped short.

“Will you not go after her, brother?”

“No… no, better to give her some space just now. After everything that’s been said and done, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere within range of her daggers.”

“This is an outrage,” Thor growled, uncaring of who might hear him. “Unworthy of our house.”

“Thank you, brother,” said Loki, in grateful surprise. “I know you are not as close in Sigyn’s company as I am. It means… it will mean a great deal to her, to know that you take her side in this.”

“I may not have spent as much time in our old weapons tutor’s company as you, but I have always liked Sigyn. And I know that she has always been a good friend to you.”

Thor paused, and for one jumbled, awkward moment, Loki fully expected him to ask about last Yule, if he and Sigyn had truly gone to bed together, and he braced himself to spin some tale to thoroughly change the subject.

But his brother merely gripped his shoulder fondly. “We should leave her to herself for a little while, and go find the rest of our friends and tell them of this injustice. If she must go through with this sham of a marriage, then she will be better for having her old students and friends standing beside her.”

Loki considered his elder brother for a moment, wondering if that bright, broad smile of Thor’s could possibly be as idiotically naïve as it seemed. It would be obvious even to the dimmest of peasants that the sight of the king’s two sons standing with a common warrior in opposition to their father would be a grave insult to Odin, perhaps even tantamount to treason. Asgard did not tolerate oppositions, not even loyal ones. But no, Thor’s heart was too big and his brain too genial to grasp such subtleties…

Or was it? There were times, after all, when Loki had cause to suspect that Thor’s simple ways masked a far more devious mind. Perhaps this was one of those times.

Or perhaps Loki’s heart was too bruised on behalf of a woman he deeply… respected.

‘Respected’, yes. That was a safe enough word for the feelings he abjectly refused to examine any further.

“A fine idea, brother,” he said aloud, giving Thor a thump on the back. “Let us tell your gallant friends about this travesty. No doubt Lady Sif will have many things to say about it…”

Sigyn’s first instinct was to make straight for the unseen paths, and flee Asgard. She knew all the ways out of the realm like the back of her hand, and no hiding place was closed to her. She knew the languages and customs of many of the out of the way places, and could manage very well on her own, if need be... But then her common sense reasserted itself. At best, Loki would come looking for her. At worst, Odin would order Frigga to send other Crown’s Eyes to track her down and bring her back, and though Frigga might protest, in the end, she would do as she was ordered. That was never in doubt.

And besides, it had never been Sigyn’s way to run from a fight.

So instead of fleeing Asgard altogether, she returned to her own quarters, to hide and to soothe her temper before it got the better of her. It was all very well to start slinging fists and knives when an argument in a pub or in the barracks got out of hand. It was far less acceptable to do so in the All-father’s presence.

Or worse, upon the All-father’s person.

But she needed to stab something.

By the time Frigga arrived, as Sigyn knew she would eventually, the angry and frustrated captain was busy venting her wrath by repeatedly throwing her knives into a wall, and using a priceless antique tapestry as her target. “If I’d known you didn’t like the décor, you could have asked for a change.”

“I do my own redecorating, my lady, thank you.” Sigyn called the knife back to her hand with a dull slap. “This is madness.”

“I know.”

“None of what’s happened makes any sense to me. Nothing save the king’s behavior. That seems all very much in character for him,” she added bitterly, flinging the knife again.

Frigga did not deny that, merely seated herself gracefully in a side chair, and waited.

It took a few more throws of the knife before Sigyn untangled her thoughts enough to speak again. “That man Theoric has been dogging my heels for months, unencouraged and undaunted. I’ve had to warn him off more than once. And now, to discover that the All-father was the one encouraging him, and that my own father intended me to marry him… I never even knew my father. All he ever gave me was a patronymic.”

“I know,” said Frigga quietly.

Sigyn shot her a look of utter confusion. “Precisely how much did you know? Because I never had any shred of an idea that I was an official ward of the court. I always believed that I was little more than an anonymous orphan, that you took in as an act of charity, and raised for the service of the Koronaugu. But if this betrothal agreement was already in place when my parents died, and I was legally provided for… why? Why would you take me?”

The queen picked restlessly at her hands. It was a gesture she shared with her son, and an indication of vulnerability that she would not allow herself before any but her most trusted friends. “By rights, after the death of your parents, you should have been remanded to the custody of Theoric's father, for fostering and eventual marriage. But I convinced Odin to exercise royal privilege to make you a ward of the crown, so that I could foster you myself, and train you.”

“But why? Why me?”

The queen was a very long time in answering, and when she did, her words did not seem to the point. “What do you know of skaldr?”

That brought Sigyn up short. She stopped halfway through the motion of throwing and lowered the knife. “Skaldr, that is voice-magic, is it not?”

“Yes. Seidr combined with telepathy and hypnosis, and effected through the voice.”

“I know nothing of it.”

“I know. It cannot be learned. It cannot be taught. It can only be inherited. And it is an incredibly rare talent, sometimes not seen for centuries. The last great practitioner of skaldr was born and died millennia ago, during King Bor’s reign.”

That stirred something in Sigyn’s memory. “I’ve heard stories about him. Bragi. The warrior-bard.”

“Yes. You are of Bragi’s line,” said Frigga quietly. “One of the last of his line.”

“That… that’s not possible.” Sigyn was so stunned, she could not say that she felt anything at the revelation. Nothing except more confusion. So, she tried to grope for facts. “How can I be? I have no such power as that.”

“No, you do not. Though you’ve proven to be a very skillful master of seidr, and a credit to my teaching. But as to skaldr, you have none.” Frigga smiled a little. “But there was no way to know that, when you were but an infant. You asked why I would take you. That is why. There was at least that potential within you, and I wanted that power for the crown.”

Sigyn closed her eyes, and felt sick. “And as king, Odin agreed with you.”

“This was before we were married, but… yes. And he was willing to flex his powers of office and interfere a little in his subjects’ personal lives, if it meant securing a person with such an ability for the Koronaugu.”

“Even if it would cost him a friendship?”

“Even so. Geir knew nothing of my connection to the Crown’s Eyes, of course, but he was well aware of my romantic relationship with the king. He was not surprised that Odin would consent to do such a thing for me.”

There was a hint of a darker pride in the queen’s words, and Sigyn reflected that Odin was not the only one willing to flex his particular powers in order to get what he wanted. “I suppose his refusal to bend the rules now is his way of trying to repair those old and broken ties.”


“And then when I proved to be completely skaldr-null? Why didn’t you release me then?” Sigyn made a gesture of mock dismissal. “Just send me back to my intended in-laws and wash your hands of me.”

“Because by that time I was fond of you,” said Frigga. “Because you were proving adept in other matters of magic and intrigue, and rapidly becoming indispensable to me. And because I had found another of Bragi’s line, whom I hoped to apprentice to you as a fledgling Koronaugu.”

“Another? You mean a relative?” And she winced at the naked hope in her voice.

“A very distant cousin, yes, but it is not a relationship I think you will wish to presume upon.” Frigga paused in thought, tapping her fingertips absently on the arm of her chair. Sigyn found herself riveted by those agitated fingers, drumming away on the carved wood. “She was a true orphan, and there was no objection raised when I took her into my household at Fensallir. As she grew older, I discovered that she did indeed possess a powerful well of skaldr, and I had very high hopes for her, but she… proved to be a different sort of disappointment.”

Sigyn looked up and was pierced by the queen’s eyes, sad and defiant. “She is in the dungeons now.”

A cold grip took hold of Sigyn’s soul. “Lorelei,” she murmured, feeling lost. And then, without meaning to, “Poor Loki.”

Frigga’s even tone turned suddenly sharp. “You will tell Loki none of this.”

Sigyn let out a harsh, bitter laugh. “Of course not. When am I permitted to tell Loki anything?” She turned away from the queen, leaning her hands heavily on the marble sill of the window and looking out over the city.

When she spoke again, it was with the supreme iron control of a woman mere moments from snapping. “I am disappointed, my queen, to learn that you have taken up your husband’s habit of making away with infants who might someday be of use to you. I only hope that your son may prove to have a better outcome to his kidnapping than I have done.”

Frigga opened her mouth to protest, but Sigyn did not wait to hear her argument. She threw one more knife into the tattered tapestry and then promptly vanished, in the fashion of the Koronaugu, by wrapping a shadow around herself, and disappearing from view.

The onset of evening found Thor and Loki in their private chambers, with Sif and the Warriors Three, supping and drinking, and expounding loudly on the injustice of Sigyn’s situation.

That is, Thor was expounding loudly. Loki was perched upon a window sill, away from the closely-clustered company, his expression darkly thoughtful, picking at his hands and adding cynical commentary to his brother's explanations. And as he had predicted, Sif had many, many things to say about it all.

“And your father is determined to make her obey his orders?”

“He is.” Thor drank his mead and then hurled his cup into the brazier. The clay exploded with a satisfying crash, but he was not mollified. “In spite of all her pleas and objections. It’s intolerable!” He shook his head. “I cannot imagine how she must feel.”

“No,” Sif agreed, “you cannot. It’s not something a man can understand.” She glared into her empty mug. “But I understand. Sigyn and I have not been close, since I left her tutelage, but she and I are sisters in struggle, as well as in arms. The life of a woman warrior is a fraught one everywhere, even in Asgard. Especially in Asgard.”

Her male companions looked uncomfortable, and would have disagreed with her, had they been able, but they had all been taught the same simple truth, that since the deaths of the last of Valkyries in battle, centuries before, maiden warriors were considered bad luck and, if not outright forbidden, then certainly not encouraged. And Sif’s lot in particular had been hard; as the daughter of Odin's lord chamberlain, she had spent a good part of her life fighting against her father's attempts to make her behave like a proper court lady and do as she was told. It had been years since she had spoken with her parents.

“Sigyn’s entire life revolves around your family. She has none of her own to turn to for support, and I’ve never heard of her having a serious lover.”

No one bothered to look up at Loki, when Sif said those words, but they might as well have. His pale cheeks flushed, with or without his friends’ regard.

“Perhaps that is the one saving grace of this horrible affair, that she has no preferred choice of husband,” Sif continued haltingly, “I cannot conceive of having to marry someone I had no love for, not even any liking for.” She turned a stony eye on Fandral. “And I can’t believe that you can simply sit there peaceably swilling wine while the king goes about ruining Sigyn’s life.”

Fandral replied with a non-committal shrug. “Unfortunately, I have to say, I’m rather ambivalent about Odin's position on the matter.”

“Why Fandral, I’m surprised. I didn’t realize you even knew what ‘ambivalent’ meant.”

“I have nothing to complain about,” Fandral continued, placidly ignoring Loki’s taunt, “in my uncle’s treatment of me and my late mother.” He paused and raised his goblet in toast. “But I’m all too aware that our king is very much a king first, and a family man second. He will do what is right by Asgard and its laws… and that may not necessarily be what is right by Sigyn. But for all that, I am deeply outraged that any maiden should be forced into marriage against her will, and Sigyn in particular.”

The company rolled their eyes at their dashing compatriot’s gallantry. They all knew he’d had his eye on Sigyn for years.

“Be as outraged as you please, Fandral,” said Loki, “she’s still not going to sleep with you.”

“My prince, a man can but dream.” Fandral drank off his mead and reached for a pitcher. “At least I’m not as insanely jealous of your friendship with her as her intended husband is. What was that business Theoric was mentioning, anyway? About last Yule?”

“Oh, that,” Loki scoffed. “Apparently, Theoric seems to think that because Sigyn and I left the feast together, it automatically follows that we snuck away to fuck.”

“And you didn’t?”

“No,” replied Loki flatly. “We were bored with the party and left at the same time. That was all.”

“Ah.” Fandral turned to the one member of their company who had not spent most of his life at court. “And what about you, Hogun the Grim, hmm? What say you about this little domestic matter?”

The Vanir warrior shook his head. “It is not for an outsider to criticize the decisions of the king.”

“But you are no outsider,” said Thor, clapping Hogun on the shoulder. “You are our friend! A veteran of many shared adventures! And I value your clear-headed counsel.”

“Yes, indeed.” Loki jumped lightly down from the window sill. “As a non-Asgardian, you have far less delicacy than we about pointing out the ridiculous flaws of this place, and as a man of common birth in the company of princes, we expect you to say what you think.”

Hogun did not look reassured by the brothers, but he rarely displayed any outward signs of uncertainty. “What I think,” he said, in his brief, blunt way, “is that I do not see the point of arranged marriages. Especially not for those who are not of royal blood, and do not have peace treaties riding on their unions.”

Volstagg, older than the rest by many centuries and a former royal tutor alongside Sigyn, shook his head gravely as he refilled both tankard and plate. “It’s very easy for all of you to say such things. None of you young bloods are married yet. You have no children to consider, or to make provision for who will provide for them if you fall in battle.”

“So you agree with my father in this?” Thor demanded, angrily swinging round to face him.

“I’m only saying,” said the older warrior, in a placating tone, “that I can at least appreciate the All-father’s position in not wanting to gainsay the desires of friends now in Valhalla. And Theoric’s a good enough lad. Maybe a little rough around the edges… but at heart, he’s just like Thor, really.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “A ringing endorsement.”

“That said, it’s clear that Sigyn isn’t interested in the slightest, and I don’t hold with forcing betrothal on anyone. Except princes,” Volstagg added, raising his goblet to Thor, a veteran of many politically expedient and realistically futile hand-fastings, “but as the All-father's own hands are tied by the law, I can’t see that there’s much that Sigyn can do.”

Loki said nothing, and left them company soon after, but his mulish expression did not escape Thor's notice.

Chapter Text

It had been a long day, but not, Theoric Geirson trusted, an unprofitable one. He had made his case plain to the king before all the court – there was no way for Odin to put him off now. Much as he admired and respected the old man, Theoric knew what his father’s wishes had been, and he was honor-bound to see that his father’s dying orders were carried out.

And if those wishes happened to link with Theoric’s own desires, then so much the better.

Alone in his private quarters, away from the communal bunks of his men, he stripped off his armor and washed. There was supper laid out for him, and strong mead and ale, and then his bed. Empty, for the moment… but he hoped not for long.

Odin had vowed that he would not keep Theoric waiting for his decision.

It was plain enough to Theoric that the king’s mind had been made up instantly, that afternoon, and after having served as his chief bodyguard for some months, he knew that Odin’s way was to rid himself of all unpleasant annoyances, as soon as possible. Had there been no objections, or even if only the lady had made any protest, Theoric had no doubt that the betrothal would have been confirmed that very afternoon, before half the native nobility and half the foreign dignitaries then in Asgard.

But then the princes had raised their voices in anger – united as they rarely were – and Odin had demurred, for the time-being. It was an irritating delay, but surely no more.

Soon enough, Sigyn Styrkarrsdottir would be his, and they would be away back to his lands, far from the distractions of the court, free to focus on more intimate matters…

Theoric ran his wet hands through his thick red hair and grinned hungrily at the prospect.

Absently, he reached for a towel. “Thank you,” he said, taking the cloth from the hand which held it out.

Then he froze, remembering that he had sent his personal servant away.

He whirled round, his heart suddenly pounding, and in the dim candlelight, locked gazes with the green eyes of the second prince of Asgard.

“Good evening, Captain Theoric,” said Loki, very quietly.

Theoric swallowed, but he stood his ground. There were all sorts of rumors surrounding Prince Loki – that he was Odin’s bastard, that he was Frigga’s bastard, that he had bedded every servant and guard in the palace and made himself their whore in return – but only two concerned Theoric at that moment: that Loki was counted as a coward, even by the king, and that there was something between the prince and Sigyn. No one would say what, precisely, only that there was… something.

There were no rumors about his prowess as a sorcerer. Those were all proven facts.

But Theoric was not captain of the king’s personal guard for nothing, and if he could not stand up to a skinny little sorcerer princeling while in small clothes, then he was not fit for his office.

“A fine evening to you, your highness. Get out of my chamber.”

“Oh, believe me, I can think of plenty of places where I’d rather be right now. Cleaning out the barrack privies, for example, or lying chained on a rock under a venomous serpent with poison dripping into my eyes. But what are minor royals for, except for undertaking unpleasant duties that their elders and betters won’t dirty their hands with?”

“You dare much,” said Theoric with a snarl. “You think I fear you?”

“No one fears me. To their detriment.”

“And what have I to fear from you, hmm? A boy whose only weapons are words and spells?”

“I have blades enough to deal with a festering maggot like you.”

“Daggers,” Theoric scoffed. “Women’s weapons—”

“This is purposeless,” said Loki, his eyes glittering, “so let me get straight to the point: she wants nothing to do with you. That much is obvious to anyone without mutton for brains. And you only want her for your wife because you were told to.”

“You really think that is my only reason?” Theoric shook his head. “If you think so, and of such a woman, then perhaps I need never have suspected you of being—”

“Your suspicions are irrelevant. And you would do well to remember that, rival or not, I am still your prince.”

“She is the most glorious woman I ever beheld. I want her for my wife because there could be no other.”

“And her wants? Does her happiness mean nothing to you?”

“This is a legal and binding contract,” Theoric snapped. “Even if I wished to break it, I cannot.”

“You seem well-versed enough in the law to know what you may break and what you may not. But I am versed in the law as well,” Loki continued, advancing on the guard, who made up nearly two of him in bulk, but who was at that moment half-naked and weaponless. “What are second sons good for, if not for heaping with all the learning that the elders are too prized to burden with? And I know something of Asgard’s laws regarding arranged marriages. You are a legal adult and under no obligation—”

“I have a duty to my family and my estate. Do not envy elder sons their responsibilities, your highness. I would wed and bed her for her own charms, but I must honor this marriage contract, for my house’s sake.”

Loki frowned. “She is an orphan with no fortune. I fail to see...” A hideous thought struck him.

Theoric saw the realization writ plain on his face. “Yes,” he said, “the king settled a great dowry on Sigyn, to be dispersed upon her marriage. But it is controlled by the courts, not by the king. And they will not give it up for any reason other than marriage. Do you not think I have tried?”

“I will pay you.”

“...I beg your pardon?”

“I said, I will pay you. Whatever the price of the dowry is, I will pay it out of my own purse. If you will let this matter die, and leave Sigyn in peace.”

Theoric said nothing.

Loki’s lip curled in disgust. “As I thought. A word of warning, Captain: never try to lie to me again.”

“I do not lie! Everything I said was true!”

“Your lie was in your heart,” Loki retorted, flinging seidr at the big man and pinning him to the wall. “You speak of your concern for your honor and your family’s needs, but when I offer you a chance to save both and save Sigyn in the bargain, you say nothing. You don’t care about the good name of your house, you just want what you think is yours.”

He let go suddenly, and Theoric staggered and slumped against the wall.

“A word of advice: I’ve seen what Captain Sigyn can do, and will do, without hesitation, to men who persist in making unwanted advances.” A knife suddenly gleamed dangerously in his hand. “She ripped them from arsehole to breastbone. It’s a horrible way to die.”

Loki’s hand twitched, and the knife flew and buried itself in the wall beside Theoric’s head. “Leave her be, unless you wish to try it for yourself.”

Theoric’s panicked eyes flicked up to the knife, and when he looked back, Loki was gone.

An instant later, so was the knife, and the wound it had made in the wall melted away. Only an illusion, as so many of the prince’s tricks were, leaving no trace to show that he had ever been there at all.

But the message was clear enough. It was only an illusion… this time.

Hidden by layers of invisibility and distraction spells, Loki stormed his angry way from the Einherjar barracks. As a member of the royal family, he had every right to be there, no matter the hour of the day or night – and indeed, in years past, he had frequently made his way to a particular room within the guards’ quarters, a rare private room gifted to a common soldier in thanks for services to the prince…

But that was all in the past now, as dead as dust. It was best not to think on it. There were matters enough in the present that required his attention, and friends still living who needed all his nerve and cunning now.

His warning to Theoric had been delivered, but he had no great faith in its being heeded. Perhaps there was still a chance that Father could be applied to… it had not escaped Loki’s notice that the more the injustice of the thing was pointed out, the more Father blustered, which invariably meant that he was uncomfortable with the business. He wished it to go away, no doubt of that, and capitulating to Theoric’s demands would seem to him to be the obvious and most speedy way of ridding himself of a troublesome petitioner, and a possible lawsuit.

If there were only another way…

Unseen by the soldiers and servants milling about him, Loki paused in the midst of the barracks’ hall, and considered. He stood there for a long time, thinking, weighing possibilities as a miller weighed flour, and testing them between his forefinger and thumb to check the fineness of the grind.

Then he dropped his hand and turned towards the harbor.

As a boy, he had been afraid of the dark. As a very small boy, he had been seized by the notion that the sun was drowning itself in the water every night, or that some great wolf was swallowing it whole and leaving Asgard in darkness. His mother and brother had been comforting, for a time, until Thor had matured enough to find his terrors jeer-worthy, and Mother had reluctantly withdrawn her nighttime support and insisted that he was old enough to keep care of his own nightmares. He could not resent either of them too deeply for that. He ought not…

Mother, at least, had affairs of state and court to attend to, that kept her from family duties late into the night. Sometimes, even now, when she had been long at the council table and returned to the family wing to find his lights still burning, Mother would come and sit with him, and tell him of the talk of the council and ask his opinion of the affairs at hand. It helped, a little.

It was Sigyn who had helped him rid himself of most of his fears of the night. Not by doing anything overt that he could recall, but in his boyhood, by keeping him outside with her long after the sun had set, telling him stories of the stars and constellations, of the great battles she had seen and the adventures she had had under starlight, keeping him wakeful and enthralled until dawn came and he could see, with his own eyes, that the sun was unharmed, as it was every morning. And later, in his young manhood, when he had been plagued by endless nightmares of the death of one lover, the abandonment of another and the loss of his children, her mere presence had been a balm to his unconscious soul. He had never found passion in Sigyn’s arms, or the intimacy of lovers, even if in recent years he had begun to idly contemplate if perhaps they might… but he had found endless comfort and safety in her embrace.

She kept away his nightmares. He could do no less for her.

Loki found his friend sitting on the edge of a parapet, overlooking the water and the ships moored below. If it were anyone else, the position might have alarmed him, but Sigyn had always had a fondness for high places.

He approached through the shadows quietly, as was his wont.

“My prince. Forgive me for not rising to greet you. I don’t seem to have the heart right now.”

“Then I will sit. I’m sorry,” he said, after a long, quiet time had passed. “Truly. It’s... well, it is not for me to question the All-father’s decrees, but—”

“It’s barbarous,” said Sigyn shortly. “It’s cruel and uncivilized and does nothing but rid himself of an irritating complaint.”

She echoed his own thoughts a little too closely. If she saw the same as did he, it boded ill for the future. “...Perhaps I could speak to him, on your behalf.”

“A generous offer, my prince, but he’s already made it plain that he believes your opinion of me to be somewhat biased.” She smiled sideways at him in the starlight. “Besides, the queen has already spoken her mind about the matter, and if he won’t listen to your mother, then I fear not even your silver tongue will sway him.” Sigyn kicked her heels against the wall of the parapet. "I have already said to the king that this is a terrible idea, and that Theoric and I are ill-suited to one another. You and your brother have said so, the queen has said so—”

“And Theoric himself only wants you for your dowry and the charms of your bed. I spoke with him, before I came to you,” Loki explained. “Oh, do not worry,” he added, in answer to her silent look of alarm, “I didn’t harm him. Merely frightened him a bit. I hope it will be enough, but…” He shrugged. “My hopes and my expectations are rarely bedfellows.”

“As are mine, it seems,” she said bitterly. “A thousand years in your mother’s household and six hundred years of loyal service, and what is to be my reward? An arranged marriage to a husband I have neither liking nor respect for, and not a word of mind is to be considered. All my sisters in your mother’s employ were permitted to choose their mates. Whilst I am given to a man with whom I will have to ‘work out our differences, in time’.”

“And how do you plan to do that, lady?” Loki inquired, his eyes glittering. “With a knife’s point?”

“Do not tempt me.”

“You could. Between you and my mother, I know everything possible about dagger combat and I still cannot best you. You could end Theoric with a flick of your wrist.”

“You are a wicked boy to even suggest it. Besides, everyone would know it was me.”

“Have you no one else willing to speak up for you?” Loki ventured. “No kin, no friends?”

Sigyn sighed. “I was an orphan in your mother’s hall before I joined her service, and now I come to find out that I have been a ward of the king all this time. The other women of her guard have either retired or gone to glory in Valhalla. Frigga is the only family I have, and then only of a sort, and as to friends...” She trailed off with a shrug. “My life has been devoted to the service of the royal family. There have been opportunities, perhaps, but I chose not to take them. I must face this alone... as I face all things.”

The prince’s long fingers hunted absently for a stone on the ground beside them, which he hurled side-arm over the cliffside. As it began to fall, there was a flash of green in the dark, and it transformed into a swallow, its silhouette dipping and diving in the cool air churned up by the water. “Not alone,” he vowed, “and not friendless.”

Sigyn looked at him with gratitude, but then she shook her head. “You should not involve yourself in this matter. Your father—”

“My father is trying to sell you for what amounts to a mess of pottage,” Loki retorted. “And all for his own convenience and the memory of a man who’s been dead for centuries. It isn’t right.”

“I agree, but apart from shaming myself by fleeing Asgard entirely or condemning myself to death by murdering Theoric outright, I don’t see what other options I have. And I would never do either.”

“No,” said Loki warmly. “You have too much honor.”

She snorted. “It is not honor that stays my hand, my prince, but fear.”

“Of what?”

Sigyn did not reply at once. She found a stone and tossed it into the abyss. It flashed a deep, blazing blue and changed into a bird, a swallow to match the first. “I would not willingly leave you alone,” she murmured, “not for the world.”

“There is a third option,” Loki blurted out, stunned into speaking sooner than he’d intended. “One that I think neither Theoric nor the king will suspect.”

“…I’m listening.”

“Theoric thinks me uninterested in women, and Father still looks on me as a boy with no ability to hold firm to anything. With those advantages at our back, we may be able to carry the day, if we play our pieces well and keep our own counsel long enough.”

Sigyn stared at her prince for several moments before she found her voice. “Loki, are you proposing that I marry you instead of Theoric?”

“Of course!” he grinned. “And why not?”

“I’m six hundred years your elder, for one, as Theoric so gracelessly pointed out.”

“It’s not that much of a difference. Marriages are contracted everyday with far greater gaps in age. The king is two thousand years older at least than my mother! Now listen.” They bent their heads together, as conspirators of old. “Once it’s done, you’ll be free of Theoric. The law allows for the nullification of such contracts, in the case of previous marriage. Once you’re my wife, even for only half a day, he won’t have any claim on you.”

“...That... could work,” she conceded. “But why would you do this? What’s in it for you?”

Loki grinned. “A chance for mischief, of course. You know I never pass up an opportunity to annoy Father. And a chance to help a dear friend. You’ve done as much for me, and more, in the past. And I certainly wouldn’t make any sort of demands that you fulfill your marital obligations. That is,” he made haste to add, “unless you wished to. For formality’s sake.” But the blush on his cheek and the blithe, too-wide grin gave him away.

For a few moments, Sigyn did not know quite how to respond to that. “For formality’s sake, hm?” she said at last, her husky voice as dry as cider. “I knew you had a taste for older women, my prince, but frankly, if you wanted to seduce me, you could have asked before trying out some elaborate subterfuge.”

“If that was all I wanted, Captain,” he replied, returning her volley, “I would have. Honesty isn't always the best policy, but it does have its uses.”

“Prince of Asgard you may be, but you are still subject to the laws of your king, and a prince more than anyone needs the consent of his king before he can marry.”

“True,” said Loki dryly, “but if Father’s the one performing the marriage ceremony, isn’t that consent enough?”

“Not if he doesn’t know it’s you,” said Sigyn, somehow even more dryly.

Loki’s expression boded no good for the king. “He is Odin All-father. He is wise and all-seeing. If he can’t see through my simple tricks, then I’m happy to accept his blindness as a blessing on our union. He won’t even be able to say I eloped. He can’t fault me for my choice of bride, that’s certain.”

In spite of the situation, Sigyn was warmed by his words. “Thank you for the compliment.”

“My only real concern is that he’ll decide you’re too good for me.” The pink tinge on his cheekbones deepened to red. “He’s always thought higher of you than he has of me.”

“At the moment,” she sighed, “that’s not saying much. So. I suppose we’re betrothed now.”

“…I suppose so.”

“In that case, husband-to-be, what do we do?”

Under normal circumstances, Loki would not dare to involve more than himself in such a scheme, but some aspects of seidr did not come as naturally to him as they did to others.

Loathe as he was to admit it.

Which was why he was now standing in the alchemical workshop of Lady Unna Sverrirsdottir, clasping his hands behind his back and hiding his tongue behind his teeth, waiting for her to answer him.

She wasn’t ignoring him on purpose, which was why he was doing his best to be patient; she was in the middle of a delicate midnight experiment and if he pestered her, it might well blow up in both of their faces and do who knew what sort of damage – turn them both permanently purple or kill them or give them hideous sores or something.

And if the experiment didn’t blow up at him, Unna would, and that would almost be worse, because he needed her help.

He held his breath as she added a quantity of clear blue liquid, drop by drop, to a flask of a viscous yellow substance that Loki recognized as venom from a vatnagedda. It came from a highly poisonous fish that was native to Nornheim, highly difficult to collect, the importation of which was strictly controlled.

“May I ask,” he ventured, when she had finished combining her ingredients and set them over a flame to stew, “how you got your hands on that much vatnagedda venom? Because if you got it legally, I’d like the name of the merchant… and if you didn’t get it legally, I emphatically need the name of the merchant.”

“No merchant, and not quite legally.” Unna shrugged and wiped her hands on her protective apron. “It seemed the best way. Certainly the quickest way. Now. Can I do something for you, Loki?”

“Yes,” he said, and explained.

She didn’t show any visible surprise, apart from her raised eyebrows, but that was a lot for Unna. “You want me to help you hijack a wedding?”

“It’s in a good cause, I promise!”

“And you’ve come to me because…”

Loki gritted his teeth so hard, he thought he heard one of them crack. “Because you’re better at this sort of thing than I am.”

Unna tucked a lock of pale hair behind her ear and looked balefully at him with cool gray eyes. “I know that already. I’ve been forcing you to admit that consistently since we were fifteen and learning how to brew sleeping draughts together. It’s not a compliment anymore, Loki. It’s old, and out-of-date. So?”

“Because if you don’t, I won’t be able to subdue Theoric for long enough to take his place before Father at the wedding.”

“Loki, if you want to marry Sigyn, just run off to Ljosalfheim like a sane person who’s madly in love.”

“It’s not – I don’t want – this isn’t a romantic engagement, Unna. She’s being forced into marriage.”

“Ah. …And you didn’t start out with that information because…?”

“Because I know your feelings on the subject,” said Loki, with careful gentleness, “after what you went through with your own parents—”

“And you wanted to save that dagger for last, I take it. For maximum effect. You need to work on your subtlety, Silvertongue.” She glared at him. “Now, shut up and let me finish this before I say whether I’ll help you commit treason or not.”

“Hardly treason,” he protested. “A middling domestic scandal, nothing more. What are you working on?”

“An antidote to the venom.”

“That’s just as well, we need one of those. Fandral got himself bitten rather badly by a vatnagedda, the last time we were in Nornheim.”

“I know,” she said absently, “he’s who brought me the venom.”

Loki bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing, and waited.

“I will do this,” Unna decided at last, “but I’ll need the use of your private laboratory.”

“Oh, I…” She had him there. He hated having people in his personal workspace; typically, no one else was ever allowed in there, not even while he was present. But she had a technical skill that he did not possess… “Fine. Done.”

“For a year.”

“A year? You’re mad.”

Unna shrugged. “No lab, no potion.”

Loki did his best to bargain with her, but it was no good; she would not be moved. “All right,” he groaned finally, admitting defeat, “a year it is. But this had better work.”

“You always were terrible at sharing your toys. It will work, Loki. Now give me the key and let me get to business.”

He produced the key from its hiding place and handed it over reluctantly. “Unna, I… just… try not to break anything?” She rolled her eyes. “You’ll let me know when it’s done?”

She waved him off with impatience, leaving Loki with nothing else to do but leave her to it.

He had nothing else to do now except go to bed, and in the morning, wait on tenterhooks for Father to announce when the wedding was to be. He didn’t expect to fall asleep, but he must have, because when he woke up, the lamp was still burning, and his mother was sitting on his bed.

“I didn’t mean to wake you, darling,” she murmured, stroking his arm, “but I saw your light on, and…”

“No, it’s – it’s all right, I was…” Loki raised himself up on one elbow and yawned. “I thought I would read, but I don’t seem to have gotten to it.”

“Apparently not.”

She was dressed for official duties, he noticed, not for leisure or sleep. “You were working late?”

“Yes,” Frigga sighed. “I’ve been up half the night dealing with the uproar Captain Theoric has created among the palace staff, from top to bottom. Half are enraged at his presumption and threatening to give notice, the other half are panicking with the impending wedding preparations.”

Loki’s attention sharpened. “Has Father set a date?”

“Not that I know of. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of your father since I left him this afternoon.” The queen made a very unqueenly face. “I ought to have had him dragged into the lower hall to hear the hurricane his… indecisiveness has caused.”

“Sigyn said you spoke with him, after we left.”

“You’ve seen her since?”

“Mmm. I met her on the cliff overlooking the harbor. We spent some time conjuring swallows to fly among the spray.”

His mother sighed again. “Loki…”

“What? Where’s the harm in that? She is my friend. Should not friends sit together in the dark and talk of things that cannot be shared by the harsh light of day?”

“You are planning something,” she deduced. “Something to aid Sigyn to avoid this marriage.”

“I have no idea what you are referring to, Mother.”

“Of course you don’t. Well, what neither of us know, neither of us can admit to.”

Frigga smoothed Loki’s sleep-tumbled hair and kissed his forehead. “Sometimes I think that she has been a far better mother to you than I have been.”

Loki chuckled. “She has been a fine friend, but never a mother.”

He’d thought to make her smile with him, but instead, her face grew grave. “Loki, what did Theoric mean, when he referred to the Yule feast?”

“Oh, that.” Loki flushed and sat up straight. “It was nothing like what he was suggesting. Scabrous pig. We went to my chambers together, yes, and bathed together and shared a bed that night, but nothing else happened.”

His mother looked at him with the sort of expression that always made him doubt his own lies. “Nothing, my son?”


“You did not make love?”

He flushed a bit deeper at his mother asking him such a question. “We were somewhat in drink when we left the feast, but neither of us was so drunk as to forget something like that.” A horrible thought occurred to him. “You’re not giving any credence to Theoric’s other obscene accusation, surely.”

“Not for a moment.”

“He’s not worthy of her, to make such an accusation.”

“Loki, no one is suggesting that he is worthy of Sigyn.”

“Father is.”

The queen sighed. “The less your father likes a duty, the more stubbornly he clings to it. He knows full well that Theoric plays foul, to gain what he desires. Sigyn is incapable of such a perverse crime.” She fiddled absently with the bracelets at her wrist. “Though I’ve often wondered if I ought to have separated the two of you sooner. Not for that, but…”

“If not for that, then what?” He followed Frigga’s gaze out the window, across the harbor, and it struck him like one of Thor’s ill-controlled thunderbolts. “You’ve seen something. You’ve foreseen something.”

His mother said nothing, gave no indication that she had even heard, but that was neither denial nor confirmation. How she had come by her gift, Loki had only the haziest understanding, but what was plain was that it was conditional, and she was not permitted to tell anyone of the things she saw coming in the future. It was left to her only to try and influence others to either bring the thing to pass, or avert it utterly, and how often she was successful and how often she failed, not even the king knew.

“Whatever comes,” said Loki, after a long time of silence between them, “I’m grateful you allowed Sigyn to remain. She has been… the best of friends, to me.”

His words recalled Frigga to the present. She started, and then smiled. “I’m glad of that.” She bent forward and kissed his forehead again. “Good night, my son.”

“Good night, Mother,” he said, clinging for a moment longer to her hand.

She put out the light and left, the train of her gown floating behind her like gossamer as she closed the door.

Loki let out an exhausted breath, laid down, and attempted to go to sleep.


Oh shit.

“Loki, are you awake?”

“Well, I am now,” said Loki peevishly, squinting towards the sound of Thor’s voice. “Where the hell are you?”

“By the door.”

“Then shut the door and come over here.” Loki waved his bedside light on and winced at the sudden brightness. “Whatever you want to say, Thor, make it quick. I’m tired.”

“Loki,” began Thor, creeping towards the bed and keeping his voice low, “I know you’re planning something to disrupt the wedding—”

Loki groaned and flopped back down on the bed. “First Mother and now you.” He pulled a pillow over his face. “Why does everyone always assume that I must be plotting something nefarious?”

“Because it is you, Loki, and because it is Sigyn. And I wanted to tell you—”

“Oh, for – Brother, I assure you, it’s all—”

“That whatever it is,” said Thor firmly, “I’m in.”

“I – oh.” Loki pulled away the pillow and sat up. “Why?”

“For the same reasons I told you this afternoon, after Father ordered us all away and refused to listen to good sense. So however you are planning to aid Captain Sigyn, I want to help you. Short of actually killing Theoric,” Thor added.”

“You really think I’d resort to that?”

“Yes, if you had to. But only as a last resort.”

“Ugh, I suppose. But it does lack finesse…”

“Will you let me help?”

Loki tipped his head to one side and pondered his elder brother, idly clasping and unclasping his hands on the pillowcase like a kneading cat. “Ask me nothing. As Mother says, what you do not know, you cannot admit to. I will say only this: the wedding will move forward as planned and with all the required parties. But if you mean what you say—”

“I do!”

“Then I will count on you to back me up on the day, if something goes wrong.”

Thor nodded slowly. “You’re planning to take Sigyn’s place, in the wedding party.”

“…What in heaven’s name makes you say that?”

“You’ve played this sort of trick before, a century ago, when I had to impersonate Idunn in that forced marriage, to a dwarf of Nidavellir. You’re going to disguise yourself as Sigyn at the wedding ceremony, to allow her to escape Asgard.”

“Well, you’re not altogether wrong… For all the good it did us, the first time around.. You remember? She decided she wanted to marry the big oaf, in the end.”

“Well, it wasn’t a total loss,” said Thor, yawning philosophically. “I thought I looked rather good, in wedding finery.”

“You did indeed, brother. You’ll make a very fetching bride someday.” Loki fired a pillow at Thor’s head. “Now get out and let me sleep. We will not have much time, once Father sets a date, and I’ll need all my wits about me to keep us out of the fire.”

Chapter Text

Late in the night, Frigga returned to her chambers gratefully, and barred the doors against the outside world. She wanted solitude, and she wanted quiet, and her own private bedroom where the only sound was the gentle hissing of coals in the braziers, was at that moment a haven like no other. She was weary with words and worry and with soothing affronted egos and troubled souls.

And that was only the servants. She had barely begun to take stock of her own household, thrown into so much turmoil by the events of the day. There was Sigyn to comfort and reassure as best she could, and Loki’s wounded heart to continue seeing to, and Odin...

The queen prepared for sleep mechanically. Her thoughts were with her king and husband. Something was amiss with Odin, but as yet she could not set her hand to what. Perhaps he was only now hearing the rumors.

There had always been tales bandied about regarding Loki and his most constant companion, some flattering, some not, some too ribald for any but the lowest taverns, but until recently, all had been fairly good-natured. But the tone of those tales had been shifting, of late. Her Koronaugu in the city and in the hill towns and those flitting amongst the farms of the lowland valleys continued to bring her the rumors faithfully, but with a shade of embarrassment most unlike their usual cool professional detachment.

Stories of bastard children being hidden and cared for, far away from the capital, and more insidious tales swearing that Loki and Sigyn were fomenting dissent among the provincial people, threatening an uprising, forming a secret army...

Duty-bound, Frigga had set her people to investigate all these rumors, but they found nothing of substance behind them. “It is nothing but the smoke from many hearths,” was the opinion of one of her senior spies, “twisted together with old tales of Lorelei’s campaign of terror among the realms. There is no truth in any of them.”

Which was reassuring, but only mildly. And it troubled Frigga that these dark tales of rebellions and secret armies and heirs had not existed before the last Yule celebration, when Theoric’s jealousy towards her son had apparently first begun, culminating in his rash accusations of impropriety brought before the king.

Well, if that is what plagues Odin, he should come to his wife and spymaster and let his concerns be set to rest, thought Frigga, a bit sourly. Of course she had told him there was no truth in any of the tales, and would tell him so again, but it wounded her professional and uxorial pride whenever he refused to come to her for advice, and instead simply waited impatiently for her to offer it.

She sat down before her mirror and unpinned her hair, and set to brushing and braiding it.

Behind her, one of the braziers flared a brief, ghostly blue.

Frigga set down the brush and went quickly to the flames, casting them higher. “What news?” she asked quietly.

Before her rose a face and form she knew well, one of her people set to carry news from the barracks. “The king’s man, Theoric, talks much when he is in his cups.”

Unseen by her informant – outside of Sigyn and the king, no one among the Crown’s Eyes knew the true identity of their leader – Frigga raised an eyebrow. “Are there any of the Einherjar who do not talk too much and too loudly when they’ve spent the evening inside an ale barrel?”

“He boasts of having power over the king.”

“The power to haul him before judges over a broken contract.”

The figure shook his head. “Something more. Something that would not merely embarrass Odin, but might even destroy him, should it become known.”

In spite of the flames, Frigga suddenly felt chilled.


No small wonder, then, that Odin was snappish and withdrawn, or that Theoric seemed so majestically confident in his boorish demands. She rubbed her bare arms and wished her robe was in reach. “Has he said more?”

“No. Too much ale makes a man talk rashly, but it can also make a man silent and mysterious. I daresay there is nothing more than empty words.”

“But worth reporting.”

“Theoric is not popular among the Einherjar,” her spy said bluntly. “He fights well and without fear, but he does little to inspire loyalty, and he sees his position as the king’s personal bodyguard not as an opportunity to serve, but as a stepping-stone to higher things, and does not miss a chance to let everyone down here know it. And now with these demands to marry Captain Sigyn, who he believes has the respect and influence he craves, he is undermining what little support he has.”

None of which, Frigga saw, precluded the possibility that Theoric did indeed have information detrimental to Odin.

“Tell me,” she said, in the most thoughtful of tones, “if Sigyn were indeed forced to marry Theoric, how would the Einherjar respond?”

“There’s no possibility of a mutiny, if that’s what you’re asking. The entire royal family would have to offend them all, down to a man, before that would happen.”

“A small mercy.”

“But Theoric would be very wise to take his new bride and retire from military service, if he knows what’s good for him.”

Frigga drew in a breath to steady herself, and then let it out slowly. “Find out anything more about Theoric’s mysterious information, if you can. Report if you find anything.”

The figure nodded, and the blue flame shrank and faded to dull, unobtrusive yellows and reds, innocently warming.

A shiver rippled over her exposed skin, and Frigga hastily found a heavy robe to cover her arms. She finished braiding her hair quickly and then sat in the dark before her mirror, staring at her flame-tinged reflection in the glass and wondering: How much truth could there be in Theoric’s ale-sodden boasts? Did he truly have some terrible hold over the king? And what could it be that her own people had never known of until now?

No helpful visions or sudden realizations came to her, and finally she gave up and took herself to bed, half-wishing she had chosen to spend the night with the king, if only for the privilege of not being alone with her thoughts.

She slept soundly until morning, but her dreams filled her with a vague, lingering unease that did not dissipate with the sun.

Loki knew before he awoke fully that there was someone in his bedchamber, but the presence caused him no alarm. His skin and blood hummed contentedly in the knowledge that it was someone known and trusted, that he was safe. So he was unsurprised, when he finally opened his eyes, to scan the room and see Sigyn, sitting on his favorite reading chair – not in it, but perched atop the high carved back like a watchful bird – gazing thoughtfully out the window over his writing desk.

He sat up slowly, rustling the bedclothes as he pushed them aside and swung his legs over the side. The light that streamed into the room was a pre-dawn gray, barely even tinged with pink, and it had turned her white-blond hair to fire.

“Did you even bother going to bed last night?” he asked.

Only the tiniest hint of a flinch told him she had been lost in thought and had not noticed that he was awake. “I tried.”

“And failed?”

She nodded. “I thought of drowning my sorrows in some tavern on the other side of the realm, but everywhere I went, people seemed to know of my troubles. So in the end, I spent much of the night in the Observatory. Whatever Heimdall’s thoughts and opinions of this farce are, he keeps them to himself, and does not burden me with them.”

“A true blessing,” Loki said with a smile, “and a true friend.”

Sigyn nodded again. She looked... tired, he thought. Weary and worn-down. Even the very braids of her hair and the braiding on her clothes looked limp with exhaustion.

Loki pursed his lips in thought. Then he rose and went into the next chamber to wash and dress. When he returned, Sigyn had not moved. He coaxed her down from the chair, conjured warm wine and warm bread from the kitchens and made her take some, removed her long coat and her boots and then gently pushed her into his bed. All without either of them saying a word, and all the while, Loki was painfully reminded of the last time Sigyn had rendered such services for him.

Her hand snagged on his sleeve. “Stay?” she murmured, already most of the way towards unconsciousness.

He smiled and ventured to smooth her hair from her face.“Of course.” He moved to the chair, and before he had completely sat down, Sigyn was asleep.

The young prince tented his fingers in thought, and that was how his body servants found them, a few hours later, bringing his breakfast ale and the news that the king would formally announce the date of the marriage in court that morning.

Loki dismissed the men with gold to seal their mouths and woke Sigyn carefully, to tell her himself. The calm that sleep had brought her wavered and then changed abruptly to something harder.

“I’ve never willingly run away from a fight,” she muttered, “but this battle will not end in glory for anyone. Only in tears.”

“It would seem cliché for me to lecture you in discretion, but for once, I think even I must advise against it.” He gripped her shoulders with gentle iron fingers, and then crouched down, to meet her eyes levelly. “You have to face this monster head-on.”


Loki’s smile was slow and mischievous and full of teeth. “So that no one will notice when I attack from behind, of course.”

When the court assembled that morning, the usual curious bustle of activity was replaced with a tense, pensive silence that echoed through the cavernous hall. Almost no one spoke, and yet without saying a word, every servant and courtier, every castellan and official representative, contrived to make their feelings of displeasure known.

Even the king’s elder son and his entourage, for though they had been told nothing of Loki’s machinations, Thor and all his companions stood on the opposite side of the dais from their usual places beside the king. Instead they stood on the queen’s right, with Loki, in silent but open opposition to the proposed marriage.

For the sake of decorum, for the moment, Loki did not acknowledge the presence of his brother and friends, but he was careful to have Sigyn standing at his right hand – a subtle gesture of support that did not go unnoticed by any, least of all by Frigga, who by rights should have taken precedence over the younger prince in the matter of her own personal guard. But nevertheless, she allowed it, if somewhat uneasily.

Odin struck the floor with his staff to signal the opening of the court. On a normal day the sound would have cut through the bureaucratic clamor and brought down a respectful silence, but today, when there was no speech to quell, the ringing of Gungnir went on for an awkwardly long time.

“I have considered the demand of Theoric Geirson, in the matter of his childhood betrothal to Sigyn Styrkarrsdottir. I have consulted with my legal advisors, and the demands of a king to the people left to his care.”

Sigyn straightened as though preparing for a blow. Without seeming to move, Loki cast a gentle spell mimicking the sensation of his fingers clasping hers.

“The marriage will take place as agreed upon by Geir Njallson and Styrkar Alfarinson, and as witnessed by me, Odin Borson, king of Asgard.”

The court erupted into a storm of shouting, and this time Odin had to strike his staff of office twice before silence was enforced.

“Merely because I am king, I will not break with the laws and traditions of our realm! Not even for personal considerations. The wedding will take place two weeks from this day. Both the bride and bridegroom-to-be will begin preparing at once.”

After a moment, during which the full impact of the king’s words began to be felt by all present, the captain of Odin’s guards stepped forward.

“My king, surely it would be best for all if Captain Sigyn were also to relinquish her royal duties at once?” Theoric’s tone was smoothly respectful, almost impersonal in its cordiality, and he very pointedly did not look at either Sigyn or Loki, but confined his remarks to Odin alone. “After all, she has a great many responsibilities that she must begin to prepare for, as well as for the wedding, and these will of necessity take up a great deal of her time and thought.”

Odin narrowed his eye thoughtfully at his captain of the guard, and would have spoken, but the queen’s hand on his arm appeared to make him reconsider his words.

“No,” he said at last. “No, I will not order Captain Sigyn to leave her post now. Her work is not yet done, and there are those who depend upon her, and need time as well to prepare for her coming absence. The wedding will take place two weeks from this day, as I have said. I daresay that your intended bride will have plenty of time to settle into her new role after you are married.”

Odin’s gaze was focused on Theoric, but he still managed to see the almost identical furrowed brows and thoughtful expressions of his wife and eldest son. His younger son appeared not to be listening, though Odin and everyone else present knew it was a mistake to assume anything, where Loki was concerned.

“What has happened?” Frigga asked without preamble, after court had been dismissed. Their sons had each gone their separate ways – Thor and his friends to the practice fields, Loki to his laboratory – and Sigyn had simple vanished, as she sometimes did, so the queen and king were alone together in their private quarters. “What does Theoric know?”

Odin looked at his wife for a moment and then turned away with a rough growl.

Frigga refused to be dismissed any longer. In the space of a breath, she went from queen and wife to spymaster. “He has been talking drunkenly in the barracks about ‘information’. He says he can bring you to your knees, even destroy you. My lord, tell me, what does he know?”

The king’s broad shoulders in their golden armor stiffened angrily... and then slumped. “Hela,” he said simply.

Frigga’s hand went to her throat, a gesture of caution as much as of horror. Odin might speak of his long-imprisoned and forgotten daughter, but she could not. “How?”

“His father. Geir was there when I banished her. I didn’t know. I should have, but I was too... distraught, too disappointed. He wrote it all down, recorded it somehow, before I cast the geas on the realms, and sealed it with a charm he stole from my vaults. If Theoric breaks that seal, he will be able to speak of Hela freely, reveal her existence to all of Asgard and all nine realms... it would be the end of everything we’ve built over the last thousand years.”

“Then... Theoric does not know what information he has.”

“No. Only that to unleash it would destroy me. Destroy us,” he added, as though Frigga could have forgotten that the peace of the past millennium had only been brought about by thousands more years of bloodshed, and that she had been a party to it.

A red wave of anger, such as she had not felt since those war-bound days, rose up and covered her like a shroud, smothering and suffocating and making her want to lash out and escape. “And so you would sacrifice Sigyn,” she said, her voice dripping with scorn, “on the altar of our false peace. A woman raised at my hearth and taught at my knee, who should have been my sons’ sister, all for the sake of keeping their true sister locked away, and you, Odin All-father, resting easy in legal lies!”

“What other reason could I give to the people? To our sons? What else would you have had me do?” the king demanded.

“You could have told the truth ten centuries ago! Every truth! The past—”

“I cannot change the past, Frigga! Not even I! Whatever I ought to have done in the past, what would you have me do now, other than what I have done?”

Frigga opened her mouth to retort angrily… and then had to relapse painfully into begrudging agreement. “At this late date, I know not what else you could have done. The wrath of the courts over Theoric’s rights could easily have undermined the people’s confidence in your—in you.”

She stopped short before saying that it could have damaged confidence in the king’s competence, but she knew – and Odin knew – that it was an uncomfortable fact. Odin was not in his dotage yet, but he was not a young man, and with two adult sons, one of them massively popular among the common people, any impairment to the public image of Odin’s strength, physical or mental, could be disastrous.

“To say nothing of the... other... information he claims to possess. All the same, this will not endear you to the people. Nor to Loki,” she added, though she felt in her gut that Loki’s feelings were of tertiary importance to him right now. “Could you not have found a way to satisfy Theoric that does not separate Loki from yet another of his lovers? You are developing bad habits, on that score.”

“Sigyn is hardly his lover,” Odin shot back, “no matter what aspersions Theoric has cast. And he will be punished for those words,” he assured the queen. “I will not have my son disparaged in front of his parents and the entire court.”

“Thank you,” said Frigga, with a touch of icy formality.

“But both Loki and Sigyn have denied being intimate, and I see no reason to disbelieve them. If they had been lovers, I think it likely we would have heard of it long before now. And yes, I have heard the same rumors that you have heard, even if you have been slow in bringing them to me.”

“You never asked. But whatever the true nature of their relationship, there is love there, and loyalty, on both sides. And Sigyn’s loyalty is not merely to Loki, but to our family as a family, as well as her lieges. Such loyalty is very precious.”

Odin frowned. “Indeed it is… speak plainly, Frigga.”

“The mission to Jotunheim.”

The king stilled, and then his eye sank closed tiredly. “Of course,” he sighed. “I’d all but forgotten. And there is no one else among the Koronaugu? Surely there must be those who have ventured into Jotunheim before.”

“Many. Even some who have stepped foot in the court of the Jotunn king and returned to tell the tale. But no one I trust as much to not cause trouble while they are there. This is no mere formal visit to Laufey, after all. This is a mission requiring the utmost delicacy and subtlety. And if our people should be captured by the Frost Giants, the slightest hint of their destination could be catastrophic. We are not even meant to know this hidden tribe still lives. The agent must slip in quietly, make contact, and return just as quietly, and if they are stopped, must eliminate their obstacles with as little mess as possible. My people are all discreet and well-trained, but only Sigyn can be trusted with the information she must return with, for she is the only one who already knows part of the story. And her loyalty to us as a family—”

“Will guarantee her complete silence.”

“But if she marries Theoric, she will be lost to me as one of the Crown’s Eyes. And then, my king, where will we be?”

Odin rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “Perhaps… it might be possible to convince Theoric, for the sake of the realm’s security, that the marriage should proceed in name only. He could claim the dowry and Sigyn would remain free to attend to her duties, and you and Loki would retain your right hand.” Then he smiled sadly at Frigga’s surprise. “Did you disbelieve me when I said I misliked this business as much as you?”

“No. I have only ever believed that you would do what was best for the realm. But I ask you, husband, for this one moment, to put aside the duties of king and All-father and think how it must feel for a young woman to be forced into a marriage she wants nothing to do with, for the sake of a man’s comfort and convenience."

The look Odin turned on her could have frozen beer. “That was a cruel blow,” he said, his words short and clipped, “unworthy of a queen.”

“But worthy of a lady fighting for her women. You have gone down this path before, and with disastrous results. It was why you were so adamant I not accept your hand until I was absolutely certain of my decision.”

“And then you cast reason aside and swore you would marry me if I would let you keep the Jotunn child, so do not presume to lecture me about cruel pragmatic decisions!”

“I do not regret my choice! But I knew when I made that promise that there would be consequences for it! I have seen them,” Frigga added darkly.

He drew back, startled and perhaps a little frightened.

“You are a wise king, and a mighty war leader. But you have always fallen short in one respect: in knowing what is in people’s hearts.” She hesitated, on the verge of telling him that Loki was surely planning some mischief to disrupt the wedding. In the next breath, she decided against it. No, better to say nothing. If his father did not already suspect something, then it was better not to give him any further fuel against his younger son. “You should give less thought to your commands being obeyed,” she said instead, “and spend more time seeing how those commands will change the course of people’s lives.”

The king her husband regarded her solemnly, and then raised her hand to his lips with a sigh. “You are right, of course,” he murmured. “I was not formed by nature to peer into the windows of my subjects’ souls.”

“Nor those of your sons.”

Odin shook his head gravely. “I do not wish to cause Loki more pain. Not after I forced his affair with Ambri’s daughter to such an end. It was years before he would speak to me with any kind of affection.”

There was far more to the tragedy of Gudrun Ambrisdottir than that, but again, Frigga found merit in silence. The hurt Odin had caused Loki over that business went deeper than the king realized or was prepared to face. But it was for Sigyn’s sake, not Loki’s, that she held her tongue. It would do her friend no favors for the king to learn how blithely Sigyn had helped Loki to disobey Odin’s direct orders to stay away from Gudrun and her husband.

“But,” continued Odin, unaware of his wife’s struggle with her conscience, “I have no other choice in this matter. I gave my word as a king and as Sigyn’s guardian, and the contract is legal and binding.” He did not mention Hela again, and Frigga chose not allude to it. “We can perhaps come to some sort of agreement after she and Theoric are married, but we can do nothing until they are man and wife.”

Frigga took a very cold and formal leave of the king, and then went to her rooms and sent for Sigyn.

Her mind a morass of troubled thoughts, Sigyn could do little but obey orders and report to the queen’s chamber. Vaguely, she assumed that Frigga had further words for her regarding this travesty of a marriage.



She presented herself at the queen’s private chamber and, in response to a silent gesture, closed and locked the door behind her. “Would you care for some wine?” Frigga asked.

Sigyn nodded dully. “Yes... thank you.”

She took the cup Frigga filled and drank without tasting. “What did... You wished to see me, my lady?”

“Yes.” Frigga sipped her own drink with an absent expression. “I have a mission for you.”

“A... a mission? In the middle of all of this?”

“It may be some time before you can set out, but I wanted to give you the broad outline.”

Sigyn rubbed her thumb over the chased silver of her cup. “Is it even likely I will be able to set out? After all...”

“Whatever the king says about upholding law and custom,” said Frigga shortly, “the safety of the realm comes first. Either I will find a way to allow you to go, or I will make a way.”

“You are so much like your son.”

The words slipped out before Sigyn could stop them, but Frigga was not offended. If anything, she seemed inordinately pleased.

Without knowing why, Sigyn blushed. To cover her discomfort, she took both cups to the sideboard and refilled them. “Where am I to go?”

“Jotunheim. You know that regular envoys are sent to Laufey, to check and see that he is still behaving as befits a conquered king.”

“Yes, I’ve gone with one or two of those missions, simply to observe. But I hadn’t thought it was time yet.”

“It isn’t. This is... a more delicate mission.” Frigga took her cup from Sigyn and then gestured for her to stay close, to keep their voices low, a precaution that was more symbolic than practical, in the queen’s shielded quarters, but the message was clear. “I need you to make contact with the leader of a particular clan. One that we had thought all but destroyed during the final battle. It is of paramount importance that we learn how this clan fares.”

Sigyn nodded, her eyes narrowed as her mind raced with thoughts of preparation and obfuscation. “May I know why?”

“Because Odin did his best to wipe them out, and yet they survived. Because they were once a secret but vital part of Laufey’s court, and yet we have seen nothing of them in his circle in the last thousand years. And because... I tried to aid them once,” Frigga admitted, “and failed. And I would know if I am borne any ill-will, because of it.”

“I see. I am to make contact with this clan’s leader, gather information about their survival and intentions towards Asgard, and report back. Is that all?”

“Yes. And... Sigyn. I am doing my best to keep you in our ranks – as the king, though I know you will not believe so – but we must face reality. This may be your final mission.”

“...Ah.” Sigyn fiddled with the end of her pale braid of hair, as much a sign of agitation as Loki – or Frigga – picking as his hands. “And once you have all of this information, and I am... gone... are you planning to tell Loki the truth about himself?”

Frigga looked at Sigyn for a long moment, her eyes mutely pleading for pardon for the words she was about to speak. “You know I cannot. As much as I long to tell him, only the king is permitted to break that silence, and although the news you bring back may sway Odin... well. Thus far, he seemed disinclined to end four centuries of secrecy.”

“The king is disinclined to end secrecy of any kind,” Sigyn growled, “until his hand is forced. As I have had the misfortune of learning.”


“I am sick unto death of Odin’s secrets! And I am sick with worry about what will happen to Loki when I am gone, when the only people left who know the truth of him are his parents and Heimdall! What will happen if—”

“You said ‘gone’.”

Sigyn’s mouth snapped shut in mid-rant.

The queen raked her gaze over Sigyn as though seeing her anew. “Not, ‘Once I am married to Theoric,’ not ‘Once I am no longer in the queen’s service.’”

“That is what I meant, of course.”

“You said, ‘When I am gone.’ And you meant it.” Frigga moved closer and for the first time in centuries, Sigyn had to restrain the impulse to step back. Instead, she lifted her chin (half in defiance, half in compensation for the queen’s greater height) and stood her ground. “You are planning something.”

“It need not concern you, my queen. The mission to Jotunheim will be accomplished, and after that—”

“The mission to Jotunheim could not possibly take place until well after your marriage, which you clearly do not mean to go through with. Speak plainly: Does Loki know? Is he a party to this, or you to his plans?”

“The prince acts as he sees fit,” replied Sigyn carefully. “And so shall I.” And then her professional calm broke. “I will not be sold to Theoric, either to assuage the king’s guilt or keep him from being blackmailed. I know little of what Loki is planning, but if his scheme fails, then either I will run, or I will die.”

“But you do know something of what Loki intends.”

Damn. “Only that I must behave as though nothing is amiss,” said Sigyn, almost truthfully. “Which is a burden all its own, when I feel as though I am slowly and invisibly bleeding to death.”

Frigga’s expression changed abruptly, from one of regal concern to one of deep, maternal sadness. “You have no confidence in my son’s ability to save you.”

“I have every confidence in Loki,” Sigyn retorted. “But... I fear what he does not: the consequences of his actions. And I would not have his care for me return upon him in some evil way. I do not want that for him.”

To her surprise, Frigga raised a hand to Sigyn’s face and cupped her cheek in her palm. “You love him.”

“Of course I do.” Sigyn flinched and pushed the queen away. “I have said as much in the past, in answer to this same question from you.”

“Yes, and you said then that you cared for him only as a friend and comrade-in-arms.”

“That was half a century ago.”

“And now? Your feelings for Loki are... those of a lover?”

“My feelings for Loki are my feelings for myself. He is a part of me. And the idea of leaving him alone, with no one else who really understands his nature, is abhorrent to me.” There was rage gathering inside her, making her throat tighten and her eyes burn, but she fought it down for a little longer. “My queen, my whole life, for the last four hundred years, has revolved around Loki.”

“I know,” said Frigga quietly.

“Do you? Respectfully, I think not. Because having that responsibility taken away from me is not a blessing, or a kindness. I do not want to give him up. I don’t want to hurt him, and I don’t want to cause myself that much pain by leaving him behind. Certainly not for someone like Theoric.”

“Do nothing rash,” Frigga counseled, almost pleaded. “And believe in my son. He will find a way.”

“I have always believed in him,” said Sigyn quietly. She bowed, and took her leave.

Loki was not in the best of moods when he returned from the visit to his laboratory. Una’s work on the potion he had asked her to make was progressing, but slowly, and she had not been pleased to learn that she now had less than two weeks to complete the work to both her own and Loki’s exacting standards.

He stalked into his study like an affronted cat, darkly wishing he had chosen to arrange some plausibly hideous form of death for Theoric rather than trying to do the thing cleanly, and ready to snarl at the first person, animal or inanimate object that even mildly inconvenienced him.

Instead, he found Sigyn waiting for him, and worried. “What’s happened now?” he asked at once. “You’re pale.”

“I’m always this pale.”

“I know, it’s not as though either of us can manage a tan...”

“Loki. The wedding. You haven’t told me anything more about what you’re planning.”

“The less you know, the better you’ll be able to say that you truthfully do not know.” He pulled off his helmet and shook out his short black hair. “Don’t worry,” he said with an easy, encouraging smile. “We’ll carry this off without stumbling.”

She grimaced at him and shook her head. “I’ve known you to manage some brilliant plans, Loki, but rarely do they come off without a hitch. But I’m less concerned about how you’ll manage it.”

“What worries you, then?”

“Your true reasons for making the attempt.”

“My dear captain, you cut me to the quick.” He pressed a hand to his heart in a ridiculous theatrical gesture. “Is it so inconceivable that I should do something selfless?” he asked, wide-eyed.

“Yes,” said Sigyn blandly. “Even when you choose to do something out of the goodness of your heart – and your heart is a good one, my prince – you always have your own purpose behind it. So. What is it this time?”

Loki’s merry expression faded into somber lines. “Simply? That I cannot stand the way the king treated you. He has no right—”

“He has every right, unfortunately. I am his legal ward, to wed to whomever he deems fit.”

“If he wanted to marry you off like a princess, then he ought to have spent the last thousand years treating you like a princess,” Loki retorted, his eyes snapping green fire. “But since he didn’t, I shall have to make you one.”

Sigyn gazed up at him for so long, and so solemnly, that he began to think he had offended her.

“I have to wonder,” she said at last, and very softly, “if your feelings for me have changed. And if they have, then I have to wonder if you are truly ready to give yourself to another lover, let alone to a spouse. You know there’s no guarantee, even if this works, that Odin will countenance a divorce.”

“I hope he will,” Loki admitted, after a long moment, “for your sake. As much as I feel that you are more than worthy of the title of princess, I know you would never wish for the life of a royal.”

He bowed his head, and when he spoke, he almost seemed ashamed. “But I assure you, most fervently, that I love you as much as I have ever loved anyone, family or friend or—or anyone else, and where I love, I am bound to protect.”

“I’ve never doubted that, Loki. I’ve seen it, often.” She took his chin in her hand and made him look at her. “Indeed, your devotion to those you care for often frightens me, for I have seen it eclipse your reason.”

Loki frowned. “And so…?”

“And so, my prince, don’t get yourself killed for me.”

“I... don’t intend to.”

“Unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

“I’m not intended to die on Theoric’s sword to safeguard your honor, I swear. But should it prove the only way—”


He raised his eyebrows. “I’m sorry? No?”

“No. There is always another way.” She released him and, for a moment, hesitated on the edge of something else. Then she shook her head. “Find it.”

That evening, after routine meetings and a solitary meal, and at last freed from the daily toil of kingship, Odin leaned heavily on the balustrade of his private balcony and gazed out over the realm. Asgard cloaked in the liquid gold of the setting sun was a sight he never grew tired of.

He sensed the boy’s approach, not via magic but through a father’s intuition. But he gave his son the dignity of believing himself to be unnoticed until he chose to reveal himself. It pleased Loki to think such things.


Odin turned and looked at his younger son. He seemed paler than usual – nervous, even, though his normally restless hands were quiet. “This is a surprise,” the king said with an encouraging smile. “I had not expected a visit.”

“Forgive me for intruding so late.”

Stepping into his private quarters, Odin crossed the expanse of gleaming floor to where Loki stood. “Something troubles you, my son.”


Odin waited. “Is that all?” he pressed. “‘Yes’? Such restraint in matters of speech is unlike you. Say plainly what you have come to say.”

A hint of some powerful emotion passed over Loki’s face at his father’s command, but he mastered it and spoke with a gravity beyond his years. “Father, I... I wish to ask for Sigyn’s hand in marriage."

“...Oh, Loki.”

He gripped his son's shoulder briefly, and then beckoned Loki to follow him back outside.

The sun had slipped behind the mountains now, and the city and harbor and the towns and villages beyond were beginning to blaze with lights in all the windows. “Someday,” Odin said, looking out towards the horizon, towards worlds and realms and galaxies that his children could only dream of, “you will find yourself with decisions in your past that follow you for the rest of your life. One does not need to be a king for this to be so.” He smiled ruefully. “Perhaps one needs only to be a father.”

“But I—” Loki cut himself off abruptly, and when he resumed speaking, Odin was sure that they were not the words he had intended to say. “But surely poor decisions can be amended.”

“You think so?” The king laughed, and found it to be a low and tired sound. “Well, perhaps I thought so as well, once.”

“So you’re going to let that brute marry Sigyn and – and probably force himself on her, because of one bad choice you made six centuries ago? Father—”


At his sharp tone, the prince immediately fell silent, bowing his head with an overdone respect that was like a slap in the face. His sleek dark hair shined in the light of wall sconces slowly brightening around them. Odin recalled a time when his own hair had been of a remarkably similar shade, and felt weary, right down to the marrow of his bones.

“One ill-considered promise, made to a friend and bound in law, that I regret very much. And now I have the choice of either keeping that promise and ruining a few lives, or breaking my word, going against thousands of years of tradition and law, and risking destabilizing our entire kingdom and the rest of the Nine Realms in turn.”

The prince did not look up, but his entire posture frowned. “Surely you must be overstating the severity of the matter...”

“Am I? Loki, a man who breaks his promises is not worthy of even the smallest amount of trust, and a king who breaks his own laws is not worthy of the faith of his people. And once the people see a king as faithless... there’s no turning back from that downward path. So I ask you, my son, as I used to do when you and Thor were but children in the schoolroom: what would you do, if you were king in my place?”

Loki straightened, picking his hands anxiously as he thought. It was an old game, one that he had always excelled at, as Odin well remembered. Thor had taken time to become adept with his answers, at first favoring strong and aggressive decisions for all situations, before learning something of nuance, but Loki was ever careful, preferring to know all the variables before deciding on a course of action.

“As king,” he said slowly, “I would see no other course than to move forward, as you are.”


“But as a man,” Loki continued, his manner growing hard and cold, “I would burn it all, rather than let her be harmed.”

“A king, my son, does not always have the luxury of being a good man. I know Sigyn is your friend.”

“I love her.”

“Of course. ...But not as a wife, surely.”

Loki stiffened in offense. “And why not?”

“She’s more than double your age, for a start.”

“And how much older are you than Mother?”

Odin grimaced. “Too old.”

Chapter Text

‘Time’ was Loki's watchword in those hurried, anxious days, and the time between all his scheming and Sigyn’s forced joining to that brainless lump of muscle had a strange, unsettling quality to it. When he was laying the groundwork for his plan, there was never enough time – he needed another day, another week, another month – and when he was forced to sit on his hands and play the good prince and the obedient son, time obstinately refused to do anything but drag.

Time, he decided, would be his next field of study, if only so he could beat it into submission.

But he was making progress. A few of the Einherjar, the ones who remembered Harald and how he had nursed a soft spot for their young prince, were willing (for a suitable price, half now and half after the business was concluded) to look for a certain signal on the day of the wedding and then casually abandon their posts for an hour or so. They would not be missed; Loki would make sure of that. But their simulated counterparts would not be nearly as vigilant in their duties.

That taken care of, Loki veiled himself in shadows and made haste to his laboratory.

He could not remember who had first taught him how to make himself invisible. He half-fancied it was Sigyn, who also possessed the knack of walking unseen where and when she pleased, but although Sigyn had taught him the finer points of fighting with daggers, she had not been his teacher in magic. That task had been taken up decades earlier, by his mother, and many of those earliest lessons he remembered with ringing clarity, from the very first time she had guided him in conjuring a flame in his hands…

Loki half-sat, half-hung from his mother’s lap, clinging precariously to her skirts with both of his chubby fists, and watched, enthralled, as she pulled tiny flames from the hearth, through the air, coaxing them into her hands, as they sat in her chair before the fire in the royal family’s solar.

“Dat’s fire!” he said, his green eyes wide.

Frigga chuckled. “And so it is, love.”

“Fire hurts.”

“Very good. Normally fire does hurt. And you must not try to touch fire,” she added hastily, seeing his suddenly contemplative expression. “Unless I am here.”

He looked up at her quizzically, then back at her hands, at the small tongues of seemingly harmless fire. Smiling, Frigga rolled them back and forth over the backs of her knuckles.

“I can do dat!” said Loki suddenly, and digging into his pocket, pulled out a copper coin. “See?” Slowly, sticking out his tongue in concentration, he rolled the coin between his fingers, first one way, and then the other.

“How very clever!” his mother exclaimed. “Did one of the joungleurs teach you that?”

Very proud, Loki shook his head. “I watched ‘em an’ did it myself.”

“Clever boy,” Frigga murmured, sweeping the flames into the palm of one hand and smoothing his hair back with the other so she could kiss his forehead. “My clever boy.”

He beamed up at her and then pointed to the flames cupped in her palm. “Show me dat, Amma? Pwease?”

“‘Please’,” she corrected.

He wrinkled his nose. “Plllllease? Plllease, Amma?”

Frigga seemed to hesitate. “Hold out your hands,” she said at last, “as though you were about to gather water from a stream.”

Loki cupped his hands obediently.

Gently, she laid the tip of her index finger on the spot where his palms touched, and made a little stirring motion, teasing his natural talents to the surface. “Do you feel that?”

“It tickles,” he laughed.

“That is seidr, the web of energy that powers the universe. Now, hold on to that tickling feeling, and be ready. If you lose it, the fire will burn you.”

He nodded and bit his lower lip, concentrating hard.

Frigga plucked a flame from the hearth and lowered it gently into Loki’s palms.

He was too enthralled to be nervous, too focused on holding on to the soft, feathery feeling in his hands to realize that anything could go wrong – and how could it, when his mother was there? And when the base of the little flame nestled against his skin, he was trembling with amazement, almost too enchanted to speak.

“Pretty,” he whispered, cupping his fingers close.

Frigga pressed a kiss against his hair. “Well done, my flame.”

He could remember that almost as though it had happened that very morning. But of how he had learned to hide in the shadows just out of the corners of people’s eyes? There was nothing. Frigga and Sigyn had helped him to refine the talent (and both had told him more than once, and at length, how much they regretted it), but it was as if he had been born with the basic knowledge innate in his bones.

He rounded the corner into the corridor where his private laboratory was located, and paused, listening. The door was ajar and Unna was talking to someone, which was upsetting, since he hadn’t given anyone else permission to be in his lab. But, he realized as he slipped unseen through the open door, he knew the second voice. Very well, in fact.

“I still don’t know why you’re wasting your breath complaining about this,” said Unna, adjusting a device comprised of many crystal lenses, through which she was examining a small globe filled with silvery fluid, bubbling over a flame. “It’s not as though you’re concerned on Sigyn’s behalf.”

“My dear sweet scholarly friend,” Fandral replied with an overdone sigh, “you wound me to the quick!”

“Disturb any more of my vials and I'll wound much more than that.”

Fandral moved away from the table with alacrity. “But truly, Unna, it’s awful. Sigyn is my friend – she’s been a friend to all of us since we were children. She deserves more than to be foisted off on Theoric so that Odin can make good on a promise to a couple of dead men.”

“The king is doing the honourable thing, I suppose,” Unna said absently, more focused on her experiment than on her companion.

“Honouring the dead is commendable, but surely honouring and respecting the living ought to come first. But,” Fandral continued, constitutionally unable to stick to serious subjects for too long, “a prince of the royal house should not dwell on such things. Walls have ears, after all.”

“True. Perhaps you ought to go find some fetching wench to woo.”

“That was my intention, but you’ve been busy.”

Unna looked up from her device and blinked owlishly at him (and unseen by them both, Loki was blinking quite a lot himself). “Oh,” she mumbled, flushing.

Fandral smiled and opened his arms, and to Loki’s meteoric shock, she went. And for several minutes, he was too flabbergasted by this sudden knowledge to notice that his womanizing cousin and his intellectual friend were kissing in the manner of long-term lovers.

Well, that’s interesting.

After a very long and involved snog, Unna broke the kiss and pushed Fandral away, but playfully. “Right, you got your hands on me, now be off. I have work to do.”

“Oh, must I?”


Fandral’s face fell, but he brightened again when Unna promised to dance with him at the wedding feast, and he left with his head held pompously high.

Loki managed to wait a whole five minutes after he was gone before bursting into juicy laughter. “Oh, my friend,” he gasped, revealing himself and wiping tears from his eyes, “I had no idea you had it in you.”

“Wha—Loki, you sneaky eavesdropping bastard.”

“Yes to the first, yes to the second, no to the third. How long has Fandral been trying to get his hands up your skirts?”

“He’s not – we’re not – oh…” Unna grimaced. “With all due respect, your highness, may I suggest that you go fuck yourself? Off of a roof, perhaps?”

“Haven’t the time just now, thank you,” Loki grinned. “Is the potion ready?”

“Yes, but if you’re going to spread tales, you can’t have it.”

“I promise on my honor as a prince of Asgard, my lady, I will not tell anyone that my cousin Fandral is your bit of skirt.”

“Thank you for the phrasing,” said Unna dryly. “Are you sure about this?” she asked, carefully dousing her flame.

“About what?”

“About what you’re planning to do. It doesn’t at all sound as though you’ve considered any of the potential consequences.”

Loki rolled his eyes at the word. “Consequences are of no importance, so long as Sigyn is safe – although I do hope people will be amused at the result, as it promises to be a fine jest.”

“For someone normally so invested in caution and in foreseeing all potential outcomes, your highness, you can be remarkably short-sighted when your emotions get involved.” Loki bristled at her bluntness, but Unna ignored him. “What are you going to do with Theoric afterwards? He’s not likely to keep quiet about being so ignominiously duped.”

“No matter,” said Loki airily. “I’ll pay him some monstrous sum and then ship him off-world, where he can be someone else’s problem for a few centuries. To Knowhere, perhaps…”

He turned away from Unna’s probing gaze, pretending to consider the problem.

Because the truth was… well, of course he hadn’t thought about it. Largely because he hadn’t had time – Odin had called for the wedding to take place much too soon for Loki’s liking. And he had avoided thinking beyond the primary goal of ‘keep Sigyn safe’, because after that, the consequences became murky and unknown.

And he did not like unknown variables.

“Perhaps my emotions do sometimes lead me to do foolish things,” he admitted, grudgingly. “But Thor has the same problem, and no one ever criticizes him for going berserk when things don’t go according to plan.”

“True enough. But that is because when Thor gets angry, people tend to end up very, very sorry, or else very, very dead, and as yet, trickster, you haven’t proved yourself intimidating enough to make people sorry or determined enough to make them dead.”

“Yes, well… it’s much more productive to ignore things than to deal with them.”

“Except in this case?”

“Except in this case, yes, now can I have the damned potion?

Unna slapped the vial into his palm. “If anyone asks, you either made it yourself or you stole it from my storeroom, and now I wash my hands of the matter.”

Loki’s face split into a delighted and admiring grin. “I’ve always said you were a very reasonable woman to do business with.”

Elsewhere in the palace, in Frigga’s private chambers, the royal seamstresses were hard at work, trying their best to measure the reluctant bride-to-be for wedding clothes.

Sigyn was… not handling it well.

She was in such a foul mood, snapping at the women with every third word, that the queen was finally moved to admonish her. “Sigyn. They are only doing their duty.”

“And that is what I should be doing,” Sigyn retorted. “I would far rather be about my own business and attending to my own duties.” She gritted her teeth and managed a few more minutes before finally losing her patience all together. “Enough! Out, all of you!”

The seamstresses and waiting women gathered up their things and scurried out, barely waiting for the queen’s nod of permission.

Sigyn tore off the basted pieces of silk and velvet and angrily resumed her own garments. “Put your sewing women to other work,” she said, seething with every word. “I will be married in my own plain clothes or else in nothing – though no doubt Theoric might prefer nothing, since he seems to view me as little more than a sow bought for breeding.”

Frigga waited until Sigyn was somewhat more collected, and then asked, quietly, “Would you view this marriage in a more favorable light if you knew that it was temporary?”

“…How ‘temporary’?”

“I have reason to believe that in forcing Odin’s hand to make this marriage move forward, Theoric has committed treason. And the best way to find evidence of that is to get close to him.”

“My queen, that is… are you serious?”

“I am in dire earnest, my friend. I want to find out as much as possible, as much as I can, if what I suspect is true, because if Theoric is willing to use such leverage against the king once, then it will not be the last time he does so, but only the first attempt of many. And this wedding day is the perfect opportunity for me to slip an agent into Theoric’s household without raising undue notice. Because as a wedding day—”

“—the notice will be very much due.” Sigyn twisted a length of velvet between her hands as she thought. “Does the king know?”

“He suspects Theoric’s motive in this matter, but as to placing one of the Crown’s Eyes in Theoric’s household, no. That need not concern Odin at this time. This is strictly between the leader of the Koronaugu and her most valued and trusted agent.”

“Flattery, Frigga?” Sigyn managed a thin smile, and then sighed. “I am… I’m not keen on this idea. But I suppose that going into it with an ulterior motive is better than thinking it real and permanent and forever.”

“It’s nothing but a job.”

“A job with unfortunate hazards. I’ll still be Theoric’s wife. He will have expectations of me.”

“He will, yes.” The queen paused. “You are no stranger to using your body in your intelligence work.”

“No… though it’s not my preferred tool.”

“Nor was it mine. But a marriage bed need be no more than an unpleasant aspect of an unpleasant assignment, and as we can’t seem to get you out of the arranged match, we might as well make what use of it we can. But,” Frigga continued, her tone moving from thoughtful to stern, “if you are to undertake this assignment as well as the one to Jotunheim, it means you must tell Loki to stand down. I will leave it to you to deliver that message to the prince, but it must be delivered in no uncertain terms: whatever Loki is planning, he must abandon the notion and cease all preparations at once.” She leveled a steady, steely gaze at Sigyn. “Do I make myself clear?”

Sigyn’s spine straightened automatically, an action born of a thousand years of training, and her response should have been as instinctive. But she had muster a great effort to force the words out.

“Yes, my queen.”

It took Sigyn until the night before her wedding to go to Loki and give him the order she had been told to deliver.

“But… why?”

She shook her head. “I can’t tell you. I am forbidden to tell you anything… only that you are to call a halt to your machinations.”

“And… is that your wish?”

“It is your mother’s wish.”

“But is it yours? Do you want me to stand aside, and let this marriage go forward?”

Sigyn turned away and gazed out over the city. It was a sight she had marveled at for most of her life, but now she was not seeing it. Instead, she was seeing beyond it, envisioning in her mind the estate that Theoric planned to bear her off to, far in the north.

In her heart, she wanted nothing to do with any of it. She didn’t want to know why Theoric had turned traitor or if he was blackmailing the king – frankly, after all she had seen and done for Odin, and gotten nothing but her current mess in return for her labors, she rather thought that Odin probably deserved to be blackmailed.

Moreover, she had no desire to be Theoric’s wife, not even a temporary wife with deeply ulterior motives. If she had to marry someone tomorrow… she would vastly prefer it to be Loki.

“No,” she said at last. “No, I do not want you to stand aside.”

She felt his hand on her shoulder, and turned to look up into his pale, solemn face. His green eyes glittered in the lights from the city beyond, flashing little points of gold.

Gently, he clasped her upper arms and pulled her closer. Only by a few inches, but it made all the difference in the world, and Sigyn felt something change in the space between them, something that made her cheeks flush and her heart speed up.

The prince looked at her for a long time, and when he finally spoke again, his voice was husky, and very soft. “Whatever happens tomorrow, Sigyn... never doubt that I love you.”