The golden palace at Asgard is all in a bustle, for a new delegation has just arrived from Svartalfheim. Tensions have run high with the dark elves lately, and it is widely known that Odin hopes to resolve things through diplomacy, rather than force of arms. A pitched battle now would devastate two realms, not just one; and although hotheads from both sides are eager enough in their calls to battle, so far wiser heads have prevailed. So far.
But the dark elves have sent a new delegation, rich with lavish presents for the rulers of Asgard and laden with profuse apologies for the recent incidents. It is a good sign. The fealty gifts are rushed into a small, secure chamber by servants and guards, which then rush out again to prepare for the feasting that night. Golden light flares and gleams on the chests and platters of riches, gold and jewels, cloth finery, exotic flowers and foods from Svartalfheim. Someone will need to go through and catalogue it before it can be properly stored or delivered, but for now they only wish to get it all stowed.
The heavy door swings shut, reinforced with bars of iron, and heavy bolts drop into place. The glorious treasure is swamped in shadow, and then in silence.
In the stillness, movement: the air ripples, and then a shadow separates from the ceiling and drops lightly to soft-shod feet. The figure reaches up and pushes the shadow back from his face like a man pushing back the hood of a cloak, revealing a pale, narrow face framed with dark hair, and bright, gleaming green eyes.
Loki Odinsson approaches the pile of treasure, casting his gaze over it with a cynical eye. He does not trust the sudden generosity of the dark elves, not at all. They may be more kin to the Aesir than other races of the Nine Realms -- the giants, the dwarves, the humans -- but kinship was no guarantee of good contact. And Loki should know.
Loki reaches out and spreads his pale hands over the pile of riches, like a man warming his hands over a fire. Long fingers twitch, just slightly, as he moves them to and fro, seeking, sensing. He lowers his hands cautiously into the mess, and then stops with an "ah!" of satisfaction.
He plucks from the pile of jewelry a long, elegant comb, carved of polished seashell the like that Asgard has none of for itself. Jewels gleam on the head of the comb, heavy and rich, and if Loki had to guess he rather thought this was intended as a queenly gift for Frigga herself.
It is set with a malevolent curse, heavy enough that he can feel it pulse and throb through his fingers.
Unable to get their way in battle, the elves have lately turned to treachery and deceit, and this would not be the first time they had tried to sneak some poison or weapon onto the palace grounds. This latest attempt at intrusion, it seems, takes the form of a magical bane, a subtle poison. Left in place it would grow in malice and corruption, spreading a dark influence over any it touched, turning health to sickness, strength to weakness, wisdom to madness.
And they had intended to set this on his mother. Loki's eyes gleam with fury, and the sharp-edged smile that crosses his face has nothing at all to do with pleasure.
The dark elves were fools. How many of their little plans would he foil before they finally gave up? It pleased him to think of their growing frustration, as one after another attempt at assassination failed, swallowed up into silence and darkness without even leaving behind any indication of what had gone wrong each time.
And what had gone wrong each time was Loki.
For years, Loki had served his father as an agent of stealth and silence, cunning and trickery. Thor is his father's right hand, serving him at court and at battle, but Loki is his left hand, the one that lingers behind, darting swiftly to strike when the enemy's attention is elsewhere. He moves in the shadows to intercept and eliminate anything that dared to threaten his family, his kingdom, and he does it so well. He has developed uncanny senses attuned to danger: to poison, ill-intent and magic. He has learned spells to cloak and shadow himself, wards to heal and protect, and, when necessary, techniques to kill.
He wouldn't tell Mother of what he'd found in the gifts from Svartalfheim, of course. Mother didn't even know.
Thor didn't know, either, nor those insufferable oafs who were his friends. They all laughed at him, sneered behind his back at Loki the weakling, Loki the failure, Loki the trickster. They did not know.
Odin knew, of course, because his father knew everything. His father was ancient as the mountains and wise as the hills. It pleased Loki to think that he had inherited his father's cunning and wisdom, as surely as Thor had inherited his strength of arms.
That was how this had all started. For his birthday, marking his coming of age -- the same occasion where Thor had been granted Mjolnir, when it had been his turn -- Odin had given him a book of spells. One of the spells hidden within the pages was a spell of cloaking, of shadow-walking, the ways of moving unseen and passing through walls as a spirit.
As soon as he'd read that Loki had felt an epiphany, a jolt of excitement. He understood at once what Odin had intended by giving him this book, this spell. Finally, he knew what he was meant to do with his life. Finally, he had a purpose to match Thor's. Stealth, trickery. That was how Odin meant him to serve the house of the Aesir. He would be the left hand to Thor's right, the shield to Thor's sword, the moon to Thor's sun. That was what Odin wanted from him, that was how he could make his father proud. Not by competing with his brother but by complementing him.
Today when Odin had spoken about the cloying offerings of the Dark Elf delegation that would be arriving today, and how they could not refuse them for fear of causing offense, Loki understood immediately that Odin meant for him to go and check over the gifts for possible traps. It could not be done openly, so of course it would fall to Loki.
And Odin had been right. He always was, of course.
But now that he'd found it, what best to do?
Loki turns his attention back to this nasty little spell. Careful fingers tease it apart from the comb, captured the wisp of pulsing magic in his palms like a fluttering moth. He considers. He could simply destroy it, but that would mean that whoever had created this spell would sense its dissipation and know at once that their spell had failed.
Far better to let their enemies run with the misconception that their curse was still active and working, a seed of destruction planted in the heart of Asgard. For a moment Loki is tempted -- wickedly tempted -- to plant the spell on another and let it run its course. To transfer the doom to some other member of Asgard's court who has plagued him for far too long; perhaps that obsequious snuffling toady Byggvir, who never passed up some opportunity to spread gossip; or maybe even Thor's insufferable friend Fandral, who had convinced himself that he was God's gift to the women of the court and seemed to determine to plow a ditch in every one of them before the season was out.
But that is an unworthy thought for a son of Odin, and Loki lets it go. Besides, that would be unwise; if the spell cannot be destroyed it must be contained, and of all the court Loki is the one best suited to such a task. He considers fashioning some flask to serve as its cage and hiding it under the stone floor in his quarters, but he will need to be away from his rooms for many hours over the next few days and really should not leave this dangerous little morsel unattended.
Loki shrugs. Best to dispose of this spell, then, in the same way that he takes care of all other dangerous poisons that he has intercepted over the years; discreet, thorough, and infallible. He pops the little spell in his mouth, and swallows it.
There is precious time to spare before the feast that night; Loki barely has time to slide unseen into his quarters and get dressed in the festival finery appropriate for tonight's banquet. Annoyed by the pomp and posturing, Loki would just have soon have glamoured his working clothes into the semblance of festival gear and gone as he was, but there was always the chance that his concentration might slip later in the evening. So he yanks the soft pine-green and charcoal-grey garments over his head and throws them into a corner, where they vanish; and the rest of the hour is spent struggling with the layers and buckles of court attire.
The tunic is tight around his chest and shoulders, and he hasn't even left his quarters before he's feeling overheated and annoyed. The spell that he swallowed remains a hot, solid lump like a marble stuck under his breastbone; it jabs him every time he breathes, but there is no time now to brew a potion to counter the sensations, so he will just have to live with it.
He makes it to the dining hall just shy of late; all the important players have arrived, but the formality of the feast has not quite convened. His father nods at him as he sidles past, and his mother smiles at him as he takes his place by her left hand. He is across from Thor, with his back to the wall so that he can keep a close eye on the activity at other tables. This is the ideal positioning, where he can watch without being watched, Thor's bulk helpfully hiding him from the rest of the room.
And here, within bare arms' reach of each of his family members, Loki is in a position to intercept any possible attack on any of them -- whether it be open, a rush of bodies with steel and stone from the lower tables, or something more subtle and treacherous.
"Took you long enough to get here, Brother," Thor says with a laugh; he's already eating, and though the cup at his elbow is filled, there is an easiness about his brother's movements and a volume to his laugh that says he's already drunk. Loki frowns quellingly at him.
"I do wish you would at least wait until Father calls the toast before you make a drunken ass of yourself, Thor," Loki comments. It's true; it upsets him that Thor has been drinking somewhere out from under Loki's eye. Someone could have poisoned his cups, and Loki would never have known until it was too late.
Thor rolls his eyes. "Must you always be such a sour stick-in-the-mud?" he complains. "It is a day of celebration! It has been going on all day."
"With the dökkálfar?" Loki asks with interest. He lays one hand flat on the table and spreads his fingers out, twitching in Thor's direction; fortunately, he senses no taint of poison, no malicious tingle of ill magic. The gods looked after fools and drunkards, it appeared.
"Among others," Thor chuckles. "These dark elves may have honorless cowards among their ranks, or who else committed the attacks on our enclaves last winter? But I tell you, my brother, they are not all so bad. Why, some of them can even sing!"
"Now that's a stunning endorsement of trustworthiness if I ever heard one," Loki says dryly. He shrugs a little, it does not matter. It is all to the better if Thor plays up the role of the big, harmless, easily beguiled buffoon. He will be the glitter in their eyes, the flash of the weapon they can easily see and thus easily evade.
He settles back against his chair, his eyes half-lidded. He watches the table with the elven ambassadors with only a passing interest; they are not so stupid as to cause any trouble in the middle of a crowded room, after all. He catches one of them staring at Frigga's hair, at the way the bejeweled seashell comb catches the firelight as she turns her head and laughs; the elf looks away, a nasty smirk playing about his lips, and Loki almost laughs aloud. We're on to you, he thinks; one step ahead, as always.
But most of his attention is split between the servants, bringing food and mead up the tables to serve his family, and his father. The servants because he must monitor the food and drink for poison, and draw it over to himself if he senses any. Positioned as he is towards the end of the table, it is child's play to substitute one goblet for another; it hardly even takes any real magic, only sleight of hand.
His father, however, he watches not out of wary suspicion, but in tense anticipation. These formal meals they take together are one of the few times he regularly sees Odin face to face; this is the only reliable means that his father has to pass him instructions and orders. Whatever his father wishes of him, he will make it known here. Of course, it cannot be done openly in front of the entire hall, but Loki has become adept in reading the subtle nuances of Odin's intentions. They are enough alike, they understand each other well enough that Odin never needs to speak any incriminating words aloud, for his will to be carried out.
Loki remembers the night the Vanir delegation had come, not too long after the dark elves had begun their nasty little campaigns of raids and sabotage. The Vanir would be a valuable ally to Asgard at this time, Odin had explained to him before the feast, a check on the elves' aggression they should take full advantage of. All of Asgard had turned out to honor the visitors from Vanaheim, preparing to court them with games and feasts and celebrations.
Deep in his cups, the head ambassador of the Vanir had spoken boisterously about how fine Odin's younger son had grown, how pale and comely. He'd asked Odin to favor him with Loki's presence in his bed that night, and a shocked hush had fallen over the court at the vulgarity.
Odin had turned to face the man, and in a firm, level voice, refused. His son was not now, and never would be, part of this negotiation. Loki understood that, of course. He would have lost face, to accede to such a brazen request in full view of his men. But when his hand fell on Loki's shoulder in the moment of silence, squeezing firmly, Loki understood at once what Odin meant for him to do.
They could not afford to lose the support of the Vanir ambassador.
So he'd gone to visit their quarters, later that night when the cheering and feasting had gone down. The ambassador had been surprised to see him, then triumphant, crowing in the power and influence he could wield over Odin. He'd pushed Loki onto the fine upholstered couch and Loki had lain down under him, unresisting.
It had not hurt -- at least, not much -- but it was unpleasant, to say the least. The man had gloated over him, whispering filthy insults into his ears in time with his thrusts. Loki let them pass as if unheard. He hadn't quite been able to feign enthusiasm at the act -- maybe someday, when he was a better liar -- but at the least, he had not offered any complaint. That seemed to be all the man cared about, anyway.
The next day the ambassador swore his fealty to Odin and pledged his support in battle against the dark elves. It was a great triumph, and all the court was pleased. Loki felt smug, accomplished, proud of what he'd made happen. He congratulated himself at being subtle and clever, told himself over and over how pleased Odin must be with him, how very worthy and valuable he was turning out to be.
It helped to quiet the feeling, which he could not quite shake, that he was worth less than nothing at all.
Remembering the Vanir delegation makes Loki feel uneasy and restless, although he isn't entirely sure why. It should count as a triumph, should it not? Instead he finds himself antsy for his next task; the sooner he is put back in action, the sooner he can put it out of his mind. He needs tasks, missions to fulfill and puzzles to keep his mind occupied. He needs to prove his value to his father, to Asgard. He needs to be worthy.
So he leans over the corner of the table to address his father, pitching his voice low so as not to carry too far beyond the two of them. "The Svartalfheim delegation certainly has been making a pest of themselves this time around, haven't they?" he says.
Odin grimaces. "That would be putting it lightly," he says.
Loki knows it is, but he's not going to come out and say to his mother's face that the dark elves just tried to implant her with a curse of gibbering madness. He keeps his attitude light and his voice airy as he asks, "Wouldn't it be better if they... weren't here?"
What he means to say, and knows Odin will hear, is: would it be better if I killed them all, Father?
Odin sighs, and a wistful look flickers briefly across his face before he smooths it into carefully-masked courtesy. "Would that it were that simple, my son," he says. "But so long as they continue these endless antics of diplomacy and negotiation and attempted blackmail, that is another day they are not girding for war. Better to have them here, insulting us to our faces, than preparing to launch a dagger into our backs."
Loki frowns; slipping a dagger into their backs is exactly what the dark elves are trying to do, as far as he can tell. But Odin is wise, and has managed negotiations with Svartalfheim for thousands of years; it's not Loki's place to question him now.
Abruptly Loki feels far too overheated, dizzy and ill. If he could he would excuse himself, depart early to rest in his chambers, but duty keeps him chained to his seat -- he cannot abandon his family now, leave them uncovered to whatever cruel cunning the dark elves devise. His head is swimming and the knot of foul magic he swallowed earlier is a burning lump in his throat and chest, rendering it impossible to choke down any of the fine food; he limits himself to occasional small sips of wine, pushing the food around on his plate. Thor doesn't notice, all too occupied with regaling to his seatmates some of the cruder jokes he learned from his partying earlier, and Odin has more important matters to worry about. Frigga, however, notices his reticence and leans towards him, worry in her soft blue eyes.
"Something wrong, sweetling?" she asks quietly. "You aren't eating."
"I am not hungry tonight, Mother," he lies easily, a soothing deflection that rolls of his tongue like honey. "Perhaps the presence of these dreadful guests is putting me off my appetite."
She frowns sternly, but worry flickers under her voice. "Should you retire early, then, Loki? Do you need to visit the healers?"
"No!" Loki denies hastily, his face heating dully at the thought. He hates when Frigga coddles him, treats him like a fragile child. In his youth he took sick easily, and spent more time in the healer's hall than out of it; but he is a man now, and he hasn't needed to lie down under the healer's care in years. He's made sure of it.
"Now, sweetling, you know how you get headaches," Frigga fusses.
"I do not have a headache!" That is a lie, and a blatant one; a tight band of pain wraps itself around his skull, sending lances of pain across his temples with every beat of his heart. But Thor's attention has been drawn to their conversation, and he watches with open, maliciously grinning delight.
"Oh ho, is my little brother so fragile as all that?" he chuckles. "So much so that a single cup of mead is enough to send him stumbling to bed like a fainting damsel?"
"Thor," Frigga says reprovingly, and he makes an exaggerated face of contrition.
The air of the great hall is too hot, too stifling; under his breastbone, the curse pulses with its own malevolent heartbeat, burning hot and painful. Loki swallows hard against it, against the faint scalding taste of bile in the back of his throat. He needs to get away from here, to get to his chamber where he can take care of this before he ends up making a spectacle of himself in front of everyone.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the Svartalfheim delegation departing, their table clear. The feast is beginning to wind down at last; no new food or drinks are being brought out. Odin will stay for hours yet, dealing out policy and strategy with friends and allies, but the excruciating dinner of state is over.
Normally Loki would stay too, listening in on Odin's council and prepared to offer his services wherever necessary, but tonight -- Loki rises, more unsteadily than he would like, and gives a short bow to his parents. "My King, my Queen," he says formally, "please excuse my departure. I will see you again on the morrow."
Thor sniggers at him again as he turned towards the door; without needing to look, he lashes out a serpent-quick hand and slaps his brother upside the head.
Loki gets to his rooms and closes the heavy wooden doors behind him, leaning against them with a feeling of relief. He draws in a deep breath, reveling in the sensation of having come to asylum.
This is his bedroom and his library, his workshop and his apothecary. All the servants have long since been chased away, and know better than to venture near lest the wards he's worked upon the walls and doors react in an untimely manner. This does mean that Loki has to do all of his own cleaning and laundry, but that doesn't bother him nearly as much as it would his brother. Thor treats his own room and his own possessions as casually as he does anything, scattering clothes or gear this way and that and leaving them for the maids to pick up, or bringing food or drink into his rooms and spilling them carelessly everywhere. No doubt it would come as a rude shock to him if the messes ever stopped miraculously clearing themselves up after him. But Loki has always been tidy-minded and meticulous, and keeping his rooms in order doesn't bother him nearly as much as the prospect of other people poking around in his private things.
Loki activates the locks -- both physical and his own, more subtle and arcane, invisible -- and walks across the room towards his bookcases, yanking open the collar of his tunic as he goes. The cool air of his private sanctuary washes over his fevered skin, damp and soothing and redolent of magic.
He stands in front of a particular section of bookcase, the leatherbound covers lining up in rows as precise as ranks of soldiers. Loki can't help but smile a little at the sight of them, so neat, so undisturbed; anyone who knew him ought to know that no true bookshelf of his could look so pristine and stately.
Loki takes a deep breath and reaches out, both with his hands and also with the instinctive, invisible part of him through which his magic flows. He touches two particular spots on the casing, and there is a hollow, echoing click as the illusion falls away and the large wooden cabinet swings outwards.
He lowers it carefully into place, workbench and commissary all at once, and casts a familiar, appraising eye over the rows of glass and metal flasks. This is where he conducts most of his experiments, combining recipes and spells he learned from his books with ideas and curiosities of his own. Some are still experimental, but some -- his hands wander to a row of glass bottles, wax-stoppered and color-coded -- are simply functional, tried and tested.
He needs something that will quell the hostile magic of the curse he bears, something that will dampen and bind it -- and also, something that will dull the pain. The latter is easy; there is a row of ten tiny red crystal vials lined up neatly, ready for use. Loki cracks open the wax stopper and gulps it down without hesitation, as he has done many times before. He closes his eyes and leans against the cool stone of the wall, taking deep breaths as he waits for it to kick in.
Of all the things he's learned in the past years, the knowledge to treat and medicate himself without needing to resort to the healer's hall is the most valuable. His mother had been right; when he was young, he had been prone to bouts of wracking illness, sudden fits that would leave him overcome with fever and short of breath until he thought he must surely die. He knew it worried both of his parents greatly, and that Eir had been mystified as to the cause of the chronic episodes.
But his brother was also right, in a way. Loki had quickly learned that a trip to the healer's hall would relieve him of whatever unwanted obligation or duty he did not feel much like attending to, and he had equally quickly learned how to feign the signs of illness that would guarantee sympathetic fussing and a reprieve from tedious lessons.
Thor had, eventually, picked up on the fact that he was faking it some of the time -- inevitable, really, when he would bounce back up as soon as their mother's back was turned and slip out to join Thor on some grand adventure. But he had then decided that Loki must be faking weakness all the time, and as they grew older and clashed more often, he would taunt Loki about his frequent trips to the healer's hall. He would call Loki a fraud and a coward, and Loki came to hate it so much that he refused to go to the healer's hall ever, even when the sickness was not feigned. The fact that his trips to the healers ceased entirely as he grew older only served to convince Thor that it had been a lie the whole time, and he never missed an opportunity to needle and jeer if Loki showed signs of his 'fits.'
But Loki has no need of the healers' services any longer. He is not exactly a master healer, himself -- that would take far more time and single-minded devotion than he cares to spend on it, when he is really just as interested in developing poisons of his own -- but he has learned enough to doctor himself, to brew the potions and poultices that hid all symptoms of illness from view. And when the time came that Loki began to serve the house of Aesir -- to draw into himself the wounds and insults and poisons of their enemies -- it was a simple enough matter to treat himself for those, as well.
So he does tonight. He takes a deeper breath and straightens up as the cool relief of the anaesthetic sweeps through him. His headache eases, as does the feeling of sweltering heat in his limbs, and the acid pain in his chest and stomach dulls to a faint throbbing. This is merely a palliative, of course; he will need to do something to nullify the corrosive effects of that spell so that he can keep it contained within him.
Loki raises his eyes and hands, fingers twitching slightly in the air as he puts his busy mind to the problem at hand. Now... what will be best...?
There is little margin for error in these experiments, for Loki has no guinea pigs but himself; if he miscalculates too badly, he may end up poisoning himself even beyond his impressive tolerance. But there is little danger of that tonight, for all he seeks is a nullifying agent; the only trick will be making sure that whatever he takes for it does not affect the source of his own power as well.
It is a thin line to walk, a tightrope in the dark, but despite himself Loki feels giddy with excitement and satisfaction as he applies himself to the task.