The Asgardian Sun finally disappeared below the horizon and the darkening sky began to reveal the treasures of its nocturnal aspect; the stars, distant realms, constellations and many other luminous wonders started to appear against the velvet backdrop. Having to admit it had been a long day, Loki called a halt to the proceedings at the house and ordered a guard be posted outside until the following morning to prevent any would-be sight-seers or opportunistic looters. He thanked everyone for their efforts and made his way back to the Palace with his son. He turned down an invitation to dine in the Great Hall, knowing that Erika was waiting for him back in his rooms and that she expected him to come home. Remembering that she had insisted upon a “serious discussion” that morning – which seemed so long ago – he sighed and felt himself becoming irritable. Why was it that a King should have to put up with such treatment and expectations from his maid? He smirked ironically. He knew why, of course; it was because she was the one who knew him inside out and was one of the very few who was brave enough – and cared enough – to talk to him in a straightforward and honest manner, even if it was to discuss things which could anger him.
Bidding Fenrir and a few of the men a good evening, he set off in the direction of the Royal Accommodation of the Palace to see what the evening had in store for him.
The voice of Eir, his most trusted and senior of the Healers, stopped him and he saw her rushing towards him with a portable display device.
“Eir. Do you have news?” He was eager to know the results of the tests she had carried out for him.
“Yes… I ran several experiments and then I did comparisons and…”
“What did you find?” His voice was unintentionally harsh, but when he thought of all that Erika had been through because of the actions of a would-be murderer, he could not help but become impatient.
“The items you found were directly involved in Erika’s illness. They were in whatever it was that she was given and were from the same source as the extracts Dr Banner got from the sample you gave him. Loki…” The Healer’s eyes grew even more serious if it were possible and the Trickster’s mood slipped another notch.
“What is it, Eir? Just spit it out, I am tired and have very little patience left.”
“Very well, then I must tell you that the other substance you brought for me to test was indeed Asgardian Greenbell extract. I did not really need to test it very much; I could tell as soon as I opened the phial. I have ordered it to be placed under the highest of security. If any of it should be stolen, you would be at risk…”
“Yes, I am aware of that. Thank you Eir.” He struggled to keep his voice in a reasonable tone as what she had told him sank in. He felt anger growing inside him as he realised that the residence of the poisoner had been right under his nose all this time. So many major events had transpired and kept him busy since that terrible day that he had not devoted time to finding anything out about this and now the trail had potentially gone cold; he might never find the culprit. Images of Erika lying as though dead in the shower flashed across his mind along with thoughts of all he had risked to try to save her, the strange metamorphosis she had undergone and now the legacy of all of that she carried. She was irrevocably changed and it had all come about because someone had made an attempt on her life. The very girl who had devoted her time to him as she tried to heal him from his brush with death had herself been hurt by those same people.
“My King? Loki? Do you wish to keep the results?” Eir’s voice brought him back and he smiled gratefully at her, only just managing to keep calm.
“Yes, yes I do. Eir I must thank you for your efforts. As ever, this is confidential!”
“Of course, Loki. I will not tell a soul. I have cleared everything away and the evidence was taken for storage by one of your Captains. He has set a twenty-four hour watch.”
“Good. Then I bid you a good night, Eir.” Taking the offered display tablet from the Senior Healer, Loki set off in the direction of the Royal Suites to go back to the girl he had come so close to losing.
Having had a lovely day so far, Erika had decided to test just how far her privileges as the maid of the King of Asgard went. Until today, she had not even considered that her role would include certain rights and benefits; as far as she was concerned she was simply one of the Palace servants. It appeared she was wrong. Of all the people in the Palace, she seemed to have been the only one who had not known of all she was entitled to, and she was pleasantly surprised several times.
And so it was that the kitchen staff would be the ones to bring the King’s evening meal to the suite tonight and they would do it without any prompting. Unbeknown to her, there was a set way in which meals were served privately and the Head Chef was more than capable of ensuring things would run smoothly; it was simply that she had taken so much pride and care in doing it herself that he had never mentioned it to her. Erika had been caught in that natural headspace of “no one can look after him better than I” which was fairly common amongst personal servants and now it was her turn to take a step back and allow others to play their part in keeping the life of their King comfortable. Not having nearly as much to sort out meant that she had some time on her hands and so she decided to make one of her regular entries into her diary – hidden in the bottom of her wardrobe now that Mjölnir was not there to protect it – and to make a list of what she wished to discuss with Loki to stop the digression which usually ended up happening.
Glancing at her timepiece, she noticed it was approaching the time for him to be getting back and she put the diary away. She went to her small dressing table and looked into the mirror, still delighted with her new hairstyle. Taking out some small clips which were holding it in a neat braid, she fluffed up the gentle curls she had freed from their constraints; they now only just reached her shoulders at the back and were layered up shorter and shorter towards the front. It was still just about long enough for her to take up into neat braiding which started at her temples and led back along her head, but gone was the magnificent mane of blonde curls which had once cascaded down her back. She felt lighter and more care free without them and she smiled at her reflection. The new style made her look a little older and more mature and she was very happy with the result. She had decided to wear her favourite blue dress this evening, since she was as good as a guest of Loki’s now that she would be waited on and she found that her spirits were quite high as she went out onto the balcony to have a drink while she awaited her King.
“Faðir, might I have a word?”
Loki bristled with annoyance as he spotted Hel peering out through the door to her suite just down from his own. Had she been waiting for him?He sighed and went over to see her, even though all he wanted to do was to go to his rooms and relax after such a trying day.
“Yes, dear daughter?” He said, not completely without a sarcastic tone, but Hel ignored it and smiled anyway.
“Seneschal and I…”
“Seneschal? Since when were you two such friends?” Loki’s face was now set into an expression of disdain.
“Seneschal,” Stressed Hel, once again ignoring her father’s rudeness, “told me of the harvest of Iðunn’s Apples and that it is quite an important occasion. We think it should be celebrated as such and I have taken the liberty of starting to make the arrangements. You have nothing to worry about; I have it all in hand. All you need to do is turn up and smile!”
“Really?” said Loki, “And just who will be at this ‘harvest feast’? Who do I have to put up with this time?”
“Oh Faðir! You are King of Asgard and a large part of your time should be taken up with hosting feasts and throwing parties and celebrations! You should be showing the people how successful and happy you are in your role, not skulking about being moody and boring!” Hel glared at him from her living eye and pulled an unimpressed face. “And while I have your attention, you are sadly lacking in another area of your public life.”
“I assume you are going to advise me as to which area and just how I should go about rectifying the situation?” Loki’s voice was laced with a warning tone as his mood deteriorated rapidly with this line of conversation, but Hel chose to ignore that too. It did not impress her and she was on too much of a roll for it to scare her; she carried on regardless.
“You need a wife. Or at the very least a consort. Your bachelorhood needs to end now that you are in charge of everything. The people need to see you settle down in your domestic life so that they will feel they can rely on you as their All-Father. You need to produce more heirs, to give off an air of stability. They know you are impressive on the battle field, they know you are ruthless when it comes to enforcing laws, they know… Ahhh!” Hel stopped and looked down at her arm, which was in the vice-like grip of her father. “What are you doing?!” She exclaimed, glaring at him now with a furious expression on the living part of her face, “Unhand me! You cannot…”
“Quiet.” Loki’s voice was low, but laced with Seidr and Hel found that her words died in her throat as a green glow appeared around it. “Do not presume to tell me about how I should be conducting my public… or even my private life.” He growled. “I will see who I choose, escort who I choose and…” Allowing the magical freezing of her throat to dissipate, he let go of his daughter’s arm and gave her a scathing look before setting off to his suite, “and I will sleep with whom I choose. I will not be wedded off at the whim of the general populace and nor am I necessarily ready for more interfering children!”
Unable to let the matter drop, Hel called after him, “You really need to think about what you are doing! The ruling city needs to know it has a future. What do you have to offer? Your ‘family’ is in splinters and half of us are predicted to bring the downfall of the Gods! You need to change minds, Faðir! Faðir, are you listening to me?!” A nasty grimace crossed Hel’s features as she watched Loki storming away across the antechamber in a temper, causing the ravens to flap about and caw loudly and she flinched as she heard the doors to his suite bang shut loudly. Why was he so stubborn?!
Erika jumped at the sound of the main doors to the suite slamming and rose to go to see what the matter was. As she went through the balcony doors to greet Loki with a cheerful smile, she was concerned to see him striding across the room clearly in a terrible mood. Thinking he had not seen her, she was a millisecond from backing away to avoid any confrontation, but to her dismay he spoke to her.
“Erika? Is my supper to be served here? I do not wish to socialise in the Great Hall tonight. It has been a trying day.” He disappeared into the en suite and she heard the splash of water as he took a wash.
“Yes,” she called out, “it is going to be served here in about quarter of an hour. Would you like a drink?” She glanced in one of the many mirrors at her reflection and hoped he would not mind that she had changed out of her uniform. His snappy attitude was worrying her now and she felt too casual in her silk dress, wishing that she had simply spent the day in her usual role instead of spoiling herself at the Spa.
“Yes please. A glass of red would be most welcome.” Oh by the Norns, he was coming back out of the bathroom! Erika moved quickly over to the large writing desk and put it between her and Loki as she decanted some of the spicy red liquid into his goblet. As she looked up, she saw him go to his dresser, dragging along his heavy Royal Dress and throwing it almost contemptuously to the floor. She looked at the faintly visible pattern of his scars on his back as he reached into one of the drawers for a green shirt and as he pulled it down over his pale skin she blinked and looked away, delaying now as she became worried about what he would think of her appearance.
“Chop-chop!” He said to hurry her along and she realised he had gone to sit near the fire to have his drink while he waited for his supper to arrive. Swallowing hard, she took the wine over to him and placed it on the low table in front of him.
What was it about Loki? Even though Erika was not looking at the Trickster, she felt every inch of the path his eyes took as they travelled from the hand she held the goblet in and over her, taking in her clothing, the light make up she was wearing and her hair. They moved slowly and in a fashion which began as curiosity, but which quickly became predatory… or was there a hint of displeasure in there as he looked again at her hair, examining the new shorter style she now wore.
“I… er, I hope this is a good vintage.” She said lamely, completely avoiding his gaze, “I chose it because it should be nice with the menu for tonight.” Unable to resist the magnetism of the mischievous God, her eyes briefly flickered to his, but then she moved away to go to check that the table was laid correctly. The seductive effect he was having on her was almost instantaneous and it would not make for serious conversation.
“Will you not join me?” It was not a question. “I believe you wished to discuss various matters with me… serious ones as I recall?”
“I think you should relax and have supper first, Your Highness. I do not wish to trouble you after a bad day.”
“Hmmm.” A thoughtful smile graced Loki’s face as he refused to look away from her, his emerald eyes drinking in this new look and considering it. What did he think? She wondered, and then admonished herself as she remembered he would hear everything she thought. Yet she could not stop herself from being curious as to whether he liked what she had done with her hair since it was such a big change from how she had always worn it. “I wonder if you will ever completely drop that formality, Erika?” He conjured a goblet of wine on the table, “Please, sit with me a while. Tell me of your day so that I may forget my own for a bit.” He raised his own goblet and took a sip, his glittering eyes fixing on hers, “You look like you have been… busy.” His face still gave nothing away as to what he thought, even as she made her way to sit opposite him and picked up her wine. A small sip of the smooth spicy Asgardian Red warmed her through and she took a few more gulps before cradling it in her hands and shaking off her shoes so she could tuck her feet up under her on the over sized chair. Loki had slumped in his own chair and was sprawled out in a very relaxed manner, given his frame and the awful mood he had apparently been in when he had first arrived. He nodded at her to start and still he did not look away. This was starting to make her feel uncomfortable and so she decided to look into the embers of the fire as she spoke in order to avoid looking at him. She did not want to lose her nerve and drop the topics she most needed to address with him.
“I think you will be happy with what I have done today.” She began. Or some of it. “I made the decision to return Mjölnir to the Weapons Vault.” Wanting to gauge his reaction, her blue eyes fastened on his, clearly expecting a response to this statement, but he held his tongue, merely nodding and taking another sip of his wine. He was not going to make this easy, clearly. “I felt that her presence close to me was causing friction between you and I and it is where she belongs, after all.” Loki still did not speak, so she decided to carry on, even if only to avoid the silence. “I also spoke to Fulla today. I met her as she came to attend Princess Hel this morning and we both remarked upon the ravens.” She paused as she saw a wrinkle of annoyance almost settle on Loki’s face, but the damn Trickster quickly disguised it, preferring instead to continue to stare noncommittally at her. She lifted her chin to emphasize the seriousness with which she took the birds’ situation, “You should unchain them.” An element of impatience began to spoil her mood as the infernal God of Mischief still remained silent. This had gone beyond simple politeness in listening to her and was becoming downright rude and ignorant! Did he have nothing to say? “They should be allowed to come and go as they desire. They are birds and should be allowed to fly! I will take responsibility for them if that is what you want.”
“So that you can communicate with Odin?” Loki’s voice was low and casual with no hint of wanting an argument; he was merely asking the question. What was the matter with him?
“No! I have always believed your treatment of them is cruel, you know that. Fulla agrees with me.” Erika set a stubborn look on her face as her courage grew in her efforts to help someone else, “Anyone would. It is as if you do it out of spite towards Odin. Well, he is a better person than one who might rise to that and you just look like someone who enjoys mistreating intelligent animals! You really should know better.”
“Very well. Having thought about it, you can talk to Odin and Thor anytime you choose and the ravens neither help nor hinder you. Your access to the vault was only possible because an authorised person intervened and since it was not me, it only leaves Odin and Thor as far as I am aware. I cannot stop you by continuing to keep Huginn and Muninn chained up. They are annoying anyway.” Loki made a brief gesture with his long fingers, emitting a faint trail of green sparkling dust and Erika heard the two Ravens cawing loudly out in the antechamber as their chains clattered to the floor; he had been as good as his word! The God of Mischief took a large gulp of his wine and glanced over to the timepiece, then back to Erika. “Any chance of another before supper?”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Erika got up from the chair rather too quickly and winced as the pins and needles spiked her legs on the way to fetching the carafe of wine for him. She poured him a generous serving and willed the Head Chef to send up from the kitchens as soon as possible. Sitting back on her chair, she said,
“Speaking of Odin and Thor. Where are they?” There was no other way to ask him and so she had gone for the most straight forward and honest way. She did not expect an answer from him of course; why would he tell her such a secret? It did not matter, of course; Gaia had told her of their whereabouts when she had told her of the prophecy where Erika could be the potential nemesis of the House of Odin. Yet she thought she would test just how honest he would choose to be with her. He raised an arched eyebrow as her question sank in and then he laughed heartily.
“They are on Midgard. Why do you ask?”
Erika was so shocked that he had simply told her where they were that she could not speak for a few moments, but then curiosity took over her and the questions began to flow.
“Why? What manner of stronghold is there on such a realm that is able to contain them? Surely Heimdallr can see them! I have had communication with Thor through Mjölnir, but I also know Odin is conscious… is he no longer in the Odinsleep? Why will you not bring them back? Surely there has to be a way to explain everything and…”
“Erika, Erika, Erika… You speak too quickly; your ideas are spilling from you like a torrent! Think about what it is you are asking. I cannot bring them back here unless they are my prisoners and I do not think the citizens of Asgard would be too pleased. There would definitely be an attempt to liberate them and to overthrow me and I could not hope to remain free! I would be back in that cell before I could blink!” He laughed bitterly, “Let them languish on their favourite realm a while longer while I think upon their situation. Asgard is doing very well under my rule and I intend to improve things further. Perhaps when I have accomplished all I have planned, they will want to come back and accept me as their King anyway!”
A knock at the door announced the arrival of their supper and the Head Chef arrived with the same apprentice as last time, only he did not stare in the same way as he had when he had first come here. Erika smiled inwardly; she could imagine the conversation on the way up here, with the chef threatening the poor lad’s very existence if he so much as glanced at the King. The pair quickly laid everything out on the table and then Loki and Erika were beckoned over to take their seats. It was so nice to be waited on that the young maid almost forgot the rest of what she wished to discuss with Loki while the napkin was placed in her lap and her wine was poured for her. The Head Chef bowed to Loki, “Your Highness.”
“Thank you. This looks delicious.” Replied Loki, nodding his approval. The Chef and his apprentice left the room and Loki looked up at Erika with a grin on his face.
“Well, I am ravenous, are you?” He began to tuck in to the dish with enthusiasm, savouring each mouthful as he did so, and Erika could not help but watch him. Even when doing something as simple as eating his supper, he was still mesmerising to watch with his graceful movements and enjoyment of the meal he had been served.
“Eat up. It will go cold!” Erika quickly looked down to her own plate, blushing at the realisation that she had been staring and she began to eat her supper. It was delicious indeed and there was quite a while where the two of them ate in silence. Erika was wondering how best to go about raising some of the other points she wanted to talk to Loki about and was just about to start when he announced,
“You look lovely tonight Erika. What prompted you to have a new hairstyle?”
“I was at a loose end and I happened to pass the Spa and I wondered if I was allowed to use its facilities…”
“Of course you are! You are the King’s personal maid and you are entitled to as much around the Palace as a lot of the nobles and Gods. I suppose I should have made it clear to you…” Loki reached out and touched her arm, “Erika, you are as good as family to me and you can have anything you desire.” Erika looked at him despondently. There was only one thing she really desired and that was for Loki to give up on his ideas of revenge against Odin and to bring him back to Asgard with Thor so that everything could be sorted out. A day dream of a sort crossed her mind where the green-eyed God had somehow been forgiven for everything he had done and he had decided to calm down and live simply as a noble about court with Erika as his companion, perhaps even his wife. He would have none of the pressures of ruling Asgard upon him, he would be able to pursue his love of the arts and take back up his horsemanship… they could take long walks along the river, see the sights, maybe raise a family…
Her fanciful thoughts abruptly ended as she felt the strong elegant fingers of her King slip from her arm and she looked up to see him eating his supper again. Had he seen any of that? Mentally berating herself for letting her guard down, she began to push her own food around her plate as she thought about what he had said.
“I know I should look smart as your maid for it would not do for the King to have a scruffy girl in this position, but is that all that matters, Loki?” She kept her eyes on the plate and her voice became quiet as she asked the difficult question, “I cannot ever be seen as more than that, can I? In public, I mean.” This was something which had occurred to her more than once since she had realised she loved Loki and definitely since their relationship had matured into what they shared now, complicated as it was. Silence stretched on for what seemed like a lifetime to her, but which was only a few seconds; she continued, “I believe the exact words are ‘Fornicate if you will, but do not carry it on into a matter for your heart. A Prince of Asgard can only have a wife from the correct echelon of society’?”
Loki’s fork clanged down on his plate and Erika was shocked to see the hurt expression on his face.
“Why do you use those words, Erika? Do you not know what they mean to me?!”
“I… I am sorry, Loki. I should not have said that. I apologise, I really do… I was not thinking properly. Forgive me.”
“Yet you said them for a reason. What was it?” His emerald eyes, although still showing his upset, were curious as to why she had used something Odin had said to him decades ago.
“Because it is as relevant today as it was back when mother was banished from Asgard.”
“And is that what you want, Erika? Do you wish to be my wife?” His voice had grown soft with his own question and Erika found herself unable to cope with it. Feeling rising emotion, she took her napkin from her lap to get up.
“Stay, Erika. Please. I want to know what you are thinking!”
“NO!” Loki’s shout shocked her into silence, but then the tears really did come and she did get up and she did leave the table. Yet a strong hand grasped her arm gently bringing her to a stop before she could escape the room and she found herself drawn into a firm embrace where she gave in and started to cry freely.
“Oh Loki, do you not understand? What future is there for me? I am the common daughter of a seamstress and a stonemason and I can never be any more than your servant! I am trapped, Loki! I am trapped by my heart in a situation where I can never be with you officially. Oh, Gods, Loki… if this is love then I do not want it! It hurts, Loki. It hurts and it constrains and it does not feel nice at all!” Pulling away, Erika looked up into Loki’s infamous eyes, the eyes which she and she alone could read like an open book, to see confusion and concern there. “You cannot possibly hope to understand, my King…” she said, “You need a wife, or you need to bring the mother of your sons back to your side. You need a noblewoman, or a Goddess… someone of a high enough social standing and you need to do it soon. No matter what your intentions are in the long run, Asgard needs a Queen, Loki.”
Erika extracted herself from Loki’s arms, leaving him standing dumfounded as he watched her cross the room. Pausing at the great doors, she looked briefly back at him through her tears and managed a small smile. “I will see you in the morning Your Highness.” She said, and left to go to her own rooms.
The last guest had thanked her for the evening meal she had provided and now there were a few people sitting out in the back garden enjoying a social drink in the pleasant Asgardian evening. Although it was quite chilly, the small garden was kept at a decent temperature by the heat given out by a cheerful brazier in one corner and the sky was so clear that it was wonderful to see all the patterns made by the stars. Helga cleared the table and was preparing to wash up the dirty crockery when a quiet knock on the kitchen door announced the arrival of Bjorn’s beautiful foster daughter, Aida. The Elven Jotúnn paused briefly and her crimson eyes widened at the sight of Helga’s Jotúnn appearance before she came in and gave the land lady a warm hug.
“Hello my dear girl, how do you fare?” Helga pointed to the sofa in the corner of the kitchen, “Take a seat and I’ll bring us something to drink.”
“I am well, thank you. You have decided to drop the Asgardian visage permanently?”
“Yes. And do you know, it is such a relief? I do not have even to think of it any more. People are becoming used to it and do not stare nearly as much as I thought they might. I feel free, Aida!” Helga joined her on the worn and over stuffed sofa and handed her a drink, “How are… things?”
“’Things’ are good, thank you. I have had quite a few days, but I am not permanently harmed by the accident in the gardens and I am getting to know my new friend very well.”
“Good, good. You are enjoying your design work at the Palace, too?”
“Oh yes and we are to have another celebration too! I have not known the Palace to be so busy since before the troubles with Loki a few years ago, but I confess it is really nice to see such happy occasions having feasts and parties arranged around them. I have just come from a meeting with Hel and Seneschal as it happens. They are very fascinating people… Hel seems to have taken a bit of an interest in me too, for some reason.” Aida looked meaningfully at Helga and mouthed “Loki” to her, raising her eyebrow.
“She will have to dig deep in order to find out anything about you!” Said Helga cautiously, “She will not find much which is out for all to see…”
“I know, Helga.”
“Yes, it will be nice to have such friends in the Palace and I believe you are close to Freyja too?”
“Helga,” Aida tapped at one of her temples and locked crimson eyes on her. “I know.”
Helga hesitated a moment and dropped her own eyes to look into her drink while she thought about what Aida had just said. Did she mean the Dragonsmark?
“I do not mind. I must have given you permission in the first place and I confess it makes my task easier. I have had communication with Khellendros and he made it possible for me to remember. Do not worry, I will not reveal this to anyone else, but you are the leader of us and you have a right…”
“I am not.” Interrupted Helga, “After those two poor children, I could take it no longer. I resigned.”
“I do not know what to say…”
“There is nothing to say. Carry on as you are and keep in touch with the person assigned to you already. I will not tell them that you know of your… mark. Just be careful, Aida.”
“Yes… regarding that. I am clear in my mind as to what I wish to accomplish. It may take a few weeks, perhaps even months, but I feel I am on track with it. I will give it my best.”
“Please be careful, Aida. It is not a simple thing you are undertaking.”
“No, it is not, but I have noticed the atmosphere in the Palace since so many of the Gods came home to see Loki officially take the Throne. There are whisperings and mutterings and although the visible attitude is one of celebration and progress, the undertone is much less happy. What will happen now you have stepped down?”
“Not much will change my dear, but rest assured that your contact will advise you on that if necessary. Now, would you like a freshly baked biscuit to go with your drink?”
Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, Erika flinched when she heard the door of the King’s Suite open.
“Erika! Come back, please. I would speak to you of this!”
Instead, the young maid began to hurry faster towards her own doors. She did not want to see him! What she had said to him was true, no matter how much she wished it was not and to be in his presence at this moment would only hurt more. To her dismay, she found it more and more difficult to move her feet and she looked down to see a green glow about them. He was using magic to stop her!
“No, Loki! That is not fair!” She struggled to lift her foot, “No! Let me go. I do not wish to see you! I want to be alone!” If she could have stamped her foot, she would have, but instead she screamed in frustration, balling her fists as her impotent struggling got her nowhere. “Loki!”
The long elegant fingers of her King slipped around one of her arms as he came into view and he looked at her with eyes full of concern for her.Damn him! She tried to look away, wanting to refuse to acknowledge that he was there, willing him to go away – shouting her thoughts at him: “Go away!” and sobbing terribly, stuck as she was to the floor of the antechamber. To her surprise, everything around them began to shimmer as though she was looking through a thin curtain of falling water and then the antechamber disappeared abruptly. A second later a garden came into view around her, dimly lit in the crisp light of the Asgardian Moon as she climbed up from the horizon, and Loki was steering her over to a bench where they sat down. Erika shivered in the chill of the night air and then gasped as she felt a warm woollen shawl form over her shoulders and Loki pulled her closer to him. She was still very upset, but the sudden change in surroundings had shocked her out of her episode and now she was looking around, wondering where she was.
It was a relatively small garden for the Palace, and was surrounded on three sides by high russet brick walling. There seemed to be paths wending their way through many differently styled beds of flowers and there were a couple of dark shapes which indicated small buildings and maybe a glass house. As she sat on the bench, the gentle scents of the lavender around them and of the camomile at their feet began to calm her down and a slow realisation came to her: this had to be Frigga’s garden. At one time anyone could have come here to look around and possibly be lucky enough to meet its owner while she pottered around caring for her beloved plants, but ever since the late Queen’s death it had always been locked; the iron gates set in an arch built of the same small bricks as the walls were never seen open and Erika had only tried to look through them a couple of times when she had been wandering around the Palace grounds. For some reason, no matter how one craned one’s neck, the view into the garden beyond the gates was never quite in focus and one quickly gave up trying. It was magic of some kind she knew, so to now be sitting in the middle of the forbidden space was making her feel quite emotional. As she looked around, she saw a large lilac tree in the furthest corner and she was surprised at its size. It was nicely pruned and the heavy blooms looked like they must be at least as beautiful and as fragrant as the ones that had graced the tree which had been destroyed out in the main gardens only a few days ago.
“It is from the same stock as her tree.” Said Loki in a quiet voice and he sighed heavily as he looked in the same direction as Erika. “When the very first original tree began to sicken, my mother took cuttings – about a dozen of them – and I helped her to bring them on. I was only a small child. The tree out there in the main gardens is one of those my mother grew and it is the sister to this one, which I grew. Frigga was upset that the original tree planted to celebrate her marriage to Odin had a malaise caused by little insects and so she cultivated new ones from it before it died. She accelerated their growth using her natural talents with nature and her Seidr. She taught me at the same time…” Loki’s voice sounded wistful at first, but as he related his story to her, Erika heard it grow stronger and happier. “We stole out in the middle of the night and we used our magic to swap the two trees once her new one was large and strong enough. No one ever knew – not even Odin! Only I was in on the secret. And now, this one remains as a testament to how much she cared and to her wisdom and talents.”
“Why not transplant it? You could replace the dead tree…”
“No. No, that one must stay there as a reminder of the vindictiveness of those who destroyed it.” Loki looked around at the garden, which was highlighted in silvery white light from the moon. “I come here when I have to get away from things. I find a solace in tending these plants which I am unable to find elsewhere.” Loki took hold of Erika’s hand and turned slightly to look at her, “Except with you. There is something about you…”
“Please don’t, Loki.” Said Erika, interrupting him, “I would like to go back now, if I may? I need to think upon my future.”
“There is nothing to think about. We have been through this Erika. You are my maid and my chosen companion and I will not…”
“Loki. There has to come a time when you realise your true responsibilities. You wanted Asgard and you got her. You wanted the Throne in your own right and now you have it. You. Are. The. All-Father. You are not a young free-spirited Princeling with a couple of brothers in line before you. You are the King. There are expectations of you and if you do not start to fulfil them then you will experience displeasure and opposition like nothing before.” Erika slipped her hand out of his. “Please, I want to go back.”
“Come back with me. I brought us here because I saw Hel opening her door and I did not want us to have an audience while we talked to each other. Please go back with me, not by yourself.” Loki was not begging her, but he was not far from it. The idea that Erika was voluntarily removing herself from his life to make enough space for someone else to become his official female… partner? companion? Queen?... was not sitting well with him and he began to feel the start of desperation as her silence dragged on.
“Please, Erika. At least share a warm drink with me to ward off this chill?”
Erika made the fatal mistake of looking up at her handsome King to see a lopsided smile as he tried to win her over and her heart melted as she fell into those pools of emerald green. Somewhere in her mind, she knew he was employing all the charm he could muster to get his own way, but the roguish little daemon sitting on her shoulder just didn’t give a damn.
“One, Loki. Then I will return to my own room.”
Hel pressed her living ear up against the door trying to hear what was being said. Something was going on for certain and it did not sound as if it was very good. It sounded as if her father and his maid were falling out about something. The mischievous Princess of Asgard winced and drew back from the door as she heard Erika’s annoyed shout and she decided she could not simply stay here and do nothing. What was happening?!This was far too delicious a situation to ignore! She grasped the handle of the door and turned it slowly, listening for any further development and peered out cautiously.
Erika was standing towards the nearer side of the antechamber, clearly on her way to her own room, which was between Hel’s door and the door to the King’s suite. There was a furious expression on her face and there was a green glow around her feet, explaining why she was simply standing there and not moving away from Loki, who was reaching out to take her arm. Hel noticed she looked especially pretty tonight, wearing a lovely blue dress and having had a very flattering haircut. She wondered if her father and his maid were supposed to be having a special evening together, then all of a sudden Hel’s father’s eyes fastened on her and she flinched as he gave her a look as cold as the wastes of Jotúnnheimr. A second later, he had disappeared along with Erika and it was Hel who now grunted in frustration. She would not get to see an emotional display tonight. Where had they gone? Going back inside her rooms, Hel thought about the various situations she had seen her father in over the last few days and gave out an impressed snort, which was not very attractive on the dead side of her face. He was a busy man, it seemed. As far as she could tell, he was juggling a wife and children, his little pet companion and an exotic half-breed. What potential for fun!