Asgard is every bit as resplendent as you recall it being. If anything, the aura of sophistication surrounding the Allfather's court has multiplied; for the first time in your life you feel... daunted. Daunted, by the flawless hair and the elaborate garb of the young women you find yourself facing. They had been chattering animatedly enough, but they quickly fall silent at the sight of the three Vanir standing in the doorway.
Three, because your Aunt Asfrid had insisted that Gilrin be allowed to accompany you and Lyssa. A fragile slip of a maiden, she stands behind you, half-shielding herself from view. You don't blame her. Why have I never before noticed how concealing their manner of dress is? The Aesir women are regarding you with raised eyebrows, silently passing judgment on your loosely braided hair and the semi-sheer panels of fabric draped artfully around your frame. Lyssa shifts beside you in slight discomfort. Well, no use in depriving them of gossip, you decide, taking a step forward and giving a deep bow in the style of the Vanir. We aren't welcomed into Asgard for our use of proper etiquette. You raise your head and smile at the women, noting the variety in expressions. The few courtiers around your mother's age look scandalized, the younger ones are gazing at you with open delight, and the rest simply appear dumbfounded.
"I do hope we aren't intruding," you say sweetly. "We meant to arrive earlier but the halls of this palace seem to be as winding and infinite as the branches of Yggdrasil. I'm not sure however you manage to navigate them all." The room is silent for a moment more, and then the flattery does its job and the younger girls leap up and pull all three of you to sit beside them, babbling without pause over each other.
"You really are from Vanaheim, then?"
"Don't be a dolt, Gerda, of course they are!"
"The warrior Hogun is from Vanaheim."
"Hogun, yes! Have you been to his village?"
"Fandral told the most horrifying story the other night, something about dirt holes?"
"Is it true that you've come to marry an Odinson?"
"I heard the two of you were companions to the Princes when they were younger."
"I heard that you sang a song that made Heimdall weep."
"I heard that the Allfather banished you after you cast a spell upon the court."
"You simpleton, I told you that wasn't true!"
"SILENCE!" A girl slightly older than you is standing up, arms raised. She takes a breath and smiles. "Ladies, this is no way to greet guests, let alone foreign royalty." She turns to you and curtsies. "And besides, I have a question myself."
Something about her tone sets you on edge. It is perfectly cordial, but with a seemingly bitter undertone. You gesture that she should continue.
"Forgive me if I overstep my boundaries, but I do not wish for you to be caught unawares by our customs. Do the Vanir not recognize the Allfather's authority over the Nine Realms?" She pauses for a minute as the ladies gasp, then continues. "I ask merely due to the fact that Princesses of a Realm generally are instructed in Aesir etiquette and, as I was sure you knew, it is most inappropriate for a lady-"
"What is your name, again?" Lyssa has risen from her seat and is approaching the girl, head cocked at an angle and an unwritten challenge in her eyes.
"I am called Alfrun. Lady Alfrun, here. I have the honor of serving her majesty Queen Frigga, and it is my duty to ensure that the royal family is ensured the prop-"
"Well, Alfrun, as I'm sure you know, the Vanir have always held the Allfather in the highest regard. Our loyalty to him has never been in question."
"Of course, my lady, I simply mean-"
"You meant to ask why it is that we did not offer the lot of you a curtsy, as normally befits a lady of high standing." Alfrun opens her mouth to respond, but your sister raises a hand to silence her. "In Vanaheim, and particularly Eryncelon, bowing is commonplace for both genders. We do not force our women to bend the knee as a form of acknowledgement or goodwill, because it is the ultimate gesture of respect. We kneel only before those we openly acknowledge as our betters and, on rare occasions, our equals." A smirk tugs at the corners of her mouth. "In short, Vanir women are not on their knees nearly as often as Asgardian women would like to believe."
Alfrun stares openmouthed as Lyssa rejoins you and the younger girls overrun you with questions.
"Uptight little wench, isn't she?" Lyssa asks as the three of you make your way down the corridor. "
You shrug. "You certainly didn't improve her opinion of us."
"I thought she was trying to be nice." Gilrin offers. "Especially since the Allfather invited us to dine in the royal chambers. It's such an honor, and it was really kind of her to see if we knew how to behave."
"Gilrin, stop fawning over everything the Aesir do. The Allfather invited us to dine with the royal family because we're royalty ourselves, not out of the kindness of his all-knowing heart." Lyssa tosses her hair back and leans in to whisper into your ear. "The royal family will be there, along with some of Odin's most trusted advisors. Most of them have sons of marriageable age. Be as bright and engaging as you can; they'll undoubtedly take notice and want to introduce their sons to you."
You've reached the doors to the private dining chamber, and the guards open it to reveal a mid-sized room, cozily lit with torches and buzzing with amiable conversation. The Allfather is centered at the table, facing the doorway, and a handful of courtiers are seated with their backs to the door. You glide into the room with Lyssa by your side and Gilrin trailing behind you. Making sure that Odin can see you, you sink to one knee and place your fist across your chest. A slight rustle behind you tells you that Lyssa and Gilrin have done the same.
The conversation in the room dwindles until the only sound is that of a boisterous laugh. Odin looks to where you kneel, and for a brief moment, you see him as he was centuries ago: lively and hopeful and bursting with the energy of Yggdrasil. You look into his eyes, deep blue and filled with the knowledge of the Well of Wyrd, and for that moment your mind is at peace. Out of the corner of your eye you detect that a courtier to the Allfather's side has risen.
"______? Lyssa?" The voice is deeper than you remember, but filled with the same energy and enthusiasm. The golden Prince of Asgard is beaming at you as you rise and approach the table, his smile filled with youthful vigor and undisguised joy. You instantly notice that he has grown into what must be the ideal for an Aesir warrior. He gestures for you to sit down, making room beside him. When the flurry of skirts settles, Lyssa is situated beside Thor, (who seems to not realize that it is her, and continues to address her by your name), Gilrin is between you and Lyssa, and you are a hair's distance from the noble next to you. A meal is set before you, and the servant makes to fill your goblet.
"Oh, not mead. Ale will suffice, thank you."
"How fares the Lady Nimirel?" One of the advisors is looking at you, stroking his beard with a wizened hand. You hastily swallow and smile at him, frantically raking your brain as to who he might be.
"My mother is well, thank you. You must be Ivar, correct?" The old man positively glows. Remembering Lyssa's instructions, you let out a charming laugh and continue, "You are Ivar! Oh, Mother always spoke so fondly of you. It's one of her favorite stories to tell, the way you helped cement the alliance between Asgard and Vanaheim. She would speak most favorably of the bravery and vision that the men of the alliance party possessed." Several of the other nearby men have turned and are listening intently to you. Most of them were likely a part of the alliance party, you realize. Perhaps Asfrid's insistence upon learning the names of the courtiers beforehand wasn't such a waste of time.
"_____! What are you doing down ther-oh. Lyssa? You have my apologies, my lady. I mistook you for your sister." Lyssa giggles as Thor bows his head in mock humiliation. "Forgive me, my ladies. Your beauty has done naught but grow since we saw you last, and it has dazzled me into confusion." You smile and raise your glass to your lips.
"I seem not to be the only one affected by your remarkable looks, though."
You tilt the glass, allowing the cool liquid to trickle into your mouth.
"My brother seems to be struck speechless by you, _____."
The ale in your mouth buzzes and then thins, growing colder until it is icy, sweet, and tasting faintly of apples.
"What say you, Loki, as to the princesses' appearances?"
You turn your head slowly, and find yourself looking into eyes greener than the heart of Vanaheim's forests. Loki's face is close to yours, so close that you can feel his cool breath on your lips. Time has sculpted his features to perfection, and his hair is perfectly slicked back to reveal fine brows, narrow cheekbones, and eyes that burn with a fierce, piercing intelligence. How did I not notice something this attractive sitting beside me? Not breaking eye contact, Loki opens his mouth to speak. His voice is silken, smooth and precise and so fluid that you sit for a time, utterly enraptured by the sound of it, before you remember to listen to what he's saying.
"-though, of course, there was never any doubt of the outcome." He turns away and begins to speak with some advisor.
And you sit dumbfounded for a solid minute, before Lyssa engages you in conversation once more. Gilrin sits quietly, smiling, blushing, and nodding when the conversation permits. She makes no move to comment on the political workings that you discuss with the Allfather and the other advisors. You don't blame her. The talk is filled with old names and deeds of times long past. You nearly lose your train of thought several times, much to your annoyance.
This is pitiful. No man, let alone an Asgardian man, should be able to distract me thusly. Even if he is a prince. You resolve to ignore Loki's presence beside you.
Just one more glance, then I'll- damn. He's looking at me.