Chapter 1: A Kingdom As Great
Karen paused, even as she and Sarah's dad were on their way out the door to her father's all-day conference, to ask her yet another time, "Are you sure you'll be okay, Sarah?"
It was the same question she had asked at least twenty times over the last several days. Sarah assured her that she and Toby would both be fine, repeating her same answer. "I have that art project I want to work on. I'm already set up in the living room, Toby's asleep in the playpen down where I can watch him and he has those toy cars he loves so much. All the windows are open so that paint fumes should be fine. I have the number of the hotel and all the other emergency numbers in my pocket so I can call if anything happens. Me and Toby will both be fine."
"If you're sure…" Karen almost-frowned nervously in that way she did so that she didn't develop lines on her face. Sarah found her stepmother artificial in a way that she could never really like but at the same time Karen was so clearly sincerely trying to be nice. They were both really trying.
It was actually a bit embarrassing how well she got along with her father and stepmother.
Nine months ago now, Sarah had traveled through the Goblin King's Labyrinth and confronted Jareth and her own spoiled desires in order to fix the mistake she had made by wishing her brother away. After that, Sarah had been determined to be calm and mature. And, above all else, careful with her words.
It had worked for about a week.
Her adventures in the Labyrinth had been a learning experience, all right, but they had all happened in a handful of hours. It would take significantly longer, with even more abrasion, for the lessons learned to truly manifest in the real world.
At least she had managed to be withdrawn and moody rather than loud and bratty for the first week. But the following weekend, when she had been asked to baby-sit for an evening again, she, her father, and Karen had gotten into a three-way screaming match after she had flatly refused. At its peak, she had yelled, "What if I mess up again and Toby gets hurt!"
Sarah had again felt that chill terror and gut wrenching guilt that had besieged her when she had raced through the Labyrinth. The stunned expression of her father's and Karen's faces let her know they saw the terror on hers.
She had wondered if they were going to question her about the "again" part of her statement. Instead Karen had given her a hug and just held her while murmuring, "it's okay, it's okay" over and over gain until Sarah had stopped trembling.
There had been obvious silent communication going on over her shoulder between her father and Karen but Sarah had ignored it to just luxuriate in being held for a bit.
That evening's plans had been canceled and they had spent the evening talking about what it meant to be responsible for someone else and making a list of all the things that could go wrong and then what to do in case of each. Sarah had decided not to mention "wished away to the goblins" but had added "kidnapped" to the list.
Her dad and stepmother's weekly evenings out were also canceled for the immediate future, replaced by family evenings playing together with Toby. Her father had also found and registered her for weekend workshops in everything from basic parenting skills to emergency medical response, CPR and CPR for infants.
While Sarah was more than pleased to learn these skills, it was the combination of distraction from her own fantasies and the chaperoned playtime that finally let her relax. It was reassuring to realize that she really didn't hate her little brother or wish he'd go away.
By the time two months had passed from her trip through the Labyrinth, when Karen had carefully asked if Sarah felt up to being responsible for Toby for a few hours, Sarah had been able to say "yes."
And it had been okay.
As the weeks passed, it continued to be okay until she actually enjoyed the evenings she had control of the house and could take care of Toby while hanging out with whatever friends from the Labyrinth were available.
Karen had also apparently decided that all of Sarah's bratty behavior from the preceding two years was due to being scared. She never said so but now always seemed to be trying to make up for disciplining Sarah for her behavior rather than being understanding of it.
Sarah didn't quite have it in her to forsake the moral high-ground offered and admit that only the last fight had been about being scared. Everything before that was just being spoiled and desperately in need of discipline. She had felt powerless, like her words and actions didn't matter and thus neither did controlling them. It had been a shock to discover that they could matter a great deal. But now that she had discovered the necessity of self-control, life had become much more harmonious. Karen and her dad were being extra kind and solicitous to make up for their perceived faults, and Sarah was being careful and courteous to prevent a repeat of her very real previous fault.
So, if Karen was worried this morning about leaving her alone for a whole day, Sarah found herself equally protective of her stepmother's sensibilities and reassured her as many times as necessary. "I'll be fine. Toby will be fine. You guys go and have fun. When you get home tonight, you can admire my art project and move Toby up to your room."
"If you're sure…"
Her dad rolled his eyes and glanced pointedly down at his watch behind his wife's back.
Sarah grinned at him and then spontaneously hugged Karen. "Go, go. You don't want Dad to be late for the first session."
And Karen smiled that pleased, surprised, and wondering smile she had every time Sarah displayed any overt kindness to her.
"Shoo." Sarah waved them out the door.
Then finally she could focus on her art project.
She had been perfectly honest, this time, about wanting to work on her art project. This was going to be a non-Labyrinth day. There was Great Art to create. She had planned out the whole process ahead of time, so with the blank canvas on the easel in front of her, she didn't even hesitate.
First, the clear lavender sky covered the top half of the canvas. It was spread on smoothly and the red-orange sun was added while the lavender was still wet. The edges of the sun smeared into the sky as if it were too bright to look at clearly.
It was a hot place with a beautiful merciless sky with nary a cloud to give shade or shelter.
The sky done, though, the canvas was left to dry.
"Excellent. Now, Toby, we get breakfast." Sarah spoke mostly to herself, as was her habit. It was remarkably nice to have Toby and the house to herself. It made her feel all grown up, in a good way. But it was still pretty quiet and she hummed as she made herself some toast.
The house was hers for nearly fifteen hours before her dad and Karen would return. It was a perfect opportunity to paint the landscape assigned in her art class. It didn't have to be a particular landscape, it could be real or imaginary—she had asked about that—but she had to use at least two materials other than paint to give the painting texture. Mr. Stanley had demonstrated by painting a tree and then pressing bits of real bark into the paint while it was still wet and could act like glue as it dried. Sarah had spent the days since the assignment was given planning exactly how to create the image she wanted.
The image itself was hardly a decision at all. She had thought briefly of trying to show the Labyrinth, but that was too foreign and complex for her to really get right. Instead, she was going to paint a land she had never actually been to but which she dreamed of sometimes.
With the sky finished, she mixed the paint to make up the soil. It was very rich soil, a dark brown, almost black, but with silver glitter mixed in, creating texture along with glints of reflective light. Careful to get the exact right color, she fell into the same daydream that had consumed her for months now.
Aside from the restructuring of her relationship with her dad and stepmother, most of her friends, classmates, and teachers didn't seem to notice anything much different about her. She still daydreamed and was still decided in her opinions. It was from the inside that everything was different.
She still daydreamed, but her daydreams were less about her own grand adventures and somehow more about the kingdom to the west of the Labyrinth. She had not even glimpsed it in her previous travels, hadn't heard even a whisper of its existence until after she had won her escape. But Hoggle had mentioned going for day trips to the Land of the Near Endless Plains to the west for some soil for his more fragile flower gardens. Others went there in the early spring to sift the soil for silver.
It was a kingdom with no king and no population but rich soil and a sea of near endless grass plains, with a single high point of red rock jutting up, with a carved spiral staircase going down up it and a carved throne waiting at the very top.
She had never been there, had never even heard a particularly good description of it, but she felt like she knew it by heart. There were no characters, no happenings, and their absence created an aching void where the plot could be, but the land itself was vivid in her mind. She knew that there were tunnels dug underneath the ground. They created a complex filigree of paths, only touching the surface here and there for light. It was not a maze, for there were no dead ends and no traps, just a latticework of paths going everywhere and nowhere.
A stranger would be lost and found, both. Always in the tunnels, always able to reach the surface at need, and yet, never knowing quite where they were within the tunnels or even on the surface, as both spread out near endlessly in all directions.
Sarah was not a stranger, though, and knew those tunnels better than the back of her hand. She was carefully mapping their path on the canvas, when she heard footsteps on the stairs.
Footsteps not in her imagination: in her house.
She whirled around and then just stared.
It took a moment for Sarah to believe her eyes. This might have had to do with the fact that the Goblin King was walking down the staircase in her house. He was just as wildly beautifully improbable as ever. His hair a wild conflagration, his skin a warm ivory, and magic flickering around him like sparks from a fire. Alternately, her surprise might have had to do with the fact that the goblin king, in all his ornate black and silver garb with small goblins peaking out from beneath the cape, was carrying an infant wrapped in a pink shawl tucked in the crook of one arm. After the moment of shocked disbelief had passed, she decided it was best to deal with the situation immediately and try to figure it out later.
A quick glance reassured her that Toby was still safe in his playpen. With that worry aside, she moved to stand between Toby and Jareth, scowling at the later. "What are you doing here? I thought I'd seen the last of you."
"I see your manners haven't improved any." Jareth continued his saunter down the stairs. He was smirking. "And whatever made you think you wouldn't see me again?"
"How about the fact that I got through your little labyrinth and said the right words to get Toby back? That pretty much told me that you were going to go away." Jareth scowled and Sarah actually found herself smirking. It was like a weird seesaw, she thought: if they were in the same room, one of them would be scowling and the other smirking.
"You ran my Labyrinth, but your words were anything but 'right.' You don't even know what you did, do you? We stood at the heart of the Labyrinth, at the seat of my power, and I offered you everything I was in exchange for everything you were."
"And I turned you down."
"No. You. Did. Not." The lines and planes on his face stood out harsh and eerie, even more inhumanly sharp than usual. "You didn't answer my question. Instead, in a land where words have power, you made yourself my equal in rank and equal in will. I offered you the position of my mistress and you made yourself my queen-elect."
Sarah blinked uncertainly. "Oh."
"Well, now you can do your part and help out. Here." And the baby was pushed into her arms. "Take care of him for a few hours."
"Er. Aren't you supposed to be trying to take babies away rather than leave them behind?"
"How good of you to notice. But you're already babysitting so I might as well use you since I'm rather busy at the moment. Just keep track of him for the next thirteen hours and go back to doing whatever it is that you were doing like a good girl." And he was walking away.
"Hold it right there, buster!" Sarah was back to scowling and, sure enough, when Jareth turned back with an inquiring look he was wearing a smirk. "Let's go back to the queen-elect bit. What exactly does that mean? And what do you mean that I didn't answer the question. And just what is going on?"
Jareth gave a long-suffering sigh and looked like he would have rolled his eyes if such an action weren't beneath him. "I did mention that I'm busy, didn't I? But just for you," he raised a hand and a twist of the wrist a crystal appeared. "It will show you… events. If you dare." Still smirking, he tossed it to her.
Holding a strange baby in one arm, a wet paintbrush clutched in the other hand, and watching a crystal of dubious safety coming towards her, Sarah stepped to the side to avoid it. Then she remembered that Toby was behind her. Whirling around woke the baby in her arms who started crying, which only momentarily distracted Toby from the crystal he had caught and was now happily enthralled with. Sarah fought the urge to scream.
"Never again. I'm just not made for babysitting. I'm cursed or something." She cast a quite glare at where Jareth had been but he had already vanished without a trace.
"As soon as Dad and Karen come home, I'll tell them that's it. No more babysitting for me." She set the paintbrush down on a piece of loose newspaper and set the wailing baby down on a cushion in the playpen.
"I'll get a job, I'll pay for a different babysitter. But not me. No. But right now, I need to get through this. Okay. Deep breath and get to it."
Getting the crystal away from Toby was less than pleasant but luckily the crystal was too large for him to really grasp and slippery. Although dealing with two crying babies was enough to make her swear off kids forever. Then she unwrapped the new baby and discovered that she not only didn't know his name, but also didn't know his species.
"Okay," she kept up her running monologue. "Lets see what you are. Mostly human. Sort of. At least I hope you eat human foods cause that's what I'm serving for lunch."
He did seem to be mostly human. His eyes were mismatched, much like Jareth's, and his hands and feet made her wonder what Jareth's looked like without gloves and boots. The baby's hands and feet were a bit avian, which were remarkably cute with their small, soft claws. She stroked one foot gently and it curled around her finger in a light fist. "You really are quite cute, aren't you, chickadee. Hmm. And what are these?"
There were faint markings on his face and back. At first glance they looked like either dirt or bruises but a closer inspection and a quick rub with a damp swab seemed to show as birthmarks. In patterns, in colors like green and purple.
"Okay, not really all that human." At least a pacifier kept him silent.
Left to his own devises Toby had also stopped crying and started playing with his toy cars again.
Sarah sat back on her heals, and took careful stock of the situation. Jareth was nowhere in sight. Toby looked fine, if a bit disgruntled. Baby Chickadee seemed fine. The crystal was where she could see it but the kids couldn't reach it. And her paint was drying. "Damn it."
"Okay, first thing first," she told herself and got up. "The painting first, then figure out the crystal. Then consider lunch. Okay. I can do this."
She did, although it was harder to get lost in the work. She wanted to get the tunnels just right, and she had already started, but she now wished that she had changed the perspective on the picture. She was looking at the Land of Near Endless Plains from the east, looking west. It meant that the Labyrinth with its cool gray walls were behind her, unseen but very much a presence. It would be easy enough to change it, add a grey line against the horizon, and make up some different pattern of tunnels in order to make the imagine appear to look east. But it would have felt fake and she wanted this to be just right.
She decided to ignore the increasing likelihood that she was going insane. Really on the scale of insanity, an obsession with a fantasy world was much better than seeing people who weren't there, and she'd been hiding the fact that she saw goblins for months. Instead she focused on getting the pattern of tunnels just right, with the glittery paint tracing the tunnels, smaller and smaller as they went back towards the horizon, and a more matt paint for the spaces of solid ground.
When it was finished, she was quite pleased. It was a perfect map, as if someone had somehow removed the first five feet of ground across the entire land.
It was lovely enough that she almost thought of just leaving it like that. Consider it finished. Half of the canvas bright as light; the other half dark as night. Of course her teacher probably wouldn't even recognize it as a landscape. Plus, she had the rest of the day and a double handful of gold beads yet to use.
In the mean time, this layer had to dry and she had two kids and a crystal to deal with.
And possibly a Goblin King, too, with his rather unnerving statements.
Lying down on the floor, she spoke to the ceiling, "Okay, Sarah, you are sure in a mess now."
For a long, long moment she just lay.
But she was young and energetic and she could deal with anything, even goblin kings. She levered herself up and grabbed the crystal. Nothing happened when she touched it, which she took to be a good sign. A careful inspection revealed nothing particular, it looked and felt like a clear crystal ball.
"It will show you events," Jareth had said. Events. So.
Sarah considered her options, then finally shrugged. Nothing risked, nothing gained. She spoke aloud in a clear command, "Show me the most recent wish that gave a baby to the goblins."
An image came from the depths of the crystal, as if somehow the crystal were very deep inside. The image pulled at her eyes, pulled at her mind until she had to struggle to remain in her living room rather than fall into the lavish throne room before her. Never looking away from the image in the crystal in her right hand, she reached out with her left hand and grasped the leg of her easel. The edges of the square post cut into her hand, but it helped her.
In the throne room, there were dozens of people in elaborate dress lining the walls, but they were easily ignored. It was the three main characters, the queen on her silver throne, and the two warriors, a man and a woman, before her. They were beautiful enough to make Sarah's heart ache. They were perfection and Sarah was glad that they couldn't see her. Even the thought of being in their presence made her feel ugly in comparison. It took an effort of will to continue even to watch.
The lady held in her arms an infant wrapped in a delicate pink shawl that Sarah recognized. They were all beautiful as graven images of angels. Beautiful and untouchable. Looking at them, she realized that these were the fae of the old tales, not fairy, but faerie. Beautiful and merciless.
The man spoke with utter dispassion, "My queen, I come before you with my wife and the child of my wife to request an annulment of my marriage. Upon the escape of our regiment from the Goblin King's masquerade trap, my lover Roselyn was discovered to be with child. We married and celebrated the thought of a child. Now, I discover the child has the Goblin King's eyes."
Looking at them all, all three with their serene faces, aloof and emotionless, Sarah wondered if she was the only one here shocked by the revelation.
"Indeed, show me the child."
The child was displayed to the queen who merely glanced at it before looking away.
"Very well. I hereby annul this marriage and the first child of Roselyn is declared no subject of faerie. Lady Roselyn's punishment for the crime of introducing a cross-species child into the fae court is pardoned due to her past service as a warrior in my guard. This is my decision and it is final."
"Thank you, my queen." The man bowed and then backed away until he disappeared into the crowded audience.
"Thank you, my queen." The woman sunk into a curtsey but the queen put out a hand to stop her retreat.
"What will you do with the child?"
The queen spoke calmly but finally a hint of emotion crept into the mother's face. Then like the first crack in a dam, rage burst out. "What will I do? I will return it!" The baby was practically dropped on the floor and the mother stepped back. "I wish the Goblin King would take this child away!"
And the room fell into dead silence. Sarah hadn't even realized that soft music and low conversations had been creating background noise until it all suddenly stopped. Even the queen looked horrified.
And then there was Jareth.
He looked magnificent. The others might be beautiful, but they were as untouchable as the stars. In comparison Jareth was vibrant and flamboyant in his flaws. He put all of their perfection to shame. Plus, she felt a hint of malicious delight; the sparks he was giving off were leaving small singed marks on the clothes of those nearest to him.
Surprisingly, he wasn't smirking. Instead he looked honestly surprised. "You give me a fae child?" The question was nearly incredulous.
"Fae? Do you call that thing fae?" The woman pointed a sharp finger at the infant. "You had no right to leave me with your child."
A snap of teeth was the first hint that the Goblin King had not come unescorted. Suddenly the fae woman, and Sarah looking on, noticed the half dozen small goblins crowded around their king, little more than bits of fur with eyes and teeth.
The woman quickly retracted her hand. Jareth ignored the interaction in order to crouch down and lift the infant up into his arms. The child cooed at him.
"I had the right to do whatever I wanted. Your battalion invaded my land, intent on my death. I captured you. You were mine to do with as I wished. Trapping you for a few centuries in a masquerade was lenient. If you were with child, that's your doing, not mine."
"It's your doing, if it's your child!"
Jareth laughed in her face. "You think this child is mine? Did you get so lost in the masquerade that you didn't know your own lovers?"
Roselyn flushed. "I had thought I did, but you are a master of illusion and the child has your eyes."
Jareth laughed again, more than a little mocking. "We share the same eyes certainly. For he is a child conceived in place rife with wild magic. He is filled to overflowing with it, but he is fae, it will drain from him eventually. It takes more than that for any permanent change."
"It's temporary?" The woman's voice quavered in relief.
The queen finally spoke, "He's pure fae?"
And the man who had abandoned them stepped forward again, "He's my son?"
Sarah snorted in contempt at the man. Jareth seemed to feel the same way but he ignored the man and turned a rather amused look towards Sarah herself.
She felt her eyes widen, and she gripped the easel leg all the harder. She wasn't even there and it was in the past. On the other hand, Jareth had an admitted ability to manipulate time and she was watching with his crystal. The mind boggled at the possibilities, but Sarah decided that one thing was clear: there would be no spying on Jareth using this method.
"He's my son!" The man repeated and actually seemed ready to take the child from Jareth's arms despite the goblins growling at him.
"He was your son, certainly." Jareth smiled cruelly. "But you gave him up. You cut yourself of from him and his mother. And his mother, with sole guardianship, wished him away not ten minutes ago."
The man jerked back as if slapped.
"Lady Roselyn," Jareth continued, "you should know the rules. You, and you alone, have thirteen hours to find the babe at the heart of the Labyrinth. After that, he'll stay there. Forever."
Jareth laughed. Even as he faded out, the babe still tucked into the crook of his arm, his laughter stayed to echo faintly behind him.
The last image of the throne room became more distant, swirling like smoke in the crystal, and finally left the crystal clear as glass.
"Well, that was interesting," Sarah spoke into the silent house. Then she began uncurling her hand from the easel leg. "And, ouch."
Her poor hand was quite cramped and she rubbed it as she thought. She really wanted to see how Roselyn was coming on running through the Labyrinth, but was distinctly disinclined to use the crystal again. She supposed it was just like Jareth to make such a useful tool a trap for her. Nothing is quite what it seems after all.
She snorted to herself. A cliché. She might as well say there's no such thing as a free lunch. Which there really wasn't because now she was going to have to make up a lunch for herself, for Toby, and possibly for Chickadee, whose name she still didn't know. And calling him Roselyn's Baby would be a bit too ominous.
"Okay, Toby, what would you like for lunch? I'm thinking grilled cheese sandwiches what do you think? With applesauce on the side, I think. Surely a fae baby can eat applesauce."
"Applesauce is fine." Jareth said directly behind her.
"Aargh!" Sarah shrieked.
Toby clapped at the entertainment, and Chickadee's gurgle was probably a laugh, too.
"Why are you sneaking up on me?" The glare/smirk ratio, she noticed, was still one-to-one.
"I'm just checking up on the babe. The last time I saw you babysitting, you didn't do so well, after all. Wound up wishing the child away. Tsk, tsk."
Sarah gritted her teeth. "If you don't trust me, then you shouldn't have given me the baby. And for that matter, what is the baby's name?"
"I have no idea what the baby used to be called, what are you calling him?"
"You don't know the name of the baby you took?"
"Why should I?"
Sarah thought about arguing the point, then decided it just wasn't worth it. "Chickadee. I've been calling him Chickadee."
"Chickadee. Hmm. It's got a certain rhythm to it. And what did you learn from your little observation of his parents?"
Sarah was beginning to wonder if Jareth was bipolar or had ADD or something, maybe multiple personalities. That would be just her luck, stalked by a powerful fae king who alternated between teasing her and trying to trap her in eternal subjugation.
"I learned that most fae have about as much emotion as a statue."
"And about as much common sense, too. As if I would let a goblin child go to a fae court."
"Um." Sarah said. "Aren't you, well, aren't you fae, yourself?"
"I? My dear girl, have you lost what few wit you might once have had? Does the fact that I'm the GOBLIN king not tell you anything?"
Sarah glanced around at the little goblins exploring the living room and glared at one that seemed intent on riffling through her paint box. It seemed to understand the threat and scampered back to hide in a fold of Jareth's cape. "But you can't be a goblin! You're nothing like the goblins!" Plus, it was just too creepy to contemplate, given her secret pleasure in ogling him.
Jareth looked every bit as taken aback as she was, though. "Of course I'm not like the lesser goblins. If I were, they wouldn't surround me so. As king, I'm stronger than most and my court is large with even the greater goblins attending me once in a while."
"Okay, that made absolutely no sense to me. Lesser goblins? Greater goblins? And don't they follow you around because you're king?"
Jareth looked at her as bemused as she was surely looking at him. "I'm king because they follow me. Not the reverse."
"Okay," Sarah said, and thought, this day just gets weirder and weirder. "Okay, I'm going to make lunch, if you explain to me what exactly the differences between the fae, the greater goblins, and the lesser goblins, then I'll make you a grilled cheese sandwich, too."
Jareth looked bemused. "Very well."
Then there was a bit of jostling around as they both wanted to keep an eye on Toby. Unfortunately, Sarah had to look through the fridge and then face the stove, so couldn't see the living room, and Toby in the kitchen made a beeline for Jareth with arms raised to be lifted. She decided that having Jareth hold Toby was probably the lesser of evils when compared to not being able to see her brother at all or what the other goblins were doing with him.
Jareth smirked, of course. Sarah scowled, of course. Chickadee was cooed over by a whole set of the little goblins that Sarah now guessed were lesser goblins.
She got bread, butter, cheese, a tomato, and, after a moment's reflection, some bacon out of the fridge while listening to Toby chattering happily away to Jareth. She had started heating up the frying pan when she finally asked, "Well, the explanation?"
"The fae have static magic. Their magic is all crystallized, stagnant, and disconnected from the world around them. They are what they are, and they don't change. It's quite easy to trap them, for instance because their magic always stays the same. Goblins, on the other hand, are wild magic. And wild magic changes from day to day."
"Okay, that makes sense. You were certainly a lot more appealing than any of them." She spoke without really thinking, which really, she told herself, she should have learned better by now. Especially when dealing with Jareth. She could practically feel the smugness radiating off of the Goblin King behind her back. She focused on frying the bacon.
Jareth laughed behind her, but then continued. "Goblins come in all shapes, sizes, and abilities, as your trip through the Labyrinth should have shown you."
"But there are really three types of goblins: lesser goblins, goblins, and great goblins. Regular goblins have a certain amount of magic, and use it to live their lives. Their magic might fluctuate from day to day, a little more now, a little less then. Never so little they die, never so much they accomplish anything much. Lesser goblins have so little magic that sometimes they just dissipate. Vanish like a puff of smoke in the breeze."
"Mm." Sarah removed the bacon and started on the sandwiches. "And greater goblins?"
"We are the opposite of lesser goblins. We have an excess of power. We can actually perform magic rather than just live it, and we can support some lesser goblins."
"So you're supporting all of those goblins that are currently peering into my trash can."
"These certainly, but I am not just a greater goblin, I am Goblin King. I support everyone in the Labyrinth. And the Labyrinth itself to a certain extent."
"Oh." Sarah carefully removed Toby's sandwich from the grill, removed the crust, and cut the remaining into quarters along the diagonal. Finally she turned around to really look at Jareth. He was back to playing with Toby, tossing him in the air and catching him, but she got the distinct impression that he was also watching her out of the corner of his eye. She wondered why he was telling her all of this, even though she knew the answer, because she hoped for a different answer. Maybe. Did she want him to be talking to her, in her kitchen while she cooked, because she was his queen-elect?
She turned back to work on Jareth's sandwich and her own just in time to smack a lesser goblin with the spatula to keep it away from the bacon. "If goblins and fae magic are so different, then how can you turn a fae child into a goblin?"
"Wild magic is infectious. Thirteen hours as the focus of wild magic and a child will be tainted. And once wild magic is there, it grows."
Jareth got the next two sandwiches. He wolfed them down, but disappeared when her back was turned making another sandwich. She ate her own sandwich while Toby finished up his.
Afterward they went outside in the yard for Toby to play while Sarah spoon-fed Chickadee applesauce.
They were still there when Jareth appeared again an hour later, a warm presence like a fire against her back.
"Shouldn't you be painting?"
"What do you care?"
She could hear the fabric of his cape shift as he shrugged. "I wouldn't want your painting to be delayed merely for Chickadee's sake."
She snorted in disbelief then wondered whether it was becoming a habit to snort and, if so, reminded herself to stop it. "I have plenty of time. I have another, um, eight hours."
"No, you have another seven hours before the babe's time is up, and I expect his mother will get here sooner. Probably by several hours."
Sarah finally turned to him in order to properly stare in disbelief. "She's what? Why is she coming here? No, forget I asked that question, why is Chickadee really here?" Jareth opened his mouth to answer but Sarah interrupted him before he could even begin. "And don't say because I was already babysitting."
Jareth looked down his nose at her, as if he would never dream of using such an excuse. "Where else would I take him?"
"How about the heart of the Labyrinth? Which is, I might remind you, where you told Roselyn you were putting him."
"Indeed, the Heart of the Labyrinth. It is where I put him. Not, you might note, the center of the Labyrinth."
Sarah could feel herself pale. "The heart."
"You knew I was in love with you. You had known all along. You told Toby about it before you wished him away, remember?" His voice was vicious.
"I, I knew, yes, but I didn't really think about it. I mean, I don't exactly have a lot of experience with love."
"No, not a lot of experience with love, but apparently a talent for using it to manipulate and get what you want." He castigated her.
Sarah bit back her immediate response to that, and took a deep breath. "Yes, well, I've had a few more examples with that than I'd like, and you're no exception. You gave me what I asked for only when it would get you what you wanted. And now, if I don't have time, then yes, I do need to get back to painting."
She called Toby to her, carried him into the house, plopped him and Chickadee into the playpen ignoring his complaints, and stared at her canvas. It was time for the distant grass. It was a golden brown, the paint easily mixed and a certain amount of gold glitter added in order to save time applying it after the fact. Even without adding the glitter separately, she had still intended to spend hours on the grass. Each strand had to be painted individually, layering them over each other, as a thick sea of grass hiding the dark ground.
She ignored Jareth standing behind her although she could sense he was still there. She didn't even flinch when he spoke, although he did so with a tone that she didn't quite recognize. "Indeed. I tried to manipulate you and it failed. But do you know how it failed?"
Painting the grass over the map she had made of the tunnels, she was careful to avoid putting grass on the spots where the tunnels opened up to the surface. In the finished product, it would be create texture in the sea of grass and perhaps a hint of the mysteries lying below.
"Because my will is as strong as yours."
"Your will is as strong as mine, yes, yes, you said as much. And your kingdom is as great, and maybe that wasn't true but it was possible. It could be made true. But, in the center of my power, in a land where words are power and what's said is said, do you recall what you did then?"
"I said, "you have no power over me." I beat you and won Toby back."
Sarah winced, but at least her brush stroke didn't falter. She knew that there was power and then there was power and even at the time it had seemed a piece of pure bravado to say he didn't have power over her. It's why she always had trouble remembering that line. It was so blatantly false.
"Magic is based on words and those words shape reality. What's said is said. And then you lied. You spoke a lie so paradoxical that my own castle tore itself to pieces trying to make it true."
Jareth paced back and forth behind her, his cape swirling in the corner of her eye at each turn-around. "I have power over you and I had it then, too. I could have used that power and changed you into something different; something no longer effected by me. But that would have just demonstrated the power that I held. So for a paradox my kingdom shattered for that brief minute and you managed to slip out through the cracks before it could settle back again."
"Ah." Sarah thought about it but then shrugged. "That means I won. I mean, I got Toby and I got out. So it's over."
Jareth snorted. "You got the prize, you got out, but you did not win. That particular race is over, but we are most certainly still in competition."
"But I got Toby back." She was perilously close to wailing.
"But you lied about my lack of power." He responded with a mocking wail of his own, "the game isn't the same thing as the prize. You should have either broken out or broken down."
"As my grandmother used to say, "should" bakes no bread."
"Listen to me, little girl: You fed your blood to a creature of my land, you ate fruit from my land, you dreamt the dream that I sent you and you dreamt it of me. You gave me so much power, you should have been my willing slave."
"Then why aren't I?" She snarked, although she did seriously want to know the answer.
"Because every single time you gave me power," Jareth growled, "you became that much stronger. You should have outgrown me. Before you, two kinds of people ran the Labyrinth. Those who grew themselves beyond my power, who grew so that they could no longer slip so entirely into dreams and thus could not be held within them. And those who dissolved completely into my world and never remembered how to leave again. That's how the game works. That's how its won or lost."
Sarah considered this. She had gotten out of the Labyrinth just fine, thank you very much, but she still had friends there and, had she dared to risk it, rather thought she was perfectly capable of returning. Anyway, "which of those counts as winning?"
"What?" Jareth actually looked taken aback.
"They both sound like losing to me. Either I can't get into my dreams or I can't get out again."
"I win by trapping you in the Labyrinth. You win by escaping it."
"But I did escape it."
"No, because I can still get to you. Every time you started to separate yourself from the Underground, you did something or another to give me more power to tie you back. Look at your Kingdom, Sarah!" He waved at her painting. "You made us equals, Sarah. I didn't even need to tie you back that last time, I just watched as the Near Endless Plains spread out from my western border."
"Then we're at a stalemate. The game is still over."
"I'm a creature of wild magic, Sarah, and you are my equal. And there can be nothing stale about wild magic. You may have made us equals, but the proof of our equality is in the struggle."
"Tell me this, is Toby safe?"
"Toby is safe from me as long as no one wishes him away again. Although he's a good lad and I'd take him in a second if he becomes available again."
"You can choose?"
"Of course." Jareth smiled a surprisingly sweet smile. Then he crouched in a pool of silk and feathers at the edge of the playpen to talk to Toby while ignoring her completely.
It gave her the opportunity to continue working on her painting without distraction and she finally got the distant grass done. Then, of course, she needed to work on the stone monolith at the center of the land, a spiral staircase wending its way up to an elaborately carved throne. It created a solid vertical stripe, almost but not quite piercing the sun above.
The colors of the stone were more subtle than any other part of the land. The stone was red, not as bright as the sun nor as dark as the ground, and textured with a bit of fine sand, more rough than the dirt but finer than the grain. It was quite hard to achieve and she had to add a bit of glue into the paint and then paint the bulk of it really fast. It would be worth it, though. She wanted it perfect. It was the one part of the entire painting that gave a sense of scale to the land. In the vastness of the land, the monolith was a detail.
With Jareth singing quietly in the background and Toby trying to sing along, Sarah focused on the throne. She didn't even notice that she was humming.
First, each step of the spiral staircase was lit and shadowed properly, but even after completing that she continued adding shadows. Her first conception of the throne itself had been a rough chair shape, but now she added more detail with carved animals and plants covering it.
After she'd covered the entire throne, even using her smallest brush, she started working her way down the tower. She was a third of the way down the tower, adding little swirls and decorative images when she realized how much time she was taking. Hours had passed.
And yet, Jareth was still there, playing with Toby on the floor.
For a moment she wondered if this was what it was like to have a boyfriend. From some of her friends experience, the answer was no. No boyfriend was this accommodating to babysitting. Jareth appeared to genuinely enjoy it.
She paused just to watch. She wasn't sure how long she'd been watching before Jareth turned and caught her at it. Deciding that the best defense was a good offense, Sarah attacked. "Shouldn't you in the Labyrinth right now, dealing with Roselyn rather than hanging out here?"
Jareth raised an eyebrow and looked amused. "She's in the forest. She'll probably make it into town in about an hour as long as she doesn't trip any of the traps laid out for her. And I have no particular interest in flirting with her." He smiled at Sarah a bit too avidly.
Sarah shivered. "How do you know she's in the forest? You've been gone for hours. She could have gotten through already."
"It's my Labyrinth. As long as she's in it, I can track her."
"You can sense anyone in the Labyrinth?"
"Of course. I am the Goblin King and my magic supports the Labyrinth. Part of me extends through the Labyrinth. You, for instance, were somewhat tricky to pinpoint, but you felt good. Like a caress against that part of me. It was… pleasant."
The Goblin King seemed almost calmed by the thought. He was like a jungle cat, wild and vicious, that still liked being scratched behind the ears, but was not by that tamed. No, never tamed as suddenly he rose up from the floor to tower over her and snarled, "but do not go around kissing my people!"
Sarah blinked. It was a blink, she told herself, not a flinch. But she did accept that it had taken an effort of will to not step back. She had not stepped back and she swore to herself that she never would. Her voice did not even shake when she looked him directly in the eye and asked, "Why not?"
The barely restrained violence was in his voice when he answered, "Because I offered you everything I was and everything I had for you love and you ignored the offer. Do not go offering your love to some lesser image or minor part of me. You will take everything or nothing."
Sarah pressed her lips together in displeasure and glared. Before she let fly with a torrent of anger another thought stopped her cold. Her face relaxed and her eyes widened with dismay. "Is Hoggle a lesser goblin? Does he depend on your support?"
Sarah could hear the pain in her own voice at the thought and wondered if the Goblin King could, too. He probably could, because he didn't taunt her. "No. He is self-sustaining. In fact, he lived the majority of his life much further away. Only after his wife and children were eaten by a dragon did he come to my castle looking for a position."
Sarah stared. "His wife and children?"
Jareth merely raised an eyebrow at her.
"I didn't know he had been married or had had children. He never told me."
Jareth shrugged. "He doesn't like to talk about it."
"Why did you tell me this?"
"Why should I not?"
Sarah stomped one foot and felt like nothing more than a five-year-old trying to get an adult to understand. It was not a feeling she liked, feeling small and silly and immature despite being certain of her own position as right. "Because you should respect his wishes on the matter!"
Jareth looked honestly startled. "You jest?"
Sarah rubbed the bridge of her nose. One of her teachers did that when he was particularly frustrated and it seemed an elegant and speaking gesture. She rather thought she would try to acquire the habit. With Jareth around she would no doubt have the opportunity to practice. A lot.
When she looked at him again it was as if she saw him for the first time. She looked at him and saw not a character from a story or an opponent to be defeated, she saw a creature of wild magic who was not and never would be human.
"Dinner." She decided it was definitely time to think of something else. "It's dinner time."
He smirked. Apparently he knew, or could guess, that she was studiously avoiding saying anything before thinking it through. She thought about scowling in response but decided that it was a stupid seesaw and she wanted off. So Jareth didn't exactly follow human social mores; that should not have surprised her. The fact that he didn't even realize what some of those social mores were, that she might admit to being surprised by. At least admit to herself.
"Dinner is chicken soup. It's already made, so I hope those chickens in your castle mean that you eat them rather than just keep them for pets."
"And what makes you think I wouldn't eat my pets?" Jareth smiled with sharp teeth, and Sarah rolled her eyes.
It wound up being a remarkably nice dinner, just as it had been a remarkably nice afternoon. Sarah wondered how she had gone from thinking of Jareth as The Bad Guy to thinking of him as an opponent. However it had happened, she did think of him that way now. Their one competition was over, another would probably begin soon, but for now, he was competing with someone else. It was pleasant having a truce between them.
Afterward she started working on the grass in the foreground. Even though it was taller than most people, the grass barely covered any of the monolith. The tops of the grain brushed only the seventh step, leaving the majority to rise above.
Most of the dark soil was covered with grass, the tunnels only visible along the bottom few inches of the canvas when a wind swept through the house and Jareth abruptly stood up.
"Roselyn is scrying for you. She made it to the castle and has discovered that the heart is elsewhere. She'll be here soon."
"Can she find us?" Sarah could hear a tremble in her own voice. She clenched her fists and raised her chin. She was not going to be scared.
"Well, she can find you." Jareth smirked. Then he put Toby back in the playpen next to the sleeping Chickadee and walked away.
"Wait one minute! You're just going to leave?" She glared and wished that looks could kill because then Jareth would be dead, dead, dead. "After leading her here, you're going to leave."
"Why not?" He seemed amused.
Sarah carefully took a deep breath because she absolutely refused to even think that she needed someone else to protect her, much less Jareth. Nor would she admit that Jareth's abandonment hurt. She had had a good afternoon, she had enjoyed talking with him over meals, she had enjoyed listening to him sing all afternoon.
Maybe he saw something in her face that she wouldn't admit to because for the first time he actually looked serious.
He walked back to her and carefully cupped her cheek with one hand, moving slowly so that she could have stepped back if she had chosen to. "Remember, your Kingdom is as great as mine."
Then he kissed her once, lightly, on the lips, and when she blinked he was gone.
She could still feel his gloved hand on her cheek.
Jareth was gone, Roselyn was coming, and she was sick and tired of her painting.
"My kingdom as great. Yeah right." She muttered to herself. "My kingdom of daydreams and paint. Fah."
Just to get it finished, she got out the gold beads that she had long planned to use as the finishing touch and started sticking them to the top of the grass in the foreground, giving each a line of golden seeds.
For good measure, she scattered a few on the visible ground at the base of the canvas, since she had given up on covering that part in grass. Maybe this was where someone from other kingdom came to try to harvest the gold. Who knew? Who cared?
"It's done. I say so, so it must be so." Sarah declared. "You want to see it, Toby?"
"See it?" Toby wanted to know.
"Sure thing, Tobes."
She picked up Toby against one hip. Then on impulse she scooped Chickadee up in the other arm so that he could see it too. At least he could see this before his mother came and took him back to that darned cold emotionless court that had rejected him.
Toby "ooh"ed and "ah"ed and said it was great. She looked at it and felt better. It was okay. But more than that, it was outside of her head. The land that had been her focus for so long in her head was suddenly physically manifested, even if it was only a picture. She felt comfortable with that.
The sky was light and bright and deep as eternity. The sun was red and hot. The grass of gold, as high as a grown man's head, seemed to wave in a breeze. The golden seeds chimed as they hit each other, a constant song playing in the background. And the single spar of red stone standing straight, overlooking it all.
"Your kingdom as great." Sarah could hear Jareth as if he whispered in her ear. "But what of your will?"
"My Will is as Strong as Yours," she said, "and my Kingdom as Great."
As she spoke, her kingdom filled her whole vision, it was like falling into one of Jareth's crystals except rather than a trap, this was coming home. And suddenly she was there. She, Toby, and Chickadee all perched on her throne, overseeing her land, facing the wall of grey Labyrinth wall far off in the distance.
"Wow. Sarah. This your place?"
"Yes, Toby. This is my place. My kingdom. Do you want to go explore?" Because Sarah knew this land, knew it better than anything else, and knew that she would always be able to find her brother, as long as he was in her land.
"Yeah. First, though, we should get down from here so you can run through the grass."
Getting down turned out to actually be something of a pain. The spiral staircase came right to her feet when she was sitting on the throne, so that was easy enough, but it never got very wide and was quite steep. And her arms started to hurt from holding both children for so long. Once they were finally down, she was glad enough to set Toby down to run off and play while sitting down herself on the bottom steps and holding Chickadee in her lap.
This was her kingdom. It extended from the Labyrinth to the horizon, a practically endless sea of golden grain fields. Really, she was going to have to come up with a new name for it fast because Land of the Near Endless Plains was simply too much of a mouthful. She lay there in the center of her kingdom with Chickadee in her arms and Toby playing nearby and relaxed her body as her mind whirled.
This was her kingdom.
The lack of populace was an ache, but that would not last for long. She could sense some fairies, little, lovely, and vicious, were playing amongst some of the grain at the border where the field abutted the Labyrinth. There was some sort of creature that she couldn't identify lurking in the far north, happily munching on the golden seeds. And in her arms was Chickadee, squinting his whole face against the light, but looking around with interest. In fifteen minutes he would be her first subject, because the thirteen hours would soon be up and she was only just feeling Roselyn racing through the grass.
"Toby. Come here. It's almost ready to go home, again." Sarah called out, knowing that Toby would hear her.
He came running back with a handful of golden seeds. "These are good to eat."
"Yes, they are. Do you like it here?" Toby was delighted to tell her all about it, and she let his chatter wash over her.
Roselyn might have made it if she weren't racing quite so fast, if she didn't fail to see the tunnel opening before she fell down it, if she didn't get lost in the tunnels, then have trouble getting back to the surface again.
The mother of the child made it… almost in time. She burst through the last of the grass before the stone staircase just as time ran out.
She burst through, a look of triumph on her face, and then the clock sounded.
At first it seemed like distant thunder, but Sarah could feel it echoing through her bones, and it repeated itself. Twice, thrice, she found herself counting.
Roselyn froze when she heard it, and Sarah knew that was exactly the wrong thing to do. Toby seemed to realize something was wrong because he stopped talking and moved to hug Sarah's leg.
Four. Five. Six.
When Sarah had rescued Toby and the clock had started chiming, she had leapt for him, because nothing mattered more than getting to him in time and there had still been those few seconds left.
Seven. Eight. Nine.
Roselyn stayed frozen, and in thinking Chickadee already lost, she lost him. She stared at her lost son, but Sarah was distracted by a speck in the sky flying in from the west. It was an owl.
Ten. Eleven. Twelve.
They counted the chimes together. Chickadee shivered in Sarah's arms, blinking his two-toned eyes up at her.
"Is it over?" Toby asked, still clutching her leg.
"Almost. The game is over, Toby, but we still need to work out the prizes. Because I don't think a full-grown fae can become a goblin, not like an infant fae. Is that right, Roselyn?"
Roselyn turned dull eyes towards her and Sarah thought she looked more like a statue than ever. "That's right."
"Then what do you plan to do now? Go back to the fae court?"
And Roselyn actually laughed with enough bitterness to make Sarah wonder if they were mistaken and a suitably unhappy adult fae could be infected with wild magic after all. "I am doubly exiled from the court. First for being thought to introduce a cross-species child to the court, and second for losing a full-blood fae to another kingdom."
"You can still do magic, can't you?"
"Much good it will do me without a home to call my own, never to see my own child again."
Sarah couldn't help but feel the fae was being a tad bit overly melodramatic but she supposed it was only to be expected. She shouldn't expect anyone else to have the same ruthless competitiveness that Jareth had and that she herself was acquiring.
"When does a fae child reach adulthood? At what point would you no longer have had the ability to wish him away?"
"Twenty years old,"
The fifteen-year-old Sarah's eyes widened a bit at this before she caught herself. "Very well. Then here is my offer. You have my permission to live, as an exile, within the Land of the Near Endless Plains." She felt Jareth appear behind her, but ignored him for the time being. "And, if you decide to do so, I will leave Chickadee in your care, although he is my subject from this point until he reaches twenty years of age, at which point I will discuss matters further with both you and with him as two adults."
Roselyn looked at her with startled hope. "Yes, I'll accept. If, I mean, if that's acceptable to you, Goblin King." She spoke over Sarah's shoulder.
"Sarah is queen here."
"Yes. Of course, your majesty."
Sarah barely managed to avoid rolling her eyes at the interaction. She placed Chickadee in Roselyn's arms. "It's not going to be easy, you know. The Endless Plains are nearly deserted, and while you might be able to trade at one of the Goblin fair's, those can be tricky places."
"I know. I was a warrior in Her Majesties army before I found myself with child. I will so succeed that in twenty years, you will make me a subject as well, your majesty."
Sarah winced. "Well, good luck to you."
Roselyn curtsied to her and then to Jareth and then walked off into the surrounding grasses.
"Home now?" Toby asked.
"Almost done, Toby. Just a little more adult talk and then we can go home."
Sarah remembered thinking the same thing once upon a time. She almost wished it was still true. Instead she finally turned to Jareth and asked, "What would have happened if I had said 'yes' back in the staircase room last year?"
"I would have kept you with me always. I would have prized you beyond words."
Sarah glared. "That's all very nice, but what does it mean? Would I have been queen by your side, or merely prized possession?"
Jareth actually looked sulky and turned away without answering.
And a faint mutter was heard, "mistress. You would have been my beloved mistress."
"And IF I accept you now, what position would I be accepting?"
Still turned away his voice was back to its regular certainty. "Wife."
"Is the wife of a king automatically a queen?"
It was like pulling teeth. Really. "And why not?"
He swung around and stalked back to her so that he could look sneeringly down into her face. "Do you think yourself capable of ruling a kingdom? Your kingdom is a field. You have a population of two and you needed my help to deal with them. Now you want to rule My kingdom? A rowdy population of magic users in a land that stretches as far as the eye can see, and you want to be made responsible for them? The politics and treaties with other lands, do you think yourself ready to negotiate them?"
"Then come and be my wife and lover, your children my heirs, your pleasure, my desire."
"No." Sarah stared up at him and ignored the fact that one of the reasons for saying no was that she was just too young. His sense of time was already completely skewed and she didn't want to deal with it. She wondered vaguely if he even understood the concept of age, beyond the baby vs. adult labels. There were other reasons to turn him down. "I'm not ready to be a queen, as you just said, and I won't be in any relationship where I'm not an equal partner."
Which was true, for all that it would have been a big fat lie five minutes earlier. There was a real difference between fantasy and reality, even with magic in the mix. She had always fantasized about some perfect prince sweeping her off her feet and taking care of her forever after. Equality had never been an issue. But as nice as the fantasy was, it did not translate into reality at all well. She refused to have one more person tell her what to do.
"That's your final answer?" There was a flat quality to his voice and Sarah wondered again what it must be like to have a heart be somewhere else, be someone else. But there was nothing she could do about it that she was willing to do.
"That's my answer right now."
He settled into the stillness of a predator seeing prey and she lifted her chin to stare back at him, refusing to flinch.
"Your answer right now."
"You know the game isn't over until you either submit or conquer. You have to make a choice eventually."
"But not right now."
"It hurts, to have your heart in one place and everything else somewhere else." The goblin king shrugged, his voice disinterested. "I thought I was going to die at first. Or maybe just go insane. But I am a creature of wild magic and we are ever adaptable. But it still hurts."
Yes, Sarah realized that it probably did hurt. And, she found, she didn't want him to hurt because of her. But she wasn't going to be forced into anything she wasn't ready for, either. She spoke with a matching disinterest, "You always knew I could be cruel."
She stepped backwards thinking about her house and felt the walls settle in around her. She was home again.
However, rather than a dramatic exit, Jareth had somehow managed to come with.
"Well, then. Let the games continue." His lips curled up into a smile she didn't quite understand, his eyes had a fire behind them, and her heart seemed to stutter.
A wind suddenly came in through the open windows, the curtains ruffled, and he was gone in a flutter of wings.
As the air settled down into stillness again, Sarah let her heart get back to normal as well. Then she walked over and closed the windows. Clearly she was a novice when it came to dramatic exits. She'd need to practice, and it looked like she'd have plenty of opportunities.
The games, after all, were still ongoing, her will was as strong as him, her kingdom as great, and they each held a certain amount of power. Life was certainly going to be interesting. She was fifteen right now. She had another twenty years before her one and only subject could either be released or added to. That should give her enough time to get things right.
Plans circled in her head as she bounced Toby on her knee.
An hour later, her dad and Karen returned.
She finally came out of her thoughts when the door opened.
"Hello, Sarah, how did your day go?"
"Pretty good, Dad. How was yours?"
"Oh my goodness, is this was you did today? It's gorgeous." Karen sounded surprised as she looked at the painting.
The surprise could work out to be something of an insult but Sarah decided she didn't mind. The painting had been wonderful when she had originally finished it but her use of it as a portal had done something more to it. Given it an extra vibrancy.
"It's so real and so fantastic at the same time. If this is what you see when you read those fantasy books of yours then I can see why you like them."
Sarah blinked. Maybe she could actually find common ground with Karen rather than just get along with courtesy. They had both been trying so hard for so many months to be nice to each other and Sarah had tried to be ordinary and understanding for Karen. Now it seemed like Karen just needed the proper introduction to the fantastic in the world.
"Thank you, Karen. It's just one scene in a whole world." Sarah paused and wondered if she was doing the right thing. "This is the Land of Near Endless Plains. I, I have a few other sketches. If you'd like to see them, I could show you."
"I'd like that." And Karen gave her another one of those painfully hopeful smiles of hers that sort of made Sarah want to curl up into a little guilty puddle due to how annoying she must have been pre-Labyrinth. Sarah ignored the feeling and smiled back.
"I would, too, honey. This painting is beautiful," her dad added warmly. "Maybe you should think of art schools after high school. You could really go far with this."
"Thank you, Dad." And her dad just didn't get it, Sarah thought rather wryly. It wasn't about making money; it was about a whole kingdom stretched out inside of her. "But I'm currently thinking I want to go to college and study government and politics."
There was, after all, a whole kingdom waiting for its queen, and possibly a neighboring kingdom too, whose king wouldn't be too unhappy about acquiring a consort.
When she was ready.
Chapter 2: A Will As Strong
Jareth was getting more visits from his protectorates than he had since he'd first taken on the kingship. He'd never felt so closely watched by his extended family since he'd moved out on his own and he would have been just as happy to keep it that way. Not that he didn't like his cousins or the various other visitors, but having them all trooping through his castle nattering at him and expecting him to have serious thoughtful conversations was a bit much. Especially, when it was all an excuse to be able to swing by the western border on their way to and from the castle and stare out at the Land of Near Endless Plains.
"It's stretched as far as the eye can see."
"Yes, yes, Theron. Do you know its name? I seem to recall there was a "near endless" in the title, wasn't there?"
"You think you're funny, but you're not." The insult was half-hearted at best. Theron continued to stare. "It's bright."
Jareth heaved a sigh and resisted rolling his eyes. "That would be the gold crop."
The two of them watched the gold grass rustle near the border as some of the regular goblins ran through the grass and harvested seeds.
"When you became a dangerously powerful neighbor, the queen of the Twilight Lands invaded."
"Hardly that. She sent a small battalion."
"You know what I mean."
"I know that the fae are stuffy and stagnant and no threat to us. And I know that I exist on wild magic and there is nothing wild magic loves so much as change for change's sake."
"So just like that, you'll let your goblins play in the neighbor's property, eat gold seeds you don't know the properties of, and decorate their outfits, even your outfits, with the same?"
"How else will we know the properties if we do not experiment?"
"Yeah, well I could have done without having them in my breakfast cereal. They're spicy!"
"It's my castle, my chef, and anything you eat here is my gracious gift, so don't whine. Plus, I like the zest."
"Doesn't it make you nervous?"
"The zest?" Jareth quirked an amused eyebrow, smirking as he quite intentionally provoked his cousin.
"The Near Endless Plains. Don't they make you nervous? It's a powerful individual who creates a new land, especially one so vast, and they're right at your border. Right there. You weren't nearly as much of a threat to the Twilight Lands as the Near Endless Plains are to all of us goblins."
"You worry too much." Jareth laughed. "And you should have seen what happened with the fae battalion that went to the Land of Near Endless Plains."
Theron arched an inquiring eyebrow. "Well? Let me in on the joke?"
"Mmm. Normally I only explain jokes to lesser goblins, you know." Jareth smirked. "It wasn't really an invasion, but a rescue mission, to retrieve a fae woman who had received sanctuary there and her child whose status is more peculiar. But first, they entered with all their shiny armor and nearly blinded each other because the sun out there is harsh. The Underground tends to be overcast and the Twilight Lands are obviously in twilight all the time, but the Near Endless Plains are bright.
"They're fae warriors so they can't do anything sensible like remove the armor, given that the plains don't even have an army yet. No, they have to cloak themselves. So there they are, shadowy creatures searching the really bright plains, and they must be broiling, because in addition to being bright, the sun out there is hot.
"Somehow, despite the fact that there's only the one central landmark, they don't manage to get lost, more's the pity, and they do a fairly thorough search of the Near Endless Plains. It took months and was something of a spectator sport here, where Goblins would line the walls and watch the grass movements give the fae presence away.
"It was all fairly impressive but the heat apparently boiled their brains because despite the holes that they gracefully leapt over, they didn't appear to realize there were tunnels. The fae woman and her child were happily ensconced in the relatively cool tunnels whenever they heard one of the searchers approach, which was easy enough to do since the grass chimes when it moves.
"The expressions on their faces, when they finally realized they had to do the whole search pattern again, but this time both above and below, was a delight. I seriously thought I was going to see a fae warrior throw a tantrum."
"And did they?" Theron sounded fascinated.
"Alas, they maintained control. Fae are such boring creatures."
"I take it they redid the search."
"About half of it, for about a month. The ruler of the Land of Near Endless Plains finally intervened when it looked like they were actually going to achieve their goal."
"Wait, you've actually seen the ruler of the Land of Near Endless Plains? I thought no one knew who it was?"
Jareth smiled and rather pointedly said nothing.
Jareth casually manipulated a few of his crystals and feigning intrigue with what they were showing him to the distraction of anything else. Theron huffed in annoyance.
"At least tell me what happened to the fae? Were they sent running? Were they killed?"
"Neither." The crystals vanished one by one and Jareth pointed out to the Plains. "Do you see that one patch of grain over there? It's more of an iridescent sheen than true gold? The whole battalion is trapped in those grains of gold. Each in their own seedpod." Jareth looked utterly delighted.
Theron's eyes widened in surprised before he threw his head back and laughed.
"But, but what happens," Theron finally managed to catch his break, "in the autumn when the seeds are ready to sprout? Won't they be released then?"
"This happened a couple of years ago, and they're still there. The winter comes and everything is buried under heaps of snow. With spring, the grass grows again and the fae can't be found at all: the first spring I thought they had been killed. But as the seeds appear in summer, so too the fae are visible again within their tiny chambers. I have forbade any goblin from eating them, for which I hope the fae queen is suitably grateful."
"Somehow I doubt it."
Jareth smirked. "I did take a gardener there to inspect them and we agree that the seasons are wearing upon the fae. The process is changing them."
"Changing fae warriors?" Theron sounded as startled as the statement demanded, which was very. In theory, the fae were unchangeable.
"Each time they, for lack of a better word, grow back, they are slightly different. I half think that when they are finally released or escape or somehow leave, they will be denizens of the Near Endless Plains rather than the subjects of the Twilight lands."
"And that doesn't make you nervous?"
"No." Jareth didn't bother explaining that he liked having a powerful neighbor, stretched out against his border. It made that side more solid and gave him a counterweight that he had never had before. It helped give him stability. Theron was a Greater Goblin but unlike Jareth he had internal limits to his abilities. He wouldn't understand the relief of having external limits.
It was frustrating, of course, but it was equally reassuring. In that direction, he could push with all his strength and not fear accidentally absorbing his neighbor. He would never bind Sarah as just another subject. It made him angry that he couldn't do it intentionally, but that was better than the fear of doing it by accident.
Plus, watching Sarah explore her abilities was priceless. The expression on her face when she had finally stepped in and dealt with the fae was almost as hilarious as the look on the warriors' faces had been.
Afterwards, she had been completely taken aback. She had opened and closed her mouth four times before finally managing to say anything. And what she finally came up with was a dubious, "Um, it can't possibly be that easy."
Jareth had bit back laughter at her and the fae both. "You don't know your own power. Plus, the fae are so very structured. Almost anything can catch them off guard."
"We are not!" Roselyn had actually huffed, and Jareth barely suppressed a smirk at how far she had fallen from her perfect fae elegance. "We have experience and long memories."
"Yeah, so as long as it's a technique you all know, then you can all defend against it. Battles between fae are some of the most boring fights ever. Everyone knows before hand who's going to win. All anyone else has to do is throw in a curve ball. And there they are: trapped in grains of not-wheat."
And if there was one thing Sarah excelled at, it was throwing curve balls. And here he had thought that nothing could match wild magic.
Wild magic, after all, grew.
It's one of the basic truths of living Underground: Wild magic grew. It's seeded, it germinates, it's used and spent, and it comes back all the stronger. The lesser goblins use all of their own magic and need more just to survive. They don't have quite enough naturally or it doesn't grow fast enough. It's as if they didn't quite finish the transition to becoming goblins. That's why Jareth asks the Greater Goblins under him to not just support the lesser in their courts, but to fill them beyond their needs. Fill them again and again so that maybe one day some bit will stay behind, stay and grow.
Of course, most goblins don't have the problem of the lesser or the ability of the greater. They have their kitchen garden equivalent of magic. They make enough to support themselves They don't need the Greater Goblins although they find it nice to have some assistance, and they can't support others although they can occasionally lend a helping hand.
The Greater Goblins, however, are farms, they're orchards: they support themselves and their families and the locals, and any visiting kids who sneak in over the walls to steal an apple or two.
As a child, Jareth's magic was already an orchard large enough to support a village, and as he grew, as he flung magic this way and that upon no more than a whim, he never even approached his limit. As he grew, it grew with him. He could support a city. He could support The City. His magic was not an orchard, it was a forest. There were no walls for the village kids to sneak over, just a vast source of life and danger, spread out to anyone who dared wander within its scope.
His magic had twined around the magic of the king before him. The king's magic had roots deep into the Labyrinth while Jareth's magic swirled above.
Jareth reveled in the power and he adored the Labyrinth, and he rejoiced in his court of lesser goblins who swam and surfed and were tossed about upon his will. When his power finally grew so extensive as to overwhelm the previous king's place, it was only natural. The Labyrinth shifted and his manor expanded until he had a castle in the center of the Labyrinth. He had more creatures than before living within his protection—the Labyrinth itself being the big one—but other than that, nothing much changed.
He had to deal with the neighbors of course, and the Twilight lands were something of a pain and the wishes and the runners could occasionally be distracting, but it wasn't that big a deal. It wasn't that big a deal because it didn't use everything he had, and the magic kept growing.
It kept growing and he didn't know what to do with it.
He could leave the Underground for hours at a time and the Labyrinth could maintain itself on the residue he left behind. So he explored. He liked the Aboveground sometimes because it didn't rely on him and was less likely to shift at a casual thought.
Years passed, but wild magic still grew stronger within him.
Aboveground was built upon stability itself. The fae on the other hand were still magic. The Twilight Lands were delicate and strong and fragile like diamond. The Faerie queen feared him because one day he maybe he'd have enough power to shatter her realm, break the unbreakable fae and remake them goblins. Her troops were ludicrously easy to trap in a crystal ballroom. They danced for years without thought.
It hardly mattered: years passed, and the power grew.
It was when he began to control time that he began to truly fear what was happening. He could see forward and back, just a few minutes at a time. Then for just a few hours. Then he could change things. His magic extended beyond the present, reaching into both the past and the future. That was not normal and he had known that he would go insane eventually.
Always before, no matter how much power he had at how young an age, he had always been in control of it and himself. It wasn't until the power reached into time itself, that he felt that control slipping. And it was slipping.
There was too much happening. He would become distracted by events no one else knew about. He would laugh in the middle of conversations at something that hadn't happened yet and may never happen. The magic extended so far and the present such a small instant in time that he wasn't always sure he could find his way back to it. He wondered sometimes what would happen to him when he finally failed to find himself: would his eyes join the lichen and his hands go to the oubliette? Maybe he would simply become a whistling wind around corners. However it happened, the Labyrinth would keep him, he knew.
But the present was too difficult to track and it changed as he skipped ahead of it or lagged behind. He could remember events that hadn't happened yet, or hadn't happened after all, or that will have had happen sometime soon. It was a tangle that twisted him around so much that he no longer knew his own will.
Then one evening, when he and the wind were flying Aboveground, he had found her for the first time. Found Sarah.
She had been young: young enough that gender wasn't apparent except in the clothes that tried to make up for the fact that there were no real distinctions. She had been up in a tree house telling herself a story and ignoring the shouting that was coming from the house.
In the story, a beautiful princess went off to do great deeds and be loved by all, and yet was still sad at having to leave her daughter behind.
In the house, a woman was yelling that she had been too young to be married and certainly too young to be a mother.
Jareth had perched on a branch of the tree and listened to the story and the argument superimposed on each other, parallel and opposite.
He had felt the truth and the fantasy twist together like a braid, stronger together than apart, like either one might fall apart at inspection, but together they were eternal. Or maybe two sides of a coin, each side being the necessary foundation on which the other rested. Most people only saw one side, or at best, only one side at a time. But perched up in the tree in the dark, he and little Sarah saw both sides at once. He heard the story and listened to the argument and felt the raveled weave of time sort itself out again within him.
When Sarah had finally climbed down and returned to the house, he had flown off feeling more anchored to reality than he had in years.
The feeling lasted until the next time he had a party with too many people with too many plans and suddenly he was overwhelmed again, pulled in too many directions at once.
He had held on for another few days after that before returning to the house, the little girl, and the stories.
The stories were wonderful. They were all variations on a theme. There was always a queen and a princess and adventure and abandonment and despair and hope and a final success, whether it was by means of death or love. The stories always ended happily and they always took different routes to get there.
So with the example of a little human girl capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast, Jareth taught himself to control the many threads of time that the wild magic within him had revealed.
He wasn't sure when exactly visiting her had becoming something he desired rather than needed. There came time, though, that he realized he was no longer disappointed when she was doing something other than telling a story either aloud or with her dolls. He discovered that he was happy to just see her reading a book or brushing her teeth or tucked into bed.
The visits to Sarah's house became a reward to himself for dealing with the more tedious tasks of being king.
That was when he started leaving her gifts. They were nothing much; a toy here or there. She was occasionally surprised but never actually concerned. The gifts were nothing much in and of themselves, really, it was that they were parallel to his life that made them more. A statue on her desk that looked like one of the garden goblins. A puppy on her doorstep that looked like the bridge guardian's steed. Nothing much. Just as she had never discovered that she had helped him, she need never know that he was thanking her.
He didn't consider any of the ramifications. It didn't occur to him that his court of lesser goblins might note his interest and follow Sarah's motions as well as his own. He hadn't been sure he liked the split in attention. He especially hadn't liked the fact that his gifts and his frequent presence outside her room made it possible for the lesser goblins to linger there supported on the magic left behind. The solution, however, seems obvious: bring her into the Labyrinth and under his control. The fact that he wanted her to be his anyway just made the solution all the sweeter.
He was determined to have her, so it really worked out in his favor, so he had thought, that she carried traces of his presence with her. It wasn't uncommon for a being to be affected by being around a powerful goblin for so long even if it was unusual that she was Aboveground and there had been no direct interactions. She was probably well on her way to being a goblin herself, because wild magic not only grew but it was contagious and could grow in all sorts of strange places.
So he had allowed his lesser court to watch her, waiting for her to wish someone away. The birth of a stepbrother with a small amount of magic of his own was just what was needed to push her in that direction.
She had wished the baby away, and Jareth had spoken to Sarah face-to-face for the first time. She had changed since he had first seen her and he had taken a moment to appreciate those changes. She was pretty in the way people are pretty when they're not ugly: nice looking, healthy. Nothing spectacular, but still pleasing to look upon. He had given her an out that was really more of a trap than a true reprieve. He had offered her the chance to either enter his kingdom and within a few short hours become one of his or she could accept one of his crystals and have the same transformation in a somewhat slower fashion. It hardly mattered to him. She would be his regardless.
She had decided to go to the Underground and brave the Labyrinth and he had been pleased. Only then he had discovered her true strength.
The wild magic she picked up grew in a corner of her being, but never came even close to taking her over. She wasn't a diamond like the fae, perfect and unchangeable but capable of shattering under the right kind of pressure. She was more like wild magic herself, far reaching and in too many places at once. Her ability that had shown him how to control time, left her able to slip past and through the traps that should have held her. She was in too many places; saw too many perspectives to find any given action a true end to her struggles.
First, he treated her like a human, and watched as a fairy took her blood. The blood should have bound her to the Labyrinth and its denizens, placing her under his command. Maybe it even did, at least a little bit, but it also gave her entrance and invitation to his land. She stretched the bindings that held her until she had all the freedom and more than if she had never been bound at all.
He treated her like a fae and trapped her in the crystal masquerade. He even went to dance with her himself. But all the masks that hid the truth merely showed her that secrets existed and helped her break her way out all the more readily. She burst the bubble that kept them all, and as the fae spun in confusion before finally fleeing back to their queen, she had searched for the truth within the swirling magic and found her direction again.
She had escaped from the Labyrinth with more than success and had a kingdom of her own now. Unfortunately that kingdom and her duties Aboveground both worked to keep her from spending any time thinking about him or the Labyrinth.
He was distracting for an incipient sulk by the piping voice of one of his lesser goblin court.
"King going to marry Sarah!"
I wish, Jareth thought to himself. But it was nice that his court of lesser were so sure of his ultimate success.
"Sarah?" Theron asked them, but not specifically enough. Jareth's lips quirked in a small smile.
The little goblins nodded energetically. "Yes. Sarah."
Almost all the greater goblins who came to spend time with the King took great pleasure in conversing with his court of lesser goblins. They all had their own stables of lesser goblins but Jareth was unusual in the extent he interacted with them and the results were startling.
Even before his uncle had realized that the burden of the goblin kingdom had shifted to Jareth, and the Labyrinth had shifted things around to put Jareth's castle in the center, the populace brought the lesser goblins to Jareth more than any other of the greats.
Jareth didn't mind spending time alone, surrounded by a lesser court. And when he was, he interacted with them. Even as a child, he had picked them up and tossed them around, using his power to shift them this way or that, telling them what to do and what to say. He sang to them and prompted them to sing back to him. And they thrived. Creatures that would otherwise dissipate lived in his coat pockets. Beings that would otherwise lie on the floor as little tuffs of fur, scampered around, giggling. And goblins who would otherwise study the floor with dull eyes, in Jareth's castle would play games and even talk. It amazed everyone and was the main reason why the city had grown up around him. Because lesser goblins didn't always stay lesser when they grew up in his presence.
The greater goblins, when they came—to rest from the constant drain of supporting their own people, to pay their respects to the king who supported the land itself, and to report on their lives and happenings—had discovered that they could get hilarious reports in turn about their king by asking his followers.
"Who is Sarah?"
"The girl who ate the peach!"
The piercing pitch of the response caught the attention of the other lesser goblins and they all started talking at once, saying "Sarah" and "girl ate the peach."
Theron was astounded and then couldn't stop the snickering.
"Silence!" Jareth commanded and all the goblins stopped talking. That was another thing ability almost unique to Jareth: he could get the lesser goblins to do what he said. The rest of the greats either supported the lesser or not, but couldn't modify their behavior at all or at least didn't spend enough time trying.
Theron took a moment to be properly appreciative and then said, "I hear you're going to marry the girl who ate your peach."
He didn't bother to stop the remarkably dirty chuckle that came with it. Jareth couldn't stop the faint blush from tingeing his cheeks. "It was an actual peach. A piece of fruit."
"If you say so."
He glared. Theron paled slightly before thinking of somewhere else he needed to be and making a hasty retreat.
Left alone for a bit, Jareth summoned a crystal to check in on Sarah. Looking at her image, his frown deepened.
He had wrapped her in moonlight for their dance and himself in a night full of stars.
Now she swirled around a dance floor bright as the desert sun.
Roselyn, the one adult resident of the Land of Near Endless Plains, gave Sarah a new gown every year, each one unique but all of them lovely and elaborate and gold, spun from the grass and beaded with the grain. The fae woman was determined to make herself indispensable to her new monarch and was doing a remarkably good job. At her request, Sarah had found first a spinning wheel from an antique store and then a loom from a craft store and brought them to the Land of Near Endless Plains for Roselyn's use. Along with Roselyn's rather controlled fae magic meant for subtle workings of the type, she made elaborate outfits for the inhabitants of the Near Endless Plains.
Thus Sarah was sheathed in gold. The full skirt shimmered as it swung around her legs; the form-fitting bodice was heavily encrusted with gold beads, so bright it both pulled the eye and forced it away from examining too closely her very feminine form; her dark hair would have been a stark contrast were it not for the loose net of good beads worked into it. She was the belle of the ball, dancing on the arm of her prince. She was glorious. She looked a creature of myth and dreams.
She was also glaring over her prince's shoulder whenever she happened to be facing Jareth's point of view.
Much to Jareth's disappointment, Sarah had quickly picked up the ability to feel when he was watching her by crystal. It only made sense, given that she now maintained the Land of Near Endless Plains, for her to be able to feel another kingdom's presence. He still wished it had taken a bit longer. Or at the very least, it had taken her longer to discover that she could burst the crystal by throwing a handful of her own seeds at it. It was irritating.
On the other hand, it made the game all the more fun when he could catch her at some point where she either didn't have a handful of seeds on her or where she couldn't make a scene. Through trial and error her had discovered that she did keep a bag of seeds with her pretty much everywhere, including the shower, but she wouldn't make a scene in public.
If she was going to be dancing around with some other prince, then he was going to play chaperone till his heart's content. Since his heart was currently glaring daggers at him every chance, her content wasn't going to come any time soon and he could keep it up for years.
He had already been keeping it up for years.
Of course, time manipulation was incredibly useful. For one thing, whenever a child was wished away at this point, he simply took the child to Sarah whenever she was next or had last been babysitting. The look on her face the first time he had dropped a baby off with her had been hilarious. But the second time had been even better. By the third time she had figured it out and seemed more resigned than anything else, although not above being more snippy than respectful or even fearful. Hmph.
The wished away came for a few hours and sometimes they were returned but others stayed, and of those that stayed, some went to the Goblin Kingdom but others stayed in the Near Endless Plains. None of the wishers other than Roselyn had been allowed to stay. Intent on proving her use to Sarah, Roselynn had taken charge of the extra children and was raising them right alongside Chickadee in the way only a fae warrior could.
Unlike goblins, the fae, Jareth had pointed out, were not a particularly fertile race. Having chosen to become a warrior for the queen, Roselyn had probably never given a thought to ever having to care for a child. She would, however, have trained to mentor younger warriors and possibly to lead her own battalion.
It was moderately amusing, made more so by the look on Sarah's face whenever she came to visit at some opportune moment.
"Oh, dear," Sarah had said. And one time Jareth had been spying on her when she was visiting a daycare; there had been a glint in her eye as if she were wondering how to go about kidnapping one of the teachers and deciding which one she should take. Jareth had found that heartening: she needed to start collecting her own subjects, not just accepting those infants that he pushed on her.
Unfortunately, she hadn't yet acquired a new subject of her own will. But at least she had accepted some of the children. And she worked part-time jobs in the human world in order to buy things to make the Land of Near Endless Plains more inhabitable. Jareth gave her carefully selected presents on her birthdays—the most that Sarah would accept from him—and Roselynn was remarkably creative, but Sarah spent most weekends either working or searching through flea markets.
The first winter, had not been easy on anyone. Sarah had worked all through the Christmas holidays earning money and spending it on blankets and non-electric heaters, tents and food. Jareth had been loath to offer her sanctuary if it would lighten the responsibility that bound Sarah to the land neighboring his. Roselynn had refused to leave the lands anyway. She and Chickadee had lived in the tunnels and huddled in mounds of blankets and pillows most days.
When the snow had melted and the grass had grown again, they had all been grateful.
The next year had been just as cold but both Sarah and Roselynn had been better prepared. A section of the tunnels had been draped with colorful hangings, food had been stocked, and a fireplace created under one of the holes to the outside. It was warm and cozy, and Roselynn had a spinning wheel and loom to keep her busy.
While the snow fell lightly within the Labyrinth during winter, over on the plains it was heavy and deep. All the golden grass lay crushed under an equally tall layer of snow. After a few cold but sunny days, the top shell of the snow had even turned to ice, strong enough to support the weight of smaller creatures. Chickadee and a few other children had scampered and slide upon it.
The winter after that, Sarah had come by every day for a week, and brought Toby with her. They had made tunnels through the snow around her watchtower throne. She had cleared one area so thoroughly that it left only a clear ceiling of ice that dripped cold water occasionally during the day but left the stars visible at night.
The Labyrinth tended to be more overcast and Jareth appreciated the boundaries this created, but there was something to be said for the view of infinity that Sarah created in the Land of Near Endless Plains.
The underground tunnels never changed. They were packed in the soil and cut in the stone. But the tunnels of snow came and went every year, always similar, but never the same.
Jareth dropped in on Roselyn and the Near Endless Plains every so often to play with Chickadee and the other children, and to see if Sarah was there. Roselyn was a bit of a stuffed shirt, trying a bit too hard to be cultured and perfect in every detail while in a land that was stark and vivid in vast swathes which totally overwhelmed any detail. Who cared if her flower garden was perfect? Surrounding it were miles of moving gold that chimed with every breeze.
Which was really the problem. Details were important.
The Labyrinth had never lost that first grand impression, but it had grown complex and detailed in its age. Really, it was the population that allowed for the details, though. The population of the Labyrinth took some of the strain off him as king, and he knew that while Sarah supported the fields and tunnels and even the sky above, it took the population like Roselyn to add the details. He just wished Sarah would get around to gaining a larger population. Not just squatters encroaching on the edges, but real citizens she invited to reside there. Then maybe he wouldn't be quite so jealous of the two that were there.
Plus, for the land to survive the first generation, it needed to be anchored by more than a single person. The Labyrinth had a never ending stream of kings come and go, with smooth transfers, the population holding the Labyrinth as stable as it ever got. But if anything happened to Sarah, the Land of Near Endless Plains would have only Chickadee to know it, and he would have only Roselyn, and Toby, and maybe Jareth and some of the more adventurous goblins to share it with. It would be generations before The Near Endless Plains would be as permanent as the Labyrinth or the Twilight Lands, and Sarah was more than strong enough to carry it. But still Jareth wanted it stable now, wanted the Plains permanent now, wanted Sarah to be tied as tightly to the land as the land was tied to her. And he wanted it all now.
Unfortunately he had wanted it all now for some years at this point and had been forced to grow accustomed to frustration regarding the matter.
Jareth sometimes wondered if she realized how much of her time and attention and ability was directed toward developing her lands and how much easier it would be with a larger population.
In the mean time, she dallied about in the Aboveground.
She might be enjoying her college fling with a prince of some far away land currently studying with her at Oxford, but if she thought she was going to get anywhere serious with an Aboveground relationship, she had another think coming. The most worrying thing about her dalliance was that her prince Basil was also studying international politics at Oxford. An unbiased view—which Jareth most decidedly was not—would see him as an appropriate if uninspiring choice of consort for Sarah.
This time, Jareth thought, he wouldn't even have to be the one to nix this particular love affair. He smiled with more than a little anticipation. She hadn't met her prince's grandfather yet, the ruling prince of his kingdom, and curiously enough, one of the previous Labyrinth runners.
Sarah might have been able to pull herself out of the Labyrinth without leaving her dreams behind, but Nasir hadn't. He had forsaken his poetry in order to retrieve his responsibilities and his kingdom from Jareth. He had been a quick-witted child with a tendency to leap before he looked and an utter joy with the unexpected.
As he had run through the Labyrinth, he had stripped himself of those feelings. After sixty years, Nasir still didn't have any care for dreams or fancies. And after sixty years as a ruling monarch, the boy Nasir, who Jareth had watched and admired so long ago, was thoroughly buried under decades of statecraft and careful planning. The old man who was left would have little respect for Sarah.
He watched as her prince finally took her to great his grandfather, holding court at one end of the dance hall.
"Who's your American trollop this time?" The old man gave Sarah a quick once-over and then proceeded to ignore her in favor of interrogating his grandson.
Sarah had that look on her face that Jareth recognized from when she was trying not to roll her eyes. It was the same look as she had when confronted with Chickadee's father, who had gone to the Land of Near Endless Plains in order to steal Chickadee back.
Upon reflection, Jareth saw a similarity between the fae and the old man who had once been such a passionate runner of his Labyrinth. They were disapproving, patronizing, and generally dismissive.
Of course, Chickadee's father and Roselyn had gotten into a "wickedly cool fight"—Sarah's words—and Sarah had been forced to recall that Roselyn, Chickadee's mother, had actually been a fae warrior before she had been exiled. And now she was a woman scorned. The father had not fared well and had left with his tail between his legs, metaphorically at least. Neither Sarah nor Jareth had been sure if Roselyn's insinuations that it was literal were true or merely impugning an ex's sexual abilities. With fae, there was always something of a question.
"This is Sarah Williams, Grandfather, and she's not a trollop." The boy was clearly embarrassed by his grandfather and Jareth could only wonder why he bothered making the introduction at all. Surely he didn't expect any blessings on a relationship.
Apparently the old man wondered the same thing. "Do you think you'll ever be allowed to marry my grandson, girl?"
"Basil is a fun guy to hang out with and I like him a lot. But, no, he's not the right husband for me."
The old man narrowed his eyes, clearly insulted on his grandson's behalf, but also wondering if he was being manipulated.
Jareth considered the situation and thought that the answer was almost certainly 'yes.' Sarah was up to something. Basil wouldn't have made the introduction on his own initiative so Sarah must have requested it. Jareth settled back with his crystal to see where this was going.
"So you're merely a loose woman, who 'hangs out' with men who please her for a moment?"
"Not at all," Sarah responded to the insult with haughty grace. "Your grandson is good in a study group at school and an elegant escort to a dance. But you, sir, are rather more to my taste than he is."
This time it was Basil, standing by her side, who looked insulted. He remained silent though.
The old man looked more amused than anything else. "Old and rich?"
"Tricky and powerful."
And that, Jareth thought, was more than enough of her flirting. He allowed the crystal to dissipate and then took himself off in person to the dance.
The windows rattled in the wind and the candles flickered, as he appeared in a swirl of robes. Sarah would no doubt sense his presence, but he managed to appear in an out of the way corner so that he could mingle with the humans for a time.
Most people thought he was human if they first saw him in the Aboveground for all that he never actually looked very human. With his skin of gold, robes the color of sand, and little red goblins appearing here and there like flickers of flame visible to most people only out of the corners of their eyes, he was unnerving to the other attendees but that possibly made him fit in all the better in this crowd of wealth and power.
Sarah, on the other hand, was the odd one out. She was a poor student with no family money, and no known political power. Most of the attendees had doubtless assumed the dress was a lover's gift rather than a subject's tribute. They didn't know her.
They didn't know her, but it appeared that the old man was getting an introduction. This was not the way he had expected this meeting to go. And of all the people she had flirted with over the years, here was the first one—for all that he was old enough to be her grandfather—who might be able to hold her attention.
Jareth hadn't realized before this how lucky he had been with her previous flirtations. They had always been her age but without her experience. They had been light and flirty boys who took her to movies but didn't challenge her to new heights.
That was always his role.
He was the one that she interrogated, that she fought with, that on one particular occasion threw a frying pan at. He was the one that challenged her.
And he kept that attention. It wasn't quite what he wanted, but at least he knew that she was focused on him, even if it was as her opponent. There would be no distraction from other people, no abandoning him. Sometimes she would like him and other times she would hate him, but she would never, ever walk away from him.
It had been triumph enough for a time. But he could not allow some other powerful and tricky human to distract her from him.
He made his way over to that side of the room and listened to their conversation. He wondered what the old man had said while Jareth had been in transit but now it was Sarah speaking.
"I like your grandson. As I said, he's fun to hang out with. And although I bet you worry about it, he'll make a good ruler. He's a good administrator." Basil was still at her side but it was effectively a two-person conversation: Sarah and the old man who had been Nasir.
"When I was fifteen, I discovered that I needed to know enough about government, leadership, and diplomacy to give a new country stability. At the time, I thought all I needed was to know enough and be capable enough on my own. I have learned a lot, but the most important thing I learned is the necessity of counselors. I need multiple counselors to give me different perspectives, and they need to be the type of people who can work with a brand new country, laying the original foundations for the future."
The old man listened intently, his eyes never straying from her face, but didn't speak even when she paused and waited for his response. After a moment, Sarah's lips quirked into a small smile and she continued. "Your grandson is great, but it's you I want to take back to my kingdom and install as a member of my council."
"Ah," the old man finally gave out a long sigh.
Sarah looked, Jareth suddenly realized, like a queen. She wasn't a princess anymore, beautiful and willful but also flighty and irresponsible. Somewhere along the way, she had become a ruling monarch to her lands.
"How is it, Sarah," Jareth murmured to himself, "that I always seem to underestimate you?" But still he smiled faintly in pleasure because he knew it wasn't actually underestimating her. He had had her measure, but she was growing stronger. Always, with each challenge, she grew that much stronger.
And in competing with her, so too did he grow stronger, not in the amount of power he had but in his control of it.
The old man looked a bit like Nasir again. Just a bit, but he looked almost the young man who's desires had burned so brightly.
Jareth found himself unsure what to do. Sarah was trying to acquire a subject. Of her own free will, she was trying to bring this man into her lands. Just as Jareth had always hoped, she was willingly expanding her population. And yet, the person in question was a Labyrinth runner.
"I have nearly endless plains," Sarah described, "with tunnels beneath the ground, and a river hidden beneath the tunnels. My population is not large: I have four infant citizens, one legal resident, and a hundred prisoners. But those nearly endless plains are covered in grass that grows of gold grain. The soil is rich and dark, and if it is sifted just as the snow finally melts away in the spring, you can find silver. People from neighboring kingdoms come to harvest what they can near the borders every spring and autumn. I have immigration petitions piling up. And I have plans."
He wanted her to enrich her lands, but to bring someone who would only break out again, that would cause more harm than good. Jareth took that final step forward.
The old man who had once been Nasir flinched when he saw Jareth. Jareth ignored him, focused solely on Sarah.
"He's a runner," Jareth told her, utterly serious for once, trying to make her understand that this man had not always been as he was. That he was unsuitable for her. "He once wished away his entire princedom, every person, every animal, every acre."
Sarah looked back with her steady eyes. "I know."
That response gave him pause. "You know? Somehow I doubt he just brought that little fact up in conversation."
"I know all the runners that have ever competed with you." She must have seen something in his face because she continued. "When you brought Chickadee to me, more than six years ago, you gave me a crystal that 'showed events.' And that crystal never vanished. It was a dangerous gift, you know, especially if you didn't know I had it." She looked at him with her sharp judging eyes.
He refused to be judged by her or anyone. "It's not too dangerous: you've never used it to spy on me."
"I caught the danger of that pretty much immediately, you know." She spoke dryly. "I didn't watch you, but I've watched the runners and the wished away. Both those you keep and those that break free."
Jareth was startled but pleased. He hadn't realized she was paying so much attention to his kingdom. "What have you found in your viewing?"
"I probably know more secrets about events happening in this world than anyone else. I could make a good livelihood with either insider trading or blackmailing." The old man looked a bit too interested in this. Jareth, on the other hand, scowled. He had thought she would use the crystal to learn about him and his kingdom. And then she laughed at him!
He stalked closer intent on crushing her with some scathing comment about adults who never grew up. Before he opened his mouth, though, she answered the original question more seriously.
"Your kingdom is a crucible. Those that break free are more focused and driven than they ever were before. You give them an all or nothing alternative and the successful runners are those that are able to forsake everything else in their devotion to that which was lost. Nasir was a poet when he was young. A good one."
"It was his dream. I gave him the option to become a great one. His name would have been known and his words recited around the world." Jareth still felt the pang of that loss. He hadn't cared much one way or the other about the land and people that had been wished into his care, but he missed the poetry that Nasir had given up in order to rescue them.
"All in exchange for his inheritance and the lives of his subjects."
"Not their lives." He spoke dispassionately. "Most would have survived the transformation."
Her mouth quirked and he thought she looked amused. "That was not the implication he heard."
"So he left up his dreams as merely slowing him down and he made the race in time and he retrieve the princedom. In my opinion, the journey did him good. He became a much more devoted and thoughtful ruler than he would otherwise have been. But still…"
"You regret the poetry he might have created?" The old man, watching this all, flinched. His grandson looked on with worried eyes. Jareth ignored them both, mocking himself as much as anyone else. Sarah liked stories more than poetry. Poetry and verse was more to Jareth's taste than to hers. Nasir's poetry had been beautiful indeed.
"That too. But no, I still think it's a false alternative. He made a choice between the two dreams, forsaking one to have the other, because you told him he could only have one and he believed you. When you told me the same thing, I believed you too, for a time. Then I decided I could have both, and so I can. But here he is sixty years later and he still thinks his ability to write poetry is lost."
"It is lost. He gave it up." Jareth noticed absently that this time the old man had himself under tight control and didn't even blink at the dismissal.
"No, he put it aside. Of all your runners, he's the one that after me you loved the best." She spoke unselfconsciously. She spoke utter truth. Jareth found he could almost hate her for that. "Plus, he wished away and then rescued the most elaborate burden. So I watched him. His life after that run is a lesson in statesmanship and diplomacy. He took a failing land caught between too many great powers and made it successful and wealthy while also keeping it independent. For twenty years, for thirty, maybe, he needed to focus on his land. But he's succeeded. It doesn't need the same attention right now, but he's still focused on it to the exclusion of everything else. He doesn't seem to realize that time passes and circumstances change." Sarah sounded unhappy and bewildered.
He looked at her and realized that he recognized the feeling. It was how he had felt when he was much younger and trying to befriend the fae diplomats. Their thoughts were so very different, their social moors occasionally incomprehensible.
He frowned at her, trying to figure out where the disconnect was happening. What about Nasir's choice had confused her? He had made the choice and he had kept to that path.
He considered her. She had a point and he could see that. But she was also confused and he wasn't sure about what. He waved a hand vaguely in Nasir's direction to indicate that she should deal with the other man as he thought. She raised an eyebrow at that but turned easily enough to Nasir.
Nasir was also looking at her with some consideration. "What exactly do you want from me?"
"I want you to step down from your current position and move to my lands. Instead of a ruler, you would become a mentor and a poet. A mentor to me in statecraft, and a poet for the greater glory of whatever you like."
"And what would I be expected to bring with me if I were to agree? Gold? Jewels? Camels?"
"Whatever you want that you can carry yourself. Gold, I have a surplus of. Jewels, I don't need. Camels, I can't even imagine the mess that would create. Just bring yourself."
"Probably any spices you like." Sarah winced slightly. "I'm still working on the food situation."
"Hmm. And if I were to agree to move to your lands, when would this move take place? Immediately or next year or after some other details get settled first."
"There's no real deadline but I propose in three months as a good time for you to settle your affairs and for me to prepare a space for you."
Sarah waited for a moment but didn't show much patience given what she was asking. "What is bothering you? It's not the time frame or the change. You've been preparing your land for your sudden death ever since your seventieth birthday."
Nasir look startled. "You really have been spying on me, haven't you?"
"Then you realize that I can mentor you, but I can't write poetry. I haven't written so much as a couplet in longer than you've been alive."
"Oh, longer than that. But you will find you can write poetry if you wish."
"And if I can't?"
"There's no deadline. I rather expect you will, eventually. Just wait until you hear the chimes of gold seeds in the breeze in the blinding sun or the click of the loom on a winter night." Sarah smiled wide, her face filled with the knowledge of her land.
Nasir smiled back as if he couldn't help it. It was the smile of the carefree boy who raced horses in the desert and called on mythical beings to free him from cares. His eyes showed maybe the first glint of the boy that had written such glorious sonnets way back when, twisting words and images about like desert mirages to Jareth's delight. "I accept."
This was too much for Basil who gave an aghast, "Grandfather!"
Nasir turned to his grandson. "You knew you were going to inherit some day upon my death. This way, you'll just inherit upon my departure. And I am, after all, already quite old. When else can I take crazy chances without risk? One last chance for an old, old man," he spoke with youthful delight.
Jareth wondered, as he had before, what Nasir would have been like if he had kept his dreams so long ago instead of keeping his responsibility. He had loved that poetry.
Suddenly he realized two things. Two things that he should have realized long since.
The first was that Sarah always walked multiple paths, so choosing between paths would always confuse her.
She kept friends by her who gave her conflicting advice and provided her a variety of resources and skills. She studied politics and literature. It was the very thing that had drawn him to her: she lived reality and fiction side by side. Where he, himself nearly lost himself in the time lines, she took a thousand variations on events and wove them together in a great tapestry of life. Ten thousand little chiming golden seedpods waiting to germinate and grow.
The second, though, was the importance of the poetry. Nasir's mentorship in statecraft, that was for her. That was what she needed for her kingdom to prosper. The poetry, though, that was for him.
She hadn't been ignoring him or his Labyrinth. She had been preparing.
"You are going to marry me!"
Sarah hesitated but then nodded, a quick, short, sharp nod that rocked his world.
Happy but curious, he inquired, "why? I hold you to your agreement, but still, why? After all this time, why now?"
Her first response was practically an automatic and dry. "Because it never came up in conversation before." He quirked an amused eyebrow and took delight in the blush creeping up her cheeks.
"You've never been connected to a land as empty as the Plains are. You say you can feel everyone in the Labyrinth, right? That must be thousands upon thousands of creatures sharing your attention. I have seven. Seven residents plus the occasional visitor. I know my people backwards and forwards and I know my visitors too. I don't use your crystal to spy on you because I know you'd sense it. But whenever you visit the Plains, I feel you in more detail than I think you realize."
His smile widened. He hadn't realized but oh the discovery was sweet.
"You're engaged to the king of the djinn?" Nasir looked halfway between appalled and ecstatic.
Sarah looked pained. "I'd say we're in negotiations at this stage."
Jareth smirked, "Yes, she is engaged. Now, we're working out the details."
"And one of those details," Sarah spoke with overdone patience, "is creating my own council of advisers." She paused for a moment and then lifted her chin. "And providing an appropriate engagement present."
Jareth couldn't keep his smirk, it stretched out again into a grin. "An engagement present? Of poetry perhaps?"
"Yes. I thought perhaps Nasir," she stressed her use of the man's first name, stressing her right to use it as his monarch, "as well as helping to stabilize my the Plains, would write some poetry for my land. So that I, in turn, could give the verse to you."
"I have missed his poetry." Jareth admitted.
She smiled at him. Wrapped in shining gold, he thought her smile was still the brightest thing in the room. He smiled back, sharp and happy.
Chapter 3: Karen's Kingdom
Karen's kingdom is her own house in the suburbs with her husband but she does her best to support and be there for her stepdaughter, even as she shakes her head at the sheer insanity of it all
thanks for my sister for her excellent beta services!
“So…,” Jocelyn drawled out. “We’ve spoken about how Monica is doing with her husband and her kids, and how I am doing with my husband and my career.”
“Yup,” Monica gave a wide grin.
They both stared at Karen with laser eyes and maniacal smiles.
“So let’s hear how you’re doing, Karen.”
“How are you doing, Karen? And your stepdaughter?” Monica added just to make sure Karen got the point, as if it weren’t a flashing neon sign in both of their grins.
Karen groaned with as much theatrical despair as if she were still a college student and they were still gossiping in their sorority house rather than successful adults drinking wine in her living room. “Oh my god, you guys. I don’t even know what’s going on. I’m so far into smile-and-nod territory at this point.”
They both laughed at her, and now Karen was grinning as well, “It’s just so insane!”
The thing was, though: as insane as it was, it was also all true.
Karen had not planned on falling in love with a man who already had a teenage daughter, but she wouldn’t give Robert up for anything, and she had come to appreciate Sarah. Sarah had been a difficult teenager, and while she hadn’t really gotten any less difficult over the years, she brought something amazing to Karen’s life, along with the insanity.
After reading literally dozens of books about being a stepparent to a teenager, Karen had come to accept that there was really something completely different about Sarah. It was only after talking with the wives of other high-powered attorneys, both corporate and government, that the situation had begun to make sense…even if it really shouldn’t have, in regards to a high-school girl.
The other wives had talked about the difficulties of being married to people who necessarily had to maintain client confidentiality, even – or especially – with some huge and dangerous secrets. Conversations always had to careful; they could never press for answers on what their husbands were doing or even what was troubling them. All the wives could do, they bemoaned, was invite confidences in such a way that allowed their husbands to confide what they could, without feeling pressure to say too much.
Karen had just smiled and agreed, even as her mind had raced. This was something she had expected in her marriage with Robert, but it hadn’t occurred to her before that she needed the same circumspection with Robert's teenaged daughter.
And yet, it had worked.
Karen had carefully observed her stepdaughter, but had stopped expecting answers to any of her questions. She certainly had questions, though.
There was definitely something going on with her stepdaughter but she had never been sure exactly what.
She had first noticed how overly upset Sarah had become when asked to babysit Toby. Karen had babysat as a teenager, just as all the other women she knew had once done. It hadn’t occurred to her that Sarah would consider it a skilled job she wasn’t qualified for.
Rather than just keeping a child company for a few hours and making sure they got to bed on time, Sarah apparently thought she needed to be prepared for any emergency, even ones that would overcome most adults, such as kidnapping.
But there were other jobs, too.
At age sixteen, when most girls wanted to spend more time with their friends, Sarah had wanted to start earning her own money. She spent most her time away from the house, and Karen had thought she was loitering at a park, but discovered she had taken afterschool and weekend jobs.
Karen had worried briefly that drugs were the motive. After all, Sarah spent all her free time working, but then hardly showed any income from it. She didn’t have a savings account or new clothes or anything. The only thing that Karen could think of was that she was spending the money on drugs. Except there was no evidence of actual drugs.
Then she had worried that Sarah was being threatened or blackmailed or something. But again, it just didn’t make sense.
Karen had tried to ask tactfully if something was bothering Sarah, something that she needed money for. Karen couldn’t think what it could be, but she wanted to help if only Sarah would confide in her. But Sarah had first looked confused and then dismissive. Nothing was the matter, she had assured Karen. Sarah wasn’t saving up for anything in particular, she just wanted money to buy things. Nothing in particular, just things.
So Karen had kept her eyes open, looking for evidence of something even if she didn’t know what. And she had found evidence, but it didn’t make any more sense than Sarah’s vague explanations. She found receipts, left in pockets or loose on her desk or tucked into a book, but they were from craft stores or thrift stores or that one odd military surplus store.
But then she never saw the purchases themselves. Two hundred dollars on a large canvas tent, but no tent ever appeared. Eight hundred dollars on a weaving loom, but no apparently interest in weaving. And what could Sarah want with a large tent and loom anyway?
The only time Karen ever saw Sarah with anything expensive, it was her prom dress. Which was a mystery in and of itself.
It had been a gorgeous creation, a sheath dress consisting of a net of golden beads. She looked like a Hollywood star, like she should have been walking down a red carpet.
But the dress had no tag. The beadwork was clearly not mass produced. Karen wasn’t even sure how to price such a dress, especially since she couldn’t find anything even remotely similar available for purchase anywhere. It was the sort of dress that princesses wore. It was not the sort of dress a high-school student could buy with the savings from a couple of years of part-time jobs. Especially since there was no evidence that Sarah had saved the money she had earned.
When Karen had finally asked about the dress directly, Sarah had hesitated for a moment but said that it had been a gift. Karen had been appalled: a present like that for a young girl was not a good sign. Sarah had said, “um, no, no, not like that, sort of a barter? Or maybe a thank-you?”
“A thank you for the loom?” Karen had asked tentatively. She hadn’t wanted to reveal how much she had been snooping, but she was just so concerned.
Sarah had looked relieved. “Sort of, yeah. I’ve been helping some, well, refugees, I guess you could call them, and this is a present in return for that.”
“Refugees.” Karen had repeated.
“Yeah. Kind of.” Sarah had nodded. And then she’d had to dash off, and Karen hadn’t found a delicate way to follow up on the conversation. Like, which refugees and where?
But the money was only the first oddity.
There was the sudden interest in government. Not politics, but government. The girl that Karen had first thought was so dreamy wasn’t spending her time reading fairytales like Karen expected, but government treatises by the likes Machiavelli and King Louis XIV and who knew who else.
And maybe Karen would have considered that an odd stage in growing up, if it weren’t for the mention of refugees.
When Sarah had graduated with a bachelors in International Relations, her senior thesis, “Alien Accords: diplomacy between disparate and unfamiliar cultures” looked mostly at the history of European diplomacy with China, India, and the Americas. Karen had been impressed. Sarah had shown how diplomats judged foreign cultures by their own standards with mixed results. Sarah’s advisor had also been impressed and had submitted the paper to a journal. A week after it was published, the first background check had been done by the National Intelligence Department.
Sarah had gone on to graduate school in England. Having identified problems in diplomatic relations in her undergraduate thesis, she was intent on writing a masters thesis that explained how to avoid those problems. Karen hadn’t thought it was a good topic because most of the world was known now. There weren’t any truly foreign cultures anywhere. You could go anywhere in the world and find someone who spoke English, for goodness sake.
But then background checks were done by even more agencies. First it had been that foreign princedom and then it had been the US Airforce, Britain’s Royal Air Force, and the International Oversight Advisory.
Robert was so proud of his little girl, now thirty and already a successful diplomat of some acclaim if the people who visited were to be believed. Robert was even proud of the classified nature of Sarah’s work. Every time Sarah answered a question with “that’s classified” he just beamed. As a corporate attorney, he was used to working with privileged information. Karen was used to having a husband who couldn’t always tell her about his work, but she could also tell the difference between her husband’s secrets and her stepdaughter’s.
Her husband’s secrets involved a lot of money for large companies. He’d gotten involved in such things after he graduated from law school.
Her stepdaughter’s secrets involved life and death and government at the highest levels. And Karen had grown increasingly sure over the years that she’d gotten involved while still in high school.
What had Sarah gotten herself into?
Karen had begun to realize that the world wasn’t quite so known after all. There were societies out there that weren’t publicly acknowledged, and more than just the magical community where Toby went to school. She wasn’t sure if the government organizations that interviewed her for Sarah’s clearance had known about Toby at all. Sarah herself certainly did but … Karen wondered how many secrets Sarah knew. But the role of homemaker was to support everything and reveal nothing. So she had done her best to be supportive while remaining suitably oblivious to anything she wasn’t supposed to know.
No one told her anything directly, and for the most part Karen had learned to just smile and be supportive of her stepdaughter, but sometimes she really did need to share the insanity with her friends. Not only to vent, but also to get some reassurance. “It is insane, right? This isn’t normal?”
“It really is,” Monica agreed. “But I love hearing what your stepdaughter has done this time.”
Karen was fairly sure her friends thought she exaggerated her stories for dramatic effect, although maybe they too were just experienced in smiling and nodding. In reality, she edited them heavily for believability.
“Well, this time, she got married.”
She’d told them about Jareth before. Meeting the man her daughter was dating had been an awkward experience, but even at the time she had known recounting it later would be hilarious. And it really had been, as she’d described trying to keep her eyes on the man’s face rather than allowing it to drift to, ah, lower regions. His pants had been tailored for a very specific fit. And yet focusing on his face had been hard for other reasons. He had looked haughty and distant in a way that Karen would not have thought possible in a man dressed like he was.
She’d originally worried about why Sarah was with such a man. Because while Sarah did make a habit of arranging for things to be done the way she wanted, overwhelming most people, Jareth was noticeably older than her and clearly used to getting his own way, as well.
She’d accidentally eavesdropped on them the first day Sarah had brought him to the house. Well, it would have been an accident if she hadn’t been looking for a way to observe them alone together. It was too easy to imagine beautiful, successful Sarah getting in too deep with a man who tried to control her and not knowing how to get herself out again.
Karen refused to let that happen.
So she’d seen them walking out into the backyard while she was preparing dinner, and she’d just gone to open a window. Just to get a better sense of the first man Sarah had ever brought home.
She had been just in time to hear Jareth say, “Theron thinks that with all the fairytales you’ve read, all the doomed romances, you’re just aching to marry against your family’s wishes.”
“Theron is an idiot.”
“We have known each other for half of your life. Why am I here now?”
Karen froze. What was the old adage: eavesdroppers never hear anything good about themselves? It was true enough, though they weren’t talking about her. Jareth’s words told Karen that he had “known” Sarah since she was a child, while Sarah was still living at home with her and Robert.
Karen had let a man like Jareth anywhere near a girl under her protection? And while Jareth had said half of Sarah’s life, he hadn’t said anything about half of his. It was difficult to guess Jareth’s age, but she would bet he was a hell of a lot older than her Sarah!
“Jareth,” Sarah had sighed with apparent exasperation. “I am your friend but that is a relationship between two individuals. They’re my family, and for everything that you are to me, you are not my family.”
“Am I not?” He had towered over Sarah, and Karen had been shaken just looking on.
Sarah had simply stood straight and even leaned in to him, to look up at his face. “Not yet, you’re not. But if I ever marry you, that would make us family. That would make us all family. And that involves my family, so you will learn to get along with them and they with you.”
Jareth narrowed his eyes. “It goes both ways. You’re the one who’s always harping on fairness. If I am to be polite to your relatives, you will be polite to mine.” Suddenly, like a light switch, Jareth grinned and his whole face, beautiful enough before, seemed to light up. “That means not calling Theron an idiot.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “First, Theron is an idiot. His alternate shape is a butterfly! I can’t respect anyone who spent the majority of their youth turning into a maggot and who now floats around fields getting high on nectar. Second, I didn’t say you had to be polite, you just have to get along. And Theron and I get along just fine.” She smirked.
Jareth winced. “Too true, too true.” Jareth seemed more amused than chastened, which was notable, given that Sarah had somehow become the sort of person that most people obeyed.
Karen found herself somewhat relieved of her worry. Maybe it was okay for Jareth to be older and, well, whatever he was, if Sarah wasn’t letting his age and… physical attributes overrule her. And at least she wouldn’t quash Jareth like a bug, as she had the boys on those rather unfortunate blind dates Karen had once arranged.
Karen still cringed with mortification on several different levels regarding those dates, but whenever she tried to apologize for her part in them, Sarah just laughed and rolled her eyes.
Jocelyn’s nephew, a handsome young Westpoint student, had told Jocelyn that taking Sarah out to dinner had been like trying to date his commanding officer. He was much more comfortable just replying, “Sir, yes, sir!” rather than trying to get to know her better. That dinner conversation had apparently consisted of him being grilled about his course work, and he had plenty of surprise exams given by his actual instructors and didn’t need blind dates to get more of them.
Jocelyn shook her head in mock despair. “Do you know that my nephew recently made Major in the Army?”
“Is this the same nephew who has never let you set him up on a date again, after his one dinner with Sarah?”
Jocelyn waved that away. “And now Sarah’s married to some musician?”
“I’m sure many commanding officers are also married to musicians.” Karen avoided answering that. She knew that Jareth enjoyed music, but whatever his profession was, it wasn’t as a musician.
“Well, you’ve got a point there.”
“As much as that date story continues to crack me up,” Monica interrupted.” You were saying that she got married. So I take it there was a wedding?” Monica got them back on track, apparently waiting for the punchline to the new story, knowing that there absolutely would be one. At least one.
“Ah, the wedding,” Karen agreed.
“Sarah told us she was arranging her own wedding, but would like to sleep in her old room the night before, and drive with us to the ceremony. And we said, ‘that sounds wonderful, dear,’ because what else could we possibly say?”
“Frankly, it does sound wonderful,” Monica pointed out. “I sure wish my daughters didn’t expect Frank and me to pay for everything.”
“Well, she couldn’t have expected us to pay for this particular wedding, because the clothes alone would have bankrupted us.”
That got raised eyebrows, but they’d never actually seen the wardrobe aspect of the Sarah-related insanity. Karen had seen it with her own eyes, starting with Sarah’s high school prom dress, and she still didn’t quite understand where the clothes came from.
“But first: it was a winter ceremony held at sunrise. There were huge drifts of snow and we had to set our alarms for 4:30 AM!”
“Exactly. On February 29th, too. Sarah said it was because liminal space is an interest she and Jareth share. So, anyway, while I’m trying desperately to put together some semblance of being human, much less actually looking nice, Sarah comes down looking like a god, and you have to see it to believe it! Robert got a picture of her before we left the house.”
Karen showed the picture of Sarah, Karen and Toby, all dressed up that morning.
“Okay,” Monica agreed. “That does look like it would have bankrupt you. It’s like something out of a Czarist Russia at the height of their opulence.”
“Gorgeous, though.” Joceyln sounded impressed. “She doesn’t look like either an innocent or a sexy bride. She looks like a conquering queen.”
Sarah had worn an A-line split skirt and a high-necked tunic, all of it made of woven material enhanced with elaborate dull-gold embroidery and shining gold beads. Rather than a veil, she’d worn a headdress that framed her whole face like the halo on a holy icon, and a heavy cape of dull-gold hung from her shoulders to the floor. Not visible in the picture were her boots, thick-soled leather boots with their own gold embellishments, and yet not the sort of thing that Karen would have thought to wear to a wedding.
Sarah had warned them all to wear heavy shoes for hiking, since it would be an outside wedding.
“What are you and Toby wearing though? It pales in comparison to the bridal outfit, but it is sure impressive now that I’m noticing it!” Monica asked.
“That, I can actually show you! Hold on one moment.” And Karen went to get the jacket and hat that Sarah had given her for the wedding.
Jocelyn and Monica were still examining the photo when she returned, but quickly looked up to see Karen modeling it for them. She couldn’t wear it for long in a warm house, but it really did need to be seen to be believed. A durable ankle-length, down-insulated coat elevated to a work of art by the soft golden fabric overlaid with embroidery. Like the prom dress, there were no maker-marks.
“Sarah gave each of us, Robert, Toby and me, these matching jackets and hats.”
Jocelyn and Monica’s eyes widened appropriately.
“It’s gorgeous,” Monica breathed.
“Isn’t it just? But where can I possibly wear it ever again?”
“If I had a coat that looked like that,” Jocelyn stated. “I would wear it every single time the weather got cold enough that I wouldn’t suffocate. That is stunning!”
Karen took the coat off to sit down again, but laid it over her lap, spread out so that they could feel the heavy fabric and examine the detailed stitching.
“This looks completely handmade,” Monica stated, examining a corner of it. “It could be in a museum.”
“Robert's and Toby’s are just like it, though each with different patterns of embroidery, and tailored to their sizes, of course. Toby insists on taking his to school with him as his winter coat!”
“Oh god!” Monica looked horrified at the thought of something like this being worn at a rowdy boarding school was horrifying.
“Good for Toby, I say!” Joceyln said. “If you’ve got it, use it!”
Monica looked back at the photograph, examining the jacket and them comparing it to the picture. “I can see what you mean, though: the custom work on the coats, let alone Sarah’s outfit, really would have bankrupt you. How in the world did she get it?”
It was a rhetorical question. Karen’s friends knew that she didn’t have an answer to that question.
“She just said that someone made it for her,” Karen’s reply was despairing.
“Well, she’s not wrong.” Monica laughed.
“So there you are, in your glorious winter regalia…” Jocelyn prompted.
Karen continued the tale, “Sarah had arranged a car and driver for us, so we all bundle into this car while it’s still pitch black outside, and it drives us for an hour and I very quickly lose track of where we are, but it gets off of highways pretty quickly and onto dirt roads, and I have to admit to falling asleep for a bit because it was just so early! But finally we stop and all get out, as the night’s just beginning to lighten, like dawn is on the way, but the driver has a flashlight, so we all troop along until we reach a set of stone stairs.
“And there’s five other people there, most of whom I can’t even recognize because they’re all bundled up in coats and hats just like ours. Maybe I should have known them all, but the only ones I recognize are Chick, a boy about Toby’s age that Sarah used to babysit, and his mother Roselyn.”
She hadn’t mentioned Chick to her friends before because there wasn’t much to say about him really.
At first, when Toby had an imaginary friend named Chick, Karen hadn’t given it much thought. But as the years passed, the unseen Chick was still referred to. Chick did this. Chick did that. Chick was learning to fly and why couldn’t Toby get wings? Given that Toby had managed to hover a few times even without wings, Karen had been especially glad that he didn’t have them.
But with Toby’s stories of Chick maturing along with him, coupled with his own peculiar achievements, she had become decidedly suspicious.
Sarah had looked just as uncomfortable as Karen felt during that conversation. Karen had asked if perhaps Sarah knew anything about a boy named Chick? Sarah had said that there was in fact a boy named Chick that she babysat for occasionally. Karen suggested perhaps the next time Sarah was babysitting Chick, she might let Karen meet the boy. Sarah off-handedly mentioned that Chick didn’t look very much like a, er, person at the moment. Karen had nodded and asked about any dietary restrictions. Sarah had let her know that Chick could eat anything but that his mother might wish to come too if that was alright with Karen. Karen had agreed that that was perfectly acceptable.
Karen still felt proud of her composure when introduced to one entrancingly beautiful woman and one child who matched his name of Chick rather unfortunately well. His full name was apparently Chickadee. The wings looked like gossamer and the boy had been delighted to tell her that they had just recently developed and he thought adults were stupid for flattening their wings along their backs as if they were tattoos, rather than out and feeling the air.
Karen had smiled and nodded. And at least now she knew that Chick wasn’t Toby’s imaginary friend, so that was good.
There was just nothing much to tell her own friends about a random meeting with one of Toby’s friends.
“So we walk up these steps and there’s pipe music and other people on the stairs and then we’re at a large open space, on top of what turns out to be a really wide stone wall? There’s a crowd of people in the space, and Sarah is just striding along with Robert, Toby and I trailing after, a whole entourage dressed in gold, and people are getting out of her way and that forms a path for us and I realize that we’re actually in the ceremony already. This is it. And just as I’m realizing this, I see Jareth with his own entourage and apparently feathers are their dress theme, because they have elaborate feathered capes and feathers woven in their hair.
“Sarah just turns around to hug each of us and thank us for accompanying her, and then goes forward on her own toward Jareth. They meet in the middle of a clear space in the crowd, the music ends, and they just look at each other for a moment, and I’m left wondering when the officiant is going to get there.
“But apparently there’s no officiant. Because they come together and kiss just as the sun rises from the horizon behind them. And it feels like I’m watching a miracle, even though it’s just the sunrise, except that the sun rose and they kissed, and maybe the sun itself was the officiant, because that was it. It was so bohemian, which isn’t really Sarah’s style at all, except that it worked out so beautifully and I don’t even understand how it could be that magical.”
Karen had to dab her eyes just at the memory. It had been overwhelming, and she wasn’t even quite sure why.
“That sounds really beautiful. Simple and beautiful. I remember my wedding, when I got so stressed out over the flowers and then mad at the minister’s sermon. I love my husband, but god, that day was miserable to get through.”
“I quite enjoyed my wedding. It was a giant party with all the people we liked, and I can’t remember a thing the pastor said, but it can’t have been too bad. I mostly remember trying desperately not to grin like a complete loon.”
Karen laughed. “I, on the other hand, had a very proper and staid wedding, that was enjoyed precisely the correct amount.”
“Come to think of it, doesn’t a proper wedding have more to it than kissing the bride?”
“Well, after the kiss, Jareth turned to all of us and said, “I have the joy and honor of presenting to you all, my wife and consort, Sarah Williams of the Land of Near Endless Plains.” And Sarah says, “I have the joy and honor of presenting to you all, my husband and consort, Jareth Goblin of the Labryinth.” It was such a formal declaration after the simplicity of the ceremony, that it kind of caught me off guard, like, was this a wedding or a presentation? Except they both sounded so smugly gleeful about it. And normally I wouldn’t have liked hearing any man sound that way about his wife, except that Sarah sounded just as smug about her husband. I could never quite picture who could be Sarah’s equal in her life, but I think it really might be Jareth. And just, even with the formality of it all, I think it was also honest: they each considered it a ‘joy and honor’ to claim and be claimed by each other. It kind of felt like they were showing off to the crowd about what they had done. It was like they were really saying: isn’t this person amazing? They’re mine!”
Karen shrugged off her musings, “Anyway, then Jareth came over to greet us while Sarah went to his entourage, and they led us all into the receiving line, where I got to greet all the other guests who were an odd bunch, let me tell you.” Although, of course, she wouldn’t actually tell them about those guests who could never have passed for human, the way some of the others did. The way she suspected Jareth did.
“With your stepdaughter, I do not doubt it at all.”
“The Land of Near Endless Planes? The Labyrinth?” Jocelyn asked.
“I don’t recognize The Labyrinth at all, but the Land of Near Endless Planes is a painting Sarah made way back in high school. It’s been fifteen years since then!”
“Was it a good painting?”
“It really is a lovely painting. I saw it again recently, hanging up in her apartment the last time we visited her there.”
Jocelyn shook her head, “Your stepdaughter does seem to go out of her way to be cryptic. Of course, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun to hear about if everything made sense.”
Monica nodded agreement. “That is very true. My children may not always be great, but they always make sense. Which I love! I do! But they don’t make for great stories the way your Sarah does.”
“Urg.” Karen said. Then, “Well, after the ceremony, we all head down another stone stairwell to a banquet hall that looks like it’s from the middle ages and there’s literally a feast spread out, which is kind of daunting since it is still not yet eight o’clock in the morning. Once I got up to the tables, though, I see the food is actually pretty simple, some nice frittatas, breads and grain dishes, some soft cheeses. And there wasn’t any wedding cake, but there was one really elaborate pastry that got wheeled out at one point. It was covered in peaches that had been cut to look like roses. It must have been some sort of in-side joke because Sarah took one look at it, and burst out laughing, and Jareth looked particularly smug.”
“The food was all very good, though, I appreciated the simplicity given the hour of the morning, even though some of the guests seemed to look down on it. I overheard one say, ‘It’s impressive how much they’ve accomplished with so little’ in a patronizing way.
“Rude! If he’s going to judge them, what’s he doing at their wedding anyway?”
“From what you’ve told us of Sarah, he could have been a political connection, and we all know how condescending those can be, with the one-up-man-ship.”
“There were definitely a few guests that came with military bodyguards.” Karen wouldn’t mention that one of those guests had commented, rudely in Karen’s opinion, about how ‘quaint these Earth-customs were’ to the US Airforce general standing beside him, who’d replied that, ‘this wasn’t exactly the way of most Earth-humans.’
“Feeding a crowd gets very expensive really quickly,” Jocelyn defended the wedding. “It sounds like most of their budget went toward the clothes and location – it must have cost them a pretty penny to arrange the ceremony in a historical setting.”
“That’s a good point,” Karen agreed. Once the sun had risen, she’d finally been able to see that they had been on the top of a wide wall, maybe fifty feet wide, with snow-covered plains spreading out to the horizon on one side, and a bustling village of small ancient houses to the other side, with what looked like a labyrinth beyond and around them. Karen didn’t mention that to her friends.
“And rude guests need to keep their thoughts to themselves.”
“Exactly. I mean, we all judge things in our own heads, but don’t be rude at the event itself!”
“That’s what I thought too. God, I love being able to share these things with you guys, because who else am I going to tell?”
Only after she married Robert, Karen realized she wasn’t just marrying a man. She was also saying “I do” to Sarah and the as-yet-unconceived Toby. To be honest, the children changed the shape of her life more than her husband. Marriage had required some changes; with motherhood it would be easier to list things that hadn’t been changed, except that she couldn’t think of any.
She wondered when exactly she had learned to accept such strange things in her life. Her parents had been very traditional and raised her to be the same. She had gone to college and majored in English literature, while waiting for marriage. After college, she had worked at a law firm, where she met Robert. She quit working after their marriage, which perhaps wasn’t what modern women were supposed to do, but she liked being a mother and homemaker. It had taken her a couple of years to realize that Sarah didn’t need a mother, she needed a homemaker just as Robert did; Sarah, too, had worries on her shoulders.
Karen had spent the uncomfortable early years trying to raise Sarah and teach her how to be an adult. When she finally realized that teenaged Sarah didn’t need rearing, she needed support, everything suddenly settled into place. Karen stopped trying to demand answers, and instead just made sure that Sarah always had the resources she needed, and Sarah came home grateful and supportive in turn. Sarah was doing something important and strange, and she needed someone to come home to. Hopefully Jareth would give that to Sarah now, but Karen was determined that she would always be there for Sarah as well.
“Well, we love hearing them! So what happened next?”
“So then, we’re all browsing the banquet, and I’m trying various dishes that were all very good, but simple and hearty in contrast to the luxurious clothing we are all wearing. There’s beer, too, more than wine, but I just can’t do beer at breakfast. Robert, Toby, and about fifty other people are giving toasts in honor of the new couple. And then the meal is over and people are beginning to leave. Sarah appears with our driver, we all hug and cry a little and say goodbyes and thank-you’s and Robert, Toby, and I are back at the house by noon, at which point we’re pretty much all ready for naps because we’ve been up since 4:30!”
“It was a good day’s work if it got you this amazing coat!”
“Next time your husband needs to impress someone, you should both take them out wearing your matching coats.”
“You don’t think that might be a bit much?”
“There’s no such thing as over doing it when it comes to impressing recalcitrant CEOs.”
Karen smiled and agreed, but didn’t draw their attention to the bracelet that she now wore every day. When she’d first met Roselyn and Chickadee she’d noticed they both wore simple bracelets of small golden beads.
Sarah had seen her notice, and later she’d offered Karen a matching necklace and bracelet set of her own. On closer inspection, they weren’t really beads, but something more organic, like seeds or pearls. And Sarah had been diffident with the gift, cautioning Karen that some people might recognize the origin of the jewelry. And that those people might ask about Sarah or about the golden plains or the endless plains, and if so, to just let Sarah know. Karen could accept their business cards, or equivalent, on her behalf, if it came up. Which it might not. But if it did.
Karen looked at the bracelet. It was the sort of jewelry that could be worn with any outfit. Karen had put the bracelet on and wore it every day after that.
She wore the necklace sometimes, too, when she dressed up.
And sometimes people asked her about it and she would let Sarah know about them. Sometimes she even arranged meetings, but she never attended those meetings.
The coats just seemed like too much for casual wear. The bracelet communicated a connection to Sarah, while the coat seemed a uniform for something much grander. And maybe as Sarah’s stepmother, as a member of her wedding party, Karen was a part of that something, but after it was all over, Karen came home to her own house in the suburbs where she lived with her husband, and met with her old college friends. And that was enough for her.