The king and prince of Asgard sat side by side in one of the outer courts of the palace, watching the sparring match in the center. A servant brought out goblets (mead for Odin, weak wine for Loki), which the royals sipped from as they watched.
Loki cupped his small hands around his goblet and beamed up at his father. He was quite enjoying his day so far. He loved to watch his brother spar, as he was doing now, and then afterwards it would be his turn to practice. But what he was most happy about was that Odin had come to watch. The Allfather was often too busy to spend as much time with his youngest son as Loki would have liked.
Loki was so pleased, in fact, that he felt brave enough to do something he normally wouldn't have—ask him about something he had read about in a book.
"Father, have you ever seen a Frost Giant temple?"
The Allfather nearly choked on his mead. After coughing a few times, he cleared his throat and said loudly, "What was that, Loki?"
His eight-year-old son looked up at him innocently. "I said, have you ever seen a Frost Giant temple?"
"I— no. No, I have not," Odin replied, a little sharper than he had intended. What in the Nine Realms possessed the boy to say such a thing?
"Oh," Loki said. "I thought you might have, when you battled in Jotunheim." He fell silent and turned his gaze and attention back towards his brother, who was sparring in the middle of the courtyard.
Odin studied his younger son carefully, his heart pounding with uneasiness. Loki's dark hair was poking out from underneath his helmet, for he was dressed and waiting to spar next. His face showed no signs of suspicion. His ice teal eyes were wide open and his lips were beginning to part in an almost-smile as he watched Thor lunging at his opponent. He looked up to and admired his brother, Odin knew.
He cleared his throat again. "Why do you ask about the Frost Giants?"
Loki shifted uncomfortably. He didn't feel quite as brave now. "Oh, I— I was reading a book, and—" He glanced up at his father, who didn't look too annoyed, so he put his goblet down, reached under his chair, and picked up the book he had brought with him. "It is about the Nine Realms," he said, running his finger over the runes engraved onto the leather cover.
"Show me, Loki," Odin said softly.
Loki began to turn the parchment pages, stopping at a beautifully illustrated depiction of a Viking settlement. "Midgard," he said, touching the picture. He grinned mischievously. "Did you know the mortals actually worship us?"
He looked up at his father again as he turned to a picture of a towering icy structure surrounded by the frozen wastes of Jotunheim. "Most of the Frost Giants' civilization is rather primitive compared to our palace," Loki continued. "But I thought their temples were quite beautiful. I only wondered whether you had seen one up close."
Loki glanced up at Odin for the third time, because he still couldn't quite believe that his father had asked about something he was interested in, especially a book. Odin thought Loki spent too much time in the library. But he was delighted to see that his father seemed to be paying attention to him at last, so he kept talking.
"The mortals worship us, but the Frost Giants worship the spirits of the ice." Loki pointed to the runic letters opposite the picture of the temple. "The temples were built for the ice spirits' use. It says here that at times the Frost Giants make sacrifices to them, to obtain favor in some endeavor. They select a child and abandon him in the temple, and so the ice takes his body."
Odin tried to speak, but found he was unable to form words.
Loki looked up, innocence and curiosity shining in his ice teal eyes. "It sounds awful, does it not, Father? The Frost Giants also—"
"That's enough," Odin managed to choke out, rather harshly. "Give that to me."
Loki's face fell as he handed the book to his father. "I— I'm sorry," he whispered, though he wasn't quite sure why.
Odin took a deep breath to steady himself. "I have told you that it is not good for a prince to spend so much of his time within the library. Look at your brother. Does he read as you do?"
"No, he finds no pleasure in it," Loki whispered, his head bowed.
"And he is becoming a fine warrior, is he not?" Odin gestured to his eldest son, swinging his wooden sword. "If you wish to be like Thor, you must spend more time practicing for battle, not on this foolishness."
Loki quickly lifted his head. "I do practice, Father, I do. Thor and I spar each day for near two hours. I want to fight gloriously in battle, just as you have… but I like to learn, as well. I like to know more about the mortals, and the jotuns, and I also like to learn about—" He broke off abruptly, biting his lip, and looked away.
Odin's eyes narrowed. "Magic?"
Loki looked terrified and nodded slightly.
The Allfather sighed. "I have told you that magic is no substitute for a warrior's skill in battle, have I not?"
"Yes, Father," Loki said quietly. "But…"
Odin raised his eyebrows.
"I just do not have Thor's ability!" Loki burst out. "I practice as much as he does, but still I am always the lesser warrior." He looked down at his hands, clenched into nervous fists on his lap.
"Then you must practice more, my son," Odin said quietly. "An extra hour each day, I think."
Loki opened his mouth to protest, then quickly closed it again.
"And I do not wish to hear that you have been using this time studying Frost Giants or mortals or magic," the Allfather continued. "If you would be called a worthy son of Odin, you will behave more like your brother!"
Tears began to fall down Loki's cheeks. "Yes, Father," he whispered, his voice breaking. "I… I promise that I will practice hard. I will t-try to be good."
Odin put his hand on his son's small shoulder. "I am pleased to hear it. Now, I believe that it is your turn to spar." Thor had laid down his weapon and was drinking water a servant had brought for him. "Go. Fight valiantly. And try to make me proud."
Loki wiped his eyes on his sleeve. "I always do," he said simply.
Odin watched him leave. He knew that he had hurt his son, but if that was what it took to prevent him from finding out the truth of his heritage… then so be it.
As Loki walked out to the center of the courtyard, Thor grinned at him, oblivious to the conversation that had just taken place. "Ready, brother?" Suddenly he frowned. "Loki… what is wrong?"
"Nothing," Loki replied, rubbing his eyes and forcing a smile in return. "Father says we are to practice three hours each day from now on."
"Yes!" yelled Thor, pumping his fist. "That is wonderful news, brother. Why are you not excited? I thought you liked to spar."
Loki shrugged. "I do, but… I am not very good. And— and I want to make Father proud, but I cannot."
"You are good, Loki."
"Not as good as you."
"Well, I am older," Thor replied. He thought for a moment. "Brother, what if I help you during our extra practice time? I can teach you what I know, and we can train together always. It shall be glorious fun."
Loki looked up at his brother. His ice teal eyes were even brighter than usual, and he smiled, a real smile this time. "Would you really do that, Thor?"
"Of course I would."
Loki threw his arms around him. "Thank you, brother." Although he was often envious of Thor, his brother's generally sweet nature meant that he found it difficult to maintain the emotion for more than a minute or two. Despite their quarrels, Loki knew they would always love each other. As the brothers hugged, Thor waited patiently for about two seconds.
"Now let's fight."
Loki didn't read for pleasure once that afternoon. Or throughout the next day. He wanted to focus on his training with Thor—on pleasing his father. But that evening, after dinner, Loki was returning to his chambers when he found himself walking past, of all places, the palace library.
He supposed that after so many months of consistently stopping by the library for a book to read before bed, it would take a while for him to break the habit. He began to turn away. It is not good for a prince to spend so much of his time within the library, he reminded himself.
But as Loki turned, he caught sight of the elaborately worked carving of Yggdrasil and the Nine Realms decorating the huge wooden doors. He went back and touched Midgard, the only one he could easily reach, as his eyes swept over all the realms. He looked up and down the hall. No one was there to see him. Suddenly he reached up and grasped the gold handle with both his small hands, pulled open the door, and slipped inside.
Loki shivered with anticipation (as he always did) as he gazed at the long rows of bookshelves—twice as tall as his father, and extending back as far as he could see. Moonlight streamed in through the huge windows along the left-hand wall, lighting some parts of the room and casting others in shadow, an effect that Loki enjoyed as he walked down the main aisle, breathing in the familiar scent of old books.
When he reached the spot he had been in the last time he had come, he was delighted to see that Odin had put the book he had taken from him back on the shelf. He tucked the heavy book under his arm, and also took a volume on beginning magic he had been looking at recently.
Loki curled up with his books in his favorite armchair in his favorite shadowy corner of the library. He felt quite content. Father hadn't actually forbidden him from reading, so long as he spent the extra hour each day practicing his sparring, which he fully intended to do. Now that Thor was helping him, he was sure that if he worked hard he would be able to fight just as well as his brother. Then Father would be proud of him. And he could still do what he wanted.
The little god of mischief whispered a simple spell he had learned the previous week to light a candle. He grinned, snuggled back into his chair, and opened his book.