Chapter 1: Comedy, Tragedy, Normalcy
Sarah thinks about the utter lack of surprise in the paths she takes now. Her slippers move over shiny travertine which reflects the overhead fluorescent glow back into her eye. She squints.
Straight, wide, and bright, the hallways intersect at regular intervals, at right angles, and there are signs everywhere.
Visitor Check In.
It would be impossible to get lost here.
Everything is white, and clean, as if something has leeched all the color from the walls, the floors, the ceiling, the people. As if it has all been soaked too long in bleach.
She scratches idly at her cheek.
"No, Sarah." The kindly man at her side takes her hand and guides it away from her face.
Sarah's eyes trail down to her fingertips then, and she sees the fresh blood beneath her ragged nails. It is scant, and makes curved stains, trapped between nail and skin; three tiny, red smiles (pointer, middle, ring) when she bends her fingers to inspect them, and three tiny, red frowns when she stretches her hand out before her to regard it further.
Comedy. And Tragedy.
Once, she'd thought she might major in theater when she got to college. Like her mother. That doesn't seem likely now, though.
She pushes the errant thought away and looks again at her fingernails. The crimson beneath them seems out of place here, the one dark thing in this luminous, whitewashed world. She smiles before remembering she shouldn't. Her eyes drop to take in the tips of her white socks, peeking out from the open toes of her slide-on shoes, and she continues along the wide hallway with her genial companion, the man who had stopped her from picking the scab on her face; a man called Sam.
(He has a sign, too; a small rectangle embossed with his name, pinned just over his heart, its long edge perfectly parallel to the floor. It is the one ornament on his crisp, white uniform.)
"Sorry," Sarah whispers hoarsely, curling her bloodstained fingertips into her palm. "I forgot."
There are times when Sarah wonders what it would be like to be normal.
Her life before she had wished Toby away had surely been destined for the most middling sort of normalcy, but now, it is anything but. That she owes her current state (her long-desired escape from normalcy) to the most selfish, unthinking, cruel act imaginable is an irony that both amuses and shames her.
All the trappings of royalty: a palace in which to dwell; a kingdom at her feet; a bevy of loyal servants to carry out her wishes and whims; the richest of gowns to wear; the choicest of foods to eat; chests of gold and silver and gems; ropes and ropes of pearls, more than her two hands can hold; entertainments and masques and feasts; the unquestionable devotion of the one who had bestowed it all upon her so readily.
The one who had made her a queen.
Sarah slumps, a frown marring her face. The weight of all she has, and all she will have, presses down upon her like a boulder from the Northern Mountains. She covers her face with her hands and breathes deeply, in and out, in and out.
That she owes her current state to the most selfish, unthinking, cruel act imaginable is no irony at all. It feels more like…
"Precious." Jareth's voice is like the finest silk, a sleek scarf which drapes over her shoulders, then wraps around her throat warmly, and just a little too tight. "Your petitioners await."
"Yes, my king," Sarah replies automatically. The ruler of the Goblin Realm smiles, but Sarah can see by the agitated way he twirls three shining crystal orbs between the fingers of his gloved hand that he is not happy. The unsatisfactory depth of her sincerity chafes him, creating a wound which will not heal, and when he is in his cups, Jareth rails that she lacerates him.
" I bleed!" he insists in these moments with breathtaking clarity, despite the impressive degree of his inebriation. "Do you not see it?"
The Goblin King's nearly hysterical tantruming is balanced by the earnestness with which he laments and Sarah sometimes wonders if perhaps he does bleed, in places and ways her human eyes cannot appreciate.
Once, she even thinks she sees a tear form and nearly spill over his shining lashes, but she can't be sure it isn't just glitter catching the candlelight.
She leans nearer to the mirror of her dressing table and inspects her eyes intently. Are they cruel?
"You are beautiful, my dear," the king assures her, and with a slight wave of his hand, her mirror goes black as if the glass backing is painted with coal dust rather than silver.
In the Goblin King's palace, every mirror is a magic mirror.
She rises from her cushioned stool and turns to face him. "I'm ready."
"Of course you are," Jareth replies, flicking his fingers so that the fragile balls he has been idly spinning jump into the air high above their heads. She watches as one by one, they pop like soap bubbles, showering both of them in tiny, sparkling flecks of glass. She would need to be careful when scrubbing her skin in the bath tonight. "Shall we?" The Goblin King offers Sarah his arm. As she takes it, the dressing table at which she has just been sitting shimmers, wavers, and then disappears into nothingness, as if it had never been.
There are times when Sarah wonders what it would be like to be normal.
Chapter 2: The Fox in the Pen
Sam extends an arm, his palm angled just so, indicating that she should walk through the door at which they have just arrived. It’s a gentlemanly sort of gesture, and it makes Sarah wonder at the orderly’s life outside of this colorless place. She bows her head at him in a courtly manner, as if she is bestowing royal favor. The movement is slight and graceful, and she peeks through the dark strands of hair which fall over her eyes. She wants to see how he responds.
Sam does not press a kiss against the back or her hand or drop to one knee and pledge fealty. He merely smiles, all politeness, and clasps his two hands behind his back, waiting for her to enter the room. She knows he will not leave until she does.
There is another sign here, on the wall next to the door. It is held in place by a chrome plate holder, allowing the sign to be easily changed as the occupant of the room changes. Today, as it has for the past several months, the sign reads J. Prevarant, M.D.
Sarah lifts her head and squares her shoulders, thinking for a moment; choosing her mask.
She had been to a masquerade once, and had arrived without her mask, the only guest to do so. It was a mistake; one she has no intention of ever repeating.
She walks through the door, her footfalls muffled by the commercial-grade carpeting which covers the floor of the office. A man sits across the room from her, behind a desk. He is writing something in a chart. Even from this distance, Sarah can see that the slanted handwriting is elegant and precise. Not like a doctor at all. She swallows.
“Dr. Prevarant,” she says, announcing her presence.
“Sarah,” the man returns, not looking up from his charting. He is keen to finish his thought, she supposes. “You’re right on time.”
“One o’clock,” she says, “on the dot.” She thinks of military time then. 13:00.
With a few more swoops of his pen, he completes his note, then closes the chart and moves it aside before he stands to greet her. Dr. Prevarant wears a long white coat, with a pocket over the left breast, the sole purpose of which seems to be to serve as a place to clip his I.D. badge. The badge bears his name and his picture, unsmiling, above the words Brooksong Behavioral Health Center. There is a magnetic strip on the back which she cannot see, but she knows is there. With it, the doctor can open the locked doors of Brooksong. All of them.
The power to come and go as you please, she muses. What must that be like?
Dr. Prevarant is a tall man, and lean, with blonde hair pulled neatly back into a ponytail. It’s a strange choice for a doctor, she has always thought, but perhaps not for a psychiatrist. In Sarah’s experience, psychiatrists seem to be less bound by the conventions of professional appearance than many of their peers in other specialties. The physician whose name plate had previously been displayed outside this office had a tattoo which crawled up his neck and ended somewhere behind his ear.
Impossible stairways and arches, with skewed and seemingly changeable intersections. She imagined the inked image continued over his shoulder and writhed down his back, and she had stared at the exposed portion as he talked, feeling lightheaded as she tried to make the perspective sensible to her eye.
“Please,” the doctor says, interrupting her recollection of his predecessor, “have a seat.”
Sarah smiles demurely and advances further into the office, sitting in one of two chairs angled slightly toward each other in front of Dr. Prevarant’s desk.
“I see you’ve been scratching at your face again,” the doctor remarks, taking his own seat. His eyes flick to the small wound over her cheekbone, at the spot where it meets her ear.
“Have I?” This is the mask she has chosen for today. Passive-aggressive; uncooperative; disinterested. She shrugs and a small smirk shapes her lips.
“Sarah, we’ve talked about this,” Dr. Prevarant reminds her calmly. “Even shallow wounds can become infected, and cause scarring.”
She laughs outright then.
He leans back in his chair, his steepled fingers pressing against his lips, and watches her. Sarah bites back her laughter and apes his movements, leaning back into her own chair and pressing her fingers to her lips in perfect mimicry. She meets his studious gaze and wonders, not for the first time, what color his eyes truly are. They appear alternately blue, then green, then hazel, depending on where she is sitting and how his head is turned as she makes the observation. Today, the afternoon sun streams through the blinds which are slanted open in the doctor’s window. In this light, Sarah thinks his eyes are the shade of the crystalline waters of some Caribbean paradise, like the one pictured on the calendar that hangs in the nurses station.
July, she recalls. Antigua.
After a moment of perfect stillness, in which he stares at her and she stares back at him, Dr. Prevarant drops his hands to his desk, palms resting flat against the fake-mahogany surface, and tells her he is adjusting her medication.
Her own hands also drop, but her palms now lay against the soft, white cotton of her scrub pants, her fingers curving over her knees.
“Because you aren’t stable yet.”
The word is fraught. For her, it is fraught.
When was the last time she felt stable? Before Toby was born? Or maybe just before her had mother left?
No, a voice whispers inside her head. You know when, precious.
Sarah gulps and does not allow herself to remember that empty crib.
“The last time you changed my meds, I felt sick for three days.” What she says is true, but she doesn’t say it to change Dr. Prevarant’s mind. Rather, she is giving herself another point of focus. “The smell of breakfast made me puke. And I was so dizzy, I could barely stand straight.”
“I know. I’m sorry about that. Many of these medicines can have unpleasant side effects as you adjust to them. That’s why it’s so important for you to report how you’re feeling to your nurse when she asks.”
“Or when he asks.”
“Nurses can be men, too.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that Sarah, but currently, none of the nurses on this ward happen to be men.”
Dr. Prevarant doesn’t have the decency to be flustered by her accusations of sexism. Instead, he exudes his maddening composure, as usual.
“As I was saying,” the physician continues, “it’s important for you to report any symptoms to your nurse. When she asks.”
Sarah isn’t sure if he’s teasing her with that last, or if there is perhaps a tiny crack appearing in that unperturbed veneer of his. The girl narrows her eyes.
“Why?” Sarah practically spits. “So you can dope me up even more?”
Arguing feels good, even if she’s the only one who considers it an argument.
“Giving you a few days of Zofran to help your nausea is hardly doping you up,” the doctor admonishes. “I’m here to help, Sarah, but it only works if you cooperate.”
I ask for so little.
She can’t tell if the words are imagination, or memory, or if the doctor has spoken them aloud. Her mask slips then, all but the part of it that is woven from defiance, and she bares her teeth.
“It’s not cooperation if you coerce me,” she hisses.
Just fear me, love me, do as I say…
“I’m not trying to coerce you, Sarah. I’d like for us to be partners here. Partners working together towards better health.” He looks at her with a creased brow, and his eyes-like-the-waters-of-Antigua seem so sincere as he emphasizes, “For you.”
“I don’t really have a choice, though, do I, doctor?” She sees his degree, double matted and professionally framed. It hangs on the wall behind him, just above his head, lending authority to his words. But Sarah has seen more convincing props in her time, and she has learned that her eyes do not always tell her the truth of things. Frowning, she repeats the title, saying it slowly to see if that will make it seem more genuine; more legitimate.
Her sneering tone says all the physician needs to know just then, about how his patient feels about him; about her state of mind; about his chances of making any sort of impact on her at this moment. He sighs, and Sarah luxuriates in the sound of it.
Maybe his own mask will slip, if he’s so weary, she thinks. There are times Sarah is sure he wears a mask. In fact, there are days she’s certain it’s one he’s chosen carefully, and solely for her benefit. Other times, she forgets, usually after he’s changed her meds. But today, she knows. She’s sure.
She wonders if he suspects she’s figured it out. The girl bites her lip and leans forward, just a bit, studying the doctor’s face. Waiting for a tell.
The hope is futile. Dr. Prevarant’s expression betrays nothing as he buzzes for Sam, and a moment later, Sarah is escorted from the office to the dayroom, where she stares through a window whose thick glass is reinforced with a metal mesh embedded in it. The pattern looks like chicken wire.
Chicks in a pen, she thinks, looking around at the other patients. How they would clamber and cheep to learn the fox is locked in the hen house with them.
Chapter 3: The Thirteen Steps
He likes her in white. Sometimes her gowns are shot through with silver thread, sometimes with gold. When he is feeling particularly cruel, she finds her gowns are slashed with red satin, down the front, over the sleeves, a choker of resplendent rubies clutching her throat, her opulent shackle.
A pitiless reminder of her sins.
“Warden,” she greets him sardonically as he fastens the jewels with his own hands, not trusting the task to her goblin servants. She can’t help but to try to provoke him at such times. He usually glowers and she thinks he might like to strike her, but he never does. Jareth’s self-control is extraordinary, really, and his discipline immense. It makes her feel small, and stupid, but it’s a quality she admires, when she’s not too busy hating him to notice.
“Have care of your words, precious. They have the power to fell kings.”
If only, she thinks. If only.
Today, her gown is made of a snow-white velvet, and the material is of the highest quality. Of course it is. The velvet is thick and plush, adorned heavily with opals along the low neckline and cuffs. Her trailing skirts are weighty, made more so by the intricate embroidery which forms a perfect replica of her labyrinth, all done in silken white thread, exquisite work that can only be seen by those standing closest to her. Too far away, and the white on white pattern fades and cannot be detected by human or goblin eyes.
She is unsure how the gown appears to fae eyes. Or, owl eyes, for that matter. She does not ask.
The Goblin King leads Sarah through the throne room amid the gathered crowd, to the far side of the chamber, up thirteen steps of dark, polished marble. Jareth’s footing is sure, and she is made to be glad of that as the smooth sole of her dainty slipper glides over the edge of the last step at an odd angle, causing her to lose her balance. The king’s grip on her wrist tightens then, and with no detectable effort, he keeps her from tumbling backwards, sparing her injury and perhaps even death.
“Thank you,” she murmurs a bit breathlessly, her heart pounding beneath her breast.
“I live to serve you,” he replies and she is sure the bitterness in his tone isn’t just her imagination, though if she were to ask him, he would certainly tell her that it was.
The platform upon which they now stand is made of the same slick marble as the stairs, and it holds their matching thrones. The chairs are black and silver, glittering and hard, carved with grotesque faces, goblins and trolls and the like.
“My queen,” Jareth says with a deep bow, releasing Sarah’s arm so that she might take her seat before her petitioners. As always, his gesture seems a mix of worship and mockery. She curtsies in return (carefully, chastened by her near-miss on the steps) and sits, the thick velvet of her skirts providing a welcome barrier between her flesh and the cold of the throne. She swears Jareth has spelled it somehow, to make it this uncomfortable. The chamber is warm enough, especially with all the creatures gathered inside. There is no logical reason for the seat to be so glacial.
Before Sarah can address the court, a flurry of activity erupts around her feet. Seven tiny goblins scurry about her throne noiselessly (such silence is not natural to goblins. Sarah wonders if perhaps this is yet another spell of the king’s. She does not like to think of the alternative: that Jareth has removed the goblins’ tongues). One pushes an indescribably ornate and tasseled pillow beneath her silvery slippers (so that her feet will not dangle ridiculously off the throne, for the seat was made to accommodate Jareth’s height, not her own) while the others arrange her puddling skirts about the floor in a fashion which she assumes will appear regal to the creatures standing below.
Jareth has dropped into his own seat rather carelessly, one long leg draped almost profanely over the carved silver arm to his right while the other trails over the front edge of the throne. The pointed toe of his left riding boot taps against the floor, a rhythmic reminder of his impatience.
The words are spoken with a deep reverence by Sir Didymus, First Knight of the Labyrinth, Lord Commander of the Royal Guard, Chief Officer of the Queen’s Privy Council, and her majesty’s personal protector. The talking fox-terrier makes a sweeping bow, his plumed cap pressed respectfully against his heart.
“Sir Didymus,” the queen replies with a delicate nod, her fondness for her loyal knight impossible to disguise. Jareth glares at the noble creature who in turn genuflects stiffly, paying the king his due respect.
“My king,” the knight says, and though he is deferential of his liege, there is no affection in his tone. Sir Didymus and the Goblin King do not like each other.
Jareth barely acknowledges the fox-terrier and begins to pull crystal orbs from the air and twirl them about in his hand, a sure sign of his disinterest in the impending proceedings. Sarah is unsure why he bothers to attend at all, but she suspects the king is too skeptical of her fidelity to leave her on her own for long, even when she is doing nothing more than tending to such tedious matters of state as these. Or, perhaps he just has nothing else to claim his time. She clears her throat.
“What petitions have we today, Sir Didymus?” she asks, and the faithful knight unrolls the parchment scroll a goblin has just handed him.
“First item,” the knight announces regally as the crowd quiets, “is a disturbing report from the Labyrinth worms, who describe an incursion by the Gate fairies.”
The creatures in the chamber part and a familiar nematode inches along the cleared pathway, coming to rest just before the bottom step to the royal thrones.
“’Allo, your majesty!” the worm calls cheerfully, and the queen remembers this particular subject from her earliest hours in the Labyrinth.
“Hello,” Sarah says with a smile. “What can you tell me about this fairy incursion, good sir?”
“Well, last week, they flew in, a whole mob of ‘em, and carried off three of my kin, didn’t they?” the worm replies. “And yesterday, it was my boy Jordy.”
“Oh, no!” the queen cries, alarmed. “They’ve abducted your son? Whatever for?”
“Well, it’s to eat ‘im, innit it?” the worm answers, not sounding nearly as distressed as Sarah herself.
“Gate fairies eat Labyrinth worms?” She sounds incredulous as she speaks the words. The queen is frankly aghast at the thought. Jareth snorts.
“Oh, yes, your majesty,” Sir Didymus replies gravely. “It’s ugly business.”
“But, why?” Sarah asks. “Why now? I’ve never heard of such behavior before.”
Though she understands that fairies aren’t the sweet and charming creatures from the coloring books and bedtime stories of her youth (a truth she’d learned shortly after her arrival in this land), Sarah has largely considered the Gate fairies to be relatively harmless (providing one does not stand too close to their needle-like teeth).
Put plainly, the queen has believed this particular fairy species to be made up of nasty, ill-tempered, biting nuisances rather than an invading force of cannibalistic abductors.
“Their numbers have swelled to the point that they’ve outgrown their traditional hunting grounds,” the knight explains gently, “and emboldened by their new strength, the fairies seek easy prey inside the Labyrinth walls now.”
“It’s true, your majesty,” the worm pipes up. “And there’s no easier prey than a worm, is there? Well, we don’t have arms to fire crossbows at them, do we? We can’t even throw rocks!”
Sarah is crestfallen. The worms are the gentlest of the Labyrinth’s creatures. She’d sooner wish harm on herself than this worm and his kin.
“Yes,” Sir Didymus replies, holding a hand up. He acknowledges the worm’s account while at the same time blocking further input from him. He is quite certain his queen understands the gravity of the situation and does not need to be further distressed. The fox-terrier smiles sadly at Sarah.
The queen’s non-aggression policies have been something of a contentious topic in the privy council, but her faithful servant is loath to point out Sarah’s folly so publicly. Sir Didymus considers his role as her majesty’s protector to mean more than just the safeguarding of her person, but also of her reputation. He will not undermine her subjects’ faith in their sovereign.
The queen sighs, feeling defeated, and then looks down at the petitioner.
“I shall send the Chief of the Royal Gardeners to deal with this directly,” the monarch promises, dreading the earful she’ll get when she tells Hoggle what she needs of him. He has been the primary opponent to her original plan, arguing that exterminating the fairies is the wisest course. She wonders how many ways the ill-tempered dwarf will find to say I told you so. Oh, well. It’s not to be helped. She sighs. “Next, Sir Didymus?”
“A territorial dispute, your majesty,” the knight answers, “between the rock trolls and the night trolls.”
“I thought rock trolls were night trolls,” Sarah remarks, befuddled, and ignores Jareth’s barking ‘Ha!’ in response.
“It’s a fine distinction, my queen, but they are, in fact, two separate tribes,” Sir Didymus informs her quietly, then adds, “though closely related, with a significant degree of intermarriage, which may account for your majesty’s confusion.” The fox-terrier glares at the king pointedly.
“Bah!” Jareth exclaims, then under his breath, he adds, “Ignorance isn’t confusion.” He spins a crystal orb upon the tip of his index finger. The queen’s back stiffens, but she does not acknowledge the Goblin King’s words.
“Hmm,” Sarah says, her eyes narrowing. Experience has taught her that such a dispute can become quite a headache if not handled promptly, and she has no desire to rebuild the center of her labyrinth for a third time since being granted its rule. “We’d best send Ludo to arbitrate straight away.”
“A wise course, my queen,” her advisor remarks, waving away the two warring trolls who have approached the throne to argue the merits of their claims. In a whisper meant only for Sarah’s ears, Sir Didymus adds, “And you’ve likely spared us two hours of nonsensical and cantankerous rambling between those two. Trolls aren’t known for their brevity, their civility, their logic, or indeed, for their hygiene.”
Sarah giggles but whispers back, “All except Ludo, of course.”
“Of course, your majesty,” Sir Didymus agrees with a bow of his head. “Our Ludo is the most civil and sweet-smelling of all the trolls in the realm, a credit to his kind, even if he is the only one.”
Jareth clears his throat pointedly and the queen bites her lip, swallowing her amusement. She has several more petitions to address, issues in her labyrinth that need her attention, and the king is already dangerously bored, judging by the speed with which he is spinning and swirling the three crystal spheres in his hand. She wishes to help the denizens of her small province, not vex their high king to the point he begins to amuse himself by turning them into quaint statuary or removing their heads and placing them on other bodies for comedic value. The Fireys might not mind, but she isn’t so sure the Labyrinth’s other occupants would thank her for it.
Sir Didymus is sensitive to his queen’s concerns, and with his help, Sarah is able to satisfy the remaining petitioners in short order, some issues being resolved by royal decree on the spot, while others are continued so that the throne may consider further evidence or conduct additional inquiry.
“You have done well, your majesty,” the old knight tells his queen, kissing her hand fondly. Sarah does not say it out loud, but her grateful smile tells Sir Didymus that his approval means the world to her.
When the last of the assembled creatures clears the throne room, Jareth dismisses the goblin servants and the queen’s protector. Sir Didymus opens his mouth to object, but Sarah stops him with a look, having no desire to pique Jareth’s ire just then. There are thirteen marble steps she must descend, after all. The steadfast knight bows, his furry brow creasing in concern, but he leaves as he has been bid, his reluctance visibly hampering his steps. It isn’t until the faithful fox-terrier has closed the door of the throne room behind him that Jareth speaks again.
“Sarah,” he says.
Even after nearly three years of hearing her name on his tongue, the sound of it still causes the girl’s heart to squeeze painfully in her chest.
Chapter 4: L’Enfant
Sarah’s dreams are the one place the truth always finds her. This is the reason for her poor sleep, despite the melatonin, the clonidine, the valium, the trazodone, the off-label Ambien.
Treatment resistant insomnia, Dr. Prevarant scrawls in her chart. Over the years, Sarah has become an expert at reading upside down. She does not correct the doctor’s mistaken assumption; his erroneous diagnosis. It’s not insomnia if I choose to be awake.
“How did you sleep?” the nurse always asks.
“Fine,” she always lies, because she has no wish for it to be anything other than it is. She has to be able to wake up. She cannot let them take that away from her.
Sometimes she will drift off in the dayroom, or during lunch, sitting up in her chair. Sam, or some other white-clad orderly, will gently shake her awake and tell her she is not supposed to sleep except in her room. When it happens, she smiles and says, “I know” and they tell her not to do it again. Those stolen snatches of sleep are enough without being too much. She rests, but not so much that she falls too deeply into that shadow realm.
She walks through the door, but never reaches the crib.
On visiting day, someone brings a baby into the dayroom. The infant is at the age where children first gain their legs and toddle a few steps before tipping over and resorting to their comfortable crawl once again. Sarah notices the baby straight away, a boy by the looks of his blue romper with colorful train car appliques on the legs. She sees him, his fine blonde curls tickling his ears, and she watches as his mother sets him down carefully. He stands with his chubby hands gripping the edge of a chair, but he laughs up at his mother, and at his older brother, who he has been brought to visit here.
With that laugh, the baby releases his hold on the chair’s edge, taking a few tentative steps towards Sarah. His adventure is short-lived, however, and he falls down, landing on his hands and knees, more startled than hurt. He stares up at Sarah and scrunches his face into a look of disbelief, just before he begins to wail. Even when his mother gathers him up and shushes him with her comforting words spoken in the softest and sweetest of voices, he wails, great tears wetting his inflamed cheeks.
Sarah sees this, this scene so typical of babies the world over, and it pierces the very center of her. She stares at the baby cradled in loving arms, crying even as his mother pats his back in that soothing way that all mothers seem to possess, and Sarah’s mouth falls open.
And she screams.
She screams and screams and screams, until everyone in the room stops and stares and rises from their seats, backing away from her in fear. Until Sam rushes in and takes her away from the visitors and the baby. Until he wrestles her down the bright, clean hallway toward her bright, clean room. Until he presses the call button and tells the answering nurse that he needs assistance. Until Dr. Prevarant is paged and an injection is ordered. Until two other orderlies help Sam hold her down on her bed and the nurse jabs her in the hip and depresses the plunger on a syringe.
Until she sleeps.
Her screams die in her own ears and her eyelids are weighted like lead. Then, there is realization.
Oh, God, this is sleep. I’m asleep. They’ve made me sleep.
Wake up wake up wake up!
She screams at herself to wake up but she can’t. They’ve given her something, something strong. She can’t fight her way through it. It’s too heavy. It’s seeping through her veins, through her brain. She can feel it, sticky and sluggish and far too powerful. She’s coated in a layer of tar and she’s stuck in place.
She’s in a familiar hallway, floral wallpaper adorning the walls above the chair rail. Karen always did love florals. Peonies, their outer petals a blushing pink with throats of a deeper shade, nearly scarlet, their curling stems and leaves intertwining in a way they never do in nature. Sarah looks away from the unnatural peonies and stares down at her feet. If she can only turn and move to the left, she’ll walk down that hallway and through her bedroom door. There, she can collapse in her own bed and draw her quilt over her, hugging Lancelot until this poison wears off and she is once again safely conscious.
If she can only turn…
But it’s as if she’s paralyzed.
She can feel the door at her back, can tell that it’s open, and the quiet from the room beyond is like a living thing, with weight and movement and intent. It wants her. It beckons. It slithers around her, writhing up her back and making the hairs on her neck prickle painfully, like tiny shards of glass nicking her skin.
Like the tiny shards from a shattered crystal orb.
“I’m not going in there,” she calls out. She is conscious of a fluttering in her chest; her heart. “This is just a dream. There’s no reason why I have to go in there!” She says it out loud, hoping that will convince whoever it is (or whatever it is) that wants her to turn and enter the room; whoever it is that wants her to walk toward the crib.
She says it out loud, hoping to convince herself.
“This is just a dream.”
She closes her eyes tight, and when she opens them again, she’s in the doorway. It makes her head feel light. She’s sure she didn’t turn to the door. How, then?
Lightning makes the windows blaze for a second and outlines the crib in brief, flickering brightness. She takes a step just as a clap of thunder follows the lightning.
“No, no, no,” she begs and takes another step. Her tremulous pleading is the only sound in the room, save the rain pelting against the glass. Her feet move without her permission and she squeezes her eyes shut, not wanting to see the crib, or what’s in it. Or what’s not in it.
Dr. Prevarant changes her meds again.
He tells her at their next session. It takes Sarah a moment to understand him. She feels as if she’s still half in a dream. When she manages to move her sluggish tongue enough to ask why, he doesn’t answer her outright. Instead, he quietly asks her to do something she doesn’t want to do.
“Sarah, tell me about the baby.”
Forget about the baby.
Sarah flinches. “What baby?” Her eyelids are heavy and her head feels as if it’s been stuffed with cotton.
The babe with the power, she hears, and this time, the voice isn’t coming from inside her head. Rather, it seems to originate from somewhere behind her.
“Shut up,” she slurs angrily, looking over her shoulder. There’s no one there.
“Sarah, who are you talking to?” the doctor asks. His tone is nonconfrontational; conversational, even, like a friend who is genuinely interested. Sarah laughs. She knows better. “Do you see someone else in the room with us?” Dr. Prevarant presses.
She rubs her forehead and squeezes her eyes shut. “What did you give me?”
He ignores her question and asks one of his own. “Are you having visual hallucinations again?”
“What did you give me?” she shrieks, pounding her fists on the edge of the doctor’s desk. Her hands feel as though they are made of modeling clay.
“Sarah, please calm down.”
Sam arrives in what seems like half a second, sticking his head through the door (the door is open, partially. Always open. Dr. Prevarant would never put a patient and a closed door between himself and safety). The orderly asks if the doctor needs help.
“No, Sam, thank you,” Dr. Prevarant replies, and his voice takes on a note of authority when he continues, all pretense of conversation and friendship gone in an instant. J. Prevarant, M.D. is a master at changing masks, far better at it than Sarah is herself. “I don’t need any help, do I Sarah? Because you are going to calm down and talk to me in a civilized way, isn’t that right?”
The rebellious teen inside of Sarah wants to sweep her arm across Dr. Prevarant’s desk and knock everything there to the floor: his open laptop with its noisy fan, the charts neatly stacked in a box marked “out”, the small clock with a plaque on its base engraved with what she assumes is his med school graduation year, and the ornate silver cup which holds the doctor’s pens.
How’s that for civilized, Dr. Feelgood?
But she doesn’t knock her psychiatrist’s things to the floor, partly because she has used what little energy she has in her small display of temper, and partly because during her time in bright, colorless spaces such as these, she has learned not to buy herself unnecessary trouble. Instead, she nods weakly and when Dr. Prevarant frowns a little and leans forward to look at her expectantly, she mumbles, “That’s right.”
She nearly chokes on the words but manages them to the doctor’s satisfaction.
“Good,” he says, nodding curtly. “So, we have no problem here, Sam. Thank you anyway.”
“Yes sir,” the orderly replies before walking away. The door remains open.
After Sam leaves, Dr. Prevarant leans back in his chair and stares at Sarah across his desk. She keeps her expression neutral, but she is waiting for a tell-tale smirk or some sort of mischievous glint in his changeable eyes; something to tell her he’s reveling in his control.
Because he should be. It’s in keeping with his character, and no one can hide their true nature forever.
But the doctor gives no hint that he is anything other than a competent psychiatrist, meeting with his patient. He is still staring at her, saying nothing. It begins to make her uncomfortable.
“What?” she finally asks.
So am I. “Waiting for what?”
“For you to tell me about the baby.”
Sarah’s shoulders sink and she looks away from Dr. Prevarant, settling her eyes on his desk instead. “Can we… Can we not talk about the baby right now?” She resists the urge to scratch at the sore on her cheek. It has nearly healed.
“Sarah, eventually we will have to talk about the baby. You know that, don’t you?”
“I…” She closes her eyes, allowing the images of a hundred babies to fill her mind. The Gerber baby. The baby on that fabric softener commercial. A set of twin babies she saw once at the mall. The baby her third grade teacher had delivered just before Thanksgiving when Sarah was eight, resulting in her class being taught by a substitute for three months. Babies in Romanian orphanages, their tear-stained faces featured on exposés by Dateline and 60 Minutes. Babies she’d watched for neighbors when they’d had reservations at fancy restaurants, to the tune of five bucks an hour. Babies in that Family Circle magazine (her stepmother was a subscriber).
Her baby brother.
Sarah stops there, her eyes popping open.
“I know, Dr. Prevarant,” she finally says, “but not today. I… I can’t even think straight today. Whatever you gave me…”
“Alright, then,” he acquiesces. “We can talk more about it when the effects of your injection wear off.”
Sarah nods gratefully. That’s today’s mask: the meek and grateful girl.
“But Sarah,” the doctor warns before the girl can congratulate herself too much on her successful manipulation, “your birthday is not far off.”
Sarah blinks once, twice, then slowly draws her brows together. “So?”
“So, you’ll be eighteen.”
She smiles somewhat drunkenly and shrugs. “I know. It’s what comes after seventeen.”
“You’ll be an adult then, in the eyes of the state.”
“Sarah, Brooksong is a pediatric facility. We’re going to have to transfer you.”
Dr. Prevarant’s words hit her like a powerful wave of frigid water as understanding dawns and a sense of apprehension takes root. Of course this is a pediatric facility, she has always known that. And of course, she will become an adult and will no longer be suitable for continued residence at Brooksong. It’s no secret, for God’s sake. But somehow, in her mind, this hasn’t meant she will need to worry about leaving one institution for another. She’s always thought it meant she’d be free. She’s been looking forward to her birthday, for the first time in a long time. This birthday will actually mean something.
She will be eighteen, and an adult, and…
Free of hospitals, and the control of others. Free to shape her own life as she chooses. Free to find a psychiatrist who isn’t tall and lean and blonde with blue-green-hazel eyes. Free to move far away from her father and Karen and their floral wallpaper and…
“I had hoped to have you stabilized before you turned eighteen,” the doctor says, drawing her attention, “so that you could potentially be managed as an outpatient…”
“Yes,” Sarah agrees in a rush, suddenly more alert. “That’s what I want, too, Dr. Prevarant.”
“…but your… condition seems to be deteriorating lately. It’s refractory to all the typical treatments…”
“Re… Refractory?” She tries the word out. It sounds like something from a physics textbook, she decides. He must have made it up.
“…and unless I can find a better alternative, I won’t be able to even recommend discharge, I’m afraid. We’ll have to look into transfer to St. Mary’s.”
Dr. Prevarant might as well say he’s sending her to Attica or Riker’s Island. Hell, he could tell her he’s sending her to the Overlook Hotel to be cared for by a man named Jack who likes carrying an ax around, and it wouldn’t be any more frightening than what he’s saying now.
“But Dr. Prevarant,” Sarah tries. She wants to tell him she’s not that bad, really, and that she doesn’t need to be locked away. She wants to tell him she knows the difference between fantasy and fact. She wants to tell him she only needs just a very little bit of sleep, it’s fine, and she won’t try to hurt herself, if you don’t count scratching off scabs every now and then. She wants to tell him that it would be stupid to send her to St. Mary’s (other kids on the ward talk about St. Mary’s the way they used to talk about the bogeyman or monsters under their bed when they were too young to understand what is really scary in this world).
She wants to tell him, but she doesn’t, because their time is up, and Sam is back to escort her to music therapy and she is looking at Dr. Prevarant’s silver pen holder cup thing again, and this time, she notices that the fancy carvings on it aren’t random or abstract designs but gargoyles or… goblins?
When she was young, she was scared of the bogeyman, and then monsters under her bed, and then goblins who skittered on the periphery of her vision and made sheets move from underneath when no one else was there to see. In the dark, her imaginings had stolen her breath. She can laugh at such cowardice now.
Because now, Sarah knows what is really scary in this world isn’t some imaginary monster who lives in closets or under beds, but the real monster who lives inside of her.
Chapter 5: The Noble Savage
The hour has grown late and Sarah is tired. She bids her supper companions goodnight, pretending she does not notice the way the Goblin King’s gaze lingers on her as she gathers her skirts and sweeps across the floor (today, it is polished parquet created from the rarest of the woods which are native to the realm). Her taffeta gown rustles as she moves and the sound of it makes her feel as though she is retreating among overlapping whispers, the hushed judgements of those who watch her leave. She knows this is merely a creation of her own overzealous imagination, yet she feels heat bloom on her neck and in her cheeks, certain she is drawing even more attention to herself. Her pace quickens just a touch, along with her heartbeat.
Sarah glides through the gilded doors which fling themselves open as she approaches. She rules her instinct to scurry away and carries herself with as much grace and dignity as she can muster. It is difficult, knowing as she does that Jareth watches her. His own carriage is so very elegant that simply to walk in his presence makes her feel like a plodding fool.
Stupid, Sarah tells herself. It’s just walking. You’ve been doing it since you were a year old.
And she supposes creatures such as Jareth have an unfair advantage; something genetic, perhaps, which renders them exquisitely agile and fills them with an unpracticed ease. Such presence is bound to make ordinary mortals appear completely unremarkable and perhaps even awkward.
But all the logic and justifications in the world do not make her feel confident in this moment.
When she is halfway down the wide corridor, the gilded doors close behind her. She shakes her head and snorts a little, chagrined at her ridiculous self-consciousness. It seems to be getting worse lately, when it ought to be getting better. She has grown used to the fine court gowns, the dressing for suppers, the jeweled slippers, the royal protocols, and the elevated language with which much of their conversation is conducted in the palace. Why, then, does she fear tripping over her own two feet, or tripping over her tongue, or making any one of a thousand blunders which will make her seem simple and silly in the king’s eyes?
Why should she care for his opinion at all?
She’s not sure why, but that doesn’t change the fact that she does.
It is a question which demands contemplation, but one she is averse to considering just now. She’s not sure she will like the conclusion she draws if she looks too closely at it.
She makes her way to her bedchamber as these questions and thoughts play out in her head. Sarah pushes through her door, finding several attendants waiting for her. A nightdress of cool linen is laid out on her bed and she allows the goblin servants to help her undress, removing her jewels and gown and petticoat and corset. She slips on the nightdress, relishing the near weightlessness of it after the sheer immensity of her dinner attire. She dons a silk brocade robe but not before frowning at the embroidered pink peonies which pattern it.
(She cannot say why, exactly, but she finds them distasteful. Her brows knit in concentration. It seems to her that the reason for her dislike hovers just beyond her reach, in the mist of the forgotten memories of childhood. Finally, she shrugs, closing the robe and belting the waist before walking to her dressing table.)
Sarah dismisses the goblins, shooing them out of her chamber despite their objections, and she’s brushing her own hair for once, sitting at her dressing table and staring into the mirror. It’s not that she’s vain, she’s really not, but somehow, the simple act of gazing into a dressing table mirror grounds her. It reminds her of simpler times; times she believed without knowing.
(Enlightenment comes with a price, she has learned, and simple faith is often times more gratifying. And less terrifying. Choosing what to believe, with all the whimsy and innocence of childhood to inform the choice, is a gentler kind of thing than being confronted with the fullness of what actually is. And what she now knows, cruel irony that it is, is her recognition of this truth means she can never experience those simpler times again, no matter how she may long for them. They are forever banished to memory and fond recollection, and she is cursed to lament their loss.)
There’s movement in the mirror’s reflection, coming from behind her, near the door. The chamber is dim, lit only by the candle which burns near her elbow, but she knows it’s him.
Who else would it be?
Sarah speaks without turning, a note of censure in her voice. “Why are you lurking in the shadows, Goblin King?”
“I am not responsible for the shadows, Sarah. It is you who has chosen to light only a single candle,” Jareth protests. “And I do not lurk.” His tone marks him as mildly offended.
“You don’t knock, either.”
“Can I help that my natural grace makes me difficult for your human eyes to detect?”
Strange that he should say it, when her own thoughts had strayed down this particular path earlier. Not about the human eyes, of course, but about his innate gracefulness.
Sarah refuses to award his arrogance with anything other than an eye roll. “I’m detecting you just fine.”
The king moves closer to her and she watches him approach in her mirror. He’s still wearing his dinner finery, dressed all in black, from his splendid silk cravat to his tailored waistcoat to his fitted breeches to his tall patent leather boots. There is a glittering pin of jet brilliants at his throat, holding his cravat in place. The gems are set in the shape of an owl. Strangely, tonight the brooch is the only thing about him which glitters, aside from his eyes.
Sarah resumes brushing her hair and Jareth watches her for a minute, his look inscrutable. It begins to make her uncomfortable.
“Is there something you need?” she finally asks.
“There’s only one thing I need, precious. You know that.” His hands come to rest on her shoulders and she pauses in her task, but only for the briefest of moments. Then, she begins brushing again. “You know you don’t have to do that yourself.” He speaks as if he is reminding an errant child of the household rules and his finger movements are so fast and subtle, Sarah’s eyes barely pick them up. In a blink, he’s holding her brush and her own hand is empty, fingers curling around the air where the brush’s handle used to be. Jareth begins to pull the bristles gently through her hair, starting at the temple. “It’s why we have servants, my dear.”
“Sometimes I like to do it myself.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed.”
Of course he has. There’s almost nothing that occurs within the whole of the Goblin Realm that escapes the king’s notice. How much more aware is he of the things which go on under his own roof? Still, she feels unsettled. Perhaps part of that is because she’s unsure of what has drawn him to her chamber.
More questions which want contemplation.
Instead, she hides behind a placid sort of ridicule.
“Did you come to help me brush my hair out for bed, my king?”
Jareth finds a jeweled pin that Sarah has missed. It’s still holding back a small section of her dark tresses and he removes it deftly, setting it on the cool marble top of the dressing table next to her hand. His own hand, bare for once, rests there for a moment, a hair’s-breadth separating his thumb from her little finger. He leans down to murmur in her ear.
“Why must you scorn me so?” He watches her face in the mirror and his own expression is serious. His eyes betray the hint of an ache, Sarah thinks. She wonders if this is another moment he will later claim has lacerated him. That unsettles her, too.
“I…” She hesitates and guilt washes over her, though she doesn’t understand why. He is the one who has crept into her chamber, uninvited, violating her privacy and her personal space. Why should she feel guilty? Sarah sets her jaw and when Jareth sees the change in her expression, one corner of his mouth lifts up and he smiles at her in the mirror. She huffs. “Why are you here, Goblin King?”
“I enjoy your company.” He pronounces this as if it is the most obvious answer in all the world.
“Yes. You’ve just enjoyed it for three hours at supper.”
Jareth rearranges his expression into an exaggerated pout and straightens, running his long fingers through her hair to check for more missed pins before he begins brushing again. “Yes, but I had to share you with so many others.”
“I’d hardly call Sir Didymus and Ludo so many others. And Ludo only arrived back from the summit in the late afternoon. He leaves again first thing in the morning. When else could we have discussed the situation with the trolls? He needed my approval for the proposals.”
“He couldn’t have written?”
“Would you handle the single most important situation in your kingdom by passing notes?” she chides. “Besides, his handwriting is atrocious. And you know how much tension there is at the center of the Labyrinth right now. If I don’t…”
“Yes, yes, I know.” He sounds as if he is rolling his eyes as he speaks, but Sarah can’t be certain because the dimness of the chamber and the angle at which he now stands make it difficult for her to find his eyes in the mirror. She stops trying, dropping her gaze down to the surface of the table and staring at the shining hairpin Jareth had placed there.
It is a beautiful little thing, among thousands of other beautiful little things she is trying so hard to be worthy of, to earn, lest she become just one of the beautiful little things herself; one amongst the thousands, with no other purpose but to glitter and please.
“You want me to be a good queen, don’t you?” She speaks softly, her voice sounding as uncertain as she feels. The king stops, placing the brush on the dressing table, and he drops to one knee at her side.
“What I want… Oh, Sarah,” he says, and she turns, moving on her cushioned stool so she is facing him. “My Sarah.” He breathes audibly through his nose, in and out. She meets his gaze, startled by the sincerity she finds there. “You are a good queen. What I want is for you to be my queen.”
He does not say it often with words, not since that first time when his proposal (she had not understood it at the time, but that’s what it was) had been rejected.
‘For my will is as strong as yours.’
Sarah swallows. “I know.”
His one hand is resting on his knee. The other, he has placed on the edge of her dressing table, but he moves it then, holding it out to her, palm upturned. She looks down at it for a moment and her heart begins its painful squeezing again, just as it does when he says her name in that way. Her gaze flicks up to the king’s eyes and in them, she sees no malice or demands or entitlement.
How utterly unexpected.
She draws in one small breath and reaches out with her own hand, sliding her palm against his. Jareth cocks his head and a small smile shapes his lips. His fingers close around her hand and they stay like that for the space of one hundred heartbeats (though admittedly, hers have just taken on a pace which is faster than normal).
“Is this why you’re here?” She doesn’t know why she’s whispering, except that the goosebumps which have arisen along her arms, her neck, her back, seem to have stolen her breath and whispers are all she can manage.
The Goblin King sighs. “I wish it were so.”
Sarah is alarmed by the regret she detects in his voice. Her skin prickles more sharply and she straightens. “What is it, Jareth?”
Reluctantly, he releases her hand and rises. He stares down at her for a few seconds and then clasps his hands behind his back and begins pacing. It’s a maddening habit, Sarah thinks, this tendency of his to pace and consider and scheme when he could simply speak. She knows Jareth will not answer her question until he has decided how to phrase whatever it is he’s thinking in the way which is most advantageous to himself. It’s another quality of his she admires, when she’s not overwhelmed with irritation at how it stymies her.
“Well, there’s the matter of your birthday,” the king finally says.
This is the last thing she expects to hear in this moment.
“My birthday?” Her brow furrows and she stands, walking toward him.
“Your eighteenth birthday.” He sounds so grave as he says it that she immediately understands there is some significance to her eighteenth birthday she does not yet grasp.
“Did you come here to party-plan?” she laughs, trying to diffuse the tension. Even to her own ears, her words fall flat.
Sarah hesitates, not sure she wants to know what it is that disturbs the king, but she decides this is cowardice.
And cowardice has no place in the life of the girl who has faced the terrors of the Labyrinth; a girl who faces them still.
She reaches out and places a hand on his arm, stopping his restless pacing. “Jareth, please. Just tell me.”
The Goblin King looks down at her hand and he seems... torn. It is a fleeting thing, however, and he clears his throat, saying, “Forgive me. I should not have come to you so late. We can discuss this tomorrow. Will you join me to break your fast in the morning?”
For a king used to unchallenged rule, that he is asking her rather than commanding her is striking.
Confused, Sarah simply nods and Jareth bids her a good night. With that, he is gone, and she’s left standing alone in the middle of her dim bedchamber, wondering if come morning, she’ll once again regret her decision to seek enlightenment.
Chapter 6: The Stairs of Dr. Penrose
Arts and Crafts.
It reminds Sarah of kindergarten, where children are ushered from one activity to another in small, rotating groups. Forty-five-minute blocks, as she recalls, long enough to accomplish something, short enough to keep the proverbial ants out of tiny pants. The art table. The writing center. The play area. The reading nook. The math station. Only here, the blocks are longer, and it's music therapy, group session, arts and crafts, free time, and individual counseling.
Today, Sarah stands at an easel, painting with acrylics (the room is not ventilated enough for oils, they are told, but she believes it's less an issue of ventilation and more that the administrators of Brooksong fear giving patients access to the solvents required to thin paints and clean brushes). No matter. The non-toxic acrylics are fine and it feels good to paint, no matter the supplies she is or isn't allowed.
This isn't art school, she reminds herself, and then looks around briefly at the others in the room. As if.
She's always loved painting, from the first time she dips her fingers in washable Crayola tempera and drags them across butcher's paper in preschool, creating a smear of color as joyful and exuberant as Sarah herself at that age. And, if she's honest with herself, she has to admit that she's always been better at it than acting.
She has a tendency to overact.
Sarah supposes her desire to act (her thoughts of a future as a theater major, her plan to move to the city and try to make a living at it), has less to do with any true passion or talent for it and more to do with wanting a connection with her mother. The insight amuses her.
Well, look at that, she thinks, I guess all these years of therapy haven't been a total waste.
Sarah shares her mother's looks, from the intense green eyes to the thick, dark hair, to the willowy, feminine build. And some would say she shares her mother's temperament as well, but that has never been enough to bind her mother to her; to hold her mother's interest for more than the space of a quick dinner out when her mother passes through town or a hurried phone call ('Oh darling, I'm glad I caught you. Mommy is so sorry she can't make it for your birthday this year, but your gift is on its way. Look, it's a great deal of money. Buy yourself something fanciful and absolutely useless. A girl should always be surrounded by pretty things she doesn't need! Remember, you're my little princess. Oh, I've got to run, Mommy's late, but I'm sending all my love!') The girl has grown up believing that if she becomes an actress, her mother will be forced to stop and look at her.
Sarah has an old daydream she keeps in her head, silly as it now seems to her in this bright place, but she replays it from time to time. She is a young starlet, the next big thing, and the theater world is abuzz, lauding her looks, her talent, her mystique. They are simply enthralled with her. She lands the starring role in a big production and her mother comes on opening night. For once, she comes. And when Sarah is through with standing ovations and curtain calls and piles of roses collecting around her, her mother is there, backstage, or, perhaps in the dressing room (Sarah's name is on the door). Her mother grasps her hand and says, "I looked up at that stage, and it was like looking at myself." And at last, Sarah knows her mother sees her.
She has talked about this dream of hers before, with her doctor. Not Dr. Prevarant, but the one who came before him. The one with the dizzying stairs tattoo. Dr. Penrose. She recalls he'd told her that clinging to her daydream is detrimental. He'd called it an 'immature coping mechanism'.
' Fantasizing is fruitless,' he had said, 'and it keeps you from facing your issues with your mother. You're simply placating yourself with wishful thinking. It's not productive.'
Sarah nodded, but she only half-heard him, distracted as she was by the way the stairs on his neck seemed to twist and shift as he talked and moved his head.
If only Dr. Penrose could see me now, she thinks, dabbing her paintbrush into a carefully mixed shade on her palette. Squinting, she flicks her wrist so the bristles strike the canvas in just the right way, leaving a stroke of green so deep it is almost black, rendering a shadow where once, there had been only light. You can't get more productive than this.
Because painting is quite literally the act of creating something out of nothing.
Sarah finds the idea indescribably appealing.
More than one nurse has stopped to admire her work, commenting that she could have a future as an artist, if she chooses. Sarah smirks. Having a future as an artist is akin to being struck by lightning, she thinks, but the fantastical landscapes she prefers to compose are stunning. At least, the new Director of Art Therapy thinks so.
"There's a dream-like quality to your work," the young woman tells Sarah, "yet an undeniable realism. That's not an easy dichotomy to balance. And I should know. I have a masters in fine arts."
And look at you now, Sarah does not remark, though it would perfectly make her point about the difficulty of earning a living with one's art. Your MFA brought you all the way to Brooksong so you can curate a collection of works by mentally disturbed children.
The girl supposes it's ungenerous of her to think this way, but she is hard pressed to care, which isn't really like her. She thinks it must be the medication change. Everything looks and feels different today; clearer, brighter. It's as if everything is somehow sharper today, including her mood.
The dream-like quality of her world has given way to an undeniable realism.
As the director jabbers, commenting on Sarah's technique and vision, the girl continues painting. She could point out that she's had plenty of opportunity to develop her skills during her time trapped in places with compulsory arts and crafts. She could point out that much of the great art of the world finds its origins in the artist's pain, which she carries in abundance. She could simply smile at the compliments and pretend to be interested in the opinions of others. Instead, she continues working, saying nothing.
(This is the mask she wears with the staff here: aloof teenager, too cool to care. She doesn't have to say 'whatever' because her expression says it for her.)
The director moves on to inspect the work of the other patients and Sarah finishes mixing the correct shade for the flags she wants to paint on the turrets of a castle she's completed in the background. A sanguineous sort of red. The castle sits on a high ridge overlooking a lush landscape and is backed by a distant mountain range. The tall peaks are clad in snow despite the warmth of the season evidenced by the green of the surrounding forest.
"Is that Germany?" Sam asks as he passes.
"No." She resents him for making her speak.
"Huh. It just reminds me of some pictures I've seen of castles in Germany."
She doesn't tell him that in the world she's painting, there is no place so practical and grounded as Germany. She doesn't tell him that no German castle is run almost solely on goblin labor and magic. She doesn't tell him that the passageways and chambers and great halls of German structures cannot change instantaneously on the whim of their masters.
She doesn't tell him anything.
She doesn't, but if she were going to, she'd tell him there's a hidden valley below that distant castle, and in that valley, there's a wild maze he cannot see, larger than any he's ever seen; larger than any he could even imagine. She'd tell him there's a face in the window of the castle's highest turret, gazing down upon that labyrinth, watching as a girl winds her way through it, discovering its mysteries. A face with eyes that watch and wait; with eyes that covet.
She'd tell him that the title of this piece is Requiem for a Dream.
Sam walks on and Sarah glances at the boy whose easel stands next to hers. Luke. He's monstrous. Not in nature, just in size. Luke has the same type of cheap plastic artist's palette that Sarah herself is using, but he ignores the evenly spaced sunken wells meant to keep the colors separate. Instead, his palette is smeared and tacky with one giant blob of paint whose color Sarah can best describe as medium grayish-brown. He uses it to paint two figures on his canvas. The grayish-brown stick people appear to be holding hands. Her mood improves slightly at the sight. She can't say why.
Luke catches Sarah glancing at his painting and says, "You and me." He smiles, a big goofy grin, and waits for her comments.
Sarah steps back to consider the piece, chewing on the end of her paintbrush. One figure is tall, she sees, occupying the entire length of one half of the canvas. She points to it. "You?"
The large boy nods, pleased by her recognition.
"So, then I guess that one is me," she continues, pointing her brush toward the much shorter stick figure next to the first. This one has long, grayish-brown hair.
"Friends," Luke says. "Sarah and Luke."
"Sarah and Luke," the girl agrees. "Friends." Sarah is surprised to find she means it, even though she's not feeling altogether friendly today. Luke is nice, a gentle giant, if a bit limited in his conversation. New nurses and orderlies tend to approach him with caution, owing to his size, but they soon learn they have nothing to fear from the boy. He's quiet, and a little skittish, but seems to pose no physical threat to anyone. Mostly, he just likes to paint next to Sarah during the arts and crafts block, and work on puzzles with her during free time. He always lets her pick the puzzle (she's partial to the abstract ones, where she can imagine the picture is anything she wants it to be. They're more difficult, she supposes, but worth it. She doesn't like being told what to think. She never has).
Sarah isn't entirely sure what has brought Luke to this place. It's hard to imagine him as a danger to anyone, even himself, no matter how he may appear on the outside, but then, she supposes his placidity could be a product of Dr. Prevarant's expert medical management (her lip curls at the thought). Even so, Luke doesn't seem able to describe his condition to her, nor does he seem particularly interested in knowing about hers (not that she's tried to tell him, or that she even would, but she can sense it's not something which is important to him). Still, if someone asks her to describe her relationship with the lumbering boy, 'friends' is what she'll say.
The class director announces that the art therapy block is over and it's time to move to group. Sarah frowns, but walks over to the sink to rinse her brushes. She has learned that in this place, there are things worth protesting and things which aren't. She has also learned that no matter how much she claims to hate group therapy (and oh, she does hate it), she will still have to go.
Besides, she has to convince Dr. Prevarant that she's doing well. Well enough to avoid transfer to St. Mary's, anyway. And she has exactly five weeks to do it. Five weeks until her birthday.
And then she'll be eighteen.
Chapter 7: The Gold Standard
Goblin chatter wakes Sarah in the morning and she stretches in her bed before sitting up, enjoying the warmth and the softness which cocoon her. Whatever else she can say about him, there is no denying the Goblin King has furnished his palace with the most comfortable beds in all creation. As has become her custom, the girl glances toward the corner of her bedchamber to see what she'll be wearing. She squints at what she finds, then laughs, befuddled.
"Really?" This is how she'll be clad to breakfast with the king?
She swings her legs over the side of her bed and finds slippers just beneath her feet, placed there only seconds before (by a goblin, of course). She steps into them and walks over to the dress form in the corner to inspect the gown more closely.
If gown is even the right word.
The dress is beautiful, as is everything provided for her to wear beneath the Goblin King's roof, but it's so very different from anything that's ever materialized in her chamber before. Sarah tilts her head, reaching out to feel the fabric. Muslin. A very fine, white muslin frock, simple by palace standards (though 'simple' seems to understate the matter egregiously. Sarah has corsets with more detail and ornamentation than this dress). The material is very soft, and thin, nearly sheer. She supposes this is why the goblins have pulled a smooth satin slip over the corset they've laced her into. The hem of the slip nearly reaches her ankles.
"And today, the part of Lizzy Bennet will be played by Sarah Williams," the queen jokes, watching the goblins remove the muslin garment (costume?) from the form so they may dress her. One of the goblins titters uncertainly but the rest ignore her remark. "What? No Austen fans in the crowd?" She would have to see about adding some English classics to the palace library.
The dress could've been lifted straight from the pages of Pride and Prejudice. It certainly has a Regency sort of sensibility about it: the empire waist, the short sleeves with only the gentlest puff about them, the wide, square neckline, the sweet embroidery down the front of the skirt. Though certainly finer than the clothes Sarah has worn routinely in her life before coming to live here, she knows the king boasts handkerchiefs far more grandiose than this garment. This is part of what has so surprised Sarah—the king's tastes tend more toward grand entertainments at Versailles than picnic on the grounds of Longbourn; more Rococo than Regency. Until now, she has believed simple and understated are not virtues Jareth can even comprehend, much less appreciate. He has no point of reference for restraint. But this dress is beautiful precisely for its perfect simplicity.
Goblin hands pull the dress onto Sarah, making quick work of the tiny pearl buttons which run the entire length of the back (there must be a hundred of them, she thinks, but she is wrong. There are one hundred and thirteen). She never ceases to be amazed at how dexterous goblins can be. She knows she would have trouble managing the buttons on her own, as tiny as they are, and spanning from her neck to her heels as they do, yet the goblins do not falter.
She cannot help but wonder if perhaps the king has chosen this dress specifically for this reason, that she cannot manage it on her own. It is a reminder that she lives, at least in part, in his debt and by his kindness; that she manages only with the help of others. But such dark musings are hard to cultivate and nourish while wearing such a dress, and she lets them fall by the wayside as the last of the pearl buttons are fastened.
The sides of her hair are pulled loosely back with mother of pearl combs. Her only other ornamentation is a gold locket on a delicate chain, something Jareth had gifted her when she'd first come to live in the palace (when the castle had somehow become a palace). It is enchanted, of course, this locket, with a magic that allows her to see the face of whomever she is missing most when she opens it.
The king is most certainly capable of cruelty, and no reasonable argument can be made to the contrary, but then, in the most unexpected moments, and in the most unexpected ways, he will be startlingly kind. At such times, Sarah often does not know what to say, and so, says nothing.
When she opens the locket, she will sometimes see her father in it, though occasionally, she finds her mother's face as well (nowadays, this is rare, and when Linda does appear, it is always a picture from Sarah's youth, before her mother had become famous; before she'd left the family). But mostly, Sarah sees Toby. He is no longer the baby of her memories, but Toby as he should be now, a robust preschooler with rosy cheeks and a head full of sandy blonde hair, all the baby fine curls grown straight. When she sees him, Sarah stares and stares, and wonders if her brother would even remember her. She's been gone so long.
When she is ready, a goblin phalanx escorts her down the corridors and she is confused when they arrive at the king's apartments, expecting as she is to be taken to the grand dining room where they typically take their meals. She looks questioningly at the captain of the guard.
"Are we to escort the king as well?"
"No, majesty," the captain replies. "Breakfast will be served here. In the king's private dining room."
Sarah schools her features, masking her surprise and concern. Jareth is a creature of habit, and he relishes every bit of pomp and pageantry that his position allows him. For him, fanfare is almost as necessary as oxygen. She cannot fathom what would inspire him to dine in relative isolation, at a small table, out of view of the majority of his servants and advisors. She is not certain the king is even capable of chewing food out of the glare of a thousand tall candelabras and the sound of the court minstrels singing and playing for his pleasure. Before she has time to contemplate it further, the doors of Jareth's antechamber are thrown open by the royal guard and she is led through and into the small dining room.
Jareth is standing in front of the round table, waiting for her. "My queen," he says, bowing. Three arched windows, tall enough to walk through, occupy the far wall and the morning light filtering through them strikes the king's hair and gives it a nearly ethereal glow. Like a halo. It mesmerizes Sarah for a moment but she remembers herself and her courtesies before her lapse is too apparent.
"Good morning, my king," she replies, dipping a curtsy to him.
Like Sarah, Jareth is dressed in white (well, mostly ivory, to be precise). Unlike Sarah, this is very unusual for him. She has trouble not gaping. His snow-white blouse, fitted ivory vest done up with mother of pearl buttons, and ivory breeches somehow give him the appearance of an angel, she thinks. His boots are the only thing he wears which is dark. They are as black and shining as ever.
The king takes Sarah's hand and lifts her from her curtsy, guiding her to her seat. "I trust you slept well?" he says, taking the seat across the small table from her. It, too, is white, as are the sheer curtains which wave gently in the breeze through the arched windows. For all its lack of pretense, for all its small size, for all its lack of heavy tapestries and gilded doors and rows of silver candelabras polished to glistening and blazing with tapers, somehow, this room is dazzling.
Sarah is dazzled.
White orchids are arranged at the center of the table and the plaster walls are painted a soft white, like linen. The crystal chandelier hanging over the table catches the sunlight streaming through the windows in its many prisms and shatters the beams into hundreds of winking novas, stars bursting overhead as if even they cannot compete with the bright glory of this place and exhaust themselves with the effort. When Sarah closes her eyes, she can still sense the light which surrounds her, as if the whole room is made of it.
The girl opens her eyes to see the king looking at her across the table. "Sarah?" he says, and she realizes he has asked her a question which she has failed to answer. Her mind scrambles for it. Something about sleep.
"Y-yes," she says, finally seizing upon it. "I slept quite well." There is a pause before she thinks to add, "And you?"
Jareth hums, a pleasant sound. "I always sleep well, but it's very kind of you to ask."
The food is marched in, platters and plates and bowls, pastries and pots of cream and lemon curd, butter, warm bread, poached eggs, and fruit, oh, such delicious, ripe fruit, and the vivid color of the berries stands out in this brilliantly white room. When Jareth plucks a strawberry from a milk glass bowl and takes a bite, the red of it in his fingers, and then against his mouth, draws Sarah's eye and her lips part for a moment as she breathes in. The king gives a pleased little moan.
"You must have one, my dear," he insists, indicating the bowl with his long fingers. "They are so sweet this morning."
She is lulled by his voice and this place and the sunlight and the breeze through the tall, arched windows. Above their heads, the chandelier's crystal prisms twist slowly as the air shifts, glittering in the sun filtered through the sheers. It's almost dizzying, somehow, and Sarah feels as though she has awakened in an impressionistic painting, a Renoir perhaps, or one of Mary Cassatt's works. No. Frank Bramley. A lady in the garden, reading, surrounded by white blooms. There's so much ease, and beauty, and light. Too much. She can hardly bear it, can hardly look at it all without blinking against it. It's so hypnotic, and it drains her of her suspicions and fears and hesitations. She realizes it, all at once, and that is the thought which prevents her from slipping entirely into the dream. She catches herself as she is reaching for a strawberry.
"You asked me here for a reason," Sarah says, pulling her hand away from the berry bowl and settling it in her lap. "You wanted to tell me something."
The Goblin King has been leaning forward, watching her, forearms resting on the table, but as she speaks, he sighs, straightens, and then reclines in his chair. "So I did," he agrees.
"Something about… my birthday?"
"Yes, precious. Your eighteenth birthday."
"Alright, then. What is it?"
Jareth regards Sarah carefully and she does not understand what she is seeing behind his eyes. Concern, she thinks, but cannot fathom the reason for it. The ease which has cloaked her since entering the king's private dining chamber begins to fade and her skin prickles slightly. After a brief moment, Jareth's expression changes, and his look becomes both haughty and untroubled.
"Though I know you are aware that there are many differences between our two realms," he begins, but is immediately cut off.
"Sure. In my world, when a head becomes detached from a body, it invariably results in death, to name one." She still hasn't quite worked out the nature of the Fireys' special talent, nor the reason for it. For the longest time, she had wondered if what she'd seen on her first encounter with them was merely a hallucination. Subsequent interaction with the tribe has proven this is not the case. Additionally, it has inspired some rather disturbing nightmares.
The king's lips press together in a displeased line, but he does not comment on her interruption and continues. "There are also things which we share in common. One of them is the age at which humans are regarded as adults."
"There are so few humans who've ever visited your kingdom, I'm surprised you have any sort of policy addressing this," Sarah remarks.
"Nevertheless, we do. Though policy is probably not the best term."
"So, what, after my birthday, I can register to vote here?"
"Don't be silly. There are no elections in the Goblin Realm." He makes a face as he says it, as if he can imagine nothing more repugnant than an election, then his expression becomes more thoughtful. "There are sometimes violent rebellions, and the rare bloody coup, but it's been near a century since that last, and no one registered for it…"
"Jareth!" Sarah barks, exasperated. "Focus."
"Yes, fine. Soon, you will be eighteen, whereby, in keeping with the traditions of the human realm," (here, he makes a face, but she lets it pass) "and according to the laws of the state of New Blerk…"
"That's what I said, New York. According to the laws of… your home state, you will be, for all intents and purposes, grown up."
"And, as a newly recognized subject…"
"Hmm. Denizen? Resident?"
"As a resident of a realm which is sustained, at least in part, by the whimsical beliefs of children…"
"And fears. Don't forget that."
"Yes, alright, also in part by their childish fears…"
"Does that ever bother you?" she asks, propping her elbows on the table and resting her chin on her interlaced fingers as she looks at him. "That the fruitfulness of your land, and its infrastructure, has to be supported by the dreams and pretenses and whimsies of human children?"
"I don't know, precious, does it bother your that your New Blerk relies on rains and climate and… what do you call them? Tax dollars? What could be more whimsical than that?"
She sits up, crossing her arms over her chest. "Tax dollars are not whimsical."
"If you say so." He does not look convinced. "Though the dollar itself is a bit whimsical, no? What value has paper? Even in the human realm, it's nearly worthless. You print your news on it and then use it to line pet cages. How can you accept it in trade?"
"It's not the same kind of paper!"
"Paper is paper, just as gold is gold. Your locket, for example." The king points to Sarah's necklace as he speaks and she reaches up, clutching it in her palm protectively. "It has a value, does it not? And that value isn't changed if you melt it down and mint a coin from it."
She disagrees. Her locket is far more valuable to her in its present form, but she does not wish to grant Jareth the satisfaction of knowing how much his gift means to her, so she does not make this point.
"Well, carrying around bags of gold to grab dinner at a drive through or put gas in your car isn't exactly practical," Sarah says instead, releasing the locket from her grasp. "We can use the paper in lieu of the gold, and the gold can stay in Fort Knox."
"But it's not as if the paper represents gold," he laughs. "Not anymore. Now, it represents nothing."
How did the Goblin King learn so much about the American financial system, anyway? Next, she expects a lecture on the fraudulent nature of the Federal Reserve.
"It represents faith in the government," she replies. She recalls learning this in one of her history classes.
He gives her a skeptical look. "Really, Sarah dear, and you're questioning the value of a child's beliefs? How is this different?
"It… it just is," she snaps.
He shrugs. "Doubtless you would know." He does not sound as if he is free of doubt, however.
"This whole conversation has taken a strange turn. You're supposed to be telling me why it matters that I'm turning eighteen."
"I am trying, precious, but you seem hell bent on convincing me your realm's financial systems aren't destined for spectacular failure when people realize they're being paid for their labor in cage-liners."
He shrugs again, but before he can continue, there is a sharp knock at the door. A large wolf enters, fur as dark as midnight, and he is walking on two legs. Lord Draimen. He is one of the advisors on the king's council, serving as Jareth's war chief. He has always rather unnerved Sarah. The unique talking creatures of the Goblin Realm are one thing but seeing an animal from her own world drinking toasts at state dinners and strategizing with the king on border security is quite another. He also has an air of menace about him, which she supposes is an attribute in a war chief, but it does nothing to persuade her that her anxieties regarding him are unfounded.
"Sire," Lord Draimen says, "I apologize, but it's urgent." He nods politely at Sarah, his yellow eyes alert and shrewd.
"Yes, alright, what is it, Draimen?" the king asks, waving the wolf to his side.
"A rider from Lucidesa, only just arrived. He bears a message that requires your immediate attention."
"So immediate that I can't eat my eggs before they get cold?"
"I'm sorry, sire, but yes. It's regarding their alliance with the other coastal kingdoms, and the tensions to the north. There's been movement along the border, and…"
"Yes, I see." The king swipes at his mouth with his napkin and rises. He looks at his breakfast companion. "Forgive me." At the look on his face, at his bearing and his mood, all protests and castigations die on Sarah's tongue. She is not much involved in the politics of the wider realm, confining her influence and interests primarily to the Labyrinth, but she knows enough to understand that the clans of the Northern Mountains and the kingdoms along the coast would not be averse to using the Goblin Realm as their bloody battleground under the right circumstances.
Sarah nods at the Goblin King and he leaves her there, amongst dazzling light and shimmering crystal and warm breezes. Her brow furrows and she falls back in her seat, slumping a bit as she thinks about what Jareth has said, and what he hasn't, and what Lord Draimen must be telling the king even now. Would there be war? Would Jareth ride at the head of his army? She bites her lip, thoughtful, and absently rubs her golden locket between her thumb and forefinger. After a moment, she leans forward and takes a strawberry from the bowl on the table. As she bites into it, smiling at the flavor, she flicks the locket open and glances down, surprised to see that it is Jareth's face looking back at her.
Chapter 8: Forevermore
As she leaves the art room behind and makes her way to group therapy, Dr. Prevarant's words turn over inside of Sarah's head.
' I had hoped to have you stabilized by the time you turned eighteen.'
This thought, with all its implications, sits with her as she moves down the bright hall. Luke is trailing just behind her, following her to the group room. He carefully walks where she has already walked, taking her sure steps as a sign the floor is safe here. This is his habit and it annoys some of the other patients, but not Sarah. She understands the desire for reassurance that the ground will not open beneath your feet.
If only there were trustworthy footsteps she could follow, but her whole world seems to be built upon shifting sands.
They walk through the door and into the room where group therapy is held each afternoon at four. Luke watches as Sarah takes her usual place. There are bean bags and bungee chairs arranged in a circle, but Sarah resists Brooksong's efforts to appeal to their teen patients and seats herself on a vinyl covered sofa instead. It's the sort of robust hospital furnishing which boasts cushions that stick to the backs of your bare legs if you sit on them too long, but it's also closest to the bank of windows along the back wall. When she sits there, Sarah can feel the late afternoon sunlight warming her hair. She likes to think the slant of the sunbeams streaming onto the back of her head creates the appearance of a halo, like in those historic paintings of Mary cradling baby Jesus. Also, the sofa, with its long lines, ruins the perfect circle of teen-friendly chairs by replacing one rounded section of the seating ring with a flat edge.
Like a deflating basketball on the ground, she thinks, and when she pictures this in her mind's eye, she smiles. Well, smirks, really.
The lone sofa visibly irritates one of the group members. Mandy. She has OCD, among other things, and kicks off a fair percentage of the group's sessions by demanding that Sarah's favorite seat be banned from the circle. She wants it replaced with alternating bean bags and bungee chairs (that Mandy also spends a few minutes before each session arranging the seating pattern—bean bag, bean bag, bungee, bean bag, bean bag, bungee—and inspecting the spacing between each chair is a testament to the ineffectual nature of Dr. Prevarant's medical management of her condition thus far. If Mandy's righteous campaigning against a functional piece of hospital furniture weren't so annoying, her doctor's failure here would amuse Sarah greatly).
The failure to establish stability abounds at Brooksong.
The teen patients file in and find their seats. Mandy makes her usual protests to the group counselor as Luke plops down next to his friend. "Sarah," he croons and she smiles at him, gently squeezing his shoulder. After being told (once again) that there aren't enough bean bags and bungee chairs for everyone and therefore, the sofa is necessary to provide adequate seating for the group, Mandy flings herself into the bungee chair furthest from Sarah, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring across the open circle at the object of her scorn. Sarah does not bother to change her mask, not for group, not for Mandy. Her look continues to say, 'Whatever.'
"Good afternoon, everyone," says the counselor. Kathy. She beams, her outsized optimism bubbling to the surface, as ever. Kathy is here to help, and no amount of apathy or anger or complex pathology or squabbling over the seating arrangements seems to affect her dedication to that mission. Sarah finds her tenaciously pleasant, a quality which simultaneously disturbs and fascinates her. The sheer energy required to maintain this demeanor, especially when surrounded by such blindingly white walls and shiny floors, is impressive, the girl thinks.
There is a mumbled chorus of good afternoons produced by the reluctant throats of approximately half of the group's attendees and then they begin.
"Who would like to start?" Kathy chirps, the corners of her mouth pulling up as she raises her eyebrows. When no one volunteers, the counselor gently prompts them. "Does anyone have anything to share about how they're feeling today?" When Mandy's hand shoots up, Kathy takes one look at the scowl on the girl's face and amends, "Anything that isn't about the seating arrangement?" Mandy's face pinches even tighter, but she drops her hand.
The counselor's eyes move over her charges as she searches their faces for any sign that one of them merely needs her encouragement to say what's on his or her mind. Her gaze settles on Sarah.
Oh no, the girl thinks, bringing her fingers to her mouth to chew on her nails as she averts her eyes, staring down at the flecks in the travertine flooring. It seems to have been buffed and waxed recently. The glaring shine of it is nearly painful to her eyes.
"Sarah," Kathy says brightly, "How was arts and crafts?"
"Fine," the girl replies. The response is automatic; Sarah's focus is still on the floor. She has no desire to discuss her painting, especially this particular one, with the group.
"I understand you're working on a beautiful landscape," Kathy tries. A snort from Mandy draws Sarah's gaze from the floor. Sarah should be irritated, but Mandy's attitude has drawn the counselor's attention, and so she chooses to be grateful instead. "Alright, Mandy, what are you working on in arts and crafts?"
Sarah successfully avoids further attempts at drawing any contribution from her to the group and her mind wanders as she enjoys the warmth of the sun on her hair. As the other kids drone on about how their parents make them feel, or how their nightmares make them feel, or what they'll change when they finally leave Brooksong, or what sort of plans they have for the future, Sarah thinks on riddles and door knockers and bogs. She thinks on a king who is no ordinary man. She is so deep into her contemplations that it takes her a moment to realize someone is saying her name, discussing her.
Mandy, of course.
Borderline personality disorder, Sarah thinks, frowning as she remembers another of the girl's diagnoses.
"I don't know why we always have to talk about our future plans when it doesn't apply to everyone," Mandy is saying. "Some people don't get to make plans, like Sarah, and it's stupid to make us do a Life Goals worksheet when she'll never get the chance to use hers." The girl smiles at Sarah, practically oozing her sickening, feigned sweetness. Sarah looks at her across the circle, her brows drawing together.
The unpleasant patient is arguing with Kathy, who is trying to pass out copies of the Life Goals worksheets Mandy is grousing about, using Sarah's case to make her point.
"Mandy!" the counselor rebukes softly. "You can't possibly know what Sarah's future holds."
"I know she's never getting released," Mandy laughs, "not after what she did. She's just lucky she's not in prison."
Something clicks inside Sarah's head then, and it's almost a physical sensation, jarring and immediate. She shivers. It's as if she's made entirely of iron and someone is striking her chest with a sledgehammer. She vibrates everywhere, inside and out, and her palms feel suddenly sticky. Even though she knows it's just sweat, she can't help imagining her hands are coated in blood, thick and drying. Her heart pounds and she is swaddled in a leaden and cold feeling. Dread. It reminds her of when she'd learned her mother was leaving and she cried herself to sleep.
The next morning, when the sun woke her, Sarah had opened her eyes and felt happy, normal for a moment, because she'd forgotten. And then, reality set in, and she remembered, and the sorrow and dread descended upon her anew, pressing so hard on her chest that she'd been convinced she would suffocate.
Sarah jumps up then, giving the girl across the circle a dirty look. Her fists are clenched at her side and her chest aches, as if she really has been beaten with a hammer. She feels that she somehow exists outside of her own body, with no control over it at all. Her head is suddenly filled with a loud, continuous roar, as if she's trapped beneath a waterfall, millions of gallons of water crashing against limestone boulders with a deafening echo. She's not sure what she'll do next. Her eyes widen in fear.
The fear of her own self.
"You horrible little troll!" Sarah hisses, teeth gritting. She takes a step toward Mandy. For her part, Mandy's false sympathy morphs into a sneering satisfaction before being replaced with an emerging fearfulness. Sarah has advanced by this point and occupies the very center of the circle.
"Alright, let's everyone calm down," Kathy says in her most soothing voice, but it's not her direction which convinces Sarah to take her seat. It's Luke.
"Sarah?" he says, and he sounds frightened. She supposes her sudden movement has startled the boy, and also perhaps her expression and her angered tone. Admittedly, she feels ready launch herself at Mandy and beat that hateful smirk off her stupid face. To beat her until she can never smirk again. Sarah tenses. But Luke is sensitive to violence (Sarah has wondered if this hints at something in his past). Once, a fight broke out between two girls in the dayroom while he was sitting in the corner, working on a puzzle by himself. It had taken three days for Luke to speak again after that.
(The first thing he had said was, 'Sarah, promise.' He had wanted her to promise never to leave him alone again. She'd only gone to the bathroom, just as she had a hundred times before, but she'd promised him nonetheless.)
Sarah turns and looks at her friend. He is trying to shrink into the stiff cushions of the sofa, no easy task for someone of his size. The sight cuts through the roar in her head and she gains control of herself again, smiling apologetically at her friend.
This is the mask she wears for his sake. It gives the illusion that she's tranquil. It is a lie which says she's harmless.
"It's okay, Luke," Sarah whispers, ashamed. She takes her place beside him once more. Her fists relax and she uncurls her fingers, reaching out for her friend's hand. Gently, she rubs his knuckles. "It's okay."
"Well, then," Kathy says, her familiar smile emerging once she is sure the crisis has passed. After a few words about empathy and employing mature coping skills, the counselor dismisses the group. She stops Sarah before she leaves the room, however, drawing the girl aside so they may have a private word.
"Are you okay?" There is concern in the counselor's voice.
Okay? She's not even sure what that means anymore.
Sarah nods but says nothing, staring at Kathy's lips. Her lipstick is the exact shade of the flags the girl had painted on the castle turrets in her landscape earlier. She wants to reach up and smear it off with her thumb. Her fingers flex at her side.
"Look, you know Mandy has issues with impulsivity and anger, but that has nothing to do with you. Your future can be anything you make it."
Sarah swallows and then mumbles, "I guess." Her response might lack the enthusiasm or conviction Kathy is seeking, but it will have to do, because group is over and the counselor has somewhere else to be. She smiles one last time at Sarah and then leaves. It is only then that the girl notices Dr. Prevarant, peering at her intently through the rectangular window in the door.
How long has he been watching? she wonders, worrying he's seen her small outburst. Oh, God, he's going to think I'm even crazier than before, and it's not my fault!
This is precisely the time not to give Dr. Prevarant reason to doubt her progress. She thinks of Mandy, and her provocations, and decides she hates the girl. Sarah grinds her teeth. She starts to reach up to her face, to scratch the healing sore there, but thinks the better of it.
The doctor watches her for a few seconds more, then pushes the door open slightly to stick his head in.
"Sarah, you're meant to be in the dining hall now. You can't stay here alone."
She squares her shoulders and holds her head high. "But I'm not alone, doctor. I'm with you."
"Come on, Sarah. I've got a session in about two minutes. Let's go."
He pushes the door open further, allowing Sarah to pass, and she brushes against him slightly as she does. The girl pauses for just a moment, stealing a glance up at Dr. Prevarant, but his face is immobile, his expression giving nothing away.
"Good afternoon, Sarah," he says after a second or two, dismissing her.
"Good afternoon, doctor," she responds politely before continuing to the dining hall.
As Sarah walks down the corridor past the white walls with their signs, she forces herself to stop thinking about Dr. Prevarant and what he did or did not see while spying on her through that window (and whether or not he meant to stand so close to her that she was forced to touch him as she passed). Instead, she directs her thoughts to her exchange with Kathy and she shakes her head a little. She knows the woman means well, but she can't help scoffing at the futility of it all (can't help but see the futility).
Everything is sharper today. She must remember to thank Dr. Prevarant for that.
The idea that Sarah will be allowed to have a hand in shaping her own future is beginning to seem more and more far-fetched. Mandy is right: They are never going to release her. She's just been fooling herself into thinking they will, but the truth is as clear to her now as the chicken wire embedded in the glass of the windows and the electronic locks mounted on the walls next to the doors.
That bitch got one thing wrong, though, Sarah thinks. There's nothing lucky about ending up here.
Brooksong Behavioral Health Center.
They can call it what they want, but she knows exactly what this place is. Bean bags and art therapy aren't fooling anyone.
She is most certainly in prison, and will be, forevermore.
Chapter 9: Fever Dream
All talk of birthdays and their consequences is delayed as the palace is thrown into a purposeful sort of chaos. Sarah is only peripherally acquainted with the reasons for it. Riders from the coastal kingdoms bearing messages. Troop movements along the borders of the Goblin Realm, to the north and to the south. Alliances, trade partnerships, and treaties, all in play. She has gleaned some minor details, bits and pieces, but no one has seen fit to brief her on the entirety of the situation. Still, it does not escape her notice that the guards which accompany her everywhere and stand outside her door have doubled in number and are fully armored.
No one has told her that she should fear, but this message is clear enough.
Jareth remains cloistered with Lord Draimen, the Honourable Vergess Trindlebark (the king's chief law advisor), and a handful of his most trusted councilors as missives come in and go out at least thrice daily, arriving from or bound for one of the coastal kingdoms, or the clan chiefs beyond the Goblin Realm's mountainous northern border. Additionally, edicts and instructions leave the council chamber nearly hourly, sending goblins and dwarves and lesser advisors scrambling to carry them out.
Sarah herself soldiers on, unmolested and seemingly unremembered, ascending the thirteen steps to her throne and meeting with petitioners when duty dictates. She does not spare a glance for the unoccupied throne next to hers, but she feels its emptiness nonetheless. When she has nothing else to do, she walks the splendid halls of the palace, her contemplative pace at odds with the rushing goblins and dwarves who pass her with respectful but quick acknowledgment before getting on with whatever business they are engaged in at Jareth's bidding. There are no less than a hundred souls beneath the roof of the Goblin King's palace at any given time, yet the Queen of the Labyrinth feels utterly alone.
The king does not involve Sarah in his plans. She doesn't see him often during this time, but when she does, she asks him what is happening and what she might do that would be helpful to the realm, and to him. He smiles distractedly, patting her arm and assuring her that everything is well in hand and she should not trouble herself over these matters.
"What matters?" she longs to scream but does not. Jareth seems to be under enough strain as it is, and she does not wish to increase his burden. She can't quite recall when she began to concern herself with the Goblin King's worries. She only knows that she does so now, and there is no help for it.
The king has told Sarah not to trouble herself, and so, she tries not to, and throws herself into the business of the Labyrinth, the governance of which has been ceded solely to her. If she doesn't care for it, no one will. Masonry will crumble, skirmishes erupt, sections overgrow and become impassible. There are even rumors of a door-knocker revolt, but personally, she thinks this is a lot of empty talk. Still, she will not allow her small domain to be neglected, no matter what else is happening in the wider realm. She even considers a journey to the maze's center to assess Ludo's progress with the trolls, but when Sir Didymus hears of her plan, he implores her not to leave the safety of the palace walls. They argue over it for two full days.
' War may break out at any moment, my queen!'
' Not in my labyrinth, though,' Sarah counters. 'It's far from any danger along the borders.'
' You do not know what foreign spies may lurk in the realm, perhaps even within your own labyrinth's walls.'
' Dear Sir Didymus, don't you think you're being a touch dramatic?'
The fox-terrier is affronted. 'I most certainly am not being dramatic!' he declares. 'What's more, I do not think the king will think me dramatic. Not when it comes to your majesty's safety.'
The knight has cornered Sarah with this last. If the Lord Commander of the Royal Guard will not endorse her plan, there is no hope of Jareth allowing her beyond the palace walls. The king may not like Sir Didymus, but he respects his judgment in matters of security.
Reluctantly, the queen finally defers to the wisdom of her personal protector. In return, she insists he himself go as her proxy. He does not like to leave her side, especially in the current climate, but accepts the compromise in order to end her mad plan to make the journey herself.
"Return with news," she bids her faithful knight.
"Yes, your majesty," Sir Didymus vows, pressing a kiss to his queen's hand. She bends to whisper in his ear.
"Make haste. I don't wish to be too long without your company." With Jareth preoccupied and both Ludo and Sir Didymus away, the palace is sure to be an even lonelier place for her.
"Your majesty is gracious to say so. I will do my best."
And then, he is gone.
Sarah meets with Hoggle frequently to discuss the plight of the Labyrinth worms and consider deterrents to the Gate fairy incursions (the meetings go predictably, with Hoggle adamantly insisting there's only one deterrent a Gate fairy understands and Sarah insisting with equal fervor that pixie genocide is not a policy she can support). The Gate fairies themselves send a representative to the palace, and Sarah is nearly persuaded to consider their cause more sympathetically, right up until the point when the wretched thing bites her. And quite unprovoked, too!
(Hoggle seems to nearly exult in the incident. It appears to Sarah that the dwarf has to exercise every molecule of his restraint in order not to dance as he declares, "See? I told you! Vile little buggers! Now will you let me handle them, your majesty?")
Though she forbids outright extermination, the queen defers to Hoggle's judgment and agrees to more aggressive intervention in the matter as the court surgeon bandages her finger and administers a tincture. Apparently, fairy bites have a nasty habit of becoming infected, even when properly tended. Later that night, Sarah tosses in her bed with fever and dreams that Jareth visits her and presses cool, damp cloths against her forehead. He murmurs soothing words in her ear as she aches and moans. In the morning, she is quite herself again and the king is nowhere to be seen, still locked away with his advisors.
The queen's days play out this way, one after another, and she wonders when things might go back to normal. Then she wonders what normal is. There was a time she would have been thrilled to be out from under Jareth's thumb; when she perceived his constant presence and heavy-handedness as a sign of his mistrust, and a means to control her. But now, she's not so sure. Bereft of the king's attention and his direction, she has had time to consider the value of each. Now, she thinks perhaps he only wished to guide her, to tutor her in the ways of this odd world so that she did not misstep too dangerously.
For even in her beloved labyrinth, unsure footing could result in dire consequences.
In Jareth's absence, Sarah has become much more reflective and much less reactive. She has also begun to feel an ache, familiar and unwelcome, deep inside her chest. It's the same ache she felt after her mother left, a sort of constant want, made all the worse for the passing days it is left unsatisfied. But now, it's not her mother's presence she longs for; it's the king's. The girl fills some of her free time pondering why it should be so.
Then, one day, as Sarah once again takes her tea by herself in the vast emptiness of the grand dining room, they are invaded.
It's as if all at once, the halls of the palace awaken. There's a small noise outside of the closed doors of the dining room that grows and grows until Sarah can ignore it no longer. She rises and leaves the table, pushing the gilded doors open with her own strength when they do not open for her automatically. As she steps into the corridor, she is nearly swept away amid the rush of people and goblins and dwarves and talking animals, moving this way and that. Some are familiar to her. Most are not. She has never seen the palace in such a state!
The queen cranes her neck, searching for Jareth, hoping he can tell her what is causing this commotion; why the halls are suddenly alive with creatures chattering and skittering and hauling luggage and crates and trunks. Were they… evacuating? Though she wanders and hunts, she does not find the king. Instead, it is her loyal knight who finds her.
"Sir Didymus!" she cries, a mixture of delight at his unexpected arrival and alarm at the sudden, unexplained activity within the palace walls. "You've returned!"
"Yes, my queen, only just," the noble knight says rather breathlessly as he bows. Before she can ask anything further, he continues. "You're wanted in the gallery, to greet your guests."
"Wanted by whom? And what do you mean, 'guests'?"
"Wanted by the king, your majesty. He caught me as I entered the palace and bid me find you quickly."
Jareth wanted her. She bites her lip.
"Alright, you'd best take me to him," the girl says, still confused about the guests the knight mentioned. Surely all these rushing creatures weren't guests? Of hers?
Sir Didymus says nothing further but turns and scurries through the ceaselessly moving throng toward the main gallery. Even with her longer stride, Sarah has trouble keeping pace with the fox-terrier. He is nimble, deceptively so, and wastes no time, weaving through the masses expertly. When she arrives in the gallery, she finds Jareth there, along with Lord Draimen and a bevy of other courtiers and advisors. Jareth seems at ease as he greets her, a complete contrast to her own bewilderment.
"My queen," he says, taking her hand and bowing low to kiss it. Sarah curtsies in response, ignoring the way her heart seems to stutter as the king's lips press against the back of her hand.
"What's happening?" She's a little breathless after her mad dash to keep up with Sir Didymus, but she cannot deny she is disconcerted and there is more than a little anxiety robbing her of her breath as well. Anxiety, and something else. Jareth senses it and bends to murmur in her ear.
"Take heart, precious. What you are about to see is hopefully the beginning of a lasting peace." He straightens without explaining himself further and after a moment, the doors are thrown open at one end of the gallery and a procession begins. Sarah is nearly agape at what she sees but manages to check her expression so that it reads as gracious and staid rather than astonished and unprepared.
This is the mask she wears for the sake of the Labyrinth she rules, and for the wider realm. It gives the illusion that she's tranquil. It is a lie which says she's adept.
She only hopes the mask does not fail her; that it does not crack and reveal her insecurities to those around her; to Jareth.
Chapter 10: Gone with the Wind
The day room is where the residents of Brooksong Behavioral attend music therapy, because it's where the piano is located. They don't always use that instrument, but even when they don't, they still gather around it, which Sarah has recently begun to regard as weird. It's as if the piano is a sacred tree or carved idol or holy stone ring and they are the pagan worshippers who seek it out for its perceived power.
The idea has never bothered Sarah before. In fact, it's not something that had even really occurred to her. But for some reason, lately, it's started to grate on her. Just the idea of it; the routine, unquestioned, and senseless. When the announcement is made that it's time for music therapy, the patients in the day room enjoying their free time start to rise from their puzzles and sudoku and whatnot and move toward the piano. Sarah rolls her eyes and sighs. Like so many mentally-ill moths to the proverbial flame, the patients wander toward the blessed instrument, seemingly without conscious thought.
St. Steinway of the Ivory Keys. Sarah stifles a derisive snort. Touch the pedals and you shall be healed.
The patients pull their plastic chairs near to the thing (mostly acquiescing to Mandy's insistent whine that they only use the orange and blue chairs, because orange and blue are complementary colors. 'Leave the gray chairs on the other side of the room, out of sight!' Mandy instructs. There is a degree of imperiousness in her voice that Sarah dislikes very much). Sarah pulls a gray chair near to the piano in a decidedly deliberate manner and drops into it, keeping watch on Mandy in her peripheral vision. When the OCD patient makes no move to confront her, Sarah smirks, knowing Mandy is likely still wary of her after their aborted confrontation in group therapy the other day.
Good thing, too. Sarah isn't so sure she'd be able to pull back from another such dispute today, even considering her empathy for Luke's PTSD.
Their music therapist is running late and the other patients grow bored, chatting and milling about. One of them begins to tap on the piano's keys. Chopsticks. Of course. It makes Sarah's eye twitch. The girl spies an acoustic guitar on a stand in the corner. She supposes this is what the therapist plans on using for their session and has called ahead to have a staff member place it out to save time. Instruments usually stay in a locked storage closet near the nurses' station.
Rising from her chair, Sarah retrieves the guitar and sits back down to tinker with it. She's not incredibly proficient, but she'd learned the chords to With or Without You some time ago, and she starts strumming them now. Luke is sitting next to her and has been humming to himself, but as Sarah begins playing, the boy grows still and silent.
"So pretty, Sarah," he remarks after she has played a few moments. One corner of her mouth lifts at the compliment. "Sing," he urges.
And so, she does. Quietly. She can carry a tune but has never considered her voice one of her attributes. Not like painting. Or solving puzzles. But her voice seems to make Luke happy, and so she plays and sings in her gray plastic chair. If she's honest, she has to admit it makes her happy too. Or, at least, as close to happy as she can get just now. She stares at the frets, watching her own finger movements as she calls forth the lyrics, and there's a sort of purpose and peace in all of it.
Peace is not something she's felt much of lately. Or, ever.
"Nothing to win and nothing left to lose," she croons, "and you give yourself away, and you give yourself away." Her voice grows stronger as she sings. The other patients have quieted and are listening to her. The therapist arrives then.
"Oh, Sarah," he says, interrupting the impromptu performance. His name is Ashley, which is funny, because he does remind Sarah a bit of Leslie Howard, with his naturally sad eyes, thin build, and wavy brown hair. "I didn't know you played guitar."
She shrugs. "Only a couple of songs."
"Well, your voice is lovely," he continues, reaching out for the instrument. Sarah surrenders it without protest but Luke grunts discontentedly. "Perhaps you can use it to sing something less maudlin. How about if we do Don't Worry, Be Happy?"
It's not really a question. Rock star angst is frowned upon in music therapy and not even a band as respected as U2 can pass muster with Ashley if the music has any hint of yearning to it. Songs about grief, sadness, and anger are held in similar contempt. There is an approved list of songs, aggressively upbeat ones, and anything not on that list is practically given the Fahrenheit 451 treatment here.
Ashley throws the guitar strap around his neck and begins to play, weaving slowly among the occupied orange and blue (and gray) chairs, smiling as he sings. He's gauging the patients' enthusiasm at participating, Sarah is quite sure. She always feels judged in music therapy, like she's not peppy enough for Ashley's liking. Of course, she's not peppy at all, so perhaps he has a point. Today, she tries to picture him as Ashley Wilkes, the sad-eyed Southern gentleman at the barbecue at Twelve Oaks, but it's been a long time since she's seen Gone with the Wind, and she seems to be suffering from a lack of imagination since Dr. Prevarant changed her meds. Or, perhaps it's less that she's incapable of imagination and more that she vacillates between ennui and aggravation, leaving room for little else, particularly anything fanciful.
Today, it's ennui she exudes. She'd roll her eyes at the strolling therapist, but she can't work up enough interest for even that. At times, she feels as though she's been dulled on the inside, even as the outside world seems sharp, as if it's in some sort of hyper-focus. She's singing, so she can't be criticized for not participating, but her indifference is unmistakable. It seems the only thing capable of breaking through her walls of apathy these days is her own anger, and Ashley does nothing to incur her wrath. In fact, he attempts to draw her in; to breach her walls. He tries so hard, it's almost pathetic. She'd feel sorry for him, if she could be bothered to care that much.
She just isn't.
As he finishes the song, he pulls the guitar strap back over his head and holds the instrument by the neck, offering it to Sarah.
"What's the other song you know?" he asks hopefully. "You said you knew a couple. Maybe you could play for us and we can sing along."
"Hurt," she replies in a bored tone. Ashley freezes, the guitar just beyond Sarah's reach, and then slowly, he pulls it back.
"Maybe not," he says, his brows drooping. His sad eyes look sadder.
"We could do the Johnny Cash version," she suggests innocently. When Ashley shakes his head and makes a dubious sound, she tells him, "I also know I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry…"
Her walls aren't meant to be breached.
"Or, how about Walking on Sunshine?" the therapist says quickly, turning way from Sarah. His voice pitches up cheerfully as he smiles at the group. The guitar strap goes back over his shoulder. "Everyone know that one?" And off he goes, vigorously plucking out the tune.
Later, when Sarah meets with Dr. Prevarant, he chastises her. She doesn't mind. It reminds her that he is not always so calm, so sedate. It reminds her that psychiatrist is merely an illusion he's created for her benefit, and that practiced as he is, she can sometimes still see behind his mask, almost as if it doesn't exist at all.
Especially on days like today, when things are so clear to her.
"Sarah," the doctor says as she enters his office, his tone distinctly disappointed.
"Dr. Prevarant," she replies crisply, overly annunciating each syllable.
"Take a seat."
She does, nodding politely at her physician. Her thoughts, though, are less courteous than her actions and she looks at him keenly. A slow smile spreads across her mouth.
Let the games begin.
Chapter 11: The Prisoner of Zenda
The king and queen stand side by side at the far end of the palace's main gallery. They are situated between their own larger-than-life portraits which hang on opposite walls on the west end of the gallery, eternally staring at one another. Behind them are the gilded double doors which open into the western wing. A clichéd red carpet has been rolled out in the room, end to end, and they stand at the head of it, flanked by the high-ranking members of Jareth's privy council. At the foot, the open east wing doors admit their distinguished guests, serious men of serious purpose.
Princes, archdukes, chieftains, and ambassadors are announced, titles and ranks trumpeted along with the kingdoms and chiefdoms they represent. These are the emissaries of nations on the brink of war, subjects of the nine coastal kingdoms and sworn men of the five most prominent mountain clans. Each is clad in the formal military dress of his country or the colors of his lord. All at once, the room is overflowing with gold braids, epaulets, sashes, sporrans, spats, and medals in an endless array of colors.
It's like a scene out of one of those color saturated 1950s movies, and just as stunning to observe. Sarah drinks it in with her eyes, the reds and blues and golds and greens. 'The Prisoner of Zenda', she thinks, remembering one of her favorite such films, where nearly every man in the cast is costumed in rich, Technicolor splendor.
Jareth's usual ostentation would pale before this visually astounding display of military might and perhaps that is why he's chosen relatively simple dress today. He alone is without ornament or rank wrought in embroidered gold thread or indicated by gem-encrusted badge. He alone lacks a scarlet plumed hat or ribbon adorned cap or insignia stamped helmet to cradle in his arm, pressed respectfully against his side. He alone is not fitted in a coat closed with brass buttons polished to gleaming, embossed with the head of a lion or a coiled serpent or a ferocious bear or the crest of the ruling family of his kingdom.
Instead, the king is garbed in brown, of all things. Brown. A simple woolen coat the color of milk chocolate cut to the waist in the front with tails skimming the backs of his knees. Nut brown buttons trail in parallel columns down the coat's double-breasted front. He wears it over fawn colored breeches tucked into rich, brown leather boots. Beneath his coat he sports a light beige linen blouse and its ruffled cuffs are completely devoid of lace, peeking from beneath the ends of his coat sleeves in the least dramatic way possible. Nothing sparkles. It is quite undeniably the dullest outfit Sarah has ever seen on Jareth, yet he is resplendent. In his lack of pretension, he alone stands apart.
Sarah thinks perhaps she has never seen him look more handsome than he does at this moment.
Odd thought, that, she tells herself, with all that's going on right now. She shakes her head slightly as if to deny she has wasted time on such a foolish consideration.
But as she and Jareth and his cabinet receive more and more guests, the contrast between the new arrivals and the Goblin King becomes increasingly apparent. She wonders if he means to send a signal to these people, to show his power needs no vulgar display, or if perhaps he means to put them at their ease and make them think on things other than war. If a commander's uniform had been required in this instance, Sarah has no doubt Jareth could conjure as many gilded sword belts and bedecked bicorn caps and ornamental gorgets as needed to declare his military prowess and underscore the power of his realm. But she thinks there is something else at play here; some strategy she cannot quite make out.
Her uncertainty disquiets her.
She does not like this feeling, as if she's been suddenly knocked from her feet and swept along in a powerful current, having no control over the direction in which she moves; as if the sands are shifting beneath her feet. Sarah appears to be the only one who feels this way, however. Everyone else present seems sure in their role.
But perhaps that is only the mask they wear, as convincing as her own.
She stands at the king's side, bowing her head graciously as some marquess or another greets her before paying his respects to the Goblin King. There seems to be a nearly endless line of such distinguished men to receive. She wonders why diplomacy must be so tedious.
The ambassador from Selkeys is standing before her now, clad in a coat of flaming crimson wool crossed by a gold and crimson sash. The intricate embroidery at his collar and his cuff hints at the high rank he surely holds in his homeland. With a crisp bow, he says, "Queen Sarah, I see the rumors of your beauty have not been exaggerated. It is a great honor to finally meet you in person."
"You are kind to say so, your excellency," Sarah replies, "and I hope that upon further acquaintance, you will find less superficial things about me which make me worth knowing."
She hears a faint chuckle from Jareth.
"Undoubtedly, that will prove true, your grace," the ambassador intones, unruffled. "I look forward to discovering all your fine qualities for myself. And for my part, I hope that this meeting marks the first of many, and that our two kingdoms will always remain staunch allies and friends."
"Well said, your excellency," the Goblin King cuts in. "I trust we are able to do better than merely hope, however." The ambassador bows once again, facing Jareth.
"Your majesty," he greets elegantly. "Selkeys is, as ever, your faithful friend and will never give cause for you to doubt it. I merely meant to say that I hope we shall also have a lasting relationship with your charming queen."
Jareth smiles, and inclines his head in acknowledgment of the ambassador's words, but they strike a strange chord with Sarah. She stares at the man, thinking, as he bows again. A frown mars her face, but it is a quick thing, and she rearranges her expression into what she believes is a look of calm superiority. As the ambassador makes to move on and clear the way for the young chieftain representing Clan Hulluus, she stops him with a question.
"Your excellency, why should we not have a lasting relationship? Do you suppose I'm going somewhere?"
"I would be only too delighted to learn that you're not, your majesty," the Selkeysan ambassador replies as he turns to face her once again.
"Well, then, I'm happy to inform you that I'm not," Sarah assures him.
"How wonderful!" the man declares and the queen senses Jareth's tension beside her. "And the royal family of Selkeys will be just as pleased as I am to hear it. Does this mean we will have an official announcement soon?"
Sarah's brows draw together and she starts to ask what announcement he means but before she can form the words, the Goblin King speaks.
"Your excellency, this is hardly the place."
"Yes, of course," the ambassador agrees apologetically. "Forgive me, your grace. I understand completely. You'll not want such joyful news tied up with these grimmer matters which have drawn us all here." He moves on and as the spokesman for Clan Hulluus pays his respects, Sarah leans over and whispers uncertainly to the king.
"Jareth? What was he talking about?" It is that feeling again, those shifting sands. Not for the first time, Sarah wishes for sure steps which she can follow. She hopes Jareth will provide them.
The king says nothing to the queen but slips his hand against the small of Sarah's back, his touch imparting reassurance and strength. Then, just as quickly, it's gone. She still feels the heat of it, though, a warm spot beneath the bodice of her gown, and she relaxes.
When the last envoy has been properly introduced and made welcome, Jareth's household stands at the ready. It seems that Sarah is the only one who has been caught off guard by the sudden influx of nobles and ambassadors and clansmen from surrounding lands. Everyone else appears to understand their duty and the new arrivals, along with those in their traveling parties (secretaries, valets, guards, and in some cases, wives and mistresses), are offered refreshment, apprised of the evening's schedule, and directed to quarters. Sarah overhears a goblin inform the private secretary to the Prince of Egludur that the banquet will begin at seven.
"Banquet?" she asks the king then. "What banquet?"
"Of course there's to be a banquet, precious," he says, and he takes on a tone of mock admonishment as he continues. "We can't very well invite all these guests to our home and not feed and entertain them! Not if we hope to prevent a war, anyway."
"I didn't invite anybody," Sarah mutters. "I didn't even know about all this."
Jareth brushes aside her complaint, assuring her that the banquet will be lovely. "The baker has made raspberry tarts, especially for you, because he knows how you love them."
Am I a child to be bribed with sweets? She thinks but does not ask. She is afraid she would not like Jareth's answer.
Later that evening, as Sarah readies herself for the event she has taken to calling the-big-important-banquet-no-one-bothered-to-tell-me-about, her gown appears on the dress form in her room. She gasps at it, as much for the beauty of the garment (it always surprises her how many different ways there are to fashion white gowns) as for the color she sees set against it. She's unused to such contrast in her garb, but a deep burgundy sash crosses the bodice, bisecting the field of white with one bold slash of sanguine color. It is held in place with a diamond encrusted brooch in the shape of two overlapping stars at the hip and a silver enameled square at the breast. The upper badge depicts her small territory in exquisite detail. The lower represents the stars Jareth moves for no one.
No one but her.
Together, the brooches and sash are the insignia which mark her as a member of the Royal Order of the Labyrinth. Appointments to the order are bestowed upon those who have either solved the treacherous maze or successfully performed a feat of selfless bravery within it. Aside from herself, only Jareth, Sir Didymus, and Ludo can claim this particular honor currently. She alone can wear the double star brooch. The others have the hip of their sashes secured with a crossed-swords emblem wrought in gold, awarded for valor in battle. Sarah herself sports this medal as well, but for her, it is pinned near the waist of her gown, just above where her sash meets her hip.
If Jareth has pulled out the stars and sashes for the evening, he means to make an altogether different impression at the banquet than he did in the gallery, she realizes. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say he desires that she should. The markings of the Order declare quite clearly what power she wields in this realm, and they hint at the violence of which she is capable, despite her youth and her humble beginnings.
It steels her at bit, lending her a small measure of courage, this thought of declaring strength without opening her mouth. Perhaps Jareth has meant it for this reason as well. Sarah had most likely impressed upon him her timorousness regarding this whole affair before they parted earlier.
As her goblin attendants fasten her gown and place a starburst tiara atop her carefully arranged coiffure, she feels as though she is girding for battle. And, perhaps she is; a subtle sort of battle, where skirmishes are won and lost on a turn of phrase or a choice in dance partner. The idea of walking into a hall full of the most accomplished diplomats and warriors in all the surrounding lands has her on edge, for she knows on such a battleground, every word can be a weapon and the even staunchest of soldiers can be outflanked by a look.
This is the part of diplomacy which is not tedious. This is the part of diplomacy which is dangerous. The thought that the application of courtesies and a single spoken jest can be as deadly as a sharpened blade is of no comfort to her. Rather, it unnerves her.
And perhaps this is why Jareth had not previously informed her that they would be hosting such a gathering. He did not wish for her to fret over it for an unnecessarily long amount of time.
It will help to think of it as a great game, she decides, rather than a hazardous field filled with potential perils and pratfalls.
"A game," she reassures herself out loud and the goblins give her queer looks.
Well, let the games begin.
Chapter 12: Between Cocktails and Chess
Sarah is in her psychiatrist's office, sitting in her usual place, staring at Dr. Prevarant across his desk. He looks back at her as if waiting for her to say something. To explain. When the silence stretches out for an uncomfortable length of time with no word from his patient, the doctor speaks, prompting her.
"I heard you were making trouble in music therapy today," he says.
Sarah shrugs. "It's not my fault Ashley has different taste in music than I do."
"Are you telling me that you weren't being deliberately disruptive?" The psychiatrist lifts one perfect eyebrow, declaring his skepticism.
"If that's what he told you, then I'd say he's just a little too sensitive." Just like Ashley Wilkes. It takes effort not to snicker at her inside joke. "Maybe he has an inferiority complex. Or, it could be gynophobia."
"You think he fears you?" A note of something creeps into the doctor's voice. Sarah can't tell if it's amusement or annoyance.
"Not just me. All women. Particularly, strong women."
"And you're a strong woman, Sarah? Someone to be feared?" Dr. Prevarant's fingers reach out for his pen and wrap around it. He picks it up, ready to make notes.
Sarah involuntarily squints a little with one eye, almost as if she's winking; a new motor tic. "Don't you think so, doctor?" She laughs, charming; light hearted; demonstrating just how harmless she is; how innocent. "You're not saying I'm responsible for anyone else's phobia, are you?"
He answers her question with another question. "And you're convinced Mr. Sikes has a phobia?"
She sighs. "He must, if I rattled him so much."
"So now you're diagnosing your therapists?"
"Well, I've certainly been in here long enough to learn a bit about your trade."
"It's not a trade. It's a profession, and it requires years of rigorous education and even more years of intensive training to practice responsibly." Her doctor is scolding her. This suddenly makes attempting to push his buttons infinitely more appealing to her.
"Be that as it may, we all have our own pathology, don't we doctor?" Sarah asks rhetorically. "Am I to blame because Ashley's is so easy to spot? Am I supposed to feel guilty that his feelings are too fragile to stand up to a teenager's choice in sing-alongs?"
Her ennui is fading. She has always enjoyed defying the Goblin King. It's exhilarating and it fills her with purpose.
"It's not your musical tastes that are your weapon, Sarah…."
"Weapon?" she scoffs. As if he'd allow her a weapon.
"…it's your words," he continues, ignoring her interruption, "and that too-clever mind of yours. You should think carefully before you lacerate others so indifferently with your sharp tongue."
Sarah scrunches her nose. "Lacerate? That seems a bit theatrical." It seems like something her mother would say.
"It doesn't make it any less true, though."
"So, according to you, my tongue is so sharp that I wound my music therapist just by naming the two or three songs I've learned to play on the guitar after he asks me to name them? Honestly, I don't know what you want from me. If I don't answer direct questions, I'm surly and uncooperative. If I do, I'm stabbing people with my tongue, apparently."
"You could try being more empathetic."
Sarah frowns. "Ashley could try being less delicate."
"It wasn't Mr. Sikes who complained about your behavior. You upset the other patients."
"The other patients?" Sarah laughs. "I doubt that." It had to be Mandy, she's sure of it. Tattling like a kindergartener, trying to make trouble. Borderlines!
It strikes Sarah then that Mandy has likely run crying to Dr. Prevarant in order to create precisely this scenario in retaliation for the gray chair. That crazy, OCD bitch!
"Well, why don't you tell me what happened, then?" The doctor's ways are subtle, leading her down the path of self-defense, offering her the irresistible chance to tell her side (after all, doesn't everyone want to be understood?) But really, he just wants her to confide. To confess. He's an expert at plumbing the depths of the mind for useful nuggets of information to use to his advantage later. She sees it well enough, for all his bland expression and non-judgmental tone. Well, she can play his game.
This is a chess match, she decides, and makes her move, threatening his knight.
"Ashley was late, so I was just playing with the guitar. I sang a song. Luke asked me to. There was no harm meant."
"I believe there was an issue with your choice of song."
Sarah's face shapes itself into the sincerest expression of surprise she can muster. "With or Without You? What's wrong with that? You know it, I'm sure. Everyone knows it."
Dr. Prevarant nods, giving an affirmative hum, encouraging her to continue.
She maneuvers again, placing herself in the path of the king.
"I can't live," Sarah says softly, leaning forward and peering into the doctor's eyes. Greener today, she thinks, but not glimmering with the usual arrogance. "With or without you."
"What?" His brows pinch together and he is momentarily puzzled. Or… thrown off?
You're in check.
The girl stares, unmoving, for long seconds, and then her face breaks into a large grin. "The lyrics. You know. To the song you were asking about?" She chuckles as if the doctor has asked the most ridiculous question in the world.
"I wasn't asking about a song, Sarah. I was asking what happened."
He defends himself ably, but he's harried, no matter how cool his reaction. She studies his face, looking for a tell-tale bead of sweat or muscles twitching in his jaw. There is nothing. Not yet.
"And I was telling you." See the thorn twist in your side, your majesty? She squints again, a quick, involuntary wink.
Dr. Prevarant leans back in his chair and folds his hand together, fingers interlaced, resting them lightly on the edge of his desk. He looks at her a moment before speaking. "Sarah, I want to help you, but I can't do that without your cooperation."
A pawn, in her path, meant as a simple obstruction. The 'I'm just a concerned physician' move. Not difficult to overcome, but tedious.
He underestimates her. He has always underestimated her, and it galls her to no end.
If there were a real chess board between them, she would turn it over and knock all the pieces to the ground. She would grind them into dust with her heel.
Sarah reaches up, absently scratching at her cheek.
It irks her, this reasonable façade of his. He is not reasonable. He is not practical, or moderate, or sensible in the least! He is a raging tempest disguised as a man, driven by whim, motivated by uncurbed desire. He is not accustomed to defiance. He expects to be obeyed, and when he is not, he becomes cruel, or petulant, or cold. His capacity for fury is endless. He tantrums like a child, for God's sake! There is nothing measured about him, and it's pissing her off that he's behaving as if there is.
There was ennui for a while, and then the momentary thrill of sparring with a master, but now, only anger remains. Her fingers twitch as the anger grows.
The girl's eyes snap up and she meets the psychiatrist's gaze. A voice inside of her head, small and distant, pleads with her to keep her mouth shut, but it fades away and she finds herself addressing the doctor in low tones. There is a subtle menace in her voice.
"Why are you here?"
Dr. Prevarant seems unperturbed. "What do you mean?"
"Why are you here, doctor?" Her glare is filled with animosity. Her mockery is unmistakable.
"I'm here to help you, Sarah. You know that."
"Do I?" She laughs a little, but it's a bitter, mirthless sound. "When have you ever helped me?"
The doctor places his forearms on his desk, leaning toward his patient. "I've tried my best ever since I took over your case." His pupils are large, making his eyes dark; dangerous.
Ah, she thinks, there it is. Just a little further, and his mask will slip.
Sarah's lip curls. "Have you? Your best?"
"My absolute best."
The girl snorts, then says, "I don't know what you're up to here. I don't know what sort of end game you have in mind, but…"
"This is no game," Dr. Prevarant interrupts. "Your well-being is no game to me, Sarah."
"No game!" Her jaw drops for a moment, self-control slipping through her fingers like water. "Are you kidding me?"
The doctor cocks his head and regards his patient. "Where is this hostility coming from?" he asks. Sarah's eyes flick briefly to the desk top as her physician jots a note on a small pad near his right hand. She reads it, upside down. Irritability, it says. Mood swings. Her annoyance intensifies. How dare he judge her! Him!
"Everything is a game to you," she replies. "Everything. From the moment I met you. And you change the rules as you see fit!"
Where I come from, we call that 'cheating', your majesty. Write that down on your little notepad.
"Why don't you tell me what you're so angry about," the doctor suggests.
"I'm not angry!" Sarah spits, then watches as the doctor jots down another observation. Poor insight, the pad now reads. Her face pinches into a look of discontent. Her insight isn't poor, not by a long shot. She sees exactly what's going on here. What Dr. Prevarant doesn't realize yet is that she's tired of playing his game.
"How are you sleeping?" he wants to know.
"Fine," she grunts, crossing her arms over chest. His expression tells her he doesn't believe her. She looks away from him, staring at the bookshelf to her right instead.
The doctor suggests that her mood is a side effect of her medication, one that he hoped would lessen with time. "But it seems to be intensifying," he remarks, looking at his pad as he jots another note to himself. Insomnia, it says, followed by a question mark. He goes on to explain the adverse effects of poor sleep on mood.
She sneers at that; at that banal medical talk. He sounds so officious, so dull. Sarah wonders how he can even stand himself. She wants to ask him that very question, but she knows he'll willfully misinterpret her words and suggest that simply by posing the question, she is providing more evidence of her irritability and poor insight. She can practically hear him now. He'll say, 'This isn't about me, Sarah. I'm not the patient.'
Patient. Her lip curls at the thought. She's no patient. She's a captive; a hostage meant to pay her own ransom.
As he discusses his reluctance to change her regimen despite the side effects, she stares down at Dr. Prevarant's silver pen cup on his desk. Sarah sinks lower in her chair. She's increasingly on edge and feels like grabbing that pen cup and pitching it at his head. She wants to vault onto that faux-mahogany desk, tower over him, and roar until she's hoarse. Roar. Somehow, she manages not to do this. Sarah exercises what little self-control she has left to keep from creating a scene. She has the upper hand now, and she does not wish to give it up so easily. Her fingers curl tightly, forming fists with her hands, and she keeps them hidden, tucked against her sides. She tries to concentrate on his words but finds that they are meaningless babble.
"This is the most successful medication combination we've ever tried with you," the psychiatrist is saying. "No hallucinations. No thoughts of self-harm. You seem much sharper. So, your condition has vastly improved, despite the worsening irritability."
Vastly improved? She wants bark with laughter. She wants to fall out of her chair and onto Dr. Prevarant's commercial grade carpeting, rolling around with her uncontrollable, endless laughter, because what he's saying to her is obviously one huge joke.
Only he would lock her away and drug her and call her 'improved.'
They try and they try and they try to blind her with these pills, red ones and blue ones and gold ones and green ones; they try to shackle her. Chemical shackles. He doesn't want her to see. She doesn't know why, but he wants her here, blinded and chained, helpless and insensible at his fingertips. But she sees. She sees everything. Despite his best efforts, she knows. It may have worked for a little while, they may have blinded her temporarily, but the truth cannot be denied and her vision is clearer now than ever.
Just like he said.
Sarah has tried her best, but she can contain her ire no longer.
"Why the pretense?" she hisses. "I've never understood it, even though I've played your game." She scratches her cheek again.
The doctor sighs wearily. "What pretense?"
She mentally tacks on the 'precious' after his question. That's more like him, no matter how he play-acts in his doctor costume with his doctor props.
"Why don't you just admit who you are, so we can be done with this charade?"
"Who do you think I am?" Dr Prevarant's voice is soft; soothing. Sarah narrows her eyes. She will not be soothed.
"You think I don't know? I've always known!"
The doctor leans forward, locking his gaze with Sarah's, and very deliberately pronounces the words, "I am your doctor."
Sarah growls angrily, shaking her head and uncrossing her arms so she can grasp the edge of the desk in front of her. She leans towards the doctor. "Aren't you tired of all this?" The words are gritted out slowly. "Because I am. So tired. Of all of it. I want it to be over!"
Dr. Prevarant appraises his patient carefully. "Sarah, are you having thoughts about hurting yourself again?"
"Oh, nice one," she mutters. This is how he corners her queen, by purposefully distorting her words; by accusing her of being suicidal. Those words carry weight here. They allow him a larger measure of control over her. He's been biding his time, she realizes, letting her move about the board, setting it up as she sees fit; letting her feel as though she is marshaling him, but he's the one on the attack now.
"Do you have a plan?" he presses.
She bares her teeth at the hint of concern she hears around the edges of his voice. He can't fool her. She's the daughter of an accomplished actress. She knows the tricks.
"A plan? Yeah, of course. I'm going to hang myself with Ashley's guitar strings."
"This is not a joke, Sarah."
"Well, that's a relief," she replies sarcastically. "I guess I can cross playing practical jokes off the list of your possible motivations. So, what is it then? Did you get bored back home? Are you trying to punish me? What?"
"Why would I want to punish you?"
"Because it's what you do! When things don't go your way, it's what you do! You steal time from me, you steal my friends…"
Sarah is becoming more and more animated. Her mood is completely changed from when she'd first entered Dr. Prevarant's office. He frowns and jots another note. Emotional lability. Persecutory delusions.
"Alright, let's take a deep breath and think for a moment," the doctor suggests and Sarah reluctantly quiets, but her mind is spinning faster and faster. She has so many suspicions and memories and worries running through her brain, she is having trouble organizing them into one train of thought. "Now," Dr. Prevarant says, "tell me what it is that's upsetting you as precisely as you can."
Don't, a little voice warns, and she flinches at it, but Sarah is no longer capable of holding her tongue. She will speak the truth and he will hear it, by God. She is visibly agitated as she considers her answer, her eyes flicking side to side as if inspecting the corners of the room for something lurking there. She hasn't seen them in a while, his little minions, but she knows that doesn't mean much. They're masters at hiding. They could've been here all along, creeping in the shadows, and no one the wiser. She starts to blink in an exaggerated way, hard and rapid, trying to clear her eyes so she can see.
She thinks if she stares at him hard enough, his white coat will shimmer out of existence and his long hair will escape its neat binding, and he will be himself again. She just has to clear her eyes first.
"Sarah," the doctor says, "I've asked you a question."
"Yeah, I know. What's upsetting me?" She sniffs and rubs her nose. "Well, maybe I'm still upset that you kidnapped my brother. And then there was the time you tried to kill me. Twice. Or, maybe three times. Does the oubliette count? And when you convinced one of my friends to betray me. And when you drugged me and trapped me in one of your magic crystals. Or, how about how you turned yourself into a nocturnal bird so you could spy on me?"
Dr. Prevarant visibly deflates with each accusation. Sarah triumphs at the sight of it. Surely now, he will realize she's defeated him. Again. Surely now, he'll admit who he is, what he is, and these bright white walls will melt away and she will awaken from this monotonous nightmare. The doctor sighs, and then speaks.
"This again, Sarah?"
"Always," she hisses.
"I thought we were past this."
"I had really hoped this would be the regimen," he tells her, his voice heavy with his disappointment. "I'd thought once your levels were therapeutic for a while, even the irritability would wane and you'd be well-controlled, but it's obvious you're not tolerating these meds. They've pushed you into a paranoid state. I'm very sorry."
"Not tolerating… What are you talking about, Jareth?" She's starting to yell. "Why won't you just say it? Why don't you just admit who you are?" The doctor presses a button on his large desk phone and a nurse answers him via the intercom feature.
"Please send Sam in to take Sarah back to her room," Dr. Prevarant instructs. "And hold her afternoon meds. I'll be changing them shortly."
"Alright, doctor," the nurse replies.
He pushes back in his chair, creating more distance between himself and his irate patient. So cautious. So practical. Checkmate. Sarah's mouth drops open in disbelief, and then she hangs her head, defeated. She'd only thought she'd had the upper hand. He's been two moves ahead of her the whole time.
The nurse must be the model of efficiency, because thirty seconds later, Sam is there. Sarah fights him a little. Not to hurt him, because she likes Sam and she would never, but twisting in his grasp so she can stare at the man behind the desk. His white coat has not shimmered away and his hair is still tidy in its low ponytail. His changeable eyes reveal nothing. Taking in his continued masquerade, his emotionless expression and his calm demeanor, Sarah gives Dr. Prevarant a hateful glare. His will is as strong as hers and apparently, he's not ready to stop playing this particular game.
Half an hour later, a nurse is administering an injection. The cocktail, they call it, and as Sarah drowses off, she thinks cocktail is an apt description, because she certainly feels drunk.
And then she dreams. And in her dreams, she is staring into the crib. Staring and staring as her hands clutch the rail.
Chapter 13: Between Kingdoms and Clans
That evening, as the banquet begins, the Goblin King and the Queen of the Labyrinth are presented with gifts by the attendees, the offerings of nation states and tribal leadership to their hosts. Each guest hopes to outdo the other, for these are not just tokens of gratitude and friendship from foreign rulers, but also visible symbols of the power and wealth of their respective homes.
No one wishes to be seen as poor or weak, for that will be interpreted as vulnerability and there is nothing more dangerous to the security of these territories, particularly now when the national blood is up in so many various realms. For this reason, the gifts are thoughtfully chosen and presented.
Oh, and such gifts they are!
There are heavy golden bowls set with precious stones, bolts of rich fabrics (hand worked, requiring years to produce), and exotic animals to populate the king's menagerie. They are given pearls from the coast and moonstones from the mountains, strung into belts and bracelets and chokers or formed into brooches. There rare spices and valuable books. Clan Norost has sent a chess board of ivory and onyx, with detailed pieces carved by a stonemason from a tribe of fabled dwarf artisans now thought to be extinct. The kingdom of Lucidesa has gifted them with a silver key, rumored to open any lock (The power to come and go as you please, Sarah thinks. What must that be like?) There are jeweled boxes which hold more jeweled boxes within and all manner of wonderous things nearly beyond counting. The king graciously thanks his guests for honoring the queen and himself so generously. Sarah is not required to respond at all except to smile and nod in agreement with the king.
She's not sure she could gather her thoughts enough to speak anyway. The brilliance of the banquet hall has mesmerized her, the whole thing luminous and twinkling, even her own gown. She hadn't seen it in the dim light of her chamber, but here, exposed to the blaze of a thousand candles, ten thousand, she realizes that the fabric is somehow reflective. It becomes incandescent and she feels as though she exists in the very center of a star (and her, the iron ash at its core; the pinpoint of darkness within the explosion of searing radiance). When she turns this way and that, she almost seems to project light, and it's overwhelming. And beautiful. Her head swims with it.
And Sarah can't help but think that somehow, all this was accomplished without her knowledge or help. It stings a little.
Throughout the banquet, Sarah tries to discover what the Selkeysan ambassador meant about an official announcement, and what the king meant by this is hardly the place, but she is frustrated that she cannot seem to get either of them alone to inquire. For his part, Jareth appears to be very deftly avoiding her. They are seated at opposite ends of the large banquet table, as protocol dictates, but when the meal is finished and the dancing begins, she feels as though she chases him round and round the room, losing him in the crowd repeatedly.
If this were a great game of hide and seek, she would be losing abysmally. And she's not entirely certain the king isn't using his magic to frustrate her efforts…
Where I come from, we call that 'cheating', your majesty, she thinks, frowning.
"It's not even that big of a crowd," she mutters to herself in irritation, losing sight of the king once again. It reminds her very much of a dream of a ball she'd once had, only in her dream, she'd finally found Jareth. She'd even danced with him. She is having no such luck tonight. She wanders at the edges of the mad dancing, skirting clusters of guests laughing uproariously. Drifting along the periphery of what is becoming a rather raucous gathering, Sarah peers intently this way and that, searching. It's all in vain.
Finally, she gives up, crossing her arms over her chest and huffing a bit, until she spies a table in the corner which supports a bubbling silver fountain surrounded by delicate crystal goblets. Champagne? she wonders, walking towards it.
It's a magnificent thing, this fountain, and tall. It's made of three fluted silver bowls, graduated in size, stacked one atop another, held in place by a central arm. She supposes the center of the arm is how the beverage returns to the top once it has spilled into the lowest bowl, though whether by sorcery or some more mundane method, such as a mechanical pump, who can say? The highly polished bowls catch the ambient light and reflect it back, gleaming brilliantly. Sarah squints a bit, and one corner of her mouth lifts as she sees her own face reflected in the silver.
The girl leans in, peering at the pinkish beverage as it spills from one bowl into the next, the splashing creating a slight, ruby froth. Swiping a small goblet, she holds it beneath one of the fizzing streams and fills it nearly to the brim. She sniffs at it, and, finding the scent sweet, takes a small sip. The flavor delights her, reminding her of the cream soda she used to drink when she was a young child, and it tickles the back of her throat pleasantly. She downs the drink and then fills her goblet again. It is only as she is finishing her second glass that she notices Jareth staring at her across the chamber.
So, there you are, she thinks, and laughs, hiccupping slightly.
Jareth's perfectly shaped eyebrows are raised. A vague notion occurs to Sarah. She thinks she should go and speak to him, that there is something important she means to ask, but as soon as she determines to do so, her head begins to feel strangely light and just that quickly, she completely forgets what it is she intends to discuss. In fact, she forgets that she had intended to discuss anything at all.
The king begins to cross the banquet hall toward her, moving slowly and holding her in his gaze. Sarah watches him, though it becomes increasingly difficult to do so. For some reason, Jareth starts to look blurry to her, and after a moment, there are two Jareths. The queen reaches out her goblet once again, holding it a bit unsteadily in the stream of cream-soda-bubble-fizz-drink, and notes that both Jareths are shaking their heads at her. She laughs and turns away, walking toward the dance floor and taking her sloshing goblet with her.
The Archduke of Selgust intercepts her, making pleasant small talk. He complements her on the beauty of the room and the excellence of the food at the banquet.
"Well, not that I had anything to do with it," she says, a trace of bitterness behind her words, "but wait until you try the raspberry tarts." She slurs a bit, and winks conspiratorially, her face alight with her own anticipation of the royal baker's special treat. She encircles his arm with her one hand for emphasis. "They're the best thing I've ever put in my mouth." Her eyes are wide, innocent, as she gazes up at him, like a young girl eagerly awaiting Santa's visit on Christmas Eve. The archduke's expression is openly pleased, which is surprising considering the need for his presence here is dictated by the fact that his kingdom is a single breath away from open war.
"I must say, your majesty, that you have been the most unexpected delight."
"The tarts are the real delight," she counters. "Just wait and see." She feels nearly weightless, as if she might float away, and grasps the archduke's sleeve tighter, to anchor herself. The man makes no indication he is offended by her behavior, and instead tells her that raspberries do not grow well in the climate of Selgust, so such tarts are a rare indulgence for him.
"No raspberries? I'm so sorry!" Sarah's face falls, and she seems genuinely sad, as if she might shed a tear. "So, so sorry…" She takes a sip from her goblet. The archduke rushes to reassure her.
"Please don't grieve on my account, your majesty. Selgust has many other attributes to recommend it, despite its lack of raspberries." As Sarah takes another sip of her drink, he says something about trees, she thinks.
"Trees?" she asks to clarify. "Did you say 'trees'? I have the most wonderful trees in my labyrinth. They really are top notch."
At that moment, Sarah feels a gloved hand wrap around her arm.
"My darling girl," the Goblin King murmurs, "I don't think you've eaten enough food to absorb all the fairy wine you've consumed."
Sarah turns to face Jareth and very deliberately lifts her small goblet to her lips and drains it. She makes to refill her glass but the king's grip on her arm stops her.
"Come now," he says, a laugh in his voice, "wouldn't you rather dance with me than stay hidden in the corner, drinking?"
She shakes her head with an almost comical vigor. "I was having a conversheshan… conver… sasshun… conversation with the archduke," she says. "Don't be so rrrrude." Her lips curl into an exaggerated frown. Her eyes grow unfocused as she looks past Jareth at the glowing candles collected in clusters here and there, lifted by candelabras both great and small. There is so much wavering, warm light all around and she finds it distracting.
"Oh, my dear, I have no wish to be impolite. Do continue, Archduke Valo."
By this time, the oldest son and heir to Clan Ludilo's chief has joined them, listening with interest as the archduke describes the beauty of the trees in his kingdom's eastern province, in a thickly forested region called the Whitewood. He offers to import some saplings for planting in the queen's labyrinth.
"I don't need your sssssilly old trees!" Sarah declares, indignant. She draws up straight and tall, squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin imperiously. The effect is rather blunted by the uncoordinated and exaggerated way she blinks, as if in doing so, she can make the hazy outline of the archduke's dinner jacket sharp again.
"Oh, most ungracious, my queen," the Goblin King chastises, but there is a fondness in his tone. His grip on Sarah's arm relaxes and his two fingers lightly trace a path down to her elbow.
"Not at all, your majesty," demurs the archduke affably. "The queen has simply never seen the Whitewood. I'm certain I can change her opinion with a gift of saplings. Or, perhaps a visit to Selgust is in order? I'd be only too happy to serve as her guide." Jareth raises an eyebrow at the offer, prompting the emissary to amend his invitation slightly. "And, yours as well, of course, King Jareth."
The rest is a confused muddle in Sarah's mind. Tamsos Neviltis (the clan chief's son who had drifted over to join their discussion earlier) remarks on his territory's own wooded province, an area named Bluutvalder. He explains the name translates to Blood Forest in the ancient tongue of his people. Though he acknowledges the towering evergreens there have a dark beauty all their own ('Not well suited to the Labyrinth,' he concedes. 'Too tall'), it is the crystalline mountain springs which burble and flow in the shade of the dark wood that fill him with the most pride. He suggests Sarah's time would be better spent touring his territory rather than the archduke's.
"Sparkly mountain water is fine, if you like that sort of thing," Sarah replies, her speech a gentle slur, "but what you really need is a bog."
Neither the archduke, nor the young lieutenant chieftain, nor the Goblin King are certain if she's serious. Sarah herself would be unable to reliably attest to the degree of her earnestness here, not when she's caught between the light and the madness of the evening, and under the influence of the free-flowing fairy wine she's been consuming. She loves her labyrinth, though, every square inch of it, and she means for these men to know it.
There is another glass of fizz-cream-soda-fairy-wine then, she thinks, and… an argument? But that can't be right, because Jareth is laughing as she has rarely heard him laugh; delighted, and so sweet. Indulgent. She considers that maybe his laugh is a sound she would like to hear more of, but she can't be certain, because her head is spinning, and she is spinning (is she dancing? Yes, she is. She's quite certain now. Someone is whirling her around the floor in his arms and her head tilts back and she laughs and closes her eyes, shutting out the glittering brightness of it all. She's not sure who holds her. Perhaps a prince—that one from Egludur, or possibly the young prince of Klarhet—or maybe the war chief of Clan Nebunie? She has a vague impression of flashing black eyes and a beard…) and then the world is a blur of shimmering crystal and ten thousand blazing candles and music and raspberry tarts and the words of men she does not know.
And one she does.
' I'll have my dance now,' he'd said, leading her from the arms of another, and in her breathlessness, she'd merely nodded, and allowed herself to be led.
Sarah's nose is pressed against the Goblin King's jaw. She breathes him in, all soap and good whiskey and the leather of his fitted vest. His skin is warm velvet against hers and the feel of it causes her chest to ache. He is speaking to her softly, his breath caressing her ear, and she hums, hearing the words, but not understanding them. The satin toes of her slippers barely touch the floor as he holds her, her body following his effortlessly, without thought, as though she has ceded control of it to him. They move to music both sweet and hypnotic. She drifts on the waves of it, this delicate singing of strings, not remembering how she came to be in this grand place but wishing to stay nonetheless. To stay and stay and stay. She says so, her hope a bare whisper of want into the neck of the king.
How much time has passed? Hours? Years? She doesn't know. The clock strikes thirteen and Sarah is floating, down the corridor, dim lights flickering at the edges of her vision. She blinks lazily. Tapers? Yes, tapers set in wall sconces, she is sure, but she's not floating, she's being carried. Strong arms are wrapped around her and she is being carried through a passageway to her bedchamber and then she is there. Her head is so light, it's filled with helium and it floats away. She feels the linens cool around her and her featherbed is soft beneath her as she sinks. Her lips tug up into a smile, because she feels so very happy. Exquisitely so.
For the first time in a long time.
"Goodnight, sweet Sarah," Jareth says and her eyes flicker open to see his face leaning over her, his hands tucking the sheets around her. Her fingertips find his cheek and they trail there for a moment, touching him as he hovers just above her, and then her eyes slowly close, her hand dropping away.
"Goodnight, my love," she murmurs before she sighs and falls into the deepest sleep.
Chapter 14: The Dragon and the Knight
Sarah doesn't feel like painting in Arts and Crafts. She doesn't feel like doing much of anything, really. She's so groggy, simply lifting her eyelids takes effort. Turning her head nearly exhausts her. There's no way she can stand at an easel for an hour, and so, she doesn't. Luke says something to her. She hears it, but she doesn't really understand. The words lay there, in her ear, and she can't process them. It's like her brain is a muddy swamp and her thoughts are having difficulty slogging through it, and so they remain stuck. And unattached.
Debris discarded in murky waters, sinking to the bottom where it remains, static and undisturbed.
She doesn't catch glimpses of tittering goblins scrabbling around corners anymore, doesn't hear voices talking about babes or oubliettes or crystals that will show her dreams to her. Everything has gone silent and still all around her, and her world is dimmed, as she herself is silent and still. As she herself is dimmed.
Not the walls, though, she thinks, slowly lifting her eyes from the craft before her on the table to stare at the white expanse. Not the floors. Somehow, they are brighter than ever. The glaring whiteness of it all assaults her vision between languid blinks. She wants to close her eyes altogether, to block out the searing white; to sleep until she can wake in a place with movement and color and the sounds of what she knows to be true.
To sleep away the chemical insulation which buffers her reality and restrains her free will. To sleep away this most tiresome existence.
But that isn't allowed. The art therapist has already warned her once.
' This isn't rest time, Sarah, it's arts and crafts.'
Sarah hadn't responded, hadn't nodded or replied. That took too much energy. She'd merely opened her eyes and gone back to her craft.
Stupid, useless, waste-of-time project.
She doesn't have the ability or the desire to paint today, and so the therapist digs out some supplies Sarah suspects are borrowed from the primary wing (where all the patients twelve and under are housed). Three cheap, cardboard nesting boxes, the largest the size of a standard saucer. She has markers (washable Crayolas) and a pile of plastic stick-on gems with which to decorate the boxes. It's the sort of craft elementary teachers have their students do the first week of May so they will have something hand-made to wrap up for Mother's Day. The only thing lacking is a sticky bottle of Elmer's glue and a handful of uncooked macaroni. Sarah works on it just enough to keep the therapist from bitching at her.
Slowly, the girl peels the backing off an oval gem the size of her thumbnail. It's a deep blue, a fake sapphire. She presses it against the center of the lid of the third box and grunts a little. Somewhere in the back of her mind there sits a thought: that she should be humiliated by all this; that they have reduced her to a nearly drooling mess performing a meaningless task meant for a preschooler. The thought tries to push to the forefront of her considerations, tries to ignite some rage, but the swamp is too mucky and so the inflammatory idea remains mired and the heat of it dies, fizzling out in the morass of her mind. She peels the backing off a fake emerald and applies it haphazardly to the side of the small box.
"Treasure box," Luke remarks. He, too, is creating this craft. He always follows Sarah's lead, even when she's not leading. Unlike Sarah, he's applying his gems in a pattern, very carefully. This is no easy task for him with his large hands, and he wrinkles his brow in concentration. Plastic rubies are followed by plastic sapphires then plastic citrines then plastic emeralds. Red, blue, gold, green, red, blue, gold, green, red blue gold green, redbluegoldgreen…
It draws Sarah's eye.
When Luke attaches the last gem on the smallest box, he places the finished container inside of a slightly larger box which he has marked with zigzags of Crayola color, alternating the four shades in the same manner of his smaller jeweled box. The third and largest of the boxes is topped with an 'S' made of plastic rubies. Above it, Luke has drawn a crown with the gold marker. It's little more than three triangles on a flat base with red, blue, and green dots along it to represent the gems set in the crown, but the boy seems proud of his work as he places the two nested boxes inside this third.
"Present," he tells Sarah, handing her the craft.
She has to muster the determination to do it, but Sarah extends her hand, palm upturned, and Luke gifts her his project.
"Thank you," she says, willing the corners of her mouth to lift a bit. She feels as though her face is made of poured concrete which has nearly set. Sarah glances at the decorated box top. "A crown?"
The boy grins. "Princess Sarah."
"I'm a princess?" The question is slightly slurred. Luke nods, still grinning. "That makes you my gallant knight."
At Sarah's quiet declaration, the boy's grin widens and he says, "I slay dragons. For you."
I am the dragon.
It's another thought that sits in the back of her mind, whispering itself aloud, slowly seeping forward like a fog rolling over the swamp. The monster takes shape in her mind, hard scales of red and blue and gold and green, sitting atop its hoard: golden bowls set with precious stones; piles of pearls and moonstones and gems beyond counting; large treasure chests spilling over with jewelry, chokers and bracelets and brooches.
Sarah blinks and the image fades away. All she sees now is Luke's gift and her own feckless craft. She sets the box marked with the jeweled 'S' aside and then balls her hand into a fist, using it to slowly smash her own craft flat. The cardboard gives way easily, the corner seams making a slight popping sound as they come apart, and the action draws the attention of the therapist.
"Sarah!" the woman exclaims. Her name is… Rumer? Scout? Sarah frowns as she tries to rally her recall. Her memory is a slippery thing now. No, those are Demi Moore's daughters with Bruce Willis. But she knows it's something like that. Something edgy, trendy. The therapist's parents had obviously named her as a wink to their friends, and to trumpet their own artistic sensibilities. Saylor? Harlowe? She gives up. "What on earth…"
Sarah shrugs, but the movement is slight. She's conserving energy. For what, she's not sure, but just sitting upright is work. The name comes to her then. Lyric. Lyric Langley.
It makes Sarah think of music in the air, waves of it rolling past her. If she closes her eyes, she can almost hear it: strings, high and sweet. She sways slightly. Lyric sighs and seems to mentally gather herself before speaking.
"Is there something you'd rather be doing, Sarah?" The words are civil, but there's a barely disguised sharpness in her voice.
"Sleeping," the girl mumbles. She punctuates her answer with slow, lazy blinks.
Lyric shakes her head. "I meant some other craft."
Sarah's eyes drift to Luke's project. The red 'S' on the box lid almost seems to writhe beneath her tired gaze, like a snake. A bloody snake, ready to strike. She listens for the tell-tale hissing, but it never comes. The world is quiet now. If she focuses, she can hear Luke's breathing and the slight buzz of the overhead fluorescents, but not much else. Lyric clears her throat. When Sarah does not respond, the therapist breathes out of her mouth and then finds a blank sheet of drawing paper. She sets it in front of Sarah and gives her a pointed look before walking on.
Luke hands Sarah a marker, the red one. Absently, she begins to draw with it. Craft time is nearly over, so she doesn't get very far and when the patients are dismissed and sent on their way, the girl abandons her drawing, leaving it on the table as she shuffles out of the art room and toward Dr. Prevarant's office for their one o'clock session. When Lyric goes around the room, straightening and putting away supplies, she finds the incomplete drawing. It shows what looks like a gloved hand holding a ball. Even in red washable marker, Sarah has been able to convey that the object has a sort of reflective surface, as though the ball is made of polished silver or glass.
Lyric's expression is bemused. She knows Sarah's talent, and her imagination, and this simple drawing does not seem to touch the depths of what the girl has created in the past despite the obvious skill displayed in it. But had Sarah been there and been inclined to explain, she would've told the art therapist that contained within that orb is more wonder and intrigue and heartache than could be painted onto a thousand canvases. She would've told her that inside of the sphere, there is war and peace, love and loss, loyalty and treachery, desire and fear, and all the splendor of light and dark to bind them together; that there is more madness contained therein than in all the locked wards in the world, and more clarity than could be achieved with every red and blue and gold and green pill ever produced.
She would've explained that even made deaf and dumb and blind by injectable cocktails, the truth of things still sits stuck in the swamp of her mind, and it cannot be so easily dismissed. Though it rests beneath murky waters, it cannot be simply dissolved by the contents of a syringe.
What appears on the paper may be crude by her usual standard, and it may seem simple, but had Sarah been there to explain, she would've told Lyric Langley that there is nothing simple about a crystal which can show you all your dreams.
And there is nothing simple about the hand which offers it.
Chapter 15: The Tyrant and the Peacemaker
"Sarah, my sweet," Jareth coos and Sarah groans, pulling a pillow over her face. She only enjoys the cool underside of it for a moment before poof, it explodes and she finds herself in a gentle snowfall of goose down. She cracks an eye to see her bed, her hair, and several goblin servants covered in feathers. The king himself is untouched.
"That was my favorite pillow," Sarah croaks, pushing up on her elbows to glare at the Goblin King. He stands at the foot of her bed, gazing down at her with an amused look. As she watches, he makes a circle with his thumb and forefinger and after a second, flicks the forefinger up crisply. A pile of fluffy pillows suddenly appears behind him.
"There. You can have your pick," he replies with a smirk.
Sarah's tone is caught between a sort of fatigued anguish and undisguised irritation when she next speaks. "Jareth, I'm really not up to whatever it is you're here for. My head is pounding."
The previous evening had been a raucous one in the palace. Entertaining ambassadors from bordering lands is a critical endeavor which calls for the utmost in hospitality. Jareth's interpretation of "utmost" and "hospitality" typically means "too much" and "magical frat party" (if the frat party were a black-tie affair). Last night was no different. Too much food, too much music, too much laughter, too much dancing, too much wine…
Sarah has a vague recollection of a fountain of bubbling fairy wine, which, as far as she can tell, is like champagne, but sweeter, and more colorful, and with a much higher alcohol content, apparently (an aspect about which no one, especially not a certain King of the Goblin Realm, had bothered to warn her).
It is a widely known but little discussed fact that most of the peoples of this realm and the surrounding lands are renowned for their high alcohol tolerance. They seem to metabolize it easier, and more quickly, than their human counterparts. Unfortunately, widely known is not the same as universally understood, and so this fact is one of which Sarah has been ignorant until now. She has always assumed the potency of the spirits produced in the fairy kingdoms to be weaker than those found in her own world, judging by their effect (or lack thereof) on those who consume them. She has observed that the volumes the king requires to produce any sort of altered state are considerable. She has never entertained the alternative explanation: that the physiologic make-up of Jareth and his ilk gifts them with the ability to drink hard with little side effect.
Bad influences, she moans internally. The lot of them.
Sarah is reminded just how human she really is as the Goblin King continues prattling happily on, with no indication he has been affected by the fairy wine, or the rich foods (really, who candies then fries goose liver?), or the lack of sleep, or the mental strain of keeping the representatives of the mountain clans entertained so that they do not insult or openly attack the ambassadors from the coastal kingdoms.
Jareth proves to be a surprisingly adept diplomat.
He displays none of that diplomacy at this moment.
"Darling, you look a mess." He snaps his fingers and a large, mirrored tray appears on Sarah's bedside table. Arranged upon it are brushes, combs, elixirs meant to help detangle unruly locks, hairpins, barrettes, ribbons, and an absurd pile of tiaras.
Enough royal jewels to make Queen Elizabeth blush, the girl thinks, stifling another groan.
Sarah blearily regards the ostentatious assortment of gem-encrusted crowns. Most of them are standard fare, diamonds arranged in various pleasing patterns, and some are even tasteful, as tiaras go; dainty enough to pass for simple jeweled headbands. But this is the Goblin Realm, after all, and Jareth's interpretation of "utmost" is still in effect, so of course, some of them stray a bit too far into reigning-beauty-pageant-winner territory. She can practically feel the mascara running down her face as she regards them. Then she sees a couple which strain credulity. One of them looks positively medieval, made of thick, crudely hammered gold and set with several emeralds the size of her thumbnail. Another has a pear-shaped ruby at its center the size of an actual pear.
Make that Queen Elizabeth the First, she mentally amends. Or, a sultan from 1001 Arabian Nights.
Sarah sits up, flicking away the feathers on her face, and three goblins get to work on her grooming.
"Whatever it is you think I need to be made presentable for, I can't, Jareth," Sarah complains. "I have just the worst headache. And I feel like puking."
"Oh, dear," Jareth says with exaggerated sympathy, "my poor Sarah." His eyes narrow a bit as he appraises her more closely. "You do look a bit green this morning, darling."
"Shh," the queen directs, shutting her eyes and leaning back to rest her throbbing skull against the ornately carved headboard of her bed. The goblins mutter under their breath, scolding her for impeding their work. "Not so loud."
The Goblin King shakes his head and makes an annoying tsk sound several times before telling her she ought to mind her wine consumption better.
"After all, you're not even of legal drinking age yet, precious." He has the audacity to sound concerned.
"There's no legal drinking age in the Goblin Realm!" she huffs, cracking an eye to glare at him.
"True," he admits, curling his fingers gingerly. A crystal ball appears in his palm and he draws it close to his mouth. "But, as you like to remind me, you're a human and a citizen of… what was it again? New Blerk?"
"York. Upstate New York."
"Yes, New York. Incidentally, I've always wondered. Where is Old York?"
"It's in England," Sarah growls. With Queen Elizabeth, who's probably missing some crown jewels. Her lips pull into a frown. She's in no mood for foolishness. Not while her head is pounding like a jackhammer. "And it's not Old York. It's just York." She grimaces in disbelief that she's actually entertaining his asanine questions. "Do you really want a lesson in the history of the settlement of the United States right now?"
"No, not particularly," the king admits. He blows gently on the crystal he is holding and it shimmers, then seems to melt in his hand, taking a new form. After a moment, he is holding a crystal goblet, intricately cut and faceted. It contains a clear green liquid that reminds Sarah of the Absinthe she's seen in movies. She shudders. "But I had thought you still constrained yourself to the laws and mores of New Blerk." He extends his arm, offering her the goblet.
"New York," she seethes, "and that's hilarious, coming from you." She says it as if it's anything but hilarious. "Since when have you ever respected any laws or mores, particularly those of other realms?" Sarah accepts the goblet and sniffs its contents suspiciously. They exude a pleasant floral odor.
"Me? I don't. But then, I'm not the one with the blinding hangover this morning, am I darling?"
"What is this?" Her brow wrinkles skeptically as she swirls the green draft around in the goblet, watching it to see if it exhibits any characteristics of a drink that's been tampered with (she has no idea what such characteristics might be, but she hopes they will be obvious should they appear).
"Your mistrust is ill-placed."
Her eyes snap up from the goblet to Jareth's face. She glowers at him. "Says the king who once sent me a poisoned peach."
"Poisoned! Bah! Hardly that." He tries to look wounded but only succeeds in appearing slightly less arrogant.
The Goblin King stares off, his look still a combination of haughtiness and poorly-feigned innocence. "I don't know what that means."
Sarah suspects he knows very well what it means but decides to try to turn the tables. "Well, if not poisoned, what would you call it, then?"
"Enchanted," he replies without hesitation. He has the nerve to smile at her and bow his head, as if he has somehow done her a great service by answering her question.
"Well, poisoned, or roofied, or enchanted, I'm not drinking this."
"It will help," Jareth assures her softly. The haughtiness is gone.
"It will help," Sarah mocks under her breath, pitching her voice high, but his demeanor has convinced her the concoction is safe enough. She drinks it and after a few moments, her headache and nausea recede and she feels rested and whole. After a breathing a deep sigh of relief, she thanks him, then asks, "Why are you so…" She waves her hand at him, disconcerted, then frowns.
"Why am I so what?" he laughs.
"So… unscary and… unmoody."
"Am I?" He cocks an eyebrow, bemused.
"You're downright pleasant this morning. It's weird."
Jareth leans down and grips the edge of the footboard of Sarah's bed with both hands. He pins her in place with his stare. "I can amend my mood to suit you anytime you like," he says ominously, and his eyes flicker with something dark. It unnerves her and she immediately regrets the flippant way she'd spoken to him. "Say your right words, little Sarah, and I can be as terrifying as you desire."
She draws in a steadying breath. "No. That won't be necessary."
He smiles then, but it does not reach his eyes. They remain dark. "I'm only as frightening as you make me, precious. You know that."
Jareth has told her this many times, insisting that he bows only to her will; that he merely wants to make her happy; that he only seeks her comfort and contentment. He tells her that he is her slave. He tells her and tells her, but still, Sarah isn't sure. Even after all this time, she isn't sure.
"And it isn't morning," he tacks on carelessly. Sarah notices a clock then, sitting on the center of a fireplace mantle that glimmers into view. The hands of the clock indicate the time is half past noon.
As if time really means anything in this realm.
"Why are you here?" she finally asks the king. A goblin hands her a warm slice of thick, buttered bread and she begins to nibble. Sarah has become used to goblins flitting around her, doing things for her, handing her things, sometimes even before she has voiced a desire for them. A second goblin is winding thin platinum wires around her curls while a third compares two tiaras, trying to decide which goes best with the gown which has appeared in the corner the bedchamber, fitted around her dress form. It is ivory silk organza, loosely layered so that it will have movement, and it looks like something from a painting of a Greek goddess, the girl thinks. A Greek goddess styled by Dior.
"Don't tell me you've forgotten." The king tsks her again and straightens, walking over to the gown and inspecting it. "You've agreed to, no, you've insisted on taking the ambassadors of the coastal kingdoms and the mountain clans on a tour of the center of your labyrinth."
Sarah snorts. "As if…" She would sooner swim a few laps in the Bog of Eternal Stench as get in the middle of that political quagmire. Besides, the center of the Labyrinth, though certainly beautiful (the most breathtakingly beautiful place in all creation, as far as Sarah is concerned), is currently the focus of a territorial dispute between the troll tribes. Only an idiot would take a tour of it now. "Why are you really here, Jareth?"
"Oh, I'm quite serious, dumpling. Your guests are assembling in the gallery as we speak."
"What?" she cries in disbelief. She's too distraught to even berate him over the dumpling remark. Oh, this is disastrous, she thinks. Disastrous!
"Mmm." Jareth runs his hands over the shoulder straps of the dress, brushing away some loose thread or lint speck only he can see. "Yes. It seems you took exception to the Archduke Valo's opinion of trees."
"Valo. He's here representing Selgust."
Yes. The Archduke of Selgust. That seems familiar.
"And I took exception to his opinion on…trees," Sarah repeats skeptically. She still suspects the king of playing a joke.
"Indeed you did. He said the trees in the eastern province of his kingdom are the greenest in the land. And then you were particularly offended with what Tamsos Neviltis had to say."
"Tamsos…" Sarah wonders if Jareth is making these names up.
"Neviltis," he provides helpfully.
"And who is Tamsos… Neviltis?"
"He's the eldest son of the Chief of Clan Ludilo," Jareth explained. "Don't you remember? You danced with him. Twice." There is a note of disapproval in the king's tone as he relates this bit of information. Sarah ignores it.
"And what could Tamsos Whoever-he-is have said to offend me?"
"Well, there was quite a lot going on at the time, but as I recall, he was describing the Bluutvalder. I think he remarked on the superior clarity of the springs there."
Well, that was obviously an overstatement by the clansman but Sarah cannot fathom she was troubled enough to react in any notable way.
"I don't remember this at all…"
"No? I'm surprised. The look on your face was practically murderous. You see, it was his assertion that the mountain springs are naturally purer while you insisted that the magic of the Labyrinth renders yours more so and…"
Sarah frowns, interrupting the king. "And I was offended?" She seems to remember talking about the Bog of Eternal Stench last night with a group of men, but her recollections are too hazy to be sure.
"Oh, yes. Quite. And when the Vice Admiral of Klarhet's navy agreed with Valo, you jabbed him in the chest so hard with your finger, I fear you may have left a bruise on the poor man."
"Why would I…"
"I believe you said something along the lines of putting his money where his mouth is." Jareth lifts a few of the fine layers of the gown's skirt and releases them, letting them drift back down. He watches them fall with satisfaction before remarking, "Yes, this will do nicely, I think. Beautiful, lighthearted, but sober." He chuckles to himself then turns back towards Sarah, leaning against the wall and crossing his arms over his chest. "I'd never heard that expression before," he admits. "The one about money and mouths. Apparently, it's some quaint way humans challenge each other to place wagers. Though why you'd want to hold your money in your mouth, I don't really understand."
"Wager? With a fairy?" She closes her eyes and feels her panic rising. It feels a lot like vomit. "Did I bet something, Jareth?"
Please say no. Please say no. Please say no say no saynosayno.
"Only your first-born child."
"What?" she cries.
"Calm yourself, darling, the archduke was unwilling to offer commensurate collateral. He declined your reckless wager. I rather think he's entertaining a small hope that your first-born and his will be the same, silly man. As if you could ever be tempted to leave the Goblin Realm for Selgust. They don't even have raspberries…"
"Jareth!" Sarah interrupts. "Focus!"
"Yes, well, you insisted they all take a tour of the Labyrinth's center, so they could, and I quote, 'eat their words'. You humans do seem preoccupied with mouths…"
"I don't remember any of this! When did I even…"
"I believe it was after your third… no, fourth glass of fairy wine." He gives her a look of mock censure.
"They were such tiny glasses," she replies weakly.
"There's a reason they're so tiny."
"I see that now."
"Frankly, I was surprised you were conscious enough to articulate the invitation. Well, I say invitation, but it would be more precise to call it a royal citation."
"A royal citation!" Sarah clutches at her temples in disbelief, interfering with the work of her goblin servants again. One of them slaps her hands away, causing the girl to give a hurt little whine, but she's too flabbergasted by the tale Jareth is spinning to react with more fervor.
"You even called your dwarf scribe to write it up," Jareth says, then pauses for dramatic effect. "On a napkin. The poor creature kept muttering about how the linen was causing his quill to blot so much, the citation was barely legible. You know how prideful dwarf scribes can be about their penmanship."
The girl moans as she covers her face with her hands, mortified. "I'm never drinking fairy wine again." It is the most solemn oath she has ever pledged.
Though Sarah says she's not sure she wants to know the rest, the king is only too glad to continue his account of her shenanigans the previous evening. "You asked Sir Didymus to sign the document as an official witness. When he tried to talk you out of it, you gathered up your skirts and climbed onto the head table, over the pudding, to grab a candle out of the candelabra." Sarah gapes at him, but he doesn't seem to notice. He appears thoughtful as he adds, "You know, I don't believe I'd ever seen your knees before that."
"Your knees, precious. As knees go, they're really very lovely."
"No, I mean the climbing-on-the-table thing."
He chuckles. "Oh, yes, it was quite a sight."
"But… why?" She cannot fathom a reason for the behavior Jareth is rather gleefully describing.
"You needed wax for your royal seal."
"My royal seal?" she scoffs. "I don't have a royal seal." It's an oversight she continues to hound the king about routinely, but one he has not yet seen fit to correct.
"Yes, my dear, I know. Which is likely why you begged me to use mine." The king holds up his hand, showing Sarah his signet ring. He flips his hand back so he can inspect the ring himself. What he sees causes him to purse his lips and rub at the signet. "There's still a bit of wax caught in it. Dinner candles really aren't meant for…"
"Jareth!" Sarah wavers between anger and alarm. "Why didn't you stop me?"
The Goblin King sniffs indignantly. "Sarah Williams, when has anyone ever been able to prevent you from doing precisely as you please?" Before Sarah can challenge that assertion, he adds, "Besides, when you begged for my ring, you kissed me so sweetly, I was left quite powerless to resist you." He is grinning as he says this last. "You are immensely charming when you're deep in your cups, if a bit tyrannical." He pauses for a moment before saying, "And those knees…" His voice trails off suggestively but the girl is too preoccupied to care.
She had kissed him?
Sarah shakes her head. She has no memory of any of these things. Then a thought strikes her. Does this alleged kiss have anything to do with Jareth's mood being so… unmoody? She doesn't get the chance to ask. She's not sure she wants to know the answer, anyway.
"Now, dress yourself, and be quick. The ambassadors are waiting, and it won't do to leave them all together without supervision for too long, unless you wish to be responsible for reigniting the talk of war." He walks to the door, saying, "After the enormous amount of work we've put into this treaty, I would certainly hate for it to end up being known as The Thirteen Hours Accord." Before he can exit, Sarah stops him.
She looks at the king sheepishly.
How could she have done this? She has legally obligated several adversarial kingdoms to tour the most unstable part of the Labyrinth, where, at this precise moment, Ludo is in the midst of sensitive negotiations, hoping to establish even the most fragile peace between the troll tribes.
"Do you think… would you be able to…"
The Goblin King raises his perfectly sculpted brows and leans against her doorframe, hands on his hips. Somehow, his intricate lace cuffs do not look ridiculous.
"Will you come with me?" She hates how small and pleading her voice sounds, but it perfectly reflects how she feels. Sarah holds her breath, awaiting his answer.
Jareth smiles warmly. "Of course, my dear. I'd be delighted."
She exhales, and her relief is nearly a palpable thing.
Sometimes, Sarah thinks she really does love the Goblin King.
Chapter 16: Pennyroyal Tea
“Sarah, tell me about the baby.”
Sarah has been staring off, looking at the patch of white-painted wall just beyond Dr. Prevarant’s left ear, her gaze unfocused. At the sound of his voice, at that request, her eyes harden, and she glares at him.
“What baby?” Her voice is low and her question sounds more like a dare.
“Whichever baby you wish to talk about.”
The toddler who had come to the dayroom and disturbed her peace?
The baby whose crib she could not avoid in her dreams?
There is something vicious in her smile as she smirks at her psychiatrist. Her head is bowed slightly, and she squints a little, looking up at him through her lashes.
“The dayroom is no place for infants. They could…” Here, she looks off, up and to her left, as if considering her next words. “They could get hurt,” she finally says, flicking her eyes back to the doctor’s. Blue. Green. Hazel.
“Brooksong has a policy allowing any family member to visit a patient not in lockdown once a week, you know that, Sarah. That includes infants and toddlers.” His voice is infuriatingly moderate; reasonable. And so, so patient. It makes her flesh crawl. “And the dayroom is the only approved place for visitation.”
No one has ever visited her. Not in the dayroom. Not anywhere.
She changes tactics then. Her face rearranges itself into a new mask. Not menacing. Sympathetic. Compassionate. She tries very hard to look as though she cares.
“But he fell down,” she says then, her voice soft, her gaze even softer. Her breath hitches a little. “He hurt his knees. He cried.” She looks as though she might cry herself.
She can’t remember the last time she cried. When her mother left? No, it was after that. Maybe that time Karen brought her to the doctor. She had certainly cried then.
“I doubt he was seriously hurt, Sarah. Children fall all the time, especially when they’re learning to walk.” Dr. Prevarant leans forward slightly in his chair. “Is that what upset you? You were worried the baby was hurt?” He picks up his pen and jots a quick note in her chart as he waits for her answer.
It was the wailing. The red-faced squalling. The horrid little monster couldn’t shut himself up and screamed and screamed until all she had wanted to do was…
“Goblin king, goblin king, wherever you may be,” she whispers, so quietly, it almost sounds like breathing.
“What was that?”
“I wasn’t upset,” Sarah says, sniffing.
“You screamed so much that you had to be removed from the room. You had to be sedated. Don’t you remember that, Sarah?”
What a stupid question. Of course she remembers that.
Dr. Prevarant sighs, then nods, making another note in her chart.
“Would you like to talk about any other babies?” he prompts after a moment.
Sarah shrugs, looking down at her fingernails. They’ve started to grow out. She isn’t chewing them anymore. She wants to, she just doesn’t. Dr. Prevarant says it’s her meds; that they’re working. She knows different. It’s not her meds.
She knows if she can stop chewing her fingernails, she can stop doing anything.
She can stop walking toward that crib every time she closes her eyes.
“Think hard, Sarah. Think carefully. You know your time here is short, and when you’re gone, I can’t help you anymore.”
Sarah shakes her head and wraps her arms around her middle, drawing her eyebrows together, staring down at the surface of Dr. Prevarant’s fake mahogany desk.
“Well, then,” he says, clearing his throat. He opens a drawer, the center drawer of his desk, and takes out a piece of paper, carefully setting it between them. He uses both hands to turn the paper, so the girl can see what’s on it.
What’s been drawn upon it.
It’s a picture, done in red marker.
A gloved hand, holding a crystal orb.
“Where’d you get that?” she hisses, forgetting her mask for a moment.
“Ms. Langley showed it to me in our weekly meeting.”
“That nosy bitch. She had no right!”
“Sarah, you know all the therapists discuss mutual patients with me at our team meetings. I need more information than I can get from our one-on-one sessions to know how you’re progressing. This isn’t some new practice.”
Sarah’s fingers curl into her palms, her newly elongated nails digging into the skin there.
“She had no right,” the girl insists hoarsely, staring down at the picture. The red orb almost seems to shimmer in the harsh light of the fluorescent bulbs overhead. “It’s mine.”
Dr. Prevarant nods. “I know it’s yours. I’d like to discuss it with you.”
Sarah stares at it, at the simple rendering, trying to recall when she’d drawn it; what she’d been thinking at the time. She was usually more careful, and her art less obvious. The earlier part of her week is a fog, though. It must’ve been then that she’s done it. She has a vague recollection: a stupid preschool craft, smashed flat; Lyric Langley placing a sheet of blank drawing paper in front of her and walking away; Luke handing her a marker.
Red. How apropos.
She looks at the doctor expectantly, saying nothing. If he wants to discuss it, let him discuss it.
Dr. Prevarant has removed his long fingers from the paper. He is leaning back in his seat and his white hands are now resting on the arms of his chair, a rolling leather wingback that looks very executive.
To match the executive fake mahogany desk and bookshelves, she thinks, suppressing a snicker. To match the executive man. He certainly looks the part. She stares across that wide desk, taking in the crispness of the doctor’s lapels. His white coat appears freshly pressed. Sarah thinks if she leans in and breathes deep, she might detect the faint scent of spray starch. She wonders if he does his own ironing. Or, maybe a wife?
No, that couldn’t be right. Not him. If he had a wife, he’d be too busy to bother with this whole charade. J. Prevarant M.D. spent far too much time torturing her to think he had much else going on in his life at the moment. Her eyes drop down to the picture again and her imagination fills in the background for her, painting the details of the scene just out of frame. No, there was no wife to do his ironing, but perhaps goblin servants…
“What do you think of when you see this picture, Sarah?” The doctor’s words startle her, pulling her from her contemplations.
She blinks and snorts a little, quietly, but he hears it. She can tell by the way the corners of his mouth twitch, then still.
“I think of how art therapy is an annoying waste of time.”
“What were you thinking when you drew it?” he persists with remarkable forbearance, bringing his two hands together then, interlacing his fingers loosely and settling them on his desk before him. His forehead wrinkles slightly and there is the subtlest tilt of his head as he awaits her response. His posture and expression give the impression of keen interest; of professional caring.
He’s very good, Sarah thinks.
She can give an impression, too. An impression of thoughtful consideration; of agreeable cooperation. She tilts her own head and blinks, looking up at the wall above the doctor’s head as if trying very hard to recall something. She makes a soft humming noise as she studies his medical school diploma for a moment.
“I was thinking…” Here, she looks back at Dr. Prevarant, locking her gaze with his own. She smiles. “I was thinking I wished I could go to sleep. That was right after you changed my meds again. I was sleepy all the time. I fell asleep sitting up in the art room. You know how the therapists hate that.” Her smile broadens then. “No worries, though, doc. It’s so much better now.” She leans forward and in an exaggerated stage whisper, adds, “I’m wide awake.”
He scribbles something in her chart. Sarah’s eyes flick down quickly as he finishes. It’s a phrase, but his hand blocks most of it. The only words she can make out are ‘prevaricating’ and ‘avoidant.’
“I’m so much better,” she emphasizes, settling back in her chair. “No more side effects.” She looks comfortable; sincere; the very picture of progress.
Of therapeutic success.
The doctor regards her for a moment, taking in her demeanor. He makes a sound, a sort of noncommittal, ‘hmm,’ before reaching into the hip pocket of his white coat and fishing for something. After a moment, he draws out a small keyring, four or five keys jangling together as he inspects the collection, looking for the one he wants. The sound seems to unmask Sarah’s old motor tic and she blinks hard once, then winks her right eye. She can’t be certain, but she thinks Dr. Prevarant is too occupied with his task to notice. He’s located the correct key and has used it to unlock a drawer to his left, at knee level.
Leaning over, the psychiatrist reaches into the drawer and seems to sift through a few items inside. Finally, he pulls one out and places it on his desk, setting it overtop of Sarah’s drawing. It’s a book with a hard cover, black, with no title embossed there. A journal or sketchbook, if she had to guess about it. Then she sees something on the cover which catches her attention.
Very specific, very familiar stickers, small and peeling slightly. They line the right lower edge of the cover and they spell out a name.
All pretense of thoughtful consideration and cooperation flies out the window.
“Where did you get that?” the girl hisses. The doctor doesn’t answer. He merely opens the cover and begins to turn the pages, searching for something. The sound of the paper leaves grating against each other as he flips rapidly through the book seems to almost stab her eardrums. It’s painful. Sarah stifles the urge to slap her hands over her ears like a toddler startled by the vacuum cleaner.
Dr. Prevarant finds what he is looking for and turns the book around so it’s facing her in its correct orientation, just as he’d done with her drawing earlier. The girl’s eyes drift down and she sees the pages displayed before her. On the first, there is another drawing, much like the one which is hidden now beneath the book, only this one is rendered in pencil, not marker, black rather than red, with richer detail; more subtle shading. The subject, however, is the same: a gloved hand, holding a crystal orb.
The ball has a depth to it, and it appears to be spinning.
Despite her surprise and irritation at being so unexpectedly confronted by her forgotten sketch, she smiles a little at her own skill. She couldn’t have been older than sixteen when she’d drawn it, with no formal art training whatsoever, beyond the hour a week she’d spent making bright flowers with finger paints on butcher’s paper or forming simple animals with modeling clay in her elementary school’s art class. Still, there is an undeniable life-like quality to the picture. It almost looks as if she can reach out and take the ball from the gloved hand.
And if she did, she’s sure she could gaze into it, and see her dreams.
“Do you notice anything about this drawing, Sarah?” Dr. Prevarant inquires, tapping the index finger of his right hand on the edge of the picture.
“It’s incredibly detailed,” she replies, leaning forward to admire her own work. The doctor’s lips make a thin line then and his finger slides across the paper to the next page.
“You had quite a bit to say here about this drawing,” he says. His finger is now resting on cramped writing, too small for her to read well from her vantage point. The entire page is filled with line after line of tight, upright cursive, the words so close together that it is difficult to say where one ends and the next begins.
She is immediately defensive. “I don’t remember any of that.”
“You write about the baby here,” the doctor observes, his finger gliding along a line near the middle of the page.
Sarah shakes her head in denial, but says nothing.
“You say that you wished he were gone but regretted it.”
Her bottom lip has begun to tremble. She bites it to make it stop.
“You write that you were offered a choice.”
The girl squeezes her eyes shut and rocks slightly. A thought plays in her head, over and over; a correction to the doctor’s interpretation of what she’d written so long ago. I didn’t wish he were gone, I wished him gone.
“Here, you say that you traded your dreams for the baby.”
“Stop,” Sarah moans, her eyes opening to plead with him. “It wasn’t like that! You don’t understand!”
Dr. Prevarant sets his pen down on the desk and sits back in his chair. “Then what was it like, Sarah? Tell me.”
Her breathing has become heavy, harsh and forced, and she sits upright, her back stiff. She reaches out and grips the edge of her psychiatrist’s desk, pressing her fingertips into it so forcefully that her nailbeds go from pink to white.
“You make it sound like I’m some resentful teenager. Like I’m selfish and awful! Oh, poor me, I have to give up my stupid girly dreams for this baby. It wasn’t like that! I did it to save him! I saved him!”
The doctor’s voice is steady, nonconfrontational, as if he is nothing more than a disinterested observer. “What did you save him from, Sarah?”
His feigned innocence sets her teeth on edge. Her lips pull back in a snarl and in an instant, she’s up, leaning as far over the desk as she can to stare into his changeable eyes. No human has eyes like that. Everyone here is blind not to see it.
“From you!” she screams. “I saved him from you!”
She hears their laughter then, goblin laughter, raspy and cruel, but when she whips her head this way and that, they scurry away, hiding in corners and behind furniture, snickering hatefully.
“Sarah!” Dr. Prevarant barks, pushing his chair back until it meets the wall and standing himself. He is out of her reach then. “This behavior is unacceptable!”
“Stealing babies is unacceptable, Jareth!” She’s screaming when Sam and another orderly burst into the room. “Preying on young girls is unacceptable!” She feels their arms hook around hers and she is dragged back, away from the Goblin King.
The doctor is ignoring her at this point and gives instructions to the orderlies.
“Take her to her room. Let her nurse know I’m writing new orders right now.”
“Yes, doctor,” Sam replies as he and his partner pull her across the room. She’s kicking and fighting, still screeching at the man on the other side of the desk.
“Tell them who you are! Say it, you coward! Tell them!”
Dr. Prevarant says nothing. He merely stares after her, and his eyes look alternately blue, then green, then hazel. As Sarah is pulled through the door, she sees him glance down at her opened sketchbook, and though she cannot be certain, she thinks she sees a hint of a smile forming on his lips as he stares down at the gloved hand twirling the crystal ball.
Chapter 17: The Lesson of Opium
She's standing in the room with the crib. It's her father's room; the room he shares with Karen, her stepmother. Everything is still at the moment, including Sarah herself. She's frozen in place, watching; waiting. She doesn't know how she got here; it's not where she wants to be, but it's where she is. It's nighttime. The lights are out, save for the faint glow of a lamp in the hallway behind her. A storm has blown up outside and it rages with a fury which is frightening in its intensity.
Always that same storm, sudden and severe, the sort of storm that carries within it its own innate warning.
The sort of storm that brings with it more than just rain and wind.
The intermittent crack of the lightning and the rumble of the thunder are the only sounds she hears apart from her own hitching breaths.
Apart from the dull thudding of her heart beneath her breast.
That's just imagination, she tells herself, though she is not at all sure of what she's asserting. A human heart doesn't beat that loud. The naked ear can't detect it buried beneath muscle and bone.
In between it all, in between the lightning and thunder and apprehensive breaths, in between the rhythmic pounding of her heart which beats against her ribs like a march played in double time, there is silence. The quiet is strange; heavy; complete.
The lightning is so bright, it feels as though it sears her retinas each time it strikes, irradiating the objects around her, obliterating the darkness in sudden, violent bursts. She tries to squint against it, the blinding white of it, but she's too slow. The room is already dim and gray again before she succeeds in closing her sluggish lids. It leaves her with the floating green ghosts of her surroundings, dying a little at a time. The furniture, the windows, the framed prints decorating the walls, their electric phantoms fade with each subsequent blink of her eyes, and then they are no more, until the next transient tentacle burns its path from the sky to the ground with an ear-piercing crash.
She had once stared at the sun during an eclipse. It was only for a second or two, a foolish impulse she was powerless to resist in her naïveté . Her father had placed his broad palm over her eyes protectively, quickly, when he'd seen her peering over the top of the special glasses the school had given their young students, but that brief moment had been enough. After that, the sun had appeared wherever she looked, for nearly an hour, its fiery shape superimposed over the landscape, and her father's chest, and the wallpaper in her room, and even her face when she'd tried to check her eyes for damage in the mirror of her vanity table.
It's not the image of the sun which plagues her now, insinuating itself into whatever scene her gaze may behold, like a celluloid film negative held up to her unblinking eye. No, it's not the sun she sees.
It's the crib.
That flashing impression drawn by the lightning, lingering in the dark, fading bit by bit until it disappears, only to be resurrected, again and again.
She looks at the crib across from her; that quiet crib, painted in shades of black and gray by the stormy night and the dark room, until another bolt of lightning outlines it in harsh luminosity.
No, no, no, she thinks, but does not say. This time she'll stop herself. She'll stop in time.
She is walking toward the crib and she can't make her feet stop. She tries, she strains to do it, but she can't. Her steps draw her closer to it even though she wants nothing more than to run in the opposite direction. Don't! she wants to command herself, but her lips won't part to release the word her tongue won't move to shape. And then, she's there. Just like that, she's there, her thighs touching the slats of the crib's front panel and it doesn't matter if they are black or gray or ghostly green.
It doesn't matter if they are glaringly white.
Slowly, carefully, she wraps her fingers around the top rail. It's raised all the way up, and locked in place. For safety.
She would choke on her laughter if her lips and tongue weren't too frozen to make such sounds.
She grasps the crib rail with a strength that makes her ache deep in her bones. Lightning strikes at that moment, illuminating the room and everything in it in a single, electric instant, bright as the day. She tries not to look, but her eyes still will not close fast enough, and so she sees.
She sees what's in the crib.
The patterned baby blanket, so carefully chosen, and the sheets, oh, the sheets!
(Tiny whales, cartoonish and smiling. Happy.)
Red and blue and gold and green.
Her face contorts in a silent, anguished cry. She cannot unsee it, what's in the crib.
And she cannot unsee what isn't.
I wish I wish I wish…
But she hadn't said her right words. Not this time, not really. Not all of them. So, why? Why?
Sarah is caught somewhere between her nightmare and a panicked wakefulness, and she screams and screams, thrashing in her bed while her fingers clutch at her cool sheets. She grips them as though she is afraid she will fall to her death if she lets them go. Jareth is there in an instant.
"Shh," he soothes, his long fingers slipping into her hair, cradling her head. "I'm here, my darling girl."
Sarah is gasping and trembling, and she says the same thing, over and over.
"I didn't mean it. I didn't mean it. I didn't mean it."
"It isn't real, Sarah. Open your eyes."
"I didn't mean it, I didn't! I didn't mean it," she babbles, her eyes still squeezed tightly shut.
"It was a dream, precious. Just a bad dream."
She sits up, looking wildly around, and insists, "I didn't mean it! I wouldn't wish him away. Not again!" A sob escapes her throat.
"I know," the Goblin King tells her. He settles next to her on her bed and pulls her closer to him. "I know."
Slowly, her panting abates and Sarah relaxes against Jareth, shivering.
"I'm stupid," she laments, now fully awake. She reaches up to wipe away the next tear that threatens to fall. "Like a child."
"No, darling, you're not stupid," he tells her, but then chastises her softly. "You have nothing to fear. Not here. You know this!"
"Do I?" The girl shuts her eyes, pushing away the image that seems reluctant to fade from her mind.
Red and blue and gold and green.
"Yes, you do. You're safe here. Nothing can harm you," he murmurs, rocking her slightly. "You know I will always protect you. There is no need for these nightmares."
She sits up then, pulling from his grasp and straightening her shoulders. "Do you think I want them? That I seek them out?" Anger tinges her words.
The king sighs, grasping her chin gently in his one hand, tipping her face up so he can look her in the eye. "You should not torment yourself, Sarah. You can choose…"
"Choose," she repeats, and her disbelief is evident in her voice.
"While you are under my protection, you have no reason to fear," he assures her. "I will always guard you against the bad things. All of them."
Sarah slumps and turns her face so that her chin slips from the king's grip, hanging her head before she whispers a question.
"How can you protect me from myself?"
The king's eyes narrow in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, what if I'm the bad thing?"
Jareth snatches her closer to him then, his fingers digging almost painfully into her scalp, her back.
"You're not," he declares gruffly, and though Sarah cannot see his face, she can well imagine his expression. "You're not, and I'll eat the liver of anyone who says otherwise."
The girl nods against his chest. She isn't sure why she should believe him, she only knows that she does. His promise is monstrous, and frightening, and it fills her with a sense of satisfaction so complete, it almost seems unreal.
The king spends the next hour murmuring words of comfort into the queen's ear. He says Sarah is simply over-tired; that she's been placed in difficult circumstances with the near-war in the center of the Labyrinth, with the near-war at their borders, and the stress of her royal duties has manifested as a disturbing dream.
"That's all this is," he tells her, stroking her cheek gently with the back of his hand.
He does not acknowledge that this is not the first time she's had this dream, and neither does she.
He urges her to rest. He says that sleep will do her a world of good. And when she is unable to close her eyes without seeing the ghost of the crib behind her lids (the shape of it floating in the darkness as though it were the sun and she had stared at it too long), the Goblin King conjures a crystal which he shapes into a cordial glass containing a colorless draft, a small amount she can finish in two small sips.
"What will it do?" the girl asks softly as she reaches for what he offers her.
"Nothing more than give you a deep and dreamless sleep."
And it does.
When she finally awakes, she feels refreshed and her dream has faded enough that she can barely recall she has even had it. She certainly cannot remember what about it had upset her so much. She'd been standing in her parents' empty room, and it was raining. Hardly the stuff of nightmares, she thinks, laughing a little to herself. Goblins stream into the room then and distract her from her thoughts as they set about making her look regal.
She'd slept through breakfast, but the king joins her for luncheon, along with Lord Draimen, Vergess Trindlebark, and Sir Didymus. It's odd company, she thinks: the king's war chief, Minister of Justice, and head of royal security (amongst his other duties), making small talk in the grand dining room over their cold salmon, roasted fowl, and a selection of spring vegetables from the royal garden. The queen takes a sip from her water glass (the others are drinking wine, a dry white with their salmon and a beautiful Bordeaux with their pheasant, but Sarah has refused anything but hot tea and water since the incident with the bubbling fairy wine fountain). She swallows the water and clears her throat.
"Perhaps it's time to explain why you're all here," she suggests. "Am I being deposed? Arrested? What?"
Jareth bursts out laughing at this while the Honourable Vergess Trindlebark chokes a bit on his asparagus and fiddlehead salad, coughing rather forcefully to clear his airway. Sir Didymus' furry face dissolves into an expression of alarm as he regards his queen.
"Oh, my gracious, no!" the fox-terrier exclaims. "I would never betray your majesty that way." Sarah notices her loyal knight does not presume to speak for the others here.
Only Lord Draimen seems unaffected. He gazes at Sarah with his yellow eyes, appraising her openly. She finds it unnerving.
"Then what is it?" the girl demands, ignoring the dark wolf who sits to Jareth's right.
"I do apologize for the need to involve our advisors in this matter, my dear. It was not my original intention, but our time grows so short, I'm afraid I have no other choice," Jareth explains.
"It was not your original intention," the queen repeats slowly, her confusion apparent.
"They each have a unique perspective on the laws and customs of this land," he continues, "and I felt having them here, perhaps to speak to their areas of expertise, would be helpful." The Goblin King looks at the girl, then adds, "Should you have questions."
"Should I have questions…" Sarah's apprehension grows. "What are you talking about, Jareth?"
"You'll recall that before our attentions were diverted to important diplomatic matters, we were discussing your upcoming birthday."
"Yes." In truth, she'd wondered about Jareth's intentions in bringing up her birthday for a day or two after they'd breakfasted in his private dining room, but shortly thereafter, she'd brushed it from her mind. They'd both been busy then, and had not found time to continue their conversation. She had become immersed in the business of the Labyrinth, as usual. Then there was the precarious dance she'd been forced into while the peace accords were being negotiated between the coastal kingdoms and the mountain clans. It had all left her little time to give the matter of her birthday (and Jareth's preoccupation with it) much thought. And then, she'd simply forgotten.
"There are some ramifications of your achieving the age of majority," the king tells her. "Ramifications we've not had to deal with in recent memory…"
"Ever," Vergess Trindlebark corrects. "Not in our recorded history, anyway."
"Yes, thank you, Vergess," Jareth says sourly, glowering a little at his law advisor. "As I was saying, we've no experience with these… consequences… owing to the fact that humans are…" Here, he pauses, seeming to consider his words carefully, trying to say what needs saying without giving offense.
"Humans have not been welcomed in our society," Lord Draimen drawls helpfully, relieving the king of the burden of completing his thought. The wolf's deep voice rumbles as he speaks, and he studies the queen for a moment before adding, "Traditionally."
A line forms between Sarah's eyebrows as she pinches them together, mulling the wolf's words. When she speaks, it's haltingly, as if she is working through a problem.
"But… I'm human, and I've been here for…"
"Yes, my dear, but you are a child," the king says softly. Sarah bristles at that, but she knows it's technically true.
"A human child," she replies, still not understanding what difference it makes. Jareth sighs, and leans back in his chair.
"Precious, do you recall the morning we began this discussion?"
Sarah's head fills with the images from that breakfast. Sunlight streaming through the crystal prisms of a chandelier, beams breaking apart into twinkling starbursts, bright and wonderful and hypnotic. So much soft white all around her: the walls, the table, the dishes, the draperies, her own dress. The very air seemed soft and white. It was like a dream. And there had been just one point of color, brilliantly red berries in a bowl of white milk glass, with long, elegant fingers reaching in to pluck one from among the many. That ripe berry was brought to a mouth, his mouth, lips parted, teeth bared to take that first, sweet bite, the mere act of it hypnotic in its own way.
"Yes," she replies hoarsely, looking down her plate, hoping the heat creeping up her neck isn't detectible to the king's eyes, or those of his advisors.
"I told you that my kingdom is sustained, at least in part, by the beliefs of children."
"I recall the discussion." She eyes Lord Draimen defiantly then. "Ironic, isn't it? That this kingdom relies so heavily on humans when we aren't even welcome in this society?" Sarah smirks a little, then tacks on a sneering, "Traditionally."
Lord Draimen's countenance remains dispassionate as he responds to the queen. "No slight was meant, your majesty, but you must understand, the iron in your blood alone is enough to…"
"Draimen!" the king barks, giving the wolf a withering look.
"I do beg your pardon, sire," the wolf lord says, bowing his head in deference to his sovereign. Sarah glares at him, and then at Jareth. In return, the king gives her a pleading look and it catches her off her guard.
"Sarah, you must understand, you are the first human who has ever solved the Labyrinth. And you're the only human who has ever chosen to return to this realm; the only one who even could return."
"It's true, your majesty." Sir Didymus is looking at his queen as he speaks, nodding his head in agreement with the Goblin King. "There have been laws regarding humans in the Goblin Realm for many centuries, but we have never needed to consider them. Until now."
Sarah bites her lip, looking troubled. She glances at the king's advisors, then at her own loyal knight before finally settling her gaze on Jareth.
"I don't understand what you're trying to say." Her words are barely more than a whisper, but the king comprehends her well enough.
"May I speak plainly?" he inquires.
"Please," she says. "I wish you would."
Jareth takes a deep breath before he explains. "On your eighteenth birthday, you will be expelled from the Goblin Realm, transported back to your own world and never allowed to return, unless you bind yourself to this kingdom."
The girl's head spins. Expelled? Never to return?
"But… the Labyrinth…"
"It will crumble, your majesty," Sir Didymus says sadly. "In short order. And all those within its walls will perish."
Sarah's shoulders slump and she stares at her half-eaten salmon. "I don't understand," she murmurs. "I've been here all this time. No one cared until now."
Lord Draimen looks as if he wishes to say that indeed, there are those who have cared, but one pointed glare from Jareth keeps the wolf from opening his mouth to speak. Sarah misses the silent exchange because she is still frowning at her food.
"In the same way that the beliefs and fears of human children preserve your labyrinth and the wider realm, the skepticism and practicality of human adults drain them. Rapidly," the king tells her. "Dangerously so."
"But… I believe!" the girl cries, gripping the edge of the table with enough force to turn her fingers white. "Why should I be punished? And why should those in my Labyrinth suffer? I'm not skeptical. I believe!"
"It's no judgement of you personally, your majesty," Vergess Trindlebark remarks in an attempt to reassure her.
"It certainly feels personal," she growls.
"Your belief is not the issue here," Trindlebark continues in a tone which can best be described as conciliatory. The chief law advisor is a man who does not relish conflict, particularly with a ruling monarch. "We speak of it only to explain why such laws came into being. The fact of your belief is immaterial to the problem, my queen. The law is the law, and we are all bound by it."
"I'm afraid he's right, your majesty," Sir Didymus says apologetically. "We've had a score of justices poring over the written code for at least a fortnight, trying to find some way around it, but there is none to be had. The law is quite clear in this instance."
"Laws can be changed," she tries.
Jareth shakes his head. "Perhaps in your world, Sarah, but here, it's not a matter of a referendum or an executive order. There is magic involved, and that is no small thing to undo."
The girl thinks to ask Jareth how he knows so much about the inner workings of a representative democracy, but decides that's less important than figuring a way out of her current mess. As she understands it, she will be eighteen soon, and therefore an adult, a fact which apparently means her world will come crashing down.
"You can reorder time!" She gasps with the realization, looking hopefully up at the Goblin King. "I don't have to turn eighteen!"
The king's expression is decidedly melancholy at her suggestion. "I could," he admits, "once. Or twice. Perhaps a few times. But it's a temporary solution at best, and one that has its own repercussions and challenges."
"One that would threaten our newly signed peace treaties before the ink on them is even dry," the black wolf warns.
"What? Why? What has any of this to do with the peace treaties?" the girl presses, irritated that her every solution seems to have some flaw which cannot be overcome.
"The why of it isn't important. The only thing which is important is that Lord Draimen speaks the truth," Jareth assures the queen. "Reordering time is not something we should consider here. The reward would be short-lived, and long term… well, it wouldn't do any of us any good."
"Then what, Jareth?" Sarah moans, exasperated. "What am I to do?"
The Goblin King gives her a pitying look, and it makes her angry. She does not want his pity, she wants a resolution! The queen tries to shake her worries and doubts so that she can find an answer. She stares off, concentrating on what Jareth has told her so far, and then her eyes snap into focus and she looks at the king, speaking in a rush.
"You said I could bind myself to this world. What does that mean? What would I need to do?"
Jareth hesitates, but only for a moment, then replies, "Practically speaking, it means you would give up your ability to return to your own world at will; that this would become your world."
The queen blanches, but then nods. She could've guessed as much. "This has been my home for well over two years now," she says softly, trying to convince herself that this condition is not so terrible. She's not been home during the entirety of her reign, but just knowing that she can go, whenever she wants, provides her some comfort. She bites her lip, deciding that she can give up that comfort, if it means saving the Labyrinth.
As he watches her fear, and her uncertainty, and then her resolve play out in her expression, the king adds quietly, "And it also means you would have to renounce your humanity."
The queen scrunches her nose. "Renounce my humanity? I don't even know what that means. How can I renounce what I am?"
"By becoming something else entirely," Draimen answers, and at his tone, Sarah feels sick to her stomach. She swallows down the bile that burns her throat. Jareth watches her keenly.
"Something else entirely… like… a… a goblin?" she breathes.
"No, my dear, not a goblin. Nothing so extreme as that. You would hardly notice a difference," Jareth soothes. "It's a simple tincture, and, once consumed, it would prevent the magic of the realm from expelling you."
A million questions swirl in her head then. Questions about the tincture, what it is made of, what it would do to her, and why it even works. Questions about what will happen if she doesn't consume it, and how exactly the magic of the realm will affect her if it expels her. Questions about the Labyrinth, and how it might change if she herself changes. Questions about how she will change, if she renounces her humanity. She can hardly believe she is having to consider all these things now, but she is, and there's nothing to be done for it. All these questions and more dance on her tongue, begging to be asked, but a clarification by Jareth's law advisor erases all these queries from her mind for the moment.
"Of course, before you can be allowed to consume the tincture, we must have your unbreakable pledge," Vergess Trindlebark says matter-of-factly. "The contract must be signed and sealed with an oath of blood."
"Unbreakable pledge? Contract?" The girl looks at each of the advisors, confusion once again marring her features, then her eyes turn to the king suspiciously. "What contract?"
Jareth regards the queen for a moment, his face lacking all its typical mockery and arrogance and amusement. His changeable eyes do not sparkle with delight, or ire, or indulgence for once. His perfect brows do not raise or furrow to hint at his emotion. He is utterly serious and utterly sober as he pronounces his next words.
"A marriage contract, precious. If you wish to stay in my kingdom, if you wish to save your Labyrinth from destruction, you must sign it. You must swear a blood oath." Jareth leans forward, his gloved palms placed flat against the surface of the table as he stares down its length at the Queen of the Labyrinth. He watches as the girl swallows, his gaze trailing up her white throat, over her lips, and to her own startled eyes before he says, "You must agree to marry me, Sarah."