ASGARD

As she materialized onto the platform, Jane made an effort to will her face into an expression of stern regality, rather than the giddy exhilaration that traveling on the Bifrost always made her feel. After all, she could hardly expect Heimdall to show her the proper respect if he saw her grinning like a schoolgirl just because he'd given her a ride on his Einstein-Rosen bridge. (Well, actually she could, since she was still his prince's betrothed, and that was what mattered to the Asgardian sentinel – but Jane came from a world where authority had for generations gone to whoever could feign the greatest gravity, and it still weighed with her more than she always liked to admit.)

When she got her first clear glimpse of Himinbjörg, however, she forgot all about choosing between glaring and grinning, and simply stood staring with her jaw hanging open. She had expected, of course, to find the missing news van the delegates had been talking about – but she certainly hadn't expected it to have been reduced to a fused mass of torn and smoking steel in the few minutes it had taken her to get out onto the street. Even the Warriors Three weren't usually that exuberant.

After a few moments' speechless gaping, she somehow managed to locate her voice, and turned on her heel to face the Bifrost's guardian. "Heimdall, I don't even know what to say," she said. "I mean, what on Ear… what in the Nine Realms did the Austrian news media ever do to you?"

Heimdall's lip quirked momentarily – the closest he ever came to a smile. "I bear no grudge against your world's chatterers, Lady Jane," he said. "They are petty creatures, glutted with the milk of Ratatösk, but they do not menace Asgard. It is the thief of this vessel, not its owners, whose manners I object to."

Jane blinked. "Thief?"

"Some twenty minutes before," said Heimdall. "A man of double face placed a tool of fiery death within, then overrode the vessel's commands and brought it to the Center. When he prepared to flee and summon the fire from a distance, I chose to remove him and it from your vicinity."

It took Jane a few seconds to interpret this. "You mean… there was a bomb in the truck?"

Heimdall nodded.

"And it detonated on its way to Asgard?"

"The radiance of the Bifrost is of intensest might," said Heimdall. "Perhaps I ought not to have been so careless with it."

After a pause, he added, "Perhaps I wasn't."

Jane suppressed a shudder; the protection of Asgard was an unnerving thing to have, sometimes. "Um… okay, then," she said. "So where is this thief now?"

"In Nástrond, beyond doubt," said Heimdall. "But his body is there." And he pointed to the remains of the van's cockpit.

Jane licked her lips and took a deep breath; then, screwing up her courage, she stepped forward and looked inside. She knew what she could expect to see: a charred, skeletal piece of human debris, of the sort that the wonders of modern progress had made so familiar to the people of Midgard, but with the extra layer of ghastliness that horrors always had when seen in person rather than on the nightly news. It was hardly the sort of sight she had been craving when she'd woken up that morning, but she was a princess of Asgard – de-facto, anyway; it didn't become her to quail from the sight of carnage.

Such resolution, however, didn't keep her from covering her mouth and letting out an involuntary squeal of horror when she actually saw the thing behind the wheel. Fate had contrived a macabre twist that even a 21st-Century Midgardian could hardly have anticipated: instead of being merely seared off his skull, the man's face seemed to have partially melted, forming a grotesquely distorted parody of the human countenance such as Jane had never seen outside of a nightmare or a modern-art exhibit.

For a moment, horrid fancies out of old folk-tales flitted through her brain; then her reason reasserted itself, and she realized what she was seeing. Flesh didn't melt at high heat, but there were plenty of artificial polymers that did; obviously, the man had been wearing a mask of some kind – which was, no doubt, what Heimdall had really meant by calling him "of double face". Indeed, when she forced herself to look at the body a second time, she found herself almost recognizing the features he had assumed; some dim memory of a historical documentary nagged at her mind – or had it been a museum display?

She turned to Heimdall. "Do you mind if I take this mask back with me to Midgard?" she said. "I think the authorities in Vienna would be interested to study it."

As Heimdall made no move to discourage her, she turned back, stepped gingerly into the van, and (ignoring the queasy fluttering in the pit of her stomach) carefully peeled the half-melted disguise off the charred head beneath. With it came a good deal of crisply brittle skin and hair; that was just as well, of course, allowing as it would for DNA identification of the perpetrator, but it didn't help her digestion any.

Holding the mask at arm's length between her thumbs and forefingers, she stepped out of the van and raised her eyes to meet Heimdall's. "All right," she said. "I guess I'll be heading back now, then."

Heimdall nodded.

"Thank you, by the way," Jane added. "I guess quite a few people down there owe you their lives; I can't promise that they'll be grateful, but, anyway, I am."

But that seemed to be the wrong thing to say; it was hard to tell, with him, but she thought that Heimdall stiffened. "No, Lady Jane," he said. "I am but a servant of the House of Bor; to keep you from harm is my plain duty, and nothing more. It is not meet that it should put you in my debt."

Right, of course, Jane thought. Stop thinking like an American, Foster.

With a feeling of wistful regret for the tradition of liberty that he couldn't share, she turned and strode back toward the Bifrost platform. As she positioned herself on the proper spot for her return, however, she heard the Sentinel behind her speak her name, and stifled a sigh as she turned to face him. "Yes, Heimdall?"

Heimdall's face was as impassive as ever, but there was something in his eyes that Jane almost wanted to call merriment. "Your ornament is admirable," he said.

Jane's hand stole to the brooch on her bosom, and she blushed and smiled in spite of herself. "Oh," she said. "Well… thank you. I mean… yes, thank you."

"Not at all, My Lady."


2.

"Heimdall complimented you on the brooch?" Darcy's voice was at once disbelieving and ecstatic. "Ee-yes! Touchdown!"

Jane laughed. "Let me know when you and Agent Romanoff get together to pour Gatorade on each other," she said. "But anyway, the point is that, yes, I'm fine, and so is everyone else here, so you and Eric can stop panicking."

"What about the perp?"

Jane shrugged – pointlessly, of course, since Darcy couldn't see her. "I told the police the story when I got back," she said, "and gave them the mask to examine, so I assume the answers about him are on their way. Anyway, even if there is some sinister conspiracy behind him, I don't think there's any chance of it trying again within the next hour – not now that it knows what it's up against. So really, don't worry about me."

She took a deep breath. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go make a speech."

There was a few moments' silence from the other end of the phone, and then – "You?"

Nettled, Jane pursed her lips and snapped the phone shut without replying. Really, she wasn't that awkward in front of large crowds – or not most of the time, anyway. There had been that one time in the eighth grade… but that had just caught her at a bad moment. This time, she'd do just fine.

After all, this time she really had something to say. It had been slowly maturing within her ever since Heimdall's little send-off, and, by the time Darcy's call had come through, she had determined that the Assembly needed to hear it – and quickly, before they recovered from the shock of Heimdall's intervention and went ahead with this rigged little vote of theirs. And she was the person to tell them, if anyone was.

Of course, it would mean saying a permanent goodbye to all those Nobel fantasies of hers. Her recurring appearances on tabloid covers were bad enough; throw in a universally publicized intervention in world politics – and on what the Swedish Academy was sure to consider The Wrong Side – and she would be irreversibly branded as the kind of self-aggrandizing Celebrity Scientist whom no amount of legitimate pioneership could persuade Stockholm to take seriously. But that (she told herself firmly) didn't matter, any more than did all the keynote symposium addresses she had lost through the arrangers' fears of seeming sensationalistic. Let the world think what it chose about her; it didn't make her regret either her vocation to physics or her love for Thor – and neither would it make her regret what she was about to do.

Holding her head high, like the princess she was, she strode the remaining length of the hallway and re-entered the Assembly chamber.


The acting Secretary-General shot forward at her appearance like a trap-door spider lunging at a cricket. "Well, Dr. Foster?" he said. "Can you tell us what was meant by…"

Jane glided past him without breaking stride; if she turned aside or slowed down now, she couldn't trust herself ever to make it to the podium. It was right in front of her, just a few steps away; all she had to do was keep her eyes on it, keep moving forward, keep putting one foot in front of the other until she was…

There. She was there. She took a deep breath, grasped the edges of the podium, and raised her head to gaze out upon the sea – such as it was – of faces before her. "Mr. Secretary-General," she began, remembering how King T'Chaka had begun his address. "Your Excellencies – ladies and gentlemen – peoples…" (Dared she? Sure, why not.) "…of Midgard." (Okay, a couple chuckles, good – though she wished Prince T'Challa would stop glaring daggers at her.)

"I've just spoken with the Sentinel of the Bifrost," she said, "and it seems that what you saw just now was not an arbitrary display of power, but a deliberate intervention to prevent a great tragedy. Apparently the van that was transported had been hijacked by some sort of terrorist, and rigged with a bomb powerful enough to take out this whole section of the International Center… No, please, ladies and gentlemen, there's nothing to worry about," she said, raising her voice to be heard over the sudden hubbub. "Neither the bomb nor the perpetrator is a problem any longer, and the Bundespolizei are acting on evidence received to hunt down any possible collaborators as we speak. Beyond that, I'm afraid I can't tell you any more.

"What I can tell you, though," she continued, wishing her heartbeat would slow down, "is why the Sentinel chose to intervene. Because you've all assembled here today to decide how much intervention should be allowed to what you call 'enhanced persons', and the person who just saved you is very enhanced indeed." (She thought irresistibly of the eighth chapter of the Gylfaginning, which attributed to Heimdall Hallinskithi the power to hear the wool growing on a sheep's back; whatever "inordinately beyond the human standard" was legally supposed to mean, she didn't think much of it if it didn't include that.) "So it seems to me that his reason just might matter to you.

"Of course, in one sense, you've probably already guessed the reason – and you're right. It was me. Heimdall dropped the Bifrost because his prince's betrothed was in danger; if I hadn't been here today, this window behind me wouldn't be here anymore, either. But that's not the kind of reason I'm talking about. Here's a man who has power at his fingertips beyond anything our Realm can imagine, and the opportunity to do almost anything with it that he chooses – and what he chooses to do is look after the well-being of some mortal girl from Cincinnati. Why?

"If you ask him, he'll say it's his duty; he's a vassal of the House of Bor, and I'm one of its important people, and that's just the way it is. That's what he said to me just now – and I won't lie to you, I didn't think much of it. I didn't see what sense it made to exalt one person over another just for the sake of some ancient tradition; that's something they don't exactly teach us mortal girls from Cincinnati to approve of, you know."

She fingered her brooch again, and smiled quietly to herself as she continued: "But then, as I was leaving, he showed me – I won't bore you with how – that I'd been jumping to conclusions a little too quickly. I'd thought that his sense of fealty forced him to think of himself as less than I was: less free, less honorable, less of a person in general. But he didn't, and he showed me that clearly. He had at least as much self-respect as I did, and probably more than any Midgardian I'd ever known – but he was still obliged to respect me more.

"And you know how he manages that?" she demanded of the assembled nations. "You know what the secret is that lets him combine dignity and subservience that way? Because I think I do, now. The secret is that his obligation to honor me is an obligation he's put on himself – that his world gives him a way to submit to its rulers of his own free will. He didn't just receive an order; he swore an oath. The House of Bor didn't crack his skull; it won his heart. Because, in the long run, that's the only real kind of authority that one man can have over another."

She took a deep breath, put all images of Carl XVI Gustaf out of her mind, and plunged into the home stretch. "Now, this Assembly is here to vote on making the Avengers subject to the U.N., and I'm here to represent the Avengers in that discussion. I'm not an Avenger myself, of course, but, so long as I'm in this building, I might as well be. And, on behalf of the Avengers, I'd just like to ask all of you here: What do you want us to do? Protect you? We're doing that already. Obey you? Why, if you don't trust us to obey the countries' laws that produced you? Fear you? Look out the window again and tell me if you can ever make us do that.

"No, if the Sokovia Accords mean anything, it must be that you're asking us to embrace you – that you want Captain America to be your man the same way that Heimdall is Odin's. Maybe that's a good thing to want, maybe it isn't; nobody asked my opinion, so I won't give it. But it's not an opinion, it's a simple fact, that you're not going to get it just by telling us to give it to you. Ratify all the Accords you like, make speeches till you're blue in the face, even send out the Peacekeepers if it makes you happy: none of it's going to get you a step closer to the real dream. You're looking for fealty, not just obedience, and fealty can only come from free men. So when the World's Mightiest Heroes come before you on their own two feet, and freely confess that your will is their law, then you can go ahead and congratulate yourself on having made a better world for humanity – and, as I say, maybe you will have. But, until then, for your sake and the world's, don't settle for anything less.

"And that's all I have to say, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being patient with me while I said it."


3.

On legs that seemed to be filled with jelly, Jane stepped down from the podium, her head spinning at the sheer enormity of what she'd just done. By the fifth or sixth paragraph, she had been running on sheer adrenalin, and somehow it had seen her through; now that it was over, however, the rush had faded away, and a sense of miserable smallness and inadequacy swept over her. Who in the Nine Realms had she been thinking, all this time, that she was? What kind of crazy person was it who got up on a whim in front of the U.N. General Assembly – she, a perfect laywoman with no more right to address them than the janitor would have – and proceeded, without notes or preparation of any kind, to berate them for being insufficiently feudalistic? Forget the Nobel Prize; how could she expect to show her face in public again after…

…wait a minute; was that applause?

She jerked her head upward, and looked back out upon the assembled company – and then her intellect seemed to reel on the brink as she processed what she was seeing. For there, in the front row, on his feet and clapping with solemn yet vigorous fervor, was His Most August Majesty, King T'Chaka of Wakanda.

As she slowly assimilated this phenomenon into her mental model of the world, the delegate from Estonia leaped to his own feet, for all the world as though he were accepting T'Chaka's permission to do so, and joined in the applause. A flurry of other delegates around the room followed his lead, and social momentum did the rest; within thirty seconds, a hotly blushing Jane was receiving a unanimous standing ovation from 58.2 percent of the United Nations. Even Prince T'Challa was clapping – stiffly, mechanically, and plainly out of filial reverence alone, but clapping nonetheless.

She managed a feeble curtsy, and then hurried away from the podium – nearly colliding, in the process, with the delegate from Eritrea, who strode forward and made a few energetic remarks of which, since they were delivered in Arabic, Jane understood not a word. (She later found that he had, in fact, moved the adjournment of the meeting in view of the various unforeseen developments; also, that his motion had been carried, and that the Assembly would reconvene at the New York headquarters in five days' time "to further consider its recommendation to the Security Council regarding the so-called Sokovia Accords".) Nor would she, in any case, have had much attention to spare, for no sooner had she made it down the steps than T'Chaka had come forward and placed a hand on her arm.

"Miss Foster," he said quietly, "may I speak with you privately?"


Jane was more than happy to oblige. She had felt all along that she hadn't probed the Wakandans quite as gracefully or thoroughly as Agent Romanoff had wanted her to do – partly because she wasn't nearly as smooth as Agent Romanoff, and partly because she'd gotten to the International Center rather later than she'd meant to. (Being an old-fashioned sort who felt that God had never meant telephones to be used as timepieces, she had been relying throughout the morning on the wristwatch that she kept set to Greenwich time, and it wasn't until an hour or so before the meeting that she'd realized that Greenwich and Vienna weren't in the same time zone.) An opportunity to have another crack at the problem was welcome.

So she and T'Chaka stole out in the hallway (with T'Challa, disapproving but loyal as ever, at their heels), and he led her to a small conference room about five doors down. It was near enough to the Assembly chamber that she could still hear the deliberations, but she couldn't make out what anyone was saying, or even whether or not it was in English. It was just a muted, irrelevant backdrop – as, perhaps, formal public debates generally are to those who confer with kings.

Having offered her a chair (which she accepted gratefully), T'Chaka laced his hands over his stomach and took a deep breath. "So, Miss Foster," he said, "I imagine you were rather surprised by my reaction to your address just now."

"A little bit, yes," said Jane. "Though, now that I think about it, maybe I shouldn't have been. I suppose a king is more likely to approve of what I said than most other people would be."

T'Chaka nodded. "Yes, that is part of it," he said. "But there is another part, as well. I am a god-fearing man, Miss Foster: all my life, I have striven to perform the observances suitable to my station, and to keep myself clean of defilement."

To Jane, whose knowledge of Wakandan religion was nil, this meant precious little; still, it seemed an admirable enough aspiration, and she was about to say as much when he continued. "My son will tell you," he said with a sly glance at Prince T'Challa, "that I have gotten little good out of all this piety – and perhaps he is right. But I do not regret it, Miss Foster. To me, it is not for one's own benefit that one serves the gods, but out of gratitude that one is permitted to exist at all. You understand?" he said earnestly. "This is a good world, Miss Foster, a beautiful world, for all its sorrows and evils; it is not right for us to live in it without honoring its masters."

We know Him by His most wise and excellent contrivances… we reverence and adore Him on account of His dominion… "Yes, Your Majesty," said Jane with a smile. "I understand that very well."

"So," said T'Chaka. "And if this is so when the gods merely allow one to live, how much more so when a god has actually saved one from death? For I believe, Miss Foster, that I would not be living now if the god you call Heimdall had not reached down from the sky – and so I must honor him, though he is not a god of my people."

A shiver ran down Jane's spine; she thought she saw where this was leading. "But Heimdall's only a servant in Asgard," she said, "and I'm a part of its royalty. So if you honor him, you have to honor me that much more. And that's why you gave me that ovation, back in the Assembly chamber?"

"As I say, it was not the only reason," said T'Chaka. "I hope I should applaud any Westerner who spoke in defense of fealty; such a thing is rare to hear, and always worthy of encouragement. But when the Westerner is the bride of a ruling god, among a realm of gods to which I owe my life – then, yes, it is my special duty to praise."

And there it was: the second chance that Jane had been hoping for, just dropped into her lap. Not that she was entirely comfortable with T'Chaka's reasoning; it was all very well for post-modern Westerners to refer flippantly to the Asgardians as "gods", but to have someone take that literally was another matter… but, then again, would the logic have been any worse if Heimdall had been some other mighty benefactor? (Probably, whispered her gut – but, with the key to a global conspiracy potentially at her fingertips, she wasn't going to stop to parse the distinction.)

"Well, then," she said, taking a deep breath, "if you think that much of me, would you answer me if I asked what might be a slightly ticklish question? You know us scientists, always wanting to know everything about everything."

T'Chaka hesitated. "You understand, Miss Foster, that I am still Wakanda's king," he said. "However indebted I am to you and your gods, I may not discharge that debt at the expense of my people. But, with that qualification, yes, I agree that you have a right to know what I can tell you."

Jane nodded. "Okay, that's fair," she said. "Here's the question, then. When Wanda Maximoff flung Crossbones into that hotel, you didn't react right away; I think it was about a week before anyone in America even knew there were Wakandans in the Bashe – and of course you only came out in support of the Accords when they were made public a few days ago." She took a deep breath. "Would it be accurate, Your Majesty, to infer that you were consulting with the leaders of other nations before you settled on a course of action?"

"It would," said T'Chaka gravely.

"And was there any one nation in particular that urged the course you took?"

"There was."

"Which one?"

But it wasn't T'Chaka who answered; instead, T'Challa, as though unwilling to let this conversation reach its end without some form of protest, broke into speech for the first and only time during the whole conference. "A trustworthy nation, Miss Foster," he said. "A nation that respects our sovereign solitude; a nation whose ruler, despite his sufferings, has always been a friend to Wakanda. A nation – strange as it may seem, among Western powers – that understands the meaning of honor."

"I daresay," Jane replied coolly. "So does this nation have a name?"

T'Chaka made a small but imperious gesture; his son relapsed into brooding silence, and he resumed speaking as though no interruption had been made. "The proposal to restrain the Avengers by means of the United Nations," he said, "was presented to us by the Honorable Gert Hauptmann, ambassador to our country from the Republic of Latveria. It was, he said, the personal suggestion of his head of state, Latverian President Victor Von Doom."

Jane smiled in quiet triumph. "Thank you, Your Majesty."