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Loki: Where Mischief Lies / : (by Mackenzi Lee, 2019) -

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Loki: Where Mischief Lies / :    (by Mackenzi Lee, 2019) -

Loki: Where Mischief Lies / : (by Mackenzi Lee, 2019) -

. . , . , , , , . , . , . , . , . , , . XIX . , , , , .

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: 473
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Loki: Where Mischief Lies / : (by Mackenzi Lee, 2019) -
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2019
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Mackenzi Lee
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Oliver Wyman
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upper-intermediate
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09:10:32
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Loki: Where Mischief Lies / : :

.doc (Word) lee_-mackenzi_-_loki_where_mischief_lies.doc [3.73 Mb] (c: 27) .
.pdf lee_-mackenzi_-_loki_where_mischief_lies.pdf [3.02 Mb] (c: 21) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: Loki: Where Mischief Lies

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The Royal Feast of Gullveig, like all Asgardian feast days, was enjoyable for those who were fond of listening to overly long speeches, exchanging inane niceties, and getting their feet stepped on, because the Great Hall was always too crowded and no one knew how to walk in heels. Loki was convinced everyone loathed the feasts but no one dared say so for fear of appearing small-minded. Being quite confident of the size of his mind_large_and his ability to walk in heels, he was comfortable saying it. _I hate feast days._ In the royal receiving line beside him, Thor didn_t drop the politician_s smile he had been practicing for state occasions like this. It had only faltered when Loki had suggested showing that much teeth made it very obvious there was something stuck in them, and he had fumbled with his tongue for several minutes_lips bulging in a grotesque way that made several approaching courtiers change course_before realizing there was nothing there. _The feasts are important days,_ Thor said. _They instill competence in Asgard_s leaders among our court._ _Confidence,_ Loki corrected. The smile didn_t slip, but Thor_s eyebrows crept together. _What?_ _I memorized the same quote,_ Loki replied. _It_s confidence._ _What did I say?_ _You_Never mind._ Loki fixed his own overly large smile, raising his voice so Thor could hear him over the musicians playing a lively folk song. _You did it perfectly._ Thor adjusted the circlet resting on his forehead. Beads of sweat were beginning to gather around it, and it was slipping over his brows. Loki had been offered a circlet as well_his mother had selected a silver braid inlaid with small gemstones for him. But while Loki loved few things as much as a bit of sparkle, he had opted instead for a more sophisticated, understated look that the circlet would have ruined entirely. He didn_t have to enjoy feast days, but he could look good for them. The boots made him feel like doing a strut down the middle of the hall_black, over the knee, and with heels as long and thin as the knives he kept up his sleeves. His coat had a high collar and green ribbing on the shoulders, and he wore loose trousers of the same color. Amora had told him green made his eyes look like jewels, but he had been careful not to wear it too often. Best not to let Amora think he was taking her advice too seriously. She might have always been right, but she didn_t have to know that. Loki glanced down the line of dignitaries, past Thor and Frigga in her flowing silver robes, hands tucked beneath the sleeves as she smiled and nodded to the Asgardian woman fumbling a compliment about how lovely the queen_s hair looked with its streaks of gray. On her other side were the ambassadors from Varinheim and Ringsfjord, talking with their heads bent toward Queen Jolena, who kept asking loudly if they could speak up. Past them, Karnilla, the Queen of Norns and Odin_s royal sorceress, stood like a soldier, the plaits of her dark hair wound together and wrapped around a gold headpiece with a purple stone set upon her brow. Her face was blank_in the time she_d been at court, Loki had never seen her wear any expression beyond a dutiful grimace of acknowledgment. One of her long-fingered hands rested on Amora_s shoulder, like she was certain her apprentice would slip away if a hold wasn_t kept on her. It wasn_t outside the realm of possibility. Amora was looking far more obviously bored than Loki felt she should. Far more bored than he was sure he could get away with without a lecture from his father. She may get one from Karnilla too, but Amora seemed to care so much less about what her teacher thought than Loki did about Odin_s opinions. He wished he could afford not to care, not to feel like everything he did right or wrong was ticked off in a corresponding column and kept on file for the day Odin would name either him or Thor as the heir to the Asgardian crown. It would be so much easier if there were only one of him_Amora was the only student Karnilla had ever taken on and the only magic wielder in Asgard powerful enough to take up the mantle of royal sorceress and Queen of the Norns. Amora_s power made her desired; Loki_s power made him feel the need to keep it hidden. No one wanted a sorcerer for a king. The kings of Asgard were warriors. They wore their golden hair long and their armor polished and their scars from battle casually on display like ostentatious accessories. Oh, this old thing? Merely a token from a rogue Sakaaran who was foolish enough to test his strength against mine. Amora managed to wriggle away from Karnilla_s side long enough to snatch a goblet off the tray of a passing kitchen servant, and Loki watched as she touched one finger to the surface and levitated a small drop from it. It hung in midair, a few inches from her palm, until Karnilla reached over without looking and clamped a hand over Amora_s, squashing the spell. Amora rolled her eyes, then, perhaps sensing the inappropriate duration of Loki_s gaze, glanced around. She caught his eye, and offered her crooked finger of a smile. Loki felt his ears go red, and he almost looked away, like that would negate the fact that she_d caught him staring. Instead he offered her an exasperated eye-widening, to which she responded by pantomiming hanging herself. He snorted. Thor frowned at him, then followed his gaze, but Amora had straightened herself out again, smiling alongside Karnilla at the courtier who had come to speak to them. She seemed to be putting a great deal of effort into making her smile look as forced as possible_as much as Thor had been putting into making his look sincere_but she was smiling, so no one could accuse her of a contrary disposition. Thor_s frown went deeper, burying his circlet farther into his brow, and he pushed it up before turning forward with a huff that sounded like an imitation of their father. When Loki caught Amora_s eye again, she made a subtle gesture down at the tiles and raised her eyebrows. Loki hesitated. Carrying out the small spells she taught him at a dinner or in their classroom was one thing, but doing it at a state function was quite another. It would be harmless_turning the tiles of the Great Hall pink had been his idea, after all. But he had suggested it half in jest, hoping he would impress her with the boldness of the idea and creative use of spell weaving without actually having to execute it. But Amora had to see everything through to the end. Everything that could be tried had to be, no matter the consequences. And there were always consequences, whether a whack on the back of the head from a wearied tutor or a private summons to Karnilla_s chambers. Amora did it all anyway. Loki felt the burn of jealousy at her fearlessness_the way she didn_t seem to feel any shame when Odin or Karnilla scolded her. His own heart always twisted no matter how high he raised his chin in defiance. No matter how blameless he thought himself. Once, as a boy, Loki had used his magic to extinguish all the lights in the palace simultaneously. He was baffled when Odin had not been delighted and proud as he expected, but rather so enraged Loki had feared his father might strike him. Instead, Loki was sent to his chambers to sit in isolation, wriggling with a shame he didn_t understand, before his mother finally came and explained that it would be best if he did not use the magic he could feel vibrating through his bones, but instead dedicated himself to becoming a warrior like his brother. It would be best, she had said, for his future. She had spoken gently_it was the only way his mother ever spoke_but the humiliation of that moment had never managed to detach itself from every spell he cast. Though he had done very little spell-casting until Amora arrived in court. He had tried to make himself a warrior, tried to run faster and train harder, learn to take a blow without buckling. All the things Thor seemed to do without trying, the skills they had been told were most becoming of a future king of Asgard, while Loki_s only skill seemed to be turning the mead in his brother_s goblet into slugs once he began to drink, and then back into wine when he spat it out. It wasn_t the best strategy for dealing with emotions, but it was his strategy. The slug trick was what first caught Amora_s attention. When Thor had sputtered his mead across the table, Odin had berated him for his poor manners in front of their guests, the Norn Queen, Karnilla, and her apprentice, Amora, on their first night in the Asgardian palace. As Thor had insisted over and over that there were slugs, there had been slugs, he was certain there had been slugs, Loki_s gaze had drifted across the table to Amora without knowing why, only to find she was already watching him. The corners of her mouth had turned up around her fork. But then she looked away, and he had gone back to staring at his stew. He had told himself the slugs were to get his brother back for knocking him flat in the sparring ring that morning in spite of promising not to_a promise that had been quickly forgotten once he realized Sif was watching. It wasn_t because Amora was a magician_the first other magic-wielder he_d ever met besides his mother, whose uses of magic were always small and controlled. Tea party magic, as Loki had begun to think of it. Frigga had always worked to keep her powers out of sight, and encouraged Loki to do the same. But Amora was allowed to wear her powers on her sleeve and flaunt them as part of her training for her future position in court. It wasn_t because her long hair was the color of honey and she wore it wrapped around her head in an endless loop that looked like snakes winding together. It wasn_t because of those slanted features or that crooked smile. What did you expect? He chided himself as he poked at a chunk of meat, watching it bounce back to the thick, oily surface. For her to be thrilled about finding another magic-wielder in Asgard? A magician who had never been taught to control his powers, which meant they usually escaped in inelegant, clumsy stunts he was struggling to teach himself? The slugs had been good, though. His gaze drifted again to Amora, but her dark eyes_black but for a few thin veins of emerald that forked through them like an acidic lightning storm_were on Karnilla. As she listened to Karnilla and Odin discuss the upcoming tutelage Amora would be given at court before the Feast of Gullveig and how it would prepare her for her future role as right hand to one of Odin_s sons, Loki felt small and strange again, not worthy of notice by someone he had thought might resemble himself. But at the end of the meal, when he finished his wine, he_d found a small snail at the bottom, writhing lethargically in the dregs. He_d looked up, but Amora was already gone, leaving him with that single disgusting calling card. _The slug trick is clever,_ she told him later, when he found her in the palace library, curled into the bench of one of the circular windows that overlooked the gardens. She had a stack of books at her feet that he was certain she had selected only for aesthetic effect. _But what if you waited to change them until just as he was swallowing? It_s far more horrifying to swallow a mouthful of slugs than to spit one out all over the table, don_t you think?_ Loki hadn_t thought of that. He also wasn_t certain he had enough control of his own magical powers to time a spell so perfectly. When he didn_t say anything, Amora_s eyes flicked up from the page of the book she had open on her lap, and he was certain she knew how good aloofness looked on her. She had let her braids loose, and the tilt of her chin sent her hair cascading perfectly down her shoulders, like a carpet unfurled before the feet of a visiting king. _Who taught you how to do that?_ she asked. _No one,_ he replied. He had honed any skills he had alone, making his grasp of his own powers rough and rudimentary and frustratingly tenuous. He could feel the well inside him, how deep and strong it ran, but could find no way to tap it. _I didn_t know Odin_s son was a sorcerer,_ she said. _There_s a reason for that._ He wanted to sit beside her, but somehow that felt too presumptuous, a bold assumption that he was interesting enough for her to want around. Instead he went for a casual lean against one of the shelves, which he realized mid-tilt was much farther away than he had thought. _Asgardians don_t want their princes to be magicians. It_s not the sort of power they value._ Amora stared at him for a moment, then folded the corner of the page before shutting the book, a gesture that felt like such destruction in miniature that it made Loki want to crease the pages of every book in his father_s library. _Hasn_t Odin hired someone to teach you?_ she asked. _Or your mother? She_s a sorceress._ _No,_ he said, certain he sank a few inches deeper into the carpet. _I mean, yes, she is. But my father doesn_t want me to study magic._ _Because he_s afraid of you._ Loki laughed before he could stop himself at the thought of Odin, built like a boulder and with a rough, smashing demeanor to match, being frightened of his own son, particularly the smaller, skinnier one. _He_s not afraid of me. He just wants me to be the best contender for the throne that I can be, so he has me train with the soldiers._ Now it was Amora_s turn to laugh. _That_s like keeping a warship in shallow waters. What a waste._ She stroked the spine of the book, appraising him. She seemed to be made of smoke the way her body spiraled and swooped with the shape of the windowsill. She had kicked off her shoes, and her bare toes curled against the stone. _You_re not a soldier,_ she said. _You_re a magician. And someone ought to teach you how to be one._ _Someone ought to,_ he replied. She offered him a smile, one that felt like a dagger drawn slowly from its sheath, that dangerous hum of scraping metal in the moment of stillness that preluded a strike. Then she flipped open the book on her lap again, and his heart dropped, thinking he had been too opaque, too unreadable, too cold, all the things his brother wasn_t, the things his tutors had told him not to be, the things the other trainees in the warrior camp had teased him for. But then she slung her feet off the seat beside her and said, _Are you going to sit down?_ And he did. That had been months ago. Months over which Loki and Amora had knit themselves into an inseparable duo that the servants whispered about and the courtiers disapproved of. Even now, in the Great Hall on a feast day, Loki felt their eyes glancing at him, trying to determine whether his partnership with Karnilla_s headstrong apprentice had altered him in a way they could see. Above him, the candles in the boat-shaped chandeliers that lined the Great Hall flickered, their light dancing along the golden leaf that blanketed the wainscoting. The shape of the ceilings had always reminded him of the inside of an instrument, bowed and curved in places designed to amplify sound and make every gathering feel bigger and more impressive. Loki peeked down at the tiles under his feet, black with streaks of gold shooting through them, carving out the elaborate intricate roots that joined to form Yggdrasil at the base of the grand stairway. When he met Amora_s gaze again, she did an exaggerated eyelash flutter and pressed her hands together in pleading, and he knew he would set the hall on fire and then run naked through it if she asked. _What are you plotting?_ Thor muttered beside him. _Plotting?_ Loki repeated, pinning on his best smile to scare an approaching courtier away from them. _I never plot._ Thor snorted. _Please._ _Please what? Please plot?_ Thor ground his foot into Loki_s, and Loki bit his tongue to stifle a squeak of pain. _Careful, I love these boots more than I love you._ Thor glanced down the row again, to where Amora had put on another exaggeratedly innocent face. Thor had not taken to her the way Loki had. He had joined them on a few escapades around the palace, but always with his feet dragging, checking over his shoulder to be certain they wouldn_t be caught, and repeating _I don_t think we should be doing this_ so often that Amora had suggested they start charging him for every repetition. Eventually he had stopped coming along, which suited Loki fine. He didn_t want to share Amora with his brother. He didn_t want to share her with anyone. She was all his in a way no one had ever been. No one had ever wanted to be. And it was nice to see Thor left out of conversations for once. Thor had never offered a direct opinion on Amora. No one had_they just whispered about her behind her back the way everyone always had about Loki. Too unpredictable, too strong, shouldn_t be allowed out of Nornheim, even if the king and his sorceress thought the structure and rigidity of the royal court would temper her strong will. Suddenly, three thundering booms cut through the chatter ringing around the hall. The musicians silenced and the courtiers hushed, rotating toward the top of the grand stairway. Loki pivoted along with the rest of the royal officials in their receiving line and turned his face upward, to where Odin stood, dressed in his feast day robes of claret-deep red, his spear, Gungnir, in his fist. His beard was woven with golden thread, and on his brow was a circlet in the same style as Thor_s. Loki felt a twinge of regret. Perhaps he should have worn his after all, no matter that it clashed with the rest of his ensemble. _Asgardians!_ Odin boomed, his voice echoing off the curved ceiling and carrying easily through the hall. _Friends, visitors, distinguished guests from across the Nine Realms, you honor us with your presence at this, our holy Feast of Gullveig._ Loki had heard some variation on this speech at every feast day since he was a boy. It was remarkable how many heroic warriors Asgard had decided to commemorate with their own feast days, and while the food was always good, it was never worth having to stand in an awkward receiving line, getting pats on the head from courtiers, and then enduring his father_s dull speech about whatever blond man with rippling biceps and an insatiable thirst for the blood of Asgardian enemies was being honored that particular day. But the Feast of Gullveig was different in one substantial way. _Today,_ Odin continued, touching one finger to the patch that covered his empty right eye socket as he looked around, _we celebrate the day of the warrior king who, one hundred centuries ago, harnessed the rime flows of Niflheim in the Siege of Muspelheim and from it forged the Godseye Mirror. That same Mirror has been brought up from the palace vault and, with the strength and power of our royal sorceress from Nornheim, shall grant a vision of the decade to come and the threats Asgard shall need to arm ourselves against. This is the way we keep our kingdom safe from threats from across the Nine Realms, and from Ragnarok itself. The Godseye Mirror gives no answers, and no certainty. Its eye is open for only this one day each decade, but it is the visions it reveals that have helped keep Asgard fortified and strong for centuries. At the end of this feast day, I will confer with my generals and advisors, and we will devise the best strategies for the future prosperity of our people._ Loki had learned all of this from his history teachers in preparation for the feast_the first in his memory that the Godseye Mirror had been brought out and Karnilla had come to wield its powers_but he still pushed himself up on his toes for a better look as the curtain behind his father was drawn back by the two Einherjar soldiers. The Godseye Mirror was a wall of shimmering black obsidian_a perfect square set in a thin gold frame with carved gold staves curling around each corner. He had seen it before, when Odin had taken both him and Thor down to the vault below the palace and explained to them the power of each object kept there and the lengths to which he had gone to keep his people safe from it, but here, away from the dark walls and dim light of the vault and no longer surrounded by the host of artifacts Odin had captured to prevent the end of the world, it felt more imposing. More powerful. The Mirror stood straight on its own, with no feet or supports. The already silent hall seemed to sink into an even more absolute stillness. Karnilla had ascended the stairs, and when Odin extended a hand to her, they walked together to the Mirror. He took his place on one side, she on the other, her palms pressed flat against the surface. Odin handed Gungnir to one of the Einherjar, then turned to his people again, arms extended. _To another decade of peace and prosperity in our great realm!_ Loki felt something brush his elbow, and then Amora_s voice was in his ear. _So do we change the tile now, while your father is occupied, or do we want to be certain everyone sees how poorly fuchsia clashes with his robes?_ Loki_s response was cut off by a crackle of energy from the top of the stairs. He felt the hairs on his neck rise, the air suddenly feeling hot and heavy like the prelude to a lightning storm. A fork of white light erratically split the ceiling of the Great Hall. The assembled courtiers gasped, but from her spot across the Mirror from Odin, Karnilla raised a hand and the light flew to her fist, gathering around it in a cyclone. Loki felt his mouth hang open, marveling at the elegance, the control, the way the magic moved through the air and answered her call. He felt Amora poke him in the back. _Loki._ Karnilla opened her hand and pressed it to the obsidian surface. The staves at each corner of the Mirror glowed, the lines of each rune flaring so bright it seemed for a moment they might ignite. The surface rippled like a pond struck by a stone, and Odin_s eye turned white, the images of Asgard_s future flashing across the Mirror_s surface unseen by anyone but him. _I have a feeling you_re not listening to me,_ Amora said, this time her lips so close to Loki_s ear that he felt her breath. _Quiet,_ Thor hissed at them from Loki_s other side. Amora pivoted to him. _Oh, I_m sorry, am I interrupting something important?_ Another crackle of light dancing across the ceiling flew to Karnilla_s hand. _Show some respect,_ Thor hissed through his teeth. _Is something about my speaking disrespectful?_ Amora replied. _Yes_the fact that you are speaking at all._ Loki felt a sudden hand on his shoulder, and turned as his mother stepped between him and Amora, her gaze still fixed on Odin at the top of the grand staircase and her grip very gentle. _That_s enough,_ she said quietly. Loki wanted to protest that he had been the only one not speaking over this important ceremony. But Frigga squeezed his shoulder, and he swallowed his words. Another bolt of lightning leaped from Karnilla_s hand to the surface of the Mirror, but this one was different. Loki felt a change in the air, a shift in the magic that made him shudder. His mother must have felt it too_her hand spasmed on his shoulder. Odin took an abrupt step back from the Mirror, one hand rising like he was trying to push something away. Then an audible cry escaped his lips. On the other side, Karnilla paused, hand still in the air with the threads of white light whirring in a hive around it. Then Odin tore himself away from the Mirror, breaking the spell. The magic drained from his eye, leaving behind his dark iris flooded with panic. He stumbled, catching himself on the rail. There was a gasp from the assembled court. One of the Einherjar reached out to Odin, but the king pushed him away, snatching back his staff and starting down the stairs at a tripping gait. He may have been trying to pull himself together, but he looked frayed. Karnilla let the spell die on her fingers, the light extinguished, before she stepped out from behind the Mirror and started down the opposite side of the stairs after Odin. _Continue with the feast,_ Odin instructed the captain standing in salute at the base of the stairs. _I_ll return shortly._ He paused, and his eye swiveled, first to Thor, then to Loki, the gaze heavy and meaningful in a way that made Loki_s skin crawl. Whatever vision his father had seen, Loki was suddenly certain in a way he couldn_t explain that they had been a part of it. Odin ran a hand over his beard, then flicked his fingers at Frigga, motioning for her to follow. _My queen._ Loki felt his mother_s hand leave his shoulder as she followed Odin from the hall, Karnilla and his sentries on his heels. The doors of the Great Hall banged behind him, and noise flooded back into the room, this time pitched and anxious. On either side of Loki, Amora and Thor were silent, staring after Odin. All thoughts of pink tiles that shifted colors beneath the feet of the court evaporated. Instead, Loki felt a cold pit settle in his stomach that he could not explain or banish. He had never seen fear like that on his father_s face. If it even had been fear. That look had been so foreign it was impossible to recognize. _What happened?_ Thor asked at last. _I think the question is,_ Amora replied, _what did he see?_ At the urging of the Einherjar captain whom Odin had flung leadership upon as he stumbled out, the feast was served in spite of the king_s absence. The musicians began to play again, now in a minor key_or perhaps that was Loki_s imagination. The energy in the hall had shifted into hushed whispers of speculation. Rumors were flying down the table before the first course had been cleared_Odin had seen his own death, he had seen Asgard surrender in battle, he had seen Ragnarok, the end of the world unfurling before him on that dark glass. _Is Father coming back?_ Thor asked for the fifth time. He hadn_t touched his meal but was using a knife to hack his vegetables into precise squares. _When I find out, you_ll be the first one I tell,_ Loki replied dryly. _I_m sure it_s taking him a while to devise a lie to cover up whatever it was he actually saw,_ Amora remarked across from him. Thor glared at her. _Don_t speak ill of my father._ _Really? That_s your first concern?_ _My father does not lie._ _To be clear, was it him who told you that little tiara looked pretty on you?_ Thor_s hand flew reflexively to his circlet. _No. I chose it myself._ _Well, then._ Amora_s lips skimmed the rim of her goblet. _Perhaps his record is clean._ _He will not lie to his people,_ Thor protested, thumbing the edge of his circlet. Loki could tell he was debating whether or not to remove it. _If what he saw concerns all of Asgard, he will tell the court._ _And everyone knows the first step to telling your assembled court something important is to flee the room in which they_re all assembled, waiting for you to speak._ Thor_s jaw set, and he turned his glare to Loki. _Do you always tolerate her speaking like this? It_s nearly treasonous._ _Aw._ Amora frowned in mock disappointment. _Only nearly?_ Loki wanted to clap his hands over his ears and shut them both out. He couldn_t stop thinking about the look on his father_s face, his stumble down the stairs, the way he had surveyed his sons. _Loki,_ Thor said again, and Loki couldn_t stand it a moment longer. He tossed his napkin onto the table and pushed his chair back. _I need some air._ Amora stood. _I_ll come with you._ _I need some air alone,_ he said, and she froze, half standing. It may have been the first time he had denied her anything. Loki slipped unnoticed from the hall using the servants_ entrance he and Thor had discovered as children, hidden behind a tapestry of Valkyries extending their hands to the Asgardian warriors they were shepherding off the battlefield to Valhalla. Both the long-necked Valkyries and the broad-shouldered warriors had been the source of rather critical stirrings in his youth, but tonight Loki ignored the images as he ducked behind the tapestry and down the passageway it hid. Amora had taught him more magic in the months she_d been at court than he had learned in his entire lifetime. Part of her tutelage had been lessons in what she knew about using magic to shift his form. He was still learning to mimic the finer details of Asgardian features, but this disguise did not need to be precise to be effective. The uniform of the kitchen staff would be the most critical thing to get correct, and as soon as he had the dress on his form, made in imitation of two kitchen girls who scuttled by him with their eyes downcast, his body shifted to fit it. He snagged a tray of empty goblets from a table in the passageway and ran them hastily under a keg at the end of the hall. The form of a servant girl bringing the king and queen refreshment made him invisible in the hallways as he edged toward his father_s chambers. He was almost certain that_s where Odin would have fled with Karnilla and Frigga. Once he was in the room, the servant girl would likely go unnoticed enough to eavesdrop_certainly less noticed than a snake, which had been his initial plan, and which was easier to imitate than an Asgardian. But snakes tended to garner attention_Thor would pick up any serpent to admire it. Loki opened the door to his father_s chambers, only to find the staffs of the two Einherjar guarding the door crossed before him, barring his way. He pulled up short, nearly spilling his drinks in surprise. Behind the Einherjar, Loki could see his father perched on a couch in the antechamber, his back to the door, Frigga at his side. _Leave us!_ he barked without turning around. _I was sent from the kitchens, Your Majesty,_ Loki said, trying to pitch his voice into something girlish. His vocals still needed work. _To bring you refreshment._ _We require nothing from the kitchen,_ Odin snapped. Frigga glanced over her shoulder at Loki, and he felt his face heat, though if she recognized her son, she gave no indication. _Return to the feast,_ she said gently. _You_ll be summoned if we require anything._ Loki bowed, the long, loose tresses that all the servant girls wore immediately falling over his shoulder and dunking into the goblets he had brought. _I_ll just leave them._ He could feel the eyes of the two Einherjar sentries as he slid the tray onto a table beside the door, metal scraping metal with a cringing shriek that somehow made the silence that had fallen the moment he entered even more apparent. Loki offered the guards a shy smile, then, as though he had just noticed, said, _Oh, I brought too many._ As he reached for the fourth glass, he cast the spell. He had never been especially proficient at two-way communication charms, though he had read they came in many varieties. The only version he knew was the one he had devised when he was young_he used a charm to connect a pot of rouge on his mother_s dressing table to an inkwell in his own chambers so that he could listen to her discuss the gifts she_d be giving for that year_s Solstice. For some reason he could no longer recall, it had felt absolutely essential to know what she was giving him. The spell had unraveled quickly, partly because he still had a tenuous grip on his own power, and because his and Frigga_s chambers were on opposite sides of the castle, and any spell was hard to sustain over a distance. And partly because the spell ran both ways, and Frigga had noticed the talking rouge pot right away. But now he had a slightly less tenuous grip on his own magic, and when his fingers met the stem of the goblet, he felt the spell stick. It felt so good to feel a spell land that way, like the teeth of two gears locking together and moving each other. From the couch, he thought he saw his mother stiffen, like she had felt the prickle in the air, but before she could turn, he picked up the fourth goblet, dipped a quick curtsey to the Einherjar, then fled the room. As soon as the door shut behind him, he ducked around the corner. He chugged the contents of the goblet_it made him light-headed, but he was determined to empty it as quickly as possible_before pressing it to his ear. It took a moment_the speech crackled, dipping in and out. The mug he had enchanted to connect to was still full, so it sounded as if he were underwater, listening to someone above the surface. He could barely make out his mother_s words: _You don_t know that._ _I saw him,_ he heard Odin reply. _Leading an army._ _That does not mean Ragnarok._ _Then what does it mean? What other cause_?_ Someone grabbed Loki_s shoulder and he nearly dropped the goblet. He whipped around, the hilt of the dagger he kept up his sleeve sliding into his free hand. Thor was standing behind him, arms crossed. _What are you doing?_ Loki, still in the servant girl_s form, bowed, attempting to subtly tuck the knife into the folds of his skirt. _Apologies, my lord, I was simply bringing the king__ _You can cease with the theatrics, brother,_ Thor interrupted. _I know it_s you._ _Brother?_ Loki repeated, letting his bow sink so low he could have licked the floor. _What brother is this that you speak of?_ Thor grabbed him around the wrist and held up his hand in between them, still clutching the knife. Loki scowled, then let the disguise drop. He pressed the goblet against his side, muffling any of their conversation that might leak through into his father_s chambers. _Are you spying?_ Thor demanded. _Doesn_t spying imply some sort of visual component?_ _Then you_re dropping eaves._ _Yes, that sounds much more refined._ When Thor continued to glare at him, Loki sighed. _I want to know what Father saw._ _If it is our concern, he will enlighten us in time._ _If it_s our concern, I_m almost certain he won_t. You saw his face. The way he fled. He was expecting to see a threat to Asgard in that Mirror_what must it have been to rattle him like that?_ Thor bit his lip, glancing down at the goblet. _I don_t want to hear the rosy version he will present to the court. I want the truth._ _I trust he will give it to us,_ Thor replied. _Fine. I hope your trust keeps you warm._ He twisted his wrist out of Thor_s grasp, pulling down his sleeve to cover the red streaks even his brother_s mild grip had left on his pale skin, and started to lift the goblet to his ear, but Thor tugged at the back of his tunic. _Loki. Don_t._ _If you don_t want to stay, begone,_ Loki replied, wiggling his fingers at Thor like he was flicking a piece of dust from his lapel. _No one_s forcing you to stoop so low as dropping eaves._ He pressed the goblet to his ear, but before he could catch the conversation again, Thor leaned next to him, pulling the goblet so that it cupped both of their ears. Loki resisted a smirk. They pressed their foreheads together, straining to hear, and Loki thought how ridiculous they would look to anyone who happened to pass this way, the two Asgardian princes, huddled and intent over an empty feast goblet. A third voice_Karnilla_s_had joined those of their parents. __not weapons. They are amplifiers of strength. You can_t think his power, even amplified, would be enough to end your realm._ _I do not know what he is capable of,_ Odin replied. _That is what frightens me._ _Stop breathing so loud,_ Loki hissed to Thor. His brother was huffing like he was trying to put out a fire. _This is how I breathe,_ Thor replied. _Then stop breathing,_ Loki said through gritted teeth. _They can hear us too, you know._ _Then stop talking,_ Thor scolded, loud enough that Loki threw a hand over the mouth of the goblet. He glanced behind him to his father_s chamber door, waiting to see if it would open, if one of the Einherjar would be sent to investigate the source of the mysterious goblet arguing with itself. Nothing happened. Loki raised the goblet again, and Thor made a show of taking a deep breath without chuffing, and they both leaned in. _Perhaps the Mirror was wrong,_ Frigga was saying. _You said it yourself in the Great Hall_there is no certainty in any vision of the future, even one offered by powerful magic._ _It has never been wrong, in the history of our people,_ Odin replied. _Perhaps it could be, or perhaps that is simply something the kings have always said to protect their choices, but it never has been wrong. Everything a king of Asgard has seen in the Godseye Mirror has come to pass. It alerted me to the impending war with the Frost Giants. We survived that conflict only because of the increased fortifications we built in preparation. It_s a tool of warning, not of flighty predictions that might perhaps come to pass. If the Mirror shows him leading an army of the living dead against our people, then that is the threat we must prepare for._ _You do not need to raise your voice to me,_ Frigga said, and Loki realized his father must have been shouting. It was hard to tell through the mead. _How do you propose we prepare for this threat? Would you have him punished because of something he may do wrong in the future? You_d have to lock up your whole court if that were the standard for imprisonment._ There was a pause, so long that Loki was concerned his spell had fallen apart, but then he heard Karnilla say, _We will increase the protections around the Norn Stones._ _That_s not enough,_ Odin replied. _The loss of the Stones would not__ Frigga began, but his father interrupted. _The Norn Stones in the wrong hands could mean the end of Asgard._ _And you think those wrong hands belong to our son?_ Frigga asked. Silence. Loki felt his pulse throbbing, so loud he wasn_t sure he_d be able to hear his father over it when he spoke again. His chest suddenly felt corked and impossible to breathe through. Beside him, Thor stiffened, his shoulders rising into a stance that Loki knew from facing him in the sparring ring. Thor was ready to fight, though what for, he wasn_t sure yet. Say it, Loki thought. Say which of your sons will lead an army against Asgard. Which of us will be the one on the wrong side of Ragnarok. _We should return to the feast,_ Frigga said at last. _Your people will be looking to their king for guidance. And an explanation for your abrupt exit. Not for news of the end of the world._ Loki felt Thor grab him by the back of the tunic and tug him down the hallway, away from their father_s chambers and through an open doorway, out of sight. The goblet fell from his hand, clattering to the tile. Thor had dragged them into a chapel dedicated to the All-Mothers, the one Odin used to offer prayers alone before battle. It was small, and the golden light spilling through the windows made the wooden vaults look syrupy and warm. Along the beams were carved scenes of the serpent_s rampage and the All-Mothers ascending to their thrones, the varnish old and seeping so that the edges looked dewy. Thor sank down on one of the carved benches, in front of a mural of Gaea the Compassionate with her arms at her sides, hands turned out. Loki took the spot across the aisle from him, the hard angle of the bench making his back ache almost instantly. Thor sank into a slump, hands pressed into his forehead, but Loki sat rigid, staring at Gaea, the tip of her chin, the lowered eyes, her thin lips parted in supplication. Thor spoke first. _Father saw one of us leading an army against Asgard._ _Yes, I remember,_ Loki replied, still staring at Gaea. _I was there, you know._ _One of us__ _I believe the phrase was one of his sons, so perhaps the real question is does Odin have a secret family hidden in a palace tower plotting to slit our throats?_ Thor sat up, crossing his arms as he swiveled to face Loki across the aisle. _You wish to argue semantics with me, brother?_ _Only if you can spell semantics._ _Don_t mock me._ _I wouldn_t dare,_ Loki replied, still staring at Gaea_s hands. Penitent. Submissive. Weak. _It might bring on the end of the world._ Thor slammed his fist against the back of the bench in front of him, and it jumped, clattering against the stone floor. _Is this all a jest to you?_ Loki flicked his eyes across the aisle to Thor. _I think the very fact that you_re so concerned proves that you_re not the one who will be leading the army._ _What do you mean?_ Thor asked. _I think that if you were to take a poll of random Asgardians and ask them which of us was more likely to rebel against his father, I_d win with flying colors._ Loki laughed hollowly, brushing a splinter from the pew off his trousers. _Perhaps the first contest I_ll ever best you in._ _And that doesn_t concern you?_ Thor asked. Loki shrugged. _Well, now that I know what father_s seen, if I ever find myself standing at the head of an army, I will stop, reconsider, and, oh, you know, not do that._ _But what if in trying to stop it you make it come to pass?_ Thor asked. Loki frowned. _You think what father saw is inevitable?_ _The Godseye Mirror has never been wrong in the history of Asgard,_ Thor replied. _It warns of dangers to come. They always come._ He turned abruptly forward again, pressing his fist to his forehead, then pivoted back to Loki. _Perhaps father doesn_t know which of us it is._ _We are so very easy to mistake for each other,_ Loki said. _Perhaps I_m wrong_leading an army does sound much more like you. I prefer to be on the sidelines with a snack._ He tapped his heel against the floor of the aisle. _And I would never risk these boots in battle._ Thor pressed his elbows to his knees, his head dropping against his clenched hands. _Does this truly matter so little to you?_ His voice was softer than Loki was accustomed to hearing it, and it stilled him. _Nothing is little to me,_ Loki replied, then stood, his heel catching in a rut between two stones. _Where are you going?_ Thor called after him as he righted himself and started down the aisle. _I need to talk to Amora._ _Do you think that_s a good idea right now?_ Thor asked. Loki paused, nearly at the door, and considered pretending he hadn_t heard. Thor was trying to provoke him. To get him to turn back. And he always tried his best not to give his brother what he wanted. But he turned. Thor had stood too, one hand resting on the end of the pew. _What do you mean by that?_ Loki demanded. Thor_s gaze flicked down to the stone, then back to Loki. _I don_t think she_s a good influence upon you._ _Say that again, but this time cover one eye, and I_d swear you were Father._ _I_m not jesting._ _No, I_m sure you_re not._ He tried to keep his voice even, but the sting gave his words a hard edge. It wasn_t like he had many options for friends. Thor and his fellow warriors-in-training had made it clear they didn_t want anything to do with Loki, like his lack of muscle mass might be catching if they stood too close. _You_re just jealous,_ he countered, though even as the words left his mouth, he knew how silly they sounded. How desperate. _Jealous of what?_ Thor asked. _I don_t know, but I_ll think of something._ He should have left then, but instead he took a step back into the chapel, toward Thor. _It_s none of your concern whom I pass my days with._ _Of course it is,_ Thor replied. _You_re my brother._ _Then should I be concerned about all your long nights in the sparring ring with Sif?_ Loki challenged. Thor_s cheeks colored. _That_s different. She_s helping me with my._ _Your what?_ Loki cocked his eyebrow, a gesture he would never admit to Thor that he had practiced in front of the mirror in his chambers for hours to ensure he could execute it perfectly when needed. _Flexibility?_ _And what is Amora helping you with?_ Thor snapped. _Teaching you how to be a witch like she is?_ _She_s not a witch,_ Loki snapped. _She_s a sorceress. She_ll be the royal sorceress someday._ Thor snorted. _When I_m king, she_ll never be allowed anywhere near the court._ Loki crossed his arms. _When you_re king, is it?_ _That_s not what I meant._ _But it_s what you said._ _Fine, perhaps I did mean it,_ Thor said, his voice taking on a growl. _If you continue to keep company with her, perhaps there won_t be a spot for you either._ _Is that meant to be a threat?_ Loki asked. _If so, you might try and make it a little less tantalizing. Who says I want a place in the court of a king who hits himself in the face with his own hammer?_ _That was one time!_ _And yet it_s burned in our hearts forever._ _At least I_ll be on the right side when Ragnarok comes!_ Thor burst out. _At least I_ll fight for Asgard and not against it._ Loki sucked in his cheeks, trying not to let his sinking heart make itself known upon his face. They had both suspected it was him, but he hadn_t thought Thor would say it. He felt himself darken when he looked at Thor, like something cooking on a high heat. His brother_s face was set, but his eyes brimmed with regret. _Perhaps the Mirror was wrong,_ Loki said quietly. _It_s never wrong,_ Thor replied. _You say that like the future is an inevitable, unchangeable thing. What if you stabbed me right now and killed me before the end of the world? Couldn_t fulfill my traitorous destiny then, could I?_ _Please don_t be angry at me._ _I_m not angry._ _You_re shouting._ _I_m not._ Loki stopped, realizing suddenly that his voice had echoed off the vaulted ceilings of the chapel. He turned back to the door, fumbling for the latch. _Happy feast day, brother._ _Loki, wait__ He heard Thor_s heavy footsteps, felt him reach for his arm, but Loki twisted from his grasp. His heart was pounding, but he managed to keep his voice steady and less biting than he wanted it to be. _Best stay away from me. We_re going to be enemies at the end of the world._ He had expected Thor to protest. Make the same excuses he always did. But Thor stayed silent, and Loki felt something dark and cold begin to curl inside him. Of course Thor assumed he would be the one on the right side at the end of the world. Of course he would lead the forces of good for Asgard. Loki_s brother was born to be a king_the whole court knew it. Anyone who looked at him knew it. The gods could not have handcrafted a more obvious model of kingship than Thor_blond and broad and fast and strong without trying. Loki was the scraps of his silhouette, the part that was discarded on the workshop floor to be swept up and tossed into the fire_thin and pale, with a hooked nose and black hair that hung flat to the nape of his neck, where it flipped into an unflattering curl. While Thor_s skin bronzed in the sun so that he seemed made of armor, Loki was pale as milk, and soured just as easily. And whoever wasn_t king was the traitor_wasn_t that how it would work? Spurned and rejected by his father, the disfavored son would rise up at the end of Asgard. But he was a son of Asgard. A prince. He wasn_t a traitor. He wouldn_t lead an army against his own brother. His own people. Would he? Amora had already left the feast by the time Loki returned to look for her, and he managed to slip in and out of the Great Hall without attracting the attention of his father, who was now seated dutifully at the head of the feast table like nothing was amiss. Loki found Amora in the palace orangery, the plants from each of the Nine Realms pressing their leaves up against glass panes the size of playing cards as they curled their vines around each other. A bitter violet from Alfheim shied from Loki_s shadow as he passed it, its petals the pure blue of the inside of a glacier. Amora was sitting under the wide leaves of a Midgardian fern at the edge of the small pond that bubbled up from the ground. She was brushing her fingers through the grass at the edge of the water like she was petting an animal, and Loki watched as, with each pass, her fingers raised sparks from the reeds. _Is that a new spell?_ he asked her, and she looked up. _No. It_s Svartalfheim fire grass._ She ruffled her fingers through the blades and small sparks puffed around her hand the way most plants would shed their seeds. Amora smiled. _Not magic. Just nature._ _Does that make us unnatural?_ Loki asked. Her eyes flicked up to his, their thin veins of green seeming to take over her whole irises for a moment so that they looked as though they were fashioned from the jungle around her. Then she looked back to the grass, letting a spark linger and bloom into a small flame along her fingertips before she snuffed it. Loki sank down beside her, close enough that their knees pressed together. Even through the hazy gloom lingering from his conversation with Thor, an electric shiver went through him when she didn_t pull away from his touch. No matter how small that touch was. _Will you answer me something?_ he asked. _Depends on the question,_ she replied. He had already felt fragile and self-conscious, and the flippancy he usually enjoyed in her instead tipped him over the edge. _Never mind._ He stood up to go, but Amora caught him by the wrist, pulling him back down beside her. _Sit down, Trickster, and don_t be so dramatic. Of course I_ll answer your question._ Trickster. The nickname used to make him blush. Now every time she called him that, it felt intimate and secret, a name only she used for him. If I_m a trickster, you_re an enchantress, he had said the first time, and he was delighted by how caught off guard she looked. Amora was almost never undone, or if she was, she didn_t show it. Enchantress, she had said, and he could hear the pleasure in her voice. So much prettier than witch, don_t you think? She paused, eyeing him. _Ask me your question,_ she said, her hand not on his, but lingering near it. _I_ll answer it as best I can._ He did not know exactly what he wanted to ask her. Do I seem the sort of person who would help end the world? Am I destined to turn against Asgard? If I know it, can I stop it, or will trying to stop it make it happen? So instead, he asked, _Do you think my father will ever make me king?_ _Not if you remain devoted to your current hair care regimen,_ she replied. Loki rolled his eyes. _Amora._ _Really, one decent haircut and a bit of oil daily would work wonders on this mop._ She reached out, flicking a lock of dark hair out from behind his ear. _You think your father would have gotten where he is without that lustrous beard?_ _Please don_t refer to anything about my father as _lustrous,_ it_s very upsetting._ Her smirk didn_t fade, but her face softened around it. When she looked at him, he could feel her gaze caress his face. He wished she would touch him again, even just another strand of hair tugged from its place. Let her ruffle him. _I think your father would be a fool to name anyone but you his heir,_ she said. _Do you think my father is a fool?_ Amora laughed, her lips pursed together so it came out breathily through her nose. _You_re very clever._ _I have my moments._ _Many of them. You are made of moments._ A leaf had stuck to the knee of his trousers, and he attempted to brush it away, only to find it so sticky with some kind of sap that it wouldn_t be parted from the fabric. He flicked his fingers, sending a small gust of wind to blow it off, but it ended up stronger than he intended, pushing both his and Amora_s hair back off their faces. Loki wrinkled his nose. Control was still an elusive thing, and a skill he was certain Odin had denied him to keep his use of magic to a minimum. _You don_t think much of my father,_ he said. _I don_t think of him at all, if I can help it,_ Amora replied, tugging her hair over her shoulder and running her fingers through it. _What_s brought on these questions?_ _Nothing._ Loki slumped backward against the stone behind him. _I_m just brooding._ _I know, and it_s adorable. You get this little crease between your eyebrows._ _Stop it._ He batted her hand away as she pressed her finger into the space between his eyes. She laughed. _Have you seen Karnilla since the ceremony?_ _Not yet. Isn_t she still with your father?_ _They_ve returned to the feast._ She ran a hand over her knees, smoothing her trousers. _Why do you ask? Do you think she has something she wants to say to me?_ _I know what my father saw in the Godseye Mirror._ She raised her head, eyes hungry. _Tell me._ Loki ground his feet into the dirt, watching it halo around his heels until Amora pushed her toe against his. _Tell meeee._ _He saw one of his sons leading an army against Asgard,_ Loki blurted out. He had intended to say it, but not in such an inelegant tumble. _He thinks it means Ragnarok._ He expected a reaction, but her face didn_t change. _Which son?_ Amora asked, her voice flat. _He didn_t say._ _But you think you know._ _Thor does,_ Loki replied. _He thinks it_s me._ She picked a strand of the fire grass, and it fizzled into ashes between her fingers. _Why does it matter what Thunderhead says?_ _Don_t call him that._ Loki wasn_t sure why he was defending his brother after what he_d said, but only he was allowed to mock Thor. Not that anyone else ever had. _Do you think I_d do that?_ he asked her. _Fight against Asgard? Against my father and my family and my people?_ _I think we are all capable of things we_d never imagine._ Her tone was light, but layered as pastry. She knew what it was like, to live with a birthright that felt precarious and fragile. Amora was an orphan, adopted by Karnilla from an Asgardian orphanage when her natural talent manifested in her levitating the other children across the dormitories. But Amora was fearless. She was brash. She was off-putting, a word Loki had heard applied to him, too. Yet they felt like opposite sides of that coin. Amora said too much; he stayed silent. But both of them were strange and otherworldly, disliked by most for nothing but a skill they hadn_t asked for. Amora brushed her hands off on her trousers, a few lingering strands of grass flaring against the material. _Short of asking your father, there_s nothing that can be done about his vision,_ she said at last. _The only thing to do is live your life and wait and see if one day you find yourself standing before an army against your father._ _Or I could look in the Mirror,_ he said. She raised an eyebrow, regarding him. _The Godseye Mirror?_ His mind was racing, the ideas leaving him before he even realized they had formed. _It will have been taken back to the vault by now,_ he said. _No one would notice if we snuck in. And today is the only day for the next decade its powers can be accessed. If Odin can know my future, so should I._ _If you_re going to look into the Godseye Mirror,_ she replied, _you need someone to channel magic into it._ _If Karnilla can, so can you._ _Who says I_m helping?_ _Oh._ He felt himself go red. _I thought that__ _Calm down, of course I_m helping._ She dug her elbow into his side. _You don_t think I_d let you sneak off into a forbidden wing of the palace to use dangerous magic by yourself, do you? That_s what I live for._ He could feel his heart racing but tried not to betray it on his face. Amora didn_t like fear. She said she didn_t have time for it. He hadn_t even considered that he could look in the Godseye Mirror until he sat across from her. Perhaps because he wouldn_t be able to do it without her_whoever looked into the Mirror couldn_t channel magic into it as well. The Mirror was guarded. It was protected. It was only for the eyes of the king. But he had also never thought about turning the flowers to dragons or painting his nails black or learning how to shift his form until Amora came along. She was staring at him, her face absent of any of its usual mocking mirth. _Do you really want to know?_ He swallowed, the word stuck in his throat. _Yes._ _Then let_s find out._ He started to stand, but she grabbed his wrist, stopping him. _One more thing._ Suddenly he was looking down at her, at the spot her hand wrapped around his. Her nails were green, his were black. He liked the way they looked together, like the scales of a serpent. He liked the way her fingers felt against his skin, the way his hand felt in hers. But all at once, he worried that she could feel at his pulse point the way his heart beat faster when she touched him. She was staring down, and he was sure she sensed the flush running across his skin and was about to say something about it. But then she asked, _Are those my boots?_ _Oh. Um._ They both stared at his boots. _I saw you wearing them yesterday and thought they looked nice._ Amora let out an exaggerated sigh. _Well, if you_re going to be looting someone_s wardrobe, I_m glad it_s mine. It_s like this entire city never discovered tailoring. All your draping and cloaks and swaths; you might as well be swaddling yourselves in window dressings._ _Well, not everyone can pull off tight-fitting clothes,_ Loki said. _We aren_t all blessed with a figure like yours._ He wasn_t sure if he imagined it or if her cheeks colored a little when he said that. If they did, she covered it up with a sly half smile and a wink that sent him blushing. _I am rather divine, aren_t I?_ The Einherjar sentries patrolling the entryway to the palace vault snapped to attention as Odin strode down the stairway past them, his scarlet feast robes fluttering around his ankles. They clapped their heels together and pulled their shields in tight to their sides as they bowed their heads. Which was lucky, because in spite of Amora_s tutoring, Loki was still only moderately competent at mimicking the exact appearance of another person, and had anyone looked too long, he was sure the illusion would not have held up. He hadn_t gotten his father_s nose quite right, or the shape of his shoulders, and the eyepatch was wreaking havoc upon his depth perception. He had twice nearly walked into a column and had only been spared a broken nose because Amora, glamoured as one of Odin_s personal Einherjar guards, had yanked him out of the way by one of his voluminous sleeves. But he was halfway down the stairs and the only thing he could do was walk tall, pray they didn_t cross paths with the real Odin, and silently thank the All-Father that the Einherjar were taught to stare at their boots when the king passed them. At the bottom of the stairs, one of the soldiers, the plumage on his helmet proclaiming him a captain, saluted. _My king, you were not expected__ _Don_t talk to me,_ Loki blurted. The guard froze. _Your Majesty?_ Loki stared at him, his heart hammering. _I_m Odin,_ he said quickly. _Yes, Your Majesty,_ the guard replied, his brow creasing. _Smoothly done,_ he heard Amora hiss almost inaudibly in his ear. Pull yourself together. Loki tugged on the front of his robes, tried to think of what his father would say, but then announced just as inelegantly, _Just.visiting my treasures._ When the soldier didn_t say anything, he raised one hand and gestured stiffly down the hall, to the vault door. The guard looked confused but did his best to paper it over with a dutiful nod. _Of course, Your Majesty. Is there anything we can do to be of service?_ _His Majesty wishes to be alone,_ Amora interjected. _Of course._ The captain dipped his head. _If you require myself or my men__ _I won_t,_ Loki replied. _But I_ll let you know if I do. But I won_t. But. So. Thank you._ He nodded. The captain, more confused than ever, also nodded. Then Loki swept down the stairs toward the vault door, trying to salvage that shipwreck of a conversation with his posture alone. Beside him, Amora ran a hand over the beard of the sentry face she had taken on. _A few notes,_ she murmured. Loki resisted the urge to roll his eyes_it would be less dramatic than he wanted it to be with only one visible. _Of course you have notes._ _Everything is a teaching opportunity. First, red really isn_t for you,_ she said, kicking at the train of his robe. _You_re far too pale. Greens and golds would bring out the complexion much better._ _What does that have to do with my illusion?_ _Nothing, just a general observation. Second, you forgot to change your fingernails._ Loki glanced down at his black nails. They looked opalescent in the dark hallway, like he was capped in jewels. _No one noticed._ _I did._ _Yes, well. No one looks at me quite like you do._ She shoved her shoulder against his, her armor clanking softly. _Stop it, you_re making me blush. Third, I_m Odin? Really? How are you so bad at this?_ _I panicked!_ _I should hope so. If that was you operating with a level head, I_d be concerned._ They reached the door to the vault, and Loki slid on his father_s riding gloves, lifted from the stables with very little effort while Amora was chatting up one of the groundskeepers. The doors were protected against magic, and could be opened only by his father_s touch. He wiggled his fingers, letting his skin absorb the memory of his father_s palm prints that rested in the leather of the glove. It was a trick Amora had taught him_small details could be picked up from items of clothing: the shape of one_s shoulders written in the tailoring of a coat or the way someone_s knees bent remembered by the creases in their trousers. _And here_s your moment, Trickster,_ Amora said. Loki tugged the glove from his hand, his fingers now carrying his father_s prints like he had been born with them, and pressed his hand to the door. With a soft click, the doors unbolted themselves before swinging open. Beside him, Amora said, _I_m impressed._ _Didn_t you think I could do it?_ he asked. _Oh, I was almost sure you couldn_t._ _Well, you were wrong._ _There_s a first time for everything._ The walls of the vault slanted to high ceilings, and the path forward was lined with dark, polished stone that splintered into short walkways. Each led to an alcove holding one of the treasures of the Asgardian king, some hunted down with the aid of the Godseye Mirror. Loki looked over at Amora as her guard face slimmed, the beefy skin suctioning so that the cheekbones popped and the chin turned smooth and pointed. The shoulder-length hair stretched like a snake uncoiling, spilling into a long plait. The clothes didn_t change at first, but the body beneath them did. Slowly, the garments adjusted to match, the armor vanishing as the tunic and trousers fit to size. Amora slicked a hand over her face_her real face_leaving behind the light dusting of freckles that sugared her nose and cheeks. She did many things well, and perhaps chief among them was knowing how to look good while doing all those things. Every movement seemed orchestrated so that if it were to be immortalized in a mural upon a palace wall, the viewer wouldn_t be able to look away. And she was never prettier than when she returned to herself, shimmering and changeable as a flame for those few seconds before she settled into her own skin, an eagle landing with its wings unfurled. In response, Loki_s return to his form was more like the flight of an awkward pigeon. Odin_s silhouette fell away, turning in a manner that always felt liquid, like it might flow into any mold and fit any shape it chose. It could. But, instead, he let it fall into himself, his resting appearance, trying not to shy at the way his own body felt so small and brittle. Amora, who had been watching his transformation with a critical eye, grinned. _There_s that smile._ Loki scowled at her. She started off down the walkway, peering into each alcove as they passed. _Have you ever been down here?_ Loki chased after her, tugging up one of those magnificent boots that had slipped down past his knee. _Never without my father. He brought Thor and me when we were young._ _What a lovely father-son outing. There_s nothing quite like showing your children all the ways the world could end that you have stored in the basement._ _I enjoyed it only slightly more than our trip to the killing fields on Svartalfheim._ Amora paused in front of the path leading down to the Tuning Fork, its surface reflecting a thin band of light across her face. _So. About the boots. I_m not mad, I_m just disappointed that they look better on you. You can have them, by the way. My treat._ He glanced over just in time to catch her casting an appraising gaze up his legs. His spine prickled. At the end of the walkway before them was the Godseye Mirror, its shimmering surface blending into the darkness. This close, it was the bluish black of a raven_s wing, but when Loki stepped up to it, it gave no hint of a reflection. He looked over at Amora as she touched a hand to the gold stave and traced one of its whorls. _You don_t have to look,_ she said quietly. But he did. He had to know what his father had seen. _Stand there,_ he said, pointing her to the side of the Mirror Karnilla had stood on. As she stepped out of sight, even knowing she was still there, Loki felt his skin crawl with the sudden fear of being alone. Alone and staring into the end of the world. _Do you know how to activate it?_ he called, his voice higher than he would have liked. Amora poked her head around from behind the Mirror, braid tumbling over her shoulder. _I channel power and the staves direct it. It_s basic runic magic._ _Right,_ Loki said, like he knew anything about runic magic. He_d never even heard of it. Yet another gap in his shoddy magical education. She ducked back to her side of the Mirror, calling, _Runes and staves direct a spell. All the sorcerer has to do is channel power through them._ _I know that._ He couldn_t see her, but he could practically hear the smirk. _Of course you do, princeling. Are you ready?_ Over their heads, he heard a crack like thunder. A flash of white light that he felt sear his skin. _I_m ready,_ he said. Amora_s grasp of the energy was not as elegant as Karnilla_s had been. The lightning forked and danced around the room before finding its way to her. Loki saw the tremble in the glass as she pressed her hands to the black Mirror, then suddenly his side began to sputter with light, like a firework that could not catch. An image flickered, then died, then flickered again, too blurred to be seen clearly. _It needs more power!_ Loki called to Amora, and he heard her draw a deep, ragged breath. The air around them shimmered again. The image began to sharpen into rows of soldiers. Not soldiers of Asgard_they had no armor, no banners, and they looked instead like feral creatures, pale and foaming and bloated. They were pouring from the observatory that connected Asgard to the Bifrost, along the rainbow bridge toward the capital. A lone figure stood out among the masses of soldiers, planted at the door to the observatory, the glint of a blade in his hand. But the image was too smoky to make out much detail. Loki balled his hands into fists at his side. He wanted to reach into the scene, wanted to grab this unknown person by the shoulders and demand to know who he was, even if it meant looking into his own face. _It_s not enough!_ he called to Amora as the image flickered again. _This is all the energy I can summon!_ she shouted in return. Loki leaned forward, pressing his fingers against the glass. Show me, he thought. Show me who it is. The image flickered, flushed with a clarity that didn_t last long enough for him to make sense of what he was seeing. It was there, right at his fingertips, his future. He hadn_t realized his own power was gathering in his hands until it burst free. The surface of the Mirror burned with white light, and Loki tumbled backward, his hands searing. He heard Amora cry out on the other side of the Mirror, and he threw his arm up against the impossible light radiating from their combined power, washing out the vision entirely. The Mirror shattered. The cracks seemed to begin at a point in the center, and then it collapsed upon itself, caving into a slick dust studded with shards as long and sharp as his knives. Several buried themselves in the walls. Loki threw his hands over his face, but Amora cast a spell, some kind of barrier, so that the shards flying toward them bounced off. One flew sideways to the alcove across from them, striking the Tuning Fork. A single crystalline note echoed through the room, so high and clear Loki felt it more than heard it, even over the sound of the breaking Mirror. It rattled his teeth. All the lights in the alcove flared, then winked out, casting them into darkness. Loki sat up, a fine layer of black dust blossoming from his clothes. He felt coated in it. Across from him, Amora was doubled over, coughing, her blond hair darkened from the dust. He crawled forward to her, his palms burning. _Are you all right?_ She rubbed a hand over her face, smearing the dust into black streaks. _What did you do?_ _I think we overpowered it._ _We didn_t do anything,_ she snapped, tossing her hair over her shoulder. _You cast a spell._ _It was an accident. I was trying to help you._ _I don_t think your father will care about your intentions._ He followed her gaze over his shoulder to the remains of the Mirror_black dust and the charred, curled outline of the staves. Panic made his stomach clench, and he thought for a moment he was about to vomit. They had destroyed the Godseye Mirror, one of the most powerful magical items in Odin_s treasure room. I was powerful enough to destroy the Godseye Mirror. The thought flickered through him before he could stop it. It should have horrified him. It didn_t. It thrilled him. I am powerful. From the darkness, Loki heard something rumble. The floor beneath them trembled. Amora raised her head. _What was that?_ Loki climbed to his feet, one of his knives sliding into his hand as he surveyed the damage. He could feel something stirring in the darkness, some power beyond what they had funneled into the Mirror. _Stay here,_ he said, turning back to Amora. _I_ll see if__ Something grabbed him around the waist and yanked him off his feet. His knife flew from his hand, clattering somewhere into the shadows as he was thrown to the ground, landing on his back. His head slapped the stone floor and for a moment, his vision spotted. When his eyes cleared, he heard a roar, and above him loomed a massive creature, purple skinned and six feet tall, with a shining bald head and a grotesque face, blunt teeth poking from beneath its thick lips. Its shoulders were built like boulders, and its barrel chest swelled. The monster_s mouth gaped open in a roar, its skin ropey with veins and muscles as it brought down a fist toward Loki. The Trickster rolled out of the way, his heartbeat spiking with panic. The creature roared again, its torso bulging, and suddenly a third arm sprang from its side. Loki scrambled backward, watching in horror as it seemed to grow a foot taller. Its next steps toward him smashed craters in the stone walkway. But it reeled backward unexpectedly, letting out a roar of pain. Amora was somehow no longer sprawled on the floor of the alcove, but behind the beast, plunging a shard from the Mirror into its back. It swiped at her with a six-fingered hand the size of her head, but she ducked, rolling under its legs to Loki_s side. _What is that?_ she cried, her voice almost lost in the roar of the creature. _The Lurking Unknown._ The struck Tuning Fork must have summoned it. He had seen it before in the arena where the warriors were tested before they joined the ranks of the Einherjar. It was summoned by a note from the Tuning Fork, able to form and wither away and then form again and again, whenever called. The Lurking Unknown was the final test for the Einherjar, meant to show off both their skills in combat and their ability to face their enemies with stoic calm. _It feeds off fear,_ he shouted to Amora as she gathered a charge of energy between her hands. _The more afraid you are, the more it grows._ The third arm the creature had sprouted looked more shriveled than it had a moment before, as though calling it by name had weakened the creature_s hold on them, but Loki still felt a strong whoosh of air as the Lurking Unknown swiped at them with it. Amora sent a blast of hot blue energy toward it in return, but the flame was extinguished against its skin. Loki scrambled for his second dagger. His hands were shaking; the monster was growing, and it was his fault_his fear_s fault. All the power he had felt flooding him moments before suddenly wilted. You are not powerful. You are weak. You are afraid. You are beyond your own control. _How do we defeat it?_ Amora called to him, fumbling to pry out another one of the Mirror shards buried in the wall. _You fight it without fear,_ Loki replied, though the words felt impossible. _Until it fades away._ But the Lurking Unknown was not fading. It was growing. A fourth arm sprung from its side, windmilling through the air and catching Amora across the face, sending her flying into the wall. Then it rounded on Loki and seized him by the throat. He choked, struggling to get his own hand up to the creature_s neck. As soon as he felt his fingers brush the ropy cords of muscle in its throat, he conjured his knife and stuck it hard. The monster reeled backward with a scream of pain, dropping Loki as thick black blood coursed down its neck. Loki landed in a crouch, gasping for air, but he hardly had time to collect himself. The Lurking Unknown had already yanked the dagger from its neck and flung it at Loki, who dodged, but not fast enough. The knife clipped his cheek before it struck the wall and clattered to the stone. The creature raised a hand to strike again, but Amora leaped high enough to wrap her legs around its neck and use the momentum of her jump to toss it to the ground. The whole vault seemed to shake as it landed on its back. Amora stood tall on top of it, her heels digging into its chest hard enough to draw more of that dark blood. She conjured another shock of energy between her hands and sent it barreling toward the creature_s face. It screamed again. Its body seemed to shrink and grow at the same time, Amora_s calm battling Loki_s fear. But once again, the energy from her blast seemed to absorb into its skin. It grabbed Amora by the legs and whipped her off her feet, tossing her across the room like she weighed nothing. She struck one of the columns along the wall with a crack, collapsed at the bottom, and lay still. Suddenly Loki felt a different kind of fear entirely_his fear for Amora greater than his fear for himself ever could be. And the creature was growing, the dull bricks of its teeth becoming sharper and another arm sprouting from its back. It made a hulking lurch toward Loki. He stepped backward, his foot catching the edge of the walkway, and he slipped down into the space between the path and the wall. The stone crumbled beneath the creature_s foot as it took a few lumbering steps toward the door. Loki heaved himself back up onto the walkway, the turned-up stones tearing his clothes. If there was a spell to stop the Lurking Unknown, he didn_t know it. The creature let out a howl, then threw its shoulder into the door at the end of the vault, splintering it. A second hard shove burst it open. Loki heard the shouts of the surprised soldiers beyond it. Amora was suddenly at his side, her face spattered with blood from a gash in her forehead. _You_re bleeding,_ he said. _So are you._ She threw out a hand to him and dragged him along. He felt the pull in his rib cage. _Come on._ Outside the vault, the creature had continued its rampage, and with each shocked soldier that it met, it grew, feeding off their fear until its shoulders were straining against the ceiling, knocking chandeliers from their hooks. Fighting the Lurking Unknown in the sparring ring was one thing_it was another entirely to fight it without warning. It snapped the tops of the Einherjar_s spears as they jabbed at it, their calls to each other feathered with panic as they tried to step into an attack formation, only to find themselves cut off by the stone-crushing footfalls of the Lurking Unknown. One of the soldiers must have managed to break away, for the gong warning of an attack began to bellow through the hall, drowning out the scream of the monster. From the doorway to the vault, Loki watched, frozen, as the creature smashed an Einherjar_one of Loki_s sparring teachers, the man who had taught him to hold a sword properly and to keep his knees bent when he parried_into the wall, and he slumped, lifeless. Loki didn_t know what to do. Then the creature let out a scream of a different sort than its hulking battle cries. The sound bore the same crystalline resonance of the struck Tuning Fork. Its body began to shrink, shriveling and curling in on itself. Loki stared at the writhing creature as it shrank to the floor_Loki_s size, then half his size, then small enough to fit in his hand, and then.nothing. Loki looked up. Karnilla and Odin were standing at the top of the stairway, Karnilla with a hand still extended from the spell she had cast to stop the Lurking Unknown. She started toward them, her skirt reshaping into trousers so that the train didn_t drag through the blood of one of the Einherjar that was dribbling down the steps. Odin stayed where he was, his arms folded and his face still, his anger betrayed only by his reddening cheeks. Behind him, his personal guard of Einherjar stood, their spears extended. The two in front looked as though they were trying very hard not to let the horror show on their faces. Behind them was Thor, his eyes fixed on Loki. Odin signaled to his men, and they trotted down the stairs, joining Karnilla as she examined the fallen soldiers, checking for injuries that would require a healer, and those already beyond help. _Loki,_ Odin called, and his tone was like the misplaced step that cracks the surface of an icy pond. Loki raised his head and met his father_s cold stare. He felt a trickle of blood run down his cheek and resisted the urge to wipe it away. _Explain this,_ Odin demanded. Loki glanced over at Amora. She was staring at Odin with the sort of unapologetic ferocity that Loki wished he could turn on his father. But under Odin_s stare, he crumpled. _I_m sorry, Father._ _Why did you come here?_ Odin demanded, his eye still on his son, and Loki knew that whatever he said next would feel trivial and feeble. Odin had the power to make anything seem stupid just by hearing it. _We came to look into the Godseye Mirror,_ Loki mumbled, trying to keep his chin raised, though he was sure everyone could sense the hollowness of the gesture. _And what happened when you looked into it?_ Odin asked coolly. Loki swallowed. _We destroyed it._ Whatever Odin had been expecting, it was clearly not this. The stony set of his face slipped for a moment, and raw shock coursed over his features. Shock and fear. _You did what?_ _It was an accident._ _You destroyed the Mirror?_ His father didn_t sound angry_he sounded afraid. Loki felt his own heart, still slowing itself after their fight, pick up speed again. His father was afraid of him. Afraid of his power. Afraid of anyone who was strong enough to destroy an artifact like the Godseye Mirror. The same realization_I am powerful_this time left him cold. Now Odin knew the truth, knew the extent of his son_s gifts, knew he was too powerful to be unleashed. Powerful enough to lead an army against Asgard. Perhaps Amora sensed it too. Perhaps that fear chilled her. Perhaps she knew Loki would never be a contender for the throne if the court understood how deep his power ran. Whatever it was that made her act, she stepped forward, her shoulder brushing against his, and faced Odin. _It wasn_t Loki who destroyed the Mirror,_ she said. _It was me. I channeled energy into the Mirror, and I was too strong, and I destroyed it._ At the base of the stairs, Karnilla froze. Amora glanced at the sorceress, and Loki thought she looked proud of herself, like the power that had shattered the Mirror had been hers alone, and she relished it. Odin_s face changed, shifting back into its set of anger, though Loki caught a flicker of relief that made him sick. Odin sighed, running a hand over his face, then nodded to the Einherjar soldiers at his back. _Arrest her._ The color drained from Amora_s face. _What?_ _No__ Loki called, but the Einherjar were already upon them. One of them, in an attempt to seize Amora, crashed into Loki and knocked him to the ground. They grabbed Amora by the elbows, and when she fought, they wrestled her arms behind her back and forced her to her knees. Amora shrieked in surprise and pain, trying to squirm out of their grip, but before she could conjure a spell to free herself, the Einherjar had her bound with a set of the chains they used in the dungeons to suppress magic in foreign prisoners. _Father, please!_ Loki cried, struggling to his knees, hating the look of supplication but unable to stand fast enough without tipping over. _I_m complicit as well._ Odin did not look at him. _Stay back, my son._ _Then arrest me too!_ Loki cried, his voice breaking. _I was trespassing; it was my idea!_ _I said stay back!_ Odin roared, then shouted to the soldiers, _She_ll await judgment in the dungeons._ The Einherjar began to drag Amora away, but she dug in her heels, trying to fight their grip. When her legs gave out, they kept dragging her so that the raw stones torn up by the Lurking Unknown slashed her trousers until blood ran down her legs. _Let go of me! Karnilla, please! Karnilla, don_t let them do this to me!_ Karnilla turned away. Loki wanted to follow Amora. He wanted to chase down the soldiers, demand her release, or throw himself into the cell after her, surrendering the protection she had just granted him. But he couldn_t move. He was pinned like an insect to a board, caught in his father_s gaze as Odin started down the stairs, taking in the wreckage with a weary expression. _Thor,_ he called behind him. _Take your brother to your chambers and wait for my instructions._ Thor edged forward, skirting the banister like the Lurking Unknown might spring to life again from wherever it had vanished. He extended a hand to Loki, but Loki didn_t take it. He stood on his own. It was a halting stagger more than an actual _stand._ Not the defiant gesture he_d hoped for. As they left the vault, Thor tried to pull Loki_s arm over his shoulder, but Loki jerked away. _What are you doing?_ _You_re hurt._ _Yes, but I_ve not lost a leg._ Loki touched a hand to his face before wiping away the thin trail of blood. It had dripped all the way down his chin and stained the collar of his tunic. He walked ahead of Thor, his stride wobblier than he would have liked. _Loki._ Thor easily stepped in front of him, blocking his path. _I_m sorry._ _What are you sorry for?_ Loki asked, folding his arms even though the gesture sent a sharp burst of pain across his ribs. _That you missed out on all the fun?_ _I_m sorry for what I said._ _Good, I_m glad you_re so worried about my impressionable heart._ _I didn_t mean it. What I said about._ Thor rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. _You_d make a fine king._ _I would, wouldn_t I?_ _And you_d never betray Asgard. No matter what Father saw._ Thor_s gaze darted from Loki_s, glancing across the hallway and the ceiling, and then he said quietly, _What did you see?_ Loki swiped the back of his hand over his cheek again, though the cut had stopped bleeding. _You and me and mother and father all together at the end of the world. One big happy un-treasonous family._ _Please tell me._ A note of desperation punctured Thor_s voice. _Worry not, brother,_ Loki said, pushing past Thor. _It wasn_t you._ _Am I dangerous?_ Frigga_s fingers stilled upon the small bag of herbs she was packing. She stared down at them for a moment in silence before she looked up at Loki, folded in the window seat of her chambers with his legs pulled up to his chest. His bruised rib cage burned, but he didn_t move. It felt safer to stay this way, tucked into himself. _Why do you ask me that?_ Frigga said. Loki looked out over Asgard. The smoky dusk sat low over the spires, and at this hour, the whole city seemed to emanate light. Everything gold and shining. He rested his chin on his knees. Amora had been arrested because of power that was his. If she was thought dangerous for that strength, then he was dangerous. But that same power, before his father had condemned it, had made him feel strong in a way he had never felt among the other warriors, or standing beside Thor. Loki pressed his forehead into his knees. _Everyone is afraid of me._ _They_re not afraid of you,_ Frigga replied. _They_re afraid of magic. Of people like me._ _And me?_ she asked, pulling tight the drawstring on the pack of herbs. Loki opened his mouth, then closed it again as Frigga raised the bag to her lips and mumbled a small spell into it. The scent blossomed in the air, flowery and medicinal. There was no one in Asgard as beloved as his mother. So it wasn_t magic. It was him. _Here._ She crossed the room toward Loki, and he pulled up his tunic so she could press the bag against his bruised ribs. The pain eased, and he took a deep breath. It was the first time his lungs had felt full since he and Amora had faced the Lurking Unknown in the vault. _Keep that in place,_ Frigga said, crossing back to her dressing table to retrieve the cloth and bowl of water resting there. _It won_t take long to heal._ Loki shifted his grip, pressing the herbs in place with his elbow and leaning backward against the windowsill. Frigga dipped the cloth into the water and wrung it out between her hands. Loki watched the water fall and tried to take another breath, but this one was a struggle in a way that had nothing to do with his sore ribs. _Come here._ Loki melted off the window seat and moved to where she stood and took a seat on the stool next to her before she asked him to. She dabbed the cloth against his neck, mopping up the blood that had dried below his ear. _What did Father see in the Mirror?_ Loki asked, trying to keep his tone innocent. _He fled the feast like the hall was on fire._ She pressed the cloth against his face, prying the flakes of dried blood from his skin. _You know your father. He has such grand reactions to the smallest things._ Loki leaned into her hand, letting her push his hair behind his ear as she washed out the cut. He remembered what Amora had said, and asked before he could stop himself. _Is he afraid of me?_ Frigga smiled. _Such heavy questions._ _They shouldn_t be._ He sat up, and her hand fell away from his face. His shoulder was damp from the dripping cloth. _They wouldn_t be if Thor asked you._ _But you are not your brother._ His temper flared, and he stood up so fast he knocked the stool over. _As if I_m not reminded of that every day._ He started to cross to the door, then realized he didn_t actually want to leave her, because where would he go? The last thing he wanted to be was alone. So he turned back to his mother, standing before her dressing table. _Why won_t he let me study sorcery?_ _Loki__ _He knows I can_t compete with Thor on the battlefield, so why does he insist on placing me in races I will never win when I could best him easily in other fields? He wants me to fail._ His voice was rising. _He wants me to look weak. He wants me to look unfit to be king so he can rest easy when he chooses Thor for the birthright instead of me because I_ve proved myself unfit. If I cause Ragnarok, it will be his fault. I don_t want to hear your riddles and your vague excuses for him, I want the truth. Answer me!_ He was shouting. He hadn_t meant to shout. Frigga set the bowl on her dressing table, then waved a hand and the stool righted itself. Loki watched her, wanting to reach out, but his hands stayed fisted at his sides. Frigga sat down, her palms pressed against her thighs, then looked up at him. _Who told you that you will be the cause of Ragnarok?_ _I._ He fumbled. _It_s what he saw, isn_t it?_ _Did you see it as well?_ she asked. His ribs were still hurting. He wanted to sleep. He wanted to sleep for days. _No. I heard him say it to you Thor and I were listening._ Frigga pursed her lips. The city light glowed on her skin, making it shimmer like she was fashioned from the dusk. _Your father,_ she said at last, _saw his son leading an army of soldiers risen from the dead. He believes it to be a vision from the end of the world._ _Was it me?_ When Frigga didn_t reply, he pressed on, _What if I chose now to never leave the palace, or Father put me in prison, or I fled to somewhere far away from here and never returned to Asgard?_ _You cannot live to fulfill or avoid what may come to pass,_ she replied. _But that_s what father does when he looks in the Mirror, isn_t it?_ Loki asked. _He looks for dangers he can avoid._ _You are not dangerous, Loki, but sorcery is. Magic is corrupting_only the strongest sorcerers are able to control it. Most are controlled by it. Your father has seen kingdoms fall to magic. He is wary. That_s all._ _Then let me learn to control it! If he is so afraid it will overtake me, why doesn_t he teach me to prevent that from happening?_ _Because learning control means learning magic. His hope is, in keeping you ignorant, he will keep you from accessing the full extent of what you can do. It is__she paused, and he felt her selecting her next words as carefully as a fine silk scarf from a drawer__not a decision on which your father and I agree. But he is the king._ She looked up at Loki, her eyes sparkling. _I know what it_s like. I know that hunger. I know it doesn_t pass. It only grows stronger._ She took his face between her hands, the same way she used to when he was small and would press her nose against his forehead. _But you are so young and so powerful. You have so much before you, so much to learn._ _So let me learn._ _I will._ He had not expected that. _You.what?_ _I should have taught you long ago about the power you have, and how to use it,_ she said. _Your father and I both should have._ She picked up the damp cloth again and wrung it out, the blood turning the water a rusty brown. _If you wish to learn sorcery, I will teach you._ _Teach me what?_ he said, his voice biting. _How to start fires and shift my form and other little tricks to impress the court, but not too much to scare them? You_re too late to civilize me. You let me live feral for too long._ _I_ll teach you how to control your magic. How to wield it._ Frigga_s voice came suddenly from behind him, and when he turned, she was standing in front of the window, her hands folded over her stomach. For a moment, he wasn_t sure which was real, his mother framed by the light or the one sitting at her dressing table watching him. They both turned to him, her eyes on every side of him, and he felt pinned between them. _There is magic in everything upon our planet. It is energy, and it lives in the air, the earth, you and me. And some of us are born with an innate ability to control and manipulate that energy._ The edges of her form at the window began to fade, then curl and smolder like paper catching fire. He turned to her at the dressing table. Her eyes were fixed upon him. _I will tell your father I am teaching you. But what you are learning will stay between us._ Loki stared at her, unsure what to say. He had always thought of Frigga in perfect union with Odin, her soft touch balancing his battle-hard edges. She supported him. He conferred with her. They fell in line together, their opinions and policies stronger for the absolute support of the other. But Frigga was not his father_s. She was her own. _The energy of Asgard is drawn to you,_ she continued. _You can_t help that. How you use it is just practice, like strengthening your muscles and learning memory from repetition, but how you control it_that is the skill. To own your magic instead of letting it own you._ She stood up and held out a hand to him. _I can teach you that. I should have long ago._ He didn_t take it. _Is that what Karnilla was meant to teach Amora?_ Frigga_s hand fell. _Amora is different from you. Your father and Karnilla both had concerns that she would be too powerful to control. Odin_s decision to imprison her was not a sudden one. It has been a subject of discussion between them for some time. Her actions today only accelerated it._ Loki swallowed hard. The guilt creeping up his throat burned. _What will happen to her?_ _That will depend upon your father and Karnilla._ _And what will happen to me?_ He had meant it as What will my punishment be? But when it came out of his mouth, it weighed so much heavier than he had expected. What will happen to me? What will happen to me and this power I have? What would happen if he chose to fight it? And, more than that, what would happen if he didn_t? Frigga reached out and touched his cheek. _Patience, my son._ Odin did not assemble the court for Amora_s trial. It was only the king on his throne, with Frigga, Karnilla, Thor, and Loki all standing at his side as she was brought before them, her wrists chained behind her. She was still wearing her feast day dress, smeared with dust and blood from the vault, and her hair was lanker and coarser than Loki had ever seen it. Loki wasn_t certain what his presence here would accomplish, but he kept catching himself leaning onto the balls of his feet, like his body was bracing for an attack. Perhaps he would be punished alongside her. Perhaps Odin wanted him to witness whatever he would do to her as a warning. The chains around her ankles clinked against the floor, a delicate sound that seemed more suited to putting on jewelry. No one had sponged the blood off her face. No one had healed her bruises. Odin did not stand when the soldiers halted their progress at the base of the stairs that led to the throne. He just adjusted his grip on Gungnir. Across the platform from Loki, Thor, and Frigga, Karnilla stared down at Amora, her lips pressed tightly together. With two dark braids falling around her face, she looked even paler than usual. _Amora of Nornheim,_ Odin said, his voice the one he used for court meetings and assemblies, though there was no one else present. The resonance made the room feel even emptier. _You have been charged with treason, theft, destruction of a sacred relic, and robbery. Do you have anything to say for yourself?_ With her head still bowed, she replied, _The charges are a bit redundant._ At his side, Loki felt Thor stiffen. Odin_s brow creased. _Excuse me?_ _Are not theft and robbery the same, my king?_ she asked. _I think you_re trying to inflate the list of charges against me with synonyms._ _Silence!_ Loki had expected the shout to come from his father, but it was Karnilla who raised her voice instead. Amora flinched. Karnilla stalked down the stairs, her cloak rasping with every step. _I gave you everything. A kingdom to inherit. Schooling to use your powers. A home._ _A cage,_ Amora retorted. _And this,_ Karnilla said, her voice rising again, _is how you repay me. You disrespect your king. You disrespect me. You take the tools you have been given to control your power and you cast them aside. You let your strength corrupt and control you._ _I do not want to be controlled,_ Amora argued. _I am powerful, so let me be powerful!_ _And it is that power that is your undoing,_ Odin interrupted. _I asked Karnilla if she would speak on your behalf. I asked your delegation from Nornheim if any of them wished to vouch for you. Not a one of them did. No one will speak for you, Amora._ Loki should have spoken. He wanted to speak. He felt the words on his tongue, ready: It was me. I_m the one you should punish. I_m the one who is too strong, too dangerous. When he looked up, Amora was watching him. She had given herself for him, but neither of them had expected this. He bent his head and stayed silent. _Your powers are too strong to remain unchecked, and you refuse to check them,_ Odin continued. _As such, you will be banished to Midgard, where you will remain for the rest of your existence._ Loki had to bite back a gasp. Death at the executioner_s hand would have been more merciful, for this was death in its slowest form, its cruelest. On Midgard, there was no magic, no power to be channeled, power that her life force was tied to. Her magic would fade, and she would fade with it. The thought of it made his skin crawl, the idea of losing his magic slowly, slowly, slowly, one drop at a time extracted from him by the world he was forced to live in. It was dishonor. It was pain. It was death. Were Odin any kind of merciful king, he would have let the ax fall fast and finished it here and now. Amora_s eyes widened, that rare flash of fear blazing incandescent, consuming her whole being. Whatever she had expected when she had spoken for Loki in the vault, it was not this. _Please, no._ _You will be taken now to the observatory, and the Bifrost opened for you,_ Odin continued, as Amora_s voice rose in a scream. _It will not open to you again._ _No! Please!_ Amora struggled. _Karnilla, please, don_t let him do this to me! Please!_ At a nod from Odin, the guards began to drag her away, but she was thrashing like a tethered falcon. Say something, Loki told himself. Save her. But he couldn_t speak. _Karnilla, please! Your Majesty, have mercy! Mercy!_ Her knees hit the ground, and Loki felt it like an earthquake tremor. _Put me in your dungeons. Let me rot there. Trap me on Nornheim, throw me through a wormhole, but please, not this!_ The guards abandoned their chains and hauled her up by her elbows, dragging her backward down the hall. _Karnilla!_ She twisted, her supplications shifting. _Frigga! My queen, my lady, please, have mercy! Intervene._ _Mother,_ Loki said very quietly, but he felt Frigga_s fingers against his back. The guards were almost to the door now. Amora_s voice was now a blistering scream. _My queen, please! Please_Frigga! Loki_wait! Loki please, tell him__ The doors slammed, and Odin finally stood, turning to Loki. He felt Thor shrink away from his side, dodging the beam of their father_s anger, even if it wasn_t directed at him. Frigga took a step forward in between them. _Odin, let it be__ But Odin held up a hand. _Let me speak to our son._ Frigga fell silent but didn_t retreat as Odin approached them. His step seemed heavier than usual, and he leaned heavily on his staff as he stood before Loki. _Consider this your warning, my son,_ he said, _of what will happen if you too become reckless with your power. Your title will not protect you again. I will not let you be the undoing of this realm._ And there it was. What Odin had seen in the Godseye Mirror, laid bare at his feet. Now he knew. Thor knew. They all knew which prince would turn against Asgard. Loki felt his throat tighten, his hands closing into fists at his side. He could have spoken up. He wanted to. He wanted to be like Thor and argue with his father and come away from it feeling righteous and right, knowing Odin would be secretly pleased with his hot-headedness and the way he stood his ground. But he was not his brother. Insolence would not be a sign of strength, but defiance. He and his brother may play the same game of his father_s devising, but the rules would never be the same. Darkness moves in a different way than the light. It is always there before the light. It has to be faster, and smarter, and stealthier. Loki was not his father. He was not his brother, or his mother. He was Amora, and she had been led away in chains and banished to Midgard. He had to be smarter and stealthier than she had been. He had to learn everything he could, and never let on how much he knew. He did not feel like a prince. He may never be king. He wasn_t made to be a soldier, and he wasn_t certain if he wanted to be a villain. He wasn_t certain if he had any say in that matter. The only thing he knew for certain was that he was powerful. Powerful enough to end the world. Thor was the first one to complicate their diplomatic assignment to Alfheim. He and Loki had been thoroughly briefed on the culture of the Ice Elves and protocol within the Ice Court. A culture that dictated that guests do not speak first in the presence of royalty. And yet the moment that Prince-General Asmund entered the antechamber where they had arrived, Thor said, _Asmund!_ The greeting carried all the way to the high ceilings, making the icicles hanging from it tremble. Thor_s voice, like everything else about him, seemed to have been created for a battlefield. Perhaps it had been an unintentional mistake, or perhaps Thor had remembered and simply ignored the rules, wanting to assert his dominance, as he had grown more and more fond of doing lately. Perhaps Thor had truly fallen asleep during their lecture instead of just _resting his eyes_ as he had claimed and he was truly oblivious to his error. Whatever the case, Loki made a mental note to remember that, whether or not this mission went badly, it was Thor who had mucked it up first. It likely wouldn_t matter_Loki was sure he would somehow still be blamed if this assignment didn_t go as planned. Loki could have been three realms away and tied to a chair, and Odin would somehow still find a way to pin responsibility on him for any trouble. But Loki usually wasn_t three realms away from trouble. And certainly never tied to anything. Loki did not travel often with Thor on assignments from their father across the Nine Realms. He had never excelled on the battlefield, and had been told that in negotiations, his gaze was disconcerting, so sharp that the nobility of the other realms may cut themselves upon it. He and Thor were old enough to be considered men in the Asgardian tradition, but Loki was still the less muscled, the less blond of the princes. Every conversation with foreign leaders began with some comment about how little he looked like his father, or how much his brother did in contrast. Perhaps Odin didn_t like to send him out simply to avoid wasting time on those observations. And while Thor was aggressive and loud in a way that could be misconstrued with leadership skills, Loki spoke softer and didn_t put his fist through as many walls; somehow people read that as him being slippery. There is something about you, Thor had told him once, that people just don_t trust. But he was trying. He had spent the last several years throwing himself into his studies, working hard, working smart, working to be a better soldier, a better sorcerer, a better prince, a different man than the version of him his father had seen turned traitor to Asgard in the Godseye Mirror. Odin was growing weary. He stood slowly, complained of his joints, fell asleep after two goblets of mead, sometimes at the table before the feast was even over. And the princes were of age. But with every day that passed, no matter how hard Loki worked, it grew more difficult to pretend that Odin truly was weighing his options when considering an heir. The day was coming when Odin would hand over his crown, and it felt already decided whose brow it would rest upon. That was the trap of seeing the future, Loki had begun to think_if Odin had never looked into it, never seen Loki leading an army, he might be considering him for kingship. And if he were king, why would he lead an army against his own people? Perhaps the future was only inevitable once you began to shape all your actions to fit it. But Loki was trying, every day, to prove himself different from what the future had promised his father he would become. And now he was on Alfheim, with Thor, on an assignment from the king_brief the Ice Elves on the situation of the missing Norn Stones and assure them that Asgard had the situation entirely under control. And at least it had been Thor who had made the first mistake. Prince-General Asmund paused in the doorway, ranks of guards behind him, glancing at each other. One of the guards, his long white hair braided into elegant strands around his face, let his hand wander to the pommel of his sword, like he might be personally called upon to dispatch the son of Odin. Asmund crossed his arms over his chest, the silver threads in his tunic catching the wintery light and gleaming. His hair was long and blond like Thor_s, but while Thor_s was the color of sunlight, Asmund_s was blond in a way that seemed to lack pigment. His skin was white too, so pale it had a blue sheen to it. The skin of all Ice Elves was like this, as if they were forged out of the heart of a glacier. They all seemed formed from the snow, built to blend into the frosted landscape that covered their homeland. Just the sight of the fair-haired Prince-General, the faint ridge of frost upon his brows, made Loki more acutely aware of how cold it was here, but how little he felt it. Thor had been shuffling and shivering wrapped in his fur-lined cloak, but Loki didn_t mind the frigid temperatures. Curious. When Asmund stopped, clearly taken aback by Thor_s breach in protocol, Thor took it as an invitation to stride forward, a hand extended for the Prince-General to clasp. Loki winced delightedly. Mistake number two_the Ice Elves did not shake hands. The Ice Elves avoided physical contact whenever possible, believing even a tap upon the shoulder to be a gesture of unbearable intimacy. Asmund looked at Thor_s hand, then up to his wide smile and bright blue eyes. Loki waited, half hoping his brother would get slapped across the face for his boldness and half ready to jump to his defense if he did. Then, laboriously, one finger at a time, Asmund took Thor_s hand. It was a stiff gesture, the performance of an act he_d heard described but never seen himself, but Thor immediately grasped him up to the elbow and slapped him on the back hard enough that a few ice crystals flew from his hair. _It_s good to see you, General._ And Asmund smiled. Loki could have set the world on fire. Here he was, in a deep knee bow that was making his muscles shake, having studied Ice Elf etiquette until his eyes had crossed in preparation for this assignment, and Thor had done the decorum equivalent of kicking down the door, yet the prince had not called for their immediate removal. How did Thor manage to win over every man he met with just a smile? _Welcome, Thor, son of Odin,_ Asmund said, the words reaching Loki_s ears in Asgardian as the Allspeak translated for him. Asmund_s eyes flicked over Thor_s shoulder, to where Loki was still bowing so low he was about to become one with the floor and said, _And to you, Prince Lonely._ Loki gritted his teeth. _It_s Loki._ _Isn_t that what I said?_ the Prince-General replied. Thor laughed. Loki grimaced. Wonderful, now there were two of them. _My father sends his regards,_ Thor said, as Loki straightened, every bone in his spine making itself heard in the cold. _And his gratitude for welcoming us into your court._ _It is our honor,_ Asmund replied. Amora would have been amused, Loki thought. She also would have started calling him Prince Lonely_she would have found that hysterical. In her absence, he sometimes found himself imagining her there with him, what she would say and how she would laugh. She would have said it was funny that no one cared about the Norn Stones until they disappeared. What a strange thing it was that became more frightening when it was no longer in sight. Amora. He felt her absence every day like sand beneath his skin, an irritating grain that rubbed up against his every thought, every spell that built upon his fingers. Where was she now? After her banishment, she had fallen out of Heimdall_s sight. No one knew where she was. Perhaps she was dead. Perhaps Midgard had drained her strength and magic so fast she had withered into nothing. Perhaps she was hiding in some corner of the cosmos where those who did not want to be found harbored each other. He clung to that hope, that someday, if he was crowned, he could find her and bring her back to Asgard to serve as his sorceress, as Karnilla was Odin_s. It was a foolish fantasy for a whole list of reasons, the first being that Amora likely had no powers left. The second being that it was deeply unlikely he_d ever be king. But who would he be if Amora had not been cast out? A stronger sorcerer? A better contender for the throne, with her imparting knowledge from Karnilla_s classroom? His mother_s lessons in sorcery had strengthened his control over his own power, but she would never push him to test himself like he knew Amora would have. Perhaps he wouldn_t be in Alfheim, his knees cracking loudly as he rose from his bow, with Thor giving him a look like he was the embarrassing one. Asmund said, raising a bony hand to gesture down the hallway behind them. _We have a feast prepared._ _We have not been sent to feast with you,_ Thor replied. _Only to brief you on the situation__ _But we can speak over dinner. Come, follow me, you must be famished. I insist._ _We would be happy to join you,_ Loki interrupted, and when Asmund_s eyes slid to his face, slow as a glacier, he bowed again, though not so low this time. He was afraid he_d never be able to get up if he went all the way to the floor. _By Your Grace_s leave._ Both Thor and Asmund looked at him like he was something stuck under their shoe. Loki did a metaphorical throwing up of his hands and decided to abandon all the protocol he had studied. Apparently, the court of the Ice Elves cared only selectively for manners. The Ice Elves served them twelve courses, each one colder than the last, with talk solely permitted between them, so that the only sound during the meal itself was wet chewing, which entirely ruined Loki_s appetite. Thor fidgeted beside him the entire time, wolfing down his food and then doing a poor imitation of waiting to discuss the business they had come for. Across from them, Asmund ate slowly, licking his fingers and nibbling at the bones of the snowy hares that had been served to them skinned and whole, finding things to pick at upon his plate until the next course was prepared so no one was permitted to say a word. Even Loki was struggling to hide his frustration at this obvious delay. He stared up at the ceiling, the vaults angular and shimmering like fractals of a snowflake, each imbedded with blue orbs that gave off light but no heat. The walls of the banquet hall looked as though they had once been dripping water that had been frozen midstream, with scenes from Alfheim_s history carved around their bases. How furious the artists would be, Loki thought, if the climate suddenly changed and all their hard work melted. It almost made him want to set a fire. As the last course was finally cleared, Asmund wiped the corners of his mouth with his napkin, then folded it into careful thirds. Its lace edges were stained faintly from the meal. _So. The business that has brought you here, Sons of Odin._ Thor leaned forward, elbows on the table. A vein in his forehead was throbbing from the effort it had taken to keep silent. _No doubt by now word has reached you that a set of Norn Stones has been stolen from the sorceress Karnilla._ Asmund raised a hand for his glass to be refilled, and Loki noticed the glistening rings that adorned his fingers, each spiked and sharpened so that his knuckles were lined with icicles. _Ah, yes. Karnilla_s Norn Stones. The most powerful magical amplifiers in the Nine Realms, them._ Loki glanced at Thor, trying to read if his brother was getting the same creeping feeling of dread he was. _Indeed, Your Majesty._ _And she managed to misplace them._ _She_s lost a set,_ Thor said. _Five of many._ _And she hasn_t lost them,_ Loki clarified. _They were stolen from her._ _And she has not been able to sense them?_ Asmund asked. _Only if they_re used,_ Loki replied. _And their intrepid thieves have not yet used them._ _But we are here at the behest of our father, to discuss with you Asgard_s plans for their reclamation, and how you and your people might aid us in that._ _And what will happen to them, once the Norn Stones are reclaimed?_ Asmund asked. _They will be returned to Karnilla in Nornheim,_ Loki replied. _From which they were already once stolen._ _No fortress is impenetrable,_ Loki countered. _But security has been increased since the theft._ One of the servants stepped between Loki and Thor, a silver decanter in hand to refill their goblets. The white liquid looked like icy slush. Loki had only had to sniff his own cup to know the drink was far too sweet for his tastes. Asmund puckered his lips, his finger tracing the rim of his glass. _If Asgard requires our assistance to reclaim the relic they lost, then we would like to discuss spreading the Nine Realms_ dangerous artifacts around more liberally._ _You want the Norn Stones?_ Thor demanded. Asmund quirked an eyebrow. _Just a set. Every realm should possess one, so that we are able to amplify our own powers and protect ourselves, rather than allowing Asgard to do it for us._ _You are safe under our father_s protections,_ Thor replied. _But the Norn Stones aren_t?_ _Asgardians are protectors of the Nine Realms. That_s how it has been for centuries. We did not come here to discuss a major shift in political powers. You are being told what will happen after an incident that may affect your realm, in hopes you will be able to better protect yourself for it. It_s a courtesy we did not need to afford you._ _What my brother means,_ Loki argued as Thor_s hand flexed at his side, _is that the Norn Stones belong to Asgard._ Asmund took another sip of his sweet wine. _They belong to Nornheim._ _A province of Asgard,_ Thor snapped. Loki gritted his teeth. _The Norn Stones are safeguarded by our royal sorceress as a way of amplifying her power so that people across the Nine Realms may benefit from it._ _It also means that Asgard possesses magic that can be projected to my kingdom,_ Asmund replied. _Into any kingdom._ _An Asgardian sorceress has never used her magic against another realm,_ Thor interrupted. This was likely the single piece of information he had woken from their history lectures long enough to retain. _And yet she managed to lose a pouch to a common thief._ Asmund stared at Thor, then smiled again, but it didn_t reach his eyes. _Do you understand the power the Norn Stones possess? They are limited only by the imagination of their wielder. They can reshape matter, create portals between realms, cast illusions, magnify abilities, raise the dead. Why should Asgard_s sorceress have all those powers for herself? Keeping the Norn Stones all in one place makes them too powerful for any one realm. Their power should be divided._ _And you think your realm is worthy of possessing them?_ Thor asked. Asmund_s face remained placid, but Loki saw the line of his jaw sharpen as he clenched his teeth. _As worthy as Asgard. I have the support of the southern court of the Ice Elves as well, and our delegation on Vanaheim has assured me they will join our cause._ _So there is a union of the Nine Realms assembling against Asgard,_ Thor said. _Have you summoned us here only to entrap us?_ _If Odin wishes to discuss the subject further, he can come himself rather than send his two boys._ _We speak for our father,_ Thor replied. _Your father would never be so forceful and clumsy as you have been, Sons of Odin._ Thor stood up, his legs ramming the table so hard that it jolted. That ice-white wine sloshed from the glasses onto the table, soaking through the lace table runner. Loki stood too, grabbing his brother by the arm_like that would do anything to stop Thor, but his presence alone had sometimes been enough. He said a small spell, one for slowing a heart rate, calming someone in distress. Thor took a deep breath, the skin along his arms shuddering. Asmund had not flinched. His goblet was still in his hand, and he took a delicate sip. _You are welcome in our court for the night, Sons of Odin. Perhaps we might discuss the matter further tomorrow._ _Of course,_ Loki said over whatever protest Thor began to raise_beneath his hand, Loki felt his brother_s muscles flex again. _Thank you for your hospitality. We_ll be retiring._ He turned from the table and ran straight into the captain of the guard, who had been approaching in case Thor actually did overturn the table. They both grabbed on to each other to keep from falling. _Apologies,_ the guard murmured. _My fault,_ Loki replied with a smile, then turned to his brother. _Thor? Coming?_ Thor stared at Asmund, his eyes narrowing, then stalked away, pushing past both Loki and the guard and storming from the room, the dining hall doors clattering against the wall with the force of his exit. _What is this madness?_ Thor demanded as they followed their escorts down the hall to their chambers. Loki was struggling to keep up_even with the spikes on the bottoms of his boots, Loki found it hard to find his grip on the ice floors. _Those Stones do not belong to Alfheim, or any other realm. They belong to Asgard!_ _Technically, Nornheim,_ Loki replied. _A province of Asgard._ _Yes, I heard you the first time. Good to know you listened to the first five minutes of our geography class. Your tutor would be so proud._ Loki_s feet slipped on the ice floor and he skated a few steps, nearly toppling over. Thor grabbed him, hauling him upright, though the thoughtfulness of the gesture was undermined by the tightness of the grip and the glare that accompanied it. _Don_t test me, Loki. I am not in a sporting mood._ _You seemed to be feeling very sportsmanly as you rubbed yourself all over the elvish royalty._ _I was being friendly._ _You were being informal. Didn_t you read the brief from the librarian?_ Thor made another growling sound and swatted the air like he was batting that sentence away. _I do not have the time for reading._ _I know, necking with Lady Sif between the stacks must take so much out of you._ For a moment, he thought Thor might slam him into the wall, and wondered if that would count as an interdimensional incident or a domestic one. Did a squabble between brothers mean more or less of a crisis if it took place off their own world? Thor had shoved him plenty of times without it inciting some sort of war. _My lords,_ one of the guards interrupted, and Loki realized they had stopped in front of a door. When the guards let them into their room, Thor stomped past them without a word and Loki followed, sparing the men a brief nod of thanks. The room had the same angled ceiling as the banquet hall, though the walls were smooth and lined with thick tapestries. Loki imagined this must be the room for guests who were not accustomed to the cold. The beds were layered with snowy gray pelts, with a window built into the wall across from them. Thor flung himself onto a bed, ignoring the thump of his head hitting the ice headboard. Loki didn_t dare hope his brother had actually knocked himself out and he would get some peace to think. He crossed to the window and looked out over the courtyard and the guards patrolling the grounds below. _Wasn_t this meant to be simple?_ Thor asked suddenly. _Father said this would all be simple._ Loki replied without looking, _There are no simple assignments from Father._ _Not when you_re involved there aren_t,_ Thor snapped. Loki_s eyes flitted to Thor. He knew his brother well enough to discern when Thor was being mean simply for the pleasure of getting a rise out of him, and knew the most infuriating response he could give in return was a calm, even tone. _You mean because those assignments don_t involve punching your way out of trouble?_ _I have.other skills!_ _But using multisyllabic words isn_t among them._ _Then you can be the one to return to Father and tell him in as many syllables as you choose that we left with instructions to articulate a plan of reclamation and returned with an interdimensional war,_ Thor snapped. _You_re so dramatic._ _What will we tell Father?_ _We needn_t tell him anything if the Elves agree to drop this ridiculous proposition on their own accord._ _And how do we convince them to do that?_ _We prove their Prism is nowhere near as safe as they claim._ _Their Prism?_ Thor repeated. _The center of the palace_the most secure location in Alfheim. Its magic is used to power the entire court and creates heatless light. Really, at least skim the briefs, won_t you?_ _And how do you propose we make our way into the Prism chamber?_ _Let_s start here._ Loki reached into the pocket of his coat, withdrew a set of heavy keys, and tossed them onto the bed beside Thor. Thor sat up, staring at the keys, then looked up at Loki. _Where did you get these?_ _They were a gift._ In truth, when Thor was putting on his show at dinner, Loki had waited until the guard had passed behind his chair before starting to make his exit so he could smash straight into her. She was high-ranking_she had a plume on her helmet that none of the others wore, and the hilt of her sword was more ornate. When they collided, she was distracted with apologies and keeping her balance and the Elves_ natural distaste for physical contact. Loki had taken the keys he had seen bulging in her pocket and replaced them with his cutlery set from the feast table so their weight wouldn_t be missed. He wasn_t certain when their absence would be noted, but so far no alarm had been raised. She_d probably be too embarrassed to admit the oversight for at least another day. She_d make her fellows use their keys, search clandestinely. If Loki was feeling generous, maybe he would plant them somewhere to be found later and the guard would never have to admit she_d misplaced her keys. The moment Asmund turned the talk against them, Loki had begun to plot what they could do next. Thor might not have seen the turn coming, but Loki had felt it brewing in the air. The Elves wouldn_t hear their arguments and were clearly using the missing Norn Stones as a means of starting a fight they had long wanted to pick with Asgard, so the only way to stop them would be to prove their shortcomings. Force them to retreat quietly without his father ever knowing there had been rumblings of an insurrection. He could not afford to fail this assignment. Perhaps Thor could, but Loki had far too much to prove, and far fewer chances to do so. _We can continue our negotiations tomorrow,_ he said, _reach a tense impasse with the Prince-General, and return to Asgard to tell Father that we allowed the Prince-General of the Ice Elves_a man whose entire puny kingdom could barely fill a closet in the Asgardian palace_to push us around, and also there is apparently some sort of inter-realm coalition forming against Asgard_s ability to keep its relics protected, calling into question our authority across the universe._ _Or?_ _Or we prove that, even at their best, the Ice Elves_ security pales in comparison to what we have on Asgard. They could not protect the Stones_let alone any other relics_the way we can. Asmund is put in his place, and we return to Father with the compliance of the Alfheim Prince-General in assisting in finding the Norn Stones._ Thor didn_t answer. _But if you aren_t willing to take control of the situation,_ Loki prompted, _that_s fine. Perhaps your next assignment will be more negotiations with the Ice Elves. Though I imagine Odin will oversee them this time, as we failed alone. But Father will stand with us. For us, actually. We probably won_t be permitted to talk, since we mucked this up._ Thor kneaded one fist into his open palm. Loki swore he could hear him thinking_it was a rusty, crunching noise. _Stop baiting me._ _I_m telling you the reality of the situation,_ Loki replied. _Those Stones are the property of Asgard. They are powerful and dangerous, and should not be in the care of a court whose captain of the guard doesn_t notice her keys have been taken from her own pocket. So if not us, who will be the next thief to gain access to them? If the Ice Elves had a set of the Norn Stones, they_d be on the black market of Svartalfheim before the next feast day._ Thor snatched up the keys, tossed them in the air once, and caught them. Then he smiled at Loki_certainly the first smile he_d given his brother since they_d arrived. Probably in longer than that. _This was supposed to be an easy assignment._ Loki pulled his fur cloak back over his shoulders. He could feel a spell sparking at his fingertips. _But wouldn_t that be boring?_ The hallways of the Ice Court were all coated in a layer of fine snow, but it turned crunchy and frosty the closer Thor and Loki drew to the center of the palace. They had waited to leave their chambers until darkness fell, but the orbs trapped inside the ice floes along the halls still emanated an eerie blue light. It was, Loki thought, the perfect light for sneaking around. The temperature continued to drop the deeper they moved into the court. Even the few guards they came upon_each of them easily dispatched with a small spell encouraging them to look the other way or, if Loki wasn_t quick enough, a hard thump on the back of the head from Thor_were wearing heavier cloaks than the guards who stood watch at the table for supper. The material looked slick and oily, like fish scales. _Why aren_t you freezing?_ Thor hissed at Loki. He had his arms folded hard against his chest, holding his cloak closed tightly over him. At his belt, his hammer, Mjolnir, created an unfortunate bulge in the fur. There were three sets of doors that had to be breached to reach the Prism of the Ice Court, all roughly hewn from thick ice, built for strength rather than aesthetics. Each opened with a different key from the captain_s belt. Alfheim did not have the magical undercurrents to power more advanced defense systems the same way Asgard did. Behind the final set of doors, the room_s ceiling was cathedral-high, and an enormous cylinder of pulsing blue light was encased in ice at its center. Loki felt the hair rise on the back of his neck, the strength of so much concentrated magic in a single space vibrating through him. A spindly bridge ran from the door to the walkway surrounding the Prism. It looked so delicate that Loki was sure it would crack beneath his and Thor_s weight. Beneath the bridge, water pooled, its surface glistening with chunks of ice. A thin trail of frigid water dropped from the ceiling and trickled down his back. He looked up. The ceiling above the bridge was lined with rows of icicles, translucent and trembling as though they were ready to fall. Their tips looked sharp as swords. Thor took a tentative first step onto the bridge. It crunched under his step, and they both winced, but the bridge held. Thor took another step, then another, until he was several feet from the doorway, and gave an experimental jump. The bridge trembled, but there was no crack. Nothing snapped beneath his feet. He turned back to Loki. _It_s stronger than it looks. Come on._ As he followed, Loki noticed Mjolnir in Thor_s hand, though he wasn_t sure what fight his brother was preparing for. Loki felt a prickle across his skin, a different sensation than the one raised by the Prism_s power. The creeping sense of a dread he couldn_t place was snaking through him, and he almost glanced behind them to see if someone was coming. It felt like they were being watched. _So._ Thor reached the walkway surrounding the Prism and spread his arms as he turned back to Loki. _We have breached the center of the Ice Court. Proven the Elves unfit to hold the Norn Stones. What do we do now?_ Loki stepped up beside Thor and glanced down. In the cerulean light, his skin looked blue, his hands unfamiliar. _We could shut it down,_ Thor said. _Or destroy it. That would likely be less technical. Though it might be a bit more hostile What_s the matter?_ _Something_s wrong._ _What do you mean, something_s wrong? This was your idea._ Loki tried to take a step after Thor, but it was a struggle to lift his foot from the ground. Ice cracked, and he felt the cold shards through his trousers. He looked down. A thin film of ice had begun to form around the bottom of his boots. He kicked his feet free, trampling the ice back to snow. _In suggesting this idea, I did not say it would be entirely devoid of complications._ _Then let us proceed before we encounter them. Shall we__ Thor had started down the walkway, but then pulled up suddenly. He looked down, and when Loki looked too, he realized Thor_s leg was encased in a creeping skin of ice almost to the knee. Thor tried to thrash his way out, but the ice had him trapped. He growled with frustration and began to hack at it with Mjolnir, but the slow progress he made was undone as the ice kept creeping up his leg. His other foot was coated in it now too. _Loki! What_s happening?_ Loki felt something tightening around his legs and looked down. His feet were caught in the ice, thick trunks of frigid crystals pinning him in place. He tried to pull free, but the ice was unrelenting. He conjured a ball of hot energy between his hands and attempted to melt the ice, but it regrew too quickly. Loki felt another drop of water on his head and he looked up. The ceiling seemed to be glowing orange, a color that felt so foreign in the anemic hues of the Ice Court he thought certainly it must be a trick of the light. Then the first icicle fell, puncturing a hole in the ice bridge leading back to the door. _This is a trap!_ Loki slid his set of Asgardian blades from his sleeves, and jammed one hard into the side of the Prism, trying to pull himself up and out of the ice. He felt a wrench in his shoulders. Thor had managed to get one leg free with Mjolnir, but the ice was creeping up his torso on the other side. He grunted with effort, twisting around to get a better angle for a strike, but his hammer bounced off the ice. He thrust his hand in the air, urging Mjolnir to pull him free, but he was rooted as a tree. Another icicle fell and a section of the bridge was knocked into the ice below, sending jagged splinters flying in the air. Loki felt them sting his face. The next icicle knocked out the center of the bridge altogether. Long streams of water were dribbling down from the ceiling, freezing again as they struck the pools below. The ice was up to Loki_s waist now. He took a breath, trying to summon all the magic he could to blast it from him, but it was too strong and climbing up him too fast. It was constricting his chest, making it hard for him to breathe. And even if he had managed to break free, their only exit had been destroyed. The water below was rising as the icicles dropped into it, its surface turning foamy and white. Thor shouted in pain as the ice closed around his hand, still clutching Mjolnir, straining the bones of his fingers into a tighter and tighter fist. Then the doors to the Prism chamber flew open, and Loki heard shouting. He craned his neck and saw soldiers assembled, spears and bows all trained on him and Thor. In their center stood the Prince-General, his own blade drawn but held casually before him. He did not look surprised to see the Asgardian princes in the center of his fortress and up to their necks in ice. Loki_s heart sank. While he preferred capture over being swallowed by an icy river, this would mean Odin would certainly hear of what they had done. And this plan to show the strength of Asgard had turned into slightly more of an interdimensional incident than Loki had planned for. Beside him, Thor must have sensed what he was feeling, for he said softly, _Worry not, brother. Father will understand._ Odin did not understand. _After so many years__he stared down at his sons, both kneeling before his throne with their heads bent; his gaze that could have melted the Ice Court to the ground__of so many people devoting their lives to your tutelage, your study, your understanding of diplomacy, what insanity is it that compelled you to believe that the appropriate action in this situation was to stage an elaborate raid of the fortifications of an allied realm in an attempt to prove the unworthiness of their claim to a relic?_ _It_s not their relic to claim,_ Thor mumbled. Loki glanced over at him. He was glaring at the floor, picking at a loose thread on his trousers and looking more indignant than he had a right to in the middle of one of their father_s lectures. _Silence!_ Odin slammed Gungnir on the ground, the clang of the spear on stone reverberating through the empty throne room. Loki felt the shudder in his knees, all the way through him. It rattled his teeth. Odin had not yet shared their failure with Frigga, or his advisors, or any members of the royal court, which was a small blessing. Prince-General Asmund had personally returned them to Asgard, both princes soaking wet and burned from the cold. He and his soldiers had marched them from the observatory down the Bifrost Bridge and into the throne room with a stride so purposeful that none of the posted sentries stopped them. The only small mercy was that, in the early dawn hours, few members of the court were there to witness their shame. Odin had to be woken from his bed, and was still in his robe as he stared down at them. Odin may have been the only being in the Nine Realms who was able to look intimidating in his pajamas. Loki shifted on the hard stone. His knees, still not recovered from being encased in the ice for so long, were beginning to ache. _We were tricked,_ Thor said, standing without invitation. Odin did not snap at him. Had it been Loki who stood, the hall would have echoed with Odin_s disapproval. _The Prince-General lured us to his court in an attempt to withhold his assistance unless we promised to surrender control of the Norn Stones to them._ _And in return,_ Odin replied, _you attempted no negotiations, nor did you consult me. You committed an act of destruction and subversion._ _We were provoked,_ Thor argued. _Of course you were provoked!_ Odin replied. _My sons caught attempting to sabotage the power source of the Ice Court is a reasonable justification for saying that Asgard is unfit to retain its most powerful artifacts._ _Father__ Thor began, but Odin snapped, _Enough from you._ He adjusted his grip on Gungnir, then said, his voice lowered but still sharp edged, _You have disappointed me, my sons. Perhaps, in my age, and my hope that you would prove yourselves worthy of your birthright, I gave you too much responsibility too quickly._ _The idea was not mine,_ Thor burst out. His cheeks were bright red, and a vein throbbed in his forehead. _Loki was the one who proposed it as a show of our strength. He orchestrated it._ Loki wondered, momentarily, what their father would do if he turned Thor into a ferret in the middle of the throne room. Odin_s eyes slid from Thor to Loki, his gaze slippery and flammable as an oil spill. _Is this true, Loki?_ Loki, still on his knees, glanced up, first to his brother, who would not look at him, to his father, who was staring far too intently. Even if it had been his fault, Thor didn_t have to say it quite so bluntly. They could have at least shared the responsibility. _I had no choice but to go along with him,_ Thor said. No, Loki decided, ferret was far too good for Thor. He_d rather turn him into a spider. Something small and irritating that could easily be squashed underfoot. _Loki,_ Odin said. Loki swallowed, eyes still downcast. The sunlight through the throne room windows felt too bright and buttery against the golden tile. He wanted to close his eyes. _It_s true, Father._ _Very well._ Odin stared them both down for a moment, drumming his fingers against the handle of his spear. Then he said, _Thor, a king does not attempt to pass the blame for his actions to others. He accepts the consequences. A king is strong enough to take ownership of his mistakes, and admit when he has made a poor decision. He does not claim he had no choice, for he knows there is always a choice. You would do well to remember that._ _Yes, Father,_ Thor mumbled. _And Loki._ Odin turned to him, and Loki swore he saw the circles under his father_s eyes darken. Odin heaved a sigh, then said, _Leave us please, Thor. I would like a private word with your brother._ Thor did not need to be told twice. He darted from the throne room, determinedly looking everywhere but at Loki. The door thudded behind him. Odin pushed himself up with the aid of Gungnir, then began to descend the stairs from his throne. His tread was heavy. _Rise, my son._ Loki obeyed. He was slimmer than his father, but close enough to the same height that he could look him in the eye when they stood on even ground. But Odin stopped two steps before the bottom so he was still looking down upon him. How was it that Odin had the sort of piercing gaze with only one eye that most men could not have achieved were they made of eyeballs? _We are given our instincts for a reason,_ Odin said, and Loki braced himself for one of his father_s morality lectures that sounded profound until you actually tried to puzzle out what it meant. Most of his court would think the king_s words were simply too philosophical for them to understand, but Loki had endured them often enough to know they were usually nonsense. Odin went on. _Our instincts protect us. They keep us safe. Our first instincts come from our truest heart, the purest ore of our desires. And I worry, my son, that your instincts are corrupt._ Loki raised his head to argue, but Odin held up a hand. _I hoped very much that you were ready for this assignment. After years of studying with your mother, I wanted you to be ready. I wanted you to be worthy of such a task, and able to put your own foolish heart behind you to see it completed. I wanted this to be an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you are ready for further undertakings and the responsibilities that belong to members of the royal court. I fear I was wrong._ Loki clenched his jaw. Of course Odin_s parting words to Thor had been about the role of a king, but when he spoke to Loki, he barely treated him as a courtier. _The Ice Elves were plotting against us,_ Loki said before he could stop himself. _So you felt it fair to plot in return?_ Odin replied, the question somehow both rhetorical and sincere. Loki sucked in his cheeks. _I owed them nothing._ _You were guests in their court,_ Odin said. _Diplomatic ambassadors. You owed them your respect. All your actions, your base instincts for the situation, were the opposite of how you should have behaved. There are some things that cannot be taught, and one is how to change our hearts. Our true selves always show themselves in the end._ A thousand retorts crossed Loki_s mind, ranging from It was your meat-headed golden boy who was ready to knock out the Prince-General over dinner to Maybe if you had been a more benevolent ruler of the Nine Realms, we wouldn_t have these diplomatic squabbles at all to If you would stop thinking of me as nothing more than the enemy you saw in the Godseye Mirror, perhaps you would have as much patience and forgiveness in your heart for me as you do for Thor. But all he said was, _Yes, Father._ Odin turned, heaving himself back up the stairs again, and called, with his back to Loki, _Thor and I will return to Alfheim to make a formal apology to the Ice Elves before we continue the hunt for the stolen Norn Stones._ The muscles in Loki_s thighs were burning. He wanted to run. _What about me?_ Odin paused, face turned away. _You will remain here in Asgard._ Loki_s head shot up. _Father__ _You may continue your studies,_ Odin said, like he hadn_t spoken. _And attend court meetings while we are away._ _Am I meant to be grateful for that?_ Loki said, his voice laced with bitterness. Loki knew he shouldn_t say anything more. He was treading dangerous waters already. _I don_t want to stay here while you give Thor another opportunity to prove himself worthy to be king,_ he said. Odin stopped, one hand now resting on the arm of his throne. Loki pressed on. _Give me another chance. Another chance to prove I am capable. My instincts are not corrupt, I simply made a mistake. I admit that. Is that not what you said a king should do?_ Odin sank into his throne, running a hand over his beard as he studied Loki. _You think I have not given you adequate chances to prove yourself worthy of the crown?_ he asked. Loki could feel the snare closing around him, but he answered anyway. _No, Father._ _And you ask me for another chance._ _Yes._ _Then you can take on one of the duties that your foolishness has robbed me of time to oversee. There is a question of magic on Earth__ _Midgard?_ Loki snorted. _Never mind, I_ll stay on Asgard._ _You asked me for another chance,_ Odin said. Loki resisted the urge to slam a fist into the throne room floor. Leave it to his father to turn his words backward upon him. _What assignment do you have for me on Midgard?_ he asked through clenched teeth. _There is an organization there that monitors movement from other realms into theirs. The people of Midgard remain largely ignorant to the existence of realms beyond their own, and we wish to keep it that way. They call themselves the SHARP Society._ _That_s a ridiculous name,_ Loki muttered, but Odin either did not hear or ignored him. _They suspect a series of mysterious deaths in the city of London are a result of magical forces from another realm, and they were hoping for our support in an investigation._ He raised an eyebrow at Loki. _Does that not sound exciting enough for you? Death and magic?_ Loki shrugged. _They_re just humans._ _Are their lives so much less important than yours?_ Well, yes, they_re humans, Loki thought, but he didn_t say it. _You will travel to Midgard on my behalf,_ Odin continued. _Meet with the SHARP Society and investigate their claims. You will offer them any advice and assistance they may require._ Advice and assistance. Thor was searching for the thief responsible for stealing one of Asgard_s most powerful magical artifacts, while Loki was being sent to smile and nod as humans acted hysterical in his general direction about how they were being murdered by Asgardians. Like Asgardians didn_t have better things to do. _You will return when I have deemed you worthy of a return,_ Odin said. It was banishment in miniature. Sit in the corner until you_ve learned your lesson. Loki was plotting a way out of this, when Odin let out a long sigh, two fingers to his temple. Even the slope of his shoulders looked weary. He always looked weary these days, but this time he seemed to be specifically weary of Loki. _Do not test this kindness,_ he said. _The effects of your foolish mistake will be great enough to justify a larger punishment. You should thank me for my mercy._ Loki stared at his father, his muscles clenching. He could have set the throne room on fire, but that seemed a little obvious. Instead, he did what he had long ago learned was best when it came to his father: he bowed his head and swallowed his pride. He had years of practice pretending to be at peace with Odin_s choices. He was accomplished at sitting quietly and letting anger simmer unseen inside him. _Yes, Father,_ he said, and when he left the throne room, Odin did not call him back. Loki returned to his chambers, feeling more a prisoner in his own bedroom now than he had when his father had exiled him there as a child as punishment for minor offenses. Though just like in the days of his youth, Loki allowed himself a very dramatic flop of despair onto the bed. He stared up at the hangings, rage funneling through him despite his best attempts to quell it. How many times had Thor behaved far more recklessly than he had while on missions for Odin? He_d never been benched like this, forbidden from participating in the assignments that were so clearly meant to test the princes for how well suited they were to kingship. Was it the baiting that had been his downfall? The premeditation? Or was Odin simply looking for a reason to keep him as unfit for the throne as possible? Thor didn_t knock, but Loki recognized the sound of his entrance. No one else_s tread was quite so galumphing. _Leave me alone,_ Loki said, his cheek still smashed into the fur blanket on his bed. _I_m sorry,_ Thor said. _No, you_re not._ Loki sat up, resisting the urge to comb his fingers through his hair. He knew he_d mussed it on the bed covers, but vanity had a way of getting undercut by one_s anger in moments like these. _If you were sorry, you would have taken the responsibility that was yours. Weren_t you listening to Father?_ _None of it was mine._ _Oh, that_s strange, I remember a blond giant with me when we broke into the Ice Elves_ Prism chamber. He was trying to smash his way out, but that must have been a hallucination of my small mind._ _My presence does not mean I am responsible,_ Thor countered. _But you supported me,_ Loki said. _You could have told him that at least._ _I_m sorry, Loki, but I cannot risk our father_s anger right now._ Thor_s voice was so devoid of anything besides righteousness that it made Loki want to scream. _And you think I can?_ Loki demanded. _I_m trying to help you. So is Father._ Loki fell backward onto the bed again. _Go away, I_m sulking._ _Please don_t be angry with me._ _Oh, I think we_re a bit late for that. You_re lucky I haven_t set my horde of tiny dragons upon you. Their teeth are very sharp and their appetites insatiable._ _Loki, if I have caused you some offense__ _If?_ Thor let out a heavy sigh. _I don_t know what it is that I have done,_ he said, his voice softer than usual. Loki snorted. _Oh, please._ _I_m trying to apologize._ _And yet you can_t even work out what for, so I don_t think it counts._ Thor stared at him, his hands working in and out of fists at his side. Loki braced himself, ready for Thor to strike something, possibly him, but instead he said, his tone soft with hurt, _You are so determined to despise me, aren_t you?_ It would have been better to be struck. Loki flinched as though he had been. _I don_t__ But Thor held up a hand. _Spare me, brother. Whatever you hold against me, whatever I have done to wound you, I hope you know that I am not your enemy. I want to fight by your side, not against you._ They stared at each other. Loki wished he knew how to explain the way he could not separate his brother from all the unseen forces that had shaped them both. It was everything that had dug the trench between them. He did not know how to exist in this world that had been built around them, the world they had kept building for themselves because they knew no other way. A world that had decided that what waited for him was the fate of a traitor. At last, Thor said, _Father and I are returning to Alfheim._ Loki rolled onto his back, pulling his knees up to his chest. _Send me a raven when you get there so I know you_re safe,_ he replied dryly. Silence. Then, _I wish you were coming._ _Not me,_ Loki replied, staring at the wall. _So glad to be going to Midgard with all the humans and their adorable little human faces and greasy food and magicless blood._ _Be careful,_ Thor said. Loki flicked his fingers in Thor_s direction. _Begone._ Loki stared at the ceiling, counting the dimples in the coffered tiles and waiting for the sound of his brother_s boots to retreat, followed by the soft snap of the door. He finally pushed a hand through his hair_it had gotten long, nearly to his shoulders. He wound it around his palm and curled his fingers into it, the way Amora used to when she was thinking, but rather than unfurling like hers always had, it tangled into a knot. Loki let his hand fall away. Be the witch, he told himself. Be cleverer and sharper and quicker than everyone else. Come up with something. But his brain felt thick and stalled with jealousy and fury. For the first time, he wished that he too had a hammer. He wanted to break something. But perhaps there was some destruction he could do on Midgard. Not much. And not obvious. Just enough to get him noticed. Just enough to be the hero when he cleaned up a mess of his own making. When the shimmering haze of the portal that had sent him from Asgard to Earth cleared, Loki discovered that he had been dropped in the middle of nowhere. Midgard was already fairly middle-of-nowhere as far as the Nine Realms went, and in this particular spot, there was also no discernable speck of civilization. And it was raining. He hadn_t even taken his first real step on Midgard and he was already up to his ankles in mud. The countryside around him was not altogether unpleasant, but it was just that_countryside. Rolling hills in riotous green where small white dots of sheep grazed, soggy and bleating in annoyance. Loki wished he could join them in their protestations. He took a step, prying his foot from the sucking mud. He nearly left a boot behind, and was shocked when his foot landed not in another puddle of squelching mud but on something hard. He looked down. He had been deposited on some sort of track, two parallel iron bars driven into the ground connected by perpendicular wooden boards. An earsplitting whistle startled him so badly he nearly tipped over. He looked up. Something was barreling at him along the track, spitting black smoke into the sky. The rain spat and fizzed off its metal siding. It let out another shriek, clearly having no intention of slowing down, and Loki leaped out of the way, conjuring his knife on instinct. It was a train_he only realized it as it chugged past him, pistons pushing the wheels along the track. From his perch in the engine, the driver shouted something that Loki was certain was an obscenity. He struggled to his feet, tucking his knife back into his sleeve. He had forgotten just how primitive Midgardians were, how fantastically behind their technology was compared to the Asgardians_. Steam trains were archaic. What backward hole had his father dropped him into? Loki watched the train pass, the first few cars lined with windows behind which Loki could make out the dim, crouched shapes of humans. The back half of the train was black windowless cars. On the sides an emblem had been painted_a snake eating its own tail surrounding a skull with crossed bones beneath it. There were words as well, but the train was moving faster than the Allspeak could translate them. He looked down at himself, mud now splattered up to his knees and his clothes sticking to him from the hot rain. He sighed, then conjured a small spell to shield himself from the rain. Frigga had warned him that Midgard would drain his strength faster than Asgard, and without magic thick and native like it was on his home realm, his power would be slower to replenish. Small spells would take more energy, and in excess, would eventually bleed him dry. Magic didn_t live in the air here like it did in Asgard_he would have to rely on the built-up reserves of strength his mother had taught him to carry like canteens of water on a desert expedition. But surely his own comfort constituted some kind of emergency. His father had given him the name of the meeting site where the SHARP Society would be waiting for him_the Norse Wing of the British Museum in London. Like that meant anything. Whatever it was, he was certain it wasn_t in the middle of this emerald landscape and driving rain. He followed the train tracks up the hill, and when he crested it, he could see where the sky darkened ahead, black smoke from stacks turning the sky smudged and thick. Even the rain seemed to flinch away from it. London, he thought, and began to follow the tracks toward it. After a lifetime on Asgard, he had known Midgard would disappoint him. But did it truly have to be so dramatic about it? The shift_from the crystalline skies over his father_s golden palace, streets so clean they sparkled, and white water dripping from the fountains in every square, to the streets of London, where the skies were gray in a way that made it hard to tell if it was twilight or hazy and towers spit hideous smoke into the sky_was disorienting. The air felt chewy, the streets swampy, and all the people seemed as gray as the sky. Figures passed along the street, hunched inside ratty clothes, shouting and screaming at each other over the clanking of great machinery out of sight. On the corners, tiny boys in ragged clothes thrust newspapers into the air, shouting headlines in chorus with the screams from brothels and taverns, though it couldn_t have been more than midday. People tossed greasy hair from their faces, their skin rugged and brown as old boot leather, while they led half-starved-looking horses, their flanks vibrating with flies, the contents of their stomachs emptied onto the street, then left to lie where it landed. He hoped it was just mud on his boots. But London was not entirely unpleasant, if one subtracted the filth. It felt like a battlefield, somewhere raucous and dizzying, where it took an overabundance of wits just to stay on your feet. Asgard was as quiet as a funeral procession in comparison. Perhaps this was how Thor felt when he stared down an enemy across a battlefield and primed for a fight. This chaotic energy, this heat emanating off the city, this was Loki_s kind of fight. If Asgard failed him, perhaps this could be his kingdom. The city seemed in desperate need of some leadership. They may even build a statue of him. It took a few moments of observation before he changed his clothes from the green-and-black tunic he always wore on Asgard to mimic what he saw the Midgardian men wearing: a dark suit and a high-winged collar cinched with a necktie. He held out a hand, conjured a tall, dark hat, and set it upon his head. A glamoured outfit wasn_t a sustainable spell, but it would do until he could find the SHARP Society and some actual clothes. Though he wasn_t planning on staying long enough to truly need to replace them. He walked a block, decided the hat was far too tall, and pushed it down into a soft wool cap. It only took questioning a newsboy to get the location of the British Museum_a newsboy who demanded a coin for his trouble. Loki gave him a rock he enchanted to appear as a shilling, and the boy was pleased enough by this that he offered to take him there. The British Museum was puny compared to the libraries and galleries Loki had grown up visiting in the capital, but with the black city surrounding it, he guessed it was meant to be impressive. The stone front was lined with curl-topped columns and had a peaked roof, the stone still sparkling beneath the layer of grime from the factory smoke. Inside, more stone arches were stacked atop each other to form the entry hall, and voices echoed off the high ceiling, shouts of laughter and greeting occasionally breaking free from the tumult. Loki followed the map he had taken from the entrance, past two taxidermic animals with long necks at the top of the stairs, through the hallway with low glass cases where gold tombs were laid out in a row as neat as piano keys. Loki didn_t know whom he was looking for, or how he was meant to find the SHARP Society, but he knew as soon as he reached the Norse Wing. It was strange, to be surrounded by so many things that looked like items from his home, but not quite. Perhaps if Asgard had rolled around in the mud, cracked off a few edges, and then decayed for several thousand years it would look something like these relics. The shapes were familiar. The engraved bronze, lines interweaving and twining like the roots of Yggdrasil, the round domes of dragon heads carved on ax pommels, ornate shields and goblets that, had they been shined up and decorated with a few jewels, he could imagine the lesser nobles of his father_s court drinking from over a feast table. The cases were crowded, and a second tier of galleries closed off to the public held ancient-looking books bound in heavy, creased leather. Tables topped with glass ran down the center of the hall, with pendants, cutlery, and small fragments of stone lined up on cushions inside each. It was absolutely mad, Loki thought as he examined what looked like two shapeless lumps of rock that a small plaque identified as a pair of dice, the things the humans saved as vestiges of their ancestors and deemed worthy of putting on display. Who wanted to be remembered by their fork or their comb? That told you nothing about the way people were. _It_s fascinating, isn_t it?_ Loki turned. A young man was standing behind him, his ruddy-brown hair curling out in unruly tendrils from under a flat cap, and his pale skin covered in so many freckles it looked like he had been splattered with mud. Perhaps he had been_Loki didn_t trust this filthy city. Loki was no expert in judging the age of Midgardians, but the man must have been young, though he was leaning on a cane, his weight carefully balanced on one leg. Loki tucked his hands into his pockets, then turned back to the case, adopting what he thought was an unmistakable leave me alone posture. _It_s fine._ _Fine?_ The young man was either relentless or oblivious to social cues, for he limped up to the case beside Loki and prodded the glass, leaving behind a smudged fingerprint. _Do you even know what it is that you_re looking at?_ _Cutlery,_ Loki replied. The man frowned at the fingerprint, then pulled his sleeve up over his hand and tried to wipe it away, only succeeding in lengthening the smudge. _Cutlery from a civilization of people who lived thousands of years ago._ _Are you some sort of docent?_ Loki asked. _Because I_m not looking for a tour._ _No, I_m just deeply offended when I see people not appreciating the artifacts. Look at those._ He turned to the case behind them. Inside the case, two skeletons were laid out and arranged like they were still lying in the earth. The bones looked brittle and shaggy, but someone had folded the fingers of each over the pommel of their swords, the blades gone black with age. One of the skulls was caved-in on one side, the other wearing a helmet with a protective stave carved upon the front. The boy was watching Loki_s face, like he was waiting for a reaction. Loki purposely kept his features as blank as possible, just to annoy him. _They_re warriors,_ the boy finally prompted. _No, those are definitely skeletons._ _In life they were warriors._ _Does that matter?_ Loki asked. _Death makes every man the same._ _Well, they weren_t both men, for a start,_ the man interrupted. _That one_s a woman. The swords were exchanged as marriage rites. Better than rings, I think. More practical._ _If you_re a warrior._ _Or if you don_t care for jewelry._ The man offered a hand. His nails had dirty crescents beneath them, and his skin was dry and chapped. _I_m Theo, by the way. Theo Bell._ Loki gave his hand a disdainful pat, then turned away. _I_m not interested._ _Aren_t you impressed by all this?_ Theo asked. _Am I supposed to be?_ Loki replied. _Well yes, since this is one of the most interesting wings in one of the most interesting places in London._ Loki laughed. _They_re not very impressive for the finest treasures of your realm._ _Realm?_ Theo repeated. _Your.world._ _It_s your world too._ _Doesn_t mean I have to be impressed by what someone dug up in their back garden and stuck a plaque to._ He nodded to the case, where a pair of objects sat that a sign said were called _pans,_ though they looked more like lumps of fused metal, roughly hewn and chewed around the edges by rust. _Do you know the stories?_ Theo asked as Loki turned away. _The gods and the myths. And the ships and swords and things. Odin and Thor and Loki._ Loki stopped and glanced backward over his shoulder. Theo must be trying to give him some sort of sign, and Loki was desperately trying to ignore it. If this was the representative for the SHARP Society, he was turning around and heading straight back to Asgard. He_d rather scrub the palace floors with his fingernails while his father and Thor searched for the Stones than deal with humans. Theo smiled at him. His ears were too big for his face, and they stuck out like leaves. _You_re not from around here, are you?_ Loki sighed, resigning himself to the fact that this was indeed his contact. _Well, aren_t you sharp?_ Theo_s grin broadened. _Can I show you something else?_ _You might as well._ _Try not to sound too resigned to the fact._ Loki followed Theo across the gallery, toward a closed door that Theo unlatched using a key from his pocket with a quick glance around the room before ushering Loki through. He thought it would lead to the next exhibition, but instead it seemed to be a dark storage area with no windows and nothing but long wooden crates that looked eerily like caskets, their insides spilling over with soft white straw to protect whatever had been carried inside. They looked big enough to transport the married skeletons and their swords. The door snapped shut behind him, and Loki turned to face Theo, arms crossed. _What am I supposed to see in this closet? More skeletons? Don_t you humans have a saying about that?_ Theo didn_t reply. He had leaned his cane against the door and was fiddling with a small silver case. _What_s that?_ _Do you take snuff?_ Theo asked, flipping the latch. _No._ _Probably good._ He shrugged. _I haven_t got any._ Loki frowned. _What?_ Before Loki could react, Theo flipped the case open and blew a coarse black powder, like charcoal from a dying fire crushed underfoot, into Loki_s face. Loki inhaled before he could stop himself, and felt the burn as the powder coated his throat. He coughed, then coughed again harder, the dark haze hanging in the air from the powder somehow turning thicker. His vision flickered. _What was that?_ he managed to choke out between coughs. Theo had already tucked the silver case back into his pocket and was reaching for a hook beside the door, stripping off his own jacket to replace it with another that looked like part of a uniform. This couldn_t be the group that was meant to welcome him as an ambassador of a foreign land_this was a trap. Loki fumbled for his knives, but his magic was becoming harder to reach. A blade slid into his hand with painful slowness. At the sound, Theo looked up from his buttons and frowned. _For God_s sake._ He put the tip of his cane to Loki_s chest and, before Loki could swipe it away with his blade, pushed. It was not a hard push. Certainly not hard enough to fell an Asgardian. But Loki_s legs gave out with very little persuading, and he tipped backward, landing hard in the open crate behind him. A cloud of straw fluttered up around him, settling on the fabric of his suit. The knife slipped from his hand and skittered across the floor. Theo snatched it up and tucked it into his boot, the motion too smooth for it to have been his first time handling a weapon. He shoved his cane beneath the handle of the door, then limped to the box. Loki fought to sit up, though his limbs all felt gelatinous and like they were taking too long to understand what his brain was asking of them. Theo watched him struggle for a moment, like he was debating what to do next, then fumbled in his pocket for the case again. He tossed the remaining contents into Loki_s face. Loki_s muscles went slack, and he fell back into the box. He blinked slowly, and when he opened his eyes again, there was a slam overhead and everything went dark. Was he unconscious at last, whatever that powder had been finally consuming him? But then he heard a hammering, and the darkness was interrupted by a small line of light, a crack between panels as the lid was nailed into place above him. He couldn_t get a spell gathered, nor could he make his knife appear again in his hand, though he would have loved dearly to stab it upward through the lid of this box and try to guess where it had landed by the sound Theo made. He was still not entirely conscious when he heard voices, and then the box was tipped_tipped the wrong direction, so that his head was pointing downward and he slid the length of it, landing hard. The strength of the blow was almost enough to knock him back to sense. Outside the box, he heard Theo yelp. _Oh, no, that_s the wrong way up!_ _He_ll be fine._ The box thumped again and Loki felt his teeth rattle together. Wake up, he tried to command himself. Move! Think! Fight! But all he could do was lie there, a knot at the bottom of what may be his own coffin, as he was carried forward to who knew where. The effects of the powder got worse before they got better, or perhaps it was just the disorienting feeling of being upside down in a dark, confined box that had him so properly dead to the world. He didn_t know how much time passed between Theo knocking him out and when the box was at last deposited with a heavy thud. Or how long after that it was that he heard the crack of a crowbar against the lid, breaking open what Theo had nailed into place. The powder must have mucked with his senses more than he had realized in the dark, for he couldn_t see anything. Only a few snatches of conversation flashed through his consciousness. __used all of it?!_ _I had to!_ He recognized Theo_s voice, but not that of the woman he was conversing with. _Do you know how hard that is to come by?_ the woman said. _That was enough to knock out a Frost Giant._ _How do you know what it would take to flatten a Frost Giant?_ Theo asked. A third voice_another man_s, this one deep and gruff. _They_d be knocked out by the smell of your pits._ _Piss off,_ Theo snapped. Then Loki heard the clatter of the crowbar tossed aside, and the heave of the lid. It hit the floor with a wooden crack. He could feel the faint press of light against his eyelids, but he kept them shut. Someone grabbed his wrist, and he wondered if they were checking for a pulse to make certain he was still alive. He could feel the straw against the back of his neck, feel someone_s touch on his skin. Then he heard Theo_s voice right over top of him. _So that_s him, is it? Loki, Prince of Asgard, Lord of Darkness and Mischief and Chaos and Everything Evil?_ Had he had his wits slightly more about him, he would have protested soundly against that last honorific, and particularly the certainty with which it was delivered. He was a prince of Asgard, but Lord of Darkness, etc., had never been inked on his birth record. A few short, ringing steps, heels on stone. Then the woman_s voice. _I don_t believe that_s his preferred title. But yes, that_s him._ _Bit smaller than I was expecting,_ said the third voice from what seemed a few feet away. _Sort of like you, Bell._ _Can it, Gem,_ the woman said. Filtered him up._ Loki still wasn_t certain how much of a hold the powder had on him, but he wasn_t prepared to go anywhere limp and helpless and without a fight. He opened his eyes, springing up at the same moment. Theo, who had been leaning over him, reeled backward with a cry of surprise. Loki_s limbs still felt liquid and wobbly, but he had enough control and enough focus to grab Theo with one arm around his neck and press him to his chest, making sure Theo was between him and whomever it was he had been delivered to. He summoned his dagger to his hand, raised it to Theo_s throat, and found.nothing. His hand was empty. He looked up. He was standing in a dingy coffin-shaped room, narrow and low-ceilinged and lined with more crates and cases like the one he had been so unceremoniously tossed into. The only illumination came from a few lanterns, their light swirling as moths collected around their frames, and one small window set at the crook of the ceiling. Through its small, grimy panes, he could see boots passing by on the street. On the other side of the box he had been carried in, staring back at him in surprise, were two people, one of them a big-shouldered man with hair so close-cropped it looked painted on. The breadth of his shoulders would have intimidated even Thor. He had snatched up the crowbar that must have been used to pry the lid off the crate and raised it for a fight. Beside him, with a cautionary hand thrown out to ward off that fight, was a woman, her graying hair pulled back into a tidy bun. She cut an immaculate figure in wide-legged black trousers that Loki thought for a moment were a skirt until she took a step forward. She was so thin she looked like a skeleton with flesh rolled thinly out over her like pastry draped over the top of a pie. She was regarding Loki with a careful gaze, but no fear. He reached for his dagger again, shaking out his arm that wasn_t clamped around Theo_s throat. Nothing. Theo clawed at Loki_s grip, trying to pull himself free, and Loki almost let him go. His grand plan of taking a hostage and using his life as a bargaining chip against whoever his captors were had backfired entirely, as he had no weapon. Or any spells. Something had happened between the Norse Wing of the museum and here that had knocked the glamour off his clothes_he was in his Asgardian tunic again. He fumbled for something else, to conjure another weapon, or at least summon something on the ground to his hand that could do enough damage if swung around with great enthusiasm. But he couldn_t find a drop of magic in this bone-dry air. It felt like thirst in the desert_worse for how incurable it was. He almost gasped for it. _Well, that was__the woman folded her arms__dramatic._ Her voice had a clipped, formal accent to it, in sharp contrast to the big man_s haphazard vowels and slurred consonants. _Who are you?_ Loki demanded. _And where am I?_ _First, let Mr. Bell go and then we can have a proper conversation._ _Not until I know what you want with me._ He flexed his hand, desperate for a knife, and he actually growled with frustration when it failed to manifest. It felt just out of his reach, like his fingers brushing the edge of a cliff as he fell. _If you are attempting some sort of conjuring, you can desist,_ the woman said. _Unless you wish to exhaust yourself._ _Why can_t I use my magic?_ Loki demanded. _We have placed restraints upon you,_ the woman replied. _Restraints?_ Loki held up his free hand and noticed a metal band around his wrist. They must have clamped it on him while he was mostly incapacitated. There was one around his other wrist as well, and he recognized the metal at once_it was Asgardian, the same chains they used in the palace dungeons to keep prisoners from using magic. And if they were the same as the ones in Asgard, the wearer couldn_t remove them. He cursed under his breath. _Mrs. S.,_ Theo said, his voice hoarse, and Loki realized he had been tightening his arm around Theo_s neck without meaning to. He relaxed his hold and Theo gasped, though his fingers were still digging sharply into Loki_s arm. _We were planning to have you bound more securely when you woke,_ the woman_Mrs. S._said. _To prevent exactly this sort of confusion and in hopes we might have a reasonable discussion first._ _I don_t think there_s much room for reason when one party is bound,_ Loki replied. A small smile tugged at her lips for the first time. _Clearly you_ve been wearing the wrong bindings, my dear. Now, why don_t you let Mr. Bell go and we can all introduce ourselves. No one will be tied to anything._ _You_ll take these off me?_ Loki asked, holding up one of his hands to refer to the restraints. _Not just yet,_ Mrs. S. replied. _But I think we can all agree that so long as they stay in place, you holding Mr. Bell is rather pointless._ _I can fight you without magic._ _I_m sure you can, my dear. But this will all go much smoother if you don_t prove it._ _Do you have more of the blackout powder?_ the big man_Gem_said, his fist flexing on the crowbar, like he was ready to use it if the answer turned up negative. _I should,_ Mrs. S. mumbled with a dark look at Theo. Even Loki thought that criticizing a man currently being held hostage was a bit of a low blow. _It wasn_t my fault!_ Theo choked. _He_s stronger than you thought!_ _For God_s sake,_ Mrs. S. muttered. _He_s turning blue. Your Majesty, please release my associate. This is an unseemly show of force for a man of your standing._ _How do you know who I am?_ Loki demanded. Mrs. S. quirked an eyebrow, and reluctantly, Loki let his arm fall from around Theo_s throat. Theo staggered away, catching himself on the edge of the box when his bad leg gave out. Gem picked up Theo_s cane from where he had dropped it and tossed it to him. Though none of them were particularly threatening, apart from Gem_though he was threatening in the same way as Thor, so it felt familiar_Loki was suddenly very aware that he was outnumbered, in an unknown place, unarmed, and unable to access any source of power. He_d never been cut off from his magic before, and that alone made his skin itch. His eyes darted around the room, searching for something he could use as a weapon if they came at him, but the best instruments had already been claimed, namely Gem_s crowbar and Theo_s cane. The room was bare but for the straw-lined crates strewn around, and rooting through them in hopes of finding something pointy didn_t seem like the most effective use of his time. He flexed his hands absently. He knew how to fight unaided by spells, but not having them there if he needed them was creating a logjam in his brain. He couldn_t seem to think up any plan that wouldn_t require magic. _Your Majesty,_ Mrs. S. said, _Would you like to sit down?_ _On what?_ Loki asked. Mrs. S. shrugged. _I_m simply being polite. Though I_m happy to have Gem squat into a bench formation if you need it._ _Who are you?_ he demanded. _We are representatives of a vast secret organization called the Society for Hospitable Activities from Remote Planets._ _You_re the SHARP Society,_ Loki said. Mrs. S. gave him a small bow. A ring on her left hand flashed. _We are._ _My father said you knew I was coming._ _We did._ _So why did you knock me out and take away my magic?_ _We manage interdimensional threats, and you are an interdimensional visitor of unknown power,_ she replied. _One cannot be too careful when dealing with someone like.you._ _What do you mean, someone like me?_ Loki demanded. _I_m here on behalf of my father._ Surely Odin hadn_t told them what a delinquent he was, but it seemed the only explanation for how far and incorrectly his reputation had preceded him. He was certain they wouldn_t have knocked out his father and dumped him in a box if he had showed up himself. _You_re a foreign being on our planet. Forgive us for taking precautions._ _You are absolutely not forgiven._ _I would remind you,_ Mrs. S. said, _you are a guest in our realm._ _I_m here on behalf of my father, the king of Asgard,_ he snapped. _I have a right to be in your realm._ Mrs. S._s mouth twitched. _How very colonialist of you. You are a guest of the SHARP Society__ _That_s a daft name, so you_re aware,_ Loki said. _SHARP Society. It doesn_t mean anything and the S is redundant._ _It stands for the Society for Hospitable Activities__ Mrs. S. began, but Loki interrupted. _Yes, I heard you the first time._ _We picked an acronym and worked backward,_ Theo murmured. _Perhaps you could find something more accurate. You could call yourselves the Society where Hospitality is Ignored Totally. Or, for short__ _Regardless of those trivialities,_ Mrs. S. interrupted, _we at the SHARP Society are dedicated to observing and intervening as necessary when beings from other realms travel to our planet. And though you are our guest, it is still our responsibility to keep you in check while you_re here._ Loki wanted to protest that he had thus far done nothing to prove he needed any kind of _keeping in check_ and also that he was here to help them, not make more trouble, but it was a circle he was tired of running in. _Has your father informed you why you_ve been summoned here?_ Mrs. S. asked. _Summoned seems like a rather grand word,_ Loki replied. He wanted so badly to sit down on the edge of the crate_his legs were still wobbling beneath him_but he was determined not to show any weakness. _I_m here as a favor._ _Quibbling over trivialities is so much less amusing than you seem to think,_ Mrs. S. replied. Her voice was fraying. He was testing her patience. Good. _We have requested help from Asgard because of a string of inexplicable deaths here in London._ Loki threw up his hands. _Easy, I_ve already cracked it._ A moment of silence, then Theo asked timidly, _Have you?_ _Yes._ Loki folded his hands before him, as if he were about to deliver devastating news, and said very seriously, _You humans are being murdered by.other humans._ When none of them laughed, Loki did it for them. _You think an interdimensional being dropped in on your pathetic realm just to murder a few humans? No offense to your fragile little lives, but I could wipe out whole continents if I chose to. Most hospitable aliens have better things to do with their time._ _Our people are dying, and a magician is to blame,_ Mrs. S. said. _You cannot look past that._ _You have no proof of that._ _But once you see these corpses, you_ll understand that their deaths were not caused by humans. There_s magic involved._ _Looking at corpses. Tempting._ He rubbed his hands together. _But I think we_re done here._ He started for the door, but Mrs. S., Gem, and Theo all stepped in together, barring him. _We need aid from Asgard,_ Mrs. S. said, and for the first time, he heard a slight fray of desperation in her voice. _We cannot fight a sorcerer without Asgard_s help._ _I don_t think you_re going to have to,_ Loki replied. _This city seems like the kind of place where plenty of people die completely unaided by magic. So if you could show me the way out, I_ll be getting home._ Gem glanced at Mrs. S., then started to reach for the box again, but Loki interrupted, _Absolutely not, I am not going anywhere in a coffin._ _I_ll take him back to the fairy ring,_ Theo said. _Are you sure?_ Mrs. S._s eyes flicked to his cane, but if Theo noticed, he didn_t acknowledge it. _Gem has to be on patrol soon. I_ll go._ _Just directions to the surface will suffice,_ Loki replied. He wasn_t keen on spending more time with these humans than was necessary. _And take these off, please._ He thrust his wrists to Theo, nodding at the cuffs. Theo glanced at Mrs. S. for direction. She still had her arms folded, and he was beginning to wonder if her eyes were permanently narrowed. _Not just yet._ _If I can_t glamour my clothes, I_ll look like a damn fool walking around your city streets._ _We_ll risk it, for the safety of Mr. Bell,_ Mrs. S. said. _Don_t worry,_ Theo added. _You_ll be far from the most foolish-looking man in London. Come on, follow me. This place can be hard to get out of._ Loki snorted. _You_re a hobby detective squad, not the secret police._ _We_re a secret society,_ Mrs. S. replied. _Not much point if you don_t actually try to keep your secrets. Go with him, Theo. And we_ll see you soon, Your Majesty._ She gave him a small bow. Loki offered a curled lip in return. _I certainly hope not._ As reluctant as Loki was to admit Theo was right, the tunnels beneath the British Museum were difficult to navigate. Each one looked the same_dark, narrow stone, poorly lit, and lined with more crates, some larger than the one Loki had been trapped in, some pocket-size. A few were cracked open to reveal their contents_statue heads carved from gray stone, a golden brooch, a breastplate inlaid with intricate filigree. By the time he and Theo emerged into the sallow sunlight of the London streets, he had lost all sense of where he was or in what direction they had gone. Theo tapped his cane against the bottom of his boot, scraping off something sticky that had adhered itself there. _You need to get back to the fairy ring._ _What_s that?_ _Where you arrived_the spot of connection between Asgard and Earth,_ Theo replied. _There are hundreds of them on Earth, but that one_s the closest._ _Why do you call it a fairy ring?_ _Oh, humans have all sorts of names for them. Stonehenges, fairy rings, portals. Places where the worlds overlap._ _You could have met me there then instead of at that museum._ Theo shrugged. _Well, we drew straws and no one wanted to stand in the rain and wait for you. And Mrs. S. works for the museum, so it_s convenient, and they have enough odd items lying around that no one asks questions about ours. And it_s easier to meet an enemy on familiar turf._ _Am I your enemy?_ Loki asked. _I thought I was your much-needed aid from Asgard._ Theo either didn_t hear him or ignored the question. He looped his scarf around his neck, blew a short breath onto his bare hands. _Come on, then, if you_re so keen to be home._ But Loki didn_t move. _I_m not going to hurt you._ Theo smiled. _I sort of believe you._ Neither of them spoke as they walked. Theo paid a lamplighter for a candle and shade as the night began to fall. It cast a dull shine along the road ahead of them as the city gave way to countryside, the tenuous pavement of London_s roads turning to muddy paths rutted with wheel tracks and the deep impressions of livestock hooves. Theo was the first to break their silence. He tipped his head back, ruddy curls cascading from his face. In the twilight, his skin looked slick, like he had just surfaced from underwater. A small smile settled over his lips, and he lifted a hand, pointing upward. _Look._ Loki raised his head to follow Theo_s finger, not sure what he was meant to be seeing. _The sky is so clear tonight,_ Theo said. _You can never see the stars in the city._ And Loki realized Theo was only looking to the stars. He looked up too, the thick sugar of a galaxy trailing through the darkness, flecked on all sides by sprinkles of planets and constellations. At their backs, the city glowed golden with lantern light, its own small galaxy beneath the sky. London was brass and silver, draped in steamy clouds with empty hollows and pockets that swallowed the light. _Can we see Asgard from here?_ Theo asked, his head still thrown back, like he was drinking in the view. Loki knew the answer_the stars were closer to him than home_but he still found himself searching the sky. _No._ _Do you have stars in Asgard?_ Theo asked. _Do we have them?_ _Can you see them?_ Theo clarified. _Or is your sky empty at night?_ _We can see the stars in Asgard,_ Loki said. _More than you can see from Earth. A dozen times this amount._ _What about beer?_ Theo asked. _Can we see beer from Asgard?_ Theo tore his eyes from the sky long enough to give Loki a disparaging look. _Do you have beer in Asgard?_ _All kinds,_ Loki replied, not certain where these questions were leading, but amused in spite of himself that Theo_s thoughts had slid so deftly from the sky to the drink. _And honey-sweet wines and fizzing cordials and apple mead that will keep you young and vinegar spirits that will knock a grown man out cold._ _Music?_ _At every feast._ _And dancing?_ _What else does one do when music plays?_ _And dogs?_ Loki frowned, stumped for the first time. _I don_t know what that is, so I don_t think so._ _Well, that_s going to count against Asgard._ Now it was Loki_s turn for the disparaging glance. _As if Midgard could hope to compete with Asgard._ Theo threw back his head and laughed. _Midgard? Is that what you call us?_ _Is it funny?_ _No, no, I like it. Midgard. Does that make me a Midgardian?_ He puffed out his chest when he said it. _It sounds powerful._ _Perhaps it_s not translating quite right, then._ _Give me a moment, will you?_ Theo stopped and leaned up against a tree, stretching out his bad leg with a wince. _Sorry I don_t move so fast._ _Here._ Loki held out a hand, and Theo surrendered the lantern to him. _Is it broken?_ _My leg?_ Theo chuckled through his heavy breath. _A long time ago. It never healed right._ _We could have taken the train,_ Loki said. _There_s a track that goes straight through the.whatever you called it. Fairy ring._ Theo snorted. _You don_t want to be on that train. It_s the Necropolis Rail. The train that carries the dead from London to the cemeteries to be buried._ _Do you not bury your dead in your own city?_ Theo shook his head. _No room left. They started stacking bodies in the streets after the cholera outbreak._ He let out another heavy breath, and Loki suddenly felt strange, watching him wince and catch his breath in silence. He glanced around the countryside, the treetops making dark clouds against the sky. A pack of bats flew overhead, blotting out the moon. When he turned back, Theo was looking at him with a strange smile on his face. _Why are you looking at me like that?_ Loki demanded. Theo_s face didn_t change. _Like what?_ _Like you find me amusing._ _I wouldn_t say amusing._ He took up his cane from where he_d leaned it against the tree and pushed himself back to his feet with another wince. _I_ve worked with Mrs. S. for a while now, but I_ve never actually met someone from another realm. And it_s you._ Theo held out a hand for the lantern, but Loki didn_t surrender it. _What do you mean it_s me?_ _You_re._ Theo gestured vaguely through the air. _You_re Loki._ _I_m aware._ They stared at each other through the darkness, the air between them golden and dancing as the lantern flickered. Theo knew something about him_Loki was sure of it. Sure the whole Society knew it. But he couldn_t fathom what it was that made them treat him so strangely. What had his father told them? I_ll be sending my son who I have foreseen bringing about the end of the world by leading an army against me. Have a wonderful time, feel free to take his magic and make assumptions! He wouldn_t put it past his father. Theo straightened his cap, then started down the path again. _We_re nearly there._ When they reached the ring_a bare circle in the grass, bisected by the railroad tracks_Theo tossed aside his cane and sank down on a nearby stone, pulling off his cap and wiping his arm over his forehead. Loki waited for him to say something_some sort of farewell or thanks for coming or, based on the way Theo had looked at him earlier, perhaps a request to sign something in memory of their time together. But Theo just gave him that stupid grin. Loki held out his wrists. _Remove these._ _Not even a please?_ Theo asked. _You_ve taken away my magic, so forgive me if I_m not in a mood for politeness._ Theo took Loki_s hand in his and turned it, palm to the sky, as he began to fiddle with the mechanism at the hinge. Loki almost asked him how he_d come to possess a modified set of Asgardian restraints, but it wouldn_t matter soon. He_d be home. If his father would let him come home. The cuffs came free and Theo patted Loki on the pulse point before tucking them into his jacket pocket. _There you are, Your Highness. You_re free._ Loki flexed his fingers, feeling magic begin to swell below his skin again. Slower than it did in Asgard, but still a relief. He shook out his sleeves, then faced Theo. _Well. I_d say it was good to meet you, but I do hate lying._ _All right, then._ Loki didn_t move, not sure why he was so annoyed by Theo_s refusal to even give him a wave. Theo stretched out his legs, hands behind his head, a theatrical gesture of unconcern. _Pay attention_you_re about to see interdimensional travel. If you enjoyed my general presence, you may faint from the excitement of this._ _We_ll see,_ Theo replied. _What do you mean we_ll see?_ _I mean we_ll see if Asgard wants you back._ _Why don_t you think Asgard wants me back?_ Loki said, the belligerence rising in his tone to cover the panic. His father had said he_d be forced to stay here until his work had been deemed satisfactory, but surely Odin would let him limp back to Asgard and beg forgiveness. _Because you were sent here to help us, and you haven_t done that,_ Theo replied. _Mrs. S. says your father won_t let you return home until this is finished._ _Fine. Well, watch this._ He stalked to the center of the fairy ring and then, just to make a properly dramatic show of it so that Theo would feel the true fool, threw his head back to the sky and opened his arms. _Heimdall!_ he called. _Bring me back!_ He waited for the sky to open. The air to shimmer and crack. The clouds to part and the Bifrost to open to him. Nothing. The night was silent. _Heimdall!_ Loki shouted again. _Heimdall, bring me back!_ Still nothing. Loki went on staring at the sky, sure that the ferocity of his stare could penetrate the Bifrost. _Heimdall, this isn_t funny. Bring me back. Tell Father to bring me back. Heimdall, you son of a__ Behind him, he heard a soft crunch, and he whirled on Theo. _Are you eating?!_ Theo froze, one hand dipped into a greasy paper bag. _I missed dinner because I was tending you._ _I_m trying to access an interdimensional portal and you_re snacking?_ He held the bag out to Loki. _Would you like some? They_re peanuts. Do you have peanuts on Asgard?_ Loki threw his head to the sky again. _Heimdall, get me out of this realm. Heimdall, come on!_ He turned back to Theo. _I suspect he_s occupied elsewhere._ _Of course._ _Or he wasn_t expecting me._ Theo tossed a nut in the air, missed it with his mouth, and it bounced off his forehead. _All right._ _So Heimdall is probably.napping. Or something._ _Of course,_ Theo said with a solemn nod, though Loki could see that cheeky smile just beyond his lips. _Napping. Would you like to wait around and try him in a bit? When he isn_t.napping?_ Loki wanted to stamp his feet in frustration. Waking Heimdall from his probably improbable nap wasn_t an option. His mother had mentioned that while someday he might learn to project himself between realms, that someday was still in the future. Even on Asgard, his projections still struggled to move between rooms in the palace. _Do you have a way to contact Asgard?_ he demanded of Theo. _I need to speak to my father._ Theo wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. _Back at our headquarters._ Loki almost rolled his eyes. Of course this amateur squad had a headquarters. _Fine. Take me to your headquarters._ _First you have to come with me to Southwark._ _Where?_ _A neighborhood in the southern city. That_s where the bodies are being kept._ Theo shoved the bag of peanuts back into his pocket and smiled. _As long as you_re waiting for Heimdall to wake up, you might as well have a look at what we brought you here for._ Loki sighed through his nose, an action he knew made his nostrils flare out in an unattractive away_at least that_s what Amora had told him_but he indulged the drama. What he truly would have liked to do was collapse onto the ground, cross his arms, and refuse to be budged until Heimdall sucked him up out of this godforsaken realm through the Bifrost. He would rather have lain down in this soggy grass and let it swallow him whole than go back to London. He should be on Alfheim. He should be with his father and his brother. He should be doing work fit for a king, which was certainly not done in so much mud. Or if it was, there should have been a sword involved. _I will not abide restraints again,_ Loki said. Theo shrugged. _Fine, but I won_t abide any magical mischief you might make._ As if you could do anything about it. He was tempted to turn Theo into a frog, just to remind him who was truly in charge here. But a spell that large would be too hard to justify on this magicless planet. No matter how satisfying it would be. Loki let out a feathery sigh. _Fine. Take me to the Southern Erk._ _Actually it_s Erk of the South,_ Theo corrected. _What did I say?_ A small smile tugged at Theo_s lips. Loki glared at him. _You_re mocking me._ _They did warn me you were quick._ _Who_s they?_ _All the books._ _Books?_ Loki repeated, but Theo had already taken up his cane and started down the pathway again, back the way they had come. _Come on, Mrs. S. is waiting at the morgue._ Southwark clung to the banks of a rancid river, the smell of which made Loki pull the collar of his shirt up over his nose, though Theo told him that was both rude and conspicuous. Even in the frail light of the gas lamps, the brick houses were dark with soot, and plaster crumbled off the siding, dropping into the streets like rockslides in miniature. Children with charcoal-smeared faces sat along the edges of the collapsing roofs, spitting seeds or possibly teeth at each other. The cobbles bulged at random, like great tree roots were pushing them up from beneath, and the gutters spilled onto the streets, their contents thick and sluggish. _This is your home, is it?_ Loki asked, his lip curling as he stepped deliberately over a spill of rotting produce that had been mashed into the stones. _You must be so proud._ _Come, now, I_m sure there are more decrepit corners of Yggdrasil,_ Theo replied cheerfully. _Not many, but at least one._ _If there are, I have yet to see them._ He followed Theo down a short lane, then around the back of a red-shuttered tavern with crooked windowpanes and an upper story that seemed to jut out at a dangerous angle over the first. To Loki_s surprise, the alley was flooded with people waiting to get into the building ahead of them, and the noise of excited chatter echoed off the narrow corridor. Sellers stalked through the crowd, hawking orange slices and biscuits for sale. Perhaps something had been lost in the translation, but this was not what Loki had expected when Theo had said he was taking him to see bodies. He had thought of a graveyard, or at least a quiet basement. The underground corridor of the museum seemed a more appropriate place for a viewing than this, with the crowds and the noise and an atmosphere of merry excitement. This felt like a fairground. Theo seemed unconcerned by any of it. He navigated them through the mob of people to where Mrs. S. was waiting for them, sitting on a coal bin and knitting. She hardly glanced up as they approached. _Good to see you weren_t robbed on your way here,_ she called as they approached. _I_m sure His Majesty would have protected me from any roving thugs,_ Theo replied. _Or at least protected himself and accidentally saved me as well._ _Still have your wallet?_ she asked. _Yes,_ Theo replied confidently, but Loki saw his hand dart to his trouser pocket. _What are you knitting?_ _A hat for the prince,_ she replied, holding up the shapeless bundle of yarn. _Something with horns._ _What is this place?_ Loki interjected. Mrs. S. flicked her eyes to him. _Didn_t Theo tell you?_ _He said it was a morgue,_ Loki replied. _So what are all these people doing here?_ _They_re tourists,_ Mrs. S. replied, tucking her knitting into her carpetbag and dusting off her trousers as she stood. _They started putting the dead on display in Paris, and now it_s all the rage in London too. Charge sixpence a head for a prime view of the many ways you may leave this world. The grizzlier the better. This spate of recent mysterious deaths has given them quite a boost._ She nodded at the onlookers. _Perhaps they should pay your people some sort of commission._ _They all are here to see the dead?_ Loki asked. _That_s morbid._ Mrs. S. shrugged. _That_s human. Come along, boys._ As they made their way to the entrance, shuffled forward by the flow of the tourists, Loki noticed another group gathered around the doors, this one holding signs in the air or wearing them on strapped boards looped over their shoulders. Some of them were chanting the same message as was painted on many of their signs: LET THEM LIVE. Mrs. S. brushed past them without sparing a glance. As Loki went to follow her, a woman wearing one of the signs over her shoulders leaped in front of him and shoved a leaflet into his hand. _Those you see presented as dead in these halls are not yet gone to their great reward!_ she shouted, sort of to him and sort of so the whole crowd could hear. He felt her spit speckle his face. She must have been near Mrs. S._s age, with dark hair flecked gray and a small, neat hat secured to it with a pin. Her dark skirt was starting to ride up where her sign had caught the hem. _The police and the papers would have you believe them dead, but they merely sleep!_ she shouted, thrusting a leaflet at Theo, who stuck his free hand into his pocket and looked purposefully in the other direction. _To bury these dead would be to bury the living!_ _Come on._ Theo removed his hand from his pocket and grabbed Loki_s arm, dragging him through the door and away from the woman. Loki glanced down at the leaflet. The text was blotchy from her sweaty palms, but the illustration at the top depicted a skeleton reclining in a scrolled frame, one bony hand wrapped around a curled scythe. The bold, striped letters beneath it read DO NOT LET THE LIVING SUFFOCATE IN A GRAVE. THERE IS STILL HOPE FOR THOSE THOUGHT DEAD. There followed several long paragraphs in a font too small to make out without proper study, but it looked like the woman with the sign had a lot to say on the subject. Loki shoved the leaflet into his pocket, then followed Theo and Mrs. S. into the morgue. The morgue hallways were so stuffed full of people that Loki had to crane his neck to see into the dimly lit cases, and even then he hardly got a proper view. On each side of the aisle, floor-to-ceiling glass windows separated the spectators from corpses laid out on slabs, tilted so their bodies could be viewed. Cloth had been artfully draped across the bodies in strategic places, with the corpses_ clothes hung on pegs behind them. Dark water dripped from a pipe along the ceiling, presumably cold to keep the bodies preserved. A few policemen roamed on both sides of the glass, though they seemed unperturbed by the spectacle. Disgust curdled inside him. Though it wasn_t at all the death; death did not bother him. All lives ended_he and Thor had been taught that from a young age. Warriors gave their lives for Asgard every day. Even those who died old and at peace would have been worn down in the service of the realm. Instead it was the indignity of this, the twisted display, the gawkers, the small children with their noses pressed against the glass, smearing their faces as they gaped at open wounds. They were only humans, but in that moment, he wished he could place each of them in a ship and see them off to Hel. _This is barbaric,_ he murmured. Beside him, Theo was staring at the floor. _At least we have dogs._ Mrs. S. stopped at the back of the largest group and waited, one foot tapping out an impatient rhythm. As they moved toward the glass, Loki heard someone behind him whisper to her friend, _I_ve been waiting all week to see the living dead._ He whipped around. _What did you say?_ The girl, short and spotty and still young, started at his attention, but then jutted out her chin defiantly. _That_s what they call them in the papers,_ she said. _The ones that_s dead for no reason._ She poked a finger toward the glass. _She should be living._ The words rang inside him, the memory of what his father had seen years ago the last time he looked in the Godseye Mirror. Leading an army of the living dead. He felt Mrs. S._s fingers coil around his arm, pulling him away from the girls. _Take a look, we won_t have long._ Theo hung back in the crowd, but Loki followed her to the front of the group until they were nearly pressed up against the glass, staring at the woman_s body laid out before them. She was naked, her long hair uncoiled and hanging in limp threads to cover her breasts. In the icy light through the glass, she didn_t look dead at all: she looked asleep. Her skin hadn_t taken on the clammy, pale quality that other corpses did, and there was no discoloration, no sign of sickness or injury. In spite of how reluctant he was to appear interested in this assignment, Loki found himself stepping so close that his nose brushed the glass. It was only then that he looked down the row of corpses and realized they were all this way_still as sleep and entirely not-dead-looking. There was no blood, no injury, no visible signs of what had felled them. They had nothing in common but death. He suddenly understood how Mrs. S. had been so certain that it was magic that had killed these people. There was nothing natural here. Nothing human, nothing native to Midgard. _How many are there?_ he asked, his breath fogging the glass. _Two more hallways full,_ Mrs. S. replied. He could see the hard set of her mouth reflected in the glass. _Scotland Yard won_t allow any of them to be buried. They_re keeping them all here for observation._ _Observation?_ Loki repeated. _What are they expecting to observe, exactly?_ _They_re not sure,_ she replied. _But because none of the bodies are decaying, some believe that they_re not actually dead. There_s no heartbeat or breath, but they_re not corpses. The police could prove death or life definitively with an autopsy_an examination of a body to determine how they died__ _I know what an autopsy is,_ Loki interrupted, though he hadn_t. __but none of the families of the dead have granted permission._ _Why does it matter if there_s an autopsy?_ Loki asked, trying to say the word with confidence, but it felt strange in his mouth. If his pronunciation had been questionable, Mrs. S. didn_t comment. _Because of their unusual state, it_s the only way these people can be declared officially dead and then buried. And since there_s still some debate as to whether or not they_re actually dead, the coroner can_t legally perform an autopsy without the family_s consent. But no family wants to be the one to volunteer their darling brother or sister or mother or father to be cut open and taken apart if it turns out there_s a way to revive them. So no autopsy, no burial. The bodies just pile up here on display. Groups like that lot outside__she jerked her thumb over her shoulder the way they_d come__have got to all the families and convinced them not to authorize an autopsy, because they think they_re not actually dead._ _You mean the protestors?_ Loki asked. Mrs. S. nodded. _I don_t know how things are done on Asgard, but here it_s preferable not to put a living person in the ground_if they weren_t dead already, they would be then._ _Yes, I believe that is universally true across the realms, except for a few subterranean dwellers who bury their dead in the sky._ Mrs. S. laughed softly. Loki could still see her faint reflection in the glass separating them from the body. _Each time I think I have learned the strangest things about this universe, something stranger unveils itself. Sky funerals._ She rubbed a hand over her chin, and he could tell she was picturing it, her mind unspooling. _How did you find out about all this?_ Loki asked. _We have a man on the inside of the police force,_ Mrs. S. replied. _He tips us off. And it_s our responsibility to know these things._ _Your responsibility by whose authority?_ _Your father_s._ _And what does he give you in return?_ He turned back to the glass. _You_re wasting your time working for aliens, Mrs. S._ _Well, will you be wasting it with us a bit longer, Your Majesty? I noticed you_re not back in Asgard._ _My travels have been delayed._ As much as he didn_t want to admit it, to this woman or his father if he was ever allowed back in his realm, he was intrigued. Whatever magic it was that had a hold of these people, he hadn_t seen it before. _Have they, now?_ Mrs. S. asked, and he ignored the amusement in her voice. _So I suppose I_ll stay and investigate this with you._ Her reflection smiled. _How very generous, Your Majesty._ The SHARP Society office was located at Number 3? Finch Street, like it had been forgotten until the last minute and then squashed into what was meant to be an alley. Hardly large enough to house a vast secret society. It had fewer windows and a narrower front door than the shops on either side. At its back, a factory belched black smoke at intermittent intervals. In the pale light of the early dawn, Loki could see a small hanging sign that read B. A. SHARP, ANTIQUITIES. Though a bell over the door rang when Theo led Loki in, the shop looked deserted. Glass cases and shelves were bare, their corners collecting dust and cobwebs. The counter had begun to mold where a drop of water from a leaky pipe overhead kept up a steady stream. _Is the shop itself meant to be the antiquity?_ Loki asked. _What?_ Theo looked up from fumbling to light a lamp. _Oh, no, it was Mr. Sharp_s. We only use the back room now_our office is through here. Come on._ Theo led him around the counter, through a musty velvet curtain that smelled like the water had once been dripping on it before taking over the counter. This was barely an office. Loki was beginning to suspect they were barely a society. The back room, in contrast to the shop, was packed. Books were stacked to the ceiling. A heavy round table crowded into the center was sagging beneath the weight of papers and crates and one very rusty sword. A workstation had been shoved into one corner, wires and gears littering its top. As Theo took off his coat, Loki picked up a ring with an obviously fake jewel. The stone was pried away from the setting and propped up to reveal a set of miniature gears. _Don_t touch that,_ Theo said quickly. _What does it do?_ Loki asked. _It shoots darts tipped in a sedative. Or, it will, once it works. It_s temperamental._ _Where did all this come from?_ Loki asked. _Me, mostly._ _You made it?_ _Some of it. I was an engineering student once. I was going to be an engineer as well, but that plan was rather.ruined._ He shrugged. _It_s probably all silly compared to what you have on Asgard._ _Yes._ Theo cast Loki a glare from where he was piling kindling into the stove. _You_re not supposed to agree with me._ Loki shrugged. _You said it._ _Yes, but mostly in the hopes that you_d raise some kind of protest. No, it_s so impressive, worthy of Asgard, and you_re wonderful and brilliant and handsome, Theo._ He struck a match from a pack on the table and dropped it into the stove. It smoked, struggling to catch the kindling. _Asking too much, I suppose._ Loki picked up a set of tarnished gold gauntlets that looked more like something from his homeland than from Earth. _What do these do?_ Theo glanced up from a second match. _Nothing. They_re antiques Mr. Sharp found on expedition._ _Mr. Sharp. The mysterious purveyor of the empty shop._ _Not so mysterious,_ Theo replied. _Mrs. S._s husband. He was an archeologist_collected Norse artifacts for the British Museum. They both were. Him and Mrs. S. He was the one who first made contact with your father and Asgard, entirely by accident, after he found the fairy ring near Brookwood._ _Mr. Sharp,_ Loki repeated. _Your daft society name makes so much more sense now._ Theo snorted. _You should petition to change it, so you have something less embarrassing to put on your calling card._ _Not handing out many calling cards these days._ Theo blew on the stove, then added, _And it_s not much of a secret society if you go handing it about._ _Have you considered putting it to a vote?_ Loki asked, running a finger along the grimy windowsill. _The many, many other members of your clearly enormous secret organization may be more likely to show up to your offices if you had a more fetching name._ He glanced at Theo, who was chewing on his lip, staring intently down at his matchbook. _It_s a tribute, the name,_ Theo said. _A tribute?_ _To Mr. Sharp._ _I assumed. What happened to him?_ _He died a few years back,_ Theo replied. _Before I met him. You can_t conjure fire, can you? Now that I_ve taken the cuffs off._ He tossed the third blackened strike match into the stove. _It_s bloody cold in here, and I can_t get this to catch._ Loki considered him. Considered saying no. Theo did a dramatic shiver and chattered his teeth. _Fine._ Loki crossed to the stove, rubbing his hands together partly for showmanship and, partly because it was indeed frigid in the tiny back room, gathered a flame between his fingers and dropped it into the belly of the stove. The kindling roared to life, bathing him and Theo in a rosy, warm glow. Loki pressed his hands to the top of the stove, then glanced at Theo. _What?_ _That_s._ Theo ran a hand over his chin, and Loki suddenly felt strange, the way he always had on Asgard whenever his powers would manifest. But then Theo finished, _That_s brilliant._ _It_s a simple spell._ _Yes, well, some of us can_t do spells at all._ Theo hung his cane on the back of a chair at the table and sank down into it, shifting the rusted sword off the stack of papers in front of him. _Did you make those cuffs as well?_ Loki asked, baiting him, taking the seat across from Theo_s and kicking his heels up against the stove. _The magic-suppressing ones._ _No, those came from Asgard,_ Theo replied. _Your father sent them to Mr. Sharp so that any magical beings he detained could stay detained. Apparently, there were a few incidents._ It seemed to Loki that if you were enlisting humans to fight powerful magical beings on your behalf, the least you could do was arm them with the proper weaponry from the start, but before he could voice the thought, Theo pulled a stack of papers from the bottom of a tottering pile and began to fan them out over the table between them. _So, here are the police reports__ _Hold on._ Loki clamped a hand over the top of the first report just as Theo reached for it, and for a moment their hands were smashed together. It was inelegant and unintentional_the brief feeling of skin on skin startled them both, though only Theo shied away, rubbing his hand like it had been burned. _You promised to help me contact Asgard if I came with you to the morgue,_ Loki said. _Did I?_ Theo rubbed the back of his neck. _I remember it like it was yesterday._ A pause. _It was, in fact, a few hours ago._ _Yes, I recall, thank you._ Theo heaved himself to his feet and retrieved a ceramic jug and bowl from a shelf by the workbench, then placed it on top of the police reports. He uncorked the jug, then emptied the clear liquid from it into the bowl. _This one is also from Odin._ _Aw, he gave you a jug of water?_ Loki pressed a hand to his chest. _He_s thoughtful like that, my father._ _No, he gave us a bowl,_ Theo corrected. _It works as a two-way means of communication between here and Asgard._ Theo stepped back. The surface of the liquid shimmered, and from his angle, Loki could tell an image had formed, but he couldn_t tell what it was. _Would you like some privacy?_ Theo asked. _Why? Can you hear both sides of the conversation?_ _Why?_ Theo mimicked. _Are you going to be talking about me?_ _Possibly. Only disparaging things, I assure you._ Theo snagged his cane off the back of the chair, cast a longing gaze at the stove, then called over his shoulder as he pushed through the velvet curtain, _Tell your father I said hello._ Loki bent over the bowl, its surface trembling slightly as though the ground below it was wavering. He had expected to see his father_s council room reflected back, or Heimdall_s observatory. Perhaps even the throne room. At the very least, the mapmaker_s offices or the library, the sort of places other dignitaries were shown when they visited or communicated with the Asgardian court. But instead, he found himself staring at blank stones that it took him a moment to realize made up a ceiling. It was so wholly unremarkable and unadorned that there wasn_t a chance it could be anywhere significant in the palace. Whatever place Odin had decided to accept communications from the SHARP Society, it was no place of honor. Loki felt a stab of anger at his father again for condemning him to this place, this embarrassment. Working with these humans Odin couldn_t even spare a corner of his council room for communications with. He_d never make contact with someone in Asgard in this dark, hidden corner of the palace. He_d be lucky if a boy emptying chamber pots passed. He straightened up, looking around for Theo. He considered going to fetch him, to ask how it was they ever made contact with Asgard if this was all they had, or if there was some schedule for when a guard on patrol would pass by. Then something flashed on the surface of the water, and Loki dipped back to it, his nose nearly skimming the surface. _Thor!_ A long pause, then the shuffle of footsteps, and a shadow fell over his line of vision, blotting out the ceiling. It was Thor, his hair knotted and stringy with sweat and his chest bare. He let out a shout of surprise. _Loki!_ _Please tell me you_re wearing pants,_ Loki replied. _What are you doing in a washbasin?_ Is that where he was? Worse than expected. Odin had banished all communication with the SHARP Society to the changing rooms off the training arena where soldiers sparred. It was somewhere the king himself never went. _What are you doing answering the call of a talking washbasin?_ Loki returned. _Are you at the training fields?_ _The changing rooms under them. You can_t just._ Thor shifted, grabbing a towel from somewhere outside Loki_s line of vision and tossing it over his shoulder like he was trying to cover himself. _What if I had been undressed?_ _Then I would have been forever scarred,_ Loki replied dryly. _Believe me, this isn_t my first choice of location either._ Thor rubbed the towel over his head, then tossed it onto the floor. Had he been present, it would have taken a good deal of effort for Loki not to retrieve it. _That won_t dry if you leave it bunched up like that,_ he said. _What?_ _The towel._ _Did you appear here just to discuss my.grooming habits?_ _Could you have picked a more upsetting way to phrase that?_ Thor let out a huffy sigh, cast his eyes down at the towel, then seemed to make a conscious decision to be contrary and not pick it up. _Where are you?_ he asked. _On Midgard,_ Loki replied. _Where I was banished._ _You weren_t banished,_ Thor replied indignantly. _You_re on an assignment._ Loki gave him a saccharine smile. _Aw, that_s precious you believe that. Why aren_t you on Alfheim?_ _Father_s gone alone,_ Thor replied. _He_s sending me and a brigade to search for the Stones at a smuggling port near Vanaheim. One of our spies there thinks they might have passed into the black market._ Loki almost fell forward into the basin in anger_and also a bit in the hope he_d fall straight into Asgard. _Another heroic quest to add to your generous supply._ _He thought it would be a better use of my skills__ _Of course he did,_ Loki interrupted. _And my talents are better used playing detective with humans._ _It_s important work for a king__ Thor began, but Loki cut him off. _No, it_s a waste of time meant to punish me. You have to get me out of here._ Thor frowned. _Call for Heimdall._ _I did. I think Father has told him not to bring me back. The Bifrost is closed to me._ _Then I shouldn_t bring you back either._ Loki realized he was gripping the side of the basin without meaning to. _Brother, please._ _But your assignment__ _There is no assignment. Father made up some sham reason to get me off Asgard and to placate these pathetic humans who think what happens to them matters to us. Let me come with you to find the Stones. I_d be so much more valuable to him there. He_s out of the realm, he doesn_t even have to know until I return with you._ Thor chewed the inside of his cheek, that familiar vein of consternation popping out in his forehead. _I_m sorry, brother._ _Thor, please__ _I wish you luck with your assignment, and I_ll see you when you return to Asgard._ _Thor!_ Loki shouted, but his brother was already gone. Then he came back just long enough to snatch up the towel he had discarded, fold it clumsily, and stalk away again. Loki fell backward into the chair, pressing his fists against his forehead and allowing himself a groan of frustration. He had, perhaps, exaggerated in saying that there was no reason for him to stay on Earth. Something magical truly was happening to these humans of London, but he didn_t want to be the one to work it out. He wanted to be scouting the realms for the Norn Stones with Thor, not in a room so narrow he could barely spread his arms, surrounded by human approximations of Asgard and air so dry it made him itch. He wanted to be home. He wanted to be given a chance. Loki stood abruptly and pushed through the curtain, almost smashing into Theo, who was leaning against the counter directly across from it. _What happened to privacy?_ Loki demanded. _There was a curtain,_ Theo replied, the apples of his cheeks pink. Then, he asked, almost like he couldn_t help himself, _So we_re pathetic humans that don_t matter to your father, are we?_ Loki blew a long sigh through his nose. _I_m sure the work you do is very important to your realm and its safety and balance and order and all those diplomatic vocabulary words. But you don_t understand the grand scale of the universe. The biggest thing that happens on Midgard is a blip. A moment. The interdimensional equivalent of a sneeze. My brother is about to leave on an expedition across multiple realms to track down one of the galaxy_s most dangerous magical amplifiers, so forgive me for not dedicating all my energy to the death of a handful of humans in this goiter of a city._ Theo_s jaw clenched, and Loki sensed he wanted to say more than he did. _Those people have families._ _Everyone has a family._ _That doesn_t mean their lives don_t matter._ _Oh, please._ Loki snorted. _Life is the opposite of precious and rare. It_s everywhere. If you wept for every life lost who mattered, you_d weep until the world ended._ _They deserve justice,_ Theo pressed on. _And the people here deserve to be safe from whatever it is that_s killing them, as much as your people deserve to be safe from whatever artifacts your brother is searching for._ _Are you attempting to move me?_ Loki spread his hands. _Do you expect tears? I_m not the crying sort._ _No, I suppose that_s too much to ask of you._ They were interrupted by the bell over the door, and Theo spun around. _We_re not open__ he started. _Oh, it_s you._ It took Loki a moment to recognize Gem away from the dark hallway beneath the British Museum and dressed in a smart blue uniform with a tall domed hat. Even if he hadn_t seen the officers in the morgue the day before, it wouldn_t have taken much understanding of Midgardian fashion to realize Gem was a policeman. Soldiers looked the same everywhere. Gem was red-faced and out of breath, his enormous shoulders heaving like a mountain upset by an earthquake. _They found another one._ Theo_s elbow slipped off the edge of the counter. _What?_ _Scotland Yard,_ Gem replied between gasps. _One of the constables over in Clapham, behind the Plough. Another body._ Theo cursed under his breath. _Does Mrs. S.__ he began, but Gem interrupted him. _I called on her at the museum. She_ll be on her way by now. You know where it is? The blokes can_t see me with you._ _I can find it. I_ll grab the kit. And my coat._ Theo started for the back room and almost smashed into Loki. _Oh, and you. You_re coming too._ _To a murder?_ Loki asked. _To a crime scene,_ Theo replied. The crowd surrounding the Plough Inn was nearly as large as the one that had been waiting outside the morgue. Loki wasn_t sure whether he should be impressed or disgusted by humanity_s stalwart dedication to morbidity. At the back of the crowd, Mrs. S. was waiting for them, a dark cloak thrown over her high-necked bodice. She was wearing trousers with wide legs that flared over her short boots, and her bony arms were crossed over her stomach. It may have been meant to look like she was waiting impatiently, but Loki had a sense she was simply warding off the cold. She had a set of dark spectacles perched on her nose, their frames so small that they were hardly bigger than her eyes. _There you are,_ she said as they approached her. _I_ve been able to get precious little information from those infuriating policemen, but Gem should have more for us later. It_s Ashford and Baines,_ she said to Theo, names that clearly meant something, for his mouth puckered. _Now._ She turned to Loki. _Just to prepare you a bit for what is about to happen__ _I_m about to see a dead body?_ he offered. _Oh._ She paused. _Yes, but that wasn_t what I was going to prepare you for. The police force here is rather hostile._ _To everyone?_ _Yes, but specifically us._ _Now, Mrs. Sharp._ Loki mirrored her stance, arms crossed over his stomach. _Why would anyone be hostile to you?_ _My point being,_ she said, _that what precious little time we have to access the crime scene and the body should be used to its fullest extent. You have the kit?_ she asked Theo, and he patted the leather bag slung over his shoulder. _Excellent. The prince is your responsibility._ _I_m capable of being my own responsibility,_ Loki interjected. Mrs. S. raised an eyebrow, but didn_t comment. _Follow me, now._ This crowd was less animated than the one outside the morgue had been. No more than whispers passed between people, like mourners at a funeral trading gossip about the deceased. Loki noticed several people lean into their friends when they saw Mrs. S., their gazes lingering on her peculiar spectacles and wide trousers. None of the other women on Midgard wore pants, Loki realized. Two policemen were standing at the front of the crowd, their arms locked to keep people back. One of them was Gem, doing a good imitation of not noticing them. The other officer was just as broad as Gem, his hair cut in the same uneven crop. He cast them a derisive sneer as they approached. _What a very expected surprise._ _Good afternoon, Paul,_ Mrs. S. replied. _You_re looking well._ _You_ve got to call me Officer now, Mrs. Sharp,_ Paul replied. Mrs. S. clicked her tongue. _Now, I don_t think your mother would appreciate you taking that tone with me._ Paul blushed. _She doesn_t want nothing to do with you anymore, and neither do we._ _So she_s told me,_ Mrs. S. replied. _May I speak with your commanding officer?_ _Mum says you went loony after your husband kicked it,_ Paul went on. Mrs. S._s smile went tense. _It_s so kind of your dear mother to speak of me so. And for you to bring it up now._ She turned to Gem. _Sir, will you please let us pass so I may speak with your commanding officer? Since your brother will not?_ Loki saw it then, the resemblance between Paul and Gem. It was subtle_he had thought they looked alike in the way all men with large hands and mountain ranges for shoulders looked alike. But they also had the same flat nose and small eyes, foreheads so wide you could have papered them with broadsides. Gem cast a glance at his brother. _They don_t do no harm, Paul._ _Detective Baines doesn_t like__ Paul started, but Gem dropped his arm and said, _You can go on, Mrs. Sharp._ _Thank you, Gem,_ she replied, and she, Theo, and Loki passed between the two men. _Tell your mother I am still in possession of my mental faculties in totality, and I hope she_s well._ Gem nodded. _Ma_am._ The body of the murdered man looked like the others in the morgue, slack features and lifeless limbs, but in the way of sleep and not death. He was dressed in knee-high socks and a rough coat. His hands were black around the knuckles, and a set of long-handled brushes fastened to his back had tumbled into the mud, their strap pulled tight around his neck. A few men in the same uniform as Gem were meandering around the alley, turning over crates and kicking at the dirt, looking for anything left behind. A man with a spindly-legged tripod was setting up a camera to take photos. Two men were conversing over the body, one with a thick mustache, the other a lanky redhead with a wispy beard, and they looked up as the group approached. The man with the mustache smiled, his face absent of any emotion to accompany it. _Look lads, the ghost gang has arrived._ Mrs. S._s smile was equally steely. _Good evening, Detective Ashford._ She turned to the redheaded officer and nodded curtly. _Detective Baines._ _Mrs. Sharp._ Ashford held up a hand to halt their progress. _You_re trespassing on an official Scotland Yard crime scene. Again._ _Would you like to go through the usual theatrics where you make protestations requesting I leave and I object?_ Mrs. S. asked. _I_d rather just arrest you,_ Ashford replied. _That doesn_t sound like you, Detective._ Mrs. S. held up her hands, palms flat, and wiggled her fingers. _You generally prefer not to get your hands dirty._ Ashford hitched up his pants with a mirthless chuckle. _So what is it that killed him this time? Spooks? A phantom? Was he strangled by a poltergeist? Or did he cross the same witch as every other bleeding corpse in London?_ _You got a new beau there, Bell?_ Baines called to Theo, before Mrs. S. could answer. _He_s a greasy cat, isn_t he? I thought you liked the intellectuals._ It seemed inadvisable to perform any spells in front of these policemen, or even voice the threat to do so, so Loki simply gave the man a look that said as clearly as he could, I will turn you into a toadstool. _Ignore them,_ Theo murmured to Loki, though his voice was tight. _What do you think of my trousers?_ Mrs. S. intervened, and Theo nudged Loki_s leg with his cane. _Come on, we need to take a better look while she has them distracted,_ he said. _They let me wear these at the museum now,_ Loki heard Mrs. S. say as he followed Theo around the fringes of the crime scene. _Got to be your own husband now that yours is dead?_ Baines asked with a nasty smile. _Why do you try so hard to look like a man, Mrs. Sharp?_ _Because,_ Mrs. S. replied without wasting a withering look upon him, _you lads need a good role model._ Theo gritted his teeth, then crouched down beside the body, a tight breath of pain escaping his lips as he shifted his weight off his bad leg. Loki bent down beside him. _Here._ Theo fished in his bag, pulling out a set of spectacles like the ones Mrs. S. wore. _What are these for?_ Loki asked as he took them. _You can see the residue of the spell._ _I didn_t know spells left a residue,_ Loki replied. _Only here on Earth, because the air is so absent of magic. I suspect in Asgard, you_re so thick with it you_d never find a mark._ Loki held the glasses up to his eyes. The colors around him turned acidic, the light taking on a sickly quality except for a small sliver of white air that hovered above the dead man, like a fine dusting of snow over his whole body. When he peered over the top of the lenses, the glow was gone. He pushed the glasses up his nose, then looked down at his own hand, bringing a spell to his fingertips without executing it, and to his surprise, his own fingers took on the same ghostly glow. _Did you make these?_ he asked Theo. _The glasses?_ Theo unfolded his own glasses onto his nose with a shrug. _I put them together, but it_s not my idea. They operate with the same basic principles as the double exposure of spirit photography._ _I don_t know what any of that means._ _It_s not that impressive,_ Theo said. _Do you know what sort of spell this is?_ _I don_t think spells look different. Here._ He held up his hand for Theo to examine, summoning the energy again. Theo frowned, peering over his glasses and then through them again. _And I don_t know any spells that can do this to a human. Or any being._ Loki leaned backward, misplaced his hand, and nearly toppled over. He reached out to catch himself; his hand grasped wildly for purchase and landed upon the bare forearm of the dead man. He felt the spell, though he couldn_t say quite what it was. Beneath him, the man_s body, still warm even in death, spasmed. His fingers reached out, grabbing Loki around the wrist. His eyes flew open and they stared at each other. Then the man fell slack, dead again. Loki scrambled away, ripping off his tinted spectacles and staring at the man. He was dead. He was. He had been. And then, for just a moment. He realized suddenly that he wasn_t the only one who had noticed. The policemen had stopped talking and were now shouting in confusion about what had just happened. Several people from the crowd, who must have been able to see over Gem_s and Paul_s massive arms, screamed. Someone grabbed Loki by the collar of his coat and dragged him out of the way, then bent to take the man_s pulse. _Nothing,_ he called to no one in particular. Detective Ashford was white-faced, his eyes wide. _I saw it. I saw him__ Baines looked up. _I saw it too. We all saw it._ _Bloody hell._ _What did you do?_ Theo murmured to Loki under his breath. _I haven_t a clue,_ he replied. Detective Baines whirled suddenly and shoved Theo, knocking him backward into a puddle. His tinted spectacles flew from his face and skittered across the stones. _You trying to bloody trick us, are you?_ _I didn_t do anything!_ Theo protested. _Like hell you didn_t,_ the detective growled, taking a deliberate step onto Theo_s spectacles. They crunched under his foot like a breaking bone. _You crackpots show up at the same time something strange and inexplicable happens? What a bloody coincidence._ _Leave him alone,_ Mrs. S. called. The detective kicked some of the rancid puddle onto Theo, who flinched. _Don_t think I won_t arrest you again._ He raised his foot once more, higher this time, like he was still deciding where the blow would land, but Loki leaped to his feet, stepping in between the detective and Theo. He was itching to slide one of his knives into his hand, but didn_t think that would make a good case for not arresting them. The detective halted, foot still raised. He and Loki stared each other down, then the man slammed his foot to the ground one more time, splashing them both, before they turned away. _Mrs. Sharp,_ Loki heard Ashford say. _I think it_s best if you and your men leave immediately._ Loki turned and offered Theo a hand. Theo took it, and Loki could feel a faint tremble as he pulled him to his feet. Mrs. S. retrieved Theo_s cane from where it had fallen, then nodded toward the way they had come. As they pushed back through the crowd, several people started jeering at them, repeating many of the same insults the redheaded detective had used. A few jumped in front of them, begging to know what had happened; they hadn_t been able to see. One man said he was with a newspaper and asked for a comment. Mrs. S. ignored them all. _You need a plague,_ Loki said as they finally broke into the Clapham Common, the streets stuffed with carriages and wagons but the sidewalks less congested and far less hostile. _Something to decrease your surplus population a bit._ _We had one,_ Mrs. S. replied. _Several, actually, but somehow the bastards just keep hanging on._ She stopped, turning back to Theo. _Do you want to sit? Are you hurt?_ Theo shook his head, though he looked distressed. _Let_s go home._ _Right. Of course. I_ll find us a cab. Stay with him, won_t you?_ she asked Loki, then stepped into the street, trying to wave down one of the passing carriages. Theo slumped backward against the wall of a butcher_s shop. Loki leaned beside him, staring down at the bricks beneath their feet, stained dark from the refuse littering the butcher_s alleyway. _Thank you,_ Theo said after a time. Loki shrugged. Gallantry made him uncomfortable, but it seemed needlessly cruel to tell Theo he hadn_t meant to intervene. Hadn_t even realized he was standing until he was halfway to his feet. _Is it always like that?_ Loki asked. _With the guards._ _You mean the policemen?_ The ghost of a smile flitted across Theo_s face. _Usually. Sometimes they spit on us. More name-calling. It was rather tame this time._ _Do you have to work with them often?_ _It_s generous to say we work with them. But we cross paths. Often. Usually when there_s something magically disruptive, the police are called to investigate its disruptiveness. Thinking it_s non-magical, of course. And we_re usually there, and they usually would rather we weren_t, so words are exchanged._ He took off his cap and ran a hand through his knotted curls. _But we_ve got Gem on the inside. And.others._ He pinned on the final word with no resolve. _Your vast network of secret society members,_ Loki remarked. Theo glanced sideways at him. _Right. Vast._ Mrs. S. returned then. _I_ve got us a cab back to the office._ She reached out and looped an arm through Loki_s. _Come along, Your Majesty. It would be my honor to show you how we humans deal with our frustrations._ _How_s that?_ Loki asked. _We get well and truly drunk._

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