foi; forms of imprisonment
a fanfiction by heist
one. death by inches
Sarey ghosted through the halls, her steps the barest whisper on the stone floors. She twisted through the dancing shadows cast by the spare lit torches, carefully, so carefully, watching for the Night Guard and encountering none.
It should not have been this easy. Their intelligencers had reported that the castle shifted as regularly as the Labyrinth surrounding it, that it was zealous in its defense of the king. The Night Guard was known to be a legion of monsters and ghasts, shadow-shifters and killing tracers, all but invisible until they unsheathed their black knives and brought death to whosoever dared the castle. By rights, Sarey shouldn't have been able to enter the castle at all, and every attempt preceding this one had met failure well before the gates.
The Labyrinth had been silent tonight. It happened, every now and again, that the great maze would still and the growling of its hungry passages would abate for an hour or two. Sarey had taken the opportunity to chance the gates, and met no opposition there. The castle seemed to slumber as well, but Sarey knew better than most that things were never only as they seemed. For all she knew, this could all be a trick by the Night Guard to strike at the Resistance, but by the Labyrinth Under she would do all the damage she could before they got to her.
She found some small trouble at the hidden stairs up from the city, but a few quick pricks of her claws solved the problem directly. Of all the Surrendered in the Resistance, the Change had been kindest to Sarey, and she took full advantage of her Labyrinth-inherited gifts. The poison claws and enhanced vision were a boon in spycraft and reconnaissance, and if the green-touched skin and fairy-sharp teeth helped her blend in better with the High Goblin halfbreeds of the city so much the better. No one save the Night Guard spared her a second glance, but the fractions of a heartbeat between the first glance and the following was all she needed to dispatch her enemies.
At last, Sarey reached the King's Hall. She hesitated only a moment, and told herself it was caution that stayed her rather than fear. They had worked too hard for this all to come to nothing now, and if she was killed by a Night Guard she didn't see coming the Resistance wouldn't have another chance. She searched the shadows with her eyes for the shape or shade of a hidden Night Guard and espied nothing.
So the rumors were true, then, and the king really did ban the Night Guard from watching his sleep. Damned foolish of him, really.
Assured she wouldn't fall dead before her goal, Sarey crept down the King's Hall, to the grand doors carved with an owl and the king's insignia. The Resistance had a few inside contacts among the castle's servants, and during the day while the king was surrounded by protectors they made sure to keep the bedchamber door's hinges well-oiled. If all went well the king would die without ever having even the slightest idea she had come.
The door was heavier than Sarey expected, and she had to round it fast to catch it before it met the wall. The room almost seemed to exhale as she eased the door closed again, and she leaned back against the heavy wood for a moment. It was time. She unsheathed her black knife, stolen from a too-slow Night Guard, and approached the bed.
The moon hung full and heavy over the Labyrinth, and its light streamed gently through the open windows and the sheer airy curtains surrounding the bed. More the fool he, the king left his windows open at night. The reports hadn't mentioned that, or she would have scaled the castle wall directly. Oh well, and no matter now.
Sarey pushed aside the curtain and raised her knife. The king shifted in his sleep, and she froze.
No mere halfbreed, the king's every perfect aristocratic feature was pure High Goblin. The moonlight carved his sharp cheekbones in even starker relief and made the dark streaks of color in his pale unruly hair shimmer. Those darker locks would be sky and midnight blue in the sunlight, she knew, and she watched as his brow creased in his sleep and a frown quirked on his lips, his expression of curiosity and frustration intermingled. Awake, his amber and sapphire eyes would reveal more, ever transparent windows to his true feelings.
Sarey shouldn't have known that. She'd never before seen the Goblin King, but his face and form were more familiar to her than her own. She'd dreamt him nightly for years.
Unbidden, a word came to her lips, and she was too slow to stay its escape. "Jareth."
The king's eyes snapped open and he bolted upright into wakefulness. His hair fell loose and trailed down his bare chest as he snapped into a defensive crouch, arms outstretched to defend and attack at once. She was surprised to notice his long pale fingers ended in claws like hers. In her dreams, he always wore gloves.
The king bared his teeth and snarled at her. She took a step back from the force of his anger, and his expression changed to one of shock. "Sarah?" he breathed.
The black knife slipped from her fingers, and she ran. She heard the ring of fairy steel rebound on the marble floor, and the king called out "Wait!"
Sarey dove out the open window and into the Labyrinth.
The war began years before Sarey's mother wished her away, years before the young starlet ever spied a handsome man named Rob Williams and considered the merits of taking him to bed. If not for her dreams, Sarey would never have known anything but war, for she had no doubts she would never live to see the end of this one.
Sarey took the most circuitous route back to the Resistance bolthole in the forest she could manage. On any good day, she could only double-back so many times before the Labyrinth lost patience and dropped her somewhere else in the kingdom, but tonight the maze was furious. Any pursuers she had would be every bit as hard-pressed as she to navigate the rapidly shifting Labyrinth, though that wasn't why she tarried.
She'd failed the Resistance. She had ruined possibly their only chance to strike back at the king who'd allowed the invasion of the Tuadi Baol, the Bright Ones, and their savage pets the lilit, the killers of the Desert and the source of the Night Guard. Sarey passed the broken siege walls that marked where the Labyrinth itself had intervened in the kingdom's defense and fallen; she could only hope she wouldn't bear the scars of her aborted attempt so openly.
Sarey passed the first line of invisible sentries without incident, but she felt the censuring stares of the forest around her, and she knew they knew of her failure. There would be an accounting, and a reckoning, but Sarey would have none of it tonight. She bypassed the usual entrance and headed straight for her small cell rather than the council hall, where the leaders of the Resistance would surely be waiting for her report.
She lit a candle and slung her cloak over the back of a chair. The empty dagger sheath formed any number of silent accusations as she unbuckled her belt, and Sarey wondered just what she would tell Wiseman and Lord Fox when the time came. They didn't know about the dreams. That she still had them, anyway.
She flopped onto her rickety bed and stared up at the patterns the flickering candlelight cast on her ceiling. Ten years ago, she'd dreamt of the Goblin King's defeat through six words. Wiseman had interpreted it as an omen, and the starving street urchin Sarey had been had no choice but to join the Resistance. It was a sign, she'd been told, a portent of the future, and when she defeated the king their glorious liberation would come at last.
In all that time, no one had inquired further about the dream, and Sarey hadn't been much inclined to share the details, or the fact that it was merely one in an endless sequence of dreams chronicling the life of someone she might have been had the circumstances only been a little different.
She was not Sarah Williams. She wasn't.
Sarah's mother didn't trade her child away to the Labyrinth in exchange for sure fame like Sarey's had, for starters. In a different life, Linda Carlisle accepted the consequences of her dalliance and married Rob Williams, at least for a little while, and Sarah grew up loved. Her young half-brother idolized her, and accepted the stories of being wished away with cheery skepticism rather than bitterness. Sarah's token dramas and teenaged tribulations were a sustaining amusement to Sarey as she grew up strange and nameless and unwanted on the City's streets.
Occasionally, Sarey wondered if in that other life, Sarah ever dreamed of being her. Unlikely. Sarah Williams believed in possibilities, and grand romance, and magic and wondrous things. Sarey believed in nothing, and so was never disappointed. She took what she could steal and gave freely of nothing, including her dreams. Those were hers, and hers alone, and only time was able to take those from her.
She rolled over and pressed her face into her hard lumpy pillow for a moment. Curse her still-mortal memory. She could remember only the faintest impressions of Sarah's first encounter with the Labyrinth and its king. Sarah had met the Goblin King only once, ten years ago, so Sarey could hardly be blamed for not recalling his every feature when Jareth reentered her dreamworld years later.
She would tell the Resistance the king had awakened early and startled her, Sarey decided. It wasn't a lie, if not the complete truth, and they would have to accept it. They would also have to accept that she wouldn't be the instrument of the king's demise. Perhaps it was a remnant of the sentimentalism she thought she'd purged years ago, but traitor to his people or no, Sarey had no intention of assassinating the man she dreamed of as a lover.
Sarey had known they wouldn't be pleased, but she didn't expect the entire council to attend her inquest. Lord Fox loomed tall over the head of the table, his Change extreme, but not enough to diminish his commanding stature. Sarey fully believed the rumors among the Resistance that he'd once been the king's general, many years ago. The story of how he lost his eye was legendary.
Wiseman held the corner of the table at Lord Fox's left hand, and the wizened tree-gnome drowsed through the meeting. White Ambrosius glared from Wiseman's side, and Sarey resisted the urge to flinch at the way his grimace was mirrored in the puckered white scar at his throat. At Lord Fox's right hand stood an empty chair for the Lost One, and Collector Mneme, Master Blauhande and the conjoined Doorholder twins sat to the left of that seat of honor. Of the council, only Ludovichk was not in attendance, and Sarey knew it was only because Stonebreaker was at work undercover in the castle's dungeons.
Lord Fox called her forward. "You have failed, Sarey."
"Yes, Lord Fox."
"This shall not be without repercussions."
"I understand, Lord Fox."
"Do you?" Lord Fox narrowed his lone black eye, and his tall vulpine ears flicked back in distaste for a moment. "The Goblin King saw your face."
"Yes, Lord Fox. Briefly."
"The king's memory is keener than steel. He knows you on sight, now, and if he decides upon reprisal you must know that the Resistance will not claim you, and you must not claim the Resistance."
"Understood, Lord Fox."
"I acted on my own."
Lord Fox favored her with a long cool stare. Sarey resisted the urge to fidget, and at last he blinked. "I am pleased you understand my meaning. Excellent. You are dismissed."
Sarey relaxed, but Lord Fox wasn't quite finished. "I hope you also understand that it would be patently unwise to return to the capital for some time."
"I will take that under advisement, Lord Fox," Sarey said.
Lord Fox narrowed his eye. "Will you then."
Sarey shrugged. He knew as well as she did that she would take his advice and promptly do whatever she wanted afterwards, as she always had done. Lord Fox dismissed her again, and the council dispersed.
Sarey waited outside the council hall long after the end of the meeting for Wiseman to rouse and leave grumbling. She nodded at his departure, and ducked back into the hall. She strolled around the table, fingers trailing over the tops of the chairs, and she stopped at the Lost One's ever-vacant chair.
This was not the way the world was supposed to be.
She didn't know if Sarah's world was the best possible outcome either, but she preferred the dreams of a happily cursed Labyrinth over the kingdom of treachery and death she woke in. Sarah didn't have to walk in fear of the Tuadi Baol because the Bright Ones didn't dare tread in a land that was like to deform its denizens or drive them to madness, or both. Lord Fox was a small frenzied creature there, charmingly ineffective, and Ludovichk was a slow-minded monster.
Hoggle had been the same in both worlds, more or less. Sarey knew him as a distant figure in her childhood, and the bitter blustery dwarf hadn't much wanted anything to do with her, especially once it was clear her Change was content to make her look a proper born-Undergrounder. It took her a long time to realize he kept her at a distance because she wasn't what she looked like, and to draw attention to her, Goblin or worse, would be disastrous.
He died bravely in a Night Guard raid when Sarey was still a child. The loss had been disastrous for the Resistance, and Hoggle wasn't the only casualty. Lord Fox had never been the same, and White Ambrosius had once been a laughing trickster sorceror. Not so, anymore.
Sarey couldn't honestly say she understood, though, until Sarah befriended Hoggle in her dreams. To have a true and steadfast friend, no matter how often he liked to pretend otherwise, was the greatest gift Sarey could have imagined, and even the possibility had been taken from her. If any one person or thing had been responsible, Sarey would have wreaked her frustrated vengeance, but her entire world had betrayed her. It wasn't fair.
Sarey left the council hall and returned to her room to make her plans. She had failed to kill the Goblin King, but she would not fail the Resistance again. There were other ways to bring a kingdom to its knees, after all.
notes: This is not the end, but this is by no means the beginning of an epic. foi is intended to be three chapters, no more, and I would like to finish the next installment before the new year. We shall see. Happy Midwinter Tree Festival, everyone.