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L'ange du mal

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“‘Too sublime,’ they said.” Balder punctuated this disgusted pronouncement by throwing back the rest of his aquavit, already gesturing for another. “‘Too androgynous. Too pretty.’” He snorted. “Don’t they know Lucifer was an angel before he fell? Don’t they know angels are neither male nor female? And how would evil tempt us if it weren’t beautiful?”

Thor took a more measured sip of his beer; he didn’t share his brother’s desperate need to get drunk. “I’m on your side, completely,” he said. “But what can you do? The bishop has spoken.”

“So he has. Well, it’s your problem now. See if you can make something that makes them happy. Your ‘genius of evil’ had better be as ugly as sin… actually isn’t. I’m sure they’ll be satisfied with nothing less than goat horns and hooves and bulging eyes with rectangular pupils. And warts, probably.”

“I think I just need to find a balance. Make it clearer that he’s a fallen angel. And that he’s, you know, evil.”

“Hmph” was all Balder said. The waiter had brought his new glass of aquavit and he smelled it appreciatively before taking a swallow.

“It is a beautiful sculpture,” Thor assured him, trying to be comforting. “Maybe the cathedral wasn’t the best place for it. It belongs in a gallery of the Royal Academy in Stockholm. Or the Beaux-Arts in Paris,” he added, laying the flattery on thick. Balder looked slightly mollified. “You just need to take account of the… limitations of your audience.”

Balder harrumphed again. “That filthy rag—that newspaper”—he spat the word like an obscenity—“said it would distract the ‘pretty penitent girls.’ It’s not— it’s not pornography. It’s art.”

“Well, you know. The public often has trouble telling the difference.”

Balder gave him a withering look. “The public isn’t the problem. Most of the public can probably tell the difference just fine.” Ah, there was good old optimistic Balder, with his seldom-failing faith in humankind. “The problem is the self-appointed morality police who insist that art is— is corrupting the youth.”

Thor raised his eyebrows. “I would hardly call the bishop ‘self-appointed morality police.’”

Balder looked slightly chastened. “Well, not him. But he’s just bowing to pressure from prudish busybodies like that prig from the newspaper review. Worried about what the neighbors will think.”

“He has very good reason to worry about what ‘the neighbors’ think when the neighbors have only been permitting us to worship openly for twenty years. We wouldn’t want to confirm the Lutherans in all their prejudices about libertine, idolatrous papists.”

“Meanwhile, the Lutherans are confirming me in all my prejudices about the sticks up their arses,” Balder grumbled, but under his breath, glancing around to make sure no one was listening.

“Ironic, after Luther defected for the right to marry a nun,” Thor remarked, also sotto voce.

“I’ll wager he had her stick up his arse, and the rest is history,” Balder murmured, staring down at his aquavit with a wicked smile.

Thor tried and failed to suppress a laugh and ended by covering it with a cough. When he had recovered from his contrived coughing fit, he took another swallow of beer, cleared his throat, and said, “You must give me the name of the model you used for your fallen angel. He really is perfect in the role.”

Balder looked up sharply. “That seems unwise, if you don’t want your replacement removed, too. For being too ‘androgynous’ and ‘pretty.’”

“I’ll put more malice in his face and defiance in his posture,” Thor assured him. “And I was thinking of including signs that he’d been defeated. Shackles or the like.”

Balder pursed his lips and spun his now-empty glass with restless speed. Thor wondered if he was only imagining the strange tightness in his expression. “I doubt you’ll be able to find him. The model, I mean.”

“How did you find him?” Thor asked, carefully mild.

“He was just a courier. He brought a message to my studio, saying that some marble I had ordered was delayed but on its way. I asked if he would sit for some sketches, and offered to pay him more than he could make delivering messages.”

Balder’s gaze went distant as he spoke, his eyes unfocused. Thor recognized that look; it was much like the one he sometimes wore when he spoke of his fiancée, Nanna (now away in London, studying at the only European arts academy that would teach women). It was a look of reminiscence and longing that at once explained Balder’s opposition to Thor using the same model for his angel, and made Thor even more determined to find him.

“What was his name?” Thor asked, still careful to project nothing more than curiosity.

Balder snapped out of his reverie and his sharp, suspicious look returned. “It probably wasn’t his real name. If he even has a real name.”

The remark left Thor puzzled. “Everyone has a real name.”

“His real name might be Lucifer, for all I know,” Balder said darkly.

This sharpened Thor’s curiosity to a point that was almost painful. “All the more appropriate that I should take him as my model, then. What name did he give?”

Balder hesitated, debating simply refusing the information, but finally, reluctantly, he said, “Loki. He said his name was Loki.”

The pagan god of mischief, bane of the Aesir, bringer of Ragnarök; appropriate for the adversary of God and man. “Just Loki? No surname?”

“When I asked, he said if I must have one, I could use ‘Laufeyjarson.’”

Thor frowned. “That sounds like an Icelandic patronym… no, a matronym.”

“He said that he was an orphan: his mother died giving him birth, and he never knew who his father was. Who knows what name he was actually given, by his mother or the orphanage that took him in? There are no records of a Loki Laufeyjarson, not that I could find,” Balder said, sitting back in his chair and folding his arms as if announcing the conclusion of an argument.

“Ah, well,” Thor said with feigned regret. “Perhaps I’ll have to wait for my own miraculous courier to come along. Or diabolic courier, as the case may be.”

Balder looked cautiously relieved at this statement, but still a touch suspicious. And he was right to be suspicious, because Thor had no intention of waiting for a perfect model to happen along. He was going to look for this Loki Laufeyjarson… and he had some idea of where he should look. If he was delivering a message that a shipment had been delayed, he must have come from the docks. And if there were still no records of him, no documentation of residence or employment, then he was likely still taking odd jobs as a courier or a ship’s boy… no, it had been four years now since Balder had taken the commission; if Loki had been fourteen or fifteen when he sat for the design of the sculpture, he would be eighteen or nineteen now, old enough to find work as a deckhand or a longshoreman.

It would hardly do for the respected artist Thor Odinson to trawl the docks of Bergen looking for a specific sailor or stevedore who might have sat as a model for his brother years ago. So instead Thor dressed as a stevedore himself, smudging his face a little and darkening his beard with ash from his stove. Then he started asking around pubs at the docks for a Loki Laufeyjarson, claiming, if asked why, that the young man still owed him money from a card game.

Most of the men he spoke to looked completely blank; a few said the name sounded familiar but they had no idea where to find him. Some looked suspicious, or studiedly rather than genuinely blank. Thor suspected that Loki was involved in some illegal activity—smuggling or theft, perhaps—and these men thought that Thor was an undercover police officer.

At least that meant he was looking in the right places, he insisted stubbornly to his wife on the third night that he came home past midnight, frustrated and exhausted. Sif thought he was being obsessive and wondered why he couldn’t just find a model by putting an advertisement in the newspaper or the window of his studio. Surely someone suitable would happen along.

“Have you seen Balder’s statue?” he huffed, indignant.

“Of course I have,” she snapped. The late nights had been making her just as irritable as Thor. “What’s your point?”

“He’s perfect. His face is perfect. Suitable isn’t good enough.”

“The Church didn’t think he was perfect,” Sif said darkly. “If you don’t want your piece to meet the same fate as Balder’s, you’ll find someone older… and uglier.”

“He’ll be older by now,” Thor pointed out.

“But will he be uglier?”

“He shouldn’t be ugly,” Thor said, now just parroting Balder. “Demons are former angels, after all. And evil wouldn’t be tempting if it were completely unattractive.”

“Fine. So find someone reasonably attractive. The city is full of them. Why does it have to be this one boy?”

Thor looked across the pillow at her plaintively. “You’re an artist too, Sif—you must understand. Sometimes you can’t explain why something has to be a certain way; it just does.”

She sighed. “Some days I struggle to remind myself that your stubborn perfectionism is part of what I love about you.”

“And I love that you tell me when I’m being ridiculous.”

“Though you might not actually change course because of it…”

Finally, on the fourth evening of his search, one of the men he asked—a sailor of middle age, his face weathered and his hair mostly gray—considered him skeptically for a few moments before he gave a nod that indicated he had come to some internal decision and said that Loki could be found on Saturday nights an hour before midnight, behind a bar whose sign pictured a salmon leaping from a stream into a net.

Naively, of course, Thor thought this must be where seamen met for a weekly game of cards or dice. So when he found the bar and (after conscientiously purchasing a beer, of course) shouldered his way through it and out the back door, he expected to find a little table of men drinking and gambling. Instead the door opened onto an alleyway that was empty save for three young men, leaning against the walls of the buildings it separated, at some distance from each other, making desultory conversation in an argot that Thor could not decipher. One of them was smoking a cigarette that had burned down so short that he was in danger of singeing his fingers on the end.

When Thor emerged from the doorway into the alley, the young men immediately fell silent. One pushed himself away from the wall he was leaning on and started sauntering casually in Thor’s direction. The one with the stub of a cigarette gave up on it, dropped it to the ground, and stamped it out with the ball of his foot.

“Can I help you with something?” the saunterer asked. He spoke Norwegian with an accent—Russian, perhaps.

It was just dawning on Thor what kind of illegal activity Loki might be involved in. But he was committed now, and so close to finding his angel—or demon—that he could practically taste it… no innuendo intended. “I’m looking for someone. Loki Laufeyjarson.”

The young men exchanged glances with each other, by turns flicking their glances back at Thor. It felt like they were having a silent conversation they had had many times before—like farmers or cab-drivers assessing a horse before purchasing, consulting their colleagues about whether they had detected hidden faults that indicated they were being cheated, or that might spell danger later on. The Russian-accented one, who looked slightly older than the others, gave a small nod, and the one who had been smoking the cigarette turned to face Thor.

He was wearing a cap pulled low over his forehead and lifted it slightly to fix Thor with a bold, direct stare. His eyes were astonishing: their clear, pale blue-green and piercing gaze struck Thor like sunlight lancing through the edge of a glacier. “I’m Loki,” he said. His voice also carried a trace of an accent—Icelandic, perhaps, considering his name.

Thor hadn’t been able to see his face well before, as it had been turned downward, obscured by the cap, and thrown into shadow by the glow of the cigarette; but now, in the half-light from the open door of the bar, Thor felt a jolt of recognition. That was the long, straight nose of the angel in his brother’s statue, with just enough of an arch to be aristocratic, but not enough to be fully aquiline (or Semitic); those were his high, well-defined cheekbones; those were his lips, slender but impossibly soft.

“Would you mind taking off your cap?” Thor asked.

The third young man snorted and echoed, under his breath, “Would he mind?” (His accent, unlike the others’, was simply the lower-class accent local to Bergen.) The oldest, the Russian, made a short, sharp hissing noise at him to shut him up. Loki paid no mind to either of them; his gaze was still fixed steadily, almost insolently, on Thor. Slowly he lifted the cap from his head and dropped the hand holding it to his side.

Thor found himself unsurprised to see that Loki’s hair, unlike his companions’, was dark, perhaps even fully black (though it was hard to tell in the dim light). With his fair skin, his pale eyes, and that dark hair, he appeared almost otherworldly; Sif’s more superstitious Irish relatives might have whispered that he was one of the aes sídhe. His hair was shorter than that of Balder’s angel sculpture, but had the same soft curl. The sense of recognition was even more powerful now that his whole face was visible, from the high forehead and elegantly arched brows to the long, sharp chin.

“Have you found what you were looking for?” Loki asked, again with a hint of insolence.

“I think I have. Can I buy you a drink?” Thor tilted his head back toward the bar through which he had come.

Loki’s eyes flicked back over to his Russian companion and they exchanged small nods again before Loki said, “All right.”

Loki put his cap on again before he followed Thor through the back door of the pub: another small gesture of readily deniable insolence. His entire demeanor, not just his face, made him seem the perfect model for a fallen angel.

“What will you have?” Thor asked him, edging his way in among the patrons at the bar to try to catch the bartender’s eye.

“I’ll drink the rest of yours,” Loki said bluntly, nodding at the mostly-full glass in Thor’s hand. “Order yourself a new one.”

Thor spent a brief moment frowning at him in confusion before he realized why this might be a prudent policy. Considering the harsh experience—his own or others’—that had made Loki so mistrustful produced a hollow ache in Thor’s chest. He handed over his glass and asked the bartender for another of the same.

The only empty table was under an open window, but Thor suspected Loki wouldn’t mind. They sat across from each other, Loki still regarding Thor with something like a challenge in his expression, overlaid by a shadow of ironic amusement. The amusement increased when Thor raised his glass slightly and said “Skål,” simply out of polite habit, but Loki still returned the gesture—pronouncing the word the Icelandic way, with a little more emphasis than necessary.

“So. What is it that you were looking for?” Loki asked as soon as they had both taken a first sip. He was lounging slightly in his chair, his knees angled outward: perhaps another display of insolence, perhaps something of an advertisement, or perhaps both.

Thor kept his eyes carefully trained on the boy’s face. “About four years ago, did you sit as a model for a sculptor?”

Loki didn’t quite manage to hide the surprise that flashed across his face before he schooled it back to nonchalance. “What a strange question,” he remarked blandly. “Have you seen a sculpture that looks like me?”

“Well, yes. But a sculptor also gave me your name.”

“If you know the answer, then why do you ask?”

“I want to be sure I have the right man. Can you tell me the name of the sculptor?”

Loki frowned, evidently trying to figure out Thor’s angle. This must have struck him as a very strange line of questioning, considering what he thought Thor was after. “Why must you be sure I am the model?” he asked, affecting a teasing tone. “Is it not enough that I look like him?”

Thor sighed. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to give Loki his name; he wouldn’t want it to get about that he had been looking for someone like him, even if it wasn’t for the reason everyone would think. But if he wanted the boy to trust him, he would have to be the first to extend trust.

“My name is Thor Odinson. I am a sculptor, as is my brother; I asked him for the name of the model he used for a certain work of his because I wished to use the same one. I am fairly certain I have found him, but just to make sure: if you did sit for a sculptor four years ago, do you remember his Christian name?”

“His Christian name?” Loki repeated with an ironic half-smile. “Not Christian at all: it was pagan, like yours.”

“And yours,” Thor pointed out. “His given name, then.”

“My name was chosen, not given,” said Loki, his smile broadening in a way that made Thor shiver involuntarily. “But his given name was Balder.”

Thor let out a long breath. He wasn’t sure whether what he felt was relief. “Yes, that’s right. Will you sit for me, too? You’ll be paid, and provided with meals and lodging.”

Loki’s eyes narrowed. “That’s all you want me to do? Sit for your sculpture?”

Thor twitched a smile. “Well, I might ask you to stand and move around a bit. Try out different poses. I haven’t quite figured out what composition I want; you’ll help me with that.”

Loki still looked somewhat skeptical, but after a moment’s hesitation he said, “All right.”

Thor pulled a calling card from his jacket, then paused. “Do you know how to read?” it occurred to him to ask.

Loki raised his eyebrows but did not seem offended when he said, “I do.”

Thor put the card on the table and pushed it toward Loki. “This is the address for my studio. Come on Monday morning between nine and ten.”

Loki took the card and studied it. His lips did not move when he read the address: he read more fluently than many of his class. Then he looked up and nodded.

Thor extended his hand. Loki looked down at it in surprise before he took it to shake on the agreement.

Thor downed the rest of his beer and stood. “I’ll see you Monday morning, then.”

He knew there was a significant chance that Loki wouldn’t come; in fact, it was probably more likely than not. But he knew what Loki would be expecting if Thor were to lead him somewhere now, and he needed to make very clear that that wasn’t what he was after. He was extending trust again and hoping Loki would meet him—not halfway, perhaps, but a quarter or so.

“I think I found him, Sif,” Thor said breathlessly as soon as he entered their bedroom, where his wife was in bed reading by lamplight, waiting for him.

Sif immediately looked up, clearly surprised. “So he’s not a ghost after all!”

“Not a ghost, but possibly one of the Fair Folk.”

She raised her eyebrows. “If so, you’ll need to be very careful in the wording of any agreements you make with him.”

Thor laughed. “That would be true if he were actually Lucifer, too. Or his namesake.”

“His namesake?”

“Loki.”

Sif slowly closed her book. “That’s a very strange coincidence.”

Thor shrugged. “He said he chose the name.”

She frowned, looking pensive, almost worried. “Did he choose it before or after Balder told him his name?”

Thor opened his mouth, about to tell her that was an absurd question, but then he closed it again when he realized that might be the best explanation for the otherwise extraordinary coincidence. But if he had chosen it in response to Balder’s name…

“Be very careful dealing with this boy,” Sif repeated, this time completely serious. “There’s something unsettling about him.”

“You haven’t even met him,” Thor pointed out.

“Will I?”

“I don’t know,” Thor admitted. “I don’t know if he’ll actually show up on Monday.” He climbed into bed and Sif blew out the lamp.

“I can’t say I hope he does,” she said, settling in. “All I’ll say is… good luck, whichever way that pushes.”

On Monday Thor arrived at his studio at eight in the morning—far earlier than usual. He puttered around anxiously, making sure the cot in the upstairs room was made with fresh sheets (it was; he hadn’t used it in some time), arranging and rearranging stacks of paper, gathering usable pieces of charcoal and disposing of those he had worn down to stubs.

Once he thought he might have vented enough nervous energy to be able to focus, he leafed through the preliminary sketches he had made, trying out poses. He thought perhaps it would address some of the Church’s (or the neighbors’) objections if he made clear that his Lucifer had been defeated, rather than showing him poised and defiant the way Balder had. But how? The sculpture was to fit in a niche for only a single figure, so he couldn’t very well add a triumphant Christ or Archangel Michael with a foot on the fiend’s neck (and then he’d have to find a perfect model for the warrior of light, which would be another ordeal). Nor would it do for his angel to be shown lying where he had been cast down; aside from the architectural space issue, a beautiful devil recumbent and vulnerable would hardly solve the “distracting penitent girls” problem. Not to mention that he didn’t want his Lucifer to look too much like a “Prometheus Bound,” even if that was the subtext he was aiming for. Was it his fault that he had caught a touch of the Romantic fever while traveling Europe to learn about the classics of his art—in London and Paris, Rome and Athens, Florence and Venice, Weimar and Dresden? Anyone with enough stern, doctrinaire religiosity to be inoculated against it would have become a monk, not a sculptor.

Well before nine, Thor started glancing compulsively at his pocket watch somewhere between every ten minutes and every five. By nine-thirty, he was despairing that Loki would come and preparing himself for the necessity of taking out an advertisement in the newspaper, as Sif had suggested. What would be the text of such an advertisement? “Young male model wanted for a statue of Lucifer; must have unearthly beauty, tragically defiant demeanor”?

It was thirteen minutes before ten when a knock came at the studio door. Thor’s heart seemed to leap into his throat, though he scolded himself not to hope. It was probably some peddler trying to sell him something he didn’t need. He rose from his stool and shook out his hands to try to stop their trembling, walked slowly to the door, pulled it open just a crack.

Thor stopped breathing when he saw Loki there, the boy’s strange chiaroscuro beauty striking him all over again. Here, in daylight, in the well-to-do part of town where Thor lived and worked, Loki had lost some of the easy, insolent confidence he had worn on his own ground. He looked uncertain, even anxious, as if he had to resist the impulse to bolt. A small bundle in a knotted burlap sack hung from one hand.

“Loki,” Thor greeted him with a warm smile, hoping to put him at ease. He put out a hand for Loki to shake—to recognize him as a respectable business partner—but then immediately wondered if that had only made things more awkward, because Loki had to shift his ragged knapsack to his other hand in order to accept the handshake.

“Please come in. I’ll show you where you’ll be staying, and you can put your things there before we get to work.” Thor held the door open for Loki and he went through it silently, warily, with no word or gesture of acknowledgment or thanks. Thor felt like he was coaxing a stray cat to accept a dish of scraps as he led him up the narrow staircase to the attic, half-turning occasionally to show him an encouraging smile.

“Here it is,” he said, rather obviously, pushing open the door to the little garret. “The bedding is clean now, and the woman who comes to clean every Friday will take it for washing, along with anything else you need washed. Washbasin and towels are there”—he pointed to a table in the corner—“chamber pot is under the bed, where you’d expect. There’s an outhouse in the courtyard behind the building and a pump next to the rear wall. Coal for the stove is downstairs in the studio.”

Loki just nodded, his expression unreadable. Was he impressed? Disappointed? What was he accustomed to?

“Where should I send for the rest of your things?” Thor asked, nodding toward the little bag still hanging from Loki’s hand.

“The rest…?” Loki’s eyebrows twitched together, a hint of hurt or shame, before he raised them in another self-protective show of insolence.

Thor took the hint. He could feel his face heating; he had seldom been so baldly confronted with his ignorance about the lives lived outside his shelter of bourgeois comfort. He made a mental note to buy Loki some new clothes. Nothing too fine, of course—he had to be able to wear them when he inevitably left Thor’s world and returned to his own—unless, unless…

Stop indulging fantasies about rescuing lost souls from the pit of Hell, Thor rebuked himself. He’s a model, not a project. Not a damsel in distress. But would it be right, he wondered, to use Loki as a model for a church sculpture and then abandon him to sin and damnation? Not that Thor was the most devout or virtuous Christian himself—but was this not a clear opportunity to serve God more truly and profoundly than by his art?

“Take a moment to settle in,” said Thor, “then come downstairs and we’ll start working.”

He was not waiting long in the studio below, shuffling through sketches and trying to decide where he wanted to start, before he heard Loki’s footsteps on the stairs behind him. He had removed his too-large hat and too-small coat and even the loose, faded vest, and was wearing only a stained white shirt, frayed at the ends of the sleeves and missing a few buttons, and a pair of rough brown trousers that barely reached his ankles, exposing a length of gray stocking above shoes whose soles were coming apart from the toe. It would not be demeaning charity, Thor decided, to provide him with new clothing and shoes; he could present it as part of Loki’s accommodations. He would not even need to take him through the ordeal of a fitting: Loki was only a few inches shorter than Thor, and a quick sweep of his practiced eye told him that none of his height advantage was in the leg.

Loki noticed Thor looking him up and down and a tiny, brief smile twitched over his lips—just enough to let Thor know that he knew. Thor’s face felt hot again; he wanted to tell Loki that he hadn’t been looking for the reason he thought, but knew he couldn’t without embarrassing them both further.

“Should I—?” Loki asked, reaching for the top button of his shirt, affecting sudden shyness.

“Yes, thank you,” Thor said with an apologetic smile. “It’s a classical-style statue, I’m afraid,” he explained, before he realized that Loki would probably have no idea what that meant.

Thor turned around and continued busying himself with sketches while Loki undressed. “Sit on that stool when you’re finished, if you would,” Thor said, gesturing toward the other side of his worktable, opposite the window, where the natural light would best illuminate his subject.

The rustling of clothing being removed had never seemed so loud to Thor; while he was keeping his eyes carefully averted, he was entirely failing to divert his attention. His ears were so keenly attuned to the sound of Loki’s light footfalls rounding the table that he felt he should be able to swivel them, like a cat. But because his nerves were so highly alert, he still flinched when Loki’s voice came from the other side of the table: “Do you want everything off?”

Thor looked up. The boy—no, the young man—was wearing nothing but an undergarment, a pair of gray flannel breeches that ended a few inches above his knees. He had already pulled them partway down his slender hips, and he was still gripping the waistband, offering—with eyebrows raised in the barest hint of suggestion (not that much was needed)—to pull them the rest of the way down.

Thor took a moment to fully comprehend the question. He was taking in the perfect form before him, the statue of a godling that seemed to have gone missing from a Hellenic temple and washed up in the dockside gutters of Bergen. Some of the muck of such a journey still clung to the marble of his skin (Thor would have to gently encourage Loki to take advantage of the washbasin in his room), but somehow all the harshness of his life had left him with the body of a warrior-athlete, with little of the softness that might be expected in a wealthier, more pampered boy of his age. His childhood work as a message-carrier, which had brought him to Balder’s door, had molded him into the lean, agile frame of a runner; the sinewy muscles of his limbs and chest attested that he had (as Thor had initially expected) been taking work as a sailor or longshoreman in addition to the less respectable trade he had been plying when Thor found him.

Now this living idol was asking if Thor, the humble craftsman tasked with translating his likeness into dead matter, wanted to see him fully nude, the way the champions at Olympia had competed to honor Zeus. And the pagan in him did want to—to behold in full this hymn to the human form that seemed to transcend the merely human; to know whether his thighs and buttocks, like those of the famous discus-thrower, continued the powerful and elegant lines of arms, calves, and torso; to know whether his genital organs were small and understated, like those of the civilized, spiritualized ideal man of classical art, or large, animalistic, as those same ancients depicted slaves and barbarians (barbarians like Thor himself).

But Thor’s Christian conscience at last awoke, horrified at his own lascivious curiosity. “No!” he said, a little too forcefully, and Loki’s eyebrows momentarily rose even farther. “No, that’s not necessary. In fact…” He went to a cabinet in the corner where he kept miscellaneous supplies that he sometimes used but didn’t need ready access to, and after rummaging a bit among paints, brushes, and old reference books from his student days, he found several lengths of a light canvas that he liked for this purpose because of how well it held a shape and the crispness of the folds it fell into. He chose the longest, widest piece of fabric he had, just to be safe (from the bishop’s disapproval or from himself, he was not quite sure).

“Here, drape this over your lap,” he said, holding it out for Loki to take. “The sculpture is for a church, so it’s just as well if it covers a fair amount.”

“A church? Really? And you wanted me to model?” Loki’s mouth twisted into an ironic smile—and was Thor only imagining that hint of bitterness? “And who am I meant to be? Not Christ, surely? Some Roman martyr? I’d be most suited to Mary Magdalene, but…” He cupped his flat (but distractingly well-defined) pectoral muscles to indicate the notable lack of breasts.

“Lucifer, actually,” Thor said, returning his wry smile.

Loki burst out laughing. “Well, at least that’s somewhat appropriate. So, how do you want me? Plotting the downfall of mankind?” He cocked one eyebrow, squinted the other eye comically, and stroked his chin as if it sported the pointed goatee of the villain in a melodrama.

Thor couldn’t help laughing as well. “Perhaps a little more subtly than that. Let’s have you brooding over your defeat and vowing revenge against God and His angels.”

“Hmm.” Loki propped one elbow on the other wrist, resting between his knee and the edge of the fabric draped across his thighs, and supported his chin on a loosely-clenched fist.

“Yes, that’s good.” This was one of the poses Thor had been considering; it was promising that he and his model had independently converged on the same expression of the attitude of brooding.

A silence fell while Loki held his pose and Thor sketched. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence, but it wasn’t quite comfortable, either. Now and then Thor gave Loki instructions to change his posture or facial expression slightly—a little angrier, more resentful, more despairing, more resigned—so that he could sketch the different versions and decide later which combination of elements he liked best.

Around midday a quiet knock came at the front door and Thor started as if waking from a trance. “Come in!”, he said, and the serving-woman who worked for him and Sif at their home as well as his studio entered with a bag of food that she proceeded to unpack onto a tray: a loaf of bread, a block of hard cheese, a hunk of cold ham, a few apples.

Neither she nor Loki was troubled by the presence of the other: having worked for a sculptor and a painter for almost five years, she knew that half-naked models sometimes came with the territory; and Thor supposed that Loki must have lost most of his tendencies to feel shame about strangers seeing his body. Indeed, Loki had stood, shedding the length of canvas that had covered his underclothes, and was happily stretching and shaking out his limbs.

“Thank you, Kjerstin,” Thor said to their provider, who ducked her head respectfully before she left again. “You can dress again, if you’d like,” Thor said to Loki. He shrugged, as if to say he didn’t mind, but—perhaps sensing that Thor was the one uncomfortable with his near-nudity—picked up his shirt and trousers from the floor beside the stool and put them on. He left his shirt unbuttoned, though—just to save time and trouble, or a provocation?

They didn’t say much while eating, either. Loki bolted his food down like he thought it might sprout legs and run away if he took too long about eating it. In truth, Thor supposed, he was probably used to circumstances in which it very well might: orphanages where older, crueler children might steal portions from smaller, weaker ones and punish them later if they dared speak up to adult authorities; boarding-houses for poor single men where food supplies were limited and those who moved too slowly went hungry; shift-work at the docks, where only a brief lunch break was allowed and the men had to eat fast if they hoped to keep up the strength for another half day of back-breaking labor.

Loki only paused in urgently devouring his lunch to hold up one of the apples, regard it thoughtfully, and remark, “I suppose it’s my job to tempt you with this.” His tone was light, but there was a seductive undercurrent which may or may not have been intentional.

Thor laughed, a little uncomfortably, and said, “I don’t expect you to stay in character between sittings.”

“Character? What character?” Thor laughed again, more genuinely. Loki leaned forward, holding out the apple, and said enticingly, “Eat this and you will become like a god, knowing good and evil. The Lord forbids it only because He fears you will become His rival.” He spoke breathily and held out his sibilant consonants a little too long, so that his sing-song voice had a faint hiss to it.

It was entirely too convincing, what with Loki’s piercing, intelligent eyes seeming to search his mind and see all his secret desires. His shirt fell open when he leaned toward Thor, granting a glimpse of the smooth lines of his collarbones framing the hollow of his throat, and Thor knew all too well, as an artist, how the half-concealed view could be far more erotic than the fully exposed.

Thor reached for the apple in Loki’s hand, then paused. He made a show of hesitating, then leaned back and folded his arms. “Maybe later,” he said archly. “I’m feeling quite full at the moment.”

“One taste is all it would take,” Loki coaxed him, and Thor was increasingly uncertain what they were talking about, so he just laughed and shook his head. “Your loss,” Loki said, shrugging, and he took a large, reassuringly un-seductive bite out of the apple.

To avoid the awkwardness of sitting and watching Loki eat, Thor busied himself with rinsing his hands and looking over the drawings he had made that morning. When Loki had finished and resumed his place on the stool, Thor said, “Let’s try something a bit different. Less brooding, more enraged. Put your hand up to your forehead—more to the side, I don’t want it blocking too much of your face—there. Now put your hand in an uncurled fist, with the fingers clawed. Good. More rage in your expression. Imagine you’ve just been cast out of Heaven and you’re furious but you can’t quite believe yet that you’ve been defeated.”

Loki was a natural actor; he took direction easily and his face was exquisitely expressive. At a single word of suggestion from Thor, he could adjust his eyebrows slightly in a way that revealed new subtleties of feeling and meaning, and soon Thor had sketched ten possible variations of the facial expression that could be matched with the same posture.

“Excellent,” Thor said, paging through the sketches, when he thought he had gotten all he could out of that pose (and both he and Loki needed to shake the cramps out of their hands—Loki had been holding the clawed fingers for quite a while). “You have a talent for telling a whole story with your facial expressions—it’s quite clear who you are and what the situation is. That should make it fairly easy to escape the objections against the previous version…”

“Previous version of what?” Loki asked, looking up from rebuttoning his shirt.

“Of the statue. Balder’s version.”

Loki just frowned, looking confused.

“He didn’t tell you what you were modeling for?”

“He didn’t say much, and I didn’t ask much.” Loki looked past Thor, and his eyes narrowed as if he were squinting into the distance while he searched his memory. “All he said was that I was supposed to be an angel. He told me that ‘angel’ means ‘messenger,’ and that I seemed meant for the role.” He laughed wryly, returning to the present moment. “The meaning of that statement changes quite a lot, knowing what kind of angel I was supposed to be.”

Thor grimaced in acknowledgment. “So you haven’t seen the sculpture you were the muse for?”

“Why would I have? It’s not as if I spend a great deal of time in church.”

And even if he did, Thor didn’t say, it probably wouldn’t be in the newly consecrated Catholic church. “Do you want to see it?” he asked.

Loki hesitated, seeming embarrassed. He looked down at his hands and scraped dirt from under his fingernails while he considered it. After a few moments, curiosity won out. “Sure.”

“Good,” Thor said with an encouraging smile. He glanced at his watch. “There won’t be a service on for another two hours, so now is a good time.”

“Let me get my coat,” Loki said, and he disappeared upstairs while Thor donned his own coat and hat. Loki returned, fully armored again with vest, coat, and cap, and they set out. It was barely a ten-minute walk to St. Paul’s, just on the other side of the town center. While they walked, Thor explained why Balder’s sculpture had been deemed unsuitable and Thor had been commissioned to make a replacement. Loki guffawed at the idea of distracting the “pretty penitent girls,” and even after Thor had finished explaining, he kept chuckling quietly to himself at intervals for the rest of the walk to the church.

The doors of the church were open for worshipers coming to pray alone in one of the side chapels or to make confession before the evening mass. Thor led Loki to the foot of the staircase up to the pulpit, where a canvas tarpaulin covered the condemned statue. Thor did not hesitate to pull off the tarp; the priest and the deacons knew who he was and would assume that he was reminding himself of how the niche looked in its architectural context or the way the current statue was situated in it.

“There you are,” Thor said to Loki, intending both possible interpretations: “There it is”; “There you have it” and “Behold yourself, carved in marble.”

Loki was silent. When Thor looked over at him for a reaction, his eyes were wide and his mouth had fallen open. He suddenly looked younger than he had since Thor had met the jaded, worldly-wise hustler smoking a stub of a cigarette in a dark alley—more like the soft-faced, innocent-seeming boy in Balder’s sculpture. The Loki of Thor’s brief acquaintance evinced a deliberate air of having seen everything, of being able to take anything in stride. What Thor saw in Loki’s face now belied that façade he wished to present: more than mere surprise, it was wonder; it was awe.

Loki turned, perhaps sensing Thor’s gaze on him, and he reddened and looked down when he saw Thor’s warm, indulgent smile.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Thor said gently.

“It’s… not like anything I’ve ever seen before,” Loki said quietly to the floor. He was silent for another few long moments. Thor waited, giving him space to gather his thoughts. At last Loki looked up again, not at Thor but at the statue. “I’ve never seen anything like it, but it’s me. It’s… I have wings.” He laughed—or giggled, rather, nervous and overwhelmed. “And my hair—I’m sure it’s never looked that perfect. Or that clean.” He stopped short again, unable to find words for his strange tangle of feelings.

“Can I touch it?” he said abruptly, turning back toward Thor. He sounded more than ever like a child, making Thor wonder again how old he actually was. He doubted that Loki himself knew.

“Of course.”

Loki reached out a tentative hand to touch the statue’s foot, his fingers tracing the angle where the big toe departed from the rest. “It’s just… a foot, but it’s elegant. How can a foot be elegant? How can my foot…? And look at the fingers, the way they’re curled…”

His voice started to crack, and Thor knew it wasn’t because of the statue’s fingers. Thor waited, ever patient, until Loki could speak again, though his voice sounded thick, almost choked. “I’m no one,” he said. “When I die, no one will mourn me. No one will notice. I probably won’t even be buried in consecrated ground. But this… this will last for centuries. My face, my hands, my feet, my—my knees… No one will know it was me, but still—this means it makes a difference that I lived. The world noticed. And—no matter how ugly everything in my life has been, something beautiful came out of it.”

Loki coughed to clear his throat. Tears were welling in his eyes, and he kept blinking to stop them from falling. Thor could feel a telltale prickle in his own nose, too.

“They won’t destroy it, will they?” Loki asked suddenly.

“Of course not,” Thor assured him. “It will just be sold and displayed somewhere else—in a gallery rather than a church. As fine art, not a religious icon.”

“Good.” Loki took one last look up at the softly pouting face, haloed by the arch of clawed wings, and his fingers gave one more loving, reverent stroke to the gap between the statue’s toes before he trailed them down along the delicately rendered scales of the serpent at the fallen angel’s feet. Then he turned away and started walking back through the nave toward the door, leaving Thor to follow.

They walked in silence back to Thor’s studio; Thor suspected Loki might want to be left alone with his thoughts. When they reached the studio, Thor told Loki, “I’m expected for dinner at home. I can ask my housekeeper to come by later with supper for you, or I can give you some money—additional to your wages, of course—to buy a hot meal at a pub. Whichever you prefer.”

Belatedly Thor considered the resonances of giving Loki money apart from the wages they had agreed on, and considered what he habitually did in the vicinity of pubs. The latter thought seized him with an uneasiness that he might have liked to think was protectiveness, but which (if he was honest with himself) felt suspiciously like jealousy. He had seen Loki bare—not only his skin, but his vulnerability—and he hated the thought of sharing that with anyone else (but he already shared it with Balder, a treacherous voice in his mind whispered).

Loki tilted his head to the side, considering. “I think I’d rather have supper brought here. Thank you.”

Thor nodded, trying to ignore the little thrill of relief, or perhaps triumph. “I’ll tell Kjerstin. Have a good evening.”

Over dinner, Thor told Sif enthusiastically how well his work with Loki was going—what a brilliant actor he was, how many possibilities he presented Thor as an artist. He told her about taking Loki to see Balder’s sculpture in the church, and how overwhelmed Loki had been by the thought that he had been a part of the creation of something so beautiful. He didn’t tell her, however, exactly how Loki’s life had been hard and ugly; he told her only that he was an orphan who had survived by doing taxing, precarious work.

“He sounds like a very interesting young man,” Sif said, a little too carefully. “I should like very much to meet him.”

An uneasiness came over him again, strangely similar to that which he had felt earlier when he thought of Loki sharing himself with other men. He didn’t want to share Loki with Sif; he wanted to keep Loki—his unearthly beauty, his uncanny spark of raw untutored intelligence—all to himself, a secret from the whole world. But he knew he was being completely unreasonable, so he said, “I can invite him over for dinner tomorrow evening, if you’d like.”

“That would be wonderful,” Sif said, not quite sincerely. “And you should invite Balder, too—I’m sure he would be delighted to see his model again, after all these years.”

“Of course,” Thor said with a false smile, swallowing back the bile that rose in his throat.

That night was one of the ones when Thor and Sif typically bathed. Growing up in Ireland and England, Sif had acquired the habit of bathing as often as three times a week, and Thor, having adopted it at her urging, now found it as indispensable as she did. They were lucky enough to have water piped into the washroom attached to their bedroom; they heated it over the stove by the bucketful to fill the copper bathtub. Thor always let Sif have the first bath, when the water was hot and clean, then took his turn, and sometimes took the opportunity to refresh himself in ways other than cleanliness.

Tonight he felt that need far more urgently than usual. His mind was full of images of Loki’s leanly muscled form as it was now, and of the softer boy’s body he could see in Balder’s statue; he had never really imagined it in fleshly form, but now he could picture that form with Loki’s face, Loki’s fair skin, streaked though it was with the inevitable grime of his poverty.

But it was not only Loki’s body he was drawn to, he insisted to himself; it was his mind, too, which shone through the limitations of his poor status and education like a vein of precious metal amid dull rocky ore. Thor felt he understood better than ever the insistence of ancient Greek philosophers that the beauty of young men’s bodies pointed toward the beauty of their souls; that the tempting fruit of youthful flesh served as sign and vessel for the seed of virtue, which yearned to be planted and cultivated in fertile soil.

So when Thor imagined himself with Loki—finally permitting himself not merely to look, but to touch—he imagined lying with him the way well-born Greek men did with their eromenoi. Carefully, silently—deriving a perverse thrill from the knowledge that Sif was readying herself for bed just on the other side of the door—Thor thrust into his soap-slick hand while imagining that he was thrusting between Loki’s smooth oiled thighs. For the purposes of this fantasy, he decided that Loki’s genitals were those of the idealized classical image of an athlete or a god, his slender prick barely as long as the stones that hung like plump ripe fruit behind it. He imagined fondling them, drawing from Loki’s lips a sigh that he quickly tried to stifle—it was shameful, unmanly, for the youth to find pleasure in his lover’s attentions.

But it was not only his own pleasure that Thor sought; he imagined reaching between their bodies to stroke his beloved’s beautiful little cock, standing swollen and full against his belly, glistening apple-red against the white of his skin. He imagined making Loki spill with a soft helpless cry, his seed bursting like the juice of a ripe bitten plum over the smooth concave marble of his stomach.

Just as he pictured it, Thor spilled in his own hand with a quiet grunt. His was decidedly a barbarian’s cock, heavy and thick, attesting (the ancients might have said) to the preponderance of dull matter in his constitution. He was an artisan by nature, well-suited to working with stone. Misfortune had condemned Loki to the basest of occupations, with nothing to sell but his body—and that described his day labor as a messenger, deckhand, or longshoreman as truly as it did his nighttime work. But Thor could see in his elegant body as well as in his sharp eyes and the depth and quickness of his thinking that Loki’s nature was higher than his own, more air and fire than earth. Loki should have been a statesman, or a prince. What cruel cosmic joke or error, what horrific crime in a past life had condemned him to live by the lowest functions of his body, leaving his swift, powerful mind to beat its wings against the bars of this cage?

Thor quickly rinsed his hand, letting the evidence of his illicit thoughts be dispersed amid dirt and soap suds. He stepped out of the tub and poured its incriminating contents down the drain in the floor. He dried himself and put on a robe, hiding his still-softening cock, before he came back into the bedroom. He sat at their dressing-table to comb out his damp hair, then (when it was safe) he changed into his nightshirt and went to join Sif.

As soon as he climbed into bed, she closed her book and extinguished the bedside lamp by which she had been reading. She turned toward him and bestowed a long, leisurely kiss, which he returned with guilt burning in the pit of his stomach. She snaked an arm over his waist to pull him closer and kissed more deeply and urgently. The invitation was unmistakable.

Thor pulled away from the kiss and said regretfully, “I’m sorry, Sif.”

“What, my virile thunder god can’t summon his lightning?” she teased. She no longer called him her “fertility god” in jest; after five childless years of marriage, such an epithet would grieve rather than amuse her.

“I’m afraid I tired myself out with work today.”

“I suppose I can’t complain if your work keeps me in fine silks.” Her tone was still teasing, but there was a hard edge to it.

“Silks? The Church isn’t paying me that much…” he dared to tease back.

“Muslin will do,” she said, then turned onto her other side, facing away from him. He considered pulling her in against his chest as a conciliatory gesture, but the images from his fantasy still lingered behind his eyes, so vivid that he was struck with an irrational fear that he could communicate them to her through his guilty touch. He turned away from her, too. Fortunately, despite his guilt, weariness and satiety lulled him quickly to sleep. He remembered little of what he dreamed, but he thought it might have involved a snake offering him an apple.