Loki rules well; rules as, long ago, he was taught he should. It would be infinitely satisfying to do otherwise — to wear Odin’s face, and let his kingdom fall to ruin, his subjects think him gone mad, his mind turned feeble with grief. He could do it, he knows. Invite war and sew discontent: destroy Odin’s legacy and Thor’s inheritance as easily as a child might break an unwanted toy.
But he refrains. He doesn’t even use Odin’s face, not for long. There is disquiet and worse, of course, when he reveals the truth. He is a filthy Jotun bastard, a traitor and madman both. Most damning of all, he is not Thor. But Odin sleeps, and Thor is gone, has fled to adventure on Midgard, to play at being a hero while he turns his back on his people.
He holds all the hall still in front of him, the warriors paralysed where they would have sprung on him. “If you cannot trust my word,” he says, with just the right amounts of understanding and sadness colouring his tone, “Let Heimdall’s serve instead.” And Heimdall cannot contradict him, however much he might like to.
“It is not what any of us would have wished,” he says, when Heimdall has spoken his piece. “But if you will allow me, I will do as my father asked and stand guardian.”
They are unwilling, but Loki weathers their distrust, even their hatred, with a benevolence none of them would have believed him capable. And perhaps his misadventure on Midgard has not been without its benefits, after all; he chooses his weapons more carefully this time. He spills no blood in his own defence. Only when their invective turns against the wisdom of Odin or the folly of Thor does he bring his justice to bear. At Council, he tells them what Asgard will be, and how it will be achieved: a glorious kingdom made yet more glorious still. It is a story as beautiful as any he’s ever told at court, and as ever, he knows his audience. They lap it up, no matter their reluctance, his promises of prosperity and nobility too much to resist.
When he is petitioned, he listens to their petty concerns, thinks on them as if he actually cares. His judgments, when they come, are as fair as any such judgments shall ever be: if the dwarves will not treat reasonably with one another, then no one on Asgard will deal with them at all, no trading, no bartering, on pain of death. In weeks, new peace treaties are being drawn up. There is death for a noble who took a serving maiden by force, the same for a drunkard who robs and blinds an elderly farmer. see he does not say, see how even-handed is my justice. How sound my reasoning. He does not say it, and so they hear him all the louder.
There is sickness that comes down from the mountains, a creeping, killing thing, and though Loki cannot save those it touches, he has magic enough to make such a quarantine as it cannot pass. The families of those he cannot save are recompensed, for a good king should protect his people, and when he fails, he must take responsibility. He commissions new roads, shining paths of smoothest stone so that all Asgard’s citizens may travel freely; he will have trade increased seven-fold by the next harvest. New houses of learning are constructed, new fields are planted, and new crops are grown — crops for healing, not just for food. This, he promises, is but a beginning, and Asgard’s citizens listen now, all reluctance gone, when he speaks. If they do not yet cease to fear him, and if they will never love him, they concede the wisdom of his rule.
Which only confirms that they are the fools Loki has always taken them for. Then he wants, more than ever, to turn aside, wants to destroy rather than build, to lay waste until the land is covered in their wretched bodies. But he thinks of Thor. Thor falling in love, letting a puling mortal know his secrets, sharing her bed as though he belongs there. Thor with his friends, shoulder to shoulder in battle and in victory. Then it is easy to stay on his course. And when at last Thor reappears, thunder splitting the skies with his rage, then Loki is ready.
“You have done well, brother,” Thor says, when the first storm of anger has passed, when it has become clear that their is no glorious rescue to be made, no valorous deeds to be performed and captured in songs to be sung a thousand years-hence.
Loki stretches back on his throne, and grins. “I have done exceedingly well,” he says. “I have brought peace to the dwarves and prevented at least one plague. You —“ He looks Thor over, slow and critical. “Grew your hair yet longer, apparently. I suppose it does make for a better entrance.”
Thor smiles, seemingly in spite of himself. “Why did you do it?”
Because you did not think I could, Loki thinks. Because watching it burn later will be all the more satisfying. Because if you take the throne now, there will be bloodshed, and it will be on your hands.
He will not think about his mother, about any desire to please the one person who would have expected it of him. He will not think of just that smile on Thor’s face, that hint of pleasure in his eyes.
“Spite, of course,” he says. “To take what was yours and make it mine.”