Loki travelled south.
For days, he went afoot, resting seldom and eating less. He could not, dared not. He must lead his enemies away from his consort and his daughter, away from the command centre and the heart of his work. When he closed his eyes to sleep, he saw his loved ones dragged away, crying and screaming for him, to be imprisoned and tormented. Then he would awaken, his heart pounding and his ears ringing, and resume his journey. He could not let it happen, not again. Not again. Not ever again.
From time to time, he let himself be seen by the humans--or, rather, let an illusion of himself be seen in full regalia, stalking proudly through their midst. It could only be an illusion; he was in rather poor condition before too many days had passed, and the last thing he would do was to show weakness.
The reactions of the witnesses were both predictable and satisfying: terror, fear, apprehension, and the arrival of authority figures who, too late, made play they were trying to capture him. Ah, yes, he still had it. He was to be reckoned with.
But at last, at last, he had laid enough of a false trail that he might turn his eyes to Outpost Four. A week thence, he came a-sauntering down the street in the middle of a small town, using the same image of himself in fine fettle, but nonetheless his own face, form, and native raiment.
The village was neat, projecting order and beauty at once: its snug houses sided in boards painted yellow or white or eggshell, lawns well kept, gardens of flowers and vegetables--a study in scrupulous tidiness and pride in one's home. As it was a brisk and pleasant day, many of the womenfolk who dwelt here were out of doors, sitting on their verandas, kneeling in their gardens, all at work and all quite happy. Children, boys in knee pants and girls in dresses, played in the grass and the road, without fear. There were some few men, not scheduled for duty, doing the heavier work of keeping a home. A church bell rang forth, clear and bright, to mark the hour.
A group of children shouted and abandoned their play, preferring to follow behind him as it were a parade. The men saluted him as he went by. Some of the women curtseyed; others waved. He acknowledged them all with a faint smile and a regal wave.
Loki, under disguise as a land developer, had bought up this village--at quite generous prices--and every last person living in it was now in his employ. It was quite the respectable place, safe and prosperous, and it had already been featured in the news for its excellence. Many, of course, had called it "Stepford", but it was no cheat. He had made careful selection of minions with well-behaved families, and their gratitude for such a fine place to live made them more secure and stable--and more loyal to him.
Here was he building the beginnings of his kingdom on Midgard. All of his work in those remote places, heretofore, had been a sham, a means to keep Sigyn as far from harm as he could do. She had thought him to be building goodwill among the neighbors, but instead, he had been building this. Soon, very soon, he would bring her here that she might take her place as the undisputed queen.
As he passed down the main street, from out of a quaint corner grocery stepped Melvin Jacobs, one of his administrators. Jacobs nearly dropped his parcels and began to salute.
"No mind," Loki said quickly, forestalling the salute; Jacobs looked grateful. "Rather than begin with pleasantries, I must inquire about my family."
"Safe and sound in the ou--downstairs, sir," Jacobs said. "Need a lift? I'm going that way. My shift starts in an hour."
"I'll take it, thank you," Loki said.
Jacobs, thanks to a generous salary, could afford a car worthy of its current passenger. As they bumped along the dirt road leading to the feigned mine shaft, Jacobs updated his liege lord on the current state of operations. "Your family and your dog got here twelve days ago, and I put them in your suite."
"Good." Loki was finding it difficult to stay awake now, between the drone of the car and the fatigue. "To which employee do I owe their safety?"
"Um." Jacobs coughed. "It was a contractor, sir. None of the regulars were close to Montpelier at the time." He wrinkled his nose. "Phew, I think someone hit a skunk. Sorry, sir, we haven't been able to police the wildlife here yet."
But Loki would not be distracted. "A contractor?"
"Um," Jacobs said again, and Loki anticipated his answer.
"You hired Wilson, I gather?" he asked with deceptive mildness.
"He was the only one in the area, sir."
"I hope," Loki said with particular menace, "that there were no incidents."
"She didn't mention any to me, sir."
"And where is Wilson now?"
"He took off; said he'd had to delay another contract to do ours. But Signe--um, Her Ladyship authorized payment and put him back on call. He'll be available for Operation Green Giant when you're ready to put it in motion, sir."
"Sigyn has been at work here?"
"Yes, sir, for a few days. She really improved the place, got some things handled that...well, sir, I was going to have to ask for help, but not now."
"Splendid." Loki smiled to himself--though the image with which he was cloaking himself changed not a whit. Sigyn was ever the faithful, loyal, dependable one, and he was the better for having her. He wanted badly to see her now, very badly.
Jacobs, however, was sniffing the air again. "Good God, did it get up in the undercarriage? Boy..."
Loki sniffed and feigned disgust. While he could feign the appearance of cleanliness, smells were not something he could control--and after weeks of walking about in these clothes, they had become rather ripe.
"Well, should go away about now," Jacobs said cheerfully, pulling up to the mine shaft and gaining entry. "Welcome back to Outpost Four, sir."