By the time Odin reached the outer door to Loki's chambers, he had decided the whole ghastly muddle was Thor's fault.
Really, if his elder son had simply let Sif and his brother work out their differences in their own way, none of this would have happened. Sif was perhaps defensive about being the only woman in their group, and Loki was certainly defensive about being, as he believed if no one else did, the lesser prince. It was natural they should be antagonistic. Had they been allowed to fight it out without interference they would surely have reached an understanding, perhaps a genuine friendship, by now.
But no. Thor would constantly intervene on Sif's behalf-- as if the deadly shield-maiden had any need of his help-- whenever she and Loki quarreled. It did not matter who started the argument, Thor would weigh in on Sif's side, which of course always made Loki even angrier.
It also made Sif angrier, since Thor's actions implied she was in need of rescue, like some simpering damsel in a romantic ballad. Sif would, of course, never turn her anger upon Thor. And so she would focus her renewed fury upon Loki, so that whatever was wrong between them would be made that much worse.
It was long past time, Odin told himself, to order Thor to simply court the bloody girl already. It had for years been obvious that his son's once-roving eye was now steady upon her, and for nearly as long that Thor's feelings were returned. The fact Thor refrained from trifling with her affections spoke well of his sense of honour, but it had reached the point at which Odin was willing to cancel any plans for a marriage of political advantage between his son and some foreign princess, merely in aid of a peaceful life. This feinting around each other like warriors in the sparring ring simply led to frustration, which both of them took out on the nearest target.
And that target was always Loki because, despite Loki's brilliant intelligence, he apparently had no sense. Either that or he was a model of self-sacrifice, drawing the ire of the two greatest warriors in Asgard in order to spare everyone else. Odin had considered the possibility more than once, before regretfully rejecting it every time. No, Loki simply could not resist putting his hand to a flame and holding it there, to see how long it would take to burn him this time.
It was bound to lead to him getting badly scorched sooner or later. Odin was actually rather surprised it had taken this long for Thor to really lose his temper. As much as the two boys loved each other, and Odin knew they did, they made sport of tormenting one another, and between that and the standing issue with Sif, it was only a matter of time before one of them went too far.
Odin did not know how the present quarrel had started, since none of the princes' friends would own up. All Odin knew was that it had somehow escalated to a point at which Sif taunted Loki for relying on dishonourable trickery instead of true valour. Someone should have drawn her up short, of course, pointing out just how often Asgard had benefited from Loki's "tricks," but apparently their entire circle was afflicted with sheer stupidity, as well as a delight in any form of combat, even if it was only sharp words.
Loki had, quite reasonably, pointed out that, for instance, the ability to infiltrate an enemy encampment was hardly a skill to scoff at. He had then-- much less reasonably-- enticed Sif into a bet, wagering that he could creep into her chambers as she slept and make off with some item of value without her being any the wiser. And Sif, egged on by the others and with as little sense as any of them, had agreed.
Loki had of course won the bet. What else had they expected? That would have made Sif angry enough, but she would have had no grounds for retaliation if Loki had only chosen something sensible as his prize.
Loki being Loki, he naturally did not.
By the time the matter was brought before Odin, the damage was done and Thor was the one raging. Judging by the bruise under Loki's left eye and the cut on his lip, Thor had been raging for some time. For once, Loki looked genuinely rattled by the reaction he had provoked in his brother.
Not even Odin could really be surprised by it, however. Not when Sif appeared with her hair all shorn, and Loki admitted taking it as proof of his victory.
There was, really, a certain amount of logic in his argument that, had he taken anything else, Sif could have claimed he had simply stolen the item at another time and lied about it. She probably really would have done so, ignoble though such a claim might be: Odin knew perfectly well that, as much as the other warriors complained when Loki flouted the conventions of honour, they too defied them when their opponent was Loki. Odin saw no reason to try to put a stop to that: the codes were too deeply ingrained to be lightly laid aside, and you could not simply tell young warriors that blind adherence to such rules was apt to prolong battles and get good soldiers killed.
No, what you did instead was turn unscrupulous, maddening Loki loose upon them, and let them learn to meet him on his own ground. This, Odin knew, Loki did on purpose: he had been present more than once when Loki won a bout through (by Aesir standards) outrageous cheating, and informed his indignant brother that Thor would thank him when he encountered whatever race used the tactic Loki had just employed. Odin was not sure Loki was quite as sanguine about being reviled for his lack of principles as he seemed, but he was in some ways intensely practical, and his desire to equip his brother and friends for different styles of battle seemed as sincere as Loki was capable of being.
Odin could not congratulate Loki publicly for such behavior, but had always tried to make it clear, in private, that he appreciated those efforts. However, this most recent outrage really was an outrage: there was no reason why he could not have cut a handsbreadth off the end of Sif's hair and been content with that. Even Loki seemed surprised at himself, and for once genuinely contrite, although some of that was obviously fear of what Thor might do to retaliate.
Had Sif come to plead her own case, Odin would certainly have punished Loki for spite and sheer stupidity: as useful as his younger son's lack of scruples could be, he needed to have some respect for his comrades. Besides, there was no need for him to be actively cruel, and he needed as much as anyone to learn to control himself when he was angry.
But Thor, being Thor, could not wait for anyone else to act, even on her own behalf. And so by the time Odin was made aware of the situation, Thor had already made rash threats and avowals of vengeance, of the sort Thor would, of course, feel himself bound to keep no matter how much he would regret them afterward. One day Thor's lack of imagination was sure to lead him to do something he really would be sorry for, and this might well be the day.
And, of course, Thor had once again robbed Sif of her right to speak for herself, which left her in no frame of mind to be moderate. Loki was obviously really frightened as he promised to set things right, and Odin had to confess that, for once, he felt genuinely sorry for his infuriating younger son. Hair grew. There was no need for Thor to behave as if Loki had done anyone a permanent injury.
And Sif could have settled things in an hour, in the sparring ring: Loki had the brains to know he really was in the wrong, and that this was no time to resort to his usual tactics. Sif could certainly have gotten satisfaction by administering a merciless thrashing as his punishment. The two were actually quite evenly matched, when Loki fought straightforwardly, but Sif was unlikely to complain that he was fighting at less than his usual level if he permitted her to bestow a richly-deserved beating upon him.
Had Odin been approached for judgment in the matter, he would have set a ward on Loki's magic and allowed Sif to do exactly that, trusting her own sense of justice to prevent her going too far. Allowed to avenge herself like any warrior, Sif would certainly have then been agreeable to whatever other amends Odin commanded Loki to make. And Loki, who at least accepted correction at his father's hands, might actually have learned of a boundary he was not permitted to cross.
As it was, binding vows of revenge had been made in the most foolish manner possible-- vows that, if carried out, would end with Thor himself imprisoned for assault or murder-- and equally foolish pledges of recompense extracted. Odin resisted the urge to throw everyone involved into the dungeons on general principles, and saw Loki safely away from Asgard and his infuriated brother.
He was gone for a full turn of the season, more than long enough for Thor to regret his own rash threats. Thor, unlike Loki, usually did openly repent his own worst actions, but since he only did so when it was too late, Odin was not inclined to see that as much in the elder's favour. Technically Thor and Sif were in the right, despite the lack of proportion in their reaction, and so even if something dreadful had befallen Loki they would not be officially punished. On the other hand, the queen had not addressed a word to either of them since the fourth day of Loki's absence, and for Thor at least this was punishment enough.
Heimdall, of course, could see Loki all this time, and so both Odin and his queen knew their younger son was alive and not in much danger. Odin saw no reason to allow Thor or Sif to know this: he had nearly given up on trying to knock much sense into Loki's head, but he retained hope for these two. Letting them suffer for as long as Loki was gone might finally make some sort of impression upon them.
It was, therefore, a matter of relief and rejoicing when Loki reappeared, stepping between worlds in the sly way nobody really trusted. He did not come alone: instead, he was accompanied by dwarves, and the dwarves carried wonders: hair spun of the finest golden threads, to cover Sif's still-ragged tresses; a ship capable of carrying many warriors that yet could be folded and carried by one man when not in use; a great spear which never missed its target and was presented to Odin.
That was only the treasure brought by the dwarves who named Ivaldi as their father. The others, led by Brokkr, produced a boar that could outrun any horse, a golden ring that multiplied itself, and a great and powerful hammer which was solemnly presented to Thor.
The question, although Odin seemed to be the only one (apart perhaps from Frigga, his queen) asking it, was how Loki, who had left Asgard with only what he stood up in, had paid for these marvels. In puzzling over the question, Odin nearly missed the dwarves' query to the court, regarding which gifts were the finest.
There was much to recommend both troves, of course. Odin and Frigga of course abstained from the vote, though Odin felt the ship and spear, Gungnir, were the finest and most useful of the gifts. In this his view was not supported by the rest of the court, who were so impressed by the hammer, Mjolnir, that they voted the dwarf Brokkr the winner of the day.
And that was when everyone learned what price Loki had agreed to.
"It seems the victory is mine, my prince," Brokkr said, in a gloating tone that made the hairs stand up on Odin's neck before he uttered another word. Whatever Loki had done, someone was about to suffer for it, and in spite of his lack of scruples the one who did so was generally Loki.
"And what victory might that be?" Odin demanded, making his voice as deep and terrible as he could manage. The dwarf, quite unintimidated, smirked at him as he replied:
"The prince and I made a wager, concerning whether my brother and I could devise gifts superior to those of the sons of Ivaldi. The stake was his head for mine." Foreign weapons were forbidden in the throne room, but the ceremonial axes carried by dwarves were generally exempted. Odin had cause to regret that bit of courtesy as Brokkr unslung his from his belt and said coolly, "As the victor, I would now claim my prize."
Afterward, Odin was proud of Frigga: the queen's cry of protest was choked off in her throat. He did not think any but he even heard it. He did not glance at his wife as he rose to his feet. Brokkr looked, for a moment, unsure of himself, perhaps alarmed. Then the dwarf glanced at Thor, recognized the prince's stricken awareness that a wager must be held to, that the honour of all Asgard was at stake, that the king must give the example to his people, and he smiled again as his eyes turned back to Odin.
Odin Allfather, King of Asgard, Guardian of the Nine Realms, beacon and guide to his people, gazed with his one eye down on Brokkr the craftsman. He was the king, and he knew the code as well as anyone, knew what was expected by the rules of chivalry.
He was also the king who had not banished or imprisoned or disowned the son who refused to comply with them. Surely, he thought, any fool could see what that meant?
The new spear was in his hand, the butt end crashing to the surface of the dais without conscious thought from Odin. The sound it made brought everyone's attention squarely to the king.
"No," he said flatly.
"My king?" Brokkr said, startled. "I have won the bet, my king-- "
"Your bet was a foolish one, and both of you should have known better than to enter into it. Murder is still murder no matter what ridiculous pledges are uttered, and murder will not be committed in my very throne room. The devices you have wrought are indeed wondrous, your craftsmanship and that of the sons of Ivaldi beyond compare, and you shall be paid for them." Odin allowed his gaze to find the spear in his hand, and he nodded in admiration. "I have no desire to see you cheated of fair recompense. The terms of your wager, however, will not be considered."
Brokkr's smile had become a grimace, and it was with difficulty that he retained nominal courtesy in his tone as he replied,
"Your son agreed to the bet of his own free will-- " Odin glanced swiftly at Thor, and was pleased to see his elder son at least had the sense to look abashed: after the heartfelt threats he had uttered against his brother's health and safety, it was difficult to argue that anything Loki had done to acquire these prizes was truly of his own volition.
The dwarf was still speaking:
"-- and had he been victorious, he would surely have demanded my head as his due."
Odin barely restrained a bark of laughter. Clearly, this dwarf did not know Loki. Unscrupulous he was, rash indeed and sometimes cruel. But he would not have held Brokkr to this stupid wager, not when it would be so much more fun to torment the dwarf about his defeat. That was where Loki differed from his brother: Thor had great respect for the honour of others, but felt no special compunction about taking their lives. Loki liked to tease and madden and mock, but it would take unusual circumstances indeed to provoke him to kill anyone.
"What my son might have done, had he been the victor, has no part in this discussion," Odin dismissed the protest. "He is not. You shall not have his head."
Brokkr's grimace had now openly become a sneer, as the dwarf's anger overcame his good sense. "Am I to understand that Asgard no longer has any honour-- ?"
He broke off in a hurry as Thor uttered a growl in his throat and made to advance on him. Odin gestured sharply at his son, with a growl of his own, and then said,
"Understand whatever you wish of our honour, but know we also have laws, and those will be upheld. Ask for something else."
Brokkr cast a glance of pure hatred at Loki, and snarled, "This story will not redound to your credit, Allfather, when it is told around the Nine Realms."
Odin shrugged, the dwarf's insolence infecting his own deportment. "It will not be the first time, and I suspect I will survive. Ask for something else."
Brokkr's expression was set in lines of stupid obstinacy, and for the first time Odin found himself wondering what he would do if the dwarf did not relent. The demand was outrageous, but strictly speaking, the dwarf was in the right: he had won his bet (and Odin could only wonder what sort of cheating Loki had already indulged in, trying to gain the advantage for himself) and some sort of spoils must be awarded, above and beyond the gold Odin fully intended to pay both sets of craftsmen for their treasures. Brokkr could not be simply imprisoned for his stubbornness, but neither was Odin inclined to stand here arguing all day long.
And this, of course, was when Loki chose to break what Odin should have realized was a suspiciously tactful silence:
"It is true, though, Allfather, that friend Brokkr has won his bet. My head, as he says, is his." All eyes turned to Loki as he stepped forward, already casually loosening his collar. Thor's face was a study in agony as he looked at his brother, and Sif appeared ready to be sick. Odin did not look at his wife.
Loki smiled around at his rapt audience and went easily on, "My head, but not an inch of my neck, Brokkr. That was not included in the wager. Nor, I think, was my blood. Taking any of those will break the contract between us, and leave you subject to whatever… repayment… my survivors might consider suitable."
Loki's eyes were bright with innocence as he regarded the dwarf. Brokkr glared back with vivid hatred, and Thor's grip shifted on the too-short handle of the great hammer crafted by Brokkr's brother. After a long tense moment, Brokkr uttered a snort of contempt.
"If I cannot have my rightful spoils, then I ask that his lies and trickery be silenced."
"You cannot have his tongue, either," Odin said immediately, just to ensure that idea did not have time to take root.
Brokkr's expression changed, from frustrated disdain to…
"Of course not, Allfather," the dwarf replied silkily, replacing his axe in belt, and reached into his coat. When he drew out his hand, what came with it was a coil of leather cord, and a large and ugly shoemaker's awl. "I ask only that his lies be stopped for a short time."
The dwarf looked squarely at Odin, smirking, and Odin was momentarily torn between hatred, horror, and a reluctant admiration. He glanced at Loki, saw his son's face become set and blank as he realized how they had both been outmaneuvered: Brokkr had been prepared for trickery. It was likely enough that he had some contingency in place in case he had lost the wager, but he had also prepared himself for victory. Of course Odin would not permit his son to die in such a manner. Brokkr had expected that. Brokkr had counted on that, and so he had been ready to be forced into the compromise: not death, not permanent mutilation, but humiliation that would never be forgotten.
And the sticking point was that Odin could no longer refuse Brokkr: justice demanded some sort of spoils, and Odin had invited the dwarf to demand something else. His current claim was much less than the wager agreed to by Loki in the first place. Odin was willing to ignore the niceties of chivalry, but he was aware that natural justice must be appeased, and he could not simply ignore the dwarf's due altogether.
Well, of course, he could, but that really would damage his reputation, and that of Asgard, within the Nine Realms. The law against murder trumped any personal wager, but lesser forms of corporal harm were common, accepted, and in this situation even called for. Odin was bound, like every other creature, in the coils of what he could do, what he would do, and what he must do. He cast a glance at Loki and saw in the boy's eyes the recognition that this was a case of what Odin must.
Odin sighed. "Very well. You were invited to claim another prize, and I cannot deny you." He gestured at Loki, and felt a fierce surge of pride as his son stepped forward, the easy insolence in his gait and expression looking quite genuine. Brokkr moved toward him, and Odin was unsure whether hatred or admiration was foremost in his own mind. He knew dwarves could be devious, but to outwit both Loki and Odin was something special.
His thoughts were scattered a moment later, when Thor spoke.
"Hold," he said, his voice shaking. "I ask… I ask that I be allowed-- "
For one incredulous moment, Odin thought his elder son was going to offer to take his brother's place. Considering how they had come to this pass, there would even be some justice in such an offer, although Odin had no intention of permitting it. Probably Loki would not consider it, either. If Thor felt guilt, he deserved to: he would not be allowed to become the self-sacrificing hero of the affair.
And then the moment passed, as Thor stammered,
"I ask that I be the one to-- " he made a horribly eloquent sewing gesture. Odin stared at him, turned to Loki, found himself and his younger son in one accord of disbelief. What in the Nine Realms was he thinking? Had he really cherished a wish for vengeance all this time? And vengeance for what?
Brokkr grinned like this was the crowning touch to his victory. "If the prince so wishes-- " he said, holding out the awl and cord, and Loki barely wiped the revulsion and horror from his face in time as the dwarf glanced back at him.
"Thor," Odin said in a dreadful voice, "be silent."
"I would at least be careful," Thor said desperately, "I would cause him less pain. The dwarf would-- "
"Be silent," Odin repeated, avoiding at all costs casting his gaze in the directions of either his second son or his wife. Sif, he noted, was tugging at Thor's arm, trying to get him to stop talking, and Odin was reminded that he was going to tell Thor to pay the girl court. Never mind a wife with political connections, Thor required a wife with brains.
Less pain? How, exactly, could one render piercing by an awl and sewing with leather "less painful"? And even if Brokkr was rough, even if he extracted the maximum suffering from his payment, how could Thor possibly think simply being mutilated could possibly be worse for Loki than suffering that mutilation at the hands of his own brother?
Odin banished the thoughts-- he had always known Thor was less intelligent than Loki, but he had believed Thor at least possessed some wit, some perception. Loki was too underhanded to make a good king, but Odin, and not for the first time, wondered whether the son he had chosen as heir was really any better suited to the role.
No time for this now. Odin nodded to Brokkr and said,
"The payment is yours to claim, and no other's. Begin if you are going to."
And just at that, Frigga stood.
"My king," she said evenly, "there are sights no mother should be asked to witness. I ask that you permit me to leave."
It might have been more dignified had she remained stoic, but this was not a request Odin felt able to refuse. He nodded to her, and Frigga stepped down from the dais, accompanied by two of the guards who always escorted her.
Instead of leaving the throne room immediately, however, she went to Loki, touched his cheek, and said quietly, "I will come to you later."
"Thank you, Mother," Loki muttered, with at least the grace to look repentant for the distress this was causing her. If only he could think of such matters before he did the rash and reckless thing, he might someday learn wisdom, but Odin had no confidence that day would come soon.
When the door to the inner chamber closed behind Frigga, Loki turned to Brokkr with a display of teeth that could not be called a smile. "We should, I think, get on with it. Would it convenience you better if I was to sit?"
Brokkr, who had been gazing after the queen as though perhaps losing his taste for revenge, turned back to Loki with renewed enthusiasm.
Loki did indeed sit, on the steps of the dais, but Odin remained on his feet through the entire ordeal. He also permitted no one else to leave the throne room. At Loki's request, one of the sons of Ivaldi held his head steady-- Thor gave some sign of offering to perform that service, but wilted at a savage glance from his father-- while Brokkr did his ugly work with leather and awl.
Loki gave as good an account of himself as could be expected of anyone, silent through most of it though he could not stifle a whimper by the end. His eyes watered fiercely, but no one looking at his expression could be inclined to accuse him of weeping. Brokkr's bloody fingers kept slipping as he tried to tie off the knots in the cording, and after one mistake in judging the length of a cut piece he simply used the full length and cut the cord after the knot was tied. The consequences to Loki's lips as the dwarf hacked at the leather were predictable, but Loki's hands stayed clenched on the step of the dais where he sat, and he made no effort to try to escape.
Finally, after what Odin judged to be roughly a century, the task was done. Brokkr stepped back, and the dwarf holding Loki's head patted him in sincere consolation before releasing him-- whatever hatred existed between Loki and Brokkr, it did not seem to apply to the other dwarves.
Loki rose to his feet and bowed ironically to Brokkr before turning to the king. Odin suppressed a flinch of horror and was grateful the boy's mother had possessed the sense to leave before she had to see this: Loki's appearance could only be described as ghastly. His mouth was pulled into a grisly leer, blood streaming down his chin and jaw, trickling from his nostrils, seeping from the corners of his mouth. The heavy cords criss-crossing his torn lips were black with blood, and the knots securing each stitch looked like ugly growths.
Small wonder Loki was deadly pale, but his eyes were steady as he gazed up at the king, and Odin looked squarely back before gesturing to him to stand to one side. Loki nodded to his father and obeyed, moving smoothly off to the right side of the dais and standing with hands clasped behind himself, as though waiting to receive foreign dignitaries. Odin watched his son to his place-- where Thor generally stood on occasions of state-- and then turned back to Brokkr.
"I believe this concludes our business. Payment for your goods will be arranged with your comrades. I wish you safe travels."
The dismissal was clear, but Brokkr tried to linger. Casting a sideways smirk at Loki, he addressed the Allfather with ill-advised familiarity:
"I wish you joy of your period of peace, Allfather."
Odin smiled dangerously. "I would advise you, friend Brokkr, to engage in a period of peace of your own. Or one may be arranged for you." The dwarf blanched, and followed his fellows out of the throne room.
The great door closed behind them, and Odin waited a long cool moment before turning to Loki. He hoped that his demeanour seemed imperious and detached, that no onlooker could tell how he had to steel himself to look at the ruin of his son's face.
"You are also excused, my son," he said, rather proud of the steadiness of his voice. It had been on the tip of his tongue to refer to Loki by his name, but "my son," little as it was, was as near comfort as he could for the moment offer. "I would ask you to return to your chambers."
Loki bowed stiffly to his father and walked out of the throne room in the direction of the inner chambers, following the same route his mother had. No one followed, not even his anguished-looking brother. As they watched him leave, from the back of the hall Odin was positive he heard someone snicker.
It crossed his mind to have the scoffer hunted down and imprisoned out of sheer spite, but instead he made a gesture of contemptuous dismissal and left the hall himself. Of course this would become a joke, the Silvertongue silenced, the Trickster outwitted. There was nothing Odin could do about that, since only a great fool would utter where the Allfather could hear, but he bitterly resented it.
Odin went first to the chambers of the queen, warning her to remain there until he returned. He knew she would not want Loki to wait alone for someone to tend to him, but he also knew Loki would not want his mother to see him in such a condition. It took a little time to persuade her, and then Odin went on to look for their son.
By the time he reached the outer door to Loki's chambers, Odin had decided the whole ghastly mess was Thor's fault.
It was, therefore, perhaps unfortunate that Thor was the first of his sons Odin encountered.
Thor and Sif were already at the door to Loki's chambers, Thor raising his hand to knock, when Sif glanced back and saw the Allfather's approach. She caught Thor's arm to stay him, and both hastily bowed to the king.
"Father," Thor muttered, the word faltering.
"Thor," Odin returned the greeting, feeling a nasty twist of satisfaction when he saw Thor react to the omission of "my son." He was, of course, being unfair, and he knew it. He might even apologize to Thor, later, but at the moment he was angry and he needed to take it out on someone. Better Thor than Loki right now.
Even so, Odin had to confess to a mild feeling of horror when he heard his own voice asking,
"Have you come to take a closer look at Brokkr's handiwork? And perhaps remind your brother that he brought this upon himself?"
Well, that really was unfair. Thor flinched, because Thor was… not sensitive, exactly, but certainly more tender-hearted than most, including his father, generally gave him credit for.
"I was coming to apologize to him," Thor muttered. "Since this was all my fault."
Odin felt an eyebrow raise, and another jolt of irritation. The fact he, himself, had been blaming Thor in his mind was immaterial: for the moment all he could think of was Loki's oft-repeated claim that Thor was constitutionally incapable of not being the centre of attention, no matter what was happening.
On the other hand, considering the role Thor's irresponsible threats had played in all of this--
Odin was jolted out of that line of thinking when Thor went desperately on,
"Sif and I have just been speaking of this-- if I had only let her deal with Loki herself, instead of pushing myself forward, as if I had any right to act for her, as if she could not stand up for herself… I was angry at Loki, certainly, but being angry on behalf of my friend did not give me leave to behave as though the insult was to me in the first place. It was, it was offensive to Sif, and made everything worse, and Loki could have died-- "
Thor trailed off, and Odin glanced at Sif herself, granting her permission to speak: she might have expressed herself freely to Thor in private, but she would not overstep herself in front of the Allfather.
"What Thor says is true, my king," Sif said moderately. "We have… discussed the matter, and agreed that in future, Loki and I will keep our quarrels between ourselves, unless we truly cannot resolve them without asking advice of another. Thor will not intervene unless one or the other of us specifically requests his aid. We were coming only to apologize to Loki at this time, for letting this matter get so… so horribly out of control, but Thor will return later, and speak to him of this."
Odin did not think his face gave anything away, but Thor spoke up hastily:
"I intend to ask Mother to join us, to help ensure I do not… that I say what I mean to, instead of what comes to my lips in the moment." He blanched slightly at the word "lips."
"That is wisdom," Odin replied moderately, and though he had actually not intended sarcasm, Thor now blushed violently. Odin reached out and placed a hand on Thor's shoulder. "Truly. I intend to speak to your brother myself, and it would be well if both of you-- and your friends-- were willing to try again. You are none of you each other's enemy, and none of you is always in the wrong. Leave us for now."
Thor swallowed and nodded, Sif bowed to the Allfather, and the two of them went back up the corridor and left him at Loki's door.
Loki. Odin took a deep breath and knocked. He could, of course, simply walk in unannounced, and if Loki did not let him in he would do so, but he had just been speaking with Thor of respect.
"Loki, it is Father," he said quietly. The handle of the door moved of its own accord, and the door opened. Odin walked into the chamber.
The room was dim, and it took a moment for Odin's eyes to adjust sufficiently for him to see Loki sitting at his writing table. There were no materials before him, he simply sat. Odin wondered whether this quietly upright posture was least excruciating to him now. Surely any movement of the body would influence the position of the head, of the face, resulting in further pain.
Loki turned slightly to face his father, and at the sight of his mangled lips a rush of an unexpected emotion surged through Odin:
"You stupid, stupid child," Odin said, without preamble, striding forward as Loki blinked up at him in apparent alarm. "I suppose you thought you were too clever for anyone to ever outwit you. I suppose you believed the dwarves so dull that they would be easy prey, that you could manipulate them like toys, that no one could ever match wits with the Silvertongue of Asgard. Your successes against your brother, against those dim and trusting friends of yours, have made you arrogant, my son." He gripped Loki strongly by the shoulder now, barely restraining himself from shaking the boy until some common sense was jarred loose inside his head. "Do you really believe everyone else a fool? Until you realize other people are clever too, you will never be as clever as you think you are.
"And what were you thinking, risking your life like that? What has your mother ever done, that you should frighten her so badly, make her believe even for a moment that she was about to see you die in front of her? And what have I-- I realize I am not the wisest or best of fathers, but how could you-- Do you think I relished watching that lout of a dwarf do this to you? Enjoy your period of peace, he said to me. I should sentence you to remain like this until the leather rots away of its own accord."
Loki's eyes were downcast, and Odin had to control the urge to grab the boy by the chin and yank his face up to look at him. Instead, conscious of the rigid shoulder under his hand, he reminded himself his son was certainly listening to him.
With an effort, he lowered his voice. "Do not do anything like this again. I cannot stand it, your mother cannot stand it, and neither can anyone else who cares about you. You are wiser than this, I know it. This foolish recklessness has got to stop." Taking a deep breath, Odin moved to turn up the lamp, and brought the second chair, the worn and comfortable one that Thor sat in when he visited his brother's chamber, next to the writing table. "Now," he said, more gently, "look at me." Loki turned toward his father, but his eyes were anywhere but on Odin's. That did not matter.
Odin reached into a sheath at his belt, where he normally carried a dagger, and brought out a pair of small shears used by his wife when she wove fine thread.
Frigga's larger shears were far too big and clumsy for this kind of work, but these small ones made heavy going of the leather cords. Instead of snipping neatly, Odin found it took several cuts to sever each of them. He worked carefully, holding Loki's jaw in his left hand while he wielded the shears in his right, stifling the continuous urge to apologize for the further pain he had to be inflicting. Loki remained nearly as stoic as he had been at the hands of the dwarf, and for some reason that made it worse, made it almost seem that Loki could not trust his father with any evidence of vulnerability.
When the cords were finally cut, Loki reared back slightly, gasping, fumbled for a handkerchief and spat blood into it, again and again until his mouth was clear, then blew his nose violently to clear his bloody sinuses. His hands shook and he did not look at his father. Odin waited until the spasm ended, then patted his son's shoulder.
"We are not yet finished. It would be best if I trimmed the ends of the cords close to your lips, so there is less to pull through the wounds. Can you stand it now or should we wait a little?"
Loki blinked rapidly, and this time Odin was not convinced his eyes were only watering from the pain. "Now," he managed, voice still muffled from the effort of keeping his torn lips still.
"Very well." Odin hesitated a moment, then said quietly, "You are being very brave. I will make this as quick as I can." As he went back to work, once again supporting Loki's jaw in his hand, he was conscious of a tremor against his palm, of the unevenness of his son's breathing. "Nearly done," he half-crooned, leaning tenderly forward to better see what he was doing.
The rest of the task was nearly as dreadful, but at least went more quickly. Once the threads were clipped short, Odin was able to press the fingertips of his left hand to the flesh around each wound so it would not drag sideways, then reach cautiously inside his son's mouth to grip the end of each cut cord and pull it free.
And then, at last, it was done. Odin turned away, making much of his need to clean the blades of his wife's shears, while Loki composed himself. When he turned back, he said only,
"I will send a healer to you, to clean your wounds and apply a salve. No one else need see you until-- "
Loki was shaking his head urgently. "No," he said, indistinctly. "Healing room."
Odin stared at him. "Loki, there is no need-- "
Loki gave every appearance of steeling himself, and with an effort replied in complete sentences:
"I will not hide. It would defeat the purpose."
Odin blinked, and then, though disbelieving, he began to see.
"Did you… you did this deliberately?"
Loki shrugged, and then, in spite of obvious difficulty, he went on: "Mostly. I was not sure it would work, but… " He glanced at his father, looked down, and said, "I proposed the wager knowing I could use the 'neck and blood' argument to get out of it, no matter who won." He paused to wipe a fresh effusion of blood from his lips. "I was nearly sure you would permit me that route of escape, since it conformed to the wager. Technically."
Odin felt an emotion flood his chest again, and this time it was not anger. "Loki. You did not think-- ?"
Loki kept his eyes down and spoke as quickly as his wounds allowed. "And I knew Brokkr, if baulked of his prize, would have to be allowed to save face, so that I would not have to worry about him returning at some time in the future to seek revenge. He seemed satisfied, would you not say?"
Odin did not shudder as he replied, "He did indeed. You are not telling me you suggested he do this to you?"
"Not in so many words," Loki admitted. "I may have teased him and his brother as they worked, trying to distract them. I may have mentioned, when he complained of my incessant chatter, that some in the past had threatened to sew my lips closed. I also mentioned, at various times, a few other choice but non-fatal punishments wished upon me, but I am not surprised he chose the one he did."
Odin felt for a handkerchief of his own and began, very carefully, to wipe his hands. This kept them too busy to wrap around the throat of his reckless and apparently insane son.
"And why, may I ask, was this elaborate charade necessary?"
Loki looked down at his own hands as he replied, "What I did to Sif was… I knew, as soon as I closed the shears on her hair, that I had gone too far. I was angry, and I wanted everyone to know I had won, every time they looked at her. And everyone did, she could not escape it, and it was… it was too much. I wished I could undo it, but it was too late, I could not-- even bringing her the wig was only a gesture. It did nothing to repair the blow to her pride, or make up for the awareness that people were… snickering, behind her back.
"She would not have killed me over such an insult, nor wanted anyone else to do so. But this, however… this is funny, is it not? Not to you or Mother, of course. Perhaps not even to Thor or Sif, not now, but it will be to everyone else. Overconfident Loki, outwitted and humbled by a dwarf. Even Sif and Thor will find it amusing, eventually. It will be of far more note than the matter of Sif walking around for a little while with her hair hacked off. This is what will be remembered, not that Sif looked foolish for a little while."
Odin was, by now, looking squarely at Loki. "This was a penance, then?"
Loki actually looked embarrassed. "If you will."
"I have spoken to Sif, and to your brother. You must know they did not want this."
"Of course they did not. But it has happened, and in a while, when the wounds have healed but the memory remains, Sif will find it amusing, too. Or at least, she will not look at me and see one who humiliated her and got away with it." At Odin's incredulous expression, Loki demanded, "Did you not teach Thor and me that the punishment should fit the crime? I will heal, and the scars will fade, but the memory of how I was brought low will remain." Loki shrugged. "I deserve that."
"And you will not tell her, or Thor, that this was done on purpose?" Odin asked, but he knew the answer before he spoke.
"No, of course not. That, too, would defeat the purpose. Perhaps, someday in the distant future, but not anytime soon." Hesitation. "I know they are sorry, about what was done to me. I am sorry too, for what I did. And if they are not angry anymore, if the slate is all clear, perhaps we can make it up."
Odin might have pointed out that Thor and Sif would have "made it up" at any time in these past worried weeks, but on second thoughts he stopped himself. Had Loki simply returned in good health and spirits, bearing the golden wig, his brother would have experienced first relief, but then anger at being made to worry for so long. And Sif would have remembered how Loki humiliated her.
No. As unbelievable as it seemed, Loki really had manipulated himself into receiving a truly fitting punishment, and was apparently willing to live with it. It was just as unbelievable as Thor recognizing Sif's right to speak for herself, and his own need to control himself.
Odin stared at his son for a moment, then reached carefully out and with his thumb wiped a fresh trickle of blood from Loki's jaw.
"It was a terrible risk," he said.
"Calculated," Loki shrugged. "Brokkr was confident he would win the day, and I knew Thor would love the hammer. What Thor loves, Asgard loves. Besides, we both knew you would not tolerate treachery on either part." He hesitated again, then said quietly, "I do thank you, for…" He glanced at Odin's face and went on hurriedly, words now muffled through the handkerchief, "I realize the law forbids murder, so you must uphold it, but you… you sounded…"
"I sounded what?" the Allfather demanded.
"You sounded… as though you would have stopped him regardless," Loki muttered. "Even had the law been different. Thank you."
Odin sat very still for a moment.
Then he reached out and placed a hand on the back of Loki's head, pulling his son toward him. Before the boy realized what was happening, Odin had kissed him fiercely on the temple and then whispered in his ear,
"And what would I do without you, you idiot child, to keep life interesting? Of course I would not have let him kill you. If I could have found a way to deny him altogether, you would have had to find some other way to make amends to Sif. Another time, at least warn me of your plans so that I can prepare your mother. Is it a bargain?" Loki nodded. Odin kissed him again, released him, and got to his feet. "Speaking of your mother, shall I tell her to come to you in an hour? In the healing room?"
"That would be appreciated, Father," Loki muttered, and perhaps his voice was now indistinct owing to something other than the state of his lips.
"Very well. I will leave you." At the door, however, he paused. "I did not cast a vote on the craftsmanship of the dwarves. It would have been inappropriate for the king to take part. However, had I been able, I would have sided with the sons of Ivaldi. The spear is a very fine one, and I thank you deeply for the gift." He left the room before Loki could respond.
Frigga was pacing in her room when Odin rejoined her, and she looked at him anxiously, trying to read his expression.
"Well?" she prompted finally, when he did not speak immediately. "What of our son? Our sons," she amended, obviously realizing, if Odin had not immediately done so, that Thor would be as worried and grieved as she was.
Odin looked at her for a moment, and unaccountably began to laugh.
"Our sons? I would say that, if they manage not to kill each other or destroy the entire known world, they will both accomplish great things." At his wife's puzzled look, he walked over and drew her to him.
"Let me tell you a story," he said.