And now for something completely different….
Pika tries her hand at Dark(ish) fic.
This is all because of a bunch of long chats with one toshers-girl about how and what-if master manipulators and leather-frockcoat fanciers Marquis de Carabas and Jareth were to meet. That spawned both a GND episode, and this plotbunny here.
Thanks, as always, to Subtilior for the once-over and the encouragement.
Disclaimer : I own neither the Goblin King nor the marquis de Carabas. The former, and Sarah Williams, belong to the Jim Henson Co. The latter is a creation of Neil Gaiman, as are Door, Richard Mayhew, London Below and various other recognizable elements.
Ficlet includes several ObRefs to Sandman, which seemed fitting when messing about in Neil Gaiman's creative playgrounds, one to Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell, one to Tolkien-verse, and one random Firefly quote. Rated for foul language and violence.
Fame, and infamy, travel swiftly Underground, and there is no telling who or what may be listening in the shadows.
The marquis de Carabas muttered a curse under his breath as he watched the dark-haired girl, and her pale twin reflected in the window of the carriage, and wondered at his anger.
She'd put him in mind of Door, he realized, surprised at his sentimentality.
And she was going to die.
He'd felt eyes on him, which was a rare enough occurrence when he ventured into London Above that he was immediately intrigued. His normal hair-trigger reaction would have been to feel threatened, but there was nothing aggressive in the light regard he sensed resting on him. Turning, he searched the faces of the commuters – sallow and pasty-faced in the neon lights, some turned inwards, others half asleep, pictures of sullenness and indifference every one – people who would avert their gaze and lower their eyes at any disruption of their daily ritual of tedium, who could will themselves not to see the panhandlers and the mutterers who might intrude on their perfect circles of self-absorbtion. It took very little effort for de Carabas to pass unnoticed among the commuters, and hardly any willpower of his for wandering glances to slide away from the tall, dark-skinned figure in the scuffed leather overcoat.
But tonight - his searching gaze snagged with a pair of warm green eyes, and the marquis felt a small thrill of pleasant surprise. Alone among the scant dozen travellers in the clattering wagon, sitting with her head held high, a girl - no, young woman, twenty at most - was looking straight at him. She was really seeing him, he realized; was, in fact, watching him with a guardedly amused, wry expression. Were that not unusual enough to prick his interest, she was also, the marquis noticed with that same enjoyable surprise, uncommonly pretty. As their eyes met, she gave him a small nod – respectful, yet somehow ironic, and friendly – before looking away, with a faint smile playing about her lips, sharing some private joke with her reflection in the train window.
The marquis studied her half-turned away face curiously, as he swayed slightly with the carriage's rattling along the tunnel. It happened, inevitably, that some observant – or particularly absent-minded – Upsiders truly saw those from Below. But there was something markedly intriguing about this girl, and how she had reacted to the sight of him. And about his own reaction to her to her, the marquis noted with some self-deprecation, realizing just how closely he was scrutinizing her.
She really was attractive; with the kind of fresh, genuinely pretty face that ought to be on billboards advertising some miracle face-cleansing lotion or something, and with long glossy hair of a rich, dark chestnut colour. As far as he could tell from her sitting position and with her coat folded over her lap, the rest of her was pretty nicely shaped as well. But more than that, there was something about her – that amused intelligence he had seen in her clear gaze, the awareness that had sparked when she had acknowledged him... With no other introduction than that self-assured little nod of salute, de Carabas found himself warming to the girl.
Well and so. He relaxed, leaning back against the warm metal frame and shoving his hands deep in the pockets of his greatcoat. He would watch the pretty brunette, and puzzle over the sphinx-like smile on her attractively full lips, and be grateful to her for the pleasant distraction. His thoughts of late had been too full of uncomfortable darkness.
As if to spite all his cheery intentions, he felt a sudden chill of unease.
He wasn't the only one watching the girl so intently.
A denizen of the Underside, de Carabas knew enough of danger and violent death. As he'd warned the Upsider Mayhew, London Below was a thrilling, unpredictable, and highly dangerous place in which to wander, let alone dwell. He'd navigated its dark tunnels and manipulated its treacherous inhabitants for something more than a century now, had and gained a few scars for his current confidence ... and had given rather more, for his reputation. His was a hard, harsh, exhilarating world, and few of all the soft-minded, soft-bellied Upsiders could ever hope to survive in it.
Richard Mayhew, he hated to admit, was a continuous source of surprise. Door's gormless little crush had turned out to be a quick-witted, resilient little bugger after all.
And yet for all his experience of danger, all his canny and his cynicism, there were aspects of the Upside world - of London Above – that turned the marquis' considerably tough stomach. There was violence of the most slimy, repellent sort – gratuitous cruelty and moral rot and evil madness.
Slack-eyed perverts and heavy breathers and small, evil-minded, grey-skinned men who saw themselves as predators. They were dark gods and hunters in their warped view of the world.
And this girl had had the sheer bad luck to simply have caught the eye of one such.
He was sitting a few seats back and away from her, staring, staring, staring. A pasty-faced, thick-featured thug in a hooded black sweatshirt, he looked at first glance like no more than an average anti-social lager lout. But his pale eyes were too sharp and calculating; far, far too hungry-looking.
And his raw-boned hands kept flexing and fidgeting.
He was the only other traveller besides the girl on the carriage who did not have the appearance of a switched-off automat. He looked quite horribly alive. Instinct and long experience all set off alarm bells as loud as St. Paul's in the marquis' head, and he growled in frustration at the girl's' faulty radar – how could she see him when he tried to pass unnoticed yet not perceive the malevolent thug's heavy stare on her? Bloody Upsiders, with more faith in their police and security cameras than in their own senses. Anyone with eyes to see could tell what was happening here.
Sweatshirt cast a swift, calculating glance around him at the other travellers, a faint sneer on his unpleasant features. There were only eight or so dotted around the carriage seats, eyes fixed on their newspapers or glazed over in boredom; no threat to him in any of them; likely, no reaction even if the girl were assaulted right before them. The thug's gaze flickered slightly as it passed over De Carabas, who averted direct eye contact, willing himself unnoticed. As expected, he did not register in Sweatshirt's mind, who turned his full attention back on the girl, his breathing heavier now.
The marquis watched with detached distaste as he furtively moved his hand over his crotch.
The girl was still lost to her thoughts.
They were on the last train of the line that evening, de Carabas calculated quickly, and just two stations away from the terminus. The girl's odds were not good at all.
Damnit, cursed the marquis innerly, he couldn't save them all.
…There were too many who disappeared for such a senseless, cruel twist of chance. Women taking through the wrong underpass at the wrong time, girls trusting the wrong men, children following strangers. The overlap betwixt Underside and the other London was a shadowy zone, full of dangers and criminals. Some fell through the cracks to their destiny Below… but so many of them were eaten by the dark tunnels.
He couldn't save them all. The Rachidas and the Svetlanas and the Emmas… Sex workers, single mothers, junkies, illegal immigrants, exchange students, duped girlfriends, runaways, tourists... Women. People. Human beings, reduced by another of their kind to nothing but a profit, an opportunity, a victim - flesh, blood, violence, death.
De Carabas had died, once. It had not been a pleasant experience.
The marquis de Carabas knew he was no angel - the lack of luminous aura and stark raving lunacy, for instance, were a dead giveaway.
(He had met an actual angel. He still had nightmares about that, too.)
The point was, de Carabas knew in his somewhat well-worn soul that he was not, essentially, a very nice man, and rarely a good one. He had killed – for personal motives as well as for purely business ones; sometimes knowing his victims, sometimes not. He had trafficked people and false hopes, and ruined lives. It had usually been profitable, or in his best interests at the time.
But the crime he saw being birthed here – saw like a dark cloud gathering in the overheated, rattling subway wagon – sickened him to his gut. It was the meaningless, violent destruction of a life for one ruined soul's sick gratification. His intriguing gift-girl with the clever eyes and the air of… potential around her was going to die, unpleasantly, at the hands of one sick fuck who saw her as nothing more than a toy for his nasty fantasies.
Critically and coldly, the marquis considered the possible chain of consequences. She was still very young – probably had parents who would mourn her. Most certainly a boyfriend she was making silly, giddy future plans with. Friends. He wondered what she was studying, what she meant to be. Probably something ridiculously good, like a schoolteacher or a doctor or something… And again, he wondered at his interest. Every glassy-faced passer-by in the city, every single stupid one of them, had a story of their own, and other lives tangled up with theirs. Why would this one girl strike him as so very intriguing? It wasn't just her looks, surely. Once more, he was brushed by an elusive yet compelling sense that she was … important.
Temple and Arch, but he was getting to be a sentimental old fool. First that business with Door, and now…
De Carabas' moral code was a grubby, oft-edited thing, covered in stains and frayed from all the packing away and twisting it had been submitted to. Nevertheless, what was preparing before him now was wrong by any measure. And he was a free agent… and he was going to make it, not so much his duty as his very definite pleasure, to foil this one particular crime. The world, as far as the the marquis was concerned, was a generally fucked-up and well-hopeless pit, but it could do with just a little less fear and pain and sorrow and a few more pretty, bright-eyed girls to lift a stranger's spirits.
Rather to his surprise, he caught himself grinning tightly as he made his decision. He stretched out his lean arms, warming the muscles of his shoulders under the greatcoat. And why not? Beating the snot out of one human lowlife was hardly about to be as dangerous as attempting to bluff that psychotic double act of Croup and Vandemar's… not by a very, very long shot.
The train rattled and screeched its way to a shuddering halt at Bow Church, and the doors ground open with a painful pneumatic sigh. The few commuters who'd been waiting on the platform stepped blankly into the wagon. Gathering her coat and handbag to her, the girl left her seat. Sweatshirt tensed, shifted in his seat; then, once she had passed the door hurried out after her. De Carabas, his teeth clenched, followed him swiftly.
She'd shot the marquis a parting glance as she'd stepped through the door, and a smile.
Her half-high heels rang out clearly as she walked away down the underpass. The station was poorly lit and sadly deserted as the last train of the service drew away behind them, and the marquis knew that had he not chosen to intervene, Sweatshirt would have had an easy time in grabbing her. The simmering anger and frustration in him heated suddenly. It would have be so easy, so ridiculously easy for the rank-smelling bastard to snuff her spirit and her life right there in the empty neon-lit corridor. What a waste.
What was it for this one? The sex, the kick of domination, the violence, or the blood sport?
What would it have been? "Scuse me, miss, got a light?" A sidling attempt to make small talk, ease her suspicions, try and get her into a pub? Too long, too patient. No; if de Carabas was any judge of body language and intent (and he was), the girl had made as strong an impression on this twitching heavy breather as she had on him. The man was in the grips of an driving compulsion, the darkness within his soul now roaring in his ears, drowning empathy and reason, all-controlling. It would be a sudden rush, a struggle, her face smashed into the tiles; a pause, panting and triumphant, and then, the locked restroom and a long brutal nightmare of fear and pain.
It wasn't going to happen.
With his glazed eyes focused on the slim silhouette flitting ahead of him and his whole mind given over to his dark fantasies, the would-be predator had completely failed to notice he, too, was being hunted down the grimy corridor.
The marquis de Carabas moved as silently as a cat.
The girl was nearing a corner. Sweatshirt was tense, now, he was going to make his move before she turned; the exit to the station lay down that last straight line. In view of the security camera.
Very briefly de Carabas considered snapping his neck. A large part of him judged that he'd be doing the world a favour. But his last expedition had left him with a sour taste and a hearty weariness of killing. And besides, this evil, sweating little punk had irritated him.
He moved first, clearing the ten-foot distance from which he'd been stalking the man in a split second blur of dark leather.
Sweatshirt was suddenly caught in a grim headlock, with a sharp blade resting on his Adam's apple. De Carabas paused, waiting for the space of three breaths as, unawares, the girl turned the corner to safety. It was also the exact amount of time it took for Sweatshirt to assess the situation, go from shock and panic to aggression, and attempt to wrest himself away by elbowing his attacker. His lunge met only air, and a smart booted kick from the side knocked his legs from under him. He went down hard, cursing loudly as his elbow hit the concrete.
Good, thought the marquis, palming his short dagger. Swear all your venom, loud as you want, you little shit; she will only hurry away faster.
He swooped down to grab the huffing villain by the front of his sweatshirt and slam him up against the wall. In the midst of his pain and fighting rage, the man registered a very grim, dark face and, hazily, the effortless strength his assailant had just displayed in bodily lifting him from the floor. He spat at him.
" - fucking coon - "
and went to kick out; de Carabas headbutted him, fast and hard. The man's skull bounced back against the wall, and he staggered as the marquis unhanded him. Half-stunned and hissing in pain, Sweatshirt lashed out wildly in a roundhouse punch. The next thing he knew, in his splitting headache and dizziness, his arm was twisted and pinned behind him, and he was being frogmarched back down the corridor.
De Carabas reached the unsavoury-looking men's room, kicked the door open and shoved the man in. Spluttering curses, Sweatshirt sprawled to the floor, rolling and crashing into the opposite wall. The marquis shut the door behind him, rubbing his forehead absent-mindedly as he watched, with hard eyes, the furious and half-concussed man gibber and try to get his feet. He covered the short distance that separated them in a couple of swift steps and crouched down. Sweatshirt cringed and stilled.
In a few brisk movements, not masking his distaste at the close contact, the marquis had retrieved a battered leather wallet. The man watched him malevolently through narrowed, watering eyes, breathing heavily and hissing spittle on the floor. De Carabas could tell he was recovering from the blow to the head and would soon try to hit back. Casually, as he flipped the wallet open with one hand, he twitched his other arm; a knife appeared in his free palm. Sweatshirt's eyes were instantly drawn to the glint of the blade, and his mouth snapped shut. He was still seething but cautious now.
The marquis fingered open a ratty driver's licence. The picture on it was unflattering, but then, Sweatshirt's was hardly a pretty face to begin with
"Charles E. Fallon, 26b Tadwell Row", de Carabas read out dispassionately.
By way of response, he was granted a sibilant "fuck you" from said Charles. The marquis shot him a very cold glance before returning his attention to the wallet.
There were two small photographs in the wallet, one of a plump, cheery-looking blonde at a party, one of more sour-faced older woman. Sister, mother, wife, girlfriend? Who cared. Their relationship to the nasty piece of work on the piss-dirtied floor in front of him was of no concern to the marquis.
There were several twenty pound notes. As the marquis' gloved fingers flicked through those, Sweatshirt stirred and hissed again.
"You bastard fucking scumbag mugger, you – "
"Charles E. Fallon," the marquis returned with detached contempt, "I don't give a damn about your money. Stay still if you value your foul-smelling hide, because I also don't care whether you live on to trouble this already troubled world or die a long lingering death from a stab wound to the gut in this filthy toilet tonight."
Sweatshirt made a hoarse barking sound, which could just as easily have been scoffing or terrified. With a quick, careless snap of his wrist de Carabas tossed the wallet in the thug's face, where it struck his nose with just enough force to smart and make his eyes water. The marquis' next words were flat and icy and cut off the exclamation of infuriated pain from the man at his feet.
"Which would still be swifter than what you had planned for her, wouldn't it?"
"Don't know what the fuck you're on, man…"
The marquis moved. Fast. Sweatshirt wheezed out in a rush as a knee hit his chest and the marquis leaned in over him, his eyes pitch black in the poor electric light.
"I'm on your chest with my knife at your throat, Charlie. And you had rape, torture and murder on your mind."
"I didn't, I... ", Sweatshirt blubbered, "- fuck man, no, - I – fuck … "
All his bravado and menace gone, his face bloodless and terror-stricken, he looked a wretch, staring up from the filthy concrete floor at the marquis with eyes billiard-round from fear. De Carabas mentally substituted a pale face with green eyes under that mask of pain and terror, a scene that would have happened without his intervention; and the fresh fury he felt at that thought turned into something very cold.
It must have shown in his look; Charlie flinched visibly, and his denial turned to a mindless whimpering.
"please, you're crazy, no – don't – please don't – don't kill me –"
The marquis removed his knife from where it was nicking the blotchy skin over Sweatshirt's jugular. The wheezing man's terrified gaze followed the blade above him, as de Carabas tapped his nose knowingly. "She was a pretty bit of tail, wasn't she?" the marquis asked, in an almost conversational tone, his accent shifting weirdly to a jocular docker's speech. "You've got a knife on you, am I right? Were you just going to cut her a bit, make sure she shows some respect, knows who's boss, like, or were you going to slit her throat when you were done? Eh, Charlie?" De Carabas lowered his face in towards the sweating Charlie's, his teeth bared, and his voice went dreadfully flat. "Done this before, have you?"
Charlie was gulping and trembling compulsively. "No – no, I wasn't – I swear man, no -"
"You know the saying 'judge jury and executioner'? That means you're on trial, Charlie; don't be adding perjury to your other repugnant crimes."
"Ohgodohgod" Charlie was gibbering and snivelling, his words a babble "I didn't, I didn't, I'm sorry – ohgod…."
It was possible he had pissed himself in fear, though it was hard to discern any fresh pungency coming off his prone form in the ambient acrid reek of the station toilet. De Carabas wrinkled his nose in disgust.
"…Charles E. Fallon," he murmured low and venomous. "If you ever so much as lay a finger on a woman against her will, you will wish you had died here tonight. I will tell the rats where you live, Charles E. Fallon, and they will come to you in the night and your screams will echo in your neighbours' nightmares 'til the end of their lives."
De Carabas' icy glare bored into the thug's stark wide open eyes for a moment longer, to leave a lingering impression of his deadly sincerity; then he abruptly stood up and allowed himself the pleasure of one last booted kick to Charlie's groin, to leave a lingering impression of his considerable irritation.
"Now scram. Scuttle home to lick your wounds and your balls and pray our paths never cross again."
Disdainfully turning his back on the wheezing, blubbering figure on the floor, de Carabas tossed his knife into the air, caught it and secreted it back away in the folds of his greatcoat in one fluid motion, and exited the toilet.
The marquis drew a deep breath. The air in the Underground station was sticky-warm and heavy with its usual plastic and diesel and too-many-humans smells, but it felt like cool blessed relief after the anger and stench that poured off Charles Fallon. Sticking his hands in his deep pockets, de Carabas strolled leisurely back towards the deserted station platform, feeling all in all rather satisfied. He appreciated the warm glow of a good conscience, like a fine wine, all the more for its rarity.
A quick glance left and right confirmed that the platform was quite empty. The marquis hopped lightly down between the tracks, fearless in the face of potential electrocution. An old sailor's ditty from the 18th century had come to his mind and he started to whistle carelessly to himself as he headed into the darkness of the tunnel. A brief saunter along the side of tracks, over soot-coated rocks and scattered rubbish and, the marquis knew, there was a small door ahead that would let him pass back through to his Side, where he was known for far greater deeds than bullying would-be rapists.
The shoal and rubble made a muted crunching sound underfoot. The faint discordant hum of the fusebox was the only other sound in the closed tunnel, and the marquis' whistling rang out thin and clear. The jaunty tune began to sound somewhat tamped by the gaping, grimy darkness, as the yellow circle of light at his back grew smaller in the distance. Some of the security lights in this section seemed to be dead. Nothing very unusual about that, only –
- that fluting sound was not the echo of his whistling.
Someone was whistling back -
De Carabas froze in a defensive crouch. He held himself utterly still and motionless as a few more soft, eerie notes rippled out from the dark tunnel, then fell silent in turn.
"I must thank you, messire marquis. Your intervention was quite providential."
The marquis tensed, furious at being caught off guard. He stared warily into the shadows ahead, seeking the source of the dry, mocking voice – low, male, a little strange. His eyes had adapted swiftly to the familiar obscurity of the tunnels, and, as a great many of the denizens of the Underside, he had night vision equal to any nocturnal creature. Yet one dark spill of shadows, pouring and writhing down the grimy wall and across the thick set train tracks, remained utterly opaque. The marquis felt the hairs on the back of his neck stiffen, even as his suspicions and annoyance trebled. There was trickery at work here; petty illusion and magic.
He started as several black forms scuttled rapidly overhead, scampering past him along the tunnel walls to merge with the whispering patch of total darkness in front of . They were bigger than even the high rats – and they made a chittering sound like laughter.
He fixed the shifting form of shadows boldly, glaring at where he would guess a head to be.
"Who are you? State your business."
"Ha… I had heard you were all for for business. They told me you were the very mercenary, a blackguard, amoral ruffian and ruthless sword-for-hire" - laughter soft and dark as settling coal-dust, - "and yet, messire marquis, to what gain yon noble deed?"
The marquis willed himself to stay motionless and silent, on guard and thinking fast.
Who, or, whatever he was dealing with had obviously witnessed the greater part of what had transpired between him and the punk, and had apparently even figured out the role played by the girl. That meant him – or it – had been watching, unseen by him, for some time; and that it was clever. Dangerous. It had the advantage of him for now – seemed to even know who he was – and that called for great prudence.
But he strongly disliked being spied on and sniggered at.
"Amusing the peanut gallery, if nothing else," de Carabas suggested, with an insolent shrug. He narrowed his eyes at the unknown speaker. "I make it a rule of mine not to deal with disembodied voices. Show yourself."
There was a rapid surge in the rustles and whispers of the darkness-shapes, like an angry wind in dry grass, that cut off abruptly.
"I do not take kindly to being ordered about, messire marquis." A beat of complete silence followed that cold statement, and de Carabas tensed. "Yet, as I was saying," the voice went on with a twisted kind of amusement flavouring it, "I am grateful, and therefore in a generous frame of mind."
There was a movement in the shadows ,... shadows that suddenly shifted and were -
- a cloak of darkness, shrugged into place. A fall of old dusty cobweb became a hint of pale hair. There was an oil stain that glistened, on the fume-coated tunnel wall, and then there was the figure of a man.
Indistinct, darkling shapes still chittered and rustled at its feet, and there was the suggestion of many sharp eyes.
The marquis' teeth were on edge, and he reached one hand deep into the pocket that held his dagger. Steel was no substitute for cold-forged iron, but he also had salt.
He always had the salt, now, in a small twist of paper. That had been a lesson well-learnt.
"Fae-kind", he hissed softly.
And now there was a fox-like smile on the face of the man-shaped shadow, and it gave a small ironic bow of acknowledgement.
"Indeed. And once more makes thrice, messire marquis – my thanks. Your gallant intervention was most timely, and welcome. My own abilities are a trifle… limited in this place."
The Fae races got on the marquis' nerves. This had something to do with how some of them found great sport to be had with the young and helpless, and rather more to do with how their intrinsically Other and alien vibe made his skin itch, and a bloody great deal to do with how bloody annoying their smug, superior way of speaking in foppish riddles could be. But in this case, the sodding elf could only be referring to one thing.
"You mean the girl," he stated bluntly.
The thin figure nodded. De Carabas could make out a very bright glint of eyes from under the mingled shadows and ghost-strands of hair.
"She is… precious, to me, that one."
For a moment, the expression on the shadowed features twisted into something that might have been described as fondness, on a more human face.
Then the man-shadow chuckled to itself, and the sound made de Carabas feel like his fur had been rubbed the wrong way.
He was beginning to have something of a bad feeling about this whole little encounter.
He was also beginning to understand part of his dark-haired girl's mystery, and how she had been able to see him so effortlessly. If she had crossed paths with the Fae-kind… that explained a great deal. Too much for comfort, almost. The marquis felt a faint pang of pity for her, to have attracted this one's attention.
And yet ..., it also left him with more puzzling questions. She hadn't the vacant-eyed, addled look of those the shining ones had chosen to play with, nor the despair of the discarded toys. If she'd been elf-touched, he would have seen it immediately. You could always tell the fairydust-junkies.
Whether it was because of the girl, again, or because of the unnerving aura emanating from the Fae, the marquis felt a tad more antagonistic than he would usually have judged prudent.
His fingers still in contact with his pockets' contents, he replied acidly: "Creatures who dwell in dark tunnels and mutter about their precious aren't generally very pleasant nor auspicious company."
"Auspicious?" The word was hissed out, thin and fell through the darkness. "Do you still seek your fortune, de Carabas, because if so you would do well to learn to tell when it is within your grasp. Whose lands are these, asked the emperor. Why, said the cat, they belong to my master, the marquis de Carabas. And whose this castle? And whose the hand of the green-eyed princess?"
So. She was important.
The shadow-cloaked Fae's tirade had a strange lilting anger to it, and the edged words were clipped with an accent the marquis was unfamiliar with. Then, a breath of laughter - irritating.
"It is ironic, messire marquis. They tell me that you are very, very good at what you do, but they tell me also, you ask a high price. And tonight, for once, if I am to believe what is said of you, you act out of character and chose to intervene selflessly - to think, that on this one occasion you named no price for your assistance, there was one at hand who would have paid you…" a slow, soft sound like a sigh, "…a very great deal indeed." More mocking laughter rippled softly out from the shadows. "…For her sake – her safety… ah me. You had the world to ransom, messire marquis."
The stranger idly raised a black-clad hand to his lips, as if to hide a smile, and the action caused his cloak of darkness to shift and somehow glitter faintly. Some fleeting, fascinating glimpse of riches danced through the marquis' mind -
"But you did not know to ask." The pale-haired Fae-thing shook his head in mock sympathy, its tone dry. "Such a pity."
The marquis drew in a sharp breath, angered. That had been a small spell of glamour, and he'd damn nearly fallen for it. Whether the shadow-dweller spoke the truth or not – and he'd never been entirely convinced by that business about Fae being incapable of outright lying - the intent was clearly to needle him. And it was working.
"Still…" The voice from the shadows turned somewhat less biting, and more reflective. "I'll not blame you. She has a way about her, that one… some magic that turns rank cowards into her champions, and tames monsters."
As if tasting its words, the Fae paused, – for effect, thought de Carabas tetchily, not missing the implied insult; but then he changed his mind. Its eyes were distant, and its expression, for what the marquis could see of it in the dim non-light, disturbing. The darkness in the tunnel felt heavier to de Carabas; still and sentient and dangerous.
"A magic that brings out the worst in a man," it added, in a harsh murmur.
There was no glimmering, teasing promise glinting off its speech or in the air about it now.
"…You are no man", the marquis countered accusingly.
Another fox's smile from the shadows.
"And you are no coward. Which leaves us… where?"
Where indeed? The marquis was highly uncomnfortable. He viscerally disliked the feel of the trickster shadowman before him, and knew all too well of the Fae-kind's disregard for mortal morals and lives. He had little desire to find out any more of what he had inadvertantly stumbled into by crossing paths with that one girl tonight, and he would be relieved to let his good deed go unmarked and unrewarded. He had a very strong and definite aversion to being manipulated and could tell that he was dealing with a being to whom trickery came as natural as breathing. What's more, there was the insinuation that his pretty green-eyed sphinx had subtly turned him to her cause in the first place. The marquis was nobody's puppet, and he was miffed.
Still. This was all unusual, to say the least, and genuine curiosity – the alert curiosity of one who values knowing any man or creature's weakness, because it may be his salvation someday – briefly overcame de Carabas's instinctive distrust and wariness.
"That brings up an interesting point. How can you even survive in these tunnels?"
Far from earth or starlight, he thought, the air stale and polluted and steel tracks and girders all around…
"Some cats never learn, do they?..." Although its tone retained a threatening edge, the voice from the shadows sounded dryly amused. "I am of mixed bloods. I can bear this suffocation… However, I do find my … possibilities… harshly diminished." The Fae spoke in an urbane, detached tone, sounding altogether rather philosophically resigned about this. Then, jarringly, its voice dropped to an evil, seething whisper. "Else friend Charlie would learn to fear far more than rats."
The marquis pursed his lips in vague annoyance. He'd been rather proud of that one threat.
"I bow to your obvious expertise in spooking people out," he commented sardonically. And he did, with an ironic flourish of the wrists in his own style. The silence from the tunnel up ahead grew just a smidgeon heavier, and de Carabas carefully kept a smile off his face.
He wasn't made bolder by the Fae's admission of weakness – he'd' be a fool, and likely a short-lived one, to believe and trust only to that. However, with the finest of the true scoundrel's flair, he'd come to the conclusion that the creepy bastard wanted something from him. He felt confident enough, now, of his own relative security to be curious. And a little flattered, even.
"We can't all conjure up dread terrors of the night at will, you know," he went on casually. "Besides, I thought just a minute ago you were congratulating me on a job well done."
"And myself on my good fortune in finding so efficient and so silver-tongued a privateer. Indeed," the dark-cloaked figure acquiesced, and de Carabas patted himself on the back for correctly assessing the Fae's character; for its ironic musing had contained equal parts soft menace and sharp amusement.
"Of whom I'll now boldly hazard, you have, perhaps, some trifling need, milord of dark corners?"
"How admirably perceptive of you" the voice in the darkness drawled. "Yesss, de Carabas; I was seeking you."
De Carabas held his blasé smirk and casual slouch, but the particularly slithering echoes on that last statement gave him a definite case of the willies. His earlier foreboding returned with a cold vengeance.
He was, however, an expert bluffer. "Lucky old me."
"Perhaps," came the even reply. The Fae went on. "You have already rendered me a very great service, and that for free…"
"I'd gathered as much," the marquis retorted dryly. "What's done is done and piss under the bridge - did you care to get to your point, or will we discuss empty bird cages all night?"
"Verily, you are a man after my own heart, de Carabas, howsoevermuch either term may be disputable. Empty bird cages – I like that. Indeed, our pretty bird has flown. And you have the right of it: I do wish to make you an offer that you will certainly find more profitable than your recent lapse into nobility."
"Let's just not mention that again, shall we? I do have a reputation to maintain."
"Of course" The Fae purred sardonically, allowing for another ironic bow in the marquis' direction. "Yet, pray, look at it my way. Were I to avail myself of your highly-vaunted services in the most no-nonsense and contractually binding of manners, I would prefer to be absolutely certain you would not be tripped up on your mission by some sudden attack of morality like tonight's. You can see where that might be a liability, can you not?…"
The marquis narrowed his eyes and kept his tone neutral. "What I did tonight I did for myself. None of my previous… retainers have had reason to complain of my services in business matters. And with all due respect, Mister Sly, I've done my share of nasty jobs, and cared not a jot for their nastiness as long as I was compensated in full. If you were looking for me, you know this."
On the thin face in the shadows, a winged eyebrow arched pointedly. "You killed several of your previous employers." The words were delicate, diamond-sharp.
So you know about that too, eh, you sneaky bastard…
"Only after I had finished working for them," the marquis deadpanned back.
The Fae had teeth a little sharper and more jagged-looking then any human's would ever be. They glinted in an amused grin now.
"Fair enough. Reduced as I am, I'll take that chance."
Well, this evening had certainly turned out more interesting than expected. De Carabas let his fingers slowly move away from the contents of his pocket, and folded his arms in a more comfortable stance. He eyed the shadowed figure ahead of him expectantly. There was a moment of silence in the dimness of the tunnel, underscored by the irregular hum of the electric fuses.
The marquis cleared his throat. "If we're talking business now, I'll need to know who I'm working for."
"Really? A rendezvous in some dark corner and a bag of gold won't do the trick?"
De Carabas sniffed disparagingly. "Anonymity is all good and well, but fairy gold has a marked tendency to disappear by sunrise. No."
The creature chuckled, acknowledging the point.
"You require a name? I rather liked Mister Sly. Still, as professional courtesy between fairytale characters and upstarts, and because you would work it out soon enough…" – a faint light began to shimmer around the dark cloak and the figure's arms… – "I am …the Goblin King."
…You are, the marquis thought rather critically to himself, one arrogant, show-off, flouncy S.O.B..
The light was … glittery, a thin spackling of brilliance dancing erratically along the outlines of the Fae's black-clad form, and shooting through the folds and seams of the fantastic black cloak. He – for as non-human as the Fae may have been, the figure was definitely male – was clothed head to booted toe in black, and wore gloves. Strange inlaid shapes of some kind of ornate breast-plate decorated his chest, seeming to centre around an embedded metal sigil. It was a token de Carabas was unsure he had encountered before.
The Goblin King was very pale, with the thin face and terminally snooty look de Carabas associated with the Fae-kind – yet there had to have been some truth to his claims of mixed ancestry, because something skewed the overall impression. The tapered wings of colour that flared out and up away from his hooded eyes, perhaps, or the way said eyes seemed somehow subtly mismatched; or the unnerving hint of sharpness ghosting about his thin lips…
… and then of course there was the hair.
The Goblin King took a few steps forwards, his cloak peeling away from the wall in a fluid, vaporous motion. With a rather overdone elegance, he dipped his upper body in a low yet incontestably mocking bow. After-image negative light still glittered off his splayed fingertips.
He straightened, brushed the glimmering edges of his cloak backwards, and gifted the marquis with a sardonic smile.
"So. Messire marquis de Carabas, counsellor to the estimable lady Door, peer and criminal of London Below, I wish to hire your rather unique services for a personal and well-paid task Above."
A dark eyebrow rose on a dark face. "Above, eh? That does make things expensive."
The thin smile widened a little. "And since you know better than to ask gold of me, in what coin should we two tricksters trade?" the Fae inquired lightly. "What might the king of a shabby goblin realm have to offer to in payment for the services of one such as yourself?"
A gloved hand made a weird twisting gesture in mid-air, and the next second a luminous sphere of glass or crystal, like a frozen soap bubble, was tripping and dancing back and forth over the Fae's fingers. Then just as suddenly as there was one, there were two, weaving around and over the back and palm of his hands. They seemed to catch the glitter off his fingers and make it into their own brightness; there were things beginning to swirl and glow within them, visions, shiny lies designed to fascinate and ensnare…. The marquis felt again that tug of magic allure, and tore his eyes from the hypnotic looping spell-crystals to the juggler's face.
The Goblin King seemed entertained by his own skill, watching his glowing orbs spin, and a faint smile still on his lips seemingly at their content. He looked, briefly, like little more than some carnival jester in extravagant dress, a cocky, leering Harlequin; but the impression passed swiftly as the gathering light from the crystals cast his harsh features in an eerie manner.
Not taking his gaze from his juggling, he addressed the marquis in the same grandiloquent mountebank style he'd used to introduce himself, emphasizing his words with rapid, more complex flourishes of the spinning orbs.
"Dreams and deceits, fine lace and baubles, the name of your father, spells of glamour or evasion, a handful of hours to undo mistakes..." The hands stilled suddenly; the crystals vanished. The Goblin King looked up at the marquis, one arched eyebrow raised, his eyes bright and challenging. "Or perhaps, a very big favour…"
The marquis' breath caught slightly. He was an unrepentent thief, true, and as a clever unrepentent thief he had always been wary of imprudent greediness. But a being of such rank and power in his debt…
The Fae were mercifully scant in London Below, though you would always catch sight of one or two of them skulking around the Floating Market, their slanted eyes full of scorn and secrets. People preferred to ignore how the Underside and the Otherside overlapped in places, and little was known about the Fae kingdoms, save only their dominion in Eire. De Carabas had talked to some of the Irish refugees in London Below: they sported some very complex scars, and tended to flinch when they caught sight of tall blonde people in a crowd.
The marquis de Carabas was rather good at playing politics, and even better at appearing entirely unconnected to sudden power shifts or startling assassinations. He didn't so much as have his fingers in many pies as he owned the lease on the bakery shop, under a false name.
And now, having a Fae lord in his debt? (and the Fae-kind were like no others strictly bound by the rules of such contracts) ....
… He'd been handed the business card of a professional arsonist.
Which might just as easily turn as he played it into a snake and bite him. The Fae hated, loathed and squirmed under anything remotely resembling a binding or hindrance.
De Carabas had already learnt, from his way of going about his business, that resentful debtors could make his life very interesting. An unpaid favour to the marquis de Carabas was something of a permanent and bothersome mental itch to some people; as matters stood at the moment, even, there were several good citizens of London Below who would feel quite liberated to hear of his passing. This state of affairs was the marquis' bread and butter.
He returned the mismatched gaze of the self-proclaimed Goblin King steadily, and knew that he was playing for high stakes indeed.
"You knew who to look for," he answered evenly. "You knew what to offer. Go on."
The feather-haired king of the goblins tilted his head slightly, fixing the marquis with a sharp, assessing glare. De Carabas was suddenly put in mind of an owl.
"You play for high stakes, marquis de Carabas."
De Carabas couldn't refrain from blinking, a little startled at hearing his thoughts voiced so precisely by his opponent; but he promptly recovered his poise and professionalism.
"As I said – you knew who you were looking for. I do the job; I get paid. I am expensive, but if you judge the exchange worthwhile…." The marquis shrugged artlessly.
"As I said – my options have grown scant." The Goblin King shrugged in turn, managing to convey both resignation and insult in the statement. He bent his head again, staring through the pale strands of his crazy hair at the marquis, hooded eyes shadowed and gleaming slightly. They narrowed thoughtfully, as if reading something from his protagonist's face. "And yet – " he murmured in a low voice, slowly. "Yesss. I believe… Events have … come together oddly."
For a moment longer he appeared deep in his own thoughts, still staring at de Carabas. A brief smile flashed over his lips like a glimpse of a viper in the grass, then his face was once again harsh and focused.
He straightened, and nodded at the marquis.
"The price is right."
Gravely, de Carabas nodded back. "Then we have a deal. For a very big favour, wizard-king of the goblins and glittering shadows, I'll do business with you."
"Ah…." The Goblin King exhaled in a low and satisfied sigh. His obvious pleasure was borderline indecent; the Fae were so very in-your-face with their hedonism. "Good. Very good. Is that your word, then, Marquis de Carabas?"
The marquis scowled, arms crossed. "I'll not be swearing by oak ash thorn and what-have-you, Majesty, nor will you be having my thumbprint in blood, if that's what you're getting at. If I say I'll take your job – "
"… - then I am sure I need not make any blood-chilling threats to ensure your uttermost dedication and discretion in this task. Of course, marquis; I respect your professionalism."
There was something unpleasant to the Fae's easy tone. Under the even, polite statement lay the cold promise that, for unspoken, the threats were blood-chilling indeed.
A whole array of second thoughts abruptly made their presence urgently felt. De Carabas decided a few clauses were in order -
"Bearing in mind that I'll not harm Door or hers, nor try to overthrow the entirety of Creation as has so recently been attempted - then yes, you have purchased yourself my best efforts in your cause, be it ever so vile. "
"Oh, my." The king of the goblins smiled, seeming genuinely entertained. "I am hardly that ambitious; nor do I wish the fair Lady Door and her London anything but well. The matter, as I have already mentioned, pertains to Above, and though somewhat delicate… no, nothing so ambitious."
Which left vile; but the marquis' mind, set to rest on the few points that mattered, was made up now. "Go on, then."
He realized, three seconds too late, that he should have seen it coming.
"Tell me what you want," he asked.
The Goblin King smiled. "That girl tonight. Sarah Williams. I want her." Sharp teeth glinted. "I want power over her."
ONE-SHOT. One-shot, people; I have few ideas, little time, and still less the courage to try and flesh this out.