“What are they waiting for?” Loki paced around Frigga’s receiving chamber, while she sat composed in a carved and gilded chair, hands folded in her lap. “Why have the Jötnar stayed silent for so long?”
“Laufey is biding his time,” Frigga said, rising and moving gracefully towards him. He turned to face her, and she settled her hands on his arms. “They are drawing out the process. They are taking my measure. Taking yours.”
“Do you think they are waiting for Father to awaken?” He was punctilious now at using the word ‘Father’ whenever he spoke of Odin to her; he did not need her look of disappointment to add to his burdens.
“Possibly,” she said, frowning slightly. “I think not.”
“For what reason?”
“I think that Laufey no more wants war than your father does.”
Loki scoffed. “The weapons array he is creating belies that motive.”
She gave him a serene smile. “He would not wish to look weak to his people. He tells them they are building their strength.”
“Which they are.” He made a broad gesture to the charts on a nearby table, their parchments filled with the moving glyphs and sigils of Jotunheim’s armaments. “They become stronger every day.”
“They have nowhere near the strength they had 1000 years ago,” she went on as if he hadn’t spoken. He shrugged, nettled at the implication that there was something he hadn’t fully researched – which, in actuality, he had not. “Laufey knows they have not the might to overcome Asgard. And should the war take place Jotunheim’s doom is almost assured. Our possession of the Casket and other weapons in the Vault ensure that none dare challenge us. Laufey knows all this. He is not a fool.”
“And do you believe that? Truly?” He began pacing again. “I do not.”
“Of course I cannot know what is in his thoughts,” she said. “Would that I could. But I believe if he had truly wanted war it would have come by now. He is, I believe, simply waiting for the best bargain.”
“Then we shall have to find what best pleases him – and our people,” he said. She nodded, her eyes showing she was in full accord.
This was not a day for petitioners. Rather, it was a significant occasion, an audience held in the throne room in privacy with the ambassadors from Niðavellir and Alfheim who were looking to Asgard to resolve their dispute.
Ilyndrathyl, the elven embassador, as tall and willowy as all those of his kind, bowed deeply before the throne where Frigga sat, paying equal respect to Loki, standing by her side. His waist length silver hair, ornamented with numerous intricate jeweled clasps and braiding, was pulled back from his face, revealing his pointed ears. The golden light of the great throne room flattered his slanted golden eyes, highlighted the sharpness of his cheekbones, and danced along the shimmer of the elaborately embroidered and gilded blue-violet ceremonial clothing clinging to his lithe form. Loki listened carefully as he detailed the problem in a voice as clear as the finest music.
For his part, the dwarf Ráðsviðr, who although he had greeted Frigga and Loki with the utmost respect and a bow of his own, did not bother to hide a glower as Ilyndrathyl spun out his tale with the most elaborate phrasings possible. He stood there now, his stout and stumpy form clad in sturdy brown cloth and heavy boots, his face like a crude rock carving, a belligerent cast to his jaw and loathing clearly visible in his deep-set eyes.
It was a simple and obvious matter, Ilyndrathyl explained. The Dökkálfar had created a tiny realm, a singularly ugly ball of rock without any niceties of appearance, then sent it meandering very close to Alfheim. Ilyndrathyl requested, in polite and flowery language, with a gentle smile on his lips and a threat within his violet eyes, that Asgard require the dwarves to remove and destroy their spy vehicle.
Ráðsviðr then stated his case. The Dökkálfar were innocent of any such outrageous accusations, their device was completely outside Alfheim’s territory and they had every right to search for various small realms containing high mineral content.
With a great deal of flowery language, Loki agreed to consider the matter, then courteously invited them both to attend a feast in their honor. Each of their tables, large enough for their entire retinues, were placed to either side of the high table. They were served the finest of Asgardian food, the best wines, and were provided with the most skillful of Asgardian entertainments. Soon both men were applauding the dancers and the bards along with the Asgardians present.
After the feast was over, Loki, not trusting this task to a servant, sent a magical invitation to Ilyndrathyl to join him in a private sitting chamber, located near the throne room, which was accomplished in secrecy under invisibility.
Loki offered him another glass of wine. Ilyndrathyl accepted with courtesy and they settled back into sumptuous chairs.
Loki gave him a conspiratorial smile. “There is no need to be subtle. We both know the Dökkálfar intend to spy upon you. Their only problem is, they got caught. So I propose we take them at their word. I will ask them to swear their innocence of any intention to engage in espionage and I will grant their request to search for minerals and jewels among the uninhabited worlds.”
Ilyndrathyl raised a questioning brow. “The Dökkálfar have no honor and will not keep their word.”
Loki’s smile widened. “That is why you and I will craft a spell to keep their device from gathering any information from your realm. We shall, of course, not mention this detail to them.”
They spent some time planning the crafting of the working, which Loki stated must take place on Asgard as pressing matters kept him here at this time. Ilyndrathyl diplomatically did not offer to discuss in detail the ‘pressing matters’, as all realms, save Midgard of course, knew of the long-simmering hostilities between Asgard and Jotunheim after, as Ilyndrathyl put it, “that unfortunate incident with the banished crown prince.” But, Ilyndrathyl spoke in the strictest confidence that all of Alfheim was pleased with the new state of affairs with Asgard’s royalty, for Loki knew, and he knew, of the preferences and favors Loki had given Alfheim, favors the Allfather had rarely chosen to share. And then there was the issue of certain magical relics in Odin’s Vault which, by right, belonged to the light elves, an issue touched upon obliquely and subtly, and then allowed to drop again, with the understanding the subject might be revisited in more favorable times.
When at last Ilyndrathyl took his leave he professed himself perfectly pleased with their arrangement.
They both set their delicate filigreed wineglasses down on a nearby table. Loki thanked him. Then, as soon as he was gone. Loki, not trusting this task to a servant, sent a magical invitation to Ráðsviðr to join him in the private sitting chamber, which was accomplished in secrecy under invisibility.
Loki, already seated, offered him a huge mug of the best beer, a large oaken keg prominent on a nearby stone table. Ráðsviðr accepted, with thanks, and took a seat on the dwarf-sized chair Loki had arranged for him. He took a long draught, foam catching on his bristly auburn beard. “Great beer!” he proclaimed, drained it, and smashed the tankard on the floor.
There were plenty of tankards at hand, and Ráðsviðr helped himself to a refill.
Loki got directly to business, for all knew how much dwarves mistrusted flowery language. “I wanted to speak to you away from the ears of Ilyndrathyl, for as you know, elves are expert at hiding their meaning behind many words.”
Suspicion warred with appreciation in the dwarf’s dark eyes.
“Knowing the reputation of the Dökkálfar for honesty and fair dealing – ” Ráðsviðr grinned, apparently willing taking him at his word and ready to pull a con job – “Therefore, I wish to make a proposal. I agree, Alfheim’s accusation was outrageous and you do have every right to send your ship to search for riches among the unnamed realms. I shall craft a spell to help you do so, to find those uninhabited realms filled with the most riches.” And to spy on everything you do, Loki did not say.
“For your solemn oath to Ilyndrathyl that you will not use your ship to spy upon them. Since you have no interest in doing so, that should be simple enough.” The dwarf’s bearded mouth twisted unhappily, but he quickly replaced it with a broad, toothy, entirely false grin. “And…” Ráðsviðr’s gaze was riveted on Loki’s face. “Thirty percent of all you find to Asgard’s coffers.”
Much haggling followed, and Loki professed himself well pleased with ten percent, the sum he’d intended to end with, which he planned to distribute to the commoners in the form of entertainments and feasts and largess to one and all, so that no one could claim he played favorites.
Finally, Loki rose, indicating their audience was at an end. Ráðsviðr got up as well, and for a moment, looking down at someone only tall as a half-grown child, whose head came barely above Loki’s stomach, for one queasy moment he was back on Jotunheim, looking up at the monsters.
This is who I am, Loki realized. Were I to be among the monsters that birthed me. Full grown, yet like a half grown child.
Ráðsviðr looked at him, inquiringly, and Loki pasted on an imperious smile. Then Ráðsviðr swore that all of Niðavellir would give him their gratitude and utmost loyalty, for Loki knew, and he knew, of the preferences and favors Loki had given Niðavellir
Loki’s smile widened as soon as the door closed behind the dwarf. The best bargain, he knew, was one where all parties felt they had bested the others.
Some days later, he’d retreated to his chambers after another long day with Mother and the Council after long hours of discussing strategy and tactics based on what they knew of the Jötnar defenses. He’d found yet another arcane text to study, but its initial promise of how to dissolve a memory-wipe spell had faded once he’d gotten through the first few chapters and realized his own magical knowledge was more advanced than the mage who had written this tome.
Still, he persevered, and was in the middle of another deadly dull recitation of rare spellmaking ingredients and where to find them when he became aware of a strange fluttering sound nearby.
Instantly alert, he stood, and frowned in puzzlement at the creation fluttering outside his balcony, beyond the edge of his wards. It looked like a green-tailed striped butterfly, but it was no such thing. Rather, it was a simple thing made of paper and magic. He gestured and spoke two words. His working passed through the thing without damaging it, and realizing it was harmless, he gestured again. The thing unfolded itself into a parchment hexagon, filled with neat inked writing. It settled on the balustrade. He picked it up. “My lord and prince, I humbly offer all my thanks for your great wisdom,” it read.
He knew who had sent it as soon as he touched it. He considered whether he should answer. Then, when he set it down again, it reformed itself into a butterfly and flew away.
The simple working reminded him of similar things he’d done just barely past early boyhood. Curious and so very tired of his fruitless studies, he indulged himself. Transforming into a magpie, he flew past his wards and followed the thing as it flew up into the hills, into high farm country. The butterfly flew straight and true past sun-dappled fields. It looked like there was going to be a very good crop this year, he noted as he flew over field after field abundant with grain. He headed past a strand of trees, then followed a gurgling mountain stream, and finally settled down to the ground in the center of an herb patch.
The hedge witch Raakeli stared straight up at him, her thin body clad in simple farming garb, her white hair wound around her head. Transforming back into his own form he settled on the ground before her.
She instantly fell to both knees, bowing. “My lord,” she said, her voice full of surprise. “I only wished to convey my thanks, and not disturb you further.”
“You may stand,” he said, walking past her to stroll around the garden. He examined several plants closely, sniffing one, testing the pollen of another, enjoying being outside, in the light and air and the warmth of the day, surrounded by the smell of the fertile earth. He turned to find her standing in the place where she had knelt. “I take it you have had better luck with your potions?” he asked, remembering that the spell he’d cast to augment her own had never been activated. So she did have Talent after all.
“Yes, my lord,” she said, and something inside him he’d long forgotten warmed at the gratitude in her eyes.
“Has Hródolf upheld his end of the bargain, then?”
“He has, my lord.” Her eyes shone with gratitude.
“I saw on my way here the local fields are quite productive.”
“Yes, he is quite pleased. I thank you again, my lord.” She shifted her weight from one foot to another, still looking as if she wanted to drop back down on her knees. “I have had good custom since everyone has seen how well Hródolf’s crops are growing.”
“That is well then.” He copied Odin’s expression on the rare occasions he spoke with commoners in other than formal settings, benevolent yet regal. Inwardly he felt unexpected satisfaction at her words of gratitude. Being a King means caring for your people, in understanding their needs and helping them in all ways possible to improve the standing of Asgard, that what you do as King will matter in the lives of your subjects, for good or ill. Do what matters for the good in their lives and Asgard will continue to prosper. He had heard the All Father say those words, and when he was young he had believed them, believed everything Odin said.
Maybe not everything Odin had told him was a lie.
He gestured to the planting of Setallah plants. “You have tended these well. Send two measures of these, when ready, to the palace for me. I will have payment sent to you.”
“Thank you,” she said again, bowing.
He felt less burdened when he flew away, and he indulged himself on the way back by veering around trees then soaring high in the sky, enjoying, for the moment, the pleasure of not being himself.