The Search Begins
Two weeks passed. Two weeks that felt like two years for both the prince who had found himself in love, and the phantom in disguise whom he wanted so desperately to find. Though, to be fair, the days that passed were slightly easier for Aska. While Loki had to wait until he was well enough to join the search, Aska found a strange comfort in doing her usual chores like it was any other day, keeping her mind as well as her body busy. On one day in particular, she found herself literally up to her knees in soapy water, kneeling while she was cleaning the floor in the foyer. Still, even if these was one of the more back-breaking labors, Aska still tried to find joy in it. Occasionally, when no one was looking, she would dip her hand in the bucket and try to blow bubbles. But not today.
As she moved the wet cloth in circles on the floor around her, making sure to reach the usual perfection Ylva required, Aska once again found her mind drifting like the foam of the soap back to the day when the messages from the palace arrived. It seemed that no matter how much she tried to avoid them, the questions like naughty children kept coming back demanding the answers that would satisfy them. If it was true, and Prince Loki was seeking her hand in marriage, would it really be the solution to her and Regin's problems? How could she marry someone she barely knew, whom she met only twice? For a moment, Aska smirked, as she knew what Regin would say. "Once or twice is all it takes if it's the one." And on the slim chance that his Highness was really as she perceived him to be…
No. Aska shook her head. It was preposterous, all this wishful thinking. For five years wishful thinking hadn't gotten her the freedom she so wanted. So what could it do for her now? Trying to focus her mind on other issues, Aska turned to the other question that had been plaguing her, regarding Ylva, and the way she seemed to alarm her so quickly. Though she was wary of her mistress's temper, and had seen it several times since she'd come here, something about the look Ylva gave her that day filled her with a great fear, which she didn't recall ever feeling around her. It was almost as if she felt it sometime before. But being so focused on the work ahead of her, it was hard for Aska to try and recall the last time she did feel it, if she ever did before.
Suddenly, she lifted her head up as she heard footsteps behind her. Aska didn't need to turn her head, for she immediately recognized Brynja once she heard her taunting voice. "You missed a spot ash-face!" she said.
Without looking at her, Aska only gave a drawn-out sigh and asked, "Where?"
Just then, before she could guess what would happen next, she flinched as she felt a large splash of cold water slapping her in the back like a giant hand. With wide eyes and her senses now knocked out of her, she watched as the rest of water flowed in all directions on the floor around her, and as droplets fell one by one from her now wet braid.
"You!" Brynja replied before allowing a fit of laughter to escape her. Aska remained still while she listened to the girl's cackling, and wondered how she allowed herself to fall for such a simple trap, when Brynja soon stopped laughing and gave a more sneering voice to another concern in the back of her mind.
"Why either of the princes would want you is beyond me," she said, before Aska heard her walking out of the room without another word, leaving her alone in her puddle of embarrassment. In fact, she wished for a moment that she could simply sink into it.
And me, she thought in response to Brynja's statement as she then attempted to squeeze the water out of her hair, which quickly proved to be easier said than done. Before long though, she heard another set of footsteps come her way into the room from the opposite direction, and she turned to meet Regin, who could only react to the somewhat alarming sight before her by giving Aska an apologetic face. Replying without words, Aska tried to lighten the situation by giving her a bit of a smirk. But right then, both turned their heads to the front door as they heard a few knocks on it.
"Oh, let me get it," Regin offered. Without waiting for a reply, she then strode over to the front door, though Aska tried to object.
"Regin, wait," she tried to get her attention. But it was too late. Regin opened the door and stood in the open sunlight, blocking the visitor from Aska's view and Aska from the visitor's view. Though she appreciated Regin's effort to spare her of further embarrassment, Aska wondered for a moment if Regin had forgotten her mother's rules, all of which she strictly kept, even the little ones.
"Yes, can I help you?" Regin cheerfully asked.
"Is this the home of Lady Ylva?" a man's voice asked. From the glint of gold armor that then caught her eye, Aska assumed that the man was a guard from the palace. But, what was he doing here?
"Yes it is," Regin replied as she nodded.
The guard then handed Regin what seemed to be a scroll wrapped in a rather prominent glittering gold ribbon. "A message from her Majesty the queen," he said, causing Aska to raise her eyebrows in surprise. A personal message from Queen Frigga to Ylva? Well, she did recall her mistress saying that she and the queen were old acquaintances. Not too far-fetched a claim, since Ylva once lived at court.
"Please see that she gets it," the guard then said.
"I will," Regin nodded as she took the scroll, "Thank you, and good day."
"Good day, Madam," the guard said back. Once he turned away and walked off, Regin closed the door, looking at the scroll with as much curiosity as Aska. But as curious as Aska was about it, she grew even more uneasy at the consequences she knew now awaited her.
"What do you think it says?" Regin asked.
"I don't know," Aska replied slightly nervously, "But, you might want to get out of here before…"
Just then, Aska's heartbeat increased dramatically as she heard footsteps stride quickly into the foyer, footsteps that belonged to none other than Ylva, resembling a large black cat with her black fur dress and well-fitting provoked face. But what she also carried, which Aska now seemed to notice whenever she was around her, was this strange air about her, one that Aska didn't recall feeling when near her before two weeks ago. "Regin!" she immediately exclaimed, "What are you doing? You know it's Aska's job to answer the door!"
Eyebrows raised in alarm at being addressed so for what seemed to be a minor offense, Regin quickly offered an excuse. "But, she was busy, so I thought I'd answer it for her," she explained.
"It looks more like she was lazing around," Brynja suddenly spoke up as she walked into the room with a presence almost as intimidating as her mother's. But Ylva's eyes were now fixed on the scroll in her other daughter's hand.
"What's that?" she asked.
"Um, a message from Queen Frigga to you, Mother," Regin replied, handing the scroll out to her. Both Ylva and Brynja instantly raised their eyebrows with interest.
"The queen?" Ylva asked, clearly intrigued, "Very well, let me see it."
Quickly taking the scroll from Regin, she wasted no time in removing the ribbon and unrolling it. Aska, Regin, and Brynja all watched while she read. No one else seemed to notice, but an anxious frown crossed Aska's face as she considered a previously unlikely possibility. What if this was about her alter-ego, and the wanted poster? Was it a lure for her to latch onto as a plan, or was she simply feeling paranoid? Either way, she then let her mouth fall open when she saw keen fascination fill Ylva's face at what she found, transforming her frowning, marble-like expression into one of smiling appeal.
"Interesting," she noted out loud.
"What? What is it?" Brynja asked eagerly.
While she rolled the scroll again, Ylva replied to all three of the girls, "It appears I have been invited to join her Majesty for afternoon tea, a day before the ball."
At this, Aska and Regin immediately exchanged puzzled faces. While Aska let relief wash over her now that her theory had proved false – or at least, appeared to – the message nonetheless confused her. It had been a while since the lady received an invitation like this, so why now? Again, the likelihood of a trap raised its head again, but Aska decided to put it aside for a time with a little headshake.
Brynja, on the other hand, gave a rather enthusiastic response. "A day before the ball?" she asked. Then, breaking into near-ecstasy, she asked, "Oh Mother, may I go too? It's been so long since we've been at the palace, and Prince Loki might be there as well!"
"Patience, dear," Ylva sighed, "But you have raised a decent point. It has been a considerable time since any of us went to the palace."
"So are we going?" Brynja asked with such eagerness Aska and Regin had to hold back from chuckling.
Though Ylva smiled, Aska could tell it was a false one. She even wondered if Ylva would be so bold as to mock her, but instead, Ylva replied, "I suppose so…"
"Yes!" Brynja promptly cheered, shooting her fists excitedly into the air.
"But I would not count on his Highness being there," Ylva frowned as she reminded her. But Brynja didn't seem to listen, let alone care.
"Oh I should search my wardrobe!" she said hastily, "I must look absolutely perfect!"
Though she didn't dare in Ylva's presence, Aska inwardly rolled her eyes, knowing how picky Brynja could be. She and perfection sometimes seemed an ocean apart. She couldn't help but watch as the much too exhilarated girl rushed as fast as she possibly could up the stairs. Once she left and then heard Ylva sigh, she turned toward her mistress, who seemed somewhat happy that her daughter was now gone.
"And I must go and write a response letter," she said. She herself then turned and left the room the same way in which she came, her fur skirt trailing like a shadow on the floor behind her. And along with her presence, what also left with her was the ominous, disturbing bearing with which she carried herself. It troubled Aska to a point where she realized only after about a whole minute had passed that she was staring out into space at the wall. Indeed, if something like this could put her in such intense concentration, then clearly some mystery awaited her, almost beckoning her to come and solve it. So, she decided, even if the consequences would turn out to be less than pleasant, that she would take the challenge and try to solve it.
Leaving the safety of the foyer, and not looking back, Aska slowly departed the room, and followed the sound of Ylva's trailing skirt down the halls, and eventually to her sitting room. For a moment, she hesitated. Often, even she wasn't allowed in this part of the house. This room was more for looking at than for sitting in. Only Ylva could go in there. Everyone else had to have her permission, or face strict punishment. But today, the need to know the answer to her haunting questions overruled any apprehension of such punishment, and drove her to stand in the doorway, where she saw Ylva sitting down at her desk and taking out a fresh scroll along with a sharpened pen. And it wasn't long before she realized that she wasn't the only one in the room.
"What are you doing here Aska?" she asked, her eyes above her firm frown slightly narrow and even more intense with suspicion.
After finding her voice, Aska replied in her usual mild tone, "If you don't mind, Madam, I'd like to have a brief word with you."
"I'm busy working," Ylva retorted, "And so should you be."
"I promise you, it won't take me very long," Aska nonetheless tried to press her.
She then bit her lip slightly as she waited for a near whip-cracking response. But instead, almost surprisingly, Ylva donned a considering expression, until she briefly closed her eyes and nodded. "Very well," she then said, "But you will get right back to work when we are done."
"Of course," Aska nodded back. Then, not really knowing if this was also permission, she took the three steps inside and finally stood still in front of Ylva and her desk. After receiving no backlash for her actions, Aska took a moment to clear her throat in preparation before giving voice to her concerns.
"My lady," she started, "it's come to my attention that, you've been acting a bit odd lately."
"And what would give you that idea?" Ylva asked.
"Well, is there something I can help you with?" Aska asked.
With raised eyebrows and a face filled with contempt directed toward her, Ylva said, "Aska, if there was something I wanted your help in, do you not think I would have asked you for it first?"
Raising her own eyebrows in nervousness, Aska replied, "Perhaps, but…"
"But nothing," Ylva interrupted her. She then turned her face away from Aska, which eased her yet also unnerved her at the same time, and swiftly dipped her pen in the ink even blacker than her dress before she set it on the scroll and began writing. But while Aska took her mistress's cue that the conversation had ended, Ylva soon offered another, rather unexpected, question of her own.
"Aska," she said without looking up at her, "do you want to know why I took you in?"
Eyebrows raised with curiosity, though she had her suspicions as well, Aska said, "I, suppose. Why?"
Slowly, Ylva raised her head up, until her eyes met Aska's, and stayed locked on hers for as long as she spoke. "Even in exile, I am still a noblewoman, and therefore used to having servants such as yourself to look after me."
Slightly pressing her lips together, knowing how true that statement was, Aska nodded in agreement. But Ylva wasn't done.
"However," she continued, "I also consider myself somewhat of a generous person. If nothing less, my husband would not have let someone like you to suffer alone out there as you did. But, then again, I thought that was who he was before he was killed for treason."
Upon hearing again of Lord Mímir's harrowing death, a dark cloud seemed to settle itself inside the room, causing Aska to look down, away from Ylva's saddening face. For once, in her five years of seeing her as a grim taskmistress, she began almost to pity her, trying to imagine how much grief and disappointment it could take for a person to become a mere shadow of themselves for the rest of their life. She even muttered the words, "I'm sorry."
"Yes," Ylva replied. Then, in what seemed to be an attempt to ward off the far from comfortable feeling, with a different tone of voice she said, "But, feeling sorry for oneself has never gotten anyone anywhere."
Picking up Ylva's new attitude, Aska once again nodded.
"And if we're through with sentiment, it's time to get back to business," Ylva continued. With the usual sternness and watchfulness now returned to her eyes, she said, "Once I am finished with this letter, I want you to ride to the palace and deliver it. Is that understood?"
"Of course," replied Aska, somewhat relieved that they had gone back to their usual way of speaking to one another, "Shall I ready one of the horses now?"
"You would be wise to do so," Ylva agreed.
Without another word, Aska gave one final nod, and then retreated, backward, out of the room before heading down the hallway. She was not accustomed to such feelings of awkwardness, and in fact breathed a sigh of relief once she was out of the house and on the pathway toward the stables, where she hoped her familiarity would be restored.
Less than half an hour later, Aska stood in front of the house beside Arnthor, who was tacked and ready to ride. With the just-finished scroll in her hands, Ylva walked toward Aska and handed it to her, her fingers brushing the scroll like a spider's legs.
Using her usual commanding voice, Aska listened as Ylva gave strict instructions. "You are to go only to the palace and be back before nightfall, is that clear?"
"Yes Madam," Aska nodded. She was about to turn toward Arnthor, when Ylva's gaze seemed to become rather more intense. "And above all, you may not speak to anyone, understood?" she asked with a voice even more austere than before.
Ignoring the slight shiver that traveled up her spine, Aska nodded and said again, "Yes Madam."
Once that was settled, she put the scroll inside her satchel which hung from her shoulder, turned around, and quickly mounted Arnthor. Without saying anything else, or looking back, she forced her tingling fingers to calm into a firm hold on the reins, gently kicked the bay horse in the sides, and urged him into a canter down the pathway ahead of her, keeping her eyes on the road, and happy to get away from the house, even if it was for only an errand.
As she made her way toward the palace under the bright blue sky of mid-day, Aska couldn't help but smile as she took in the sights that greeted her. It was a rather lovely day, and there was plenty to admire on either side of the pathway. She passed by Jarl's wooden house, and the one that stood beside it where she could hear his hammer hitting the iron of whatever it was he was working on, whether it be horseshoes, cooking utensils, weapons, or something else of the sort. In front of another house a few yards down the road, she saw a garden filled with rather beautiful flowers with just as lovely colors: yellow primroses, purple saxifrages, blue buttercups, and so forth. She could almost smell their sweet scents as she rode by.
After a while, Aska came upon another town that she was familiar with. Most people she saw walked on foot, but there was the occasional horseback rider who greeted her. She smiled as she smelled the wonderful scent of fresh sweets coming from the baker's stand. She chuckled as she saw young children scampering by, laughing and looking as though they were playing tag. How she envied them, knowing they were without cares or worries. It made a slight frown appear on her face for a moment. But then, for a brief and almost alarming moment, she recalled her mistress's advice which proved surprisingly useful. In fact, Aska would have said she was right. Pitying herself would do nothing to lift her out of the gloom she lived in. Indeed, things could have been much worse.
Once she passed through the town, all that stood between Aska and the palace was the road on which she traveled. She had slowed Arnthor to a trot when going through the town, but now that there were not many people in her way, she eased him back into his previous cantering pace. As she got closer to the palace though, she frowned, not only at the realization that if she had weak eyes she would have been blinded by the bright gold of the palace, but at the strange, unsettling fog of a sensation that surrounded her and intensified the closer she got to it.
All Aska was sure of it was that she recognized this feeling as the one she felt that one night. Like before, something felt oddly familiar, like the palest memory of a dream emerging in the back of her mind. Sure, this was the place when, as the Purple Phantom, she had to stay clear of. And yet, even in her normal servant's clothes, the sensation felt slightly stronger than before, almost as though it was trying to tell her something. But what?
Suddenly, she realized that she was only a few yards from one of the palace entrances. A stone staircase stood in front with two guards standing at the bottom and two others at the top, a scene all too similar to the one she came across last night. Even so, she reined her horse to a stop, and then dismounted, making sure to stand straight before striding toward one of the guards. Swiftly, he held his hand up at her, making her quickly stop in her tracks.
"Halt!" he said, "State your name, where you hail from, and your business."
Quickly, Aska replied to all three of his questions respectively. "My name is Aska, I come from the home of Lady Ylva, and I have a letter responding to the one sent to her this morning, for her Majesty Queen Frigga." She opened her satchel and took out the scroll wrapped in a red ribbon. The guard eyed her and then the scroll for a moment, before he nodded and held out his hand.
"Very well," he said, "I will see to it that her Majesty gets this letter. Thank you for your business."
"My pleasure," Aska nodded as she placed the scroll in his hand. She then breathed a small sigh of relief, now that her errand was over and she could get back to the house. She turned around and began heading back toward her horse, but little did she know that she would have a literal run-in with the last person she expected to meet.
Loki had been walking back and forth through the courtyards alone for almost an hour now. Earlier that morning, he and Thor had gone through another village, on yet another disappointing search for the aptly named spirit who seemed to leave as quickly as she'd come. He knew the week before, when he was well enough to ride a horse and go about, that he shouldn't have gotten his hopes up. And yet, that hope within him surged whenever he approached another village. But now, he didn't know if he could search any more, see any more young ladies all too eager to fill the empty place in his heart.
Thor had asked him how he would know the Purple Phantom, since she was masked. Loki's answer was that the girl had to have that strong, spirited presence surrounding her. It practically emanated from her when he first saw her, standing as confident as a lioness before the monsters that would make most girls weak in the knees. As he stared at the stone walkway beneath him, Loki let out a drawn-out, tired sigh. Tired of searching nearly endlessly in almost the same manner he did years ago. If this had been another issue, he would have confided with his brother, but he wasn't sure if even he would understand this.
Suddenly though, he bumped into someone in his way. At once, Loki heard a feminine gasp. He quickly looked up and opened his mouth to apologize, when his eyes widened, and a smile crossed his face upon seeing a familiar servant girl before him. Indeed, his mouth remained open, so great was his surprise. And seeing what appeared to be ashes on her pale cheeks, he immediately remembered her name. "Aska!"
Once he had bumped into her, Aska wondered who would be so foolish as to run into someone right in front of them, but her eyes widened instantly when she saw who exactly it was. She could practically feel the color drain from her startled face as she recognized him and heard him say her name. The prince who stood before her was none other than Loki Odinson. And, as before when she'd first met him, for a moment she struggled to find her voice.
"Your Highness!" she exclaimed once she did. But her body was slow to catch up. The back of her legs came against what felt to be stone, and she promptly sat down on what she realized to be a bench, her eyes never straying from the petrifying lock on his.
"My lord!" one of the guards spoke up suddenly. He began making his way toward them, but Loki quickly held up his hand, stopping him just as fast as the guard previously stopped her.
"Stand down," Loki said sternly, "She's with me."
Immediately, the guard did as he was told, backing away to his original post. A faint smile managed to appear on Aska's face at what his Highness just did for her, but it quickly disappeared when he turned back to her, despite his own friendly smile.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
For a short while, Aska wondered if she should reply, having remembered Ylva strict orders not to speak to anyone, but she reasoned that she could at least answer his Highness. "I was sent to deliver a responding message from my mistress to her Majesty, the queen."
Loki raised his eyebrows and nodded with interest. "Ah," he said, "I see. I'm sorry, am I delaying you?"
"No," Aska shook her head, "I was just leaving." At that moment, she thought to stand up from the bench, proceed back to her horse, and leave the place that made her feel so bizarre. And yet, part of her did not want to leave right now. A silent voice urged her to remain on the bench, to remain here, with his Highness. Another voice protested, saying that the longer she stayed, the greater the risk of him recognizing her would become. But still, while she felt rather nervous now that he stood right in front of her, even stronger was the feeling of unusual familiarity she felt when she first met him. It made her feel rather pleased, even happy, at being greeted in such a way by one such as him. Quickly, and somewhat reluctantly, she thought of a way around her mistress's instructions, when she realized that she wasn't even here. Why would she have to tell her.
"On second thought," she said, "I suppose I could stay a little while longer."
Loki's face immediately brightened, as if he'd hoped she'd say that. "That's good," he said, "because I was wondering if I could ask you something."
He quickly turned around and sat down next to her, while her nervousness quickly increased. She knew very well what he might ask her, and quickly thought of a question of her own to change the subject before it could start. "Wait, before you ask," she said, "are you feeling better?"
"What?" Loki asked with an inquisitive face.
Almost immediately, Aska wanted to berate herself. She should have known that as a commoner, she would be the last to know of such momentous events as Loki's wounded shoulder. But the need to know quickly outweighed the redness that threatened to appear on her cheeks, so she quickly concocted an excuse.
"I heard that you were injured," she replied, "and in Jotunheim. What, what were you doing there?"
"That, I'm afraid, must remain confidential," Loki frowned. Aska hesitated to smirk, since she did not need to be told anyway. Loki's smile quickly returned. "But in answer to your previous question, yes, I am doing better. In fact, they say I'm healing faster than they expected."
Hearing that, a smile of relief spread itself across Aska's face. "Wonderful," she said. But then, it faded slightly, as she knew it was inevitable that conversation would now turn, unwittingly, on her. "I also heard that you are searching for the one who, rescued, you?" she asked.
"Indeed I am," Loki nodded as he raised his eyebrows.
Trying her best, Aska pretended to behave as anyone else would under such circumstances. "The Purple Phantom, was it?" she asked.
"Yes," Loki nodded again. Then, looking her straight in the eyes, with an almost imploring voice, he said to her, "Please, I need to find her. I've been searching village after village."
Once he said so, for the briefest of seconds, Aska's heart slammed itself against her chest. So, as she'd imagined, ever since the wanted poster had arrived, he had been looking for her. The thought filled her with anxiety, but strangely also, at the same time, flattery. But still, one question remained, the answer to which seemed to sit right in front of her like the prince. "Really?" she asked, still trying to remain calm and unknowing, "Why so?"
Loki opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it again as a considering expression donned his face, looking as though he was wondering whether or not he should say what he intended, when, after a short while, he looked as though he decided to do so. "Well, I've told you one royal secret," he said, "Perhaps I can tell you another?"
He asked so pleasantly, for a moment, Aska's smile returned. "My lips are sealed," she promised him.
"Good," Loki smiled as well. He then frowned a bit, as he turned his eyes toward the guards nearby to see if they were watching. When he saw that they weren't he leaned in slightly, and began telling her his secret. "My father and I have struck a deal," he said in a voice only they could hear, "For the time being, my engagement to Lady Idunn has been cancelled."
Aska raised her eyebrows, remembering how distastefully he spoke of the lady-in-waiting previously.
"But I have only until midnight on the evening of the masked ball my father is holding to find out who the Purple Phantom is, or my engagement to her will be back on," he continued, "In truth, the reason I'm searching for her is because…I'm going to ask her to marry me."
Once the words escaped him, it took all of Aska's effort to keep sitting straight on the bench. It felt as though the slightest gust of wind could now push it over were it not for her willpower. Hearing such a profound declaration, and from his Highness, it was almost too much to bear. So many emotions threatened to be released, to race through her mind like wild horses, but she held them back long enough to ask a question that begged to be asked. "Why? You barely even know her."
"But I might," Loki then said, a great hope suddenly appearing in his eyes.
Again, Aska felt her heart hit against her chest like before. But she was not going to betray herself. "What do you mean?" she asked.
"Well," he said in an even softer voice than before, "I have the idea that she might be, my original betrothed, Lady Sigyn."
At the same time, Aska felt as though she'd reacted two different ways. First, she breathed a mental sigh of relief that she wasn't whom he had in mind. But also, she raised her eyebrows again upon hearing that name. She'd heard it only once before, and ever since she'd come under Ylva's roof, it seemed to be an unspoken rule in the surrounding towns not to bring up her name.
A faint smile crossed Loki's face, almost as if he wondered if he'd said something silly. "I don't know if it's the young lad in me," he said, "or, something else, but, part of me really wants it to be her. You know what happened to her right?"
Aska nodded. "I believe I do," she replied, "I heard that she perished in a great fire along with her parents."
"Well, that's the current theory," Loki admitted, "We never did find her body." Then, as Aska watched, he slowly started to look as though he felt bittersweet, like he didn't know whether to smile or frown.
"Everywhere she went, she made almost everyone around her smile, including me," he said. Though it appeared as though he was speaking to himself, Aska continued to listen with growing interest.
"She was so full of life and wit and curiosity. We grew very fond of each other. But, when she disappeared…" Now Loki did frown, and rather sadly, Aska noticed. "I spent weeks searching almost every part of the realm for her, but, she was gone," he then said with a tone that matched his expression perfectly. Indeed, it proved to be somewhat contagious, as Aska slowly found herself feeling the same way. She'd never seen someone so despondent over losing a loved one, and it tugged at the innermost strings of her heart.
But, as usual, common sense quickly recovered her before she could go too deep. "But, what if it turns out not to be her?" she asked.
"I will still ask her to marry me," Loki replied, "I don't think I could ask any other."
Hearing him say so rendered Aska nearly speechless. She couldn't recall another time when she felt so touched. But, if he'd known he were speaking of her… Should she even dare think of telling him? On the one hand, she was still a servant. Servants did not marry royalty. It simply did not happen. And besides, she didn't even know him that well anyway. And yet, on the other hand, to be spoken about so sincerely, even if unwittingly, it filled her with a happiness she hadn't ever felt before. Indeed, a herd of butterflies seemed to find its way inside her, incessantly beating their silent wings.
But just then, the sight of the blue sky, now slightly darker than before, caught her eyes. "Oh no," she said, "How did it get so late?"
"Pardon?" Loki asked.
Reluctantly, with a hint of hesitation, Aska stood up from the stone bench, looking apologetically at him. "Forgive me, your Highness," she said, "I must be getting home." Swiftly, without waiting for another word from Loki, or herself, Aska walked hastily toward Arnthor, who whinnied happily at her, knowing what was about to happen.
"Will you be coming to the ball?" Loki asked her.
Though she didn't know if she wanted to, Aska allowed herself a glance back at his Highness, and gave him neither a frown nor a smile. "Perhaps," she replied, "I'm not sure." With that, she turned away from him again, and then mounted Arnthor, whom she quickly had to take control of by taking the reins.
But before she could go, she couldn't help but give one final look at the prince, as well as a soft smile, which he returned. "Good day your Highness," she said. Then, remembering to act as if she otherwise did not know, she added, "I hope you find whom you're looking for."
"I thank you," Loki nodded, "Good day."
Aska nodded back, turned her horse around, and without looking back, quickly urged him into a canter. Just as fast, the effort to smile fled from her. Even though she might have felt somewhat rude at leaving in such haste, and might have given Loki more cause for suspicion, she felt nothing but eager to get back to the one place that now felt rather safe, to get away from the place and the person both of which made her feel so unlike what she was used to.
The rest of the day passed rather quickly for most of Asgard, until the blue sky of the day was replaced by the black one of the night. Barely an hour or two had passed after the sky had grown completely dark, when most of the Asgardians had taken to their beds, including his Highness, Loki Odinson. Solemnly, he laid in his bed, with his hands behind his head, not very mindful of the only two torches which lit his room. Several times he'd tried closing his eyes, knowing how much he needed to sleep after such a day, yet his body, much like his mind, simply refused to.
Ever since Aska left, Loki had felt rather confused. Before coming across her, he couldn't think of anyone he could tell his troubles to. True, he liked the servant girl, but, why was it so easy to share his thoughts with her and not someone from his own family? He also couldn't help but notice how quickly, and even eager, she seemed to leave. He guessed that being a maid she probably had other things she needed to attend to. But, she seemed almost nervous about it as well. And, even more disturbing, he brought up the possibility that he probably liked her more than he previously thought. But, he couldn't love two women at once could he? Perhaps it was simply getting his emotions out that was causing him to feel this way. Then again, he hadn't really felt this way before, so he couldn't be certain.
In fact, almost nothing seemed certain after today, even the prospect of finding the one who matched him perfectly. It was as if no matter where he looked, and how determined he was, he seemed to just miss her. But how could he simply give up on trying to find her? How could he let the chance to see her, to touch her again, slip through his fingers? Oh, he remembered feeling that way when Sigyn went missing, and she never turned up. Loki closed his eyes again, though this time it accompanied another, drawn-out sigh, probably the twelfth one he released today. And yet…
Hope's flame could not be burned out, no matter how hopeless the road ahead seemed for him. Even if he eventually did not find her, Loki knew that he had to at least try. In the months following Sigyn's loss, he had sunken into such a deep, dark pit of aching depression he didn't think he could ever get out of it. It was as if a cold, hard hand had grabbed hold of his heart, refusing to let go no matter how much he wished. How he managed to escape either at all remained a wonder to him. But if he could honor the memory of his former betrothed in any way, he would do it by searching for her, never mind whether he found her or not.
But for things as they were now, it didn't look like he'd be getting the sleep he so desperately wanted, at least for now. Maybe there was something he could do to try and make himself tired, or, at the very least, vent all his negative emotions. Almost subconsciously, Loki's mind drifted back to that day just two weeks ago, when he did one of the most daring things in his life, and a slight smile grew on his face as he thought of an idea.
Like he did that day, Loki took the sheets of his bed and the other spare set, drew them both out, and began tying them together into knots, reminding himself to thank his brother for teaching him how to make such knots when they were boys. Once he finished and was satisfied with how tight they were, he looped one end and then tied it around one of the poles on his bed before casting the rest out the open window. He then remembered that he needed to be in appropriate dress, and quickly exchanged his night tunic for his black warrior's suit along with his hooded cape, preferring, as he'd done so that previous day, to go unnoticed. He even tucked a few knives in his belt, knowing that at night time, the sense of danger would be greater for one such as him.
Once he had everything together, Loki then began his descent out of the window and then down to the ground below, smirking at how he was managing to do it again. He made it safely, and quickly looked around to make sure he wasn't being watched, before he quietly but hastily made his way to the stables a few hundred yards away. He breathed a sigh of relief to find that most of the stable-hands had gone, and carefully opened the door so as not to wake the horses, save for one. Remaining as quiet as possible, he crept up to the third stall on the left, and there, met his favorite stallion, black as the night sky outside with no markings on his legs or face, and strangely awake, almost as if he'd been waiting for him. Reaching his hand inside, Loki stroked the great animal's muzzle, smiling at how happy he noted he was to see him. But before he could whinny, he quickly put his finger to his lips and then nodded, assuring his steed they would get the ride he wished.
Biting his lip, Loki lifted the latch and slowly pulled the door opened. Beads of sweat began to form on his forehead, but the building remained silent, as he wished. He looked around one more time, and as soon as he was sure it was safe, he then headed to the tack room, and first took out the saddle, which he quickly put on the horse's back. Then, he went to fetch the bridle, scratching his horse's neck afterward as he usually did to get him into the one piece of tack equipment he usually didn't like.
As soon as he was sure everything was ready, Loki quietly led the horse out of the building, closing the door silently behind them. After looking around once more for any sign of detection, he then led his horse further away from the building, and once he was sure that neither animal nor man could hear them, he leaped onto his horse. Soon, he was riding away into the darkness of the night, hoping to remain the elusive shadow he was so far for the rest of his planned journey, and to find the relief that seemed to elude him. Tonight, he was not a prince. He was simply a man longing to escape.
At around the same time, in a familiar house not far from the palace, only three of its inhabitants had gone to sleep. The fourth lay awake in dismay, sitting near the fireplace, rubbing her work-hardened hands together in the warm light of the small fire she'd managed to build. As the flames danced in front of her, Aska slowly began to see what appeared to be images in them, images of what seemed to be faces, of the people she knew and love. There was Regin, with her usual optimistic smile that always put a smile on Aska's face. There was Jarl, with his cocky but charming and brotherly attitude. But then, against all of Aska's expectations, the third face she thought she could see was that of Prince Loki. Him? A friend of hers? But there he was, with his fine-proportioned, kindly face, and soft eyes to match, eyes that, when looking directly into hers, made her feel so, alive, so, enthralled.
But the enthrallment was not to last. Trying to recover her senses, Aska turned away. Eventually though, she found that her eyes had a mind of their own, as, against her wishes, they turned back to the bright, burning fire. And yet, this time, no faces awaited her. In fact, the longer she looked into the orange flames, the more they seemed to evade her. In an attempt to find some relief, and hopefully, some sleep, she laid back on her mattress and tried laying on her side, her back to the warm fire which quickly began to act as a blanket. And yet, no matter how hard she tried, Aska couldn't fade into the comforting world of darkness, leaving her with an alternate one that seemed almost to beckon her.
This wasn't the first sleepless night she'd had, and thus, decided to do what she usually did when facing one. After quickly dousing the fire, which left hundreds of cinders for which she was named in its wake, Aska glanced back at the door, to make sure no one could see her, before reaching for the stone structure above the mantle, and pulling it open. Inside was where she kept her other clothes, specifically those that belonged to the Purple Phantom. For tonight, she would patrol the local area as the ghostly protectoress of Asgard, never mind the risks set before her.
In haste, Aska began to change clothes. She unraveled her braid, and brushed her fingers through her now free hair, before switching her usual shift for her purple and gold costume. She then pulled on her boots, followed by her gloves, and tucked her medallion and hilt of her sword inside her belt. Finally, she took up the most critical part of her alternate, more confident persona, such a simple piece of purple cloth with two holes cut in for the eyes, yet so important that to go without it would make the risk of captivity infinitely greater.
After making sure everything was in place, Aska looked one more time back at the door. No one and nothing greeted her, not even the shadow of someone behind the door. Now that she was certain it was safe, she opened the window next to the fireplace, and climbed out as quietly but as quickly as the could. Under the black expanse that was comforting as well as haunting, the girl clad in purple then began to make her way down the usual pathway to the stables, as solitary as a wild mare roaming alone.
As she walked almost hastily down the road though, her eyes and ears picked up the sight and sound of the leaves of the trees being caught up in the wind. Back and forth they swayed, appearing as though to be giant waving hands, and combining the ruffling sounds emerging from them to seem almost as if they were whispering to her. "You? Where are you going?" they seemed to ask. So ominous and unnerving was the scene before her that Aska broke into a run for the rest of her travel down the pathway, until she finally reached the familiar building which immediately smelled of all things having to do with horses.
But instead of heading towards the front door, for a moment Aska stood completely still, surrounded by the near complete darkness of the night, and the faint wind and chirping crickets she could hear all around her. For perhaps the first time while wearing this costume which seemed to make her more confident the moment she put it on, she felt like even the slightest unfamiliar sound could send her fleeing like a doe from a hunter. In an attempt to calm herself, she took a slow, deep breath, breathing in through her nose and then letting it out through her mouth. It worked, for a moment. And then it became clear that she'd have to think of something else.
Willing her legs to move, Aska walked forward one step at a time, not really caring where they took her, until she found herself standing next to a tall, strong looking tree. Gazing upward, trying to find the top, she let out a sigh, and, before she completely knew it, began to sink slowly down to the ground until she was sitting with her back against the trunk. Believing she wouldn't be going anywhere anytime soon, despite her plans, she pulled her legs to her chest, and encircled her arms around them, staring straight ahead as she allowed her restless mind to wander.
Only two weeks ago, everything, even if it left a lot to be desired, at least made sense, with her being a maid, going about her usual daily routine of work, simply being a nobody. But now, Aska would be surprised if she could think of anything to be certain of. From her mistress's strange behavior, to know that she was being searched for, and by one of Odin's sons… Oh! Confound his high-and-mighty Highness for being…what? So friendly? So kind? So unlike what she expected him to be, which unnerved her and comforted her at once? Part of her wanted to tell him, yet she knew that if he found out… Aska then began to feel an ache in her chest, an ache that longed to answer the question as to why she felt this way. Slowly, the ache strengthened, until it culminated in one, then two crystal clear tears which descended through her mask and down her cheeks. For a moment, she imagined herself angrily ripping the mask off, letting the whole realm see her face, but, common sense held her back.
Soon, it also began to encourage her to get back on her feet like she usually did. Before long, with a good amount of effort, Aska let go of her legs and then rested her hands on the ground. With a bite to her lip, she began pushing herself up, until she was finally found herself standing again. Deciding with even more effort to focus her mind back on tonight's journey, she walked forward again, slightly faster than before, walking toward what now appeared to be a valley she imagined she could leap into and lose herself in, until her good senses stopped her before going down hill, literally.
After shaking her head in an effort to rid herself of all distraction emotions, Aska then put her fingers to her lips, and let loose Dagny's whistle. It wasn't long before she heard her mare's signature neigh, and soon she couldn't help but smile, even it was small, as she then beheld the familiar horse cantering toward her. Dagny tossed her head in delight, but Aska quickly caught it with her hands in an attempt to calm her. "I know," she whispered, "We're going for a ride."
Within the next ten minutes, after finding and then putting Dagny's special tack on, Aska gripped the reins and mounted the horse. Even before she was completely on the saddle, Dagny began to walk forward. Quickly, Aska slowed her down, but then, seeing as there was practically nothing stopping her and her horse from going anywhere, except, perhaps, herself, she mentally brushed all her previous fear aside, and then urged Dagny into a canter. Not once did she look back as she made her way through the fields, and not once was she going to turn back before she intended. Tonight, the realm would know her only as the Purple Phantom.