Aegir harrumphed. “What do you take me for, a savage? Of course you have guest rights. Despite the fact that you ruined my mead and you have an insultingly yellow ship, you’re in my house now. We at least have to have a meal together before I decide what to do with you. Unless one of you is Magnus Chase, of course, in which case I’d have to kill you right away. One of you isn’t he, I hope?”
No one responded, though my friends all glared at me like Dang it, Magnus.
“Just hypothetically…” I said. “If we had a Magnus Chase, why would you kill him?”
“Because I promised my wife, Ran!” Aegir cried. “For some reason, she hates that guy!”
The nine daughters nodded vigorously, muttering, “Hates him. A lot. Yes, tons.”
“Ah.” I was glad I was drenched in mead. Maybe it would hide the sweat popping up on my forehead. “And where is your lovely wife?”
“Not here tonight,” Aegir said. “She’s out collecting trash in her nets.”
“Thank gods!” I said. “I mean…thank gods we at least get to spend some quality time with the rest of you!”
Aegir tilted his head. “Yes….Well, daughters, I suppose you should set extra places at the table for our guests. I’ll talk to our chef about cooking up those juicy prisoners!”
He waved toward one of the side doors, which swung open by itself. Inside was a vast kitchen. When I saw what was suspended above the oven, it took all my willpower not to scream like a wave giantess. Hanging in two matching extra-large canary cages were our long-range reconnaissance experts, Blitzen and Hearthstone.
THAT AWKWARD moment when you lock eyes with two friends hanging in cages in a giant’s kitchen. And one of them recognizes you and begins to shout your name, but you do not want your name shouted.
Blitzen staggered to his feet, gripped the bars of his cage, and yelled, “MAG—”
“—NIFICENT!” I bellowed over him. “What beautiful specimens!”
I jogged toward the cages, Sam and Alex on my heels.
Aegir frowned. “Daughters, see to our other guests!” He made a sweeping take-out-the-trash gesture toward Mallory and T.J., who were still trying to keep our semiconscious berserker from face-planting in the kelp. Then the sea god followed us into the kitchen.
The appliances were all twice human size. The oven knobs alone would have made decent dinner plates. Hearthstone and Blitzen, looking unharmed but humiliated, dangled over the four-burner cooktop, their cages knocking against a tile backsplash that was painted with buon appetito! in garish red cursive.
Hearthstone wore his usual black biker outfit, his candy-striped scarf the only flourish of color. His pale face and white-blond hair made it difficult to tell if he was anemic or terrified or just mortified by the buon appetito! sign.
Blitzen straightened his navy-blue blazer, then made sure his mauve silk dress shirt was properly tucked into his jeans. His matching handkerchief and ascot were a little askew, but the dude looked pretty good for a prisoner who was on today’s dinner menu. His curly black hair and beard were well trimmed. His dark complexion coordinated beautifully with the iron bars of his cage.
If nothing else, Aegir should have let him go for being a fellow snazzy dresser.
I used a quick flurry of sign language to warn them: Don’t say my name. A-E-G-I-R will kill me.
I spelled out the god’s name since I didn’t know what name sign we might use for him. Frowny, Beer Man, or H for hipster were all logical choices.
The god appeared at my side. “They are magnificent specimens,” he agreed. “We always try to have a fresh catch of the day in case guests stop by.”
“Right! Very smart,” I said. “But do you normally eat dwarves and elves? I didn’t think gods—”
“Gods?” Aegir barked a laugh. “Well, there’s your mistake, little mortal. I’m not one of those namby-pamby Aesir or Vanir gods! I’m a jotun deity, one hundred percent giant!”
I hadn’t heard the term namby-pamby since third-grade PE class with Coach Wicket, but I seemed to recall it not being a compliment. “So…you do eat dwarves and elves?”
“Sometimes.” Aegir sounded a bit defensive. “And the occasional troll or human, though I draw the line at hobgoblins. Too gamey. Why do you ask?” He narrowed his eyes. “Do you have special dietary restrictions?”
Sam, again, was quickest on the draw. “Yes, actually! I’m Muslim.”
Aegir winced. “I see. Sorry. Yes, I don’t think dwarves are halal. I’m not sure about elves.”
“They’re not, either,” Sam said. “In fact, it’s Ramadan, which means I need to break my fast in the company of dwarves and elves, rather than eating them or being around anyone who does eat them. It’s strictly forbidden.”
I was pretty sure she was making that up, but what did I know? I suppose she was counting on Aegir knowing even less about Quranic restrictions than I did.
“What a pity.” Our host sighed. “And the rest of you?”
“I’m a vegetarian,” I said, which wasn’t true, but hey, falafel was a vegetable. I glanced at Blitz and Hearth. They gave me four enthusiastic thumbs up.
“And I have green hair.” Alex spread his hands like What are you gonna do? “I’m afraid eating dwarves or elves goes against my beliefs. But I very much appreciate the offer.”
Aegir glowered, as if we were testing the limits of his culinary hospitality. He stared at Blitzen and Hearthstone, now leaning casually against the bars of their cages and trying to look as non-halal as possible.
“So much for the catch of the day,” Aegir grumbled. “But we always do our best to accommodate our guests. Eldir!”
He yelled the last word so loudly I jumped and hit my head on the oven door handle.
A side door swung open, and an old man shuffled out of the pantry in a cloud of smoke. He was dressed in a white chef’s outfit, complete with poufy hat, but his clothes seemed to be in the process of combusting. Flames danced across his sleeves and apron. Smoke streamed from his collar like his chest was coming to a boil. Sparks wormed through his gray eyebrows and beard. He looked about six hundred years old, his expression so sour he might have spent that entire time smelling terrible things.
“What is it?” he snapped. “I was preparing my elfish salt rub!”
“We’ll need something different for dinner,” Aegir ordered. “No elf. No dwarf.”
“What?” Eldir grumbled.
“Our guests have food restrictions: halal, vegetarian, green-hair friendly.”
“And it’s Ramadan,” Sam added. “So you’ll need to free those prisoners so they can break my fast with me.”
“Humph,” said Eldir. “Expect me to (mutter, mutter) short notice (mutter, mutter) green-hair-friendly menu. I may have some kelp patties in the freezer.” He tromped back into the pantry, still complaining and smoldering.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” I said to
Aegir, “but is your chef on fire?”
“Oh, Eldir has been like that for centuries. Ever since my other servant, Fimafeng, got killed by Loki, which left Eldir with twice as much work and made him burning mad!”
A little bubble of hope formed in my chest. “Killed by Loki, you say?”
“Yes!” Aegir frowned. “Surely you heard how that scoundrel disgraced my hall?”
I glanced at Sam and Alex like Hey, guys, Aegir is another enemy of Loki!
Then I remembered that Sam and Alex were both children of Loki. Aegir might not like my friends any more than he liked people named Magnus Chase.
“Lord Aegir,” Sam said. “That time Loki disgraced your hall…was that the feast of the gods?”
“Yes, yes,” Aegir said. “A complete disaster! The gossip bloggers had a field day with it!”
I could almost see Sam’s mind working. If she’d been Eldir, steam would’ve been pouring from the edges of her hijab.
“I remember the story,” Sam said. She grabbed Alex’s arm. “I have to pray. Alex needs to help me.”
Alex blinked. “I do?”
“Lord Aegir,” Sam continued, “may I use a corner of your hall for a quick prayer?”
The sea god tugged on his vest. “Well, I suppose.”
Sam and Alex scurried out of the kitchen. I hoped they were going to formulate a cunning plan to get us all out of Aegir’s hall alive. If Sam was really just going to pray…well, I wondered if she’d ever tried to say a Muslim prayer in the home of a Norse god (sorry, jotun deity) before. I was afraid the entire place might collapse from religious paradox.
Aegir stared at me. That awkward dinner-party silence when you’ve tried to serve dwarf and elf to a vegetarian.
“I’m going to retrieve some mead from the cellar,” he said at last. “Please tell me you and your friends don’t have dietary restrictions against mead?”
“I think we’re good!” I said, because I did not want to see a grown jotun cry.
“Thank the waves.” Aegir dug a set of keys out of his vest pocket and tossed them to me. “Unlock the dinner—I mean the prisoners, would you? Then make yourself…”
He waved vaguely toward the feast hall then stomped off, leaving me to imagine how he might’ve finished that sentence: comfortable, scarce, a sandwich.
I climbed the oven and freed Blitz and Hearth from their canary cages. We had a tearful reunion on the front left burner.
“Kid!” Blitzen gave me a hug. “I knew you’d come rescue us!”
“Uh, actually, I didn’t know you guys were here.” I used sign language as I talked, for Hearthstone’s benefit, though it had been several weeks and my hands were slow. You get out of practice fast. “But I’m really glad I found you.”
Hearthstone snapped his fingers for attention. I’m glad too, he signed. He patted the bag of runes at his belt. Stupid cages were magic-proof. Blitzen was crying a lot.
“I was not,” Blitzen protested, signing along. “You were.”
I was not, Hearthstone said. You were.
At that point, the ASL conversation deteriorated into the two of them poking each other in the chest.
“Guys,” I interrupted. “What happened? How did you end up here?”
“Long story,” Blitz said. “We were waiting for you guys at the lighthouse, minding our own business.”
Fighting a sea serpent, Hearth signed.
“Doing nothing wrong,” Blitz said.
Hitting serpent on the head with rocks.
“Well, it was threatening us!” Blitz said. “Then this wave came up and swallowed us!”
Wave contained nine angry women. Serpent was their pet.
“How was I supposed to know that?” Blitz grumbled. “The serpent didn’t look like it was trying to play fetch. But that’s not important, kid. We found out some information on our reconnaissance, and it isn’t good—”
“Guests!” Aegir called from main hall. “Come! Join us for mead and food!”
Put a pin in that, Hearthstone signed, poking Blitz in the chest one last time.
Back in the days when we were three homeless guys on the streets of Boston, if somebody had called us for dinner, we would’ve come running. Now we trudged over reluctantly. This was one free meal I wasn’t so pumped about.
The nine daughters of Aegir hustled about, setting the table with plates and forks and goblets. Aegir hummed as he fiddled with a rack of mead kegs, each labeled with runes. T.J., Mallory, and Halfborn were already seated, looking very uncomfortable in their red coral seats, with empty chairs spaced between them. Halfborn Gunderson, more or less conscious now, kept blinking and staring at his