Chapter 1: As the Colors Fade
The scrambled eggs were congealed on the plate in front of her. The first few bites had been delicious, hot and fluffy and nothing at all like the dorm cafeteria food that she hadn't quite gotten used to yet. But then the "family discussion" had started, and the eggs had been left to cool and crust over, uneaten. Karen was washing dishes at the sink, a constant clinking underscore to the stormy feud. Sarah and her father were staring daggers at one another across the breakfast table, while Toby had fled to his room upstairs.
"Sarah," her father was saying exasperatedly, and for the third or fourth time since The Talk had begun, "we understand that you're just starting to get into the swing of college, and that there are a lot of things there that really interest you. But you are not there to engage in glorified daydreaming; you are there to build the foundation for your future. " His voice grew clipped and harsh as he spoke the next words. "Mythology majors. Do. Not. Get. Jobs."
Karen spoke over the noise of the sink, cajolingly. "Honey, there have got to be drama or writing clubs on campus where you can pursue these interests of yours in your free time, but you have to think about how to be productive with your coursework. We aren't going to be paying your way forever." (Sarah thought that was a bit rich, as she had received almost a full scholarship from the university – for her creative writing, no less – which meant her father and stepmother were paying only a few thousand dollars a semester to make up the difference.)
Sarah opened her mouth to say as much, but her father cut her off again. "Now, you've got a good head for numbers, and you really enjoyed that economics class you took in high school, didn't you? Why don't you put some consideration to studying something like that?"
"Dad, the econ class was like a club or extracurricular to me! You know, something I did to supplement what I really cared about. Swapping my real interests for a side hobby doesn't work; just because I liked one class doesn't mean that's what I want to do with my life." Besides, she thought, half the fun of that class was the wonderful, quirky woman who had taught it. Ms. Chandler would always somehow manage to connect the lecture topic to a story…
"Be that as it may, one way or another, you have got to make ends' meet, and a degree in faerie tales is… it's worse than art!" Mr. Williams' brow was furrowed, and his knuckles white as his hands clenched to knotted fists against the pale green of the tablecloth. "And as much fun as you have with your writing, that is not going to be a living for you, either."
"The hell it –"
"Sarah, language! And stop yelling, your brother's upstairs," Karen cut in.
Sarah tried again, in a furiously exaggerated whisper. "The heck it isn't. I'm GOOD at it, or have you forgotten why I got my scholarship in the first place?"
"Sweetheart, a scholarship is one thing, but the real world won't give you an A for effort and idealism. You must understand that. Now, this conversation has gone on long enough, I think. You still have a week to change your classes, right?" He raised an eyebrow in prompt as Sarah stayed quiet. "Sarah…?"
She nodded, her lips pressed together and bloodless, her eyes nearly shooting sparks.
"Good. This week, you need to make a plan for more constructive studies. Talk to an academic adviser if you're not sure what classes to take. Economics sounds like it may be the best fit for your interests and abilities, but as long as you aim for something practical you can choose something else. And no, psychology and English are not practical. Keep the math class, of course, and you can stay in one of the others as an elective. But the rest need to be oriented toward a reasonable goal as of the end of registration. Are we clear?"
"But Dad – "
"Sarah. This topic is no longer open for debate. We've been here two hours, and Karen and I have things to do. Are we clear?"
Sarah nodded again, and shoved her chair back from the table, almost shaking with anger. She left the forlorn pile of eggs on her plate and stalked out of the kitchen just before the tears collecting in her eyes could fall.
Her room in her family's house felt bare, unwelcoming; it looked like Karen had packed away all the belongings she had left behind when she moved into her freshman dorm for orientation two weeks ago, save for the clothes she had not liked enough to bring with her. Sarah wondered why in the world she had thought it would be a good idea to come back home this weekend, and lamented that her father had her university web account information to make the tiny tuition payments she still owed. College orientation and dorm life had been a shock, but not an entirely unpleasant one. Her roommate was a track athlete and so aside from the early-morning workout alarms was rarely around to intrude on Sarah's existence. Not knowing anyone there prior to orientation was at once fascinating and terrifying; Sarah had alternated drastically between being attending social events at a rapid pace to meet people, and secluding herself in her room to shut out the world. The hour-long drive home had been undertaken this weekend out of a sense of "why not," and a hope for food that hadn't been sitting under a heating lamp for Powers-knew-how-long prior to making it onto her plate.
Well, the first five minutes of brunch had been good, at least.
Sarah sighed. It seemed silly to leave so soon after arriving, but thanks to the argument, she had no desire to stay. In fact, she was pretty sure she would rather be anywhere but here, so back to campus it would be.
She unplugged her laptop and slipped it back in her backpack, put on her shoes, and picked up the unopened overnight bag she had brought in anticipation of staying until Sunday evening. On the way down the hall toward the staircase, she paused at the closed door of Toby's room, hesitated, then knocked softly.
"Whoosit?" Her little brother's muffled voice came through the door.
"It's Sarah. Can I come in for a sec?"
The door opened, and Toby looked up at her with a very serious expression for a six-year-old. Noticing her bags, he asked plaintively, "you're not leaving, are you, Sarah? You just got here!"
Setting her bags aside, Sarah knelt and hugged him gently. "I know, but I think I'll get more done this weekend if I go back to school instead of staying. I also think if I don't leave I'll fight with Dad again, and that will just make me angry."
A single frown line creased Toby's high forehead. "Why were they yelling at you? Did you do something bad?"
"Well, I don't think I did. But they want me to study something different in school from what I want to study, and they think that I won't be able to be a writer like I want to be."
"That's stuuuuuuupid," he announced, dramatically. "You tell the best stories in the whole world!"
Despite herself, Sarah smiled crookedly. "Well, I'm really glad you think so, squirt. Maybe you can tell them that someday, eh? Anyway, you have fun this weekend, and I'll see you later, okay?"
Toby squeezed around her neck and nodded. "You'll come back again, won't you?"
"Of course I will. They can't stay grumpy forever." She kissed his blonde curls and stood before gathering her bags and continuing to the stairs, feeling a bit better.
Her appearance downstairs with bags packed drew raised eyebrows from her father and stepmother, and she glared, daring them to try to suggest she stay at home. Finally, Karen spoke. "A bit of a quick turnaround, you sure you don't want to stay for dinner, Sarah?"
Sarah smiled as brightly as she could manage, and answered with sugared venom. "Well, you two gave me quite the project for the next week, you know, completely re-planning my academic career in the span of a few days. I figured I might as well get started immediately – no point in me wasting my time here, is there?"
"Sarah," her father began in warning tone, but she had had quite enough, and cut him off.
"Nope, don't even start. I'm going to do what you said, but I don't have to like it, and I don't want to be here anymore this weekend. So goodbye, and I hope you're satisfied with your plans for my future."
She promptly walked out the door, threw her bags in her small Toyota, and began the boring drive back to campus. It mildly surprised her that she had managed to leave with those words. Past experiences had made her leery of angry partings, but she had not said anything she regretted, not in the least. In fact, she was still incensed, and no small bit hurt, by her father and stepmother's attitude toward her interests and the accomplishments she had already made. Her misadventure in the strange world of the Underground years before could easily have frightened her into shunning the paths of her imagination that led to the fey and unknown, yet it had done the opposite. She had become more cautious, surely, but her love of tales of other worlds and their denizens had only grown more and more intense as the years passed, and that fascination had begun to spill over into bouts of fitful, feverish creativity. She had published a single short story in her school literary magazine that first year, and was sending off portfolios of them to national contests by the spring of the next.
By the time she was starting college applications, Sarah had won several awards, and her stories had been featured in two country-wide youth publications. The next summer, she had begun a novel.
No one knew about that, yet. She was uncharacteristically self-conscious about it, at least in as early stages as it currently lay.
There had been a Spring Break trip to a small, nearby medieval faire, and a troupe of singers that entertained the passerby. Sarah had stopped to listen, and the song they'd been singing had not left her mind since.
Janet asks, "Tam Lin, my love,
Why is it in these woods you hide?"
"The Queen of Faeries stole me hence,
Alas, when I was but a child."
The ballad told the tale of Janet, whose lover was a human captive of the faeries, and how she rescued him on Halloween night, right from under the Queen's nose. Sarah had generally stayed away from the stories of child-snatching fae after her experience with a certain Goblin King, but that song had sent her wading through legends and folktales, suddenly fascinated by the themes that had emerged across cultures and centuries.
The story of Janet and Tam Lin had seemed full to bursting with possibilities for other viewpoints, other threads to the tale, and almost despite herself Sarah had begun to collect the ideas and weave them together. When they had taken enough shape that she knew no short story would be able to hold the whole tapestry, she'd resolved to finish it as a novel and try to get it picked up by a publisher.
And now here she was, on the road back to school with firm orders to get her head out of the clouds and into something her father's altogether-too-traditional mind considered "practical." Sarah wanted to scream.
Months passed, and Sarah soldiered ahead with her altered schedule, utterly miserable.
She tried to do as Karen had suggested, to treat her writing as a hobby to fill her spare time. It had certainly worked in high school, and for the first couple of weeks she had been optimistic that she could still make progress on her novel in addition to the "practical" regime her father was imposing.
Within a month, however, she had come to the rude realization that her ability to coast through classwork did not quite translate to university courses. She wasn't having difficulty, per se, but the papers and problem sets and projects were a full-time job, and one she resented constantly because the material had long since gone beyond her interest in the subject. Her one writing class that she had meant to use as a haven became its own tangled knot of problems as her ability to relax and focus on her creative instincts dwindled, leaving Sarah more and more frustrated even in the time that she set aside to write.
Worst of all, her dreams had changed.
Sarah had always had vivid, nearly crystal-clear dreams, and they had only intensified after her journey through the Labyrinth. They were the source of many of her ideas for stories, and they served as an escape from a world that never seemed quite as colorful as it should be. The dreams had begun to dim the weekend she had fought with her father and stepmother; now, they were muted and muddled, and the subject matter completely mundane. Not once in high school had Sarah dreamed of classes or homework, but that had become the norm, as if her father's ruling was determined to invade every facet of her life.
Visits home were infrequent and tense. The first weekend Sarah had visited after she changed her courses, she had been prepared to let the subject of her dissatisfaction lie, and to try to enjoy the time with her family. Her father, however, insisted on talking about her new classes, and was almost comically disappointed when Sarah responded flatly and tried to change the subject. (Or it would have been comical, had it not made her so angry.) Every time she visited, the situation was similar, and the unpleasantness of it quickly overrode even Sarah's longing for real food and desire to see her brother.
When Thanksgiving break rolled around, along with a pointed reminder that she had not called or visited in an entire month, Sarah resignedly returned. Her father and Karen mercifully set aside the talk of school for the holiday, though nothing pleasant filled the silent void of conversation, either. Toby's excitement to see her was her consolation – Sarah spent many hours reading to him, and playing energetic games of Knights-Tourney with cardboard lances.
The night before her return to school, however, he asked her for a story.
Sarah fished around in her brain for one of her short stories to tell him, but after several attempts that were met with "Saaaarah! I know that one already!" she was at a loss. She hadn't written anything new that she considered remotely worthwhile all semester, and the realization nearly brought her to tears.
She's come to the roses growing wild;
She's pulled a single one…
The lines of the tale drifted through her memory, like a whiff of perfume left in a room long after the wearer has exited. Her novel was stalled, barely touched in months, but she could still give him the traditional version of Tam Lin. And so Sarah half-spoke, half-sung her favorite incarnation of the old ballad, which had cemented itself in her memory over dozens of read-throughs the previous summer. She had to answer a lot of questions about the words –though the version she gave Toby was a fairly young one, it still had its share of archaic language – but he listened raptly otherwise.
"Is that one of yours, Sarah?" He asked when she had finished.
"No, not that one. That's an old, old story that has been retold for hundreds of years. I was… writing my own version of it, last summer, but I've stopped and I don't think I'll be able to get going on it again…" Sarah's voice trailed off, sadly.
Toby's face lit up when she mentioned her writing, and just as quickly drew into a serious frown at the last part of her statement. "Why not?"
"Well, squirt, I don't have much time these days. And when I do have time to write, it just… doesn't want to work. I think I cram so many other things in my head that don't matter to me, they shove all the stories out."
"But that's horrible! I want to hear more about the faerie queen – don't let the stories get pushed out!" Toby was looking almost as upset in his six-year-old way as Sarah felt.
She answered quietly. "I- I'm trying. Maybe they'll come back to me, if I just get used to things."
The solution was perfectly obvious to Toby, and he made that clear. "Well, try harder!"
The following week of classes was a grueling one, but on Friday night, Sarah found herself with a few waking hours to spare, and she did try harder.
To absolutely no avail.
Words meant to paint a scene of an enchanted forest under liquid moonlight fell like soot-covered bricks on the page, clunky and depressing. Every line of dialogue Sarah wrote seemed to come out as a string of tired clichés, and every inadequate descriptive sentence was a battle to construct. After three hours, she gave up and went to bed without even bothering to take down her hair or undress.
Twice more over the following week, Sarah tried again to work on her novel. Both sessions were spectacular failures, and left her even more drained and frustrated than the mild, work-induced sleep deprivation had done. The Friday morning seven days after her first attempt (and a night of fitful sleep after her third), when Sarah's alarm clock woke her from a long, involved mathematical analysis of supply and demand in newly-industrialized nations, she simply burst into tears.
Some detached part of her mind observed that it was terribly silly to cry over a dream as innocuous as that, but to the rest of Sarah, this was insult added to injury.
She managed to compose herself enough to dress and drag herself through the day's classes, but her mind was trapped in turmoil even as she absently took notes.
Would it be better, easier, to just give it up entirely? Stop this thought of writing and actually accept the path I'm on now? She was sick of fighting, sick of caring, sick of reaching for inspiration that seemed to have completely abandoned her. Something had to give, and she was afraid to answer the question of what that would be.
After her final class, Sarah left the building and just kept walking. She paced the sidewalks between the academic buildings, wandered distractedly past the sports fields, and wove between the dorms. An hour or more passed in this way, before tired feet (clad in shoes fit for walking to class, but not an extended hike all over campus) and a stiff back from carrying her knapsack finally brought her back to her own door.
Somewhere over the course of the trek, she had decided to shelve the novel, probably for good, and the choice made her sick inside, but she did not see a better option. It would hurt less if she stopped trying than it did to attempt to wring the words out of herself when there were plainly none to be had.
Sarah shuffled in, noting absently that her roommate was out for an away competition, and tossing her load of books to the floor with a relieved sigh. She picked her way over a few other piles of textbooks, and around the paper screen that sectioned off her "bedroom" part of the large, one-room dorm –
– and stopped short, heart suddenly pounding in a way that the mild exercise had not evoked, staring at her dresser.
Her reflection in the small mirror above it registered her shock, as well as her disheveled exhaustion.
Just in front of the mirror, perfectly centered on the top of the dresser, lay a flawless, spherical crystal the size of a pool ball, and a single snowy owl feather.
Chapter 2: But if You Turn it This Way...
Sarah stood stock-still for several long minutes, looking for all the world like a very dumbfounded wax sculpture (and her blanched pallor did nothing but add to the resemblance).
It had been years since the last time she had seen Hoggle or any of her other friends from the Labyrinth; her family had moved to a new house when she was midway through high school, and much to her dismay, her new bedroom was adjacent to her parents'. The visits had become rare through lack of privacy, and then tapered off altogether as Sarah adjusted to living without being able to call them whenever she pleased. Jareth, himself, had never made another appearance, though for a long time she had kept a careful (half-hopeful, but she seldom admitted that to herself) eye out for suspicious barn owls.
Now, her thoughts tumbled against one another as she cycled rapidly through reactions to what lay in front of her – "That's it, now I've cracked," was the first out of the gate and recurred roughly every other iteration; "someone here found out and is messing with my head" was quickly discarded, as Sarah had hardly had time to bond with anyone at college past superficial acquaintance and the convenience of homework groups, much less grow to trust someone enough to reveal her personal faerie tale. "The Fieries riding Ludo and playing 'pass-the-metatarsal' with their extremities pulled out one of the King's tailfeathers and stole a crystal and left them here so he'd think I'd put them up to it" presented an amusing mental image, but seemed profoundly unlikely, which left…
…He left them. Here. For me.
Which, naturally, was followed by a much more perplexing question:
Sarah's hands hurt, and she realized she had clenched them so tightly that her short nails were nearly breaking the skin of her palms. Slowly, carefully, she took in a deep, uneven breath and forced herself to relax her death-grip on nothing in particular. Flexing fingers that tingled with returning blood, she finally managed to uproot her feet, and approached the dresser with the acute focus of one who expects something to awaken from dormancy and attack her at any moment.
Maybe it means he – NO. Sarah shook her head vigorously and let out a hiss of breath at the thought that had just weaseled its way past her sense of self-preservation. You didn't exactly give him any reasons to think fondly of you, dimwit, she reminded herself savagely as she tried to quash the tiny thread of excitement that was knotted through her fear.
From across the room, the two items had looked almost innocuous, assuming the viewer was unaware of their otherworldly origin. Sarah didn't keep quite as many fantasy-themed gewgaws in her room at college as she had in high school, of course, but she still had enough eclectic decorations that the crystal and feather had not seemed terribly out of place. Now, standing directly over them, the view was decidedly different.
Up close, both had a quality to them that set them apart from any of the other objects in the room. Sarah's mind termed it "brightness," because while neither emitted light, both seemed almost that they should be doing so. Their outlines were preternaturally sharp, and next to them the room's mundane furnishings all looked as if they were seen through a thin screen of smoke – just a hair hazy, less present than the fae accoutrements. The feather, which Sarah guessed had been taken from a soft underwing, was pale, wild, and slightly curled, recalling with perfect clarity the memory of down-soft, bright hair. (The face that went along with that memory had a faintly mocking air, but did not seem, in Sarah's much-older mind's eye, nearly so sinister as perhaps it should have.) The crystal…
Sarah rubbed her eyes. The crystal somehow looked equally and simultaneously like an orb of solid glass and a delicate soap bubble; she could not begin to guess at its weight. She reached down to pick it up automatically, but snatched her hand back before it could touch, as her brain realized what she was doing.
Pursing her lips, Sarah considered. Just holding the crystal could very well carry consequences, and she didn't…
…Ahh, hell. It would be difficult for him to make this week any worse, at least, she thought ruefully as her hand moved again.
The sphere was cool in her palm, and her skin tingled slightly where she touched it, a sensation that reminded her of a menthol-scented shampoo that she had once tried. Its surface had a sort of elusive iridescence that seemed to pay no attention to how the light was hitting it, one moment completely transparent and faintly shimmering the next. Sarah rolled it around in her hand experimentally, idly pondering whether it would "show her dreams," as the Goblin King had told her at their first meeting.
Well, if that's what it's supposed to do, I hope it shows me my older dreams, she thought, wryly. The ones I've been having lately certainly aren't worth remembering.
"What do you do, I wonder?" she murmured aloud, half-expecting, and somewhat dreading, that she would hear a low, knives-on-velvet voice answering with some smug quip.
But the Goblin King didn't answer, and neither did the crystal – though it did almost fall to the ground as she absently tried to roll it over the backs of her fingers. Sarah cringed inwardly as she fumbled it back into a firm grasp, not quite believing what she had been doing.
After a few moments of silence, Sarah put the crystal back on her dresser, and ever-so-carefully picked up the feather. She reflected, as she brushed a finger along its cloud-soft length, that its presence fundamentally affected the feel of the… parcel.
…gift, her brain corrected itself. The crystal alone would still have had to come from him, but he could have easily sent one of his subjects to leave it for her, or just caused it to appear on her dresser, for all she knew. Somehow she couldn't picture the feather getting there in anyone's hands – or wing – but his own, however. By all appearances the Goblin King had come, in person, to her room, and left a gift for her. And she still had no idea what to make of it.
Another hour passed Sarah by, as she sat perched on her desk chair, toying with the feather. It felt just like his hair had looked, which observation spawned a dozen somewhat uncomfortable thoughts, but mostly, Sarah simply remembered the Labyrinth. Even through the rash anger, indignation, and fear that had characterized that adventure, part of her mind had stayed aware of just what an adventure it was. Upon reflection, she was fairly certain that a large chunk of that anger had been born of guilt about viewing it as an adventure at all – she had been horrified that even with Toby at stake, she was able to play the fantasy heroine. Still, that hadn't stopped her from noticing – and half reveling in – the strange, upside-down wonder of the place.
She thought for a long time on what it would be like to return to the Underground, and what a luxury it would be to appreciate it without the urgent matter of a baby brother to rescue.
Finally, driven by the loud and increasingly insistent complaints of her empty stomach, Sarah rose to seek out dinner. She hesitated on what to do with the feather and crystal, and settled for placing the latter under her pillow and carefully ensconcing the former in her small, lacquered jewelry box. Pondering their significance was an activity that could be continued over dinner.
Sarah returned to her room some hours later, having eaten and slowly, distractedly worked her way through a chunk of homework. Marie, her roommate, was reading in bright orange pajamas on top of her lofted bed, and greeted Sarah quietly before going back to the textbook in her lap.
The aloofness was just fine with Sarah, who was both tired and a touch apprehensive as she contemplated bed. All through the evening, it had felt as if the crystal was waiting for her. Her lack of knowledge of what, if anything, it was supposed to do loaned the damnably beautiful object more significance and anthropomorphism than it probably merited. What if it had some kind of time-based trigger for a magical effect? Or worse, could tell when she was asleep?
And then what? She asked herself wryly. Get up and open the door to let the Goblin King in? - Oh wait, he can just poof in whenever he wants, already! Should be nothing to worry about, then!
That thought led to the somewhat more uncomfortable image of him using the crystal as a conduit of some sort to spy on her, which seemed likelier. Still, she reasoned, if he just felt like being a Peeping Tom, there had to be at least a dozen more subtle and effective ways to go about it than leaving an oversized glass eye for her to find.
In an almost perverse leap of faith, she finally decided that she would sleep with the crystal near (not under – it was far too large) her pillow, having no better ideas about its purpose. It seemed like a risk, symbolically; Sarah could name half a dozen stories where a protagonist fell under the sway of an enchantment because he or she held onto a magical item too closely, but given how unhappy she had been all semester, she was willing to take that risk for a chance at some comfort.
…comfort? Really? More like another adventure, or maybe some decent dreams – comfort is NOT something to be associating with His Glittery Majesty! Sarah's internal debate squad had been having a field day this evening.
Chuckling softly to herself, she changed into flannel pajama pants and an oversized t-shirt and crawled into bed. As she drifted into sleep, the crystal was nestled lightly in her palm.
The darkly sodden limbs of ancient trees twisted into a complex macramé above Sarah, such that only the barest glimpses of twilight sky were visible. A few, flame-colored leaves drifted down from the canopy, sparks against the humid gloom that permeated the air between branches and path, but far more could be seen paving the forest floor. The smell was the next thing Sarah noticed, as the autumn-and-rainshowers bouquet of wet leaves, soil, and a faint hint of ozone regaled her nostrils. She guessed that the rain had brought down most of the bright leaves at once, and only recently abated by the cool moisture in the air.
The only sound beyond Sarah's own soft footfalls was the faint, chirruping drip of water as the trees slowly shed it, and an occasional breezy rustle as a breath of wind moved through the upper branches. Once, she thought she heard the quiet hoot of an owl somewhere nearby, but when she stopped to look for it, no birds of any sort were in evidence.
The path that Sarah traveled was an easy one, for the dense, old-growth canopy left little light to nurture underbrush obstructions, though the trees themselves seemed to form walls flanking the path, and the jewel-toned corridor was wide, and straight as far as she could see. For a time, she walked contentedly – her destination was near, though when she paused to try to remember where, exactly, that destination was, she could not. (It didn't seem terribly important that she remember, though; she was sure she would recall when it mattered.)
After what could have been several minutes or hours, however, with the forgotten destination still "near" but not any closer than it had been, Sarah grew concerned. Her footsteps quickened, kicking back small sprays of leaves in her wake, from time to time, when she encountered a dry patch – yet still, the path was just as straight, and just as long in the distance.
A memory came to her, and her lips twisted into a slight smile.
"What do they mean, 'Labyrinth?' There aren't any turns, or corners, or anything. This just goes on and on."
"Things aren't always what they seem, so you can't take anything for granted…"
Sarah stopped in the middle of the path, turned, and walked directly into the wall of trees to her right.
For a moment, branches caught in her hair and pulled at her clothing, and she wondered at the wisdom of following the little worm's advice here, in this place – then the wall seemed to melt away, suddenly, and she was free. The dense barrier of trunks and limbs was directly behind her, and she could not see anything to suggest the presence of a path beyond them.
Down a hill and in front of her, twisting lazily through the last rays of autumn daylight, the Labyrinth was a strange-yet-familiar sprawl of walls and doorways.
Sarah's breath caught in her throat as she looked down toward the maze, her immediate reaction markedly different than it had been upon her first sight of it years previously. Gone was the bleak, sun-scoured monument to hopeless quests, and in its place, an impossibly intricate landscape promised adventure and fey secrets. High stone walls merged almost seamlessly into natural rock faces in one area, and crumbled in another, replaced by a palisade of enormous trees much like those in the forest Sarah had just left. (Their leaves also placed the season at high autumn, despite Sarah's vague memory of it being nearly winter Above.) Still elsewhere, the wildness of the trees gave way to manicured hedges laced with the vines of strange flowers in every hue Sarah could think of, strung like necklaces across the greenery. In the distance, the great castle rose craggily above an uneven topography of small roofs, its towers swathed in ribbons of mist.
"I wonder, is this how it was… before? Or did it really change so much?" Sarah whispered the question, almost hoping that he was there to answer, just outside her current field of vision.
But no answer came, and Sarah began to walk slowly down the hillside toward the outer wall of the Labyrinth.
As it had been on her first visit to the Underground, the wall appeared to be seamless as far as senses could stretch. Sarah remembered the handicaps – and powers – of assumption in this place, however, and stood before the wall, unconcerned.
"Not if you ask the right questions…"
Closing her eyes, she spoke clearly, "How do I get into the Labyrinth?"
When she opened them, a wrought brass gate had appeared amidst the stone. Sarah took a deep breath as she lifted the filigreed latch; the gate itself swung open on silent hinges at the merest hint of a tug.
She hesitated for a fraction of a second, then stepped inside.
The insistent chirping of her "nature sounds" alarm clock (she'd always thought the thing was morbidly reminiscent of a dying duck, which, while part of nature, was probably not what the designer had intended) brought Sarah to slow awareness of the bedclothes around her, and of the chilly sunlight filtering through the one foggy window.
Sarah sat up slowly and reached to turn off the irritating alarm, feeling disoriented, but surprisingly well-rested given how poorly she had been sleeping in the last few months. She swung her legs over the side of the lofted bed, preparing to clamber down, and only then noticed that her left hand was gripping something glassily smooth and cool.
Looking down at the crystal, Sarah frowned in confusion for a moment before her eyes grew wide, as the memories of the night that had just passed returned in a deluge.
She was still sitting on her bed ten minutes later when she heard the room's door opening; the mirror showed a glimpse of Marie entering, her hair wrapped in a towel.
"Sarah?" She called, sounding far too awake for the time of morning. Then again, it wasn't terribly early for Marie, given that she had already been up more than an hour for her team's morning workout. "You awake?"
Sarah let herself slide off the bed, landing a bit unsteadily on the cold floor. "Yeah, I am. Thanks for checking."
"Well, I heard your alarm from the bathroom a while ago and wanted to make sure," came the cheerful reply.
"I'm surprised I woke up," Sarah said as she slipped on a pair of obnoxiously purple flip flops and collected her shower basket. "Seemed like I had to get back here from another country, this morning," she added quietly, smiling slightly to herself in relaxed amusement that felt like liquid sunlight.
Marie laughed as she wrestled her damp hair into a ponytail. "You need to get up with me sometime. A run first thing will wake you up like nothing else in the world."
Sarah snorted. "Right, and have me keeling over by nine in the evening too, I'm sure."
"Why the alarm, anyway? I'd figured you were out until at least eleven today."
"Project meeting – the loonies I'm working with are just like you, wasting perfectly good Saturday mornings awake…" She laughed and headed out of the room as Marie made a face in her direction. Economics 201 project nonwithstanding, Sarah was feeling increasingly buoyant. Instead of gradually losing its details in her mind, the dream stayed with her as her old ones always had, bright and alive and immersive as a treasured memory. She wondered if this was what the Goblin King had meant of the first crystal he had offered her, years before, when he told her it would show her her dreams.
Later that afternoon, Sarah carried her laptop into one of the musty, forgotten corners of the library stacks. She took a deep breath of page-and-binding-glue-scented air, and began to write.
Chapter 3: It Will Show You Your Dreams (Part 1)
The office-lined hallway was chilly and quiet at this hour of the evening. Sarah had been surprised when Dr. Casas had suggested a meeting so late – most of the other professors she knew went home by five or six. Now, at nearly eight, all the offices on the hallway were closed and their windows dark, except one near the end of the row whose cracked door spilled a welcoming, buttery light across the smooth stone floor.
Sarah reached the open office, confirming with a slightly nervous glance at the burnished brass nameplate that this was the correct one before knocking softly on the aged wood paneling.
"Come on in!" Her creative writing professor's cheerful, lilting voice came from inside.
Dr. Casas's office was as warm and pleasant as its occupant, with paintings on the walls and a soft yellow desk lamp favored over the harsh, fluorescent fixtures that were ubiquitous in the university's rooms. Miranda Casas herself was seated comfortably in an upholstered leather chair, and nearly surrounded by her expansive desk, almost none of which was visible under the stacks of papers and books that paved it. Her liquidly black eyes sparkled as she smiled at Sarah.
"Have a seat, Sarah, please. How was your winter break?"
Sarah smiled in return, and took a seat in one of the two chairs in front of the desk. "It was great, actually. Very productive." She had spent almost the entirety of the holidays writing furiously, as if to make up for the stagnancy of the last semester. The pages had flowed like water, and showed no signs of slowing except as strictly necessary for school – a fact that had Sarah almost euphoric. She had also done a great deal of thinking, which had slowly crystallized into a firm resolve that prompted her to email her favorite professor and request this meeting on the first day back at school.
Dr. Casas laughed, the corners of her eyes crinkling. "Now that's not something I hear students say very often about a break between semesters. What were you working on?"
"I started writing what I hope will be a novel last summer. It… I'm a lot happier with it than anything I turned in for your class last semester." A faint blush bloomed on Sarah's cheeks. She hadn't turned in anything terrible for the class, but she certainly didn't think any of it had been particularly good, either.
Dr. Casas was regarding her intently, simply waiting for Sarah to continue. Embarrassed, she explained further. "I guess I was having a lot of trouble adjusting to school these last few months, because I couldn't seem to make any progress on my novel, and every time I wrote something for class, it felt like I was trying to squeeze toothpaste out of an almost-empty tube. But right before the break, my brain started working again, and I worked on the novel all through the holidays."
"Your work for my class was perfectly fine, and better than most, in fact. Please don't let yourself think that it wasn't worthwhile – judging from the assignments it looked like at the very least your use of language became a lot more sophisticated over the semester, even if you felt uninspired. That said, I'd love to have a look at this novel of yours, if that's what you wanted to talk about," her professor said, warmly. Sarah smiled a bit in spite of herself, grateful.
"I'd love your thoughts on it, definitely," she replied. "That's… actually not quite what I'm here for right now, though. I was hoping you could give me some advice about classes, and part-time work on campus."
"Oh? I think I can help you quite a bit with the latter, but I don't know much about the Economics department requirements. Maybe one of your other professors would be a better choice for that."
Sarah laughed, now relaxed. "That's alright, because I want to get out of that department." It was the first time she had voiced the decision that she had made on New Year's Eve. "You probably didn't know, but I was a Mythology major when I started. My dad didn't think that was very useful, so he made me change most of my classes, and yours was the only one I kept that I really wanted to take."
Dr. Casas considered this for a moment before the corner of her mouth quirked upward. "Ahh, I think I understand. You are looking for a job so that your parents will no longer control the purse-strings, and you can study what you like, yes?"
Sarah nodded, surprised that she hadn't had to use her anxiously-prepared and lengthy explanation for the decision. "Yes, that's it, exactly. I don't need to make a lot of money – my scholarships cover most of my expenses already, so I figured it would be doable."
"It is a pretty drastic step to potentially cut yourself off from your parents like that, Sarah," the professor said. "I…" She pursed her lips, considering her next words. "I definitely do not think you should be stuck in a major you don't like for their sake, but have you tried talking the issue out with them, already?"
"They cut off the conversation when I objected the first time, and after that, my dad was angry with me for not trying to be enthusiastic about the new classes. I'm sure this is what I want to do."
The professor nodded slowly. "Well, then allow me to say two things: First, it is definitely doable, though scheduling work hours with school may be a headache at times." She paused, and Sarah nodded in acknowledgment. She didn't expect it to be easy, but the prospect of juggling work and school was infinitely preferable to continuing in a major she didn't enjoy. "Secondly," Dr. Casas continued, "…good for you. You seemed like the most enthusiastic student in the class when the semester began, but then almost immediately that changed. It is obvious to me you were not happy with what you were doing, and I will be delighted to help you correct that."
"Thank you so, so much, Dr. Casas!" Sarah said effusively.
The professor smiled at her, and pulled out a copy of the school's course listings and a large pad of paper. "You are very welcome. Now, let's have a look at these classes."
The brass gate stood open before her, its rich luster picking up even the last, faint rays of evening sunlight as if to hoard them greedily through the night. Sarah's eyes wandered up and down its complex construction, which struck a masterful balance between strength and delicate ornamentation. Stylized birds soared between sturdy crossbars, and curling, metallic vines snaked around them, studded with sharp-looking thorns. The latch that Sarah remembered lifting a moment before was embellished in a lacy silver overlay that stood out like ice against the brass.
This time, when Sarah stepped across the threshold of the gate and into the Labyrinth, the world remained solid around her, and she could see that she was standing an endless-looking, featureless corridor that reminded her sharply of her first journey here. She raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms, no small bit amused.
Really now? This again?
The walls shimmered lightly, as if seen from across a bonfire, and Sarah blinked. When her eyes came fully open again, the lines had re-formed, and she could see the myriad bends and openings and corners that characterized the enormous maze, and she laughed aloud.
If stone walls could look sheepish… I think these just did. I wonder if I'll end up in an oubliette this time, too. Sarah shook her head, still chuckling, as she chose an archway flanked by weathered stone sphinxes that lounged in indolent, immobile boredom against the wall.
As the twilight dimmed into full night, Sarah walked onward, nearly oblivious to the passage of time until torches suddenly flickered to life along the walls that flanked her. Startled, she quickly scanned the area for goblins, goblin monarchs, or any of the other, less glittery denizens of the Underground. By all appearances, though, she was still quite alone on the path, and she suspected she would be grateful for the torchlight soon, despite its faintly green cast. The flames themselves had a flash of emerald at their cores, as if they were burning something other than wax-soaked wood, and she wondered whether these used some kind of spiked mundane fuel, or were simply magic.
When Sarah turned a corner and found the new section of path awash in cool blue illumination instead, she decided that it must be the latter.
She was walking at a brisk clip, looking for some pattern in the colors, when she began to hear the music.
At first, it was only the slightest, tinkling chime, like the strands of a glass suncatcher clinking together in a soft breeze far away. Gradually, a percussive rhythm began to distinguish itself from Sarah's lightly scraping footsteps, later joined by the sharper beat of a tambourine. Finally, the faint, bright tones of what sounded like a wood flute skipped and trickled amidst the other sounds, and Sarah thought that the source seemed a little closer.
Minutes later, she rounded another bend in the path, where the wall threw bruised shadows through otherwise cheerful violet light, and was certain that the musicians were through an archway a few dozen yards ahead. Sarah reached the archway and paused, hesitant less from any thought of danger than from a worry of interrupting what sounded like a revel of some sort. Still, curiosity won that sortie by a landslide – a moment later, she ducked under a low-hanging ivy creeper and stepped quietly through the arch.
Then the bubble burst, and she opened her eyes to winter sunlight and the insistent bleating of her alarm. Sarah almost threw it across the room.
"Hey, weren't you in English 302 with me last semester?" Sarah looked up from her textbook in surprise. The speaker was a petite girl with short, sand-colored hair and friendly, grey eyes that she did, come to think of it, remember from the creative writing class.
Sarah quickly ran through as much of the class roster as she could remember, trying to recall the girl's name. "Yes, I was… Lauren, right?"
"Laurel, but that's closer than most people get," she corrected with a chuckle. "I'm terrible with names myself, so what's yours?"
Sarah turned slightly pink despite Laurel's attempt at making her comfortable. She hated calling someone by the wrong name. "Sorry, nonetheless – I'd almost rather forget a name than remember the wrong one. And I'm Sarah."
"Sorry to bother you," Laurel said, nodding toward Sarah's textbook. "I just wondered if you knew anything about what happened to that last short story assignment we were supposed to turn in. I never got mine back."
"Oh, no worries – I'm glad for the distraction. The history elective this is for puts me to sleep." Sarah made a face at the book and set it aside. "There was an email after classes ended, you must have missed it. Dr. Casas has the hardcopies, with comments, at her office for us to pick up."
Laurel nodded. "Alright, thanks. I guess I'll swing by her office today or tomorrow and get it." She turned to go.
Noticing the lunchbag Laurel was carrying, Sarah made an impulsive suggestion. "Have a seat if you like, I was just about to put the book away and eat some lunch," she offered, moving her backpack off the other end of the bench.
"Okay, I'd love to, actually." Laurel grinned and sat down, cross-legged. "I normally eat in the north dining hall with some people from my eleven o'clock, but they can't freaking stop talking about the homework that's already been assigned, and I'm getting tired of listening. I'll think about the damn thing when I sit down to do it, not on my lunch break."
Sarah smiled, liking the girl already. She could certainly sympathize with a desire to escape from dwelling on work.
"What class is the homework for?" she asked.
"It's a problem set for Physics 102. I'm a chemistry major, and it seems like half the people in my class get their panties in a wad at the first mention of calculus." She snorted derisively.
Sarah's eyebrows rose. "Really? Hell, I was supposedly an econ major and most of them even could handle the basics."
"Yeah, I get the impression a lot of these guys thought chemistry was all funny squiggle-drawings and explosions. They're pretty disappointed now – we spent the first two entire sessions in lab learning how to AVOID blowing things up… which is a shame, but still!" Laurel added the last thought with a giggle. She cocked her head slightly to the side, inquisitively. "But you said 'was' an econ major. What are you now?"
"Back to Mythology, where I wanted to be in the first place. My dad didn't think much of that, so he made me change most of my classes last semester before registration closed. I've gotten a job at the library now, though, and Dr. Casas put me in touch with a high school to do some paid English tutoring, so… I don't need the little money he was giving me anymore."
Laurel gave her an admiring look. "Wow. And to think everyone in the sciences tells me you liberal artsies are lazy. That's pretty kickass. How'd he take it?"p>
Sarah sighed. "I'll find that out when I go home for the long weekend coming up. I made the decision over winter break, but only just got the work lined up last week. I wanted to have that bit nailed down before I said anything."
"Probably smart," Laurel said with a small nod.
"Yeah, I think so. I'm pretty nervous about telling him, still, to be honest," Sarah admitted.
"Eh, you'd be a robot or something if you weren't. It sounds like you've made up your mind, though – just have to stick to your guns."
Sarah picked at her neglected turkey sandwich as she nodded, and Laurel started inhaling a bag of grapes.
"So if you're a chemistry major," Sarah asked after a short, comfortable silence, "what was with the creative writing class? What else do you like to do?"
Between bites, Laurel answered. "They forced me to take some English class, and it fit. Turned out to be kinda awesome; Dr. Casas was cool. And I was able to dig up some of the old stories I wrote as a kid and clean them up for some of the assignments. As for the rest, if I'm not in class, I'm usually in a theater. Sound tech, set, props, costumes – something backstage needs doing, I do it. I'm going to try to latch onto one of the drama clubs' lighting people and brush up on that, too."
Sarah's eyes lit up. "That's really neat! I dabbled in theatre like you said you did writing, when I was younger and had more free time. What plays are you working on this semester?"
Laurel blinked at her, lips twitching up into another quicksilver grin. "Much Ado About Nothing, and Waiting for Godot… so far. I'm kinda looking for more, even though I know I really shouldn't. You should come see them when they go up!"
"I would love to," Sarah replied, lunch forgotten again. "I adore Shakespeare, and Godot is pretty strange, but leaves so much room for interpretation."
"Shakespeare's a favorite of mine, too, though what I really want to work on of his is Macbeth. It's popular enough that I think there's a good chance it will happen sometime before we graduate."
Laurel's lunchbag joined Sarah's in a dejected heap on the ground beside them, as they continued to chatter about books and plays until the clock in the quad noisily intruded. The two girls hurried in separate directions to their afternoon classes, but not before a quick exchange of email addresses and a promise to eat lunch together again.
Sarah took a deep breath to steady her nerves, and took the plunge.
"Dad? Karen? I need to talk to you about something," she said as she entered the living room, doing her best to sound calm and sure of herself, though she felt anything but.
Robert Williams looked up from his magazine, and Karen from her book, both seated comfortably on the overstuffed couch in front of the flickering TV. An aging rock band was giving a live-televised performance; Sarah didn't recognize the musicians, but the lead singer had a shock of (definitely dyed) scarlet hair that made her want to giggle. "Well, we're listening," her father said as he put aside the glossy pages. "Something to do with school?"
"Yeah, it's about my major and my classes," Sarah nodded and sat down in the easy chair, willing herself not to clench her hand in the thick upholstery of the armrest. "You know I got to skip the entry-level math classes, so I was into the thick of econ last semester." Her parents waited in silence. "I understood the material and did well with it, but… I hated everything about it, and the thought of doing any of that for a living is… just awful." She pressed on quickly, not wanting to be stopped before she said what she needed to, the statement that had required the conversation in the first place.
"I put a lot of thought into it, and talked to my professors, and decided to switch back to Mythology in the English department. Several of the faculty there actually have a pretty wide network of contacts in the workforce for writing and editing local publications, so I'm confident that I'll be able to use that to help me find a job after I graduate." Sarah opened her mouth to say more, but closed it instead, not wanting to babble. She'd see what they had to say, then respond to their arguments or play her trump, as necessary.
Her father was frowning, but Karen looked unconcerned. Sarah made a note of that, hoping that her stepmother might prove at least a partial ally if she kept her head and argued well. Karen's book joined her husband's on the dark oak side table.
"Sarah, we've been over this already, and I'm disappointed that you seem bent on wasting your time in college," Robert began, severely.
Oh dear, that's not a great start.
"The fact that some people, somewhere got jobs with that sort of frivolity does not mean it is reasonable for you to expect to do so," he added.
"You should know by now that if I care about something, I'll put in whatever effort it takes to make it work. Remember all the advanced classes in high school, and the writing I was doing at the same time? I'm already applying that to this. I'm planning on building a network all through college, as well as my writing portfolio, so I'll have options when I finish."
"That's an impressive amount of forethought on how you might make the mythology major work, Sarah," Karen put in. Robert threw her a brief, scorching glare at the encouragement, but she ignored it. "But have you put the same thought into other options in school?"
"I've talked to professors and an academic advisor about the options and what the different departments are like, yes," Sarah replied firmly, before her father could voice the sentence that looked to be on the tip of his tongue. "Obviously I can't sample every major at the school before I choose, but I did as much research as I could on the topic even back during last semester. I'm sure this is what I want to do."
Robert spoke up, anger coloring his voice. "The discussion we had last semester about this issue was not a suggestion, young lady, to be used or discarded as it pleased you. It sounds like you've forgotten that I am your father, you are my daughter, and Karen and I are paying for your education. We do not want to see our money and your time going to waste."
So that's how it's going to be. Alright then, here goes…
Sarah kept her tone utterly calm, though her anger flashed from her eyes, she was sure. "I have tried to explain why I am wasting neither time nor money, but if you don't believe me, then keep your money. I've got a part-time job at the school library, and Dr. Casas also helped me get set up in a paid tutoring program with one of the local high schools. I'll be making enough money to cover what my scholarships don't."
There. Now for the fireworks.
Karen looked surprised, and even a touch amused, at Sarah's revelation. It was a welcome contrast to the colors her father was turning.
Robert surprised his daughter, however, with silence. He didn't yell, as she had expected – only sat with a look that made both Sarah and Karen fear for his blood pressure.
After a long, awkward minute, he finally spoke. "I… see. I am not amused – " he said with another Look at his wife, " – but Karen and I will talk about this."
Sarah nodded, recognizing the dismissal, and quit the room with a grateful half-smile at Karen.
"I can't believe she pulled that," Robert Williams hissed out of nowhere as he and Karen were cooking dinner the next evening, after Sarah had returned to school.
Karen shrugged. "She's smart, mule-headed, and eighteen. You can't keep that tight of a leash on kids at that age, it just doesn't work."
"No one ever told my parents that when I was Sarah's age, and they did just fine at it."
Karen put down the carrot she was peeling and raised an eyebrow at him. "And how much did you resent them for it?" Robert didn't answer.
Eventually he sighed. "I'm not sure what to do. I don't think I can just back down, but I would feel like a terrible parent to just yank the funding, even if it wouldn't stop her."
"It may not be an easy choice, but from my point of view it's a pretty simple one," Karen said mildly. "Your pride, or your daughter. You get to keep one of them." More gently, she added, "and I think that in the future, being on speaking terms with Sarah will be more important to you than this."
The ivy creeper caught at Sarah's hair, scattering tiny, bright droplets of dew across its glossy length. She carefully disentangled herself and stepped forward through the archway into the fluttering orange glow of a new set of torches.
Fluttering? The witchlights were all steady…
Down a short pathway to her left, Sarah could see natural firelight set in what looked like a clearing, and goblinoid shapes thrown into dark silhouette in front of the bonfire. The eldritch music issued from these dancing shadows, and as she looked more closely, she noticed the suggested outline of instruments in their hands.
A touch of wariness invaded Sarah's unquenchable curiosity, as unwelcome as the feeling was. She turned toward the archway, and was only half surprised when she found that it had simply been erased. Only smooth, stone wall stood where she had entered, and the long ivy frond crawled down from the top of the wall, firmly anchored to its stones.
"No, that's the dead end behind you!" Sarah could almost hear the card-like door guards' laughter all over again. She sighed, squared her shoulders, and headed for the clearing instead.
The musicians did not notice her immediately, as she stood in the shadows of the wall, and she would have rather liked for them never to have noticed. They were goblins, but of a spindly, sharp sort of build that Sarah didn't recognize, and their faces were pinched and cunning rather than silly. Their heights and coloration differed, as did their skin tones, and the only thing that all seemed to have in common was a dark-colored, shapeless hat that hung down past their hairy, pointed ears.
Something urgent tugged at Sarah's memory, but she couldn't quite latch onto what it was. Misgivings aside, the only way out of the segment of maze she was in was the clearing, and she could see the outline of what looked to be a bridge on the far side, beyond the fire. She would have to cross the clearing, one way or another.
As Sarah eased her way into the circle of firelight, trying to keep as close to the walls (now thorny hedges instead of stone) as she could, one of the goblins stopped playing, and sniffed. Sarah froze.
The creature turned around slowly, letting its flute fall to its side, and a moment later, its companions noticed and followed suit. When they saw Sarah, their faces broke out into nearly identical leers.
"Why, it's a little lady, fellas! Why does the little lady stay in the shadows? She should join us by the fire, she should!" the first goblin crowed.
"Yes, yes! Join the Bog Gang for some fun tonight!" chorused the others. When Sarah didn't move, the first took a few paces toward her, plainly trying to look friendly, and failing utterly. She took a step to the side, instinctively inching toward the other end of the clearing, and the changed angle of the light allowed her to get a better glimpse of the group.
Their ugly hats, which Sarah had thought to be some shade of brown, were a deep, rusty red.
Redcaps! All the unpleasant things she'd read about this particular type of fae came crashing into her head at once, along with a heavy dose of fear.
"I… I can't, I'm sorry. I didn't want to disturb you, I just needed to pass through. I'm terribly late, you see," she managed.
"I thinks the little lady is late for supper," one of the redcaps called. "She should stay and haves it with us!" It started toward her from the far side of the fire.
"Ahh, no, thank you… my friend will be angry with me…"
They were all advancing on her, now, and Sarah promptly decided that speed would be a much better ally than lame excuses. She bolted to the left.
The redcaps abandoned their façade of politeness immediately, and jumped at her, baring sharp, mottled teeth.
Sarah dodged one's lunge, slipped sideways, and nearly got herself mired in the hedge, but managed to change direction quickly enough to avoid all but a scraped wrist from the briars. She kicked another squarely in the head as it came for her, but brief pause in forward motion allowed another to catch hold of her hair.
Shrieking, Sarah sprinted forward as suddenly as she could, and the redcap slid free. The bridge was just ahead of her now, and she stumbled onto it and tried not to notice the depth of the chasm that yawned beneath it.
The Bog of Eternal Stench was tame compared to this. Apparently this Labyrinth means business!
It was that much more alarming when she felt the ancient, moss-covered stones begin to give way beneath her.
Sarah gritted her teeth and grabbed the coarse rope handrail, prepared to climb up it if the bridge failed before she could make it across. The redcaps, strangely, were piled up at the base of the bridge, none of them setting foot on it. One of them had a knife working against her handrail, though.
Sarah cursed under her breath and switched hold to the other, but discarded the idea in favor of a flying leap to the far bank when she felt more stones dislodging.
She landed on her hands and knees against the muddy ledge, gasping, and staggered to her feet to keep running just as the bridge collapsed fully behind her. The hungry redcaps howled in frustration from across the chasm.
Sarah awoke in her bed at school in the predawn hours, still feeling winded, and her wrist ached faintly. A slightly alarmed glance downward confirmed that she had simply been sleeping on it strangely, and the skin was unbroken. Sarah slowly relaxed, and decided to use the extra time before class to get some writing done.
The crystal shimmered mutely on her nightstand.
"Alright, Sarah, you've got to help me," Laurel announced as she lowered her backpack to the floor with a groan of relief.
Sarah finished typing the sentence she had been in the middle of, saved her file, and looked up from the laptop screen, squinting up at her best friend in the afternoon sunlight.
"What with? It had better involve faeries – I think I've got too much pixie dust on the brain right now to be much use with anything else."
Laurel grinned, and ran her fingers through her sweat-streaked hair. It stood on end, making her look even more disheveled than her ripped jeans and dusty t-shirt did already. Sarah suspected she'd just come from rigging in the school's small theatre. "Lucky both of us, then – it involves faeries like my physical chemistry lab involves headaches."
Sarah gave her an incredulous look. "Really now? I'm listening!"
"Well, you know how I was only going to do the one play this semester, what with my department deciding that sophomores need to take nine thousand lab hours?" Sarah nodded. Her own second-tier classes were piling on the reading and essays more than ever, but it didn't particularly bother her. "Jen conned me into another one. She got the part in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and then found out they didn't have a costume designer. I was, uh, volunteered in absentia." Laurel made a face.
Sarah tilted back her head and laughed. "So here you are, to save the day, and you're calling in me as the expert on faerie regalia." Laurel's girlfriend was also active in theatre, in front of the curtain while Laurel stayed behind it. Jen had enlisted both Laurel and Sarah's help with props and other odds and ends several times over the last year.
"Exactly! Does that mean you'll help me out?" she asked, hopefully. "I really couldn't think of a better choice than you, with that novel you're working on, and all."
"If the faeries are supposed to actually look like faeries, and not some weird contemporary version where they're space aliens or something…"
Laurel nodded. "Oh yeah. I think it's set in modern times, but the faeries are totally still faeries, with wings, and feathers, and glittery shit."
"…feathers, and glittery shit…" This could be surreal. Sarah blinked at her friend bemusedly for a moment before answering. "Count me in, then. The image of Queen Maeve that I have in my head for the story would actually be close to perfect for Titania. I'd have to make it a bit less fierce, and more flighty… " She trailed off, already reaching for a notebook to start sketching. "And some kind of forest-lord theme for Oberon…"
"Sarah, you rock. This is going to look fantastic." Laurel flopped into an adjacent chair and started pulling out her own notes from her talk with the director. "Also," she added with a sly look at her friend, "just wait till you see the guy cast as Oberon. If I liked men, I'd be drooling all over him, just like half the girls in the cast."
Chapter 4: It Will Show You Your Dreams (Part 2)
"Laurel? Could I… if you're not busy, mind if I come over? I need to get away from here," Sarah asked, knowing that her voice must sound unsteady even over the phone.
"Of course, I was just killing time." A pause. "You okay?"
Sarah sighed. "It's… it's… well, I ended it."
"Oh! Get your butt over here – you didn't even have to ask, you know that!" Laurel's exasperated voice squawked at her.
"Alright, thanks. I'm on my way."
Sarah smiled faintly at Laurel's muttered "it's about bloody time" as she hung up. She knew that her friend wasn't referring to her last statement, but the one before it.
Laurel had moved to a small studio apartment just across the street from campus a few weeks ago, saying that she was sick of the dorms and didn't want to spend her senior year in the same building as a gaggle of new freshmen. Sarah had considered doing the same, but decided that the extra expense wasn't worth it. If she kept her spending down for this last year of school, she would have saved enough by graduation for the new car she sorely needed, thanks to the money she had been making at her library and tutoring jobs over the years. Her father and Karen had called her a few weeks after she had thrown down the gauntlet in her second semester and told her that they would continue to send her money for school, on the condition that she kept working hard and saved what she earned for expenses after college.
"Door's unlocked!" Sarah heard through the door in answer to her knock. Somewhat winded from the four-story climb to Laurel's apartment, she had no chance to catch her breath; no sooner than she had stepped into the room and put her backpack down, Laurel met her with a rib-cracking hug that Sarah would have sworn could never have come from someone so small.
Sarah made a noise that was part strangled giggle, part sob, and hugged her back.
When Laurel finally let go, she shooed Sarah toward the one comfortable chair in the apartment, an only-slightly-shabby find from the Salvation Army that was almost as ugly as it was soft. ("Hey, it's a thirty-dollar easy chair. It could be upholstered in Ewok print and I'd still buy it!" Sarah had giggled and agreed.) She collected two beers from the refrigerator, handed Sarah the lighter one, and sat in the desk chair nearby.
"Alright. Do you want to talk about it, or do you want to get drunk and play Scrabble?"
Sarah laughed weakly and took a tentative sip of the beer. "Well, if this is what you have to get drunk on, I think I'd better talk."
Laurel snorted a laugh. "Hey, I'd agree with you if I bought crappy beer, but that's Harp! S'not my fault you're a snobby wine-drinker. I'd offer you my Guinness, but I doubt you'd like that better."
Sarah smiled, a bit more relaxed, and took another, longer swallow. It actually wasn't half-bad, she decided.
"Kidding, at least this has flavor – and thanks. I think I needed a drink."
"I kinda figured." Laurel waited, and at length, Sarah sighed and spoke again.
"Like I told you a few times, it felt like the relationship was spiraling downhill all summer." Laurel nodded. They had spent a lot of time on the phone, often with Sarah very upset.
"Well," she continued, "there were a lot of things wrong, but… you'll probably find this funny, and yes, you can laugh… the final straw was that he accused me of cheating on him."
Laurel raised her eyebrows over her beer glass, not finding this particularly remarkable or funny.
Guinness sprayed out of her nose, and she doubled over, laughing and swearing as she tried to avoid sloshing the glass and losing more of it.
"Seriously?" she asked, wiping her face with a tissue, and blowing her nose.
"That idiot. Good fucking riddance," she said, shaking her head in disgust. "Even if Jen wouldn't eviscerate me, and you liked women, that would still be a beyond stupid thing to say. I meant it before, and I mean it even more now – you're better off without him."
Sarah nodded, slowly, her amusement from Laurel's Guinness mishap fading as the sad frustration showed through again. "I know. I've known it for a long time, I guess. It still hurts like crazy, though. I miss the feeling that first semester had, working on Midsummer with you guys. I really felt like, then, there was something special happening."
Laurel nodded, sympathetic. "I know. It always starts like that. It looked to me like you fell for the faerie king character he was playing, and then the play was over, and David was just… "
" 'Another vain jackass who thinks I'll look good on his arm and better in his bed?' " Sarah finished for her, quoting one of her friend's favorite epithets wryly.
"…right. That. You know me too well." Laurel made a face.
"You talk a lot," she countered, finally smiling. "You were right, I know. It was hard to see, though, at first – it really seemed like he was interested in me, and my goals, and in being my friend."
"He probably was, you know? Even I didn't think he was all bad at first. Short attention-span for people, though, I think." She grinned wickedly, adding, "and you didn't fawn over his glorious manliness like all the baby freshmen all the time, either."
Sarah snorted. "If that's what it takes to keep a guy happy, I'll be an old maid with a dozen cats instead."
"Or you could always switch teams!" Laurel pointed out, helpfully.
"I think I'll give men a few more chances – I'm not exactly old yet," Sarah retorted.
Laurel raised her half-empty glass in salute. "Well, then, a toast to good friends, good beer, and tilting at windmills."
Sarah laughed, and clinked her glass against Laurel's. "I'll drink to that."
The sounds were the first thing she became aware of.
A lively flute threaded its imperative melody over and through a din of conversation and rustling clothing. Drums so low that each measured beat seemed to reverberate through Sarah's body and keep time with her heart underlaid all the noise in the room, a sound felt more than heard. A duo… no, trio of stringed instruments that she could not name wove between the drums and flute in a complicated harmony, somehow heard above every other sound in the room without competing against them.
Gradually, the flashes of light and dark that Sarah was seeing resolved into a ballroom with a dance in full swing, with the dancers a riot of swirling, colorful attire and grotesque masks.
She looked down, expecting to see the frothy confection of a princess's ballgown that she had been wearing in another dream years before. The fabric that sheathed her body was indeed still silver-on-white, and it was a dress, but that was where the resemblance ended. Smoothly tailored silk flowed like water down her body, hugging her figure until halfway down her thighs, where it grudgingly loosened into a graceful, slightly flared skirt that nearly brushed the marble floor. The bodice was lightly boned, and pricked with understated mother-of-pearl beading; cool air on her back informed her that there was lacing there, but little else. Her shoulders were bare, but tight, sheer white sleeves flowed out of the bodice to cover the length of her arms. Exploring her face with careful fingers revealed that she also wore a mask, though hers had the smooth outline of a simple domino rather than any of the more fanciful and complicated shapes she saw on the other revelers.
Well, this is different. I almost feel like I belong, rather than like some hunted game bird.
Sarah heard a tinkling sound nearby, and turned to see a woman accepting a pair of champagne flutes from a masked waiter in dark livery. The peacock-colored woman floated off to find whoever she had collected the second drink for, and the waiter approached Sarah.
"One for you, my lady?" he asked, inclining his head courteously.
"Ah, no, thank you. I was just about to join the dance," she answered as politely as she could, and the waiter moved on. Wonderful as the golden liquid looked and smelled, her instincts against accepting food or drink were hard to ignore, given the circumstances.
I bet it's peach nectar, she thought, sardonically. That would be just too perfect.
"Pardon me, but did I hear you express interest in dancing?" A low, masculine voice cut through every bit of noise in the room, from a few paces to her left. "Or were you planning on doing so without a partner?" He added, his words rich with amusement, and what sounded like challenge.
So here we are.
Another heartbeat, and she was turning to face him. A wave of self-consciousness passed over her as she remembered how revealing her dress was, but it swept away almost as quickly as she focused on the man who was awaiting her answer.
He was dressed from head to toe in a dark, shimmering emerald that reminded Sarah of dewfall on leaves in a moonlit forest, and his intricate leather mask was the Green Man. Pale hair framed the mask and feathered his shoulders, accentuating the sharp lines of his face that the mask did not quite hide. His thin lips were quirked slightly upward, an expression that could have been friendly or dangerous, or easily both. The barest suggestion of a frown creased Sarah's brow as she half-recognized his attire, which seemed familiar to her in a way she could not place. But he stood with the easy, predator's confidence that none save he had ever possessed, to her eyes, and she remembered that she had still not spoken.
Fluidly, she swept a belated curtsey, and as the fabric of her gown slithered from her fingers, she greeted him. "You did, and I was not. I would be glad to partner you, my lord."
He smiled at that, revealing pointed teeth as he took her hand in his gloved one and stepped with her onto the dance floor.
Though the floor was crowded, there always seemed to be space for them to move as gaps unerringly opened in the press of revelers just as they shifted directions. Sarah had the sense of a great deal of time passing, as the music shifted in tempo and mood over and over again, but there was no fatigue, and no reason to stop.
She knew her feet were tracing a complicated step beneath her, but the only feeling she was aware of was the firm, but feather-light connection to her partner. His hands were flames, muffled by the soft leather of his gloves, and she could not help but wonder what they would feel like bare.
As if in response to her thought, his lips parted in a wicked grin, and he bent his head to speak to her for the first time since the dance began.
"Then, my queen, in silence sad, trip we after the night's shade:
We the globe can compass soon, swifter than the wandering moon."
The hand he had been resting on her waist slid around to the small of her back, pulling her close to him, and the ballroom melted away.
She was lying on soft, pale fabric, and at first she thought that it must be her dress beneath her.
The realization came quickly: the dress was nowhere in evidence (certainly not on her body), and the cool cloth under her hip and side was a satin sheet. Nearly every inch of skin not against the sheet was in burning, singing contact with the lithe man beside her – and the hands that skated all across her body were as bare as the rest of him.
Sarah opened her mouth to say his name, but the word was left unspoken as he kissed her.
She awoke with a light film of sweat on her skin, twisted between her cotton sheets, and wondering how her pajamas had ended up on the floor.
It was four in the morning, and Sarah had not slept.
She had come back to her room the previous evening after her last final exam, and resolved to write until the graduation ceremonies a week off, if she had to, to finish her novel. Marie, who had been her roommate all throughout college, had gone home that morning with plans to return with her family for commencement, and Sarah was grateful that she did not have to worry about keeping her lights dim and her music on headphones. It was easier to stay awake that way.
A thrice-refilled tea mug sat cooling near her mousepad, and the words on the bright computer screen were starting to swim before her eyes, but she could not stop. She was too close to the end. The last chapter had practically written itself, as Janet and Tam Lin finally escaped from the wrathful faerie Queen, and now Sarah's fingers flew across the keyboard as the epilogue took shape.
The couple did not return to the lands of Janet's father in Sarah's tale, but claimed the forest of Carterhaugh as their own domain, both having acquired a measure of power in their own right from their contact with the Fae. They ruled it long and well, as Sarah had intended from the beginning of the story, but a final flash of inspiration prompted her to add an extra, last scene.
"Many years later, on a crisp autumn morning, a young boy became separated from his father's hunting party. He had dismounted to stretch his legs and dallied by a stream, and was accidentally left behind. When he realized he was alone, his frightened cries startled a sleeping owl, whose angry screech spooked his horse into bolting. Even more worried without his mount, he stumbled deeper into the woods after it, not realizing that more than birds had heard his calling."
A slow smile spread across her face as she typed the last sentence.
Let them wonder what the new Lord and Lady of that forest will do.
Sarah stretched, her joints crackling in protest at the long hours spent in her desk chair. She rose, thinking to finally fall asleep happy, when the lamplight caught and flashed in the depths of the crystal that was still ensconced on her nightstand.
Fatigue fled before a sudden rush of heady impulse. The night seemed too perfect to ignore it.
I wonder if… he would come if I asked. I need to thank him for the dreams, at the very least – they kept me feeling like I had one foot into the Underground all these four years.
…Right, Sarah, you just tell yourself that that's the only reason. As Laurel would probably say, whether you do it for the wrong reasons or the right ones, you're gonna do it anyway. She snorted, amused, and gently cupped the crystal in both hands.
The doubts kept her lips sealed for long moments, as she struggled with fear, and anxiety, and a dozen other emotions she would have been hard-pressed to put a name to. Just keeping the crystal near her had seemed like risk enough, when it had first appeared on her dresser. Surely she must be insane now to consider actively inviting him, in the flesh, into her home again. He was capricious and powerful and dangerous, and she needed to treat things a bit more seriously than some children's fairytale and yet…
…What about the last time she saw him? Sarah blushed at the thought.
How much will you regret it, if you never take the chance and try?
That settled it.
A whole new anxiety took hold, then – that she would call, and he wouldn't answer. At that moment, that seemed like a worse outcome than any of the others her mind had concocted.
Nothing to do but try.
Looking down, into the crystal she held in her palms, she took a deep breath, and whispered, "I wish the Goblin King would come here to talk with me, right now."
The silence stretched into what felt like an eternity, and much to her consternation, Sarah felt tears well up in her eyes.
He wasn't coming.
Sadly, she moved to put the crystal back down, but stopped short as she remembered.
Wait. The feather.
Quickly, she transferred the crystal to her left hand and turned to her dresser. The feather had stayed in its jewelry-box home since the day it had appeared, and when she drew it out, it was as soft and supple in her hand as it had been the last time she'd held it.
Sarah's hands shook slightly as she held the crystal and feather together, and tried again, in a louder, more imperatively clear voice.
"I wish the Goblin King – Jareth – would come here to talk with me, right now."
A rush of displaced air ruffled her loose, dark hair, followed almost immediately by a soft, rasping chuckle from across the room.
Her heart pounding, Sarah raised her eyes to meet the piercing, mismatched stare of the Goblin King, who leaned insouciantly against the wall as if he had been waiting there all night for her to notice.
In a voice that was a lion's purr cut by a razor, he spoke.
"Well, well, Sarah. I was beginning to wonder if you'd ever think to call. It has been an awfully long time."
Chapter 5: Whimsy and Recklessness
(E-cookies for correctly identifying what's going on in the second dream Jareth describes...)
For a moment, Sarah could only look at him.
He wore the black and grey that she recalled from long ago, but somehow, every line of him was sharper, cleaner, and more pronounced in its unearthly grace than even his appearance in her ballroom dream. His shirt was dove-colored lawn, draped in loose sleeves, but leather cuffs rose halfway up his forearms and left his gloved fingers unobstructed. The hem tucked into snug, leather trews, which in turn ended in soft boots at the knee. The tattered-raven cloak that had once made him the very image of a storybook villain was gone, yet its shape was echoed in the twisted points of the collar on a fitted, ebony vest.
His hair was as she remembered – the color of sunlight on un-dyed silk, its softness in stark contrast to the knife-keen features it framed. One up-swept eyebrow was raised along with one corner of his mouth, as he waited for her to speak in smug enjoyment.
Sarah swallowed, attempting to hold her expression calm and neutral as she inclined her head to him.
"Long enough, though I'd have you know I thought to call several times – it's just that I was only crazy enough to go through with it tonight."
He didn't speak for a few long seconds, and she worried slightly that she'd managed to insult him, but then he tilted his head back in quiet, surprisingly warm laughter.
"I see. Well then, I suppose I should take what amusement I can out of a delightfully impetuous mortal woman calling on me, lest her derangement prove only temporary."
"Amusement, huh?" She carefully ignored the rest of his sentence, thinking it better not to contemplate until much later – preferably alone.
"Of course. It was shaping up to be a terribly tedious evening before three minutes ago." He flicked fine-boned fingers dismissively. "So. You have wished, and it pleased me to answer. To what do I owe the… honor?" The last words were pitched low and intimately, and Sarah blushed faintly without quite being able to define why.
"Curiosity," she answered slowly. "A bit of whimsy… a healthy dose of recklessness."
Jareth smiled, showing teeth. "You have never been lacking in that."
Don't let him make you uncomfortable.
…Okay, that's a lost cause. Don't let it show.
She acknowledged his comment with a slight shrug, as if to say that it was true enough but not concerning, and forged on. "I also wanted to thank you. For… for the dreams. They pulled me along to finish this story I started writing, when I think I would have given up, otherwise."
At this, Jareth's brows furrowed slightly, then eased as a wicked gleam entered his eyes. "For the crystal and the feather, you are welcome, of course. But any dreams you may have had…" Her reaction to that must have been fascinating, for he stopped talking to watch with a slow-spreading grin. Sarah's face felt hot, but she forced herself to hold his gaze.
"…didn't come from me, or any working of mine. They're all from your own head, lovely Sarah."
Satin sheets and feathery hair and heated skin-on-skin, his lips firm and smooth and harsh all at once as they pressed against hers… If Sarah had been blushing before, her face was surely on fire now.
In three long, fluid strides, he stood just before her. They were almost of a height, but somehow he seemed taller. She could feel power radiating from him like shed body heat as he leaned slightly toward her, still smiling that tight, puppetmaster's smile. One gloved finger rose before her face, and for a fleeting moment she thought he would touch her, but he merely indicated the sweep of her cheekbone as he spoke.
"From the wonderful shade of scarlet your skin is turning, they must have been some delicious dreams."
Her voice vice-bound to steadiness, Sarah answered as lightly as she could manage. "Oh, you could say that for one or two of them."
As suddenly as he had closed the distance between them, he now backed away a pace, though still looking highly amused. Sarah's curiosity flared, and she asked the question before her mind had even fully framed it.
"Could you not watch them, then? I thought that mortal dreams must surely be an open book to you."
A stormcloud rolled over his face, gathering to harden and crystallize in his eyes. His voice, though still quiet, took on a dangerous edge.
"So firmly she asserts herself, so quickly she forgets." His wrist made a flourishing flick, and a crystal appeared in his hand. Four others joined it one by one, though Sarah never actually saw any one of them pop into being; he simply was revolving one around in his palm, then two, then a pyramid of five. Jareth held the entire mass up to his eyes, and the crystals' innocuous clarity was replaced by a picture in the depths of each. Sarah could not tell what he saw from where she stood, but she didn't have to wonder long.
"Your neighbor downstairs dreams of forgetting some school assignment, and of showing up to class without it." The top crystal in the pyramid lobbed itself in her direction, and Sarah barely reacted in time to catch it before it hit the floor. Inside, she could indeed see a classroom, and a girl she recognized from the dining hall sitting alone in the rows of seats, babbling what must have been excuses. The crystal disappeared, bursting like a soap bubble even as she comprehended its contents.
Jareth continued. "Another young woman down the hall dreams of tall, violet-skinned elves riding great cats into battle against a demon the size of a mountain." Sarah caught this one more gracefully, and saw a single human girl riding alongside the strange army, charging past a tree whose branches were lost in the clouds.
"Another sits among rows and rows of people her age in dark gowns and flat caps, while she herself is naked and shivering, dreading her name being called." Toss. Two crystals remained, still revolving in his hand.
"Another is looking everywhere for a piece of jewelry that she misplaced." Toss. One crystal left.
"And another is flying over a bright, bustling city, her arms outstretched like wings." Toss.
Now empty-handed, he crossed his arms over his chest. Sarah looked up as the last orb dissipated, matching his challenging regard with level equanimity.
"So think a little harder, Sarah, and tell me the answer to your question," he finished, his words laced with thin threads of frost.
She frowned, considering. He could clearly see mortal dreams, but his only statements concerning hers had been guesses based on the reactions she betrayed when they were mentioned. His touchy anger at her question indicated that he could not, in fact, watch the theatre of her subconscious.
Her mind wandered back to the last few moments of her race to rescue Toby, when the Goblin King had tried to stop her from finishing what she had to say.
Then she knew.
"You have no power over me."
Those words had shattered the walls of the reality that held herself and Toby away from their own world, so long ago. She had defeated the Labyrinth, and so apparently won some sort of immunity from its ruler.
Jareth noticed the shift in her mien as the pieces fell into place, and he nodded stiffly before she answered.
"I won the game, with immunity as my prize."
Which realization should have been a comfort, except that it raised another, much more troubling question, and her eyes widened slightly. "…But I wished for you to come here. So where does that leave me?"
A chuckle like the last peal of thunder as a storm abates, and the ice was gone. Yet his next words still raised her skin to gooseflesh.
"Very good, you see the rules a bit better, this time." Sarah wasn't sure how good that was, and her pulse was racing as she began to think that she may have committed the most colossally stupid mistake of her life that night.
"Why would I want to tell you, though? I have you at a disadvantage – even though you don't yet know how much of one." His eyes narrowed, like those of a cat that was enjoying itself far, far too much, and he waited for her response in languid, infuriating complacence.
Sarah's first inclination, which she soundly squelched, was to protest, and demand that he place himself on equal footing with her. It hadn't worked when she was fifteen, and she strongly doubted that it would be any more effective now. No – far better to keep her head, and play by his rules, or better yet, circumvent them. Petulantly pretending they didn't exist would do her no good whatsoever.
He's trying to make me feel vulnerable, and so far it's working. If I let the adrenaline choose my actions for me, I'll do nothing but slip and fall into whatever trap he might set.
The irony amused her even as it stung. "What's said is said." If calling him was a mistake, she had made it, and no amount of denial would alter that. However, if his intentions were malevolent, then she had nothing to lose by boldness, when it had saved her before.
She laughed appreciatively, as if he had made some particularly clever jest, and was rewarded by his barely-checked start of surprise. This was most assuredly not what he had expected from her.
"So you do, and I have no illusions that I could take back my wish even if I wanted to. But given that, it's best that I not worry too much about how hopeless my position may or may not be, then, yes?" His face had been rearranged and solidified into an unreadable mask, as she continued. "And while words have power, I wished you here to talk. Shall I try to find the right ones to make you leave me be once more, and not make the mistake of inviting you again in the future?"
He stood, silent and still as a marble statue, and Sarah had to remind herself to breathe. His next words or actions would give insight on the boundaries of his influence on her… or else slice open her bravado to reveal a hollow, empty core where she had hoped truth resided.
When finally he moved again, it was to bring his hands together in three slow, measured claps that were muffled only slightly by the fabric of his gloves. His voice was as inscrutably bland as his face as he answered.
"She forgets much, but learns well. Brava, Sarah. You are a singularly perverse human creature."
From anyone else, it wouldn't have sounded like much of a compliment.
From him, the fact that the words were flat, even grudging, made it the highest praise in the world. The power and entitlement that usually hung like an almost visible aura around him was, for that brief instant, gone. That she could wring out wary respect from him where he had intended to be gloating in triumph was a heady victory that she did not overlook.
"I shall be perhaps far too generous and tell you, you are correct on the nature and… precision of permissions with my kind. That you have called me here tonight gives me a degree more leverage where you are concerned, but no more than that. You needn't worry…" Jareth's mask cracked, and he smiled again, once more the cat eyeing some small, scurrying prey. "…much."
Sarah thought it likely that he was trying to psych her out again, but found herself strangely glad that his reaction had been what it was, and not to sweep off with anger or threats. This little barb at the end of his admission was positively tame, for him. She decided to press her luck.
"That makes some sense, but why is it that you could do all the things you did to interfere directly when I was running the Labyrinth?"
Shaking his head, he perched on the director's chair near her window. Sarah had to fight to suppress a giggle at the incongruous image of the Goblin King sitting on the bright, stretched canvas as if it were a throne. Jareth didn't seem to notice, crossing his legs as if he were completely at home in his surroundings, and eventually answering. "I should think it would nearly be obvious by this point, but very well. The challenge of the Labyrinth for one who has wished away a child has a very old, very expansive set of rules, with permissions woven throughout. To win the baby back, you had to defeat the Labyrinth, and I am its guardian." He quirked a winged eyebrow in her direction, sounding at once playful and mildly reproachful. "It would hardly be much fun if I couldn't do anything to affect the challenge, now would it?"
Sarah snorted. "Fun, indeed," she muttered under her breath. "Would the Cleaners, or the Fieries, or that monstrosity of a mechanical gate guardian have really hurt me if I hadn't gotten away?"
Another teeth-baring smile. "Did you believe that they would?"
She nodded, wordlessly.
"Well, then, it's best that you didn't let them catch you to find out, I should think." That statement was hard to argue with.
Sarah swallowed hard and resisted the urge to sit down in her desk chair to steady her legs. Better to stay at least at eye-level with him.
For all he's being courtly and amiable (and fascinating and infuriatingly beautiful, another, rather irritating part of her brain chimed in), don't let your guard down and forget that he was your enemy. You still don't really know why he's even here -
- Well, ask him, silly!
Why would I – well, I suppose it can't hurt.
Jareth was watching her with interest, and she feared that at least some of her inner dialogue was playing out on her face. Still, she gathered herself, and spoke.
"You asked why I called. Did you come just to let me pepper you with questions, or was there another reason?" she asked, more bluntly than she had intended.
A crystal appeared in his hand, and he rolled it from palm to palm to forearms and back again with an idle precision that no mortal juggler had ever matched, his eyes glittering in the lamplight.
"Curiosity. A bit of whimsy." His voice held a note of mockery as he quoted her earlier words.
Sarah sat forward incredulously. "You really were just bored? That's hard to believe."
"Oh, is it? Tell me, Sarah, how much would you value novelty in a world where time is so endless it betimes loses its meaning, but where you feel each second, each minute pass through you? I am not a tree – or treant – or mountain, to measure heartbeats by epochs. And I daresay the brief excitement of a foolish mortal who wishes a child away has become quite the rarity over the last century in your world." But the glint remaining in his eyes told her that she had not quite heard all of it. There was something else, she was certain.
Finally, he sighed, and the crystal stilled in his fingers. "Truly, that would have been reason enough. But I do have another." Instead of tossing the crystal to her, this time, he blew on it gently, and it floated slowly to her hands like the soap bubble it resembled. "You did not know it at the time, but not long ago, you gave me a gift, and I would show it to you."
An enormous, yellow harvest moon hung low in a velveteen sky, and short footsteps elicited a light swish of protest from the wild grasses that covered the hillside.
The perspective of the scene felt strangely off-center to Sarah, and she realized that it was not her own dream. The dreamer was instead the small boy who scurried up the hill in dew-dampened jeans and ratty sneakers, not five yards from where Sarah stood.
She was just uphill of him, yet he did not seem to see her at all as he climbed, intent as he was on a small, rocky hollow above them both that looked as though some giant had taken a bite out of the hill. The sight of it jarred her, as she realized she knew this place, hillside, moon, grass and all. Just as surely, she knew that the boy would have a carven stone figurine in his pocket.
The child reached the hollow and stopped, searching the stone face with eager fingers to find the hidden alcove that would accept the key he carried. Sarah climbed nearer, cautious about making noise at first, but faster once she realized that her passage did not even part the grasses beneath her feet. As she reached the edge of the exposed stone, the boy found what he was looking for.
A low, grinding rumble sounded from the hillside, and a larger opening formed where only solid rock had stood before. Warm, flickering light issued from inside, and the boy slipped through the crack in the hill without hesitation. Sarah did not need to look inside to know what he would find, but still she did so, curious what the boy himself would do.
She ducked through the crack to find a rough-hewn tunnel – also expected – though she was surprised to see bright paintings on some of the flatter sections of wall.
There had been no paintings in the story.
After perhaps two minutes of progress down the tunnel, she came to the well-lit workroom, where the gnarled, dwarflike creatures who resided there plied their lapidary's craft in an uncanny silence broken only by the scrape, tinkle, and whine of tools on precious stones. Or rather, it should have been in silence. Instead, the most wizened of the group was sitting next to the human child, speaking to him in low, gravely tones as he instructed the boy on crafting a silver setting for an opal.
The child exclaimed in delight as he executed a step correctly, and the scene dissolved around Sarah.
After a disoriented moment, she opened her eyes to find herself standing on dangerously wobbly legs back in her room. The crystal she held still displayed the workroom scene, and Jareth had conjured a new one that he rolled across his fingers while he waited for her to look up.
Sarah considered the dream-crystal for another handful of seconds, then spoke slowly, with dawning wonder in her voice. "That was one of my stories from high school… the one that was published in the faerie tale anthology. Someone was dreaming about it?"
A hint of rare warmth entered Jareth's expression as he confirmed her guess. "Precisely so. It was vivid enough that the boy latched onto it, and made it a part of himself. You've given my realm another slim thread of connection to the mortal world."
He paused, and his expression grew grave. "And altogether too many of those have been cut, of late, with scant few new ones tied to replace them."
Chapter 6: Playing with Fire
"Cut," Sarah repeated, her voice soft as she tried to assimilate all the implications of what the Goblin King had said. "You mean, your world is tied to ours, but the ties are failing?" He inclined his head slightly. "Because… people are less superstitious?" she asked, frowning. "I'd always thought that a good thing."
Jareth shook his head, the crystal's motion across his fingers never faltering. "Not precisely. The superstitions of your world's younger days helped, of course, particularly the ones that spawned fears. Mortal fear is such a… potent… thing." His tone was light, but his eyes were unnervingly shuttered.
Sarah cupped the dream-crystal she still held, almost protectively. "And is that you playing the villain, then?" she challenged.
His laugh was a black, serrated thing, and Sarah caught herself just before she took an instinctive step back, away from him. "I play many, many games, lovely, rash Sarah, but precious few would fit into the little boxes you try to build around them. You are clever, oh yes, but perhaps not as much as you think."
The bastard can switch moods quicker than a spoiled two-year-old, Sarah thought, even as the rebuke chilled her. Then his eyes glittered in the lamplight, and her mouth went dry.
…Or an ageless Fae lord dripping magic and authority. Let's not forget that, please, her sense of self-preservation reminded her pleasantly.
She took a slow breath through her nose to steady herself, then pointedly defied her own alarmed reaction by straightening her shoulders and stepping forward. "Enlighten me, then, O Goblin King. What is so special about fear?"
Another chuckle, silken-smooth, but with the promise of an edge beneath. If he was surprised by her advance, this time he did not show it. "Another odd thing to ask, for one with a storyteller's perception. Fear, like all strong emotions, and perhaps more than most, incites action. The need to survive, after all, is a rather immediate and difficult to ignore imperative." He paused, his mismatched eyes boring into Sarah's own. "Though of course, some mortals are especially contrary about putting even that aside."
Sarah laughed, a bit giddy. "Hey, we call it courage when it pays off," she pointed out, wryly.
"And suicidal folly when it doesn't," he replied, his lips twisting into a half-smile. "But fear does another very important thing, which you should be particularly familiar with."
She considered, the pad of her thumb tracing aimless patterns against the smooth surface of the crystal. The answer came to her, like a bubble rising slowly through her thoughts. "We create heroes to counter it. The brave knight with the enchanted sword who slays the dragon; the quick-witted princess who tricks the troll that plans to eat her." She raised an eyebrow in his direction. "The girl who solves an impossible maze to rescue her baby brother. They're all an answer to the same question – how we, the fragile mortals, can prevail against evil larger than ourselves."
The half-smile had become a fiercely amused grin when she mentioned the Labyrinth, and he answered with mock-affront. "Ahh, Sarah, you wound me so!"
She snorted. "Look, the jury's somewhat out on how evil I think you are right now, but you certainly filled that role then."
The grin widened, and he slid from the director's chair to his feet, stretching long, leather-clad legs and tossing his cobweb-fine hair out of his eyes. "For a surety, but that's no excuse for comparing me to a giant lizard or a foul-smelling troll!" Another heartbeat saw him just within arm's reach of her.
Sarah kept her eyes riveted to his face, adamantly refusing to let them roam. She wasn't sure whether the urge stemmed from fear or something more treacherously worrisome, but her internal debate on that subject was decisively cut off when the crystal in his hands disappeared, and one arm moved in her direction.
This time, he did touch her. Sarah smelled leather as two fingers traced a whisper-light line down her jaw, pausing at her chin to very gently tilt it upward. Even with such a small point of contact, she could feel the smoldering heat of his skin through the thin, supple gloves.
Well, it seems my dream got that particular detail right. Sarah managed to keep her eyes open and her breathing even, but could not suppress the light shiver that followed that realization. Jareth's grin took on a feral cast, and he bent his face close enough to her that his breath was warm on her forehead.
He spoke, his words a low, almost musical rasp that she could feel on her skin as much as she could hear it. "Must I demonstrate the shameful unfairness of that comparison?"
YES! Quite a large portion of her subconscious cheered.
Not on his terms, the shrewder part insisted.
Spoilsport. The disgruntled, hormonal majority stumped off to pout.
"No, I retract it," she said, and he stilled. "You're much more of an incubus."
He laughed, in the same texture as his gloves had been – soft, lush, and a little rough – and whispered, "Now that's a name I wouldn't mind living up to." Sarah caught her breath as he looked at her, lingering mere inches from her face, her lips.
With a small half smile, he drew away, leaving her mind reeling. She could not have said what was stronger - her relief, or her frustration.
"While it's rather oversimplifying things, lovely Sarah, if you must cast me as a fairytale villain, close enough." He propped one arm on the director's chair, still standing. "But before you distracted me with your ghastly accusations, I believe I was making a much-needed clarification." Sarah nodded, listening.
"Superstition, as you put it, is unnecessary." He paused, and continued under his breath. "…however dreadfully amusing it is to feed and exploit." Sarah's first reaction to this was indignation, but the indignation turned to conspiratorial understanding fast enough that she surprised herself. His earlier comment on the tedium of time's passing had shed new light on every immortal trickster Sarah had ever encountered in myth… or experience.
She did not laugh, but he must have caught the change in her eyes, for he smiled.
"Mortals strengthen the connection between their realm and mine by wanting it so. They need not believe – superstitions are more of a pleasant bonus – but they need to want. They need to desire to reach beyond this…" He waved, indicating either the room, or the world at large; Sarah was not sure. "…this banality. The door that always opens on the same, static scene; the people who say the same tired, predictable words; a world whose breathing and patterns they cannot see or hear – only stumble about blindly like – " A sharp, tight smile. "Like most foolish mortals stumble around in my Labyrinth."
Taken off-guard by the implicit compliment, Sarah stood quietly for a moment before she questioned him again. The smile remained on his face – fierce, but not unpleasant – and the deep-night silence stretched taut as a fiddle's strings.
She broke it fluidly, asking, "That makes sense, but if that's the case, why did the situation sound so dire when you first brought it up? I know plenty of mort- … people… who want something more magical than the life they're living."
His eyes were laughing at her turn of phrase, but he quickly sobered as he answered. "For the most part, those ties do not last. A moment's wistful fantasy is a fragile thing, quickly brushed away, quickly dismissed, quickly forgotten."
His hand moved in a small, quick gesture, and the crystal in Sarah's hand took on a cool glow that illuminated the scene that replayed within it. She started, nearly dropping the orb before recovering her equilibrium.
"A dream, however – that is something altogether different, and a hundredfold more meaningful."
Watching the tiny figures play out her story again, Sarah spoke slowly as her understanding grew. "A dream comes from the subconscious, so when the desire finds its way to expression in sleep… it has sunk roots into the deepest parts of the person's mind."
Jareth nodded, and pointed to the glowing crystal. "Keep it, and remember. You can dim or brighten it with a touch and a thought."
Sarah smiled, and for the first time that night, the expression was without wariness. She placed the crystal reverently on her desk, where it continued to shed its soft light. Her instinctive caution regarding the Goblin King murmured a quiet warning, but this gift was one she could not bring herself to view with suspicion. A tangible reminder that a creation of hers had fascinated a child enough to live it out in his own mind was beyond priceless to her.
"Thank you… very much. I will treasure it."
Jareth quirked a small, only slightly devilish smile, and cocked his head curiously. "You spoke of another story. You do this often?"
Somehow, Sarah was surprised that he was asking. It seemed strange to have Jareth asking her questions that involved her own – banal, as he had put it – world. She supposed it was because she had always expected him to be able to know such things; the revelation that he hadn't been able to watch her directly had not yet completely sunk in, given that she had suspected he was spying on her at least since the crystal appeared in her room.
Lightly, she answered, "Work on them often? Yes, very. Though tonight held the first I've finished in quite a while, since it's particularly long." Feeling unwontedly shy now that the topic was her own doings, she hesitated, then added, "I've wanted to be a writer for years."
This seemed to confuse him. "But you have been a writer for years, have you not?" His winged brows had drawn together in a frown.
Sarah laughed aloud, inordinately amused that for all his facility with smooth language, even so some turns of phrase did not seem to translate well between worlds. His frown deepened at her laughter, and she hurried to explain. "Sorry, what I meant was that I wanted to write as my profession. To make my living that way. What I'd written in the past won't do that for me, but I'm hoping the book I just finished might get me started."
The frown eased fractionally, though he still looked faintly like a bird with ruffled feathers. "I see. Is the subject matter similar to what the boy was dreaming?"
"In the sense that I drew from old legends, yes. There's a ballad that tells the tale of a woman named Janet, and her lover Tam Lin – " She trailed off, as he chuckled richly. "You know of it, then?"
"I know it very, very well. Quite aside from the fact that it is a tale of the borders between the realms of my kind and that of mortals, the subject matter is, shall we say… particularly relevant to me." Sarah's skin broke out into a shiver of gooseflesh. She had, of course, noted the analogy when she first heard the ballad – how could she not? – but it was quite another thing to hear him speak of it, and it raised a veritable cacophony of new questions in her mind. "That ballad is but one facet of a larger tale, one that was whispered fearfully at nightfall before ever it was sung."
"Child-stealers." Sarah put the name to it, still feeling chilled.
"Indeed." The word was not an admission, not a taunt, not a challenge – just a bald, unconcerned statement of fact.
Irrationally, Sarah felt as if she was the one who needed to justify her own actions simply in using the tale as a framework. "The characters fascinated me. I wanted to explore what happened beyond the narrative in the ballad, to give faces and feelings and color to the names."
Jareth's rejoinder was a whipcrack of bitter amusement. "And tell another story about the heroics of a young woman who saves someone from the vile clutches of the faeries?"
Her answer was quiet and even, and seemed to hit him like a glass of cold water in the face. "No."
He paused in the middle of drawing breath for another barb, as thoroughly taken aback as ever she had seen him. Then he recovered himself, and his lips drew into a faint sneer. "Oh, truly? You'll forgive my reluctance to believe that, I hope. But I shall humor you – why, then, did you choose that particular story to retell?"
For all she understood his response, Sarah found herself bewildered and, infuriatingly, somewhat hurt to hear the venom in his voice.
There I go, forgetting he hasn't been watching my every move, again. He couldn't know.
Dark humor followed on that thought's heels. Well, His Insufferably Superior Majesty could stand to be surprised by something at least a few times a century, I suppose.
She met his acrimony with equanimity, keeping her voice quiet, but un-cowed. "It's about adventure, and love, and magic." Her next words deliberately echoed his earlier explanations. "And about reaching for that wondrous thing that might not even be there, but that you can't help trying to find, anyway."
Some unnamed emotion fluttered through his eyes almost – but not quite – faster than she could note it, and he turned his face away from her, toward the window. A dew-laden predawn breeze ruffled his thistledown hair, though Sarah remembered neither opening the window, nor seeing it opened. In profile, his face was as stone, and she stood for long moments in silence, unsure what to make of his reaction.
"When did it become so, to you?" His lips barely moved as he spoke, and his voice caught in a faintly dissonant frisson at the end of the question.
"Do you mean, when did it become about all those things, instead of about saving someone from child-stealing fae?"
A small nod.
"When do you think it did?"
He glanced sideways, eyes a flashing knife in the low lighting. "If you think me able to answer that, then I suppose when I left my… tokens for you to find."
Despite the thrumming tension between them, Sarah had to bite back wry laughter.
Just in case I didn't already know how highly he thought of himself... well, let him stew. He certainly seems to enjoy telling me to answer MY own questions.
"As wonderfully surprising as that was, no – guess again."
The eyes, once more turned away from her, narrowed. "I shall think on it."
Whatever the precise nature of his current mood, Jareth was as off-guard as ever Sarah had seen him. She hoped it meant he would answer her next question, with an involuntary reaction if not with words.
"What happens, as the connections between the worlds are cut?" she asked, softly. "Does your realm need ours to survive?"
Jareth drew a sharp, angry breath, and Sarah braced herself, but he let it out in a long, slow hiss rather than attacking her with words. When he answered, his tone was locked to blandness.
"To survive, no. But to flourish? That is another matter."
She thought that was all he was going to say, and was considering pressing the question, when he spoke again. "Tell me, clever Sarah – what did the Labyrinth look like to you?"
She blinked, wondering what he was getting at.
"When I was fifteen, you mean?"
Finally turning toward her again, he raised an eyebrow. "When else?"
Oh, right. He could only guess at my dreams.
"I dreamed of it, many times over the last four years. Those were the dreams I had thought to thank you for, originally."
"I shall try not to feel too cheated not to have seen them, then, though it is terribly difficult." A bit of texture had returned to his speech, and Sarah allowed herself to relax, slightly. She understood this face of him, insofar as any mortal could, and certainly moreso than she had the flat, aloof bearing he had just discarded. "Tell me of both, or all, if the dreams were different from one another."
"Well, the first time… the first word that comes to me is 'dry.' The whole place, except the area around the swamps and the Bog, seemed parched and unforgiving, all harsh light on weathered stones and dust. And yet, all its features seemed to cast shadows longer than they should have been. It was bright and gloomy all at once, like… like a very old, very eccentric attic with a lone window that has just been unshuttered to let sunlight in for the first time in decades."
He nodded, waiting for her to continue.
"The goblins, and the other creatures I met along the way were mostly small, all grotesque, and all a bit… funny. Cute, even."
That brought an acid glare that could have etched steel. Hastily, she amended. "Except yourself, of course."
He sniffed, muttering, "I should damned well hope not."
Sarah frowned, trying to picture him as he had appeared to her over the course of that adventure. "You were… very much like you are now, except – well, I remember more glitter." To that, he didn't deign to respond.
Describing her more recent forays came more easily. "In the dreams I've been having, it's very different. The landscape is a patchwork of lushness and severity, and all of it is beautiful in a way that looks like it would cut you if you tried to hold it. I hadn't run into very many goblins, except a very nasty pack of redcaps that reminded me of the Fieries… but now that I think of it, it's a bit like comparing a blue-painted werewolf to the Cookie Monster."
"…Cookie monster?" Jareth asked, a look of utter incredulity on his face. "Dare I ask what horror that might be?"
Sarah couldn't help giggling at that, gasping out, "It's a very fuzzy, cuddly character on a children's show that is a menace to cookies and well-meaning dentists." Jareth only shook his head bemusedly.
When she could breathe reasonably well again, Sarah finished, "At any rate, they really scared the crap out of me. I was frightened more than once on my first trip through, but… it wasn't the same. The redcaps in my dream felt worlds more deadly." She regarded him with curiosity. "So which one was closer to how it really is?"
He grinned, showing teeth, and shook his head. "You left me with an unanswered question; well and so, I will do the same. If you can answer that one for yourself, perhaps next time… I will show you, and you will better appreciate what you see."
Next time. Sarah was almost embarrassed at how unreservedly thrilling she found that phrase.
"You're leaving, then?" she asked, as neutrally as she could manage.
"I am. Dream your colorful – " He paused, with a wicked laugh. " – And naughty dreams, lovely Sarah, and I will return to see if you've found the answer, soon enough." He swept a graceful bow, his eyes gleaming with challenge and never straying from Sarah's own.
"I'm sure I will, then, and… it was good to see you." She was too proud to ask when the return visit would occur.
When Jareth smiled again, the expression shifted to a sardonic smirk as he took one light step sideways – and a gust came through her open window to fill the space he had very abruptly vacated. Sarah could have sworn she saw a swirl of glitter in the air.
Sarah lay down to attempt sleep as the first pale suggestions of dawn were visible outside, and only then did she recall another, rather important implication to something he had said.
"Perhaps next time… I will show you."
After all that talk of permissions and what power my invitation tonight granted, he mentions a visit to the Labyrinth and I react like I've just been promised my very own bookstore.
That bastard's good.
Chapter 7: Not Always What They Seem
Jareth's sidestep carried him into his throne room, which he found blessedly empty save for one gnarled hob of indeterminate gender who tended the crackling flames in the hearth. Orange light with the occasional flash of blue, green, or violet flickered warmly, but could not reach the shadowed chill of the room's corners. The little servant dropped an automatic bow toward its king's direction before returning to work, unalarmed by the sudden appearance.
In a movement born of long habit, Jareth glanced briefly at a wood-and-crystal contraption that grew out of the wall like some forest-bound coral, its arms, knobs, and counterweights twisted into a chaos that almost, almost became pattern. A crystal knob suspended by a slender strand of glistening spidersilk scribed a ponderous, repeating arc beneath the device, and a faint click sounded just beyond the range of human hearing as one of the upper protrusions shifted a tiny increment. The Goblin King considered it intently, then nodded slightly, his features relaxing from the subtle tension they had held seconds before.
Turning on his heel, he strode purposefully out of the room through a side door. His booted footfalls were uncannily quiet against the polished flagstones.
The impossibly knotted staircase that led to the castle's highest tower reshaped itself in front of him, smoothing into a graceful spiral. Mere paces behind his passage, however, it resumed its confounding, tangled geometry. The high eyrie was a place that no subject of his, goblin or otherwise, ever entered.
Crisp, cool air greeted him as he stepped from the landing into the chamber; the arched, bare window framed an inky, star-strewn sky. The bright constellations hung innocently enough, but whenever the eye left them and then returned, they had changed – sometimes only shifting positions with each other like goblins jostling for territory, sometimes completely scrambling themselves into new groupings and images. Jareth's vision gave them little sport, as it was quickly trained on the labyrinthine shadows on the ground below.
No human, and few of his subjects would have noticed the pure white speck of a figure that he was watching intently as it approached through the outer layers of the maze.
The path marched austerely onward, the walls that flanked it standing straight and stiff-backed as soldiers. Every corner that led to a new branch of the maze was cut with knife-edge precision; no moss subverted these stones' integrity, and no tree roots roughened the smooth-packed dirt of the floor.
The lamps that lit Sarah's way were coldly glowing orbs atop regularly-spaced columns in the wall. They shone brightly, but the light felt hollow in the way of winter moonlight that only seems to accentuate the surrounding darkness. Harsh corners and angles of wall cast stark shreds of shadow across the path. The walls themselves were of sandy toned stone blocks, each hewn to a degree of precision that Sarah had not seen except in the concrete or brick of modern buildings. Only two sources of color broke the monotony. The first was an occasional rusty-looking stain on the stone, and the second was a very frayed, faded crimson thread that time and other feet had ground into the dirt. Though the thread had long gaps where it had rotted away, Sarah was sure that it had once been a single length.
Someone walked this way before, and marked the path. I wonder if that person ever used it to get out again.
Sarah shuddered. This maze did not feel friendly.
Her misgivings were deepened in short order by a rank whiff of animal musk that reached her on a gust of a breeze, and flared into all-out alarm moments later at the sound of heavy, scraping footfalls just beyond the wall to her left. She wasn't alone, and she was quite sure that she did not want whatever company was nearby.
The footsteps began to fade, moving away from her, and she allowed herself a quiet sigh of relief. The relief proved extremely short-lived, as a hulking shadow stepped out of a side passage and into the path perhaps fifty yards ahead of her position. She could not see its shape clearly in the shadowed distance, but it stood at least eight feet tall on two legs and was covered in shaggy hair. Two large, curving horns grew out of its massive skull, cutting a sharp silhouette against the bright light of a globe-lamp behind it.
Oh, no. In the space of that instant, Sarah was struck by a flash of familiarity, and froze, transfixed by fright. Then the creature at the far end of her path roared, and broke the spell. Sarah turned and fled.
While she had intended to follow the path marked by the broken string back to… wherever she had started, it quickly became apparent that that was not an option. The thread-marked path was wide and mostly straight, as if it were the main thoroughfare through this strange domain, and the creature gained on her rapidly. Sarah knew that she would be risking dead ends if she struck out away from the wide path, but decided she didn't have much choice in the matter. At the next intersection, she darted around the corner to her right.
She ran for what seemed like hours, her heart pounding in her throat. Sometimes the smell and the sounds of pursuit would fade away, and she would slow down to rest, but they always returned to send her careening farther into the maze.
Finally, her luck with open paths ran out.
She had been running down a long corridor, looking for connecting paths, and finally reached an intersection. Turning right led her into a short dead end, so she wheeled around and sprinted down the opposite branch.
Into another dead end. She was trapped.
Her breath came in sobbing gasps, though she tried desperately to slow it – she knew the wheezing wasn't doing her stamina any favors. Finally remembering her experiences with apparent dead ends in the Labyrinth before, she shoved down her panic and walked forward toward the wall.
Solid stone blocks were all that greeted her, while behind, she could hear the creature approaching her intersection.
Time slowed to sticky spider webs around her, in the way of nightmares when the monster has caught up. Sarah knew her only hope of escape was to dodge past the creature.
She was terrified, but she would be ready.
Quickly, she flattened her back against the wall just behind the corner, praying that the creature would not immediately see her when it rounded the bend. In place not a moment too soon, she heard the scrape of its footsteps approach, and she tensed.
It cut the corner closely, leaving no room for a quick dart past it.
Sarah's escape route was blocked by a towering wall of rust colored fur.
Unbidden, a cry ripped itself from her throat as she moved to try to get around it anyway. The creature easily hooked her in one rock-solid arm, and the cry turned into a scream as she struggled against the blow that she was sure would soon fall.
No attack was forthcoming, however, and her flailing attempts to escape seemed to neither harm nor anger her captor.
The shock as she looked up into Ludo's ugly, but eternally friendly face – not the fire-eyed maw of a minotaur – was enough to jolt her awake.
Sarah sat up, drenched in sweat, and rubbed at her temples. The cotton ball of pain between her ears soundly informed her that her body did not appreciate the deviation from her normal sleep schedule, and she groaned at the sight of her alarm clock. It was nearly three in the afternoon.
While Sarah was typically all in favor of sleeping in when she had the opportunity, she had definitely overdone it this time.
I guess I'm allowed. She sighed.
At least I finished the manuscript, and – well, I don't think I would trade the rest of the night for anything else under the sun or stars.
A wry smile inched onto her face as she slid out of bed and went about getting clean and dressed. Any sense that her memories of the conversation with Jareth might not have been real was dispelled by the sight of the dream-sphere still nestled on a scarf on top of her desk – he had come, in the flesh, to see her.
And what pleasant flesh it was…
She didn't even bother getting indignant at herself for that thought. Having spent nearly half her night in his presence, she knew she was as likely to succeed in mentally levitating herself as she was to drive those ideas about him from her mind.
When she had returned from the bathroom with damp hair and a clearer head, she found her neglected cell phone and braced herself for the inevitable.
"Hey, you awake yet?"
"Sarah, seriously, you've either got your phone off or you're lazier than Jen is."
"OMFG WAKE UUUUUUUUUUUUP!"
Sarah laughed and shook her head as she scrolled through the text messages. Apparently Laurel was even more caffeinated and impatient than usual today.
After filling the small coffeemaker from her carefully-hoarded stash of premium beans and setting it to brew, she called her best friend, who seemed to be taking exuberant advantage of the break before graduation.
"Oh wow, she lives!" Laurel's voice was full of teasing laughter, though fuzzy against the background noise of what sounded like a crowd. "What were YOU doing all night? I've been trying to catch you all freaking day."
Sarah opened her mouth, then closed it, stifling giddy laughter.
"Why, I was chatting with the King of the Goblins. Until dawn. In my bedroom." Sarah was mildly disturbed to realize that such a response probably wouldn't even faze Laurel.
Instead, she answered the other, more mundane but nearly as exciting half of the truth. "I was finishing my manuscript. I didn't go to bed until sunrise, but it's done."
"Oh, fantastic – I wanna read it! But not tonight. Jen and I and a few other people are going to go clubbing after dinner, and now that I know you're done with the novel…"
Sarah could almost hear her grinning.
"…I don't have an excuse," she finished for Laurel.
"Exactly! I was going to try to get you to come shopping with us this afternoon, but we're already out since you slept the day away. Want to meet us at Underhill Café around seven for food?"
Sarah brightened, both at the mention of her favorite restaurant, and the nutty aroma of coffee coming from the carafe. "Sounds great. I'll be there. I'm going to walk – do you guys have room for me in the car afterward?"
"Yep," Laurel answered cheerfully. "Might be a bit tight, but you can sit on my lap if nothing else – OW!" Sarah heard a muffled thump just prior to her friend's exclamation, then breathless giggling. "Apparently Jen has something to say about that… oh, excuse me, you can sit on HER lap… figures…" Sarah set the cup of coffee she had been pouring quickly to avoid spilling it, shaking with laughter.
"Or I could just drive my own car, and save you the squabble."
Another snort from Laurel. "No, no… we have room. Really. Theresa's driving her SUV, so there's plenty of space. We'll see you at the restaurant."
"Sure thing," Sarah said, still smiling as she hung up the phone.
Seven o'clock. That left her about three hours to herself, given time to change clothes and get over to the restaurant. A part of her wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon reading over the last few chapters of her novel, but she knew that they were really too fresh in her mind for it to be a good time to edit. Instead, she emailed the last segment to Dr. Casas, who had taken up the position as her sounding board for the story with a great deal of enthusiasm, and encouraged her on it throughout college. The young professor was busy, having several classes to teach and a book of her own in progress, but somehow she had always found at least the occasional stretch of time for Sarah's work. Sarah did not think she would ever quite be able to thank her enough.
Email sent and coffee inhaled, Sarah rose from her desk and stretched. The vivid memory of the previous night and the riddle Jareth had left her were a growing pressure in her mind, and she realized that she would be preoccupied throughout the evening if she didn't at least address it.
That left her one good option for how to spend the rest of her time before dinner, and she was out the door and headed for the library almost before she had even consciously made the decision to go there.
As a Mythology student, Sarah had sometimes felt that she would save a great deal of effort by just moving out of her dorm and into the library, she spent so much time there. As it was, a study nook in a forgotten corner of the third floor had been "hers" since sophomore year; no other students seemed to ever delve deeply enough into the stacks to find it, and a longstanding treaty with the library staff allowed her to leave books unshelved on the table there and expect to find them when she returned. Today, she wove through the narrow aisles between the towering shelves with purpose, pulling volumes as she went.
Reaching her corner table and depositing her armload of books, she looked back into the isles for a moment, chuckling quietly. The thick, musty walls of paper and binding glue caught the sound and absorbed it as completely as a fresh snowfall.
I can't believe I never saw the resemblance before. It seems I'm always finding mazes to walk, no matter what I do.
Sarah settled herself comfortably in the dusty, upholstered chair, picked up the top book on her stack, and began to skim. She had a lot of literary ground to cover in three hours.
"Labyrinth: Symbol of Fear, Rebirth, and Liberation."
At six forty-five, Sarah walked out of her dorm room once again, having exchanged her t-shirt and hoodie for a flowing silk top, and her sneakers for her favorite pair of boots. Altogether, she decided she was dressed-up enough for an evening out, and her dark jeans would afford her enough freedom of movement to enjoy dancing when they hit the nightclub.
As she headed for the restaurant, she mentally reviewed what she had found in her afternoon's research. The trip to the library had been about as lucrative as she had expected, but not nearly as much as she had hoped. She had known where to find relevant books quickly because she had rooted through that particular body of texts many times before over the course of her schooling. Several of the volumes were almost old friends by this point – each maze-running dream, and not a few class projects had sent her back to that section of the library, looking to understand some new nuance of the mythos.
By this point, Sarah was fairly convinced that she had almost all of the information she was going to get on the subject of labyrinths, and no small amount of the surrounding lore of faeries, and the passages between worlds. It simply was not enough. She had the peevishly uneasy feeling that she really did know the answer, both to Jareth's challenge and a thousand others, but they somehow continued to dance just beyond her conscious grasp.
Just as well that Laurel has managed to forcibly distract me for the night. I think I might go more than slightly batty, otherwise, she thought as she reached the restaurant.
The Underhill Café was a cheerful cubby of an establishment tucked into the basement of an office building on the edge of the downtown area, and Sarah had always loved it for both its whimsical atmosphere and eclectic menu. She smiled at the wash of savory smells that greeted her as she opened the door, and at Laurel waving from a corner booth.
Shoving the Labyrinth puzzle onto the backburner as best she could, Sarah joined her friends at the table.
Jareth was in his throne room when his visitor arrived, lounging in the round-armed chair with the deceptive ease of a sleeping lion. His customary mask of languid boredom settled firmly into place as a faint, tinkling chime announced her arrival.
The woman who entered was tall and willow-thin, and walked as though her slippered feet never actually touched the ground. From head to toe, she was bone white, as an artist's sketch in motion that languished on new canvas without ever knowing the touch of paint. Her fitted gown and tattered, voluminous overrobe nearly swept the flagstones, the shape of the latter evoking an image of tired wings dragging behind a great bird in a faded echo of past magnificence. Despite the wear of her garments, her face was as smooth and cold as carven ivory, at once young and terribly, terribly ancient without a spark of humor to say otherwise. Hair so white it made Jareth's own pale locks look like spun sunlight by comparison was piled impossibly high atop her head in an elaborate, braided coiffure, the ends of which were bound with feathers that dangled past her face to lie against her shoulders. Only two motes of color relieved the harsh snowscape of her presence: her piercing eyes were a lustrous shade of honey-gold.
Those eyes never lowered from the Goblin King's face as she stopped in the center of the chamber and inclined her head to him.
"I would express my scintillating delight at the honor of your visit, my lady, but by the gravity of your expression, I fear you do not bring glad news. Then again, you always look like that… but you always bring unpleasant news as well. So what is it that brings you to my backwater kingdom this night?" His apparent nonchalance was the flimsiest of veils over his amusement at baiting her, and the daggers in her glare said that she knew it.
The guest did not deign to chide him for his insolence, but her voice was the essence of frost when she answered. "I think you likely know something of the situation already. Even one so flippant as you could not help but feel it."
"That may be, but you didn't come all this way to tell me something I already knew."
"The last anchor has been dead six cycles," she said, bluntly. "Already, the border realms begin to drift."
His eyes flicked to the timekeeping contraption that sprouted from the wall, and he was quiet for several heartbeats. When his eyes did not return to her, the visitor spoke again.
"Am I next to hear that not even that concerns you, King of the Goblins?"
His mismatched gaze refocused. "Peace, lady. There is a candidate."
Chapter 8: A Crystal Moon
Beneath the castle, beneath each strand in the great knot of secret passageways that threaded their circuitous way under it, beneath even the deepest of the oubliettes, a single, arrow-straight tunnel stretched into what seemed like infinity. Its curving walls were not brick and mortar or flagstone; instead the tunnel was couched in solid bedrock, as if an enormous worm had burrowed through in some forgotten eon. The rock was laced with hairline cracks, a thin tracery of tributary veins around this great, silent artery. Impossibly, a faint light shone through them, illuminating the underground path with whispers of warm amber.
Somewhere, at the end of the tunnel, there was a lustrous wooden door that should have long rotted away beneath the earth. It was kept in perfect repair, however, its surface waxed and its brass handle and keyhole polished – unlike the chamber that lay beyond it.
The room at the end of the tunnel was large, almost cavernous, and at first glance, a human observer would have thought it was a quaint, old concert hall that had fallen into disuse and somewhat disrepair. Closer examination would tell a very different story. The only slightly threadbare-looking velvet curtain felt as ephemeral and oddly sticky as sheet of fine-spun cobweb. The dusty upholstery of the folding seats was hard not merely in the manner dry-rotted foam, but of cold, unyielding stone, and the stage itself showed patches of rock where warm wooden boards simply… disappeared. The entire chamber was reminiscent of a child in a very cheap costume at the end of Halloween – cardboard fairy wings drooping, and more glitter scattered on the ground than on the child.
Its glamour had been fading rapidly since the death of the chamber's occupant.
The human lay, sprawled and lifeless on the center of the stage next to a large harpsichord. He was dressed in a tattered, tailed waistcoat over knee-length breeches and moth-eaten hose. The clothing had once been very fine, a relic of a long-distant era of the mortal world, but the rich silk and wool and linen had degraded nearly to rags. His similarly ancient, powdered wig lay askew, revealing the last, snow-white wisps of the man's natural hair, and not an inch of his paper-thin skin was unmarked by wrinkles.
Still and colorless as a marble statue – save for diamond-hard, golden eyes – a woman dressed all in white from the feathers dangling from her hair to the tips of her leather shoes looked on, frowning. The human man's face had been a rictus of pain and frustration when she had last seen him alive, but had eased into a smooth, peaceful smile in death. He might have been sleeping, if not for the broken-doll angles of his neck and limbs against the fading almost-wood of the stage.
Gradually, the last lines of wood grain beneath him ebbed away, and he was no longer a musician collapsed on his stage – only a nameless body against a bare slab of bedrock.
The woman spoke quietly, as she turned for the door.
"Jareth, you insolent fool, you'd better bind her soon."
The street was abuzz with activity as Sarah and her friends made their way from a downtown parking deck toward the nightclub. Before they even reached the building, the faint pulse of the base was a near-tangible thing, felt in the soles of the feet and some primal corner of the mind that whispered dance. Despite her lingering preoccupation with Jareth's riddle, Sarah found herself enjoying the night immensely.
Laurel noticed her smiling, and elbowed her good-naturedly in the ribs. "See, you ARE looking forward to this. I knew it! You really ought to get out and party more, Sarah – you always seem to have fun when you do."
Laughing wryly, Sarah shook her head. "It's all the more fun for being rare, I think. I'll stick to being a bookish hermit on the day-to-day, thanks."
The group reached the short steps underneath the glowing "Inferno" sign, and Laurel stuck her tongue out at Sarah as she pulled open the smoked glass door. A blast of warm, slightly humid air rushed out to welcome them, redolent with the scents of alcohol, perfumes, and several hundred revelers, and the music throbbed in full force.
Jen spoke loudly in Sarah's ear as the women showed their IDs and paid the cover charge. "There's three levels – this one, an upstairs, and a basement. Different music in each room. We've all got our phones on us if needed, and if we split up we'll meet at the front at one o'clock." Sarah nodded, already planning to explore the upper and lower levels as soon as she could find the stairs. The hip-hop that was blaring on the ground level wasn't bad, but she had hopes for something more interesting.
"I want to see what else is playing before I pick a place to dance," she called to the others over the din of the club. She could just make out what looked like a staircase against the far wall. Theresa and her friend Eleanor were already melding with the crowd on the dance floor, but Jen heard Sarah and passed the message on to Laurel, who was a few steps ahead. Laurel threw a grin and a nod over her shoulder to Sarah, aiming for the stairs.
The trio wound their way through high tables scattered around the warm pool of light from the bar, managing to reach the stairs to the upper level without bumping into anyone carrying a drink. The steps were well-worn and somewhat steep, though glowing tread tape on the edges made navigating them fairly easy. A slight bend kept them from seeing the upper room directly, and through some trick of the architecture the music was also surprisingly contained. It was even more surprising when they rounded the bend and emerged on the top level to crashing salsa music and flamboyantly red lighting – the dark, curved staircase had made it impossible to guess what this section of the club was like until they had reached it.
It's so different from the ground level it could almost be another world entirely, Sarah mused, then snorted. Or, you know, another building.
Laurel shook her head, and both Jen and Sarah nodded in agreement, turning to descend back to the middle level. None of them cared for salsa, but the drastic difference between the two floors gave Sarah high hopes for the basement.
As they rounded a similar curve to reach the underground level, they were not disappointed. The bar glowed violet, and a brace of blacklights were trained on the wide dance floor. Complex electronic rhythms made Sarah's feet positively itch. This level was more sparsely-populated than the other two, which suited her just fine – the floor was open enough to move, but just full enough not to lose the anonymity of a crowd. It was perfect.
"Oh hell yes!"
Sarah laughed at Laurel's enthusiastic exclamation, and couldn't help but agree.
"Shoulda brought glowsticks," Jen muttered as she followed Laurel to the dance floor with Sarah a half-step behind.
Stepping over the line between the scarred cement of the base flooring and onto the more forgiving black dance surface was like plunging into a pool. Sarah reeled unsteadily for a moment as the music was suddenly much, much louder than it had been on the periphery, realizing only slowly that the placement of the speakers kept the sound directed inward toward the dancers. Then the beat was in her head and coursing through her bloodstream, and she was moving.
She was vaguely aware of Laurel and Jen nearby, already caught in their own frenetic whirlpool of partnered motion. Beyond that, Sarah knew only sound and light and the convoluted maze of free space that wove between the other occupants of the floor. The music was familiar – some remix of a VNV Nation track that she was sure she had heard while on a techno kick a year or two previously – and her feet and hands and tossing hair all knew how to move, to dance, to swim within it.
The song bled into another that she didn't recognize, but Sarah picked up its pattern almost without effort, twisting her way through knots of people so deftly they barely had time to notice she was there before she had wheeled away again. She smiled as she danced, relaxing in a way she had not managed in days.
I wonder if any of the Labyrinth feels like this… it's a far cry from the ballroom dream, that's for sure. The thought wandered across Sarah's consciousness just as the music began to change again, and she re-focused on learning and integrating herself into the new pattern.
The new song was strange, threaded through with a high, keening drone and a prickling of staccato notes that sounded almost like they came from a flute instead of a synthesizer. The underlying electronic beat pulsed dark and full, reverberating through Sarah's limbs as if to tell them how to match it. For the first time in quite a while, Sarah let her eyes linger on other dancers long enough to notice that the radioactive purple glow of the blacklights had shifted subtly, taking on a silver-blue radiance that was at once soft and faintly metallic.
The haze in the air blurred outlines, shrouding the edges of the dance floor in obscurity, and for a moment, Sarah felt that the floor was hers, and hers alone.
Then she felt something bump against her left side, and turned, embarrassed, to find another dancer there – and indeed, the floor was more crowded than it had been moments before.
"Oh! I'm sorry," she exclaimed. "I didn't see you."
The tall woman smiled mischievously down at her. " 'Tis no trouble," she assured Sarah before turning back toward her still-dancing companions with a swish of her coppery waterfall of hair. Her eyes had been a luminous and completely impossible shade of violet.
Sarah shook her head and began to dance again, sliding back into rhythm like a fish into water, this time careful to avoid colliding with the moonlight-limned figures that pressed in around her.
Faltering in the pattern of her steps, Sarah whipped her eyes upward. Sure enough, the club's ceiling, which had been dark, and crisscrossed with light bars, was gone. Instead, an open swath of star-strewn sky stretched above her into infinity, dominated by the cold brilliance of a crystalline moon. Faint in the haze (mist, she realized) around the revelers, she could see the high, tangled hedge walls that ringed the clearing. The scent of dew-frosted foliage on the light breeze caressed her face.
She gasped as the jarring shock of realization ripped through her like a physical malady, and stumbled against the soft ground –
– which suddenly hardened into a black, smooth surface as she reached it. The club's dance floor. Sarah was disoriented and faintly nauseated, but she was sure of what she had seen.
She had somehow stepped back into the Labyrinth… wide awake.
The nausea passed quickly, and pure, unmitigated wonder filled its void.
How did I do that? Is it really so simple…? He didn't – I don't think he can pull me through without my knowledge, so that must have been me.
"You alright?" Jen had seen her stagger to the floor, and was now standing beside her with a hand outstretched.
"Oh – oh, yes, thank you." Sarah smiled gratefully as she took the small hand to pull herself up. "I tripped, must've been over someone's untied shoelace or something. Nothing seems to be too much the worse for wear."
"Good, we need to get you home in one piece, don't we?" Jen winked before disappearing back into a clump of people.
Sarah nodded in absentminded agreement and let her feet synchronize with the music once more, already thinking furiously about how to replicate what she had done.
I had been dancing my heart out, and thinking about the Labyrinth… it must have something to do with holding that idea in my head, she reasoned as she moved.
Sarah thought it unlikely that she could quite get back to the near-trance she had been in as she danced earlier, given how impatient she was to discover the secret; instead, she turned her mind directly to her impressions of the hedge-clearing where the fae were dancing.
Mist. She reached for the cool dampness that she had felt in the air, blocking out the pressing heat of the human building.
Hedges and moonlight. Her eyes falling half-closed, she mentally replaced the blacklight glow with the icier, more complex blue that had swathed the clearing.
Leaves and loam. She focused on the memory of the scents, and it was as if they were fresh in her nostrils once more.
Taking one last whirling step, she let her eyes fully open, again to the silver-blue shadows and lilting faerie music. She still felt slightly disoriented despite expecting – hoping for – this scene, though it faded even more readily than had the last wave. Her elation at the success, however, had her heart fluttering as though to burst from her chest.
I can do it on purpose! I wonder if I need to be anywhere specific. I wonder why it happened so slowly before. I… I wonder if he's here.
Looking at the other dancers with new interest, Sarah began to see the discrepancies in their deceptively humanoid forms. The lady she had run into and her companions stood head and shoulders above Sarah, their rail-thin frames swaying with an almost ethereal grace; a masked man with obsidian skin pranced among a group of shorter, gnarled fae that reminded Sarah of the dwarves she had written into the story that the little human boy had dreamed; a diminutive, almost child-like female flitted through the crowd, her feet on the ground despite the diaphanous wings that sprouted through her gown.
And there – there – a glimpse of wild, pale hair on squared, laughing shoulders had Sarah nearly tripping over her feet to change directions and follow that familiar creature.
She pressed past groups of fae, barely even noticing the faces and forms they wore now, whether beautiful or grotesque. It was frustratingly slow going to move through the crowd now that she was no longer following the demanding ebb and flow of the music, and he seemed to be moving away from her, but she hadn't lost him.
Does he know I'm here? Is this the ballroom all over again, with him leading me along, or will he be surprised to see me?
Finally, Sarah freed herself from a knot of exuberant sprites to find him standing just ahead, his back still to her as he spoke with one of the revelers.
"Jar – "
"Sarah?" Laurel's voice was faint, but somehow sounded like it was coming from right beside her. Sarah turned involuntarily to look for her friend, and saw nothing, though the mist that permeated the air grew suddenly thicker. She turned back to the Goblin King, who was spinning gracefully on one booted heel…
…Only to watch him fade from her sight into the mist. His eyes had widened in recognition just before he and all the fae dancers vanished.
Sarah blinked, the mist turning back into the faint ultraviolet haze of the Inferno dance floor, and became aware of an insistent hand on her shoulder. Laurel's. She was back in the club.
"Oh good, that is you! I thought I might have grabbed a stranger for a moment," Laurel was shouting over the music. She pulled Sarah aside, off the dance floor where she could speak a bit more normally. "Where WERE you, Sarah? You'd moved away from us early on, and then we figured we'd find you and see if you wanted to get something to drink, and we couldn't –"
Sarah shook her head, still disconcerted, and answered slowly. "I was just here, dancing. You… you must have missed me in the crowd."
Her best friend looked skeptical. "You didn't go upstairs or anything? You were here this whole time?"
"No, I never went upstairs. I'm so sorry if I worried you… what time is it?"
"About midnight. Theresa and Eleanor are probably still dancing their asses off, so let's grab Jen and get some drinks. You… look like you could use some water. You okay?" Laurel frowned, and Sarah found that she was indeed feeling the physical effects of dancing for nearly three hours – though she hadn't been the least bit tired before.
"Yeah, I'm fine, though water does sound great right now. I guess I got a bit caught up in the dancing," Sarah answered with a hint of a wry smile as they headed for the bar.
Much later, Sarah flopped heavily into her much-abused desk chair, exhausted but happy. The group of women had stayed at the club until last call at two, finally dropping Sarah off at her dorm room at nearly two-thirty. She had been tempted to sneak away from her friends for a while longer to try stepping back across the worlds, but didn't want to worry Laurel again if she ended up disappearing for too long.
Given His Majesty's royal presence… who knows what might have happened. Her practical acknowledgment of that potential… problem… was heavily seeded with bemused regret. Ah well. He said there would be a "next time," and from the look on his face when he saw me, I'll wager that comes rather soon. She chuckled softly to herself as she woke her computer up from standby mode.
Sarah scrolled through the new emails in her inbox, ignoring two "I'm graduating, who wants to buy my furniture?" list-serve messages, and some announcement of yet another new construction project on campus. Her eyes lit up with interest at the fourth message, though she was not terribly surprised to see it; Dr. Casas was always prompt with at least some comment on anything Sarah sent her.
She was, however, surprised and delighted at the subject matter.
"Sarah, I haven't had time to start reading your last segment of manuscript yet, but I do have some good news for you. My friend at Bibliophile Monthly got back to me today, and he says that they will be offering the internships this year – both for website and hardcopy-published work. If you can make time Monday afternoon, I'll set up a lunch date and introduce you.
Congratulations on finishing the draft of your novel, and on your upcoming graduation! Let me know about Monday.
Chapter 9: No One Can Blame You (For Walking Away)
Soft, yellow light diffused through the faintly musty air, casting illumination and shadows seemingly at random, for Sarah could not see a single lamp or witchlight. Everywhere around her, gilt lettering was struck to a vivid brilliance, the supple leather that it decorated catching the cast-off light in its own, more muted way. In its turn, richly polished wood reflected glints of gold from the treasures it supported, and even the flagstone floor carried a hint of sheen.
The walls, which twisted and meandered in a convoluted progression that by now Sarah found almost comfortingly familiar, were bookshelves.
Sarah's eyes wandered along the sweeping curves of lustrous oak and proud, straight book spines, awed. In clever harmony with the lines of the shelves, a network of wooden catwalks paralleled the higher reaches, even bridging across to one another. She suspected that it might be possible to traverse the whole expanse of this library – however large that might be – without touching a foot to the ground, if she could but find a staircase or ladder to climb to the lowest level.
Sarah found what she was looking for after rounding two bends: ladder rungs were cut into the oak on the edge of one shelf, leading up to one of the catwalks. She chuckled as she climbed, for there had certainly been no shortage of books within her reach from the floor. The soaring heights of these mammoth shelves had an allure all their own, powerful in its novelty, despite a brief glimpse of a generously upholstered leather easy chair on the floor several rows over.
The first row of spines she examined were lettered in a fluid alphabet that she did not recognize, but whenever Sarah stopped to focus on one in particular, the letters swam before her eyes to reconfigure into a form she understood. Nearby shelves held books in perhaps a dozen other languages, some recognizably human, and others… not. Though she could read them all, the titles were a fascinating, if jumbled mix.
Kelpies. Le Mort d'Arthur. A Compendium of Hearth Spirits. The Kindly Stranger. Mythago Wood. Trods and Hallows. The Tale of Genji. Arianrhod. Under the Mountain. Is Man a Myth? Boudicca. The Summer Tree.
All of them seemed to have to do with stories and legends of the fae realms, but beyond that, she could see no order to the volumes. The authors, when authors were even listed, were as scattershot as the titles.
How does one possibly find anything specific in this place? Sarah wondered.
She repeated her wondering aloud, but the sound was swallowed by the endless leather and pages as soon as it had left her lips.
It seemed that something had noticed her, however.
Mere moments later, she felt more than heard the displaced beats of air as a glossy-feathered hummingbird flitted out of some invisible cranny in a shelf, its brilliant green plumage reminiscent of emeralds. It landed on Sarah's shoulder as if such a perch was no less natural for it to choose than a tree branch, and let out a quiet chirp.
Sarah smiled, slightly startled, but delighted by the little creature. "Can you show me how to find things, then?" she asked it. It chirruped again and preened its feathers.
"I guess I'll take that as a yes," she muttered. "Do you know where to find… Through the Looking Glass?" It seemed worth a try.
The hummingbird immediately left her shoulder, a viridian blur as it flew along the catwalk. Sarah followed it around a curve and down a ramp, until it darted upward, directly at a shelf…
…and disappeared. Sarah could swear she had seen it fly into the wall of books. Maybe there was a hole, or a tunnel of some sort? She peered more closely at the spot where the little creature had vanished.
She didn't find a hole, or any trace of the hummingbird, but when she allowed her eyes to focus on the gilded lettering of the book titles, she laughed. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass sat in front of her nose. Pulling Through the Looking Glass from the shelf, she carefully opened the creaking leather cover to look for her favorite scene, but the words seemed to swim and fade before her eyes as sleep ebbed away.
Sarah awoke into predawn darkness. Before her eyes had even opened, she was aware of another presence in the room, one that thrummed with the watchful tension of a predator.
Marie wasn't due back for another four days.
Sarah heard no movement, and so could not pinpoint the intruder's location, but the fact of his presence was a visceral knowledge that had her every nerve on edge. Though her instincts screamed to jump up, make noise, and run – either to chase him out or escape – she willed herself to keep her breathing slow and steady as if she was still asleep. Her heart pounding, she cracked her eyelids open.
Moonlight through the window traced a dark, familiar silhouette as it perched lazily on the sill. That relaxed arrogance was unmistakable, even though the details of his form were obscured in shadow.
The lion's share of her fear loosened into relief, transitioning to irritation just as quickly. She had dared to hope he might have put his old habit of scaring the crap out of her completely behind him.
"Appearing in a sleeping woman's room unannounced, Jareth? Whatever happened to permissions?" The dregs of fear lent the tang of acid to her tone.
If he was surprised to hear her speak, he did not show it, only crossed elegant arms over his chest. While Sarah could not see his expression, she could hear the raised eyebrow in his voice. "Appearing at a fête in my kingdom unannounced, impetuous Sarah – never mind how you managed it in the first place – gives me some latitude in that regard. The inconvenience of the hour is just a little… unfairness that I'm afraid you'll have to weather," he drawled, with sardonic emphasis on the last barb. "No difficult task for you, I'd imagine, given your experience in such matters."
Sarah blinked. She had definitely baited him, but the sharpness of his response was of a tenor that put her more in mind of their verbal duels years ago than of their careful conversation more recently.
I threw him off balance, showing up in his world like that on Saturday, she realized. He… he's trying to set the scales back to where they were.
Hell if I'm going to let him do that -! …but if he thinks it worked at least a little bit…
Smothering both her irritation and her growing amusement, Sarah did her best impression of being intimidated.
"I… I'm sorry," she said, drawing on the memory of her recent fright to inject a slight quaver into her voice. "I don't really know how it happened, that night – I had just been out dancing with some friends, and everything went misty, and then I was there." Which is true enough – for the first jump, anyway. Except for the part about being sorry.
"Locational sympathy," he muttered. "Wouldn't be the first time a mortal had stumbled through…" Her answer seemed to satisfy him, at least for the moment. Relaxing slightly, she swung her legs over the edge of her bed and hopped down.
Closer to the window, she could see him better, and he was giving her a rather amused once-over.
She looked down.
It just had to be the Care Bear pajamas tonight, didn't it?
Hoping her blush wouldn't show in the faint light, Sarah glared up at Jareth. He refrained from comment, but let out a silken chuckle at her discomfiture, which only irked her more.
She decided that she didn't quite have the equilibrium required for an extended conversation with the Goblin King in her childish, if adorable, nightclothes – and besides, she needed to at least splash some water on her face and try to wake up a bit more. "Well, since you're here and I'm awake, give me a moment – I'll be back."
He didn't quite smirk, but she could see the mockery in his eyes. "Running away, Sarah?"
She'd expected that, and responded with an eloquent shrug as she gathered up clean clothes and her hairbrush. "Inconvenient as it is, sometimes we mortals have to pee," she said with forced tranquility as she walked out the door toward the hall bathroom.
As quickly as she could, Sarah brushed her teeth, washed her face, and changed into jeans and a fitted tunic-shirt. The outfit was flattering but comfortable, and it seemed a reasonable balance between faded, years-old pajamas and something fancier that would definitely be trying too hard. As much as she hated to admit it, Sarah had always felt more at ease when she was presenting an image she had chosen – and that went triple for interactions with the Goblin King.
Five minutes later, she left the bathroom feeling considerably better. She returned to her room to find Jareth thumbing through a book with interest, the faint curve of a smile on his lips. He had not bothered to turn on the lamp, but a softly-glowing crystal hung suspended in the air, washing the room with cool, white illumination.
At a glance, Sarah identified the book as her much-loved copy of Through the Looking Glass, which had been sitting on her dresser. He was looking at a colorfully-illustrated page, and as she drew closer, she could see the Bandersnatch in its swamp, like some deranged cross between a lion and a ruddy-plumaged bird. As she approached, he closed the book, handing it back to her.
"The source material that gives you your ideas never ceases to fascinate me."
Sarah could not quite tell if he meant that mockingly, and decided he may actually have been serious. The "you," however, had seemed a bit broader than a reference to her, specifically.
"Mortals, you mean," she clarified as she slid the book into place on her shelf. He nodded, watching her with mild interest.
That's what it's really like! It's been staring me in the face this whole time.
"The Labyrinth is some… ideal of a trial, or journey, then. And it's every bit of what any human sees of it, and more. We bring our own imagery with us," she said, growing more confident with each word.
Jareth grinned, his eyes glittering in the witchlight. "Oh, good – I was wondering when you were going to see what was right in front of you."
She laughed, not really able to fault him for that jibe. "Yes, well, I'm just glad I did see it. I'm terribly prone to overthinking things."
To her surprise, he snorted inelegantly at that. "And stating the obvious, even if you can't see it, apparently. I think you might be the only human I've ever seen who, when offered the chance to be lifted out of the dank, dark hole into which she had fallen, chose to keep going down!"
" 'Things aren't always what they seem! Don't take anything for granted!' " she quoted exasperatedly. "How the hell was I supposed to know that only applies until you start trying to think out of the box?"
"You weren't supposed to know – that's precisely the point," he said, his grin growing wider, before darkening a shade. "And I wouldn't get too put-out, if I were you. That trick worked rather less often than I'd have liked."
"I just bet it did," she murmured, shaking her head. It seemed passing strange to be having this conversation with him without his usual touchiness over the issue of her victory, but all things considered, it was rather pleasant. "So… what about you?" she asked. "You seem a bit different from how you did back when I was younger, but not nearly so much as everything else in there." What the hell, I'll push my luck. "And what about the people I saw at the dance? Are they as subject to my preconceptions as the goblins?"
His face grew shuttered, smile fading. "How do you know they aren't goblins, hmm?"
"I suppose I don't, but the question still stands." Nice try, Your Majesty.
The mismatched eyes narrowed to a knife-keen glare, but he answered. "The revel you stumbled into was within my kingdom, but it was not within the Labyrinth, as such. While the beings you encountered there are to varying degrees very fluid creatures in their own right, you saw them as truly as a mortal could have."
Still no mention of himself, but she knew better than to press that question, at least for now. She nodded, and after a moment of quiet, the pressure of his gaze eased once more.
"The last time I was here, I made you an offer, contingent upon answering the question about my Labyrinth," he reminded her in a voice swathed in velvet. "Will you accept it?"
"I'm sure you'll understand if I ask to hear you state that offer again?" she asked, smiling slightly.
Jareth laughed, low and richly. "Very well. That's astoundingly cautious, for you."
She nodded in acknowledgement. "Well, as you've noted a few times now, I am learning."
"So you are." He swept her a fluid bow, with only a hint of mockery. "My offer, lovely Sarah, is to convey you to my kingdom, and to give you a bit of a… tour, as it were, of parts of it. You will not be harmed by me or my subjects, and I will give you the means to return here when you choose to."
She raised an eyebrow at that, and he answered by lifting a whisper-thin, silver chain that was suddenly draped across his fingers as if it had been there all along. Before she could think to question him about it, his hands brushed around her neck and retreated, leaving the necklace twinkling around her throat. It had a single, tiny charm, a miniature version of one of his infernally omnipresent crystals.
"What is this supposed to – "
"Break the chain when you wish to come home." As she fingered it, he added quickly, "I assure you, it will not be difficult to do." She nodded, thoughtful.
It was far from free of potential traps, but the main issue – that she would be allowed to return when she decided – was covered adequately enough. If worse came to worse, the memory of her journey a few nights ago was an ace in her sleeve, for she was fairly certain that it had been more than "locational sympathy" that had allowed her to step between the worlds.
Of course, she wouldn't bet her freedom on that, but it was comforting, all the same.
"I accept, then – for the duration of this visit only," she said, trying not to giggle at the slight huff he let out upon hearing her addition.
Affecting a pained look, he took her hands into his gloved ones and let out a dramatic sigh. "You are so cruel, Sarah, to distrust me so." His slender fingers were warm around hers, sending a liquid jolt of awareness up her arms, whose every fine hair stood on end.
This could take some getting used to. She grinned inwardly. A lot of getting used to.
Jareth tugged her close enough that her elbows nearly brushed her chest, and she smelled spices and leather and the faint bite of ozone as the world spun around her.
Sarah refused to close her eyes, as tempting as it was, and soon enough the blur of colors re-solidified and gained coherent form again. Though she was still acutely aware of Jareth's nearness, the view of their surroundings took her breath away.
They stood on a smooth, stone balcony whose weathered crenellations stood low enough to afford a clear line of sight below, clearly more for decoration than for any defensive function. Above them soared still higher corniced towers of the same blue-grey limestone as the balcony. The landscape that spread beyond the castle was, as always, alien yet utterly familiar, a phantasmagorical patchwork of twisting walls and tunnels of trees. Watching it for several moments, Sarah was struck by the symmetry of this view to her first dream of the Underground during that awful first semester of college. Where then she had stood on a ridge on the outside, gazing across the convoluted expanse toward the castle in the center, now it was as if the dream had been mirrored. She almost felt like she might see her younger self standing there in the distance, if her eyes were many times sharper than their human limits allowed.
Jareth, for his part, seemed content to let her look in silence for the time being, though he remained standing just behind her and to the right, one of her hands still caught in his fingers.
"It's so beautiful, now, though it seems like it almost shouldn't be," Sarah said, softly.
"Many things are beautiful that shouldn't seem it," he murmured, alarmingly close to her ear. "I daresay you're… different, yourself."
I know that's a compliment, but it could still mean about six dozen different things. Damnit. Sarah shook her head in bemusement.
"Are the… specific trials I ran into still here in some form?" she asked, attempting to distract him – well, both of us – with her curiosity.
"Oh yes," he answered, the taste of a smile in his voice. "Would you care to see one of them again?"
"As long as it's not an oubliette or the Cleaners," Sarah said wryly.
A laugh, and a rush of air, and the world had changed again. They stood at a crossroads, with high, regular walls of sandstone that put Sarah in mind of the strange dream where she had run from the "minotaur," and she looked around suspiciously.
"What is – " She closed her mouth as movement drew her attention. Two passageways stretched ahead, toward the castle in the distance, and they were each being blocked at once as the statues that had sat between them got up and languorously resettled themselves squarely in the center of each path. The creatures were a matched pair of sphinxes, and they regarded Sarah with quiet amusement in their curious, tawny eyes.
Jareth had drawn back a few paces, Sarah found as she instinctively checked behind her. She was mildly irked to find herself relieved by his presence, and quickly turned back to the sphinxes in front of her. Both were very plainly female, with curling, honey-gold manes of hair that almost matched the short fur on their catlike lower bodies, and both sat on their haunches in silence as if waiting for something.
"Are you the guardians of these doorways?" Sarah asked, as politely as she could.
The creature on the left laughed, a trilling, mellifluous sound, and looked to her companion. "She's a bright one, isn't she?"
The other one tossed her hair and stretched, looking bored. "Bright or dim, she's of little interest to me. We aren't allowed to eat her if she doesn't answer our riddle, so what's the point?"
"Kind of you," Sarah muttered, glancing back at Jareth, whose lips were twitching. "Then you ladies must have been the card guards before… right?" she guessed.
Both of them looked affronted. "We most certainly are not!" the first sphinx declared, indignant. "I'm Xeratiflamoria, and I'm quite sure I have never been – or seen! – such a vulgar thing as a 'card guard,' and neither has my sister, Yerascaltidryx."
Jareth spoke smoothly, almost soothingly, to the two creatures. "Our mortal friend here encountered a trial similar to, if much less deadly than your own, on her journey through here some human years ago. I'm sure she's most pleased to meet you."
Sarah swallowed her confusion and nodded. "I'm sorry to offend… I'm still figuring all this out, it seems," she apologized.
"Well, I should hope so!" Xera sniffed. The rest of her long and confusing name had already escaped Sarah's memory. Her sister, however, seemed to have revised her opinion of how interesting Sarah was, and beckoned the girl over.
Sarah hesitated, but stepped nearer when she recalled that they were specifically disbarred from eating her. The second sphinx – Yera? – gave Sarah a mischievous wink and whispered, "He's never given a mortal lady a tour before – or told us we couldn't eat one, come to think of it. I think you're special, and you really should come back and chat sometime."
Sarah didn't know what to make of that, but her pulse had done a somersault at the emphasis. She wondered if all sphinxes were so prone to gossip.
Jareth cleared his throat, looking somewhat disgruntled at the feminine whispering, and Sarah decided that it was probably time to go. She smiled at Yera and Xera before turning back toward him, though the latter sphinx still seemed exceptionally miffed.
As her hand touched Jareth's, the now-familiar sensation of travel enveloped her.
Hours passed as he whisked her around the Labyrinth, revisiting sections she remembered as well as some that she'd never had the fortune – or, as it was, usually misfortune – to see on her previous visit. In most cases, Sarah could draw some connection between what she saw and her own mind, and the familiarity of areas she'd seen before shone strong even when their actual appearance had changed a great deal.
Jareth had been highly amused when she screwed up her courage to ask about the Bog of Eternal Stench, but to her slight surprise did not take the opportunity to dump her in it. Instead, he had conjured a crystal and shown her a dark lake where huge, sinuous shadows slid below the surface… which made her immensely grateful that he had not elected to take her there, assurance of safety or no. The only strange part of the journey (well, insofar as any part of the Labyrinth was not strange) was when she had asked him if there was a library somewhere. His face had, for a moment, lost every bit of the warmth it had held for most of the night, and his eyes had gone flatly neutral as he replied that it was undergoing some modifications and perhaps he would show her another time.
Finally, when they stood on the stone observation balcony once more, Sarah voiced the question that had been tickling her mind since the very first time they had discussed changing points of view and ways of seeing.
"What do you see, when you look out at it?"
A light, crisp breeze was tugging strands of his hair across his eyes as they narrowed slightly. "That's a rather… complicated question, and quite an audacious one to ask," he said, his voice low and carrying a slight edge.
Unintimidated, she replied, "That doesn't surprise me, but I really would like to know. If you don't want to tell me, you're as free as ever not to answer."
He stood in silence for several seconds before giving her a nod and a small smile. "I cannot tell you, but I can show you, though I fear it may be difficult to understand." He raised both hands, his fingertips cupping around her face, ten perfect points of leather-wrapped heat. "Close your eyes," he ordered softly, and she obeyed.
The darkness of her eyelids and the pressure of his fingers dissipated almost immediately, and even the stone under her feet seemed to fade away, leaving her floating in a nothingness that was slowly gaining form around her. At first, she saw bright lines as they spidered into being, like some liquid tracery of light. Each pulsed with a colorful luminescence as it twisted itself into the abstract suggestion of a wall, or tree, or archway – a living, morphing imprint of the object's very essence.
This must be what magic looks like.
The brilliant lines grew and multiplied, forming an intricate web in every direction that even in its seeming chaos conveyed an idea of form. There was the thin spire of the castle's highest tower; there was the brooding vortex of the place that had been Bog and Lake and Desert and a thousand more terrible things; there the crossroad of riddles; there the near-endless straight paths that formed the outer edges of the maze.
Gradually, the images began to coalesce. Each skeletal structure of magic was overlaid by a more complete picture – the look of the place or object rather than simply its concept. The first image was overlaid by a second, and a third, and a fourth, and… and an infinity of layers, each a unique representation of the underlying form. Sarah found herself trying to blink away the images, even though her eyes were still closed, almost overwhelmed by the assault of stimuli.
He sees what it is, and everything it could be… all at once.
Numbing complexity nonwithstanding, it was impossibly, unbearably beautiful – and a gift whose magnitude far surpassed any dream or whimsical inspiration Sarah had ever experienced.
Slowly, reluctantly, she opened her eyes. Jareth was looking down at her intently, some nameless question in the razor-sharp angles of his face.
Much later, she would ask herself what insanity moved her to do what she did. But at that instant, there seemed only one possible response to the wonder that filled her.
Sarah stretched upward on tiptoes, still feeling the light touch of his fingers on her cheeks, and threaded a hand of her own up to barely cup his steep jawline. The skin of his face was smooth – so smooth! – and it smoldered under her hand as if he carried a quiescent wildfire inside his body. His eyes widened in as much surprise as she had ever seen from him, but he did not resist her careful tug as she pulled his face downward and laid her lips against his.
The blood roared in Sarah's ears as she kissed him, building to a raging crescendo as she tentatively flicked her tongue against his lower lip and found it met by Jareth's. The kiss deepened with a spiraling suddenness that stole her breath away, and one of his hands slid behind her head to cup it and press her closer. His mouth was silken and hard and pliant and demanding, and a dozen other contradictory things all at once, and his tongue tasted of autumn spices and lightning. Sarah's senses reeled under an onslaught greater even than the magical vision had been as the moment stretched and dilated around them, their locked mouths the epicenter of the maelstrom.
After what seemed at once an eternity and no time at all, the kiss slowed. Sarah opened her eyes, hesitant, and saw Jareth's own strange eyes alight with the same flame she had imagined lived in his body, flickering with an inscrutable heat as he watched her.
It was too much – she felt as if she would never be able to let go, but she had to –
"I assure you, it will not be difficult to do."
Well that was a damned, bloody lie, but I'll try not to hold it against him.
Sarah's left hand fumbled at her throat to find the silvery chain of the necklace…
…and snapped it.
Chapter 10: The Babe with the Power
The wind from Sarah's sudden departure tugged at his hair, and the gossamer strands flicked out plaintively as if to try to follow her. He took a single, deep breath and caught himself with one elegant hand on a limestone merlon. Had the slim, articulate fingers not been covered by a glove, the knuckles would have been white.
Minutes, or perhaps hours slipped by as the Goblin King stood against the parapets, his eyes inscrutable and wild. A breeze that carried crisp notes of autumn had picked up in earnest, swirling in light gusts and eddies around the craggy lines of the castle and continuing to play havoc with his hair, though he could have been carved from stone himself, for all he seemed to notice.
Finally, fluidly, his stillness broke, and a slow, open-lipped smile spread across his face. He turned on his heel and strode into the door that had just appeared in the castle wall, sharp eyes and teeth flashing as twilight descended.
"Damnit, Sarah, why couldn't you have learned from my mistake and gotten a first floor – AACK!"
Muffled thumps sounded up from the stairwell, and Sarah looked back from where she was unlocking the door to her new apartment. A flushed and somewhat sheepish Laurel was – fortunately – still holding the heavy box of books she was carrying, but the cushions she had insisted on stacking on top of it and holding in place with her chin were now scattered in disarray all the way down to the previous landing.
Sarah snorted a laugh. "I thought you said that load would be a 'piece of cake,' and now you're complaining about the stairs?" She opened the door, ushering Laurel in with the box, and headed back to collect the unfortunate cushions. "Besides, I'm only on the third floor – this should be all kinds of easy for you, Miss 'I have three hours to move all my crap into a fourth-floor studio at the top of a stairwell so narrow it barely meets building code,'" she called up through the open door as she gathered pillows.
Laurel set down the box flexing her fingers in relief, and groaned at the thought of the half-carload still waiting for them. Sarah came in the door with the cushions, still looking tremendously amused. "I think you have, like, nine thousand books, though," Laurel muttered, though she was grinning too as she poured herself a glass of water from the pitcher in the refrigerator.
"Mmhmm," Sarah agreed serenely. "None of them are going to suddenly start vibrating if you shift the box the wrong way while you're trying to get up the stairs, though, are they?" She arched a dark eyebrow, and Laurel nearly choked on her water, flushing pink.
"I TOLD you, that was my ALARM CLOCK!"
"Uh huh. Right. I'm sure it was," Sarah teased. "Let's go, I bet we can finish this in another two or three trips, and it looks like it's going to start raining any minute."
Her best friend let out a martyred sigh and put the water down. "Yes, your Majesty, I'm coming…"
"Hey, the end's in sight. Jen's getting off work soon, right?"
"Yeah, at five."
"Call her, and we can snag her from work and hit the pub for dinner afterward, if you want. I think I owe you a drink, and I know I need one." Sarah headed down the stairs back to her car, Laurel clomping loudly behind her.
"Hah, I bet! Are you nervous about tomorrow?"
"A bit, yes, to be honest. I mean, it's not like I haven't been working for pay at all these last four years, but Dr. Casas apparently really talked me up to the editor-in-chief, so I feel like I've got a lot to live up to." Reaching the car, she handed Laurel a box – clothes, this time – and picked up another small case of books for herself.
"Any more pillows?" Laurel asked cheerfully, making Sarah laugh again. "But seriously, I understand where you're coming from. Just remember, though, Dr. Casas just got you the interview. You must've still impressed him pretty well if he hired you on the spot! What did you say, anyway?"
"I brought a couple of short writing samples to the interview, and he really liked those." She paused, catching her breath as she reached the landing in front of her apartment. "I think it also helped that I could quote half the authors he mentioned… so, you know, my 'nine thousand' books come in handy, sometimes," she finished wryly.
"Yeah, yeah, I get it. You want to be a writer, you lug around half the bloody library along with you everywhere you go or you lose your literature nerd cred, I know. You'll kick ass tomorrow, Sarah, and you know it. I'm pretty sure there's no one on this planet more qualified than you are to work on that magazine." She gave her friend a sly grin. "So what did your dad say when you got a Real Job nailed down even before graduation? Did you call him right away?"
Sarah giggled. "No, I didn't…"
"Well, you should have!"
"I waited until they came up for graduation and told them all then. Figured it would be a nice reverse-graduation gift, and it was. He had this hilariously surprised look for about three seconds, and then was all 'well I'll be damned' and congratulated me."
"Your brother was really cute, running around all over the place like that." They were walking wearily down the stairs again for the final load from the car.
"Hah, I thought Karen was going to keel over trying to keep up with him! He's been growing so fast, or it seems like it since I only see him a few times a year. And I couldn't believe it when I went home last Christmas and his hair had turned brown. I mean, I know that happens to a lot of kids who are blonde when they're little, but since I wasn't around to see it change gradually, I really did a double-take."
"Oh yeah, that happened to my older sister. Mine stayed – crap, I think the rain's starting, you called that one!" They took the last few stairs two at a time, scurrying to grab the last few boxes from the car, which were thankfully light enough to move quickly. The bottom dropped out when they were halfway up the steps again, and Sarah was grateful that at least the stairwell was covered.
Reaching her new apartment, they dropped their burdens on the depressingly high pile of boxes – how did I ever fit this much crap in my dorm room? – and flopped down onto the nearest accommodating surfaces, Laurel on a kitchen chair and Sarah on her small, secondhand couch.
Both women were content to catch their breath for a few minutes; then Sarah looked up questioningly. "Food?"
"Food and a beer," Laurel agreed. "Let's go get Jen."
Sarah was awake before the sun rose, and for once, before her alarm went off as well. Restless and excited, she had woken up several times over the course of the night, and finally decided to just go ahead and get out of bed at six. She showered and dressed quickly, then took her time with coffee and breakfast in front of her computer, which she had set up on the one open corner of her kitchen table. Her desk was buried under boxes of books, and it wasn't likely to be cleared for at least another day.
It had become Sarah's morning (or midmorning, or afternoon, or whenever she woke up) habit to write down a list of at least a couple of new ideas for her stories; it was something that Dr. Casas had suggested at the very beginning of her freshman year writing class, and that had stuck with her ever since. She found that some of her most interesting, out-of-the-box characters and situations came out of the exercise, and generally attributed it to the fact that it took her at least two cups of coffee to fully wake up, most mornings.
This particular morning, she was rather more distracted than usual, and it was a struggle to relax enough not to censor what she put down. Difficulties nonwithstanding, though, she had a short list saved in her journal file by the time she had to get ready to leave.
Anxious to begin the day, she twisted her long hair into a knot to keep it out of the way and packed her laptop, a notepad, and a lunch in her shoulder bag. She was headed for her door when she paused, lips pursed, considering.
Ahh… why the hell not. For luck.
Coming to a decision, she quickly returned to her bedroom to dig through the pile of as-yet unorganized trinkets to find her jewelry box.
She opened the box, and her heart raced for a few seconds when she could not see what she was looking for.
I haven't taken it out since, it must be here… unless…
Pulling out a folded drawing from Toby, she breathed a sigh of relief. The tiny, unobtrusive bit of silver and crystal had fallen down between the leaves of paper. Its chain was still broken, though she'd had half a mind to take it to a jeweler for mending – she'd decided that keeping it was all well and good, but wearing the thing in public display might have ramifications more dire than mere sentiment.
Smiling to herself, Sarah slipped the necklace Jareth had given her into her deepest pocket, and left for her first day at the internship.
A searing seam of lightning rent the pitch-black sky, for the space of an instant illuminating driving silver rain and the slate-grey, glistening rooftops below.
A heartbeat later, the thunder boomed sonorously in its wake, the whole world below its echo board. Sarah could feel the shockwave of it reverberate through the air around her as it sent a shiver of vibration through every one of her soaked feathers.
As the realization dawned that not only was she out in a violent thunderstorm, she was a bird, wheeling above what looked to be some quaint – if brooding – town, with nothing between her and wet cobbles but a few hundred feet of empty air and rain, her wings faltered, and she tumbled ungracefully a dozen yards before catching herself again.
If I was going to be a bird, why, oh why did it have to be in a storm? This would almost be fun, otherwise… even though if my mind came up with this place, I must not know it as well as I thought…
That first week of work was something new, but I don't think it messed with my head this much!
She skimmed closer to the roofs, which actually did seem to be made of dark shale, looking for likely shelter. A nagging feeling tugged at her instincts, that she ought to be going somewhere specific, but the immediate desire to get out of the rain trumped that concern for the moment.
A particularly well-appointed house – more of a gothic mansion, really, she saw as she approached – had a hunched, towering gargoyle on the corner of its peaked roof, and she flapped soggily toward it. Perhaps its stooped head would offer enough of a respite for her to get her bearings.
Maneuvering the landing was more difficult than expected, but she managed to situate herself on the clawed stone feet, and its glowering skull did indeed keep most of the rain off her. Sarah shook every muscle in her tiny body faster than she would have thought possible, and sprayed water everywhere as her sodden feathers released what must have been a quarter of her own weight in rain.
Then she nearly fell from her perch in fright as the rumbling sound she had assumed to be more thunder resolved into a grating, gravelly voice that came from just above her.
"You're a brave one, little nightingale, to be out in a storm such as this, and braver still to sit upon my claws – or is it just foolish, I wonder?" Two faintly glowing red eyes peered down at her from a leering head that was very much not inanimate stone.
I'm terribly sorry – please excuse – Sarah tried to speak, and halted halfway through when she realized her words were coming out only as trilling birdsong.
The gargoyle seemed to accept it well enough, however, as it rumbled a reply. "Bahhh… foolish, perhaps, but you amuse me, little one, and I ate a thief only yesterday. You may live, for tonight."
Erm, thank you. Very much. That's very kind of you, she chirped nervously.
It let out a laugh like boulders settling. "A two-legs approaches ahead, a slave to neither moon nor blood. He is perhaps as foolish as you, but you may follow him below if you would get out of the rain." The jutting chin indicated the narrow street that stretched before them, and indeed, a dark, humanoid figure was hurrying along it.
The figure drew nearer, and Sarah twittered a bird-like laugh. The human was an adolescent boy, perhaps fourteen or fifteen, and he wore the flapping, ankle-length duster, foppish shirt, and spiked accessories and piercings of nearly every brooding mall goth she had seen in high school. As she watched him, the tugging feeling she had felt earlier snapped into focus – the street, the buildings, even the rain in the boy's near proximity seemed deeper and more detailed than the surroundings still farther away.
He was the epicenter of this dream world, which meant that somehow, she had trespassed into it.
Just when I think things can't get any weirder… well. Wow. Might as well follow him and see what's what, I suppose…
Chirping another thank-you to the indulgent gargoyle, Sarah braced herself to get soaked again and fluttered clumsily down to the street as the boy passed under the eaves. He was walking down stone stairs set into the ground to a basement entrance that Sarah could have sworn had not been there before his arrival.
With a mental shrug, she followed him as the door opened, into a space filled with cool shadows, dimly ruddy lights, and strange perfumes.
For a moment, a wave of nausea overcame Sarah, and she faltered and fell to the floor as the world seem to stretch and bulge around her. She squeezed her eyes shut and bit back an outcry of alarm, only opening them when her head had stopped spinning. When she did, the antechamber she was in felt a great deal smaller, and the hands splayed before her on the lush rug were her own pale, human ones.
The delicate hand that reached down to help her up, however, was dusted with fine, sandy fur, and its fingers tipped with the suggestion of sheathed claws. Sarah blinked dumbly at it for several seconds before taking it gingerly and pulling herself off the floor. She found herself confronted by a pair of door guards, their upright and relatively normal female forms in strange contrast to their very feline skin and eyes.
The guard who had helped Sarah up shook back her mass of tawny curls and winked in an amusingly familiar gesture, before giving her a light push into the room beyond. Sarah stumbled ahead, and turned back to thank the woman, the sphinx's name rising unbidden to the tip of her tongue, but the entryway was already shrouded it total shadow, and she could not pick out the forms of the door guards any longer.
The main chamber was a maze of tables and opulently stuffed chairs, low walls and semi-private nooks where knots or pairs of... people… gathered in murmured conversation, some holding crystal glasses of dark wine, and others, the long stems of water pipes. Quiet, mournful music melded with the haze of smoke and perfumed incense, only occasionally punctuated by smooth, cultured laughter or a soft moan from the deep shadows of the nooks. At a casual glance, most of the beings could have passed for human, but closer inspection revealed blood-red irises, or flashing fangs, or occasionally some animal feature like those of the door guards. Most paid no mind to Sarah, but as she passed near a table, sometimes one or two would give her an appraising, disturbingly hungry look that made her skin crawl.
Vampires and were-creatures. It figures… Sarah could have giggled if she had been less nervous about drawing attention to herself in this place.
The brisk movement of a black coat caught her eye, then disappeared, and she realized that she had seen the dreamer's reflection briefly in a narrow floor-to-ceiling mirror set in one of the walls. Weaving between tables, Sarah did her best to follow him, finally picking out the bright red, spiked hair of the actual human rather than his reflection across the room.
As Sarah passed before the mirror herself, she almost did not recognize the woman she saw. She wore a tight-bodiced (and rather low-cut) gown in emerald green, with a full skirt that fell from her hips in a riot of green and nut-brown tatters. Her arms were left bare, but at her elbows began a twisted, barbed pattern of vines and thorns in dark green ink that traveled all the way up her shoulders, and sent two tendrils up either side of her slim neck to collect in whorls around her eyes. Her eyebrows had been replaced by finely speckled, brown feathers, and the whole effect was that of a very elaborate, thin-molded mask.
From around her throat shone a faint glimmer of silver, and her heart nearly stopped when she saw the necklace she wore. It was Jareth's tiny crystal.
With effort, Sarah tore herself away from contemplating the meaning of her strange attire, as the boy she followed had ducked into a low doorway not far ahead. Hurrying after him, she stopped short when she saw him standing at the other end of a brief hallway, just before it widened into another glowingly crimson chamber.
He must have heard some rustle from her clothing, or scrape of her slippered foot against the floor, for he whipped around and stared straight at her. Alarmed that she could apparently be noticed by more than just the denizens of this dreamscape, she froze in place, as astonished as the boy seemed to be. His wide eyes were an ordinary shade of blue set in a face halfway between youthful roundness and an adult man's angles, and the first faint dustings of dark facial hair barely blurred the line of his chin. No one she knew – he could have been any gawky teenage boy struggling to be different.
"I… didn't think I'd see another human here..." He paused, swallowing audibly. "Are you… are you a sorceress?"
Sarah did not know what to make of that.
Her stunned silence must have been taken for some sort of mysterious displeasure, for he stammered on, looking even more nervous. "Um, I'm sorry – I know I shouldn't say that out loud, but I thought – well…" His voice cracked, and fell silent.
Well, if I look the part… I suppose Jen would be proud of me for this, Sarah thought, wryly, as she gathered her wits and answered.
"What brings you here, human?" she asked, her words coming out more haughtily than she intended.
"I… I needed to ask a boon of the Lord Strahd Bloodraven, but now that I've gotten here, I'm afraid to go in." His eyes flicked back toward the garishly-lit room. "Maybe, could you, y'know… give me some kind of protection?"
Sarah closed her eyes for a half-second so she wouldn't roll them – surely she'd had more imagination with names when she was his age. What am I, Glinda the Good? I'm not in pink and floating around on a bubble, so what makes him think I'm not going to turn him into a newt or something equally cliché? It was only through supreme effort that Sarah continued to keep her regal composure at that line of thinking. It probably wouldn't do to burst out laughing; he was confused and frightened enough as it was.
She sighed inwardly instead. Maybe that's what I should be, then, I suppose. Playing faerie godmother in someone else's storybook… except it's not all his, is it? He's touching the Labyrinth, I know it. Yera recognized me!
She finally inclined her head to him and answered aloud. "I will grant you my protection for the next hour, whatever that may mean in this place. Come here."
The boy obediently walked over to her, his rawboned adolescent height already putting him half a head above Sarah, but he was docile enough as she stood on tiptoes to place a light kiss on his forehead. The imprint of her lips glistened against his skin for a moment as if she had been wearing gloss, then faded away to nothing before she could contemplate the matter further.
That should bolster his confidence, if nothing else, and that's probably what matters the most, here, she mused as the boy bowed awkwardly to her.
"Thank you, lady," he said, his voice cracking again. He was definitely no older than sixteen.
"Go, and finish your errand. Perhaps next time, it would be wise to seek protection before walking into a vampire den, hmm?" she suggested, playing her role to the hilt.
"I… yes, your – yes ma'am. I'll remember that. Thanks again!" Squaring his still-narrow shoulders and turning up the high collar of his coat, he took a deep breath and strode into the room beyond. Sarah watched him move into the pool of light and make another, slightly more graceful bow in front of a wide table, to someone out of her line of sight. She turned back to the entrance of the hallway, the main room a murky blur beyond it as she walked back…
… into morning sunlight through the bedroom window in her new apartment.
Saturday night found Sarah lounging in her finally-organized living room with a mug of coffee and her laptop, idly toying with the broken necklace as she contemplated her boss's request with glee.
It seemed they had a shortage of original stories in the lineup for the issues two and three months out, and the editor-in-chief had been every bit as impressed with Sarah's writing as he had originally seemed. Much to her surprised delight, he had asked if she would be willing to write a short story to be serialized over two issues of the print version of the publication.
For all a goodly amount of her work had seen the public eye by this point, she was more than a little anxious about making this one as perfect as it could be. The basis for it was taking shape in her mind, though, and a contented smile had been spread across her face for a full half-hour of outlining and note-writing. She would combine one of her idea snippets from Monday morning with elements of the dream she had somehow – she still wasn't sure how – stumbled into, and tell a tale of children passing word of another realm among each other.
She wasn't sure of the details, but she thought it was high time a certain faerie tale monarch made at least a cameo in her writing.
Chapter 11: Such a Fool Heart
The muted, violet tones of June twilight were just replacing the last streaks of sunset orange in the sky as Sarah left the restaurant to start the short walk home. Miranda – it still felt strange to think of her so, but she had been quite adamant that “Dr. Casas” was far too formal now that Sarah was no longer a student – had met her there for dinner after work to discuss final edits to the novel that Sarah would complete before beginning the process of submitting it to publishing houses. One of the senior magazine staff was also a publishing agent, and she had recently agreed to take Sarah on as a client. Though she knew there was likely still a long road to walk before the book would see store shelves, Sarah had had to struggle to contain her excitement through dinner and remember to eat in addition to talking.
On her way back to her apartment, sheaf of notes in arm, her thoughts meandered through her stories even as some more present part of her reveled in the cool evening air on her skin and the fading smells of sun-warmed trees and pavement. For the brief moments when she could block out the feel of hard cement beneath her feet and the droning urban soundscape, she could almost think of herself as being on those wilder paths, though she sorely missed the transient glow of the fireflies that had always been an exuberant presence in her parents’ suburban yard.
Perhaps she caught a glimpse of snowy wings through the decorative tree branches, or perhaps it was simply inevitable that her mind would drift to the place… person… it eventually did. Regardless, Sarah found herself thinking about Jareth.
He had been a mirage in the peripheral vision of her mind’s eye for weeks, the impression of a presence only half-sensed, yet almost always there. She had been able to avoid losing herself in daydreams – or at least, avoid doing so more than usual – only because her work at the magazine was fast-paced and challenging. Attempting not to replay their last encounter over and over in the three days that followed it had proven utterly futile, and even after nearly a month the encounter remained a popular topic of mental discourse in her sleep.
Sometimes, she bemoaned her loss of objectivity. Sometimes she wondered whether the kiss had affected him as much as it had seemed to, and if so, whether she could use that to her advantage in the future.
Mostly, though, she just wanted to touch him again.
What little remained of her initial wariness for the Goblin King had found no concrete grounds for distrust; he had played the role of the arrogant faerie lord to the hilt, but when all was said and done, he had yet to try to coerce her into anything. He had been courteous, even generous in many respects, and truly seemed to appreciate her wonder and curiosity about his world. (Part of Sarah would have dearly loved to amend that to “appreciate her,” but she was trying not to get too ahead of herself.) If he was playing her for some reason, she didn’t see how.
At times, she wondered about his claims of boredom driving him to her presence, and just to what degree a desire for novelty could be a motivation for a being such as Jareth. He seemed at once both calculating and wantonly capricious, the former belying the idea and the latter supporting it, and she realized that she could not say with certainty which was the truer interpretation. Her writing’s positive influence on the connection between the human world and the Fae was another possible reason for his visits, but in purely pragmatic terms he needn’t bother visiting her directly to encourage it.
Which seemed to leave the utterly wonderful (and slightly frightening) conclusion that she, specifically, was important to him.
Amused and a bit exasperated, Sarah blew dark strands of hair out of her eyes as she slipped through the pedestrian gate of her apartment building.
I tried not to care. I didn’t want to care. He’s alien and dangerous (…and wild and clever and beautiful and exciting and…), and I was right to be suspicious. Should still be suspicious.
Alright Sarah, what’s it going to be? Are you going to go looking for him? Ask him to come to you? Or just wait for him to pop up again in the middle of some night when he damn well feels like it?
Pondering her choices as she absently climbed the stairs to her door, she was startled out of her reverie by a short pulse of light that winked in and out of existence in the corner of her eye. She stopped, hand on the doorknob, and waited with eyes straining into the deepening dusk beyond the stairwell.
Minutes passed, and no firefly glow shone again; Sarah shrugged and walked inside.
The decision of how her next encounter with Jareth would be initiated was taken out of her hands no more than fifteen minutes later, when she heard a muffled, fluttering thump against her window. For a moment, she stared confusedly at the white owl as it – he – was plainly demanding her attention; why didn’t he just sidestep in like before?
But the answer came quickly enough, and she moved to open the window.
Permissions. On his previous visit, her own trespass had allowed him entrance, and before that, she had verbally invited him. In the present case, the best he could do (at least, in her own home) was to communicate that he wanted her to talk to him.
The realization that she could, in fact, refuse to let him in was a brief amusement, but the notion was gone almost as soon as it surfaced. If she was going to blatantly antagonize the Goblin King’s pride, there were far better reasons to do it than for a petty lark, and besides – she had dearly wanted to see him, anyway.
Sarah flipped the latch on the window and stood aside as the great bird winged into the middle of her living room. He did not land and then transform, but rather seemed to stretch and grow into his humanoid shape as he slowed. The light around him twisted – that was the best way Sarah could think to describe it – and suddenly Jareth was there on two legs, his mane of pale hair floating around him as he turned to face her –
– and the next thing she knew, her back was pressed against the cool glass of the still-closed side of the window, her left hand caught in an wrought steel grip and slammed beside her head as his mouth claimed her own in a sudden and ferocious assault.
The first kiss had been heady and deep and almost challenging, but this… this threatened to sweep Sarah away. She had no chance to adjust, or to rise to meet him; his tongue and teeth and silken lips were simply there, moving in hungry concert as if to devour her. The heat of his body was an inferno, where before it had been only embers.
His free arm wrapped roughly around her waist to fasten on her left hip and yank her forward against his chest. Every muscle in his spare frame was as tense as she felt, taut with a fury only half-restrained as he dragged his fingers from her hip, up her ribcage in a broad caress that caught the hem of her shirt and bared sensitive skin to the buttery softness of his leather glove.
Sarah let out a choked whimper into his mouth, and even through the bruising intensity of the kiss she could feel his triumphant smile.
As suddenly as he had pinned her, he melted away again, all contact vanishing nearly at once save for a feather-light, trailing stroke of his right hand along her jaw as he stepped backward with the twist of a satisfied smirk on his lips. Sarah was left gasping for air, slumped slightly against the half-open window.
“What… what was that for?” she finally managed through gritted teeth. Her entire body felt like an over-wound spring, still screaming for more even as she internally cursed his smugness.
“That was for the exquisitely abrupt timing of your departure from our last meeting, my lovely, infuriating Sarah,” he answered mildly. His voice held its usual note of light mockery , but Sarah was gratified to see that he looked at least a bit out of breath, himself.
Shakily, she raked dark hair over one shoulder, its blanketing weight far too warm for comfort against the flushed skin of her neck. “I see,” she mused, struggling to wrestle her hormones back under control. “You couldn’t stand not having the last word, could you?”
“Of course not. Could you?” Sarah grudgingly shook her head, and he continued. “While I assure you your stubbornness will never eclipse my own, it is formidable enough for a human to be… amusing.” He gave her a sharp grin more akin to bared teeth than any gentler expression. “Besides, what is that expression humans are so fond of…? Turnabout is fair play, after all.”
I’m never going to live that one down, am I? she thought with an internal moan of chagrin.
“What’s the matter? You did so love to tell me how unfair I was, once,” he taunted. “I thought you’d be pleased to see me reformed.”
Bastard! “Stop reading my mind!” The words came out unbidden, and far closer to a plaintive yelp than she would have liked.
“Stop painting your thoughts all over your pretty face, then. Though I’d of course prefer you continued.”
Sarah allowed herself a very brief moment in which to imagine his Majesty the Goblin King strung up by his naked ankles and dangled over a chicken roost…
…which turned far too quickly into an image of Jareth lounging in similar dishabille on a featherbed instead, and she quickly quenched the scene with a mental bucket of ice water.
Got to calm down. He won the play, but will only take the match if I keep letting him.
She straightened her shoulders and raised her eyes, willing her expression to one of amusement rather than defiance. “Alright,” she said, simply. She was rewarded with a single, owlish blink before he gave her another half-grin with only slightly fewer teeth showing than before. (Teeth that had felt so very wonderful on her lower lip not three minutes earli – STOP.)
“Well then, Sarah, if you are quite in command of yourself once more” – his expression plainly said that he did not think it likely – “I have an invitation for you.”
Intrigued, she cocked her head. “And what might that be?”
His intent gaze eased from her face and set to roaming her apartment for several long seconds before he answered, as if he had only just noticed that the surroundings were different from the dorm room he had visited previously. “It falls to me to host the summer solstice masquerade this year – not my preference of seasons, but the usual hostess had other issues to attend to – and it would please me if you were to attend as my guest.” The mismatched eyes fastened back on her, and he swept her a fluid bow.
Sarah found herself smiling at his wording as much as the offer. Jareth had always struck her as a creature of autumn, all cool, dry words with an underlying promise of winter’s bite, and it secretly pleased her to have more evidence to that effect. “Masquerade? I’ve never heard of a summer masquerade before, though it sounds rather more fun than a ‘summer folly’ or ‘garden party,’ or whatever it is people used to do in this world when they noticed seasons’ passing with more than a page on a calendar.”
A liquid laugh, quick and fleeting. “It is a masquerade not because it is summer, but because it is my realm.”
“And may I have the same assurances as my last visit?” she asked, arching a slim brow even though her smile remained.
Jareth affected a put-upon air and acquiesced, “You may, certainly, although I think I would prefer to conduct you myself, this time, so as not to have a repeat performance with a contrary piece of jewelry…”
Sarah snorted a giggle. Her quick exit had not been a calculated withdrawal at the time so much as a half-panicked escape, but she was increasingly convinced that it had been the best decision to make. “That’s fine, as long as I have your oath that I still get to leave when I decide to.”
“You have it, lovely Sarah. I would not want to give you reason to deny me.”
“Then… I’ll come. Gladly,” she said. As if there was any real question…
“Excellent. I shall find you at dusk on the day of the solstice, then.” The corner of his mouth turned up in what was not quite a smirk, an expression that Sarah had begun to interpret as approval.
Then she thought of something altogether too important to leave hanging until the appointed day.
“What on Earth – or not, as the case may be – should I wear? I’ll make a wild guess that my jeans aren’t quite dressy enough.” For a few moments Sarah thoroughly regretted the question, for the look on his face showed a veritable progression of ideas she was sure she wouldn’t approve of… but eventually he answered, to her mild surprise, without any of the obvious lewd choices.
“That is not something you need concern yourself with. I will provide a suitable gown for the occasion, and you will shine like a jewel among river stones,” he said, the half-smile spreading back into a profoundly untrustworthy grin.
Sarah was skeptical. “Suitable and appropriate, I hope? I mean, I’m no prude, but…”
He laughed, the sound slightly louder and somehow less… deliberate… than usual. “By the standards of my realm, you would be dressed appropriately even if you came in naught but strands of gemstones and perhaps a bit of gauze. But I have some idea of what you mean by that, and because I am feeling exceptionally generous, I will honor your preference.”
She let out the indignant breath she had drawn at his first sentence, and assented with a teasing smile of her own. “I am truly grateful for your generosity, then, Goblin King. I will see you in… two weeks, I think it is.”
He bowed again and stepped near enough to run a finger down her face, but to her immense disappointment, he stepped back across the border into his own world without kissing her, and before she could summon the nerve to pull him closer. Sarah swore she could hear the mocking echo of his laugh long after her heartbeat had slowed back to normal.
The fourteen days until the summer solstice passed in fits and starts for Sarah – there were times when she could do nothing but think of the upcoming celebration and hours dragged like days, but whenever her mind drifted elsewhere, they skittered past all but unmarked.
Finally, as the sun sank on the evening of the solstice, Sarah opened her window to the fragrant summer air and sat down to finish her waiting. While it seemed a bit silly to expect him to come through the window when he would be able to simply appear, this time, there was something fitting about the warm breeze that ruffled the curtains and stirred her hair as she sat on the couch.
She did not have long to wait, and she nearly laughed aloud to see that despite the practicality of sidestepping into the room, Jareth could not resist making the dramatic entrance that her open window allowed. Again as an owl, he soared through the window and went into a slowed dive, talons stretching downward as if to scoop up some rodent prey before they lengthened into legs and booted feet.
Unwilling to be complacent about how he would greet her this time, Sarah had braced herself for anything he would intend to use to surprise her, and was mildly disappointed when he simply grinned at her from where he stood.
“A most joyous solstice to you, Sarah. The night begins – and it looks like you are ready to go…?”
She nodded, rising and inclining her head in a slight echo of the embellished bows he was so fond of giving her. “Yes, I am.”
Her formality drew a chuckle from him, and he took up her hand to kiss her knuckles, eyes filled with mocking amusement. “Then let us waste no time, my fair mortal lady,” he said just above her skin, as the spinning sensation of travel flared.
It subsided much more quickly than she recalled from her previous sojourns, and deposited them into a small but well-appointed room with a dressing screen and a single tall mirror. Sarah looked around curiously, wondering where this hopefully-not-too-ridiculous garment she was to wear was, and Jareth gestured impatiently.
“Well, unless you’re waiting for me to whisk those strange human clothes of yours off by magic, go ahead and undress. The guests are waiting for us.”
Sarah froze, feeling her face go scarlet. What the – he – he can’t be – oh, but I bet he IS serious…
Jareth regarded her with a raised eyebrow for several seconds, before cracking a smile filled with pure deviltry. “No? What a pity.” He heaved a melodramatic sigh before shaking his head as if in resignation. “Ahh well. I’ve summoned one of my subjects – an acquaintance of yours, I believe – to help you dress. Though see that you don’t blush so prettily for her; I might be jealous.”
... …incorrigible jackass. Sarah pressed her lips together and nodded, while shooting him her best death glare. He ignored the daggers shooting from her eyes and swept out of the room with a hearty chuckle, but a moment later Sarah’s good humor was at least mostly restored by the once again familiar-yet-different woman who entered in his stead.
Yerascatidryx the statue/sphinx/catwoman strode in wearing a daringly cut, chocolate brown dress over smooth, golden skin. She was barefoot, revealing toes that ended in sheathed claws rather than nails, and her eyes were slit-pupiled and feline yellow, but she otherwise looked as close to human as Sarah had ever seen her. Her lips twitched into an impish smile as she noted the human woman’s fading blush, and she tossed her head toward the door.
“Yon royal peacock asked me to help you out in the event that your clothes didn’t immediately fly off at his offer. Hope you don’t mind?”
“Ahh, no, not at all, and thank you. I’m sure I’ll need it; humans aren’t much for elaborate formal events anymore. Or humans without altogether too much money, anyway.”
Yera trilled a laugh and ducked behind the screen. “It’s good to see you, strange little mortal… or rather, I should be calling you Lady Sarah, I think, yes? You’ve been quite the traveler lately, and haven’t even lost your name or gotten cursed or made his Majesty angry; I’m quite impressed!”
Sarah wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, but she settled for an anxious laugh. “I’m rather glad of that, myself…” Yera returned with an armful of vibrant green fabric and something silvery that sparkled in the light, her foot pushing a panel of the screen open to block the doorway as she moved.
“Here’s the gown he had made for you. Whatever else anyone might say about him, the king certainly has taste.” Sarah couldn’t make out enough of the fabric’s shape to comment, but whatever it was, it certainly looked luxurious.
When Yera had finally finished helping her into the clinging confection, Sarah looked in the mirror and found herself amply in agreement with the sphinx’s assessment.
The front of her torso was swathed – no, painted – in a green that brought to mind moss and new oak leaves drenched by a summer shower, and at her hips the light, filmy material flowed into floor-length layers of fluttering panels that shifted and parted and floated around her as she moved. At the top of the bodice, the fabric twisted into branching points just below her collarbone, and the green tendrils flowed seamlessly into a loosely irregular, silver-gossamer mesh that clung closely to her skin. The mesh was strung here and there with tiny crystal beads, and it glistened across her shoulders and down both arms like dew-kissed spider web to end in crystal-tipped points on the backs of her hands. The back of the dress was made solely of the barely-there webbing, which held the bodice in place while leaving the skin of her back nearly bare. Under ordinary circumstances, Sarah would have been very nervous about such seemingly precarious construction, but whatever the webbing was made of – she wouldn’t have been surprised at all to find out it was real spider silk – was strong and flexible, a deceptively delicate net that cradled her body even as it adorned her. A belt of thicker strands of the stuff was similarly riddled with crystals to catch the light, and trailed long strands of them down to mingle with the fabric of the skirt.
As Sarah gaped at the dress, Yera deftly twisted her brunette locks into a coil and secured it with silver pins, leaving a few short strands at the nape to fall in tendrils upon the bare skin of Sarah’s neck. Finally, Yera handed her an elaborate half-mask of brown and green feathers, edged with a sheen of silver dust. Its shape and construction tugged at Sarah’s memory, and she looked up at the sphinx in surprise.
With a self-satisfied smile, Yera explained, “I had a bit of a hand in that – figured you’d like it given what you looked like last time I saw you.” Sarah paled at the implication, but Yera reassured her with a wink. “No, he didn’t ask where exactly you were, and I didn’t see the need to tell him. I prowl enough mortal dreams that it was no great surprise I’d run into you.”
Letting out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, Sarah smiled gratefully. “Good, I didn’t exactly mean to be there. And I do very much like the mask,” she added as she carefully hid the fasteners in her hair. “I guess I’m ready to go, then… Thank you so much for your help.”
A feline grin and another wink. “You’re quite welcome… it was my pleasure. Now, shall we go make a few dozen courtiers envy Jareth your company for the evening?”
Sarah started to nod, but hesitated. “Just a moment, first… I’m… rather nervous, to be honest. Do you have any advice on how not to embarrass myself? I’m not exactly used to events like this.”
Yera nodded slightly, her playful eyes sobering to a surprised respect. “You are wise to ask, but embarrassment is no danger that should worry you. Instead, I will advise you to remember some of the things that your books likely taught you about the fair folk, and remember them well: be cautious but do not seem it, be courteous to all you meet, and above all, show no fear.” Sarah suppressed a shiver that was born of equal parts excitement and nerves. “You are the personal guest of the King of this realm, and are therefore due great respect, mortal or no. Remember that as well, and demand that respect with every inch of your bearing.”
Wordless, Sarah made a deep curtsey in thanks, but the feline woman shook her head and pulled Sarah up. “As delightful as you look when you do that, better start playing the queen with me.” She gave her protégé a last, quick grin and motioned to the door. “After you, my lady.”
Sarah took a deep breath, lifted her chin, and stepped into the short hallway, where the music of revelry echoed toward her from outside.
Chapter 12: Beating So Fast
Green dress, check. Now off to meet the faeries – maybe I should change my name to Janet, Sarah thought wryly as she made her way down the hall. She caught herself hurrying once, but quickly schooled her steps to a more measured – less nervous – pace. A glance back at Yera by her shoulder revealed the sphinx’s amused approval.
The hallway flared into what looked like a small antechamber, and a familiar silhouette stood at the junction. There was a light whisper of air as Yera melted away into a side passage, and then Sarah was stepping into the room, and Jareth was there.
Her steps paused for a heartbeat as she took in the sight of him. A part of her brain reminded her with a quietly infuriating sensibility that she really shouldn’t be surprised; she’d known he would be dressed to the nines.
More like the ‘tens’ – good grief, he’s gorgeous.
The Goblin King looked every inch the monarch, even beyond his usual strength of presence. He wore a vest of molded russet leather, which would have been more rightly called a breastplate had it not been split down the center to leave a deep wedge of pale, smooth chest bare. The dark contours and ridges were brushed with metallic highlights, and Sarah could just make out a filigreed tracery of bronze embellishment along the edges, flowing down to disappear beneath a wide-belted skirt of the same leather. This lower garment was similarly open across the front, though bands of crisscrossed leather spanned the wide gap and partially obscured burnt orange leggings and intricately tooled, knee-high boots. Jareth’s arms were bare from shoulder to gauntlet-like gloves, revealing a lithe, thin musculature that Sarah realized she had never actually seen before, and encircled by bronze bands at each bicep. Even the feathery strands of his long hair seemed to take on a flame-like keenness against the stark lines of his figure.
His mask was a sharply pointed, branching domino in a glistening, dark green that merged into bronze around the edges, and the mouth beneath it was set in a wicked half-smile that might have been a smirk if it had contained a bit less deviltry.
“My lady,” he bowed slightly as he spoke, glittering eyes locked on her own, “I trust you found the gown ‘appropriate?’”
Sarah quirked a smile of her own, dropping him a curtsey to the exact degree of his bow in a flutter of emerald silk. “Indeed, I am quite pleased with what you’ve chosen for me. You had me a touch worried when you mentioned ‘strands of gemstones and a bit of gauze,’ so I thank you for your generous restraint.”
His smile widened, revealing a glimpse of teeth, and Sarah thought she saw a flicker of actual flame around the bronzed edge of his mask. “You are welcome, of course.” He offered her his arm and she took it, mildly disappointed that his gloves still went up almost to his elbows, leaving her no unobtrusive way to touch that warm, smooth skin. “The fête awaits us.”
They emerged into an exuberant chaos of leaping music, firelight, and everywhere an eldritch beauty that cut, even as it delighted. Sarah kept her face level, avoiding the temptation to swing her head around to take in everything at once, but allowed her eyes to roam with wonder at the barbed splendor that was the fae celebration – here a pair of drifting, diaphanous wings or a gown so sheer the wearer seemed a nude statue cast in starlight; there a set of four-inch claws, or eyes as black and empty as the timeless void.
The pair had stepped out onto the edge of the dance floor – large, contrasting squares of stone in an alternating pattern that was subtly reinforced by moss growing through the cracks – in a location that felt instinctively central to Sarah’s spacial sensibilities. Revelers on either side of them paused to sketch a bow or curtsey as they greeted their host… and Sarah.
For a brief, panicked moment, she felt naked under their curious, discerning scrutiny, for while she detected no overt hostility, neither had she ever been more acutely aware of being noticed.
Above all, show no fear… better start playing the queen with me.
At just that moment, Sarah felt rather more like a pawn, but she clung stubbornly to Yera’s advice, and gradually her insides stopped trying to leap into her throat. If she could keep her composure – most of the time, anyway – with Jareth, she could damned well do it with anyone. She wrapped every scrap of pride she had ever possessed around herself like a cloak and willed them all to see what she chose to display.
Jareth had been offering brief greetings to the occasional courtier as they walked, and in the space between two such rounds of pleasantries, Sarah asked, “How many here are your subjects? I got the impression that this was a rather extensive event.”
Teeth and eyes flashed as he turned to her, again with that faint flicker of flame. “Those whom you see around us are all of my kingdom – the guests from other realms are across the floor. It is custom that they wait for the host to arrive before they mingle with the host’s subjects at a gathering such as this.”
She nodded, eyes sweeping over the gathered revelers with redoubled curiosity. The smaller party she had stumbled into earlier in the spring had shown her some of the diversity of Jareth’s subjects, but not in nearly so meticulously turned-out an array. There was no discernable theme to their appearance, save that of decadence; some were costumed in a subtle but recognizable manifestation of some creature or concept, much as Jareth himself was; others had chosen whatever seemed to suit chaotic whim, in garments ranging from the elaborate and unwieldy to the barely present; others still emphasized some natural grotesquery to the point of fearfulness.
A final line of fae parted before them, and she saw that much the same was true of the guests on the other side of the stone floor. Jareth paused beside her, eyes on some point beyond the front group of guests, and after a few moments, Sarah realized that he was watching two tall, pale figures move through the throng toward them.
The woman was the taller of the pair, though only by virtue of her piled, bone-white coiffure – her companion’s head was bald and etched faintly with whorled tattoos. The latter’s presence was unassuming, for a fae, without being self-effacing; he gave the impression that he would be equally comfortable, yet passive, no matter the situation. The woman, however…
She glided across the dance floor as if her feet disdained to make full contact with the base earth beneath them. Possessed of such a haughty grace and clad completely in white, she was a ghost among peacocks. Her half-mask was covered in feathers, and under the circumstances on any other person, Sarah would have interpreted the woman’s regalia as reminiscent of a swan, but some indefinable quality of her bearing utterly rejected such a gentle assumption.
As if in answer to Sarah’s analysis, Jareth murmured, “the Lady Anann, styled the White Raven across the realms. I do not know her plaything.”
“She’s a queen, then?” Sarah asked.
“No… she does not control a sovereign domain as such. But she is well-respected across my world, and should be accorded the courtesy due a monarch.” His tone was calm, but Sarah thought she heard a note of something else – amusement? – buried in the dulcet voice.
She did not have further time to dwell on any subtext that might have existed to his explanation, for the woman and her companion had closed the remaining distance and now stood before them. The man bowed from the waist in front of Jareth, curling lines of ink across a hairless, alabaster chest his only adornment above his murky grey silk trousers and ornate gold belt. The Lady Anann simply inclined her head, a perfunctory gesture that Jareth somehow managed to both exactly duplicate and mock in the same elegant movement. Her lips thinned, making her expression even more severe, and Sarah fought the urge to laugh as she made her own, very brief obeisance.
Apparently she was not the sole recipient of Jareth’s insouciant mannerisms.
“Well met, Goblin King, and summer’s blessing on your realm.” The woman’s voice was as chilly as her expression, in clashing contrast with her greeting.
“Ah, my Lady, so good to see you again, and so soon – perhaps you’ve taken enough of a liking to my realm that you plan to call it home?” Jareth’s lips quirked upward, the verbal barbs fabricated with the ease of long practice.
“Not this century, Jareth – ask me in another five. I’m sure you’ll barely notice the time passing.” Her yellow gaze shifted to Sarah. “And who is this lovely creature? I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“The Lady Sarah is my guest tonight, from Above.”
“How charming. Do you dance then, mortal? Tuireann is a fine partner,” she responded coolly, but without the undertone of irritation that she had had when speaking directly to Jareth.
The taciturn man at her side inclined his head toward Sarah and spoke at last. “It would be my delight to have your company for this round, my lady.” Though she was barely touching his arm, Sarah felt Jareth’s sudden edge of tension, as if some affront had been given. Whether he was irritated at whatever purpose lay behind Anann’s maneuver, or simply at the fact that Sarah would not be partnering him for the first dance – watch the wishful thinking, it’ll get you into trouble – Sarah herself did not see much other recourse than to accept the invitation. Instinctively, she understood that while a subtle insult might be considered a coup in the arcane social game they were playing, an overt one would both discredit the perpetrator and necessarily provoke an overt response. Refusing an explicit invitation from this woman’s… consort? ‘plaything?’… would definitely fall under the category of overt rudeness.
Tuireann had extended a long-fingered hand, and Sarah acquiesced, stepping diagonally between Jareth and Anann to take it. She felt mild gooseflesh prickle her nape as she did so – perhaps it was only her own fancy, but the air seemed a few degrees colder for that moment of motion.
Then the chill had passed, and Jareth’s face had found its way back into its customary cast of slight amusement as he teasingly vowed to claim a later dance, and to have the musicians play that round until their instruments cracked. Sarah gave him a brief grin over her shoulder, and then turned her full attention toward navigating the unfamiliar dance floor with her unfamiliar and somewhat unsettling partner.
Tuireann was, in fact, an excellent partner, and Sarah was relieved to find that despite whatever rivalry existed between his mistress and the Goblin King, he led firmly and in such a way that did not threaten to betray Sarah’s limited ballroom experience. However, he seemed completely uninterested in making conversation. After some minutes of silence, Sarah braved a question that seemed relatively safe. “Do you travel with the Lady, or are you a subject of one of the other realms?”
He chuckled, a whistling, hollow sound that barely reached above the lively music. “Not often, for I do not have her skill with far-walking, but neither am I beholden to any of the monarchs. She alerts me when I am needed, and I have seen many a grand gathering such as this.”
Well, that’s ever so helpfully vague. She tried again.
“Do you enjoy them, then?”
He looked as quizzical as a man with no eyebrows could do. “Enjoy? Does the cog enjoy its turning? I go, and I do. That is enough.”
No wonder Jareth called him Anann’s plaything – he really is only a game piece to her. And himself, apparently. She made no further attempt at conversation, and was awash with gratitude when a familiar face appeared next to them as the music wound down. She had wondered where Yera had gotten off to.
“His majesty may skin me for denying him further, but I find I’m having far too much fun to care. Have a dance with me, darling?” Yera grinned, slit-pupil eyes sparkling with blessedly welcome good humor.
“Of course,” she said, and dropped a slight curtsey to the still-quiet man as she disengaged. “My thanks for the dance, Tuireann – it was lovely.”
“The honor was mine,” he answered gravely as he bowed and departed.
Yera wasted no time in taking Sarah’s hands and whirling her into the new cadence as the musicians struck up the next tune. “That was a pretty one you had there, but seemed dull as a post. Why him?”
“He was, and only because the White Raven lady essentially offered him to me. It didn’t seem prudent to refuse.”
Yera’s finely arched eyebrows rose an inch as she recognized the appellation. “He’s hers? You’re right, refusing would have been a bad idea. I mean, it’s usually a bad idea anyway, no matter who’s asking, unless you can make it look like circumstances just prevented you from accepting an offer, but that goes double for His Majesty and triple for the likes of Her.” The sphinx made a face. “Jareth’s at least got a sense of humor. I think hers threw itself off a cliff a millennium or two ago.”
Sarah laughed. “I’d… gathered that. Thanks for rescuing me. Is this common? Two women dancing together at a party like this, I mean.”
Yera gave her an incredulous look and a soft snort. “Of course, and the men as well! It would make for rather lopsided and inefficient politicking otherwise – the floor is where all the important things are said and not said. Is it not so in your realm?”
“Not typically. It’s not quite as much a taboo as it used to be, but it still isn’t something people expect, I suppose because we don’t do much… official… social maneuvering in situations like this anymore.”
“What a pity; it’s a wonderful diversion.” Her eyes scanned the chaotic motley of revelers with delight. “I don’t play the game much myself, but there’s always interesting things to be seen and heard, secrets that fall to the floor when courtiers are clumsy in passing them.”
The soft hand tugged, and Sarah found herself in a spin, the light panels of her skirt floating about her legs. “Any people I should look out for?” she asked when she was facing the sphinx again.
“You’ve already met the most important one, and I don’t think you need me to tell you to be careful around her.”
“Who is she, exactly? Jareth said she had no domain of her own, yet she was the head of the guest’s company.”
Yera cocked her tawny head. “I’m not sure what you would call someone like her in your world today, but she is something like a… an oracle, but not in the way of cheap tricks and prediction of petty fortunes. She is one of the oldest of the noble fae, and has been a liaison and diplomat among the other nobles since long before I became conscious.”
“She didn’t seem to mind that I was here, though I know that offer for her companion to dance with me had nothing to do with courtesy,” Sarah observed.
A slight frown creased Yera’s brow briefly. “You are almost certainly right about that, though I do not know which version of the game she is playing tonight.”
“Anyone else? Jareth wasn’t exactly forthcoming with information about the courtiers…”
“Well, normally I’d say to be sure you met Mirael, the high steward of the Long Marches, but it is she that normally hosts the summer gathering, so she isn’t here. Her cousin, Airgetlam, rules over in the Fens, and I did see him earlier. Look for the tall fellow with the black hair and the silver claws; he’s a bit of an intimidating sight, but of better nature than most.”
Sarah nodded. A few names might come in handy, and she had no intention of simply being passed off from one courtier to another as the novelty of the evening.
After a laughing departure from Yera at the end of their dance, Sarah did not immediately see Jareth in the crowd, so she mingled as best she could while retaining a degree of the reserved hauteur that made the nobles stand out from the other fae. Perhaps a quarter of an hour had passed when she caught sight of a thin, dangerous-looking figure that could only be Airgetlam – he was an oddity among the nobles in his clear deviation from the semblance of humanity that the others seemed to at least partially maintain. His “silver claws” were long, wickedly pointed fingers, and the metallic tone extended up his arms well past the elbows as if he had dipped them in mercury.
A small, wry smile twisted his pale lips at the sight of Sarah as she approached.
“My lady, companion of my host. Well met, though I do not know what you are called.” He offered a slight bow, one deadly arm folded across his chest.
“A friend of mine gave me your name, Lord Airgetlam, so I would remedy the imbalance. I am Sarah, from Above. Will you dance?”
The smile widened, crinkling the corners of steel-grey eyes with amusement. “I will, indeed.” Sarah was momentarily nervous about how that would be accomplished, given his talons, but he handled them with a surprising delicacy as he led her into a measured reel.
As if sensing her curiosity, he spoke lightly of other guests, and gave humorous anecdotes of past seasons’ turning celebrations. After a few such stories, with positive responses to her requests for details, she decided to risk a less inconsequential question.
“Do you and the other nobles interact with mortals much, or is that a peculiarity of Jareth’s? He’s spoken of dreams and links between the worlds, but very little of the rest of the fae.”
Airgetlam chuckled quietly. “A bold question, little nightingale, for some do not share that information easily.” He paused, then continued. “It is no habit unique to the Goblin King, but few are so meddlesome as he. For myself, I find the ideas and dreams of your world’s current era interesting, at times amusing, and at other times frightening. The subject matter is more and more often a flavor of alien that my kind has no part or place in.”
He shook a stray lock of long, ebony hair out of his eyes, which twinkled as he seemed to contemplate Sarah for a long moment. “Since I have answered your impertinent question, perhaps you will indulge one of mine. I have heard… rumors… of a mortal woman who defeated Jareth’s infamous Labyrinth and won back a child some time ago, a handful of years, perhaps. Might you know her?”
Sarah blinked up at him, caught off-guard. She would have expected Jareth to guard that information closely, given his boundless vanity. She wasn’t sure which was more interesting – the possibility that he might have purposefully allowed the tale to escape, or the possibility that he didn’t know about it. At length, she remembered she was supposed to answer the question, and allowed, “I might, indeed.”
The fae lord tilted his head back and let out a full-throated laugh, at this. “Well then, if I were to ever meet her, I might tell her that her game was well-played, and that I had not had such amusement in over a century. What does she do, with the wisdom gained on that journey?”
“That’s two questions,” Sarah reminded him, impishly.
“So it is. Will you answer?”
She smiled. “She spins tales of the world she sees in her dreams, and hopes that others will look for it in theirs.”
“Then I think that she uses those dreams well.”
Sarah did not know a graceful reply to that, beyond a half-bow as they danced, but for good or ill she was spared the necessity by a swirl of white that appeared in her peripheral vision. Turning, she found the severe, feathered form of Anann waiting expectantly beside them as the music faded into a new tune.
“Good evening, my lord Airgetlam, lady Sarah. May I have this next dance?” Her eyes left no ambiguity as to who she was asking.
Sarah took a long, surreptitious breath, and squared her shoulders. “You may, my lady. I’d be honored.”
Airgetlam bowed gracefully, planting a light kiss on the back of Sarah’s hand before releasing her. “Be well, impertinent nightingale,” he murmured.
Anann’s expression was only a shade warmer than glacial as she took Sarah’s hands in her own, chalky ones, but based on what Sarah had seen of her so far, that was almost encouraging. Neither woman made any effort at conversation for several measures – Sarah too uncertain to risk a question, and the strange noble silent for some unfathomable reason of her own. Finally, the White Raven’s features softened into something approximating friendliness, as if she had had to stop and consider how to arrange her face before she spoke.
“You’re quite adept with our company, mortal.”
Sarah supposed that was a compliment, and inclined her head. “Thank you, my lady.” There didn’t seem to be much else to say to that.
“Has Jareth showed you much of his kingdom?”
“I… I don’t rightly know, I suppose, since I don’t have a sense of how much there is to see. But he has showed me pieces that he thought might interest me.”
Better not to assume she knows or suspects what Airgetlam does about Jareth’s and my past.
“I see. Pieces of his great maze, then, perhaps?” The goldenrod eyes and voice stayed mild, if cold as ever.
“A few,” Sarah allowed. “Some of the crossroads, and more interesting landmarks.”
“What of the palace? The servants he keeps are a bit ridiculous at times, but I’m sure it would be a grand sight for you.”
“Only a few rooms, and the battlements, though the view from the latter is lovely.” She wondered where this was going. Was Anann trying to figure out how much she knew about the fae world?
“Ahh, not terribly much, then. You really should ask him to show you the castle gardens and… from what I hear of you, perhaps the library. No other ruler here keeps a more extensive or diverse collection than he.”
Sarah brightened at that. I wonder if that dream I had… “I’ll be sure to do that, then – it sounds wonderful.”
A tiny smile appeared on the snowy face. “It is rare, in these times, that one of your kind shows such appreciation for our lore. Your curiosity gladdens me, jaded as I am.”
Well that was an odd conversation.
Sarah partnered Jareth after Anann, and what felt like a dozen others after that. Short or tall, delicate or frightening, grave or humorous – they all seemed curious to some degree, but most did not press her as far as Airgetlam had, even if they suspected her history or interests. Later in the evening, she was back in Jareth’s arms, the deliciously familiar, spicy scents of his leather garments and warm skin relaxing her a fraction more than she had previously dared, but the mocking humor that had characterized his every move throughout the night seemed to have dimmed. He watched her eyes, quiet, as the rich music led them through steps that Sarah no longer had to think about.
Eventually, Sarah recalled that she could and would damned well be as impertinent as she liked with him, and broke the silence. “Are you alright? You look like something’s not going well.”
Jareth’s winged eyebrows rose in an expression of genuine surprise, and considered her owlishly for a moment. “That’s an odd question. Why do you ask?”
She shrugged slightly. “I noticed it, and… well, it concerned me. I didn’t think it was an odd question.”
He laughed, the soft rasp of honed steel back in his voice. “It is for me, I assure you. Now, tell me, lovely Sarah –“ he tangled a hand in the webbing on the back of her dress and tugged her closer, his breath ruffling the loose tendrils of hair around her ear. “– how are you enjoying my party?”
He had evaded the question, but at the moment, the opportunity was too good for Sarah to pass up.
“It’s a piece of cake,” she intoned, grinning slyly up at him.
Jareth stared at her for a heartbeat before letting out a completely spontaneous laugh. “You know, I really ought to do terrible things to you for that.” His lips barely grazed the upper ridge of her ear, and Sarah shivered through her smile.
Somehow I don’t think he means sending the Cleaners after me, this time…
“And here I thought we were past that,” she answered lightly.
The lines of his armor bit into her skin as his hands tightened around her arm and waist, and his grin was no softer than his grip. “What’s a few paltry blades between… old acquaintances?”
“ ‘Acquaintances,’ Jareth? Is that what we are, then?” Sarah arched one dark eyebrow.
That drew a grin from him, deep and dark and full of edged promises. “Perhaps that is something to reconsider.”
The night went on with Jareth much more in his usual form, and Sarah found herself truly enjoying the revel. She partnered Airgetlam once again, and Yera’s more staid sister Xera, as well as what felt like half of the Underground before the celebration even showed signs of winding down.
Jareth claimed the final dance with her, and together they ruled the center of the floor as the other courtiers orbited around them. As the music drew to a close at last, guests and locals alike gathered in a circle around the pair. Sarah could make out many that she had spoken to or danced with; in particular, Anann and Tuireann stood nearby. From the other side of the ring, Airgetlam slid through from the back of the crowd to the front in long jumps, nodding with a slight smile to Sarah when he reached the front.
The Goblin King’s sharp voice rang out over the dance floor, reaching the ears of everyone assembled.
“Friends and acquaintances, partners and rivals – I thank you for your presence at this solstice celebration. May summer bless your realms and homes, and keep you well until autumn arrives.”
He offered Sarah his arm, and without further deliberation, they left the dance floor and re-entered the castle.
Chapter 13: Move the Stars
After the masque.
Sarah’s heart fluttered into her throat as she stepped through the limestone doorway, caught in indecision.
The masque was clearly over – Jareth’s words to the guests had been both benediction and dismissal, and had had an air of ritual closure to them. She had his promise that he would not try to detain her, should she wish to leave, but the moment seemed entirely wrong to demand to go home.
One of the less considered nuisances of near-instant travel, I suppose, she thought wryly. If you go on an interplanar date, there’s no car ride home for fretting over whether to invite him up to your apartment “for drinks.”
She snapped out of her nervous reverie when she caught Jareth giving her an uncharacteristically pensive look. Sarah cocked her head and waited.
A small, almost conspiratorial smile lightened his expression, and he took a turn through an erstwhile-hidden doorway, tugging her with him. “Come, if you will; I would show you something before taking you back to your world.”
Glad to forestall her departure a little longer, Sarah nodded and followed as he mounted a narrow staircase that twisted up the castle in blue-grey gloom. They climbed what must have been several stories, for she was slightly winded when they emerged on a landing that opened into a large, grandly appointed room. The chamber was dominated by a roaring hearth set deep into one wall, and a large, rounded chair against another. Sarah blinked in surprise as she recognized the shape – if not the material or embellishments – of the royal seat.
“Your throne room?”
Jareth nodded dismissively. “Yes, but we’re just passing through. This way.” The exit he chose was a small side door set into a shadowed corner near the throne, and it led to…
…vertigo. Sarah stopped short, reaching out for the solid arm that she had let go of on the first staircase, and finding his hand ready to catch hers. The stairs ahead looked as if they thought they were some kind of moss – they grew out of every surface with no care for direction, orientation, or even physical feasibility.
And they were moving, even as she watched.
“This… is not quite what I remember,” she managed weakly.
A soft laugh from the creature beside her. “I believe we’ve established that is true for most of this realm, have we not? Besides, if I actually gated my private sanctum with a trick staircase that an adolescent human could manage to navigate… I wouldn’t be very good at this, would I?”
“I suppose not. How do we get up?”
He stepped to the edge of the landing, and the stairs swam before him, reforming into a perfectly passable – if steep – spiral staircase. “It knows its master,” he murmured.
There was no railing, and Sarah had to hold her skirts above her knees to keep them from hindering her ascent. Fortunately, this climb was shorter than the previous one, though by the narrowness of the space that housed the stairs and the distance they traveled, she guessed that they were in one of the castle’s higher towers. Witchlight flames lit the ancient stone at irregular intervals and kept the dark enough at bay to keep her from worrying too much about her footing; still the walls pressed in uncomfortably close as the stairs spiraled upward. Some fleeting instinct buried deep in Sarah’s psyche whispered urgently at her to bolt, to flee the dim confinement of this stone spear that sought the sky, and flee the man that could command that stone with a thought.
But no one who made a habit of heeding that sort of skittish caution ever seemed to do anything interesting. Sarah kept climbing.
Finally, all at once, the claustrophobic confinement was gone, and they were at the top. The stairs opened into a tower chamber without warning after a tight curve, and Sarah stopped short in surprise. For a moment, she barely even saw the stonework window arches themselves, so commanding were the stars at this height, with no firelight or smoke to interfere.
Jareth had stepped to the side of chamber to give her room to move around, and was watching her with curiosity. “Many of your kind seem to have a crippling fear of heights; I’m pleased to see that it is not so with you.”
Sarah laughed breathlessly, pivoting to get a glimpse out each archway in turn. “No, I should say not. That would be awful – there’s so much to see from up here….” She trailed off as her gaze fell to the twisting gyre of the Labyrinth below them. The revelers were still about, and the dance floor still lit, though without their host’s presence they had once more split into two groups on opposite sides of the checkered floor, like game pieces returned to their starting rows. Shadows danced among the fae below, and Sarah fancied she could still hear the chime of laughter on the night breeze, as high as she now stood. “It’s beautiful, and… I’m honored you would show me this place. Thank you.”
He flashed her a grin as she looked up – there and gone in an instant, but it lingered in his eyes. “I thought you might like it.”
She spared another glance for the view on the ground. “You said you don’t normally host the summer gathering. Which, then?” she asked, though she suspected she knew the answer.
Tonight’s the night of Hallow’een, and the faerie court will ride…
“Autumn, though I expect I shall be ceding that honor to the Fenlord this year – which isn’t common knowledge, so keep it to yourself, if you please,” he said, watching the lights below with amusement.
“Fenlord… Airgetlam?” Sarah queried, remembering Yera’s explanation. The potential implications were intriguing, though she tried to keep her own speculation to a minimum, given how little she actually knew about the fae politics.
“Yes – you met him, didn’t you?”
It came as small surprise that Jareth had been noting her dance partners. “I did. He was very courteous.”
Jareth chuckled softly. “Was anyone not? That would be an interesting thing to note.”
“Ah – no, everyone was exceptionally… correct, at least. What I meant was, he didn’t seem like he was being polite just to follow protocol.”
“Aha. That does sound like him. The Fenlord is something of a meddler, and the fact that his cousin wasn’t present likely put him in rare form to make up for her part.”
Sarah hid her smile at first, then decided that she couldn’t resist the jibe. “He said more or less the same of you – do all the nobles consider each other ‘meddlers,’ then?”
Jareth’s eyes narrowed for a moment as he looked up, but he relaxed and let out a sharp laugh. “That is exceptionally accurate. After a few eons, or even centuries… everyone has plans, and everyone else is either a pawn, or a nuisance, depending.”
She gave him an arch look at this. “Oh? And which am I?”
The pause was so minute she almost missed it.
“You, lovely Sarah, are the most delicious sort of nuisance.” He turned from his position at the window to face her, and she laughed.
He really couldn’t have said anything else. “What of the Lady Anann? When you were speaking with her I think I could have put a cup of tea down between the two of you and found it frozen minutes later.”
Thin lips curled back from slightly pointed teeth, and the winged brows drew together in a faint scowl. “She is the worst kind of nuisance – the kind you can’t justify getting rid of. There is no lost love between us, as you seem to have noted, but our differences aside, she is old and powerful, and has a vital role in maintaining the health of our world. She is one whom it is prudent to accommodate when possible and heed when necessary.”
“More than any of the others, I got the sense that she was fishing for information when she danced with me.” Sarah lifted her eyes from the thinning ranks of figures below, instead scanning the strange constellations that oversaw the labyrinthine tableau.
“That is likely. Of all those present tonight, you were the only new potential source of it. It would only be natural for her to seek you out. What did she ask you?” His expression was unreadable as she glanced over to him.
“Just a few questions about what you’ve shown me of your realm.”
“And your answers?” he prompted.
“Vague. I wasn’t sure what she already knew, or what she wanted with the information.”
He favored her with a small, pleased smile. “I see I did not err in my assessment of your instincts. Brava, Sarah.”
She returned to her contemplation of the piercing stars, frowning slightly as she tried to find the patterns she had picked out only moments before. “Does she know about the time… the first time we met?” she asked carefully.
He was silent for a long moment, the void filled by soft whispers of wind through the stone arches. Sarah felt the hair at her nape prickle, and looked to find his disconcerting stare trained unblinkingly upon her, piercing as a raptor’s. She would have sold her next story to know what he was thinking just then.
Finally he answered, voice explaining little beyond the fact of his words. “I do not think so.”
“And you would prefer she didn’t.” It wasn’t a question.
“Indeed. And I should think you would also prefer it, perhaps more so.” Sarah didn’t respond immediately, which he seemed to take as a question. “Let me be clear. Right now, you are mildly interesting to her. That is indubitably an uncomfortable position. Were she to know of your past… exploits… you would then become very interesting, and with the lady Anann, that is not wise if it can be helped.”
“While I appreciate the explanation, Jareth,” she said mildly, stepping closer, “you didn’t need to convince me not to blackmail you.” Another step closer. Idly, she wondered if his own tactic of unsettling would work on him; decided quickly that she wasn’t quite imposing enough to pull off the same effect.
“Oh?” The word was perilous, carrying both the lilt of amusement and the faint edge of implicit threat. It somehow condensed every bit of distrust, every barrier between them, into one almost inconsequentially small mote of sound.
Sarah was sure that he knew he fascinated her, and that she desired him as well. And yet, even through the lens of self-interest, he did not seem to fully trust that her actions would align her with him in this world of spider web intrigue, where friends and indeed, even lovers could play opposing colors.
Perhaps it was better that he did not seem to completely grasp the finer points of human sentiment, after all.
“You haven’t given me reason to want to undermine you here.” She reached out across the short span between them to lightly trace the lines of his armor. The silvery webbing along her arm glistened in the starlight. “Quite the opposite, in fact.”
His hand came up to catch her wrist, but he neither jerked her forward nor pushed her away – only stalled her hand in its motion and looked down at it as if considering something. “I shall… try to recall that more often,” he said at last, softly.
Sarah turned her hand in his grip slightly to wrap her fingers around his own wrist and pull his hand toward her. She was struck by the sense that what she was about to do was a rather intimate intrusion, but the glove had to go, and she was tired of worrying every move she made to death around him. Jareth’s eyes widened a gratifying fraction as she yanked the leather away by the fingertips, exposing pale, glorious skin.
“I’m glad of that.” His fingers were long, fine-boned, and very warm as she unfolded them and bent to brush a kiss against the base of his smooth palm. She heard a rushed hiss of breath before those fingers twitched closed again, this time around her cheek.
The sudden contact was a searing, innervating thing that set her head to spinning as he tilted her face back and stared at her, mismatched eyes filled with an inscrutable mix of surprise and desire and something like anger. Their surroundings spun in earnest a moment later, and some faintly aware periphery of Sarah’s mind noted that they were standing in her apartment, but the vast majority of her attention was invested in following the imperative pull of his hand as it burned against her cheek. Her lips met his in a thunderclap of a kiss, as brief as it was staggering.
When they broke apart, the memory of his bared hand skittered in visceral aftershocks along her own skin, and she struggled for breath and words to bring that touch back. “Jareth…”
“Sarah,” he said simply. Somehow the leather glove had found its way back to him, so quickly she wondered if he had not conjured a new one.
“…stay. A while. If you would.” The words were halting, but they came.
A finger once more shrouded in ornate armor traced lightly along her brow and down her jaw. The Goblin King smiled the complacent half-smile that meant he was about to say something infuriating.
On that account, at least, he did not disappoint.
“Tonight I cannot, lovely Sarah. My other guests must be seen off in horrific formality by dawn, and I must not linger here.”
She swallowed. She didn’t want to, but she…
Jareth started to turn away, and she did it anyway.
He paused, and looked back directly at her. Again his face was a strange moil of expressions that she could not quite decipher, and she thought that he might say something else, if only to gloat that she’d all but begged him not to leave. Finally, though, he smiled once more, showing teeth and sending shivers down her spine, and then an owl was flying out of her window into the just-paling predawn sky.
As she watched the sky lighten, Sarah remembered another such abrupt departure, and the retaliation that followed it.
She couldn’t help but think that turnabout might just have to be fair play.
“…so being the demure and unopinionated person I am – “ Sarah snorted and shook her head, but waited for Laurel to continue – “I of course let her know exactly what I thought about the process, which wasn’t very complimentary because whoever came up with it must’ve had their heads up their collective asses at the time – seriously, it’s that bad – anyway, I find out later she’s the head of research and development.”
Sarah took a fast swallow of water to get her mouthful of food down so she could laugh without choking. “That sounds awkward.”
Laurel grinned and shoved sand-colored hair out of her eyes. “You’d think, wouldn’t you? I’ll admit I started to be mortified, especially when she emailed me and asked for a meeting.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, only not half that politely. But she greeted me with a big smile when I came in and pretty much out of the blue offered me a transfer to R&D. Said I was wasted as a quality control chemist, which, if I do say so myself, I am.”
Modest as ever, Sarah thought with an amused smile.
Laurel’s grin grew another size. “So I start working for her next week, and can stop being bored out of my skull and sniffing for a new position,” she finished triumphantly.
“That’s fantastic! Sounds like being a loudmouth worked out for you,” Sarah teased.
“Damn right it did. The job I’m leaving… it paid the bills and sure, I had time for theater, but it wasn’t enough, you know? I didn’t spend four years in college to go do the equivalent of my sophomore organic chem lab course for the rest of my life.”
“Sure, that makes sense. I’m really happy for you.”
Laurel settled back into her chair and seemed to finally remember her own dinner. “So what about you?” she asked around a fry. “You were too excited yesterday to do much more than squeak when you called to tell me about the publishing deal. I need details!”
It was Sarah’s turn to grin. “Well, the advance on the book isn’t huge, but that’s to be expected since it’s my first, and my job at the magazine makes it just a nice bonus. They’ve already commissioned a cover artist, and it should hit stores in about eight months.”
“That’s pretty fast, isn’t it?” Laurel asked.
“Yeah, actually. I got lucky on the timing. Now I’ve just got to figure out what the heck to do with my short stories.”
“The publisher doesn’t want those, too?”
“Well, they might. And they’re talking about taking one for an anthology, which should generate some publicity for the novel, but there’s not much point in putting out a whole volume of my short stuff until after the novel’s out. No one’s going to buy a short story compendium from an author they’ve never heard of.” Sarah made a face. “So there’s that possibility, and I’m going to keep my fingers crossed. In the meantime, I’m going to be cleaning them up, rewriting some of the old ones, and finishing some more new ones.”
“Fair enough.” Laurel nodded. “Now.” She arched an eyebrow at Sarah. “I’m sure you’re deliriously happy about getting the publishing process going, but what’s been up with the last few weeks, anyway?”
The checks came then, which provided Sarah a welcome opportunity to avoid the question for a few minutes, but when they had paid, Laurel fixed her with her best you’re-not-getting-away-from-this look and made no move to rise. Sarah sighed.
“Come on, don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. You’ve been a cranky recluse all of a sudden, pretty much until you nailed this book deal. Work treating you okay?”
“I… yeah, work’s been fine. Have I really been that bad?” She hadn’t been acting that differently, surely…
“Sarah, you’ve been channeling an angst-ridden preteen whose boyfriend called her fat or something for nearly a month.”
“…. Wait a second. Is there a guy?”
Ahh, hell. Jareth gave her headaches trying to explain to herself, much less anyone else. Unfortunately, she had just squirmed a bit too much under inquiry to get away with flat-out denial, now.
“Um. Kind of. I mean, there was, I guess, just not for very long.”
“And you didn’t tell me?!”
“Well, the… date… was kind of an impromptu thing. And I thought he was pretty awesome at the time, but he walked out” (or what passed for walking, I guess, Sarah thought wryly) “and I haven’t seen or heard from him since. I was… cranky, as you put it, and embarrassed.”
“So you hooked up, and he apparently wasn’t interested in more and didn’t have the courtesy to make that clear,” Laurel summed up, looking faintly amused at Sarah’s halting explanation. “You don’t have to be embarrassed about some guy being an ass to you. It happens. I’d bet you anything it wasn’t your fault.” She gave Sarah a shrewd glance. “Pissed off about it for weeks, though? He must have been one hell of a lay.”
Sarah coughed into her water and sought a reasonable explanation. The one she settled on was surprisingly accurate in its ambiguity. “It wasn’t like that. He was… someone I knew from high school. An old crush. So I got my hopes up more than I should have, I guess.”
This seemed to satisfy Laurel. “Huh. I love your stories, Sarah, but they’re turning you into a hopeless romantic.”
“What do you mean, ‘turning me into’?” Sarah joked.
“Point. At any rate, I’m sorry to hear it. What was he like, anyway? Another arrogant blonde like David?”
That drew a laugh from Sarah. “The original arrogant blonde, you might say.”
Laurel snorted. “Figures. I knew you had a type. Does he dress up like a faerie, too?”
It was only by a supreme act of willpower that Sarah kept her reaction limited to sticking her tongue out at her best friend.
Later that night, Sarah was sprawled in her favorite chair, absently picking at the fringe on a cushion as she considered the conversation at dinner.
While she was somewhat chagrined that her moodiness was dramatic enough for Laurel to notice it, she was annoyed at Jareth. She had been dissatisfied with his sudden departure the last time she’d seen him, certainly, but had initially assumed there would be ample opportunity to get back at him for it in the near future. As the days had stretched into a week, then two, then three with no sign of him, however, her tight-strung anticipation soured into irritation.
She didn’t like being toyed with.
…Okay, that’s not entirely true. But I went out on a limb for him this time, and he… he knew it, but he just seemed happy about the power it gave him there, at the end.
Was he actually being unavoidably delayed from seeing her, now, or was he staying away on purpose? Or worse, simply didn’t care?
It didn’t help that she’d spent no small amount of time telling herself she was a fool for even giving him enough of an emotional handhold to make her feel this way. Had anyone else done this to her, she would have written him off in short order. While she was, as Laurel had accused, a romantic, she prided herself on some degree of practicality, at least.
But that was just it, wasn’t it?
Jareth defied practicality. He had swept into her life once, then twice, and turned everything on its head each time.
‘I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you.’
Sarah’s lips twisted bitterly as she remembered those long-ago words. In some corner of her mind, she had always wanted to believe that his little speech at the end of the Labyrinth really meant that she was somehow important to him. It was far, far more likely that he had merely been rallying to a last-ditch effort not to lose.
And yet, he had given ground recently. Sometimes. He had shown her things few humans could ever hope to see, much less understand. He had styled her a player in his grand game of courtly intrigue, and brought her to his private tower for no apparent purpose but to let her enjoy the view.
Sarah shook her head and punched the innocent cushion, more frustrated than ever. Jareth made no sense in the context of normal interaction… made no sense in any context but his own, and sometimes scarcely that.
White light flashed, rendering walls and furniture and windows in stark lines before subsiding to leave Sarah blinking in the dark. Thunder was a near-constant rumble in the distance, a snoring giant rather than an angry one. Despite its distance, the low reverberations rattled the panes and sent unsettling tremors through the floor and Sarah’s bare feet.
The strange house creaked and groaned like a ship amid strong tides, the high, hollow ceilings catching the sound and magnifying it until it rattled in tortured fragments through the empty halls. Wandering along the threadbare carpet and dusty hardwood floors, Sarah at first thought herself in a mansion, so grand was the scale. Gradually, though, she realized that this was some distorted parody of a family home - the shabby walls leaned at strange angles and stretched altogether too high, and the pictures hung upon them were stretched to strange proportions.
The eyes in every picture were enormous, and seem to follow Sarah with disapproving glares as she wandered the halls.
A doll lying neglected on the floor caught Sarah’s attention, for the fact that it was normal-sized as much as for any other reason. Its golden, spiral curls had been lovingly maintained, though they were scattered in disarray around the painted plastic face, which was missing both eyes.
Strange that these would be gone when the ones on the pictures are so prominent.
Gingerly, Sarah reached down to pick the doll up for a closer look. Its head lolled back as she lifted it, then fell away and rolled across the floor like a dropped apple, coming to a rest with its blank eye sockets glaring at her in reproach. She gulped and dropped the headless body back onto the floor.
Light, tightly-spaced footsteps pattered above her head, and she jumped as she heard a muffled sob. Finding a dusty staircase around a corner, she decided to follow the sounds for lack of a better idea of what was going on.
The stairs were so high and steep and slick with dust that Sarah had to resort to climbing them on all fours as she had as an impatient toddler.
Or as Toby had done on the Escher room stairs, so many years past.
The hallway at the top of the staircase was impossibly long, and curved slightly away and upward into the distance. There were no doors in its walls. Breaking into a jog, Sarah followed the direction the footsteps had taken, her own feet slapping noisily against the cold wood planks.
She almost missed the one low door as she began to climb the sloping curve; it was the same dull, flat grey as the walls and perhaps only three feet high, which was strange to Sarah in this oversized house. It creaked open onto more stairs, this time leading down.
“…Daddy?” A child’s wavering treble echoed up from the passageway, and Sarah darted through the doorway to follow it.
The stairs were mere light and air underneath her, and her heart jumped into her throat as she fell through them.
She barely had time to let out a choked scream, however, before she landed almost gently on a plush rug that expelled a puff of thick dust into the stale air and made her cough. She was in what might have been a memory of a living room, with a ratty leather couch the size of an elephant looming before a blank grey screen. A louder peal of thunder shook the house, and a burst of static exploded on the television and was gone just as suddenly.
Ohhhh no. That’s one horror movie trope I don’t want anything to do with, Sarah thought as she scrambled to her feet and went through the nearest door. She could not be out of the living room quickly enough.
“Daddy, where are you?” The sound was clear, but farther away, and Sarah was now in a hallway that was nothing but doors. It figured.
Movement dragged her eyes to the left, just in time to see a short, dark shape slipping across a side passage. Sarah shuddered – that was not the child. She went the other direction as chittering laughter echoed from where the shape had disappeared.
Two doors later, a conspicuous lump under a rug was flowing – or running – along it, and Sarah quickly changed direction again, biting her tongue to keep from crying out and attracting its attention.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, though, she knew it wasn’t looking for her. The tenor of this nightmare was uncannily familiar, even though the house was not.
A high-pitched, fearful squeak sounded nearby – she was getting closer… and so were the creatures. Sarah broke into a run.
How does the kid move so bloody fast?
This time the call was farther away. Sarah cursed under her breath, and more loudly a moment later when the door she had just tried opened onto yet another oversized staircase.
Wary from her previous fall, she stepped onto the bottom stair carefully, but this one did not seem to feel like dropping her, and she grimly began the climb.
“Daddy, Mommy never sprays for monsters at night… why won’t you come ba – “ The voice cut off with a shriek and a staccato patter of running footsteps. More scratchy laughter came, this time from every angle, as if the creatures were running in the walls.
Sarah was gasping for air by the time she reached the landing, but she did not stop to rest. She had to find the child.
A positively huge door near the landing led to a bedroom fit for the sleeping giant that Sarah had imagined to be causing the thunder. The bed alone would barely have fit into Sarah’s own living room, and the drawers of the nightstand were each at least as tall as Sarah herself. Against the far wall, a broken mirror stretched so high it disappeared in the murky dark overhead, with no ceiling in sight. Sarah’s wan reflection stared back at her in distorted shards.
“Hey, are you here, little one?” she tried calling, tentatively.
“It’s alright, I want to help you.”
Muffled crying from the direction she’d come confirmed that the child was not in the room, and Sarah backed out of the freakish bedroom into the hallway before closing the door. Some errantly irrational fear made her completely averse to turning her back on that broken mirror.
The crying continued, apparently coming from a smaller door at the end of the long hall.
Sarah considered calling out again, but bit her lip and moved on quietly, instead. The last thing she wanted to do was make the kid keep running.
The faded blue paint on the door flaked away under her hands as she pushed, and the sobbing grew louder. A low, child-sized bed was tucked into the far corner of the room, and the sounds issued from the shivering pile of blankets on top of it.
Stepping closer, Sarah could see an unruly mop of dark hair and one red-rimmed eye watching her fearfully.
“You’re not Mommy,” the little girl whispered.
Sarah crouched next to her to try not to look so tall. “I know, sweetheart, but I’m here to help, if I can. Where are your mommy and daddy?”
The girl pulled the blankets down a few inches, revealing a tear-streaked face. “Mommy got mad and yelled. And she said Daddy’s gone, but I want to find him.” She let out a quiet hiccup. “And I was looking, but Mommy said I’d been bad, and that she wished the goblins would come and get me. And there were these noises…” Sarah winced. “Was I bad? I don’t want to be bad, I just wanted to find Daddy.”
Sarah tried to reassure her, hoping she was succeeding in sounding confident and adult-ish, though her hands had begun to shake. “No, you weren’t bad – you just got lost. It’s alright now.”
The little girl squirmed. “It’s so dark and scary, and there were m-monsters chasing me…”
Sarah rose to her feet. “Well, let’s see if we can do something about that.”
“Don’t go!” the girl exclaimed, alarmed to see Sarah turning for the door.
“I’m not going anywhere, I promise… I’m just going to – “
The chittering laughter was back, coming from just down the hall this time. The girl squeaked and dived back under her blanket.
“ – find the light switch,” Sarah finished, more calmly than she felt. She flicked the switch…
…and nothing happened. A surge of déjà vu swept through her, dragging panic in its wake. The lights hadn’t worked the night Toby was taken.
Sarah’s mind worked frantically, casting about for some way to prevent the inevitable. This is a dream, but… but whenever I could recognize that I was in a nightmare, I could change it... and the girl is too scared to realize.
Maybe… Feeling almost giddily foolish, Sarah raised her hands. When she was younger, she had always clapped to make things happen in her rare lucid dreams. When I clap my hands, the sun will come up. When I clap my hands, the sun will come up. When I clap my hands – Sarah clapped.
The sun came up.
Warm light flooded the room in a rush, and she could have sworn it drove out the chill and clamminess in the air all at once. The gnarled goblin that had been scampering down the hallway screeched and covered its eyes. “You will not come in here!” Sarah shouted. “Out! Shoo!”
‘Shoo?’ Nice magic words you’ve got there, Sarah…
But the goblin turned around and fled back to the shadows. Sarah slammed the door shut and turned back to face the bed, suddenly disoriented. It took her a moment to realize what had changed, but when she did… the room had shrunk. Forbidding angles had straightened, dimensions shortened. She was no longer standing in a distorted nightmare of a house – it was only a cheerily-lit child’s bedroom.
Somehow, she was standing in the center of the floor, even though she hadn’t moved after closing the door. The room had shifted to center upon her…
…the girl was sitting up in her bed, looking at Sarah with awe…
…and in two very different bedrooms, a little girl and a young woman sat bolt upright and awake at the exact same moment.
How the hell did I do that?
Jareth was not going to be pleased.
Bit of an odd chapter, but one I remember being very fun to write. The next one, even more so....
It was hard to say what woke her from the restless slumber she had sunk back into after leaving the child’s dream. Perhaps there had been a sound, or a cool draft of air, or one of the murky nightmares that sublimates immediately upon waking, leaving only a vague unease in its absence.
Whatever the cause, Sarah opened her eyes to humid dawn gloom, and the smell of summer rain heavy on the faint breeze as it ruffled her hair.
Which was odd, because her bedroom window was closed.
Shivering slightly, Sarah slid out of bed and wrapped herself in a robe before walking cautiously to the doorway that opened onto her living room. She half-expected to see him standing by the window, much as he had on another startling visit some months ago, or lounging in her chair like some great cat, but even in the grey half-light he was not in evidence.
Suspicious, she spun to look behind her – it would be better to catch him now than hear his voice from the bedroom she had just left, and she had no doubts about his willingness to pull something so dramatically petty. Her room showed no signs of intrusion, however, and she turned back to the open window in the living room with mixed disappointment and relief – maybe she had only had an unusually vivid nightmare, after all? – only then to notice the crystal sphere that perched directly on the sill.
Sarah let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, and went to inspect it.
Is this his idea of a calling card, now? No image clouded the crystal’s transparent depths, but a sudden hunch made her stop with her hand halfway to the glassy surface.
With a wry twist of her lips, she left the thing untouched and returned to her bedroom – she wasn’t about to risk a potentially confrontational encounter with the Goblin King in her pajamas again, if she could help it. She had thought – hoped – that her imagination had been playing tricks on her, that she had not actually managed to intercept a group of his subjects trying to steal a child, but this sign of Jareth’s presence was too sudden to be a coincidence. It wasn’t until she had swapped her loose cotton pants for a pair of jeans and was hunting for a clean t-shirt that she paused again with a muttered curse.
Clearly, her brain was at least partially working, since she’d had the presence of mind to get dressed. But why had she automatically started preparing to meet him? The thought of refusing the apparent invitation had not even crossed her mind until the present moment.
She could not pretend that she was heading for another keenly pleasant if mildly perilous jaunt in the Underground, and she rather doubted that it would be a good time to pay him back for leaving her a month ago. Indeed, if she was completely honest with herself, she knew to the marrow of her bones that her next conversation with Jareth would be uncomfortable at the very best.
What would happen if she left the crystal alone?
…Aside from the carpet getting wet when the rain comes in through the open window, some insufferably cheerful shard of her consciousness chimed in.
Would he get tired of waiting and come storming into her apartment as he had before? Would he simply refuse to show himself again to a mortal who could not be bothered to play by his rules?
…Would it be such a bad thing, if he didn’t?
Yes, her traitorous mind whispered.
And there was the sticking point. Sarah was far too self-aware not to recognize the hooks he’d sunk into her emotions, and those… those she could have ripped away, if that was all there was, despite how much pain it would cause… couldn’t I?
But Jareth was not merely the “original arrogant blonde,” as she had so blithely quipped to Laurel, some mortal man she could label an asshole and eventually stop thinking about.
No – Jareth was nothing less than the personification of everything she reached for when she dreamed, and when she wrote. He was the magic that her world was losing; he was the wild spirit that countless mortal artists had tried and failed to describe; he was the anchor that tugged heart and mind to touch the fae, and to find inspiration there.
She could no more willingly remove him from her life than she could block out the stories.
What, then, should she do?
It would be risky to accept the crystal – she knew enough now that it was an easy guess that touching it would constitute permission for it to trigger whatever it was supposed to do. Yet neither did it seem particularly wise to count on him becoming impatient – or angry – enough to come find her. Sarah sighed. So she would take the bait. That was decided.
Her stubborn pride rebelled against the idea of hurrying to do so as soon as she was dressed, however, and given her ever-increasing attachment to her morning coffee, it would be nothing short of folly to charge headlong into a confrontation without even properly waking up, first. With a tight smile, she started moving again, dropping the t-shirt she’d found in favor of a crisp button-down, and pulling the latter on as she headed for the coffee pot.
His Majesty could damned well wait until she’d had some caffeine.
Twenty minutes and two hurriedly-gulped mugs later, Sarah approached the crystal a second time. It sat squarely in the center of her windowsill, the weak dawn light shimmering against the fine beads of moisture that roughened its smooth surface.
Good thing it’s Saturday, or it would be an interesting decision whether or not to go to work… last chance to chance to call it a bad dream and go back to bed…
Her pulse quickening in anticipation, she closed her hand around the crystal, and the world fell away.
In the space of Sarah’s single, sharp breath of surprise, her surroundings resolved into high walls of stone and the dry heat of a roaring hearth fire. The crystal had disappeared, as if it was merely a soap bubble, burst at her touch. She stood in the very center of a large chamber facing an arched doorway, the hearth set deep into the wall at her right and flickering with more colors than any simple fire had a right to.
Jareth’s throne room. But where was –
“Sarah.” The word was black ice on a bridge in the heart of winter.
She froze halfway through turning around, and her racing pulse seemed to simply stop before remembering to carry on, moments later. She forced herself to take a breath, then completed the pivot to face the throne.
The Goblin King was sitting on his curved throne atop a low dais that Sarah might have sworn had not been there before, had she been thinking of such things. Gone was every scrap of the humor and languid insolence that were normally so intrinsic to his bearing; his spine was ramrod straight, every line of his posture regal and forbidding. Even his stillness spoke of a shackled tempest, where previously it had been the momentary suspension of a leaf in an eddy of the breeze.
If he’s trying to psych me out, I think it’s working…
It took fighting every instinct Sarah had to walk toward him and keep her shoulders straight and proud, her chin level, and her hands relaxed by her sides when they wanted to clench into tight fists. She almost stopped when she met his eyes – she’d thought nothing could be sharper or colder than his voice when he’d spoken her name, but somehow they were, enough that she feared they might skewer her in place.
He still had not moved when she reached the dais stairs, so she started to climb. No sooner had her foot touched the first step, however, than she encountered resistance, as if the very air was condensing around her limbs to prevent her progress. After a moment’s flash of panic, she found that she could very easily withdraw, despite how stuck she became attempting to move forward.
Apparently he doesn’t want me up there.
She glared up at him and opened her mouth to speak, but snapped it shut as he preempted her with a quiet, frosty menace that cut bone-deep.
“Last night, a mortal woman wished away her young daughter.” He paused, his voice trailing into a hiss. “Would you care to guess, foolish Sarah, how long it has been since that last occurred?”
She blinked mutely, all the acidic retorts she could think of caught somewhere in the back of her throat.
“It has been six years, eleven months, and thirteen days. I’m sure you’ll remember the occasion.”
“Toby,” Sarah whispered.
“Yes – dear, sweet Toby, whose older sister could not possibly be bothered to put up with his crying for the span of a few hours.” The words fell like shards of glass to the floor, and Sarah felt her cheeks burn.
“That’s not fa-“ She caught herself, biting off the word.
“…not fair, is it, Sarah? And here I thought you had gotten tired of such useless protests. You wished him away, did you not?” His eyes glittered.
“I rescued him! I took your challenge and defeated it!” she grated.
“Ahh. So you did. And he was returned to your world, to grow into a normal mortal child, with a sweet, loving, idyllic family, as if no one had ever been so careless as to wish him away. And the link he might have made from my world to yours withered away like the fast-fading remnants of the most dull, useless mortal dream.” Thin lips drew back from faintly pointed teeth in a grimace, as he snarled, “Much like the chain that was nearly forged last night!”
Sarah’s breath caught in her chest as the pieces fell into place. That was the point of all of this. Of course. All the tales about child-stealing, and she never thought to ask why, despite how generally unsatisfying the legends’ explanations for such things were…
She swallowed hard past the lump forming in her throat, grasping for common-sense morals that suddenly seemed slippery. “You’ve said yourself there are other ways. That little girl was scared half to death, trapped in a nightmare – you had no right – “
“I had every right!” His voice shook the vaulted chamber like a thunderclap, as he raised it for the first time in her memory. She took an involuntary step back, then another as Jareth stood and slowly stalked down the dais steps. “For time immemorial, you mortals have claimed right of determination over your young. A babe in arms can be cherished and raised to contentment, even greatness – or broken, abused, and degraded into a shell of a creature – or even given away into someone else’s care. The child has no say over this matter. Do you deny it?”
“I… there are systems in place, to help children whose parents can’t take care of them…”
He reached the floor and began to prowl in a circle around her; Sarah fought the urge to spin and try to keep up with him.
“And there are laws more ancient than any of your kind remember, even though you use them blindly, that govern the transfer of that care between adults of varying degrees of qualification, or even desire to raise the little creatures. When a mortal child is wished away, it is mine. Mine to raise, mine to weave the bonds that tether the worlds.”
“But they’re human. And you just take them, without a care for that? For how they might feel without their families, their own kind?” Sarah doubted he cared overmuch about that, at this point, but she was too outraged by his possessive attitude not to say it.
“Human,” he spat. “Yes. I’d forgotten what a persistent trait it is of your kind to cover your eyes and ears so that you may not see and hear what you prefer not to believe. Tell me, Sarah, how blind do you wish to be?” He paused in front of her and smiled a cold, hard smile.
Is that a riddle, or a threat?
“My eyes and ears are open,” she said, more firmly than she felt.
A crystal appeared in his palm, rolled up his forearm and back down the underside, to be flipped from the tips of his fingers across the gap to her. Slightly startled, she caught it. “Then see what your oh-so-benevolent intervention has accomplished.”
An image began to take shape in the crystal.
The sun had just cleared the horizon, warming the dew on the grass in the weed-strewn front yard that no one had bothered to care for in months. A grey sedan with government license plates pulled up into the crumbling driveway, parking alongside an old Jeep with what looked like more rust than paint.
A man in a clean, plain suit stepped out of the sedan, accompanied by a woman in dark blue who walked with the ingrained confidence of one who is used to being obeyed. Silver light flashed from the badge on her uniform as she followed the man onto the house’s shabby front porch.
The man had to knock five times before the sun-bleached door cracked open, revealing a slight, bone-thin woman with hollow, bloodshot eyes.
The figures exchanged words, and the woman in the doorway seemed to argue half-heartedly for a few minutes, but the man handed her a stack of papers, and she finally gave a tired shrug and simply nodded before turning and calling over her shoulder into the house. All three people waited, their mouths now still, in a resigned sort of tension as the woman remained squarely on the threshold as if her body was a stronger barrier than the door itself.
Minutes later, a dark-haired girl in a rumpled sun dress appeared and stalled timidly in her mother’s shadow just inside the door, clutching a faded yellow backpack. More words were exchanged among the adults, and the suited man knelt to the porch to speak gently to the child. She shook her head, but her mother stepped backward into the house, patting the girl’s tousled curls awkwardly before closing the door behind her.
The man took the girl’s hand to lead her to the car.
She began to cry.
Blinking back angry tears of her own, Sarah felt the crystal fall from her nerveless fingers. It vanished as it hit the floor.
“…how did you know, before?” she whispered.
“I didn’t,” Jareth replied, his tone still clipped and icy. “It didn’t matter. Her mother wished her away. It seems she got her wish, even if I was prevented from granting it.”
Sarah let out her breath in a soft hiss, gritting her teeth. “She was so afraid. I remembered what it was like to be in a house that was too big for me, in the dark. She was looking for her dad, and I just wanted to help…” His pitiless gaze gave no quarter to her attempt at explanation. She sighed, heartsore. “So what if the social worker hadn’t come to take her away?”
He gave an exquisitely bored shrug. “I don’t predict human futures, but I should think it would be relatively obvious. She would have lived for some longer amount of time with a mother who did not want her.”
The shrug, and the nonchalance it communicated, made her anger flare hot in her throat. “And it doesn’t matter to you either way, because you didn’t get to take her? Is that it?”
His eyes caught hers, now deceptively bland, yet not a single degree warmer. “Precisely. Why should it? She is now – thanks to you – beyond any ability of mine to aid… much like most unloved mortal children, I might add. What good does it do me to worry after things I cannot touch?”
“Aid? So now you’re trying to pretend some sort of noble purpose – “ Forgetting herself, she whipped around to face him where he had circled behind her again.
He laughed, high and brittle. “Not at all, Sarah… never that. And here I thought you understood that I’m not human… I suppose there are limits. No. My purpose is simply as I have said – when a child is offered, I take it. It is raised in my realm as one of my subjects, and provides another strand of connection to the world in which it was born. I pretend nothing about this matter. I have no need to.”
Sarah dropped her eyes to the flagstones. She should have known this was going to come up sooner or later, but somehow she had managed to forget it, even as she remembered her first frantic hours in the Labyrinth. He was not human. And yet…
“You said they were raised as your subjects. Have… have I met any?”
Jareth’s shadow moved on the flagstones; he was shaking his head. “That is for them to say, if they wish it. They do not owe that information to you; nor do I.”
Sarah sniffed quietly, two tears that she had not quite managed to blink away sliding down the sides of her nose. “It would help if I knew they were happier.”
He snorted. “And how would you do that, clever Sarah? Do you think they remember whatever misery they existed in before they came to me? Most have lived in my realm for centuries. At one point in their earliest lives, a decision was made for them. They live its result, even as you do. Even as does your brother. Even as does your entire race. Mortals have tried to unravel the threads of cause and effect and past and future ever since they first began to try to count the stars. The tasks are equally futile.”
She stood a long moment, still gazing at the floor, and Jareth stilled nearby, apparently content to wait for her to speak again before he threw more words back at her.
The things he’d said… it hurt, to be reminded that he wasn’t something she could understand on her own terms – even though she’d repeated that to herself constantly, she had not truly heard it even from her own lips. Yet she had to admit there was a brutal sort of sense to this matter as he’d framed it. That little girl she had “saved” surely would have been better off.
In this one case…
“…I’m sorry, Jareth,” she murmured, lifting her face to meet his eyes again.
They were still frozen over, though his mouth quirked upward, harshly. “And still your notions of forgiveness are so very, very human. You say that, but do you understand? I think not.” Her heart clenched painfully as another crystal materialized between his fingers. “Your human thinking reeks of iron and is just as brittle – I see no reason for you to remain here longer this day.”
He moved as if to toss the crystal to her, but this time, she turned away and willed the stone floor to be carpet, and the firelight to be dawn.
The soft patter of rain outside the open window greeted her forlornly as she sank to the damp floor and sobbed.
Bit of a downer chapter, but hopefully an interesting read nonetheless. The whole Child Acquisition thing was a bit of an inevitable elephant in the room, where Sarah's concerned....