Finnian looked around the apartment. It looked completely solid. Old fashioned and strange. But not magical or in any way a figment of his imagination. He couldn’t see Freya anywhere and he bit his lip to stop himself from asking the first question that jumped to mind. It felt ridiculous. Instead he blew gently on his fragrant but scalding tea and said, “Uh, Mr. Darius, can I ask you a question?”
“Just Darius, Master Finnian, please.”
“Well then, just Finnian, please. The cat. Freya. She saved me from this bird, up on the roof. It just attacked me up there when I was looking for Jack.”
“Yes.” Darius took a gentile sip of his tea, apparently immune to the heat. “That wasn’t a question.”
“Oh, well, yeah. Where did she go? I saw her come in here and now she is gone. Is she part of the… you know, the magic?”
Darius watched him silently and then slid a china plate of cookies, pale yellow ones, towards him. “Have a lemon shortbread. I’m told they are unparalleled.”
Finnian took one and held it in his hand, waiting for an answer.
“That isn’t the question you wanted to ask.” Darius took a bite of one of the cookies himself and then licked his fingertips daintily. “What is your real question?”
Finnian sighed. After all the other things, maybe it wasn’t a stupid question. “Are you Freya? Can you turn into a cat?”
Darius smiled. “Of course. And I was happy to be of service. I only wish I had taken care of the bird for good. Unfortunately, that will take a little more work.”
“But Freya is a female name. And you’re a man. How does that work?”
This time Darius laughed and it was a friendly sound that made Finnian relax and smile himself. He took a bite of the biscuit and pastry and sugar exploded into his mouth. Darius was right – he had never tasted anything that came close to being this good. The hint of lemon chased itself around him mouth but he could never quite catch it. The biscuit was sweet, but there was also a salty, buttery taste in there as well. He reached tentatively for another one.
“So, you are concerned about a shift in gender? Most humans get far more caught up on the change of species! It is a small thing. I am a human man and female feline. I am both of those things.”
“And, are you an elf?”
Darius took another long sip of tea. “You have been doing some reading, I see. Good to hear. Elf is a crude term. I am Ljosalfar. It is more than elf and other than human. There are few of us who connect to this time, but I am here until… well, until the hotel no longer needs me. And then I too will be gone.”
“Why does it need you?”
“I think you know why it needs me.” Darius coughed suddenly and a small bird feather erupted from his mouth. He covered it in embarrassment. “So sorry. There is the odd… ‘entanglement’ between shapes.”
“Because of the boy? Nari?”
“Nari? Where did you get that name from?” Darius narrowed his eyes and put his cup down abruptly, spilling tea onto his saucer. “Did you speak to him?”
“From the other one, his twin – Vali.”
Darius sighed loudly and shook his head. “I warned you to be careful, young Finnian. I really don’t think you know what you are dealing with. This hotel has echoes, yes. Many echoes of the past that have refused to stay where they are meant to stay.”
“So tell me what I am dealing with! How am I supposed to know? Just guess?” He was getting sick of all the mysterious, rambling talk. All he wanted now was to understand exactly what was going on in the old hotel.
Darius stood. “Come with me. I will talk as we walk.” He brushed an invisible speck off his immaculate velvet jacket and gestured towards the door. Finnian picked up his crutches and clumsily pushed his way out of his seat.
As they walked the long hall Darius kept a slow pace beside him. “The original owners of this hotel were a family of sea people from Norway. The family owned a shipping company and had always had boats, but when they can to this port, the mother, who had just given birth to twins, decided to stay and create a life for the children here. She opened this hotel and, given its opulence and modern appointments, it became incredibly successful.”
“Was there a father?”
“Yes, but he kept the shipping company running and was mostly at sea. He would come by a couple of times a year when business slowed or a shipment brought him to Australia, but mostly the boys and their mother were on their own.”
They passed the room with the collapsed room and Finnian whispered, “That’s where I saw him – Vali. We spoked in there.”
Darius looked into the room as they passed, but seemed content that it was now empty. “That would make sense – that is where the first accident occurred.”
The concierge raised his hand, “Be patient. A story deserves a beginning.”
“I know, but my brother is missing, so the story would be quite a bit better with a quick beginning,” Finnian tried to temper his frustration with politeness and Darius gave him a small smile.
“Very well. I shall be brief. The mother, Lena, named her sons for the sons of Loki – Vali and Nari, and it was not a wise thing to do.”
“Why?” Finnian knew of Loki from the superhero films his friends loved. It seemed ridiculous to name your children after characters from a film.
Darius shook his head, “Because Loki is a god, Finnian, a god of mischief and he is easily bored, so to draw his attention to your children is unwise.” Darius gestured towards the elevator and Finnian followed him in. They descended through the hotel. The dull light from each floor illuminated Darius’ pale skin and he looked like a statue
“What did he do to them?” Finnian wasn’t sure how any of this could be true. It felt like a myth, a legend he would read in history class at school and the thought that it might be connected to his family and his home was almost impossible to believe.
“Do you know the story of Loki’s sons Finnian?”
He shook his head.
“You have some reading to do. Needless to say,” the elevator stopped and Darius slid the wire door open, “he caused some mischief. He sent the spirits of his sons to inhabit the boys of the same name. That is why the boys are still here. They can only be released by Loki himself. At times they have been contained, but never completely removed.”
They were on the ground floor, in the lobby. Finnian wondered if his parents were still down here. Would they even be able to see Darius if they came into the room? “And they hate each other?”
“Yes, one of them tries to destroy the other. Endlessly.”
Finnian sighed. “That sounds like all brothers.”
“Perhaps. There are many origins stories for the conflicts between brothers. Cain and Abel. Romulus and Remus. This is the one you have encountered.”
“And Nari is always trying to kill Vali?”
Darius walked towards the darkened area of the old restaurant. “Is he? We need to go down here. Can you manage the stairs?”
Finnian stopped instantly. “The basement? Seriously? I am not going down there again. That was where all of this started. I’m pretty sure that knife wasn’t aimed at my foot. It could be my heart if I go down there again!” Darius seemed unmoved and had begun to shift the chairs that had been stacked in front of the top of the stairs by his mother. Finnian sighed, “Seriously? I can’t do those stairs.”
Darius paused and carefully place the chair in his hands onto the floor. His face was smooth and barely seemed to register emotion, but it was clear that he was considering Finnian’s objections. “It probably will not matter anymore. The seal has already been broken.”
“What seal? What doesn’t matter?”
The concierge ignored him and moved to the back of the bar, behind the staircase. He regarded an ornate antique drinks cabinet that stood against the wall with interested, looking at it from both sides before gently pulling it away from the wall. It moved easily, sliding across the parquet floor and revealing a small door, flush against the wall.
“Oh.” Finnian had a sharp, dark feeling that hit his stomach like a punch. “That’s like the door in the basement. “The one I opened.”
Darius turned to looked at him. “You opened it? Ah. So, that is why you aren’t his target.”
“What did I do? What did I actually open?” Finnian interrupted his own question, “Wait – what does it mean that I’m not his target? Nari tried to kill me!”
Darius sighed and opened the door. There was a gentle rush of stale air and the echo of leaves rustling below. “Young sir, you need to open your eyes. This is not merely an old dumbwaiter, it was the place where I trapped Vali, sealing it with the most powerful protection spell of my people.”
“Vali? But he is the one with the broken leg right? He’s not cool – he’s very weird, and probably evil. But he is the one that Nari tried to kill, not the other way around.”
“You are wrong, Finnian. Whatever he told you was a lie, something he is gifted in spinning. Vali tried repeatedly to kill his own brother, eventually succeeding. Despite my best efforts to protect the boy, I failed. But I did not fail to contain him. Until now, of course. Until you opened the door in the basement and released him.”