Chapter 1: A Good Plot
“A good plot, good friends, and full of expectation; an excellent plot, very good friends.”
Henry IV, Part 1, William Shakespeare
“Henry? What are you doing?”
The King was gazing into the darkness outside the small window. The deep blackness was dotted with stars, but Henry was not contemplating the vastness of the universe. He was in fact engaged in a lively electronic discussion with someone. Not that most people would have been able to tell: he was as still as ever: his long back upright, his hands clasped loosely at the base of his spine, his noble brow only slightly furrowed. But the person asking the question knew him better than any other.
“Nothing, my darling Cate. Simply thinking.”
His queen raised a sceptical eyebrow. She put down the tablet she had been using to browse for gifts for the coming festive season. “If you are wondering what to give me for Christmas, I have plenty of suggestions for you, love.”
Henry turned around and smiled at his beloved, who was looking up at him from the sofa, a falsely innocent expression on her beautiful olive-skinned face. “Oh, you need not concern yourself with that, my dearest. I have that fully under control.”
“Oh yes? Then what are you up to?” He started to speak but Cate continued. “Because you areup to something, aren’t you?” Her tone brooked no denial, so rather than lie, her husband merely shrugged.
“Would you care for a coffee, or perhaps a glass of wine, my darling?”
“Changing the subject, eh? Well, it won’t work, I’ll get to the bottom of it, eventually, you know that, Harry-boy.”
Henry drew himself up to his full height and strode to the kitchen with as much dignity as he could muster. Try as he might, he could never fool Cate, so silence with a just soupçon of affront was the best he could manage. She was, of course, correct. He had been conversing with Oakley. The young scallywag was not someone with whom he regularly consorted, but needs must. While not given to revenge, Henry was determined that he would gain some small satisfaction in the coming weeks, and Oakley was just the accomplice for such a task.
Loki was rummaging around in a large pink box across the room from his partner, who was staring into space listlessly. He held up a pale hand in which he grasped a bottle of glittering red nail varnish. “How about this one, my darling? Suitably festive?”
Hannah let out a long, exasperated sigh. “Yeah, yeah, whatever.”
Loki stood up and walked around the daybed to perch beside her hip. He stroked her hair as she stared at the ceiling. “I know this is rather tedious for you, my dear, but it’s only for a short while.” A soft harrumph came from close by. “Now, come, let me paint your delicious toes.” Elegant fingers caressed her calf and despite her low mood, a shudder of desire rippled over her.
“Alright, alright. At least it will pass the time.”
Hannah had known even before she became pregnant that, given her age, it was unlikely she would have an uncomplicated gestation. In fact, all had gone pretty smoothly until the last few weeks, when her blood pressure and routine urine analyses had alarmed the team caring for her. Ideally, Miriam would have liked to admit her to the antenatal unit for monitoring, but Hannah had refused. She insisted that with Loki looking after her, she would be as safe at home. She almost regretted that when it became obvious that her partner took his responsibilities as a substitute nurse very seriously. She was prescribed bed rest to treat her pre-eclampsia, and so Hannah found herself confined to their apartment for all but the occasional evening with friends (when Loki insisted she was pushed by him in a wheelchair, with great ceremony, to and from their apartments). She had access to all the resources that OB4’sonline systems could provide, plenty of entertainment and information, but it wasn’t long before she came down with a severe case of cabin fever. This was exacerbated by the terrible instruction that her friend the Medical Director had solemnly pronounced to them both: no excitement.
A stream of visitors eased her discomfort somewhat. Amanda brought Daisy to see her ‘auntie’, and Hannah was delighted to watch the baby’s little curly blonde head as she cruised around the room, clutching onto the furniture before resorting to a bum-shuffle form of propulsion when she ran out of hand-holds. Julie and Edward came by often with Phoebe, who adored Loki and completely monopolised him while there. Julie was sparkling with the unmistakable glow of early pregnancy. Miriam’s idea seemed to have worked, judging by the look of Edward; he walked taller, held himself with more gravity and what seemed like real pride.
These days, Hannah had to keep reminding herself that the men of OB4 were androids. All of them, active Companions included, had evolved, matured, become even more human. Even haughty King Henry V, that most inflexible of the ‘originals’, had softened in the crucible of fatherhood and marriage. It always amused her to watch the interactions between him and Loki. Henry had never quite forgiven the Trickster for the humiliation of the prank he and Oakley orchestrated before the birth of his first child. They had never been friends, and most likely never would be, despite the closeness of their respective partners. Loki was too devious for the upright Plantagenet; Henry was too straight-laced for the God of Lies. And the King still harboured a lingering resentment about another, long-ago event.
Cate, being Hannah’s best friend, visited her most days. Her daughters Nell and Kitty - who came too, when school and other activities allowed - were almost incandescent with excitement about the new baby. Hannah and Loki were so special to the girls, and Cate’s own anticipation of her dearest friend’s joy was feeding the frenzy somewhat. When they were there, the two youngsters chattered incessantly about baby clothes, fussed over the latest scan pictures, giggled about the games they could play with her once she was born, and quizzed Loki about the name she was given the moment she was conceived.
Frigga Lokisdottir. There had never been any doubt that would be it. There had - briefly - been some question as to whether she would ever be made, but that turned out to be just a short blip in the passionate love affair between her parents. Not that Loki was her actual, biologicalfather, of course; no child had been conceived naturally for generations, not since the men of Earth made themselves extinct. But even with sophisticated gene editing, it was never certain which characteristics would be expressed in the new offspring; would little Frigga have Loki’s black hair and blue eyes? Or her mother’s green eyes and dark blonde hair? She would be bright, that was beyond question, but would she be tall and rangy or curvy, love jazz or hate it, want to read or prefer often just to watch movies? That aspect of the adventure of procreation had not been lost, for all the technological interference.
These were the matters Hannah mused on in the long hours she was condemned to rest, feet up at all times, maintaining her health and hence that of her daughter, now just a matter of weeks, days almost from joining the population of Orbital Base 4. That forthcoming event was another source of tension; despite Hannah’s best hopes, Miriam had confirmed a week ago that her condition meant she would have to have a surgical delivery. It was just the latest in a series of disappointments.
“I know things are not turning out exactly as you had hoped they would, my darling.” Hannah looked up from her folded hands to see Loki’s beautiful face. He was deploying the deadliest weapon in his armoury: the wistful smile. His eyes were sad, but they brightened as he went on. “But you are suffering all this for our daughter, and won’t that priceless treasure be worth it? Even the caesarean?”
She reached forward to grasp his free hand as he put the nail polish down. “I know, I know. You’re quite right, of course. It’s just so bloody boring, and… I just wish I wasn’t going to start motherhood with an abdominal wound.”
He smiled more broadly. “But at least, you won’t be…” His eyes flicked up and down.
Hannah slapped at him playfully. “Oh stop it!” She leaned back into the pillows, which felt clammy and creased from being used all day. He was right; for all its disadvantages, at least she wouldn’t be stretched down there. At her age, she needed all the help she could get…
It was the nearest to winter that OB4 ever saw: the apple trees were bare; a cool wind blew across the grass and rattled the old-fashioned shutters on the cider mill. The park was largely deserted; the children were back in school, and the chill was less than welcoming to the casual stroller. Henry was walking, marching really, in his accustomed way. It was what he did when he needed to think. He would have preferred a fast gallop, but all the horses were long gone. His pale face was stern, the brows knit together. His slim body, clad in his favourite leather jerkin and breeches, was a red streak against the winter-green grass. He was grappling with his conscience, something he did more often these days. In his youth, he had been a little wild, he conceded, and japes of even the cruellest kind were not beyond him. But now he was a father, a husband and a king, and such tricks were far in his past. And yet…
“Hey, Harry! How’s it going?”
Henry grimaced as Oakley’s voice reached him. Only a handful of people were around them, but all heads naturally turned at the sound of shouting. The last thing the King wanted was to be seen talking to this young ruffian, reformed or otherwise. He heard the thumping of feet on grass as the curly-headed Oakley ran to catch up with him. Several of the women who were passing watched them with greater or lesser degrees of hunger; these two of the first three Companionsto arrive on the station were widely considered to be among the most attractive, not least because they were unavailable. The King, starkly handsome with his red hair and neat beard; his younger fellow, angel-faced, curly-headed and bronzed from a long-ago Italian summer. The women sighed and moved on; at least Oakley had once been attainable for a short time, and he was a teacher now so it was possible to get near to him. Henry had refused to participate in the initial programme, remaining totally faithful to his Cate; these days he was still searching for a purpose in this strange new world. He was mysterious, aloof.
“So, yer madge, had any ideas for stitching up Lokes yet?”
Oakley, never short on braggadocio, was even more confident since fatherhood and training for a profession. Henry rolled his eyes but did not rise to the bait. He had never totally forgiven Loki for what happened between the Norse demi-god and Cate, even though that was before Henry was reactivated and laid eyes on his Queen. The stunt Loki pulled on the eve of Eleanor’s birth had only compounded his dislike. The same was true of his rigidity when it came to Thomas Oakley. The King had put away childish things when he acceded to the throne, and disapproved of Oakley’s demeanour. These days he was more amenable than he had once been, thanks to years of marriage to Cate and the necessary adaptations of fatherhood, but Oakley reminded him too much of his own younger days. Nevertheless, if he was to have his desired revenge he had to engage with the disrespectful youth and reawaken, however reluctantly and briefly, his former wild self.
“I have not. He is so artful, so devious, it will be difficult to outwit him.”
“True. Tricky to trick the Trickster, eh?” Oakley sniggered and nudged Henry hard in the ribs, a breach of protocol that made the King grind his teeth. The royal person should not be touched, let alone… “Well, I’ve had a couple of thoughts that might help.” Oakley grinned, his eyes sparkling with mischief. “Fancy a stroll through the bamboo?”
The coffee shop was mostly empty, as it usually was at this time. It was early afternoon, post the lunchtime rush but before the after-school influx. Miriam had ordered the drinks already and was lowering her weary bones into one of the more comfortable easy chairs. She smiled at the irony - she of all people should have known how wiped-out she would feel during the first trimester, but she steadfastly refused to lighten her workload. Still, she did allow herself a few more breaks these days. A familiar voice from the doorway to the Main Concourse made her look up: Julie and Amanda were scanning the space. She raised a hand and they headed over. Kisses were exchanged and the arrivals stowed their shopping bags as Miriam spoke.
“Mary said she’d try to drop in, but there’s some kind of a kerfuffle going on downstairs somewhere. Janet should be here any-”
“Janet!” Julie was waving to the Head of Science who wove her way through the sea of mostly empty tables to join them.
“I can’t stay long, ladies. I’ve got a mountain of work and I want to leave on time tonight.”
Amanda smirked. “I bet you do.”
Janet blushed but had to smile. “Oh shut up. Like you’re any different.”
Miriam called the meeting to order. “Cate sends her apologies but it’s her afternoon for library duty at the school. She has sent me some notes though.”
Amanda huffed. “Good thing, since this is all her idea.”
“Well,” Miriam interjected, “hers and mine. I’m worried about Hannah. She’s getting really depressed, stuck at home and being pretty much confined to bed.”
All the women around the table nodded. “Is Loki in on this?”
Miriam smiled. “Yes, Julie, of course. He always knows what’s happening, almost before anyone else. Even, you know, after what…”
“A leopard never changes his spots.” Everyone looked up to see Mary, the OB4 Head of Security standing there. She greeted her friends and took the vacant seat next to Amanda. “Once a snooper, always a snooper. Although he does seem to be confining himself to general traffic and keeping out of those areas tagged ‘confidential’... at least, for now.”
“Right,” Miriam began again, “so we need to set a date, and then talk about how we do this.”
“Well, we can bring the food - Ed is already talking about a menu. He’s rather excited, you know how he loves a party.”
Miriam frowned a little. “We have to bear in mind that Hannah mustn’t get over-excited. I’ve had to ban all hanky-panky as it is.” A collective gasp went up around the table. Horrified glances were exchanged. Miriam raised an apologetic hand. “I know, but her BP was so high, and we can’t put little Frigga at risk.”
“Of course not,” said Julie, “but…” She pulled a face.
Janet looked at the others. A year ago, she would have been amused by the collective reaction, but now she was inside this very exclusive club. The idea of no sexual contact with Caius, for weeks or months…“It’s funny how soon what was once seen as impossible becomes a basic human right.”
The others laughed and the slight gloom lifted. Mary eyed the group; she was the only one not in a long-term relationship with a Companion. She was happy as she was, living alone with her daughters, Flora and Faith, doing her job and spending time with friends. If she felt horny, she booked a date at Companionship,usually with Sir Thomas or Stacker, depending on her mood. She had visited Adam in his gothic cave once or twice, but she found him a bit intense. Sir Thomas Sharpe was serious, but he had a light streak and a ready smile. Adam, with his melancholy personality was too much like hard work. She saw enough of misery in her career - even in a generally happy place like OB4.
“Well,” Julie piped up, “I can certainly see why you and Cate think a baby shower might be in order. But would she like that? You know how private and low-key Hannah is.” Amanda and Mary looked at each other and burst out laughing. It took a moment for the others to cotton on. Eventually even Julie was smiling as she acknowledged her inadvertent pun. “OK, OK, but seriously…”
Miriam leaned forward and out her hand on Julie’s forearm. “I’ve been talking to Loki, and of course Cate has too, and she has tested the water with Hannah herself, without giving anything away, that is...and yes, it seems that a shower would be welcome. As long as it is small and tastefully done.”
Mary snorted. “So no loud music or porn? Not sure I’ll bother, then…”
Talk soon turned to the details. Julie was put in charge of catering, Amanda and Janet agreed to coordinate the decorations. Those would have to be something that could be smuggled in and put up very rapidly, it was decided. As Hannah could not leave the apartment, Loki would be tasked with getting her out of the living room long enough for the surprise to be put in place. A date and time was agreed before Janet had to leave and Mary had to get back to her duties: Sunday afternoon, ten days hence, nine days before the baby’s due date.
The bamboo plantation was a good place for a private conversation. The thickly planted vegetation muffled voices, and the many twists and turns along the narrow paths made for a dozen secluded spots to plot in. As he and Oakley made their way deep into the maze-like centre, Henry felt a tickle of excitement - he thought of merry days and nights spent soaked in sack at the Boar’s Head; of the streets of East Cheap; and of the scurrilous old Sir John, who had loved him so but whom he had to set aside. And he thought of his old friend Poins, and the tricks that they had played together on Jack Falstaff. Those had been easy; it is a simple matter to rob the greedy, and no real challenge to outwit the drunkard. Loki was a horse of a very different colour.
After a few minutes, they came upon a bench in the crook of a bend and Oakley sat down. “Obviously Loki’s not going to fall for the old ‘booze-up in a cider mill’ routine.” Henry gritted his teeth as he bent to sit as well; Oakley smirked. “Not that I’m saying you were gullible, your majesty, just that the Lokester isn't going to let us pull the same trick. Now, the thing is, he’s a terrible snob. Worse than you, in some ways. I mean, he thinks he’s more than just a Prince, he’s a fucking god, according to him, anyway, so-”
“What do you mean, worse than me?”
Oakley looked steadily at the King. “Seriously? You don't think that swanning around not doing anything all day and insisting on being treated like a king doesn't make you at least a bit snooty?”
Henry stood up, outraged. “I AM a king!” He felt the anger boiling in his gut and took several deep breaths. Oakley had touched a nerve, and Henry turned to glare down at him, his fists clenched by his sides. The younger man looked serenely back. He wasn’t too worried: if it came to a fight, they were evenly matched.
“And youdo fuck all around here, unlike the rest of us.” Which was Oakley’s typically subtle way of reminding Henry that every other Companion contributed to the economy of the station in some way. The actives offered their services at Companionship, Edward ran the nursery with Julie, Magnus and Jonathan were members of the OB4 security team, James worked for the Administration, Freddie gave a few hours a week to the Engineering Section, helping with designs and tech assimilation; Caius Martius had opened his little jewellery studio and Oakley was almost fully-trained as a primary teacher. Even Loki the demi-god helped out at the nursery and told stories at one of the schools.
The King made himself calm down. Much as it pained him to admit it, the infuriating youth was correct. He straightened his back, unclenched his hands and returned to his seat. He weighed his words carefully before speaking. “I have been pondering that very matter, as it happens. I am in search of an occupation which will suit my abilities. I do not wish to be a mere passenger.”
Oakley leaned forward to look into his face. “Interesting. Any ideas? What’ya good at? Apart from looking down on the peasants, that is.”
“I do NOT look down on my subjects!” He moderated his tone. “I do not.”
“So it’s just me, then.” Oakley leaned back, his face set in an expression of disappointment which didn't fool Henry for a moment.
“No, I just find that you are…”
“No, it’s just your behaviour, it’s so-”
Oakley sighed. “Well, Henry mate, you’re gonna have to get in touch with your inner delinquent if we’re gonna get Loki. So, as I was saying, he’s a snob, at heart. He definitely thinks we’re allbeneath him, you included. So it has to be something that appeals to his vanity. His massive, overblown ego.”
Henry stood up again suddenly. But this time he was smiling, his white teeth flashing in the comparative gloom of the winter afternoon in the shady plantation. Because two ideas had come to him simultaneously: how they might catch Loki out, and how he himself could at last become a useful member of the community.
Chapter 2: He That Plays the King
“He that plays the king shall be welcome; his majesty shall have tribute of me.”
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Just what is Henry planning...? And what has Loki made for the baby?
Edward stood up from his desk, stretching his long arms over his head. His fingertips brushed the ceiling. “I’ve sent the menu to Miriam and Loki for approval.”
“Excellent.” Julie was sitting at the table, trying to compose the greeting for their Christmas message. Should she include the new addition, currently developing inside her? Would that be presumptuous, or even tactless? She knew a few of her acquaintances were preparing for pregnancy, and at least one was having problems…
Edward sat down opposite and noticing her furrowed brow he took her hand tenderly in his much larger one. “It’s so much easier than it was in the old days. I’ve been reading about all the foods pregnant women used to be advised not to eat because of the risky bacteria in them.”
“Yes… food synthesis has some advantages, I guess. She still won’t be allowed any of the Prosecco though.”
He squeezed her fingers. “Nor will you, Mummy.”
“Oh bum.” She shrugged theatrically. “I suppose it’s worth it.”
Edward smiled indulgently and moved his chair around the table to be closer. He rested a large warm hand on her tummy. “Have you had any more thoughts about what we should call her?”
Julie had, but none seemed quite right to her. This child was special, even more than Phoebe in some ways. She was the first to be conceived using Miriam’s invention: an implant which made it possible for the particular hetero couples of OB4 to make a baby in more or less the old-fashioned way. The Medical Director herself had followed suit soon after, and her child was due just three weeks after the Knighton’s second daughter. A new age was beginning. Not the one some wanted, not the return of male humans, not yet anyway; but this innovation, technological though it undoubtedly was, made the whole process feel so much more natural.
“I don’t know. Have you?” Her husband smiled sadly as he shook his head. “It feels important to get it just, you know...I was thinking of talking to Claire about it. I’ve got to pop over to see her tomorrow to invite her to the shower.”
“That sounds like an excellent idea. Now I need to get back to work. I’ll be home about seven with the Phoebster. I’ll feed her there... You OK to cook for us, love? Not too tired?”
She nodded. “I’m good; I’ve been sitting most of the day. I’ve nearly finished my Christmas card list. And the other thing…” She grinned at him. Edward laughed; he never quite understood why she felt the need to give him gifts. He had everything he could ever want or need right here. But it pleased Julie, so he indulged her. And naturally, he was working on something special for her with the help of Caius Martius. He checked the time; if he hurried, he just had time to pop into Verdi concourse to see the craftsman on the way back to the nursery.
“Oh, for f-” Cate stopped herself. Not swearing had - almost - become second nature since having the girls, but this woman on Lunar Prime… Calming herself consciously, she closed the message window and decided to take a walk and perhaps make herself a drink before replying. Negotiations with suppliers of raw materials were best conducted with a cool head, however unreasonable the demands of the other side. The break room was empty so she popped a cup under the dispenser, ordered a double shot of espresso and took it over to the table.
“Everything OK?” Amanda’s head was peering around the open doorway.
Cate nodded grimly. “Yes, just taking a break so I don’t end up saying something to that psycho woman on the Moon that we’ll all regret.”
“Ah. Still up to her usual tricks, is she?” She walked over to the drinks machine and ordered a latte.
“Yeah. Wants a guaranteed delivery date for three - yes, three additional Companionsbefore she’ll agree to a price for the mineral shipment we need.”
“Give me strength! She does this everytime!”
“And every time I explain that the waiting list is long and although I can guarantee she will get them, I can’t say precisely when. We have other contracts to fulfil, and she knows it. Christ, they’ve had twenty already.”
Amanda rolled her eyes. There was an infinite demand for OB4’s one great export, but they needed the raw materials for manufacture to be traded in exchange. This was not easy to negotiate because the lag between supply and delivery was long. Only ten Companionscould be grown at a time, even with the new extension to the module. The process was painstaking and delicate; the team of technicians who did it were highly skilled and although more were in training, it was not possible to increase the workforce overnight. “She threatened to take her business elsewhere, no doubt?”
“Hah! I could see she was warming up to that old chestnut, but I cut her off at the pass. She’d have to buy used models from a franchise, and that’s not allowed under the rules, and she knows it. We’d shut down any Companionship that sold on a Companion.” The two women both shuddered at the thought. An impartial observer might feel they were being selective in their thinking, but to them the idea of selling on felt a little too much like out-and-out slavery.
The issue of human rights for the Companions was a live one on OB4. It had been for almost as long as they had been there. An emancipation movement had started very early on, and their elevation to full citizenship was being actively campaigned for now, on this station at least. Post-Earth society was divided, politically-speaking; OB4 and the other orbiting stations were founded on egalitarian principles, but Mars Alpha, which had been developed by billionaireswas more of an oligarchy, and Luna Prime had begun life as a military installation and maintained that culture. The future status of the Companions was a major talking-point in the upcoming OB4elections: a new body - the Popular Council- was being inaugurated. The existing appointed Council had taken soundings and decided, in view of the increase in population and the greater prosperity that the Companions had brought, that a more democratic arrangement should be implemented. There had always been plebiscites on major matters, but now a full representative system seemed like the way forward. The first popular vote would elect deputies to a lower house at the end of January. For the time being, an appointed upper chamber would ratify all decisions. It was planned that this, too would become an elected body in due course.
“I assume she can’t help it. She’s a colonel or something, so she’s used to people jumping to it when she gives an order.”
“Like your Henry.”
Cate looked sharply at her boss. “That’s a bit unfair.”
Amanda looked down into her coffee. “Yeah, it is. Sorry. It’s just-”
“Oakley’s been bending your ear about him? I know he said something to Henry the other day…”
“They were talking? Oaks never mentioned that. He was just having one of his regular character assassination sessions last night. He does it a lot these days; he’s become a bit full of himself since he started his training.”
Cate raised a sardonic eyebrow. “Become?”
Hannah put down her tablet and looked over at the open doorway to what had been her study. Loki was in the process of converting it into a bedroom for Frigga, but by his partner’s reckoning, he was late for work. She called out to him. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the nursery five minutes ago?”
A handsome face appeared in the doorway, smiling. “I have changed my shift by agreement with Miss Julie. I told her I wanted to try to finish in here today.”
“Huh.” Hannah frowned. She wasn’t happy that he had cut back on his working time to fuss around her as it was. Andthat he wasn’t allowing her to see what he was doing in there… “It’s not that urgent, though, is it? I mean, there’s a couple of weeks to go, give or take…”
Loki stepped into the room after brushing the dust from his dark green moleskin trousers. He walked slowly over to sit on the chair next to what Hannah had taken to calling her fainting couch. He took her hand and fixed her with an intense gaze that made her regret Miriam’s restriction for the seven-hundredth time. “Less than that now, my lady. I want to be certain that I can devote all my attention to you and Frigga as the time for your confinement draws near, my-”
“Confinement! What do you call this, then?”
“Ehehehe. Your, um… your delivery, then, if you prefer.” He leaned over and kissed her sweetly, his free hand caressing her hair, the tips of the fingers then trailing down her jawline, ghosting over her swelling bosom and settling on her fecund belly. Hannah put her own hand over his.
“I’m sorry, Lokes.”
“Whatever for? I have never wanted more than I have at this moment. I have never been happier, my beautiful one.”
“For being such a crosspatch. It’s not your fault I’m stuck here.”
He arched an eyebrow. “If you cannot complain to me, then who else?” He kissed her again, then lifted his hand to take hers to his lips. “Not so long now, my Lady Hannah, and there will be another complaining female in the house. She will occupy us both, I suspect.”
“She will,” Hannah laughed. She recalled Cate’s words from a few days ago: Don't moan too much about resting; you’ll look back on this time wistfully after she’s born and you’re glassy-eyed with sleep deprivation. “Seriously though, love, you don’t need to be here all the time. If you’re needed-”
“Edward was happy to exchange with me. He has some pressing matters to attend to on Saturday, I believe.”
Loki looked serene, but Hannah had caught a whiff of deception. Mild, benign even, but none the less, something was afoot. She knew it.
“What are you up to, Loki?”
“Up to, my darling? I am preparing things for the arrival of our daughter, nothing more.”
Claire Campbell, the former Commander of OB4, was in her office when a light tap on the door broke her concentration. She was working on the third draft of her new book and Freddie knew better than to interrupt.
“What is it?” Her tone had just enough irritation in it to convey her feelings without hurting his. She lost her annoyance when she saw his sweet face, eyebrows as high as they could go in his most appealing expression.
“My darling, I know you asked not to be disturbed, but the King is here to see you.”
Relations between these two had thawed somewhat. The situation had changed since those first difficult days when Henry had refused point blank to be part of the lottery Claire and her team had set up after the Companions’ true purpose had become apparent. By that time, he had imprinted on Cate and his proud and loyal nature would not permit him to be used, however much the Commander tried to persuade him. But there had always been mutual respect; Claire thought him a worthy monarch, notwithstanding the irrelevance of such a title in the new reality; Henry was impressed by her quiet leadership and intelligence.
“Very well. I’ll be out in a moment.” She tapped on her control panel to save her latest changes and stood up. Her back cracked a little as she stretched. I’m getting a bit old for all the bedroom gymnastics, Freddie dear
“Your Majesty, what can I do for you?”
Henry bowed low and waited for Claire to sit before he folded himself down onto a low couch opposite. “Commander, I-”
“Just Claire will do these days.”
“As you wish.” He nodded curtly. He was nervous. If Claire did not think his plan was wise, or even possible, then he was not sure what he would do next. “I wish to consult you on a matter of great import, at least to me.” She nodded, indicating he should continue. “I am sure it has not escaped your notice that, unlike my fellows, I remain idle.”
Claire shook her head. “I wouldn’t say that, your Majesty. Fatherhood must keep you pretty busy, especially with your wife working-”
“Of course I have parental duties to perform, but I am aware that I contribute nothing to the general community.”
Claire wondered where this was going. If Henry wanted a job, she was hardly in a position to offer him one. “If you say so, although I happen to believe that the raising of children is an important - perhaps the mostimportant - job in itself.”
“I agree, but both the girls are attending school now, and they are spreading their wings a little. I am no longer needed to watch over them all the time.” He took a breath and fixed her with the intense stare that was a hallmark of many of the Hiddleston-based Companions. “I believe you are connected with the Campaign for the Emancipation of Androids.”
Claire frowned and straightened her tunic. “I am, yes. I am the honorary chairperson, but Jenny Kirkpatrick is the actual leader. What exactly is your interest in the CEA?”
“I believe that the organisation is campaigning for full citizen’s rights for we Companions.” Claire nodded, and a smile pulled at the corner of her mouth as she had an inkling of his intentions. “Well, I want to discuss the possibility of joining them in some capacity. I have been assured that I am a good motivational speaker. That I possess the gift of rhetoric.”
“Oh, you do, sir, you most definitely do.”
He bowed his head graciously. “You are most generous. Well, if that is true, as I feel it may be, then I believe I could be of assistance to them in the forthcoming campaign. And perhaps, one day, if they achieve their ultimate aim, I would like to be considered for a candidacy.”
Claire struggled to keep her composure. This was even better than she had thought. “You want to run for office, your Majesty?”
Henry coughed, blushing. “Well, of course that is highly presumptuous of me at this stage. I don’t even have a vote in the election, but… yes, if things change, I feel I may be suited to public service.”
“I see.” Claire stood up and walked towards the window, thinking fast. She was excited by his words but didn’t want to raise his hopes too soon, despite her own emotional investment. She had confidence in the ability of the Companions to become in every way the equal of humans. Henry’s ambition confirmed it. Turning back to face him, she clasped her hands and smiled. “I think that is an excellent idea. I am sure Jenny and her team would welcome your input. I will message her immediately. Perhaps we can set up a meeting?”
A little later Henry walked across the Main Concourse towards one of the many small stores which sold upcycled and repurposed goods. Raw materials were too precious for anything that wasn’t dangerous to be discarded in the brave new world; if a garment became worn out, as they did eventually, all salvageable fabric was reused. If a woman wanted to change the decor in her apartment or was moving to a new place and needed different furniture, her old chairs would be renovated, restyled or simply sold on to someone else. There were new things to be had, of course, but even those were mostly constructed of recycled materials.
This particular workshop specialised in clothing, and the woman behind the counter looked up from her hand sewing as the King entered. Putting it down, she did the little curtsey that some of the older people on the station tended to greet him with. He acknowledged it with a polite bow. “Mistress Nakano, may I inquire if my order is ready for collection? I know that you said you would inform me, but as I was passing-” And since Cate is at work until six…
“It is, your Majesty. I am sorry, I am a little behind with my messaging. This is a very busy time of year for us.”
“No matter. May I take it now?”
“Of course. I have wrapped it for you already. Just let me fetch it, sir.”
She scurried out into the back room and Henry took a moment to admire the various dresses, coats and other garments displayed on tailor’s dummies and mannequins all around him. Kiko Nakano and her colleagues did exquisite work; patchwork, appliqué, embroidery, some of it in the most beautiful colours. Any one of them would make a fitting present for a queen. He felt a slight tightening in his abdomen. Buying gifts for Cate was becoming more difficult. They had all they needed, and she had such particular tastes, but he was fairly certain she would like what he had chosen.
As to how she would like his decision about helping the CEA…
Amanda might have been more worried, except that she was even busier than usual organising her share of the decorations, a gift for Hannah (she had decided that the expectant mother might need something to make her feel more like herself) as well as plans for Daisy’s first Christmas. But even in the blur of all that - not to mention their normal daily activity, she did notice Oakley was looking distinctly shifty. The Friday before the baby shower she tackled him about it over breakfast.
“I don’t know what you’re on about, Mands.” His affronted expression confirmed her suspicions.
“If you’re planning another prank on Henry, I-”
“I AM NOT!” This time, his genuine outrage convinced her of his sincerity. But then, as she kept her eyes fixed on him, he began to squirm. “Alright, well, we...that is, the king, well...he has been trying to think of a small, harmless joke to play on Loki. You know, to get his own back a little.”
“It’s nothing, honest, just a little tease, really. You know Harry, he’s got a broomstick up his arse. He wouldn’t be party to anything crazy.”
“He wouldn’t, no. You, on the other hand…”
“But this is all him. I mean, he asked me for ideas, but he actually came up with this one all by himself.”
“So you’re just an accomplice. Like last time.”
Oakley grinned. “That was years ago… I mean, Nell’s in my Year 4 class now… Yes, but really, all I’ve been doing is briefing the others.”
“Others? You mean there’s a big conspiracy?”
He laughed, his head thrown back so Amanda could admire the shape of his throat, the way his Adam’s apple bobbed. “I suppose you could call it that. But it’s very mild, honest. James and Caius are as noble as the King, and as for Saint Magnus… Really, it’s just a little gentle roasting for Old Big Head.”
His wife narrowed her eyes. “Yes, well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to take Loki down a peg or two. But watch out, Oaks. If all the Companions get a taste for this kind of thing, you could find yourself on the receiving end.”
“Ha!” He stood up and began to clear the table. “They’d have to catch me first. And anyway, I got away with it already, didn’t I? I mean, when Daisy was-” He went a shade paler as Amanda winked at him. “Mands...Mands, what…?”
It was after six by the time Jenny Kirkpatrick reached the small room in a quiet corner of the Admin sector that served as the HQ for the CEA. Like similar rooms let to other political movements, it was on a peppercorn lease from the Council, who were keen to encourage active citizenship. Jenny had not taken up the post for personal gain, which was just as well. She was the organisation’s only paid official, and what she got was a small - microscopic, to be exact - honorarium that compensated her a little for the extra time Jilly had to spend at the after-school club and with her minder. As it was, her activism took up pretty much all of her free time, despite plenty of assistance from the other committee members.
From chaotic beginnings, the CEAhad grown into an effective campaigning body, and Jenny had grown with it. Before she got involved, she had considered herself pretty ordinary. But since the early days when a few like-minded women came together to protest that the first three Companions were being coerced into a life of prostitution, through to the plebiscite of a few months ago when she had spoken at tens of public meetings, she had grown into a confident and determined politician. And now the former Commander and King Henry, of all people, were on their way to meet her in less than fifteen minutes.
Jenny scanned the room quickly. It was reasonably tidy, as she had been the last to use it. Nothing sensitive or confidential was lying around. All good. Taking in a deep breath, she sat down at her desk and tried to imagine what the King wanted to discuss. He had been polite but dismissive when she had tentatively approached him about the injustice that the Companions had no vote in the referendum in the spring. The matter concerned their future as much as that of the women, and she and her colleagues had felt they should have a say. But while some of the Companions had seemed interested, most, Henry included, had batted them away, even if it was very gently and courteously.
But the issue of equal rights was one that would not go away. Indeed, it was gaining momentum. And now this; what DID he want? Claire had been a bit cryptic when she messaged to arrange to meet. A firm rap on the door jolted her out of her musings. “Yes?”
“It’s Claire, Jenny. I’m here with the King.”
Standing on slightly wobbly legs, Jenny straightened her skirt and turned to face the door. “Come in.”
“That went well, I think.”
Henry’s arm was linked with Claire’s as they walked along the corridor towards the lifts. He nodded. “I agree. Ms Kirkpatrick seemed interested, and I believe she is an honest and reliable person.”
“Oh she is, sir, you can be sure. If she wasn’t interested in your help, she’d have told you so tonight. She wouldn’t string you along or flatter.”
They entered the lift and the conversation moved onto a less confidential subject as there were other passengers. “Has Cate got everything ready for Sunday?”
Henry smiled. “Hannah’s little surprise? Yes, I think so, although she is only one of several who are pooling their talents.”
Claire nodded. “So I gather. I have been working on a special gift for little Frigga. Something I hope she will appreciate in the future.”
Henry looked down at the top of her head as she stood beside him. Claire was petite, about the same height as his Cate, but she had wielded such power here. And even now, despite being retired from public service, she still held the respect of all. Her great intellect meant her opinion was much sought after. “I do not doubt that whatever you give, it will be of great worth.”
Claire hoped he was right; it wasn’t a conventional baby present. “Well, we shall see. Now, what’s this I hear about you hiring a meeting room for tomorrow afternoon?”
“You are aware of that?” His eyebrows were raised.
“Charlotte mentioned it to me over coffee this morning. We still meet up once a week or so.”
Henry coughed and shifted and willed the lift to reach Claire’s floor so he could dodge the question. But instead it paused at the Main Concourse to disgorge most of its occupants and take on a fresh load. “It is nothing of significance. Just a small jest-, um, I mean, gesture..”
Claire craned her neck to see his face. A scarlet tide was rising up his neck and colouring his sculpted cheeks. “I see. Well, I hope it doesn't cost you as much as Loki’s little gesture cost Hannah. The cider makers sent her a hefty bill for the clean-up.”
The blush drained as fast as it had appeared. He shook his head. “Oh no, there will be no horseplay or vandalism. I assure you, Commander.”
She managed not to laugh. He looked like a goody-two-shoes school child who had been caught breaking the rules for the first time. Stony-faced, she nodded curtly. “Very glad to hear it, your Majesty.”
Loki sat back on his heels and was admiring his handiwork when a message came through from Edward.
- Your attendance is requested at an important meeting tomorrow, 18.00 in room M14. EK
- What is this about, Ed? LL
- I am not privy to all the details, but I believe that it will be of great interest to you. E
- Who is organising the meeting? L
- I am told it is a group of activists interested in android rights. They seem very keen to speak to you. E
Hannah’s voice from the next room cut into his puzzling. “Lokes, can I see what you’ve done?”
“You may not. Not until it is complete. Sunday should see it finished.”
He smiled to himself. He was satisfied with his efforts here, and it seemed his worth was finally being appreciated by the wider community. He would be a father in a matter of days, before the Yule Log was lit. Thor might thump me heartily me on the back. Even Odin would be proud...
He stood and walked through to see Hannah scowling at him. “What vexes you, my Lady?”
“You,” she waved her hand over her belly, then generally at the room, “this, being trapped here.” She lifted her eyes and pouted imploringly. “Why can’t I see? She’s my baby too!”
Smirking, he shook his head and perched beside her, taking her hand. “You will in two days’ time. Please, let me give you this surprise. I think you will like it, and I want you to see the finished result, not a work in progress. It’s almost done.”
“Okaaaay… But it’s not fair! I can never keep any secrets from you.” He raised an eyebrow. “Well, I can’t. You always know everything.”
He grinned but Hannah was wrong. He had no idea what this meeting tomorrow was about. None at all.
Chapter 3: A Wise Man and a Fool
“Marry, here’s grace and a cod-piece; that’s a wise man and a fool.”
King Lear, William Shakespeare
Saturdays at the nursery were generally quieter than weekdays, but today was somewhat different. This was the lead up to the holidays, and even on OB4, where no one culture predominated, the patchwork midwinter festival that went by various names - Christmas, Diwali, Hanukkah, Yule, Saturnalia - was a highlight of the year. Women of all creeds and races joined in. Most were from such a mix of origins that it was of no matter; all the population participated in general festivities. So it followed that Loki and his colleagues had their hands full as mothers took advantage of the special rate offered for girls to spend up to three hours in the Holiday Shopping Crèche. The toddlers’ room was full of squeals as chubby cherubs chased each other around on hobby horse reindeer or squabbled over Santa toys; the older children were mostly engaged in colouring in or making greetings cards for their parents; Loki’s domain on this particular day - the infant section - was rather quieter as he fed the youngest and rocked another with his outstretched foot.
His mind was only partly on what he was doing. He was recalling how he felt on waking earlier that morning, his arms around Hannah, his hand resting on her belly. The baby had kicked against his palm, making his heart swell with love for her.Was this how it had been for fathers in times gone by? Did they love their children so deeply, even before they were born? Was that because, like me, they loved the children’s mothers more than life itself? He had nuzzled Hannah’s neck, making her sigh and stretch and moan with pleasure, and he had wondered if he was worthy of such joy.
The little girl he was feeding had emptied her bottle and was more or less asleep, so Loki stood up carefully and put the child down in an empty cradle. He smiled as he tucked the blanket around her, imagining his own daughter in the cot he had made with his own hands, against the wall he had decorated with such love and care. He could not wait for Hannah to see it; the grand viewinghe had planned was the perfect distraction for tomorrow, an excuse to get her out of the living room and occupied while her friends transformed it for the shower. A plaintive wail broke through his reverie and made him step swiftly across the room to lift up the grizzling little girl before she woke the rest.
Julie watched Loki through the large windows that divided the infant nursery from the lobby. She was at the reception desk, her task today being the taking of details and getting mothers to sign the necessary electronic forms. It had elements of tedium and repetition, but she didn’t mind too much. She loved working there and meeting other parents and their daughters, and everyone was in a jolly mood. These days she spent half her week or more on her Archive work, so the occasional weekend shift at theCentral Nurserymade a pleasant change of pace. A soft bong made her glance at her tablet. Edward was letting her know that all was going well in the preparations for the party. He was busy making canapés and assembling the ingredients ready for her to bake the cake when she got home. Julie smiled to herself and looked over at the God of Mischief again. He appeared less than regal at that moment: a baby had thrown up on him and he was wiping at his sleeve with a cloth, his mouth set in a grim line.
Laughing quietly, Julie turned to check down the list and see who was due to be collected next. As she did, her mind wandered to the conundrum that Loki presented. Who would have imagined that he, who had always seemed to resent the little girls of OB4, would make such an accomplished nursery nurse? And, no doubt, such an excellent father? He seemed as arrogant as he ever had, and yet, there he was, dabbing at baby posset, soothing a grumbling infant, and preparing to welcome his own daughter in a week or so.
Julie was waving goodbye to adorable red-headed twins when Loki materialised beside her.
“All is well, Miss Julie?”
“It seems so, Loki.” She raised her eyebrows.
“The little ones are all asleep for the moment. No further feeds are due before the mothers return.” He leaned an elbow on the counter, eyeing her in that appraising way of his. “Is the food prepared for tomorrow?”
“Mostly. Edward has been hard at it all day. I just have to do the cake later. I might make some cookies, too, when he’s out. He tells me there’s some sort of meeting tonight.”
He frowned before replying. “Yes, so I have heard. I am not sure of the purpose, but I have been asked to attend.”
“Oh really?” Julie was puzzled. The OB4Companions sometimes talked to each other as a group, but generally electronically. This was a departure, uniquely so as far as she was aware. She hadn’t a clue, because Edward had been uncharacteristically evasive. And Loki generally knew everything that was going on, especially if it involved him. A nerve at the back of her neck began to tingle; the baby was nearly due, so maybe…
There are some advantages to being an artificial person, Edward thought to himself as he piped cream cheese and smoked salmon into tiny pastry cases, stirred a batch of vegetable soup for Phoebe’s lunch tomorrow and reviewed the video file Adam had sent him, all simultaneously and without any apparent effort.
- That looks really good, Adam
- Convincing, at the start I mean?
- I’d say so. It should fool him long enough to get caught on the hook, anyway
- What does the King think?
- Hasn’t he replied to you yet?
- No. He acknowledged receipt, but then went quiet
- Not to worry. I expect something is keeping him busy at home. What with those 2 girls to occupy him
- Well, I hope it’s OK. Let me know how it goes. I’m going to be on a date
- Of course. Thanks Adam.
- De nada. Can’t wait to hear how his lordship takes it.
Edward grinned as the connection terminated. Loki had made few friends, judging by the alacrity with which other Companions jumped on board to offer their assistance. It seems that everyone wanted to see his ego deflated. What they had planned was quite gentle, but nonetheless a reminder to Loki that he was not a god, no matter how he might see it. Edward wasn’t totally happy with Henry’s plan, but he did agree that it would be a good idea to show Loki that he needed to have a rethink, now he was becoming a parent. But for the moment he must get to it; there was more finger food to make and Phoebe would be waking from her nap any minute. Even a Companion can’t be in two places at once!
Henry had not replied to Adam because he was indeed busy, but not at home. He was standing outside the children’s store on Verdi concourse, his eyes closed and his jaw clenched tight. He was trying to recall if he had ever been so abused before. The humiliation, the boredom, the pointlessness of it! How was the Christ Mass marked in my childhood? Not like this, surely, with an orgy of commerce? Snow, frost, roaring fires in chill halls, holly and ivy, feasts and minstrels, that was it. Visitors, diplomacy, politics, learning the art of kingship by watching my father...The sound of Cate’s voice brought him out of his temporary escape.
“Henry, did we get anything for Daisy yet? I can’t remember…”
“We did, my beloved. Some fabric books and a puzzle, I believe. Now, can we return home? I have to leave for-”
“In a mo, love. Just a couple more bits.”
It was too late; she had ducked back inside and he was left standing there alone with the multitudinous bags, little more than a glorified packhorse while his wife and daughters continued to browse shelf upon rail of toys and baby clothes. He sighed heavily. The sooner I find a fruitful occupation of my own the better…
Mid-evening, and he was back in the safety of his home, but Loki’s cheeks were still burning. If he closed his eyes he could see only the screens that covered the walls of the room, filled with images of the absent Companions laughing; he could still hear Henry and Oakley. At least Edward, Magnus and Caius had the good manners not to join overtly in with the mocking.
He had been fooled - they prepared the bait, dangled it in front of him and he had been caught, hook, line and sinker. There had been white-hot anger for a fleeting moment, but then he had remembered the very public humiliation he had given to Henry. This was a more subtle prank, less grand guignol… And a joke shared among his fellows only; perhaps their women knew, but not the whole of OB4. He grimaced to think how easy to deceive he had been, how readily he believed what they were telling him. But that was eight years past! How patient Henry had to be... what was that Midgard saying? Revenge is a dish best eaten cold…
“So?” Hannah had been watching him closely from the day bed when he came in. He seemed upset, but calm. Something had happened.
“You are awake my darling?”
“Sharp as a tack, as ever, Loki. Now, what…” The words died in her throat as she saw his expression. She sat up and reached out to him. “Whatever’s wrong, darling?”
Loki’s face had fallen at her sarcastic comment and he looked thoroughly miserable. He didn't want to tell her, he preferred not to share his failures with his beloved, but he knew her too well. She would not rest until she had wheedled it out of him. He shrugged his shoulders. “They tricked me. Yes, me, the Trickster, the God of Lies… They lied, and they made a fool of me.”
Hannah scooted over to make room for him next to her, patting the space. Loki sat down gracefully and reluctantly looked her in the face. His eyes were damp, but her voice was a silken cloth to dry his tears. “What happened, my love?”
It was still early, not yet nine pm, as Oakley skipped along the corridor towards the apartment he shared with Amanda and little Daisy. He was still chuckling to himself as he strode through the door to see his beloved awaiting him, stern-faced, hands on hips. His smile widened - brazening it out was his usual approach when he knew he was in trouble. He swooped in for a kiss but she swerved away. His face fell and he adopted his most innocent expression.
“Something wrong, Mands?”
“What did you do to Loki?”
“ME? Nothing. It was all Henry’s show, like I told you before. I was just there to make up the numbers.” Her frown deepened. “Well, I did a bit of messaging, shifting of furniture, you know, portering, that sort of thing… Henry’s the one.”
“Oh yes? Well I’ve just been talking to Hannah. She is upset, because Loki is upset. What did you - plural - do to him?”
Oakley looked around the room, wide-eyed and nonchalant. “Daisy go off alright?”
“Don’t change the subject, Oaks. What. Did. You. Do?”
Oakley couldn’t stop himself from grinning. He shrugged. “We called the first meeting of the android section of the C.E.A.”
“You know, that organisation that wants to give us equal rights.”
“I know what it is, but do you mean to say you’ve joined it?”
“Not really, it was a ploy, a set up to get Loki. It was all Henry’s idea.”
Amanda shook her head. She was struggling with the concept of Henry misbehaving, even though she was sure he still harboured a grudge or two against Loki. “I find it hard to believe you didn't have a hand in it.”
“Oh I made a few suggestions, but honest, it was Henry’s gig, start to finish.”
Cate did say he’d seemed preoccupied lately…“How does that ‘get’ Loki?”
“Ah, well, that’s the clever bit. You know what an ego he’s got. The whole ‘benevolent god’ bollocks, like we should all kowtow and treat him as if he was royal or something? Worse than Henry, even.”
“Oh, Henry’s better these days, Cate won’t let him get away with that now.”
Oakley pulled a face. “He still has his moments. Anyway, old Harry used that against him, I tell you, it was a stroke of brilliance!”
Hannah lay back and pulled Loki gently down so his cheek rested on her bosom. Always ample, it was larger than ever and made a comfortable pillow. Not that he was able to appreciate it at that precise moment. He was still in the mire of self-pity that the mockery had condemned him to. He could not tell her, not yet. Perhaps, when he had taken the time to absorb the lessons of this evening, to assimilate the experience, he could talk to her about it, but not now. For now, he needed to take comfort as his brain re-ran the events of earlier.
He opened the door to find the meetings room was softly lit and largely empty. Screens on all four walls were dark. He could see a huddle by a table: Henry, Oakley, Magnus, Caius Martius and Edward. He raised a hand in greeting to the others as Henry walked over.
“Prince Loki, so good of you to join us.”
“What is this about, Henry?”
“You are aware of the Campaign for the Emancipation of Androids?” Loki nodded, even more puzzled. “This is the inaugural meeting of the Android Section.” The meeting agenda appeared in Loki’s internal message holder. He skimmed it; it seemed worthy if unremarkable.
Loki smirked. “What, all five of you?”
Oakley stepped forward. “Oh no, there are many more of us than that.” The screens around him lit up and he could see figures: groups of Companions on each, as far as he could tell nearly all the OB4 actives, and Page and Pine, too. “They’re unavailable, but listening in.”
Henry invited him to take a seat at the table. “We cannot expect others to campaign for us without participating ourselves. That would be wrong, not to mention foolish. How can we take an active part in society unless we involve ourselves in such a way? How else do we come to informed positions on political matters? If the campaign is successful, we must ready to take part in public life.”
Loki looked at the others, their faces serious, their eyes fixed on him. “I can see the sense in what you are saying Henry, but what do you want from me? I might be persuaded to join-”
“Ah but Prince Loki, we need a little more from you than that.” Henry stood up from his seat at the head of the table and began to pace back and forth. His face was stern, and he spoke as if measuring his words carefully, pausing at times to search for the precise phrase. He gave every appearance of wishing to get this exactly right. “You are a great leader, Loki. You were born to it, as was I. But you have proven yourself most worthy, by leading your people to safety, by preserving the peace in your realm. It is that level of statesmanship that we Companions need now, at such a turning point.”
Loki felt his chest swell a little; it is true that he had acted heroically when called upon. As Hela attacked, as Surtur burned the Celestial Realm to oblivion, he was there to save the day. And before that, even if not exactly being 100% honest with his subjects, he had been a good king. Asgard had not known such tranquillity nor so much fun in millennia.
“What would such leadership entail? As of now, we have no political status.”
Henry crouched down beside him and rested his hand on Loki’s forearm. Their faces were close and Henry looked into his eyes. Blue on blue, they seemed to be connecting. “But we will, one day soon. That is the direction in which history is taking us, I am sure. And we must have someone who can speak for us all. A representative; a true leader: a spokesperson we all trust.”
Loki glanced around him. All eyes were on him. Oakley and the others were nodding vigorously, the heads on the screens likewise. “I see.” He stood up, nodding. “In that case, of course I accept.”
It started very slowly and subtly. Edward’s expression gave him the first inkling. It was sad, regretful. Then Loki saw something in his peripheral vision, a movement which he recognised as silent laughter: Oakley’s shoulders were quivering with suppressed hysteria. This seemed to become infectious; soon all the Companions were laughing, except Magnus, Caius and Edward, but even they appeared to be stifling smiles. Henry had no such compunction. He threw his head back, arching his back and holding his flat stomach as if in pain. The agenda reloaded... Item 2: Loki’s Lesson… Eventually, after some time during which Loki’s cheeks had flared fiery red with humiliation, Henry got a grip and was able to speak. He fixed Loki with a fierce glare.
“Do you seriously believe that we would ask YOU to represent us, God of Lies?”
Loki said nothing, just stared at the King through tears of shame.
Henry continued: “Of course not. How could we trust one as duplicitous as you? One who did not hesitate to deny and betray his own brother? Even if, one day, there were to be such a section of the CEA, I doubt you would be admitted. Unless, that is…”
“...you change your fucking attitude, mate.” Oakley could not resist adding his two-pennyworth.
Loki was frozen. He had felt this way before, more than once: when Volstagg mocked him at the Bifrost; when Odin dismissed his intervention during the banishment of Thor; in the thousand small indignities he had been subjected to by the Warriors Three and his oaf of a ‘brother’... The cold grip of humiliation, the pain that comes with always being the butt of the joke. But then he saw it, in Edward’s eyes, and from Magnus, too: they were imploring him to learn from this.
He turned away, mustering what he could of his battered dignity. He wanted to say something, but the words would not come. He would have to face some of these men tomorrow at Hannah’s party, and knowing that made him determined to leave immediately. He swept through the door with a modicum of his normal swagger, but it lasted only until he was out of sight.
Nell’s voice made Henry look up from his tablet. He had been feigning reading to avoid another of the black looks he had been enduring from Cate since the night before. His eldest daughter had stopped colouring in the card she had made for Hannah and Loki and was regarding her father seriously. “Yes, dearest?”
“What does ‘despicable’ mean?”
Henry tried not to smile. No doubt the princess had overheard her mother speaking to a friend, or perhaps muttering under her breath. “Well, my sweetling, it’s a word I hope you never require. It is used to describe a person, or sometimes an action which is dishonorable.”
Nell frowned, trying to remember if she knew the meaning of ‘dishonorable’. Her face lit up as she recalled a previous conversation. “You mean like what Uncle Loki did to you that time, just before I was born?”
“Yes, Eleanor my clever one, precisely.” The royal smile illuminated the room.
If looks had the power to kill or maim, Henry would have been mortally wounded. As it was, his queen had to satisfy herself with a glare of such iciness her husband checked the thermostat. Huffing audibly, she returned her attention to the green and gold blanket she was finishing. A labour of love, she had been crocheting and then embroidering it for months. She wanted Hannah to have something unique and personal from her, a special gift that would be a permanent reminder of their close friendship and mutual love. The final few stitches were done and she stood up.
“Oh Mummy, that’s so pretty!”
“Thank you, Nell. Do you think Auntie Hannah will like it?”
Nell’s sister Kitty came hurtling in from her room at that moment, her mop of ginger curls in an uproar, a crumpled sheet of paper in her hand. “Daddy! Mummy! Isthisokpleeze?” Her face had a familiar look of defiance on it; the one which told her parents she was challenging them to defy her. Her father smiled to himself: though she be but little, she is fierce...
Cate took the artwork from the paint-stained hand and did her best to smooth it out on the table. In the centre of the painting were recognisably Loki, Hannah and a green blob, no doubt signifying Frigga. There was a Christmas tree at an interesting angle, apparently on the ceiling, and some other figures on one side her mother couldn't identify. “It’s lovely. Who are these people, Kitty love?”
“That’s Auntie Han’s Mummies and Uncle Loki’s Mummies. They’re watching over the baby.”
Cate swallowed the lump in her throat and looked at Henry more kindly this time. He looked as moved as she felt. “That’s so good, darling. But you know that Loki had a Mummy and a Daddy, like you. And a brother.”
“I know.” Arms folded, Kitty frowned at her mother. She waggled a stubby finger. “Uncle Loki told us at Storytime.” She reached for the picture. “I forgotted Thor. I’ll put him in now.”
Cate felt Henry’s hand on her shoulder, his warmth against her back. “She listens, takes it all in, doesn't she?”
“She does, Harry. She might be a tomboy, but there’s a sweetheart’s soul in there. Such a kind thought. Hannah will love it.”
“Loki will too.”
Cate allowed her husband to stand her up so he could take her chair and pull her onto his lap. She frowned at him but nevertheless she draped her arms over his shoulders and tolerated his soft nuzzling on her neck. “You’re not getting round me that easily, Harry.” She sighed as his lips brushed her skin and his whiskery chin grazed her collarbone. “It was cruel, even if he did deserve it a bit.”
“A bit? What we did was mild, a mere pinprick to his monstrously inflated ego. Not to mention measured against what he did to me.” He sucked softly on the sensitive spot where neck becomes shoulder and Cate wriggled deliciously against him.
“That’s as maybe, you still need to apologise.”
Henry broke off from his canoodling to lean back, an outraged expression on his beautiful face. “Apologise?!”
Cate returned his shocked stare with a calm look. “To Hannah. Loki can look after himself. He’ll be fine, but she was seriously upset last night.” Her chastened husband nodded.
“In that case, yes. It was never our intention to distress the Lady Hannah.”
“Right. Now, put me down, Harry darling. I need to finish wrapping the gifts and I promised Julie you’d help them with transporting the food.”
Henry looked into the corner of the room at the giant teddy bear which Nell and Kitty had chosen as their present. “I think I will be required to carry that, though, do you not? I will ask Caius or Jonathan to lend a hand to Edward.”
“Ah yes, I hadn’t thought of that. Good plan. But either way, we must get cracking. The girls need to change into their outfits.” She stood up, picked up the hand-stitched blanket and headed for the door, “And so do you, gorgeous.”
Henry grinned and caught the eye of his eldest daughter. He winked at Nell. She has forgiven me already.
“I know you’ve worked hard on this, Loki, but don't you think dressing up is a tad OTT?” Hannah was sitting on the bed watching him put on his best armour. He was fastening the vambraces as he admired his own reflection. She was wearing a simple long dress in cream and pale green which complemented his formal garb.
“I do not. This is a special occasion, my lady, and I wish to record it for little Frigga to see when she is grown.”
He had her there; as usual these days, he seemed to have thought of everything. Hannah watched him closely, but he gave every appearance of having completely brushed off yesterday’s humiliation. He did not mention it at breakfast, only discussing the ‘grand unveiling’ of his project. And Hannah had encouraged his enthusiasm. It was so much better than his introverted silence of the evening before. “What a lovely thought! This one is so lucky to have such a father.”
Loki’s reflection smiled broadly at her. “Then she is twice blessed, as her mother is not only beautiful but brilliant.”
“Oh shut yer face and come over here and kiss me!”
“With great pleasure, my darling.”
Loki was watching the clock carefully, and monitoring the approach of the party guests. He had to time this just right, to usher Hannah into Frigga’s nursery and keep her busy long enough. After a vigorous snogging session, he helped Hannah to her feet and bowing, he offered his arm. She sniggered but nonetheless took it and allowed him to guide her with great ceremony across the living room to what had once been Cate’s room, later repurposed to be Hannah’s study.
The first surprise was in situ: while she wasn’t looking, Loki had placed a carved wooden motif on the door. It was Frigga’s name through which was intertwined a stylised wolf. “Oh darling, is that Fenrir?”
He nodded, smiling. “He will guard her.” The door opened and he stepped aside to allow her to enter first. The small room was bright; the walls were pale, with just a hint of green. Against the furthest was a golden yellow storage unit with drawers and a cupboard below. He had placed a few baby items on the top, and beside it on the floor was a pretty changing mat. So far, so normal. Hannah was just wondering why he had made such a fuss when, as she turned, her eye was caught by a sinuous shape.
Against the opposite wall, just inside the doorway, stood a handmade applewood cot. It was wonderfully carved, the bars and rails looking like curving branches, the head and foot shaped to resemble the great Tree of Life, Yggdrasil. And on the wall above it, where Frigga’s gaze would rest, was a mural. In the centre was a lifesize image of her grandmother and namesake, with Odin just behind her on one side, Thor by her other shoulder. Next to her was the likeness of Hannah’s two mothers. Each face was perfectly painted, the expressions benevolent. In the background were scenes of Asgard and OB4.
Hannah could not speak; she could barely feel her body. Her chest was full, her face felt numb. She caressed the warm wood of the cot with one hand. With the other, she reached over it to touch the faces of her dead parents. Tears were coursing down her face. Loki was crying too, moved by her reaction. “Do you like it, my darling?”
Hannah nodded. “Mama,” she whispered, “Mummy…” A sob broke from her and Loki wrapped his long arms around her gently, pulling her back against his chest.
“Shhh, my darling, shhhh. I didn’t mean to make you cry-”
“No, it’s lovely, Loki. It’s beautiful and…” She turned in his arms and kissed his mouth softly. “...perfect. You made the cot? You painted this?” He nodded, his chest swelling. A good feeling; a justifiable pride. “Thank you.”
“I wanted her to have her family watch over her.” Hannah nodded. “I want them to be real for her. To be a part of her life. I know you want that too.”
Hannah stroked Loki’s face. He had grown so much, come so far. He had learned from what had happened, from his mistakes. She suspected that Henry’s tease had been aimed at his one remaining true flaw - his arrogance. Was it too deep-seated to change? She thought not. He already appeared chastened by last night’s events. She cupped his face and pulled him to her lips, sucking softly on his when she felt the vibration of his message unit under her fingers. “Is someone talking to you, Loki?”
He smirked against her mouth. “Indeed they are. All is ready.”
“What are you talking about?”
The door, which Hannah did not notice was closed, slid open. He turned her to face it and spoke softly: “Surprise!”
The living room, which a few minutes earlier had been deserted and largely cream and beige, was awash with people and colour. A large banner welcoming Frigga Lokisdottir was draped across one wall, and everywhere there were garlands of green, gold and white paper flowers, balloons and streamers. Against one wall was a table covered with a cream cloth and laden with food, the centrepiece being a two-tiered cake iced in the same colours as were adorning the room. Hannah scanned the faces. It seemed that all her closest friends were there with their families. Cate took her hand and they kissed each other. “We thought you could do with a little pick-me-up, darling.”
Hannah turned to Loki, who was smiling broadly. “Your idea?”
“Oh no, this one is all on them. I just agreed to get you out of the way long enough.”
Cate laughed and Hannah felt something being pressed into her hand. She looked down to see Kitty trying to give her a damp sheet of paper. She took the seven-year-old’s other hand. “What is it, Kitty?”
“It’s a picture I did, Auntie.” Hannah took it and saw an approximation of Loki’s mural, if in a somewhat more naive style. She showed him, and he grinned. “Did she know..?” He shook his head. “What a lovely picture, thank you darling! Remind me to show you a picture Loki did, later.”
Once Hannah had greeted everyone properly, been persuaded to sit down and put her feet up (Miriam was most insistent that the party would be terminated immediately if she did not), and Henry and Edward had opened the bottles of bubbly (Prosecco for the grown-ups, apple juice for the children and the mothers-to-be), it was time for gift-giving.
Nell would not be denied. “Us first!” Henry was sent to retrieve the enormous teddy from the kitchen where he had stashed it. Hannah laughed and hugged the girls.
“It might be a while before Frigga is big enough to play with him, but thank you, darlings.”
Nell looked serious for a moment. “We can show her how to play with her toys.”
“No!” Phoebe Knighton didn’t like the sound of that. This baby was her domain.
Julie winced and smiled apologetically. “Come along Phoebe, give Auntie Hannah the baby’s present.” Phoebe looked at Loki for a moment. He smiled encouragingly and she grabbed the parcel and passed it to Hannah. It contained a selection of clothes: several Babygro’s and a lovely dark green dress with a matching hat.
Edward and Julie had an additional gift, which they handed to Hannah and Loki together. Edward smiled awkwardly. “It’s a book of tips, from us. Things we’ve learned, ideas, ways of coping. Inspirational quotations...you know the sort of thing. For those middle-of-the-night moments.”
Loki took Edward’s hand and pulled him close enough for a manly hug. “Thank you, Edward.” He bent down to kiss Julie’s hand. “Such a thoughtful gift, Miss Julie, and so personal.”
Julie blushed as Hannah winked at her. “We’re so glad you like it. We could perhaps add to it, you know, as time goes along…”
Hannah beckoned her closer for a hug. “Thanks so much, Jules. For everything.”
Mary’s little girls had made pictures, too, and their mother’s gift was a selection of tiny t shirts with feminist slogans. Loki was theatrically aghast, and Hannah laughed long and loud. The ‘girl power’ one was her favourite. The Pines had brought two parcels: Miriam had commissioned a set of wooden ‘scientific instruments’ from Sir Thomas: a microscope, a rack of test tubes and a medical ‘kit’, which he had made with such care to detail that they delighted everyone. Jonathan had painted a small canvas with a playroom scene, which would look lovely on the blank wall in the nursery.
Janet’s gift was a little more predictable: Caius had made some delicate jewellery for the baby, a necklace with a green letter ‘F’ in a Nordic style and a sweet silver bangle which could be enlarged as Frigga grew. Daisy had climbed up onto the couch with Hannah and watched with interest as she opened Amanda and Oakley’s package. The women all noticed the way Oakley tried to avoid eye-contact with Loki. The Norse God, however, seemed relaxed and happy. But so far there had been no actual words between him and any of his tormentors, the mild-mannered Edward excepted.
“This one’s just for you, Han,” said Oakley, with a smirk.
“Well, I’d say it was as much for you, Loki, actually.”
“Indeed, Miss Amanda?” He soon saw why. It was a set of extremely glamorous lingerie in dark green silk with black lace. Hannah roared with laughter.
“I thought I’d get you something to remind you you’re still a woman. Because, you know, there’ll be times in the next few months…”
“I know. Thanks, Amanda. Thanks, Oaks.” Hannah kissed them both and she saw that Loki shook the young man’s hand, it seemed warmly. Loki then picked a wriggling Daisy up and sat the little one on his hip. She giggled happily and took the chance to have a proper look around the room before she began pulling at the decorative elements of his armour. Phoebe Knighton watched from her father’s side, her face pale with dismay.
Claire and Freddie had been standing a little way back, behind the others, feeling out of place. Neither was a parent, and Claire was that bit older than everyone else. But now it was her turn. She sat down next to Hannah and handed over a small box. “These are for little Frigga.” Hannah opened it and saw four envelopes. “There’s one each for her fifth, tenth, fifteenth and twentieth birthdays. Just a few words from an old lady, things for her to think about as she grows.”
Hannah wiped away the tears and kissed Claire. She whispered in her ear. “Thank you. You’ve done so much for us already. We might not even, you know...if it wasn't for you.”
“Nonsense. You’d have got there, and I’m just part of a team, anyway.”
Hannah accepted Freddie’s gallant kiss to the hand and saw Loki greet him in a friendly manner. But the trickiest encounter was yet to come. Cate was next.
“So, that ridiculous bear was from the girls, but this is from Henry and me.”
Hannah was overcome when she saw Cate’s handiwork. The delicate blanket bore Frigga’s name and those of her parents, interspersed with runic symbols and Norse motifs. Loki was moved, too. “My lady, this is exquisite! How clever you are! Thank you, thank you both.” He stood up and offered Henry his hand. There was a beat’s pause while their eyes locked, then Henry returned the gesture and they shook firmly. No hug, but that was for Henry’s benefit, Cate thought to herself. Maybe a step too far, at least today.
Gift-giving over, some guests helped themselves to the buffet while Loki showed others what he had done in the nursery. Edward was blown away by the mural - “Could you do something like that for Phoebe, maybe? I had no idea...WOW!” - and everyone who saw it was impressed. Even Kitty, although she said hers was better. Daisy tried to put her sticky fingers on the wall but her father intervened in time. Caius loved the design of the cot - “You should think about doing some jewellery sketches. I could make you something special and beautiful for Hannah’s birthday.” - and he made a mental note to talk to Loki about possible future collaboration.
Miriam made sure that the very-soon-to-be-mother didn’t get overtired and shooed the stragglers out after three hours. She checked Hannah’s blood pressure before she left and gave Loki strict instructions to ensure an early night. After he had bid the doctor and Jonathan goodbye, he sauntered over and stretched himself out next to her. He looked into her face.
“Happy, my beautiful one?”
“Deliriously.” She pecked him on the end of his nose. “Thank you.”
“I told you, not my idea, I was just an accessory before the fact.”
“Well, either way, thanks. It was lovely. And the gifts! I have such kind friends.”
“You do, but it’s no accident. You have lovely, kind, thoughtful friends because you are lovely, kind and thoughtful.”
Hannah eyed him sceptically. “What are you after?”
He sat up, clutching his chest. “You wound me, madam! As if I would pay an empty compliment!”
“Shut it, Lokes.” She was starting to laugh. “Seriously, though, are you going to be ok with Henry and Oakley now?”
He nodded gravely. “I believe I am. I can’t say that I agree with what they did, but...”
“They were right about you?”
He shrugged, a half-smile on his lips. “Up to a point, yes. I do need to accept my position here, the reality of my life. I am about to become a father, and that requires a degree of humility of me.”
“Of us both, Loki.”
“Indeed, my lady.”
A week later it was the morning of Christmas Eve. Across OB4, the excitement was building. Weary adults checked their lists to ensure all was prepared for the festival; mothers explained to credulous small children how Santa could pass safely through the outer walls of the station to deliver their gifts; those with older daughters piled parcels under artificial trees; on the OB4 concourses, in the cafés and bars, the staff restocked, ready for the busy evening to come. This was how it had always been, for as long as any could remember, but this year there was an extra thrill passing around as word spread: a day or two early, a new member of the community had arrived in the night.
In one of the Med Centre postnatal rooms it was comfortably warm and the lights were low. The chief midwife Maggie was keeping watch from the doorway in case her counsel was needed while still allowing the new family to get to know each other. The only sound was gentle snuffling as Frigga Lokisdottir, the first child born into the Odinson family in many centuries, took her first meal. Her father was helping to hold her carefully, his large hands underneath making sure none of her weight pressed on her mother’s fresh wound. He felt as if his heart might burst, it was so full.
Hannah’s voice caused him an extra surge of emotion as she sighed and lifted the baby from her nipple. “I think she’s done, Loki. See?” He looked at his daughter’s pink and crumpled face. Her lids were drooping, almost closed over her green-blue pupils, and her hands, still in little fists, had stopped moving. Maggie nodded and slipped out, closing the door silently behind her.
“Yes. She sleeps, my darling.” He lifted Frigga up and cradled her against his chest, leaning down to place a kiss on her wispy black hair, still damp from her first wash. Tears filled his eyes.
Hannah looked at them both. Two of the most precious, most beautiful creatures she had ever seen; her own family. “Isn’t she perfect, Loki?”
“Naturally. How could she be any different, given the quality of her parents?” He smirked, happy to have regained some control as he walked slowly over to place her in the crib, stepping lightly to avoid the merest jarring, and covered her with her special blanket as gently as he could. But there was no risk of waking her: Frigga was already deeply asleep as her little body absorbed the colostrum her mother had given her and she adjusted to this new, very different environment.
A soft ‘ding’ signalled visitors at the door. Loki smiled. “I think Cate is here, my darling. Are you up to a visitor - or four?” The door had opened at his command and the whole of the Monmouth family were waiting, smiles on their faces. Nell and Kitty were in front looking fit to burst, but their parents’ hands on their shoulders held them in check. They had been warned that they must be quiet and well-behaved on pain of severe retribution.
“Oh yes, please, come in, Cate, Henry, girls…” Hannah sounded tired but happy.
Cate went straight to her and they embraced. She had brought some sweets and a bottle of Hannah’s favourite cordial. The girls meanwhile looked at Loki with their most pleading expressions; he could never refuse them and so stepped aside so they might look into the crib at the baby. Nell had brought her favourite toy rabbit and she placed it next to Frigga. Kitty was straining to see over the side so Loki lifted her up. Her nose wrinkled. “She looks funny.”
“All newborns look like that, Katherine.” Henry kept his voice low but the scolding tone was unmistakable. He took a stride closer and peered over Nell’s shoulder. “On the contrary, I think she is quite enchanting, Prince Loki, Lady Hannah.”
“Come and see Auntie Hannah now girls. But mind her sore tummy, remember.” Cate got off the bed where she had perched and walked around and her daughters took her place. She gave Henry a long look and he nodded almost imperceptibly.
While his wife cooed over Frigga, the King took Loki’s hand and shook it warmly, his other hand on the Norse demi-god’s shoulder. “`Your daughter is beautiful. Congratulations, Loki.”
The two Companionsregarded each other for a long minute. Their wives watched as they communicated. Then Loki nodded and looked down, obviously moved. Cate grinned and stepped over to take her husband’s arm. “Come on girls,” she said in a low voice, “we must go. Auntie Hannah and Frigga need to rest. Loki, too, probably. We can come back for a longer visit later.”
As they left, Henry saluted Loki, who bowed his head in reply. Hannah, who wanted little more than to close her eyes, murmured as she settled down for a sleep. “All straight between you two now?”
Loki chuckled darkly. “I believe it is, yes. He tells me he has plans for the future and he would welcome my support.”
“That’s good…” She was close to dropping off. Loki stretched himself out on the bed beside her, between her and the crib where their daughter lay. He chuckled when he noticed that Cate had placed a little woollen hat on Frigga’s head. It had a slogan in the stitching: Frigga’s First Yule.