The closer the party got to Asgard, the more Erna wished to break free from the clump of riders and speed forward in solitude. The trip from Alfheim had been exciting in many ways, offering her a change from the oppressive atmosphere of her father's house. She enjoyed the inns and meeting new people, but spending so much time in such close proximity to her traveling companions was starting to wear on her.

Although she was lucky the little retinue only turned out to be twenty people strong. Between Erna, her father, retainers, handmaidens, and various other servants, it was a wonder they left for Asgard with so few people. She could only imagine the small army it would take if her stepmother and siblings were brought along.

She got a small pang of guilt thinking about her little brother and sister, but she pushed it aside. She couldn't stay in that house forever, no matter how much she loved the children. Her stepmother, Rania, was starting to make near daily comments about how long Erna was taking to find a husband and move out. So the trip to Asgard promised a diversion, albeit a temporary one.

Any excitement that leeched away as they plodded through mile after mile of countryside and crowded into close quarters at night surged back as she caught sight of the magnificent city. Nothing she'd heard or read prepared her for the sight of the glittering spires and sheer magnitude of the place. She itched to race toward it and let the others trudge along at their glacial pace.

It felt like it took them forever to finally get to the city, traverse the grand gate, and make their way to the palace. Part of her knew what an uncultured bumpkin she must look like, gaping at the size and wonder of the palace, but she couldn't bother to affect an air of indifference. And while it was a bit easier to take it all in once they entered the massive structure, the maze of corridors and grand rooms left her at a loss for words. Whatever father's business with the Asgardians, she hoped he wouldn't be quick to finish it.

Though nowhere near an influential visitor, she was nonetheless shown to a sizable suite of rooms with a private bath and adjoining chambers for her maids. And much to her surprise and delight, nobody expected anything of her. While her father met with tradesmen and government officials and attended meetings all day, Erna didn't really have a schedule. She was used to running their house while her stepmother socialized. The woman felt that managing the servants and menus and other household duties was far beneath her and it fell to Erna to keep things running smoothly. And while she never truly resented her role, because it gave her something worthwhile to do, the break she'd get while in Asgard was welcome.

Once her handmaidens helped her dress in the morning and ensured her long, fiery gold hair was braided in the manner she preferred, she had the option to dismiss them and roam the castle as she pleased. It was a constant marvel to her that so many people could coexist in one building while still offering her pockets of solitude. Between the library, gardens, balconies, and passageways, she was able to escape the chatter of other courtiers when it suited her. It was heaven.

And when she did join the ladies of the court as they embroidered (or actually gossiped and pretended to embroider) or rode out to enjoy the city, she was constantly entertained by the endless parade of different types of people. She was used to the tall, lithe forms of the light elves. As the predominant inhabitants in Alfheim, she'd grown accustomed to their pale gold skin, angular faces, and pointed ears. But in Asgard, residents of all nine realms seemed to make their home.

While some of the ladies would titter and giggle over the different races, Erna found her eyes drawn to each new sight. Dwarves, Vanir, and fire giants all mingled if not happily, then at least peacefully in the golden city. Even the Asgardians were interesting to look upon. Although they offered a wide range of body types, she noticed a trend among the young women. Tall and buxom, she silently wished for a figure like theirs. As it was, Erna was an oddity amongst the elves, several heads shorter than most. At least in Asgard she wasn't around many from Alfheim and it helped her feel less out of place, particularly at large gatherings.

Unsure what to expect at first, Erna was happy to find most palace meals were informal affairs. She was able to chat with fellow visitors as everyone came and went as their schedules allowed. Few people paid her much attention, which was a nice change from home. She did get a pit in her stomach on the fourth day, when the king entered the hall as she was finishing her dinner. Glancing around, near-paralyzed with fear, she strained to see if anyone was observing any protocols she wasn't aware of. Would they all stand to greet him? Should she stop nibbling on the last of her chicken?

Thankfully, none of that was necessary. A small ripple of excitement passed through the room as the king took his place at the high table, but that was all. The look of undisguised jealously her father shot at the lords and ladies seated with him was slightly embarrassing, but she figured the king would take no notice of such a minor lord.

The lady across from her noticed Erna's attention and smiled indulgently. "First time dining with the king?"

"Yes," she answered with a laugh. "Must be sadly obvious. I've just," she lowered her voice, feeling like an idiot for admitting it, "heard so many stories. You get this idea in your head and he's just not what I pictured." Her skin prickled at her words, giving the feeling that she was being watched.

"Not handsome enough for you?"

"No." She wanted to crawl under the table at the thought of passing judgment on the general merits of the king's appearance. "I rather expected him to look like some rabid fire demon intent on devouring children and deflowering innocent virgins."

Her dinner companion laughed heartily at the idea. Again, Erna got the distinct impression that she was drawing too much attention to herself. "Don't let that pretty package fool you, elf. The king is not to be crossed. He's merciless."

"I'll uh… keep that in mind, thank you." Shortly thereafter Erna made her excuses and retired to her chambers. She planned on giving King Loki a wide berth. If even half the stories she'd heard about him were true, then he wasn't to be trusted.