I wasn’t sure what I would do if I found him. Maybe I’d figure out a way to free him from Loki’s clutches. Maybe I’d smack him in the face with a bag of kibbeh, though that would be a waste of good kibbeh.
Fortunately for Randolph and my leftovers, he wasn’t home. I jimmied the back door as usual—Randolph had not gotten the message about upgrading his locks—then Alex and I wandered through the mansion, stealing Randolph’s various stashes of chocolate (because that was a necessity), making fun of his fussy draperies and knickknacks, and finally ending up in the old man’s office.
Nothing there had changed since my last visit. Maps lay on the desk. The big Viking tombstone thing stood in the corner, its figure of a wolf still snarling at me. Medieval weapons and trinkets lined the shelves along with leather-bound books and photographs of Randolph at dig sites in Scandinavia.
On the chain around my neck, Jack’s pendant buzzed with tension. I had never brought him to Randolph’s house before. I guess he didn’t like the place. Or maybe he was just excited because the Skofnung Sword was strapped across my back.
I turned to Alex. “Hey, are you female today?”
The question slipped out before I had a chance to think about whether it was weird, whether it was rude, or whether it would get me decapitated.
Alex smiled with what I hoped was amusement and not homicidal glee. “Why do you ask?”
“The Skofnung Sword. It can’t be drawn in the presence of women. I kind of like it better when it can’t be drawn.”
“Ah. Hold on.” Alex’s face scrunched up in intense concentration. “There! Now I’m female.”
My expression must have been priceless.
Alex burst out laughing. “I’m kidding. Yes, I’m female today. She and her.”
“But you didn’t just—”
“Change gender by force of will? No, Magnus. It doesn’t work that way.” She ran her fingers across Randolph’s desk. The stained glass transom window cast multicolored light across her face.
“So can I ask…?” I waved my hands vaguely. I didn’t have the words.
“How it does work?” She smirked. “As long as you don’t ask me to represent every gender-fluid person for you, okay? I’m not an ambassador. I’m not a teacher or a poster child. I’m just”—she mimicked my hand-waving—“me. Trying to be me as best I can.”
That sounded fair. At least it was better than her punching me, garroting me, or turning into a cheetah and mauling me. “But you’re a shape-shifter,” I said. “Can’t you just…you know, be whatever you want?”
Her darker eye twitched, as if I’d poked a sore spot.
“That’s the irony.” She picked up a letter opener and turned it in the stained-glass light. “I can look like whatever or whoever I want. But my actual gender? No. I can’t change it at will. It’s truly fluid, in the sense that I don’t control it. Most of the time, I identify as female, but sometimes I have very male days. And please don’t ask me how I know which I am on which day.”
That had, in fact, been my next question. “So why not call yourself, like, they and them? Wouldn’t that be less confusing than switching back and forth with the pronouns?”
“Less confusing for who? You?”
My mouth must’ve been hanging open, because she rolled her eyes at me like, You dork. I hoped Heimdall wasn’t recording the conversation to put on Vine.
“Look, some people prefer they,” Alex said. “They’re nonbinary or mid-spectrum or whatever. If they want you to use they, then that’s what you should do. But for me, personally, I don’t want to use the same pronouns all the time, because that’s not me. I change a lot. That’s sort of the point. When I’m she, I’m she. When I’m he, I’m he. I’m not they. Get it?”
“If I say no, will you hurt me?”
“Then no, not really.”
She shrugged. “You don’t have to get it. Just, you know, a little respect.”
“For the girl with the very sharp wire? No problem.”
She must have liked that answer. There was nothing confusing about the smile she gave me. It warmed the office about five degrees.
I cleared my throat. “Anyway, we’re looking for anything that might tell us what’s going on with my uncle.”
I started checking the bookshelves as if I had a clue about what I was doing. I didn’t find any secret messages or levers that opened hidden rooms. It always looked so easy on Scooby-Doo.
Alex rummaged through Randolph’s desk drawers. “So you used to live in this big mausoleum?”
“Thankfully, no. My mom and I had an apartment in Allston…before she died. Then I was on the streets.”
“But your family had money.”
“Randolph did.” I picked up an old photo of him with Caroline, Aubrey, and Emma. It was too painful to look at. I turned it around. “You’re going to ask why I didn’t come to live with him instead of being homeless?”
Alex scoffed. “Gods, no. I would never ask that.”
Her voice had turned bitter, as if rich-jerk relatives were something she knew about.
“You come from…somewhere like this?” I asked.
Alex closed the desk drawer. “My family had a lot of things, just not the things that mattered…like a son and heir, for instance. Or, you know, feelings.”
I tried to imagine Alex living in a mansion like this, or mingling at an elegant party like Mr. Alderman’s in Alfheim. “Did your folks know you were a child of Loki?”
“Oh, Loki made sure of that. My mortal parents blamed him for the way I was, for being fluid. They said he corrupted me, put ideas in my head, blah, blah, blah.”
“And your parents didn’t just…conveniently forget Loki, like Sam’s grandparents did?”
“I wish. Loki made sure they remembered. He—he opened their eyes permanently, I guess you could say. Like what you did for Amir, except my dad’s motives weren’t as good.”
“I didn’t do anything for Amir.”
Alex walked over to me and crossed her arms. She was wearing pink-and-green flannel today over regular blue jeans. Her hiking boots were boringly practical, except the laces glittered pink metallic.
Her different-colored eyes seemed to pull my thoughts in two directions at once. “You really believe you didn’t do anything?” she asked. “When you grabbed Amir’s shoulders? When your hands started to glow?”
“I…glowed?” I didn’t have any recollection of calling on the power of Frey. It hadn’t even occurred to me that Amir needed healing.
“You saved him, Magnus,” Alex said. “Even I could see that. He would’ve cracked under the strain. You gave him the resilience to stretch his mind without breaking. The only reason he’s in one piece, mentally, is because of you.”
I felt like I was back on the Bifrost Bridge, superheated colors burning through me. I didn’t know what to do with the look of approval Alex was giving me, or the idea that I might have healed Amir’s mind without even knowing it.
She punched me in the chest, just hard enough to hurt. “How about we finish up? I’m starting to suffocate in this place.”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure.”
I was having trouble breathing, too, but it wasn’t because of the house. The way Alex spoke so approvingly of me…that had made something click. I realized who she reminded me of—her restless energy, her petite size and choppy haircut, her flannel shirt and jeans and boots, her disregard for what other people thought of her, even her laugh—on those rare occasions she laughed. She reminded me weirdly of my mom.
I decided not to dwell on that. Pretty soon I’d be psychoanalyzing myself more than Otis the goat.
I scanned the shelves one last time. My eyes fixed on the only framed photo without Randolph in it: a shot of a frozen waterfall in the wilderness, sheets of ice hanging over the ledges of a gray cliff. It could have been just a pretty nature picture from anywhere, but it looked familiar. The colors in it were more vibrant than in the other photos, as if
this shot had been taken more recently. I picked it up. There was no dust on the shelf where the frame had been. But there was something else—a green wedding invitation.
Alex studied the photo. “I know that place.”
“Bridal Veil Falls,” I said. “New Hampshire. I’ve gone hiking there.”
Under different circumstances, we might’ve traded hiking stories. It was another weird similarity between her and my mom, and maybe the reason why Alex had an open atrium in the middle of her hotel suite just like mine.
But at the moment my mind was racing in a different direction. I remembered what Heimdall had said about the fortress of Thrym, how its entrance was always changing, so it would be impossible to predict where it might be on the day of the wedding. Sometimes it turns up behind a waterfall, he’d said.
I scanned the wedding invitation, an exact duplicate of the one Sam had thrown away. The when column now said: TWO DAYS HENCE. In other words, the day after tomorrow. The where column still said: WE’LL GET BACK TO YOU.
The picture of Bridal Veil Falls might just be a random photo. The name of the location might be a coincidence. Or maybe Uncle Randolph wasn’t completely under Loki’s control. Maybe he’d left me a clue worthy of Scooby-Doo.
“That’s Sam’s wedding invitation,” Alex said. “You think it means something that it was tucked behind this photo?”
“Could be nothing,” I said. “Or it could be a point of entry for some wedding crashers.”
We Have a Tiny Problem