“In all the time I’ve served you,” Heimdall said, “have I given you any reason to doubt my loyalty?”
“If you had, I would not be standing before you now.”
“As you say, my king. But now I must dissent. You are making a grave error.”
“Sometimes I think I made a grave error coming back from Jotunheim with him in my arms,” Odin said, looking down the length of the bridge. His eyes, frost-pale, gave away so little that only Heimdall and Frigga would ever have known he did not believe what he was saying. No, the All-Father did not regret having brought his youngest child to Asgard. Which made what he was doing now all the more perplexing, and all the more troubling. “I had thought him a solution, which is not a thought worthy of the wisdom with which I am credited. Children do not make things simpler, that is not their nature. And I did not anticipate…”
“That you would care for him?”
“That I would love him,” Odin said. “As much as my true son.”
And your daughter? But that was even more dangerous to voice than criticism. In any case, he knew the answer: Odin would never love another child as much as he had loved his Hela. He would not risk his heart that way. It was a pity, because the princes would never understand it. They would yearn open-handed, reaching for what would never drop into their grasp.
“If he is your true son, then keep him as such,” he said instead.
Odin shook his head. “But he is not my son, Heimdall. And I do neither him, nor Thor, nor myself, nor any of us any favor by hiding that. I have mistreated him, to raise him as a prince of Asgard when I intend no more for him than the throne of Jotunheim. When Laufey dies, and Loki must go to claim his birthright, how will he do it? With pride of his own place, and with loyalty to us? Or with bitterness at receiving only second-best? A king is not jealous of another king, but a brother may well be jealous of another brother. I’d thought to forge an alliance from the cradle on, give Thor and Loki reason to love each other too well to quarrel, but already they compete with each other. What happens, then, when Thor must win?”
“Then the younger prince learns that life does not owe him victory. That is all.”
“Believe me,” Odin said grimly, “that is a lesson no member of this house will ever learn easily. He is too much my son for that by far.”
You are trying to stop Loki from becoming Hela, and that is a noble cause, but you cannot keep him from being your daughter by making him not your son.
“I will not put the might of the Frost Giants behind an enemy to Asgard,” Odin said, “even if it is my own son.”
“Then relinquish hope of Jotunheim. Keep the peace as you have kept it for these last few years.”
Odin scoffed. “Through the flimsy assurance of Laufey’s fear? Through our possession of the Casket? He has too much steel in him not to raise his sons to rally against us, and sooner or later, war will come. As for the Casket, what has been stolen from them could easily be stolen from us. What is the Vault but a lesson in the folly of believing anything safely kept forever? No, Heimdall. I was a fool to take Loki in hand as though he were a tool, but having done so, I cannot go without using him, not when I know what it might bring us. He is a resource of the throne, even as I am.”
“He is eight,” Heimdall said. “He will think he’s being dragged from his home as punishment for cutting his brother. My king, he will not understand.”
“That is another matter,” Odin said. “His magic—it needs to be controlled.”
“Who better to teach him than his mother?”
“She will teach him, she will not restrain him. She loves him too well to do so. And so, I’m afraid, do I.”
“Then you have made your decision already,” Heimdall said. “You do not ask me to take your son, your majesty, you command it.”
Odin looked ancient in that moment: his age was not in his face but in his heart, where Heimdall did not often look. Oh, he would live long enough, perhaps even another millennium, but he had spent his best years on conquest, had turned to governance too late to know how to do it lightly. A king who cared for his realm less might rule it better, might withstand more; a man who knew less of the weight of his own soul might not think it so necessary to crush a weed beneath his heel before it even truly grew. What was best in him had brought him to the worst and most primitive handling of his children. This infanticide disguised as abandonment disguised as fostering. Or, in Hela’s case, as imprisonment.
“Would you make it a command?” Odin asked.
“For your sake, I would have taken him as a babe, and done so willingly. Had cataclysm come to us, and you and the queen both been lost, I would have raised him as my own. But to agree now and to rip him from his father, mother, and brother, from his position, from everything he has known—yes, your majesty. I would have you command it of me, because otherwise my answer would not serve you.”
For a moment, he thought that he might have convinced Odin to turn away from this madness; or, failing that, that Odin would walk away, would at least lift this responsibility from his shoulders by turning to another member of his court. There were many pampered lords and ladies who would have taken on a boy who, what? Would be treated henceforth as some royal byblow? Maybe it was cowardice that made Heimdall prefer even that. He did not want to be the knife by which Odin cut out his son’s heart.
But Odin said, “Then, Gatekeeper, to take custody of Loki Laufeyson is the express command of your king.”
Heimdall bowed his head. “Then it shall be done.”
“You ask much of me,” Odin said, and there was a kind of controlled fury in his voice. “Of all in Asgard, it is only you to whom I would ever dare entrust him, a child so precious to me, and you make me force him upon you. He is a gift, Heimdall. I pray you will grow to understand that. Your heart cannot be so cold as to make him feel that his unwelcome in your house.”
He left then, not telling Heimdall when or how he might expect to acquire this gift of a son. It reminded Heimdall of nothing so much as when he had been looking so deeply into the stars that, trying to bring his gaze back to Asgard, he could not fix his eyes upon anything without it blurring into its own constant whirl of matter and space. The details grew inconsequential. But Loki, whether Loki Odinson or Loki Laufeyson or Loki Heimdallson, could not be allowed to vanish. Not to Odin’s eyes and certainly not to his. He supposed men had become fathers with less notice than this but not, in all likelihood, of young princes, Jotun boys in Aesir skin, whom their would-be fathers had always found a little wearisome. He would have to learn fatherhood quickly.
Well, he thought dryly, unless I turn at once and give him away to someone else, I will not serve him to ill on the first day, not in immediate comparison. It was a mildly treasonous thought, but a true one. Whether Loki knew it or not, Heimdall would be his third father. He was determined to be the last.
Odin brought Loki to him shortly after dawn the next morning. Loki’s small face was pinched and white, his eyes not just red-rimmed from crying but still swimming with tears, though the night and the long walk to the Observatory must have taught him better than to shed them. Odin would not have liked it. Though, Heimdall was forced to admit, perhaps no father would have: to have made his child cry was something most men would wish to run from.
Heimdall knelt. “It is a hard morning for you.” He did not say “my prince,” because there was no use in pretending that title still held true, but he did not say Loki’s name, either, because that would only pour salt on a fresh wound.
“He is brave,” Odin said, and with a touch that was clumsy but nonetheless almost reverent, he combed his fingers through the hair of the boy who was no longer his son. “Loki, trust what I say. What is happening is no fault of yours. It is only something that has happened, without cause or blame, like a sickness. I will never cease to love you.”
“Then why are you doing this?” Loki said. The cry sounded like it was being torn out of the very fabric of his soul.
“Because it must be done.”
Do not say “for the good of Asgard,” Heimdall thought, or you will only teach him, here and now, to hate everything about this place.
But he erred if he thought Odin so foolish. Instead of saying anything more at all, Odin only pressed his palm against the back of Loki’s head and then bent down to kiss him, a thing he did with great tenderness. Then, all too quickly, he was gone. Asgard’s capital was small, almost intimate, a dense cloud of glory, but Heimdall knew they would now learn exactly how easy it was to be kept away from the royal family if the royal family wished it to be so. It would be some time, he had no doubt, before either of them saw Odin again.
Heimdall said, “Did you sleep at all?”
“Why is he doing this?” Loki said. His tear-stained face was turned in the direction of the city, but he did not run toward it. He had been raised to do as he was told, after all.
“I don’t understand it myself,” Heimdall said honestly. “He believes you will be happier this way.”
“But I’m not happy!” Without the need to impress his father with his restraint, Loki was crumbling again. “Will he come back? Will he change his mind? Will Mother come?”
He answered the questions carefully, in the order Loki had asked them. “I believe he will come back to see you, though perhaps not right away. I don’t think he will change his mind about—the way things are to be.” He has changed it once, which is already an admission of failure; he will never change it back again. “And the queen, I know, will visit you. Often, I’m sure.” But she would not change Odin’s mind any more than Odin would change it himself, and she would not go against him so totally. That was not the way of their family, he knew.
“There is no force in the Nine Realms that could keep your brother from you,” Heimdall said. “I have seen all the dangers of the universe, and I know that to a certainty.” He had tried, very precisely, to not say “your father” or “your mother,” but he could not rob Loki of his brother, not yet. Not at least while that could grant the boy a small, unsteady smile.
Loki looked around the Observatory and then, suddenly, he was no longer a rumpled, grief-stricken child but a perfectly composed one: he had dropped a glamour over himself, hiding under it as a less gifted child might have hidden under a blanket. Heimdall saw no reason not to let him, if it made him feel better.
Loki said, “Do you live here?”
“No, I have a home in the country.”
“But you’re always here.”
“I have always needed very little sleep, and I’ve grown to need less and less. Most of my life has been spent in watching.” A thing that was now done: a vocation reduced, in the span of minutes, to ordinary work. He would need to see that the cottage was even still suitable for habitation. It would be nothing like the palace, but that might be for the best. A stately manor home, though Heimdall could have easily bought one, would only be a pale shadow of Odin’s great halls. Better to have something that could be no reminder. A small place dappled with sunlight and the green and yellow patterns of leaves.
He had never left his post in the daytime: not once in so many centuries. But if there were a day to do it, this was that day.
“Come,” he said, offering his hand to Loki. “Let me take you there and show it to you, I would like to. You will need rest.”
Loki’s hand felt very small inside his. “Am I going to live with you now, Heimdall?”
What would be more terrifying to a child: uncertainty or finality? “If you are to stay somewhere that is not your home, would you like to stay with me? I would like you to.”
Loki considered this, and let go of the glamour—surely without meaning to, because even at eight, the boy was nothing but pride and the longing to impress—in doing so, as if it took all his concentration, but then he said, “Yes. Thank you,” with the perfect manners of the prince he no longer was.