Hermione Granger abhorred the use of vulgar language, but in the privacy of her own mind she allowed herself a slightly larger range of expression than she would have when speaking aloud.
Bloody fucking Voldemort, she thought, and picked up another book from Grimmauld Place's dwindling pile of "random things that might possibly be useful." This one was a cumbersome tome with an elaborate maze design carved into the leather of the cover. Hermione ran her hand over it idly, her mind wandering.
If only there were a way to get rid of him without a huge, destructive battle, she thought. Honestly, if I thought I could get close enough I'd just slip in and kill him myself.
It was a thought she'd had more and more frequently in the last few weeks. They'd destroyed all of Voldemort's Horcruxes, so he ought to be just as mortal as anyone else now. She wasn't sure she believed in that stupid prophecy, really. And even if the prophecy were true, she was kind of like Harry's right hand man anyway. At least he'd said as much the night they'd crushed the magic out of Hufflepuff's cup and then all got stinking drunk on the firewhisky that Dobby had found in the basement of Grimmauld Place. That ought to be symbolic enough for a fuzzy discipline like Divination.
Hermione realized she'd been woolgathering for a good twenty minutes and pulled her attention back to the book in her hand with a growl.
"The Labyrinth," she read, "A True Account of the History and Powers of the Goblin King." She settled into the chair and opened it.
As Hermione read through it, her feelings of skepticism grew. When she got to the end, she tossed the book down on the table in disgust.
Pure snorkack dung, she thought. Goblin king. It's just like something Luna would make up. Anyway, if the goblins had a king, especially some super-powerful magical king, I don't see why they'd submit to the indignities that the Ministry has perpetrated on them.
She paused. Then again, her eyes were drawn back to the ornate cover of the book. There had been something utterly sincere about the text, a feature which she'd found to be rather characteristic of the most bizarre situations the wizarding world had to offer. Luna's been right about a couple of things. I suppose it might be true.
The analytical part of her mind started coming up with all the logical ways to align the book's information with what she knew of goblin history. The Gryffindor part of her mind suddenly had a cunning plan.If the goblin king is so powerful, and Voldemort's mortal anyway…
She flipped back to the beginning of the book and scanned through several pages, her finger finally coming to rest on a particular phrase.
If this doesn't work, Hermione thought, I'm going to feel very, very silly.
"I wish," she said hesitantly, then paused. "I wish the goblins would come take Voldemort away right now."
The statement was met with silence. Hermione looked around, then sighed and settled herself into the chair more comfortably, opening the next book in her pile while she waited for something to happen.
Jareth yawned, scratching his back against the stone behind him. He was sitting in his favorite lounging spot, the side wall of the staircase room, and had stretched out one leg to dangle over the edge of the landing into the open space below. Well, not precisely below, but he never worried about things like that. Especially not when he was in the middle of rereading The Prince.
A small bell rang, and he looked up from the book. Someone had said the words, the all important words that meant a new goblin would soon be joining his kingdom. He yawned again. The whole thing was getting rather boring, he sometimes thought. The bell would ring, one of the goblin lieutenants would go and collect the child, then the wisher would repent and he'd have to go offer them the chance to win back their sister or cousin or whatever. Thankfully he didn't have to work much with the Labyrinth itself these days (what else were minions for?), and the wishers never made it all the way to the center. Except for that one girl, but the less said about that the better, Jareth thought.
He yawned and looked down again. Surely one of his goblins would let him know when the wisher freaked out and he had to go and do his thing. Surely there was time for just a few more pages…
When he reached the end of the book he set it aside and considered lunch. Suddenly it occurred to him that no one had ever come about the bell from earlier. Irritated, he stormed up/down the stairs and into the amphitheatre at the center of the castle.
"And which of you idiots was responsible for keeping track of the latest wisher?"
An unfortunate goblin shuffled forward.
"Me, your majesty."
"And why," Jareth inquired in his best evil-but-silky voice, "did you not come and get me when the stupid mortal realized that their wish had actually worked and had the usual tedious emotional breakdown? Hmmm?"
The goblin whimpered. "B-but sir, uh, your majesty!" It lowered its voice to a whisper. "She never did!"
Jareth grabbed it by the ear. "What do you mean, she never did, you repulsive excuse for a goblin? Hmmm? She said the words, didn't she? You took the child, did you not?"
"It wasn't a child," the goblin grumbled, and Jareth heard the rest of the squadron mumble its agreement. "It was some sort of creepy half-man, half-snake thing." The other goblins moaned.
"Quiet!" Jareth spat. It's impossible to get good help these days, he thought.
"And I think it was one of the magical mortals," the goblin continued. "At least, it kept waving around one of those stick things.
Jareth raised one skeptical eyebrow.
"Indeed," he said. "But you dealt with it, did you not? I've gone to some lengths to assure that kind of magic doesn't work here."
"Yes, yes, the thing is under control," the goblin grumbled. "I threw it in the oubliette. It didn't even want to dance with us. I prefer children."
Jareth sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose with his free hand. He shook the goblin with the other.
"To the point. Why did you not tell me when the mortal realized what had happened? Or at least expressed remorse, if you took the snake thing from somewhere else?"
"She never did, she never did," said the goblin. "She just sat there and said 'I suppose I'll know if it worked in a few hours' and went back to reading her book."
"Hmmm," said Jareth almost to himself. "A cold-hearted one, this girl. Could be interesting. More so than the usual over-emotional idiots, at least." He released the goblin's ear with a painful tweak. "Very well," he said. "I suppose I shall have to go and speak to her myself."
Absent-mindedly he cast the usual glamour over himself and gathered up his favorite magic crystal, already imagining how the conversation would go. A moment later he was appearing in a dark, dusty room full of books. The girl was seated in a chair facing away from him, her peripheral vision obstructed by a mass of rather bushy hair, and he smiled in anticipation of her reaction.
"Hello, little girl," he said silkily. The result was everything he could have hoped for; the girl started and fell out of the chair, twisting to look up at him with wide eyes as she pulled a wand from her sleeve.
Almost immediately, though, she surprised him. Instead of falling into the type of dithering that usually came from wishers, especially the young female ones, the girl picked herself up off the floor with an air of injured dignity and her eyes narrowed as she looked him over. Jareth couldn't stop himself from preening a little under her scrutiny.
Then she giggled. Jareth couldn't believe it. He was the goblin king! Mortals did not giggle at his appearance. They were either enamored, or they cowered, they quivered in their disgusting, grubby excuses for boots. They did not giggle. The crystal in his hand began to emit a dangerous amount of sparks.
Hermione was shocked at herself. She wasn't supposed to giggle at the goblin king! For one thing, she wasn't a giggly type of person. For another, it definitely wasn't wise to laugh at the kind of person who could turn you into a goblin. But she hadn't been able to help it. The goblin king was impressive, true – tall, with dark, menacing eyes and a cane that reminded her of Lucius Malfoy's (only bigger). But her gaze had fallen lower than his eyes, much lower, and she'd been rather surprised to find that he was wearing white, fluffy, bunny-shaped slippers below the tightly pulled ankles of his trousers. She giggled again and watched as his gaze followed hers down.
"Blast," he said, and waved his hand imperiously. The slippers disappeared and were replaced with a pair of tall, sleek leather boots. The goblin king glared at her as if daring her to comment and Hermione bit her tongue.
Oh, dear, she thought. He's going to be as easily offended as Ron, I can see. To ease the tension she'd unwittingly created, Hermione dropped into a deep curtsy.
"Good afternoon, your majesty," she said in the most respectful tone she could manage. "To what do I owe the honour of your presence?"
The goblin king sniffed and gave her a piercing look. "I have taken something from you, little girl," he said. "I will have a new subject, soon." He looked as if he were waiting for something.
Hermione lifted her head just enough to meet his eyes. "I am delighted to hear it, your majesty." She cowered a little, since that seemed to be what he was hoping for. Inside, she was thinking Subject. Hmph. Typical royalty, perfectly happy to oppress others. He and Voldemort deserve each other.
"You are pleased?" said the goblin king, one elegant eyebrow arching upwards. "You have no regrets? For make no mistake, it was your wish that gave him to me."
"I know, your majesty," she said, a little more boldly. "But, no, I have no regrets. I am glad you took him away."
The goblin king's eyes narrowed. "Look, girl," he said impatiently. "Of course you have regrets. You sold someone into perpetual slavery. Sooner or later you're going to want your loved one back, you know."
"Loved one!" Hermione couldn't hold back a snort and she straightened up, allowing her amusement to push away the hint of shame she'd begun to feel at the mention of slavery. "Hardly. I promise you, he's all yours."
"And no one will miss him? I admit, usually the one wished away is a child, but even this man I have taken from your world… Has he no family?" The goblin king's voice was persuasive. "No friends, no lover? Think of what you've taken away from him."
Hermione snorted again. "No more than he's taken from us," she shot back. "And anyway he has no friends. No family either – I believe he killed the last of those himself. And certainly no lover. Did you even see the man?"
The goblin king pinched the bridge of his nose and slumped a little. When he spoke again, the smoothness was gone from his voice.
"Look," he said. "That's not how this works, you know. You express regret and I give you thirteen hours to make your way to the castle at the center of the labyrinth before the baby… or whatever… becomes a goblin forever. You can't just say 'no, sorry, not interested!'"
"Your majesty," said Hermione hesitantly.
"Jareth," the goblin king interrupted wearily. "Being 'your majestied' all the time is very tedious."
She couldn't help but smile. He's not so bad, really, once you get past the ridiculous attitude. "Jareth then. And I'm Hermione. And why can't I just be not interested?" she asked. "You get another subject, I get rid of someone who's been plaguing me. Everybody's happy."
"Don't you know anything?" he growled. "It's magic. It doesn't work that way."
Hermione sighed. I take it back. He's still insufferable.
"And if we don't follow the rules, well," he continued, "the last time that happened I got a nasty case of magical backlash and the wisher ended up going rather mad."
"All right," Hermione said, trying to think quickly. "What if I suitably express my remorse and you set up your labyrinth thingy, and then I just won't make it all the way to the center? Will that satisfy?"
Slowly Jareth shook his head. "I don't think so. You have to be sincere, you see, as do I. The magic knows the difference." Then he paused and a grin slowly began to spread across his face. "Ah," he said. "I know. Sincerity is required but the exact conditions are… flexible. See," he said.
Not liking the angle of that smile, Hermione tightened her grip on her wand and looked deep into the crystal. At first all she could see was a dark landscape, occasionally lit by flashes of lightning that continued out into the room. Then, as she peered closer, it became clearer. It was the labyrinth, a maze of cracking stone walls and twisting ivy that seemed to block many of the paths. In the middle of it was a mass of buildings, crudely angled and slapped together like The Burrow, but less colorful. Far away in the distance was the castle, as immense as Hogwarts but somehow more menacing. There was a portcullis and drawbridge, heavy and strong, and a multitude of towers of different heights with spires and domes and turrets.
"Oh." Hermione's mouth opened in an almost soundless gesture. She shivered. Suddenly the crystal was whirled away but the vision of the castle remained, and Hermione realized that she was seeing it outside the window of Grimmauld Place. She gasped and looked back at the goblin king who now wore a satisfied smirk on his face. He slid the window open and even though the library was on the third floor the grass at the edge of the valley was right below the window frame.
"The labyrinth," he said, and he was now once again every inch the dominating presence he'd been when he first appeared behind her in the room. "You have thirteen hours to make your way to the center," he said. "Though perhaps I should shorten that since you've wasted so much of my time already."
"Wait," said Hermione. "What do you mean, flexible? What happens if I don't make it there in time?"
"Well," said Jareth. "I suppose if you don't manage it… I'll just have to send my newest subject back."
"You can't do that! It's completely contrary to the way it ought to work!"
He waggled a finger at her. "Tsk tsk, my dear Hermione. You forget, I am the goblin king. I can do whatever I like."
Very impressive, Hermione's mind supplied without her permission. Even Snape can't quite manage that level of condescension. Then she shoved the thought away as Jareth smiled again, revealing a predatory set of teeth that suddenly seemed sharper than they ought.
"Well?" he said impatiently. "You're wasting time."
Hermione's mind clicked into gear at that and she snarled at him.
"Fine," she said. Turning, she scribbled a note to Harry and Ron on a piece of scrap paper and tucked the edge of it under the book with the labyrinth on the cover. Then she went to the window and swung one leg over the sill.
"And one more thing," said Jareth's voice, unexpectedly close. Hermione jumped and turned back, her wand out, to find he was right behind her. A moment later he tapped the end of her wand with a patronizing expression on his face.
"No magic," he said.
Hermione's eyes narrowed. "Afraid I'll beat you?" she asked daringly. But the goblin king just smiled again.
"Not at all, my dear. After all, my magic is more than enough to have taken care of that snake man you're so eager to be rid of. But the rules are the rules. No magic for you, lots of magic for me. To do otherwise would be cheating."
Hermione sniffed. Fine, she thought. I don't need magic to beat this stupid maze. I wasn't a Girl Guide for nothing. Besides, with magic he'll be overconfident. They always are. I can do this.
Casting one last contemptuous glance at the goblin king, Hermione swung her other leg over the sill. Dipping her head underneath the frame, she stood up and gazed down the hill out over the valley where the labyrinth lay.
"And Hermione," came Jareth's voice, now faint as if from a great distance. This time she didn't bother looking back. "Hermione," he said. "Good luck."