Title: The Wagers of Sin
Warnings: Bad parenting, angst, discussion of torture.
Author's Note: This is never going to be one of my masterpieces, but I just want to keep writing something every week.
The wages of sin are death.
The throne room of Asgard, where sat the seat of rule for all of the Nine Realms, could serve many purposes. It could be used for ceremonies, such as the coronation of a new king or the funeral of a lost prince. It could be used for celebrations, or for announcements, or for the day-to-day mundane details of running a realm.
It could also be used as a court of judgement, and such was the function it fulfilled today.
Odin stood as the great doors swung open and two figures started inside, one tall and blond and the other thin and dark. It was a motion calculated to draw the eye away from their attention-grabbing appearance and back to him, a subtle reminder of who held the power in this situation. Standing on the raised dais before the throne, Gungnir in hand and his ceremonial helmet arching above him, Odin was an imposing figure and he knew it.
But his sons were equally riveting to the eye. His eldest, Thor, walked a little way behind the other, herding him with a hand behind his back but not quite touching. He looked fatigued, annoyed, and apprehensive all at once, but even such a mix of emotions could not keep the glowing triumph off his face. His face and clothing were clean and neat, but his armor bore a new host of small scratches and dents that the smiths of Asgard would have to repair, evidence of the fierce battle he had fought on Midgard. He was in every way the picture of the victorious warrior.
Loki, on the other hand, had an equally dramatic appearance, but for very different reasons. Unlike Thor, who had clearly had a chance to clean up after his battle, Loki had come straight from his - he was a mess, clothing ripped and torn and with blood and soot still staining his skin. His hands were encased in a pair of heavy cuffs that left him barely able to move his fingers, let alone lift his hands - made by Odin himself, they were warded with spells to suppress casting. Nor were the cuffs the only restraints upon him; an intricate steel gag encased the lower half of his face, stopping his words and stilling his tongue. Above the metal mask, his expression was wooden and his eyes were carefully blank, but he walked with pride in the stiffness of his spine. Pride, even in defeat.
Thor stepped forward and went to one knee before Odin's throne, one arm crossing his chest in the warrior's salute. Bound as his hands were, Loki could not mirror the gesture; he went to both knees instead, an exhausted slump in his posture.
"All-Father," Thor said, and an echo of that same exhaustion was in his voice.
"Thor Odinson," Odin greeted him formally, reciting the formula of a phrase that had been used to greet returning warriors from time out of mind. "From what battlefield do you come, and what tidings do you bring?"
"I return this day from Midgard, my battles triumphant, bearing a relic of Asgard that was lost on that realm many years ago, now recovered." He leaned forward to set the metal and glass housing on the steps before him, bowing his head for a moment as he did so. He straightened up, and Odin was close enough to see him swallow nervously before he took a breath and continued. "I also bring back my brother, Loki Odinson, his rage and his magic subdued, so that he may face restitution for his misdeeds and find healing from his madness."
Thor hesitated, before he asked with great reluctance, "Should I remove the gag, Father, so that we may hear what Loki has to say?"
Odin shook his head, keeping his eyes on his younger son as he took a slow step downwards from the throne. "The time to make excuses for Loki's behavior has passed," he said, quietly enough that only those in front of him could hear, not the whole room. "Loki's crimes have been witness, both by Heimdall and by myself. There is no doubt as to the veracity of his guilt, and to hear his elaborate justifications would change nothing. This is not a hearing; this is a sentencing."
Stopping in front of Loki, Odin raised his staff and his voice. "Loki," he said, and he appended no title to the name. He heard the murmur that ran around the room at the omission, and saw the brief expression of dismay that crossed Thor's face. For an Asgardian of noble birth to be addressed without a title was almost unheard of. Even those born of no house, or whose houses had rescinded them, could still claim the citizenship of the Realm eternal - 'of Asgard' was the usual form, or 'of the Realms.' But to be denied even that was to be denied any personhood at all.
"Loki, you have committed treason against the realms eternal. You have committed crimes on three realms - Asgard, Midgard, and Jotunheim. Your actions have tarnished the name of Asgard, and endangered our faith and good will amongst all of the Realms. For these tresspasses, you will be permitted to trespass no longer; you will be imprisoned for one hundred years."
Out of the corner of his eye, Odin saw Thor let out his breath. In relief? One hundred years of imprisonment was, even for immortals such as they, a substantial amount of time. By the time Loki emerged from his seclusion, his deeds on Midgard would be relegated to history, all those who remembered his face and suffered from his crimes safely dead of old age. It was no slap on the wrist, but for crimes of this magnitude, it was a comparatively light sentence.
Except that Odin wasn't finished. "You have done harm against those who had no defense, and for this atrocity there can be no defense," he continued. "Your crimes are great, and so your punishment must also be great. You will not be imprisoned in the Tower; instead, the heart of this realm shall be your punishment, in the Chamber of the Tides."
This pronouncement yielded a great babble of voices and murmurs from the watching crowd; some surprised, some vengefully satisfied. "Father, you cannot!" Thor exploded, leaping to his feet as though he could block the words with his body. "This is too cruel. You can't possibly mean that!"
The Chamber of Tides was a cavern carved into the rock deep below Asgard, on the very edge of the bluffs where the land met the sea. As a cell, it was deceptively simple, with only a set of enchanted chains embedded deep into the rock and stone walls on all sides... except one, where an open metal grillework allowed entrance to the roaring surf.
Once per day the tides came pounding into the cell with utter implacibility. The waves never rose high enough to drown the unlucky prisoner bound there, but their relentless elemental force would beat even an Aesir's body full of bruises. Guards would eventually falter, torturers grow weary, but the force of the sea would never tire.
Over time, the surging sand would scour away at the skin, and the salt of the sea would burn like acid in each cut and abrasion. Odin knew that some mortal kingdoms in Midgard had once used this as a method of execution, but the Aesir were not so fragile; they would survive, and heal, and the next day the tide would return once again.
No prisoner placed in the Chamber of Tides had ever lasted more than a month before they broke, begging and pleading to be allowed to tell whatever secrets they knew and be afforded a quick death.
"But that is too much," Thor was protesting. "No prisoner has ever been given such a sentence. The Chamber was intended only to be used for interrogation, not imprisonment!"
"What you have seen the Chamber used for, and what it was intended for, are two different things," Odin told him. He was slightly distracted as he did so; from the moment the sentence was spoken Odin kept a careful eye on his younger son, watching for the build-up of power that heralded an attempt at magic. With both voice and hands bound, it would be difficult if not impossible to cast any kind of spell; yet Odin knew better than to underestimate what Loki was capable of. And knowing what fate awaited him, Loki had little left to lose.
But despite Odin's caution, the pronouncement of the sentence had yielded only a few twitches from the dark-haired sorcerer. He seemed thoroughly defeated, resigned to his fate.
All to the better.
"Father, you cannot do this," Thor insisted passionately. "Not to Loki. Whatever he may have done, he is still your son and my brother!"
Odin suppressed a sigh. He had sent his son to Midgard to learn compassion as well as humility, and it was good to see that he had succeeded in that; it was just that right now was an inappropriate place to express it. "Yes, he is my son. And thus his actions reflect upon me, for good or for ill; and thus his punishment is mine to decree. Like it or not, Thor, your brother will serve his sentence."
"I do not object to the course of justice," Thor began. "But when you sent me to Midgard you said nothing of this. You told me to bring him home - you told me that he was mad and ill, and needed help - you never said anything about consigning him to such durance - "
Odin gave a wordless snarl. "And whose fault is it, Thor?" he said direly. "If you had completed your task in good order, instead of floundering about for days on Midgard while Loki worked his wiles, then none of this would have been necessary! But now, between the two of you, you have left me no choice!"
Thor flinched, his broad shoulders drooping in on himself with shame. For just a moment, despite their physical dissimilarities, he and Loki could not have looked more like brothers. A pang of conscience smote Odin's heart, and he gentled his tone.
"My son," he said, lowering his voice once again so that all of Asgard need not be privy to the discussion. "You have much to learn about being king, especially king of such a people as we are. The Aesir are strong-willed, tough, and stubborn; they are long-lived and passionate, and they hold grudges long. In order to make a punishment truly effective, their punishments must be harsh enough to be memorable.
"And above all, a king must be seen to be fair. The Realm must see that their King does not play favorites, but instead dispenses justice even-handedly, even to his own family."
Rather than being quelled, though, Thor was looking up at him with an expression as stormy as his namesake. "But then what about my crimes?" he growled.
Odin blinked. This was a totally unforeseen change of topic. "What crimes?" he said.
"My attack on Jotunheim," Thor said impatiently.
"What about it?" Odin demanded, annoyed by Thor's straying from the point.
"Loki attacked another realm unprovoked, and killed many," Thor said. "This I do not deny. But so did I! And yet you sentenced me only to a few days' banishment, sent me to Midgard where I met with those kind and wise enough to change me, to teach me better ways."
Thor opened his hands wide, tone pleading. "You had mercy and wisdom enough to give me another chance, Father. Can you not take this time to give Loki one, as well?"
Odin shook his head impatiently. What had gotten into the boy today? "Don't be absurd, Thor," he snapped. "The death of a few Jotun warriors is hardly comparable to the havoc Loki wreaked upon the defenseless innocents of Midgard. The situations are in no way comparable."
Thor's expression abruptly fell closed, and he drew his hands back to his body. At the corner of his hearing, Odin could have sworn he heard a quiet snicker - one all too familiar from years of witnessing Loki's steady escalation of pranks. Yet when he looked sharply at his younger son, he didn't seem to have moved, still staring hopelessly at the floor with his shoulders slumped.
Well, there was little enough he could do now, under Odin's eye and with Odin's magic worked into the cuffs that bound him. This interregnum had gone on long enough; already the crowd was beginning to mutter among themselves, impatient at the delay. "The matter has been settled," Odin announced, once more raising his voice. "Take the prisoner Loki to be prepared. The sentence shall be carried out before sunset of this day -"
"Wait, All-Father," Thor said quickly, even as a pair of guards started to move obediently forward in response to Odin's command. "I beg you hear me. There is... one thing more which needs be spoken of in this matter, before all decisions are made. I did not mean to speak of this in public, but... if there is so little time, it must be said and heard before the case is closed."
Of course. Odin controlled his impatience with an effort. Thor was either being unusually obtuse, or unusually sly; if the matter really were so important, he could easily bring it before Odin later. After all, it wasn't as if Loki were going anywhere, or in danger of being executed; they had all the time in the world to discuss the finer details. But by bringing it up before the entire court, Thor had guaranteed himself an audience. "Speak of it, then."
Thor lowered his voice as if to a whisper, but the harsh rumble was still clearly audible in every corner of the hall. "The truth is that Loki's invasion of Midgard was not his own plan, nor his own doing," he said solemnly. "He was coerced. When he fell from the bifrost, he landed among enemies of Midgard, who abused him most cruelly. Only under the most hideous of tortures did he agree to lead the invasion for them -"
His speech was overridden by a smattering of jeers and catcalls from the watching crowd. "And he told you about this?" called out one woman. "You believed him, the known liar? He's just trying to save his skin!"
"That is not so!" Thor said, wheeling about to face the accuser. "Do you think I would take his naked word, alone? I too was skeptical at the beginning. But I have the evidence of Midgard's healers on this, and I know it to be true! Loki would never consent to such an act of senseless brutality, save that he was forced!"
Odin help up a hand for silence. "Thor," he called, drawing the attention both of Thor and his hecklers back to him. Truly Thor had no experience in dealing with crowds, at least not when they could turn ugly. He would have to learn never to be drawn into such pointless debates with strangers in the crowd. "This I know."
"What?" Thor's attention was immediately diverted, shocked out of his stormy anger. "How do you know? How long have you known?"
"The bifrost flies only to the Nine Realms, but Heimdall's sight is longer," Odin explained. "As is the vision of Hlidskjalf. Even the cold world where the Chitauri swarm and breed is not beyond our sight, although it is sadly beyond our reach."
"You saw him?" Thor demanded, outrage beginning to build in him once more. "And yet you did nothing?!"
"There was nothing to be done," Odin told him sharply. "With the Bifrost broken, we could neither rescue him nor send men in his defense."
"With enough dark energy -" Thor started, but Odin cut him off.
"I gathered enough to send one man, Thor, and that could not have been enough," Odin said. "There was no Tesseract in that distant world, no hope of return. I could not have asked any of my warriors to go on such a suicidal mission."
"I would have gone!" Thor protested, eager as ever to leap forward into adventure. He was still so young, young enough to see danger as an adventure, not having experienced enough of life's cold brutalities to learn prudence. "You did not tell me!"
"And that is precisely why!" Odin snapped. "Don't be absurd, Thor; you are a Prince of Asgard, and you would have served no one by haring off on such a hopeless dead-end. You are needed here!"
"Loki needed me there," Thor growled, and Odin held back a sigh.
"Do you think I did not wish him safely home too, my son?" Odin said, his gaze lingering regretfully on Loki; even Thor's impassioned defense did not stir a response from his younger child. "I had every intention of going to his rescue - when the time was right. If Loki had only held out a little longer, another year at most, then I would have had enough dark energy to consider a rescue mission..." He trailed off for a moment, lost in regretful contemplation of that happy scenario, but the bitter truth all too soon drowned those hopeful dreams. "But in the end, his weakness and cowardice overcame him."
"Then we have failed him most grievously," Thor said, his voice a low sonorous rumble. It filled the hall with an uneasy tension, a thundercloud waiting to break. "You cannot - you cannot mean now to compound such a failure by inflicting more torment upon him, for doing only what anyone would do in such a dire pass."
"Thor," Odin said, letting an edge of steel creep into his voice, as razor-cruel as Gungnir's blade. "A true warrior remembers his loyalties no matter what persuasion his enemies applies, or else our army could easily be overcome. That Loki succumbed to the enemy is understandable, yes, but so it is understandable that a young untried soldier might desert his brigade in the heat of battle, overcome by the fear of pain or death. The sentence must be the same, regardless, to convince others not to follow their example. And Loki's punishment will be an example indeed.
"The Nine Realms now face a greater trial than any we have seen in thousands of years," Odin said, thinking forward to Thanos, to the others who waited lurking in the wings. "Asgard will be sorely tried in the days to come. The other realms must know... must be reminded that Asgard's hand is held in protection over them. They must know that we are strong, that we lack not in courage, and that we will be quick to deal justice to those who trespass."
Midgard had grown quickly in the years that his eye had been off it, Odin thought. They had improved vastly in such a short span of time, but the very speed of their improvement had gifted them with an inflated sense of self-importance. They must be reminded of who held the power in this cosmos, and Jotunheim as well.
"It is a lesson you must learn, the sooner the better," Odin finished his lecture. "Being a prince comes with many privileges, but it brings equally heavy burdens, as well."
Odin nodded at the guards, who started forward once again to take Loki by the arms. To his surprise, Thor jerked around and thrust himself between them, physically blocking their path to Loki. "Wait," he said desperately. "Wait."
The guards hesitated, unsure whether or not to start a fight with one prince to apprehend the other. They looked up at Odin for guidance, who set his jaw and gave an irritated sigh of frustration. "My patience wears thin," he warned his son sharply.
Thor ignored him, turning aside from him. "Mother," he said, and the queen stiffened in her throne as his attention landed on her. "Say something. Do something. Loki was always your favorite between us, I know how dear he is to you. Will you allow this travesty to go forward?"
Odin's lips rippled on a silent snarl. Fates curse the boy, this wasn't some household spat where he could set one parent against another for a more favorable outcome! Whatever their private disputes, the royal family must present a united front in public, lest the throne itself crack down the middle.
Frigga's jaw tightened visibly and she glared at Odin, but thankfully she knew her duties as the Queen of Asgard outweighed a mother's attachment to her younger son. He would suffer for this later, but that she would not interfere. "In the sentencing of prisoners, the All-Father's word is law," she said through gritted teeth. "There is nothing more to be said on the matter."
Thor turned towards the edge of the crowd, where his companions stood all in a knot to witness the All-Father's sentencing. "My friends," he appealed to them. "My companions. Loki has been your friend for hundreds of years. We fought together, we traveled together, we dined on his field cooking and sang together around the campfire beneath the star-spangled night sky. Will none of you speak on behalf of Loki?"
They all looked away, shuffling their feet uneasily. "Well - the All-Father knows best, doesn't he?" Fandral let out an uneasy laugh, far more to release tension than out of any real humor. "I'm sure he knows what he's doing. Besides, it's only for a hundred years, right? It's not as though it's anything permanent, right?"
"Evil is repaid with evil," Hogun intoned solemnly. "That is how things should be."
Volstagg was shaking his head mournfully, a frown pulling at the edges of his curly beard. "There was always something wrong with that boy," he said gloomily. "Something not quite right in his head. I always knew that he would go bad someday, but I never would have dreamed he would go this bad."
Sif was the only one with the courage to meet Thor's eyes; her own were blazing with a mix of anger and pity. "I'm sorry, Thor," she said. "After what he tried to do to you - after what he did do to you... you may find it in your heart to forgive him, but I never will."
A huff of breath escaped Thor's chest as though from a blow, and he turned at bay, his eyes roving around the room like a hunted beast seeking some way out of a trap. "Will no one speak for Asgard's second prince?" he appealed the room at large, a hopeless undertone beneath his voice.
The tableau hung, and for a moment Odin was almost curious himself, to wonder who amongst Asgard's nobles would speak if not for fear of attracting the All-Father's displeasure. One by one, heads turned away from Thor's beseeching gaze, and left Thor and Loki standing alone in a wide ring of space before the throne.
"Enough delay," Odin said. "It is time." He motioned to the guards, who at last started forward without hesitation.
Thor's shoulders drooped, and his head hung down. At his side Loki suddenly turned his head, moving for the first time in that audience so that his eyes met Thor's, and Odin heard him speak.
"Well, I did try to tell you, Thor," Loki said, his voice clear and unencumbered through the room, although the muzzle remained firmly in place on his motionless face. Odin frowned and sat up straight, thoughts suddenly racing. If Loki -
All at once Loki vanished, a brief storm of color and lights wreathing in the air where he had stood before dissipating into nothingness. The shackles and the muzzle dropped through the empty air and clattered on the gleaming floor, shockingly loud in the silence.
Odin surged to his feet, his fury propelling him a moment ahead of the still shocked crowd of spectators. "Seal the doors!" he roared, snatching up Gungnir even as he leapt down from the dais. "Alert the gatewatchers! He cannot have teleported far!" It took power to teleport more than a few yards in any direction, Odin knew, and Loki should not have been able to summon that power in the grip of the shackles. There had been no warning of Loki's seidh, none, and Odin had been watching so closely for it. How had Loki managed to slip past him so smoothly?
"Save your breath, All-father," Thor said from behind him. He hadn't moved from his spot since Loki had spoken. "He was never here."
"Never..." Odin breathed, wheeling to face Thor in a storm of shocked outrage. "A simulacrum!"
Of course, that was one of Loki's signature talents - creating magical doubles of himself that were perfect to the original in every detail, which could move and even speak like the Loki himself - as long as they were never touched, for that would dispel the illusion. Odin's thoughts flew back to the beginning of their audience, how Thor had led Loki in without quite touching him, how Loki himself had hardly moved or reacted at all despite all of Thor's histrionics. He recalled Thor's reluctance to remove Loki's gag, for he must have known that doing so would reveal the illusion -
Which meant that Loki had anticipated, as Thor had not, that he would not be permitted to speak in his own defense at his hearing. Loki had seen all this coming, and out-maneuvered him before he'd even begun. And somehow - somehow - he'd conned Thor into going along with it.
"Why?" Odin roared, his hand clenching white-knuckled around Gungnir's haft. The crowd of spectators was only now beginning to react, as it dawned on them that this was no mistake, no trick - or rather, not one of Odin's making. That Odin himself had been thoroughly outmastered. The crowd of spectators broke into shocked whispers, grasping each other's arms and shoulder, hissing into ears. Thor's friends had drawn their weapons and now bristled with uncertain martial fury, uncertain whether they were supposed to be leaping to Thor's defense, or Odin's. Frigga -
Frigga sat on her throne, her eyes going wide and her lips parting; and as understanding broke over her features she smiled, wider than Odin had seen her smile in over a year. In far longer than a year. It was the same smile she'd always shown when Loki had done some particularly clever bit of mischief; she could not laugh outright, for such a display of emotion would be tacit approval to their trickster son - but still, where he could not see her, she smiled.
"Loki and I made a wager," Thor said, his arms crossed tightly across his chest, his hair falling like a blond curtain across his face. "He was - reluctant to return home to Asgard, at first. I assured him that he had been greatly missed here, his death mourned, his absence regretted. I promised him that there were many who remembered him well, who still loved him and would support him in the days to come. He - did not believe me."
Silence had fallen over the throne room, more deathly than the breathless tension that had preceded Odin's sentencing. "And so our wager," Thor continued quietly. "If I could prove to him that there was anyone still left in Asgard who loved him, cared for him and wished him well, then he would return here in truth and submit to his punishment willingly. But if I could not, then I would let him go, and bother him no more."
Betrayal, sedition, and from his own son and heir. Odin breathed in, so incensed that the air felt like fire in his mouth. "And so you let a traitor and a criminal walk free, on the basis of no more than foolish sentiment?" he ground out. "Thor, this is - this is -"
"This is what?" Thor leapt suddenly forward, coming violently out of the closed and defensive posture he'd adopted to stand face-to-face with his father. "Madness? Treason? Will you make me an example that all the Nine Realms can see, then? Will you put me beneath the sea in Loki's place? Will you prove to all who can see that the King of Asgard does not play favorites, and that he will sacrifice even his beloved son to keep order?"
Thor had grown so tall, sometime in the intervening years, that his height matched Odin's own without the boost of the throne beneath him. He stood so close that the scorching heat that rose from their limbs mingled, that he could feel his son's breath and spittle upon his face and count his heartbeats. One, two. Three. Four. Each pulse seemed to stretch like an eternity between them, and still Odin could think of nothing to say.
At last Thor eased back, his breath coming thick and harsh as though on a battlefield. "That is what I thought," he said. He stepped back, and turned away.
No one in the throne room dared meet Thor's eyes now, as his scathing gaze swept upon them. "Speak to me no more, King Odin of Asgard," he said. "For your actions this day have cost me a brother."
He strode from the throne room, and the golden doors slammed heavily behind him.
A tumult of voices broke out behind them, as each member of the court broke into their own speculations and gossip. Odin said nothing, issued no commands, called for no silences, for he was too enmeshed in his own. Gradually, when no more orders or spectacle were forthcoming, the crowd filtered out of the room. Thor's companions had vanished, either to follow him or to seek their own paths Odin did not know. Frigga, too, was nowhere to be seen.
Odin sat on the throne of Asgard in an emptied room, and the silences rang hollow about him.