Chapter Four: Negotiations in Name Only
To say that Sarah was confused would not have been accurate. She was experiencing an emotion so far beyond confused that she really had no word to describe it. Fate must have been laughing at her, that was the only explanation she could come up with. Or perhaps this was karma paying her back for being so arrogant for so long.
The Goblin King, Jareth, was back and it was clear that he wanted something from her. Sarah couldn't quite figure out what that something was, though. At face value, he claimed her debt to be just a couple of hours, but she wasn't sure she could believe it could ever be that simple where Jareth was concerned. The man thrived on chaos and trickery; he had to have something else up his sleeve or else this was just too simple. There must be some nasty and devious trap set up, just waiting to snap shut so that he could have his revenge.
And yet... hadn't he assured her that he didn't want revenge?
'If there's one thing I've learned about the Goblin King, it's that he doesn't play fair. Who's to say he was telling the truth about not wanting revenge?' Sarah slapped the surface of her vanity table and let out a frustrated grunt. 'But, then again, who's to say he wasn't?'
He kept the first dozen or so children with him in the castle. He had found land suitable for their colony and some humans old enough to look after the little ones, but the first dozen were special to him and so he kept them close.
The very first boy had grown a little and was turning into a fine terror indeed. The King smirked, thinking about what would happen when he turned over those small human lands to the boy. He fully intended to make the child a prince. The number of humans in his kingdom would grow, and they would need a ruler that they could trust. The boy would have to defer to him, of course but, still, the mortals would probably be more comfortable dealing with a human prince rather than an Immortal King.
It had been difficult to determine how much land to set aside for the mortals. The very concept of mortality was a curious thing in his domain, so each human reacted differently to their new home. Some aged and died like any mortal would, some aged rapidly until they hit full physical maturity and then stopped aging altogether. And others, like his prince, aged almost as slowly as a child of magic would: changes were slight and happened over long periods of time. He was curious to see if a pattern would emerge, if the humans slowly became a new species entirely. With so much magical exposure after living in a world that was practically devoid of magic, strange things were bound to happen. He looked forward to every moment of this ongoing evolution.
Now if only there was a way he could rub it into the faces of their parents, then he would be truly content.
Sarah stood and turned away from her mirror, no longer willing to study the confusion written all over her face. She cast wary eyes to her bed; she was unimaginably tired, but hated not knowing if her dreams would be pirated by shadow-men and Goblin Kings again. Was it too much to ask for a normal night's sleep?
Probably. Until she knew what Jareth really had in store for her, there would be no real rest.
Sighing with a bone-deep weariness far beyond her short years, Sarah quietly got ready for bed. 'I wish I could figure Jareth out,' she thought while settling into her covers. 'Maybe I'll get lucky and he'll leave me alone for a while.'
And if she concentrated just a little, she could almost feel him laughing at her for that thought.
He had given the boy the lands and the power with which to rule them, and what had the prince done in return? Run off.
'Little brat,' he thought fondly.
The prince was much too like himself in some respects, and not quite enough in others. The King made a point to tend to his kingdom, to take care of his people; the boy was hardly ever to be found. To give the lad credit though, he always protected the human colonies when there seemed to be trouble or unrest. When things were running smoothly, however, the arrogant mortal twit made a point of disappearing. And always, the boy caused trouble: offending this noble, encroaching on the territory of that tribe, causing a scene on the main thoroughfare of some city or another.
The King leaned back into his throne, one leg thrown over the other as his boot tapped a short rhythm against the floor. He laughed with genuine affection as he thought of the boy, wondering where his wayward prince would turn up next.
She didn't want to dream. She did not want to. Of course, when it came right down to it, Sarah had no choice in the matter. Especially when it was Jareth who forced her to dream.
He looked too damn smug about the whole situation, too, she decided.
This dream appeared to be in a private study. The room was comprised of six wood-paneled walls that roughly formed an L. One leg of the L was filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that contained volume after volume of leather-bound books. On the far wall of she could see a large fireplace with a green and blue marble mantle. The other leg of the L contained a few cabinets of varying sizes and mysterious contents, a few leather and velvet upholstered chairs, and a finely carved, wooden desk.
Sarah couldn't help but glare at the fine piece of furniture because she couldn't stand looking at the person who was seated behind it any longer. It really was a fine desk, she thought distantly; there were adorable little beasties carved into the legs while beautiful dancing pixies had been shaped around the edges.
Jareth was laughing at her, damn it, and she didn't want to look up. He was radiating arrogance and she was in no mood to acknowledge him. But of course, now she was looking up, because he just had a certain magnetism about him. No matter how much she wanted to, she just couldn't ignore him for very long.
Sarah frowned at him darkly. "Didn't I just get rid of you?" Yes it was rude, but she was frustrated, and it did break the ice, more or less. More so than his mocking laughter, anyway.
Jareth brought a hand to his heart in pretend pain, but his smirk only grew deeper. "I've informed you of your debt, but we must still finalize the terms in a formal contract."
Well that sounded entirely unpleasant. "Why does it feel like I'm getting in too deep?" she questioned cautiously.
He casually waved her paranoia aside, showing just how insignificant he felt her concerns were. "I merely wish to have physical proof that you intend to honor your debt."
"I haven't agreed to anything," she shot back. "In fact, I'm still kind of pissed at how abruptly and thoroughly you've already managed to invade my life. Besides," she continued, ignoring his steadily rising brows, "if I didn't have to sign anything in order to run the Labyrinth, then I'm not signing anything now."
Jareth sighed dramatically, though there was a real undercurrent of frustration that he didn't quite manage to hide with his teasing. "Let me put it to you simply, Sarah. You can either agree to my terms by signing the contract and give up a measly thirteen hours of your time, or I take your brother as collateral."
"He's innocent in all this! Leave Toby out of your schemes," she growled at him. "How long to you intend to hang that sword over my head?"
"As long as it gets you to cooperate," he replied, brutally honest. The fact that he seemed so at ease with making the threat, so unconcerned with Toby's fate, truly terrified her.
Sarah's thoughts whirled, her gut clenching in anxiety when she realized that she really only had one choice. "What are your terms?"
Jareth studied her for a minute longer than was strictly comfortable, then smiled devilishly. "You would think to haggle the details with me when your brother's life might very well hang in the balance? Just sign, Sarah."
"I'm not giving you carte blanche," she snapped. "I love my brother and I refuse to put his life in danger, but I'm not slapping my signature on anything until I know what exactly it is that I'm agreeing to."
"Clever girl," he praised, seeming genuinely pleased with her stubborn behavior. "However, I already outlined the deal earlier. Honestly, Sarah, a man would begin to think you aren't paying attention," his voice was sharp and clear and he was mocking her again.
Her eyes narrowed. "You aren't a man," she told him quietly. He wasn't, not really; whatever Jareth was, it was male but not human.
He froze in an unnatural stillness as something akin to shock, maybe even hurt, danced through his eyes. "No," he murmured quietly, "I am not a man, and I thank fate that I never was one."
Sarah shied away from the quiet anger in his tone. She'd hit a nerve there and she wasn't eager to explore it. Swallowing, she changed the subject back to their debt negotiations, "So that's it? I just give you thirteen hours?" She tried to read his face for the truth, but the Goblin King was entirely too composed.
Jareth simply smiled, his anger fading. With a flourish, he produced a scroll in one hand, a quill waiting in the other.
It didn't escape her notice that he hadn't actually answered her, but there were only so many times that the man could threaten the wellbeing of her family before she realized that, no matter what he wanted, she would agree. In the end, she didn't really have a choice. And honestly, what was thirteen hours if it meant that her sweet, oddly bright brother could continue living a normal life? She would give up a thousand hours if that's what it took to ensure Toby's safety.
That didn't make it any easier to accept the quill from Jareth. He was watching her intently, his look of concentration running so deep that Sarah felt like she was about to sign the rest of her life away. As she eased the weight of the quill between her own fingers, trying to find the position that felt the least awkward, she struggled as the weight of the world crushed down upon her.
"Just sign your name, Sarah," Jareth soothed. His words implied that everything would be made right with the flourish of a quill. His tone, however, made it very clear that nothing would ever be right again.
Sarah couldn't look at him, didn't want to see whatever emotion was playing across that ethereal face. She took a deep breath and bit her lip, wondering if she was making a huge mistake or if he was just trying to make her uncomfortable for his own sadistic pleasure. Regardless, she'd been run into a corner and she knew it; there was only one way out now.
Sarah scrawled her name in a sloping, inept calligraphy along the bottom of the page.
The King grew bored as the years passed. The first few hundred years that he had started to exact his revenge upon the humans had been interesting. Watching the mortals bumble their way through his Labyrinth had provided endless entertainment, as had the pain and desperation in their eyes that shone when they came to realize they could never win. He had enjoyed sending them back to their empty lives, bitterly weeping their own foolishness. His plan had worked out quite well: emotionally slaughtering the humans while bolstering the numbers of his own kingdom. It had been utterly wonderful.
Perhaps it was the monotony of routine that bothered him. Or the fact that, after a few hundred years, he had seen nearly every reaction the mortals could possibly offer. There was simply no challenge to the game anymore. Although, to be fair, his plan hadn't been designed to challenge him, but business in the Labyrinth was truly starting to wear on him.
For a while the King had tried to distract himself with the mortals he had claimed and, for the most part, the diversion had almost worked. He forged relationships, gained their trust, studied the changes that were slowly being wrought in them from the inherent magic of his world. He even taught them whatever magic they could handle. But those relationships merely formed a new routine, another simple set of endlessly repeating actions that never deviated from their set course.
The weariness set in hard. It happened to people of his race. The long-lived creatures grew jaded after a time, bored when life stopped offering them anything new. The King was young yet, but his days began to blur together in the hazy fog of disinterest that enveloped his elders.
A gentle pressure encircled Sarah's throat. It teased her like the playful caress of a lover, there and gone and back again, thrumming to the beat of her heart. Her fingers raced to trail over her neck, but slipped over silky lace and cool metal instead.
"What is this?" she asked as her fingers continued to explore. It was obviously a necklace of some sort, a draping of intricate lace knots with a heavy metal charm that rested just above the swell of her breasts.
Jareth studied her from across his desk. If he felt any triumph or misgivings from what he had done, it didn't show. His face was impassive, emotionless, like a fine porcelain mask. After a few moments, he replied, "It's a gift." His tone was careful, giving nothing away. "You're welcome."
"I'm not exactly thanking you," she said, her attention diverted. Sarah brushed her thumb over the metal charm, studying the elegant Escher's Möbius Strip etched into the surface. "What is it?"
"A simple piece of magic," Jareth smiled. "Just a little something to compel you to honor our agreement."
She eyed him carefully, sensing some trickery but unsure how to combat it. "Isn't that why I signed the contract?"
"I have learned that it never hurts to be prepared where you are concerned," he told her, his smile widening ever so slightly.
"Let me guess," Sarah sighed, "I can't take it off until I've paid you back your thirteen hours?"
Jareth's smile sharpened, but he said nothing.
"I don't know how I'm going to explain this to anyone, particularly my parents," she frowned. "Did you calculate this whole scenario for maximum discomfort?"
His expression never changed but, when he spoke, his tone was quiet. "I've had a long time to think this through, Sarah. I apologize for making you uncomfortable," his gaze flickered to the necklace, something fierce burning in his eyes at the sight of it, "but it was unavoidable."
She wasn't sure how to respond to that, and didn't think he would give a straight answer if she pressed him about it anyway. "How," she cut herself off, shivering when Jareth's brilliant eyes met her own. There was no mistaking the longing that writhed through his dark gaze.
There had always been something magnetic between them, and unspoken wanting that drew them to each other. Sarah could freely admit that Jareth was the most handsome man she had ever met, but he was also the most dangerous. No matter how attractive she found him, he would always have to be handled carefully, because she knew that he could burn her down to nothing without even trying. And somehow, perversely, that knowledge only made him all the more seductive. Like a moth to the flame, she struggled to stay clear of him but inevitably flew into the dangerous light he cast.
Sarah cleared her throat and tried to speak again. "How are we going to keep track of the debt?"
Jareth made a small sweeping gesture with one hand. In much the same way as she'd seen him form his crystals, as though pulling them from the very air, he pulled an hourglass into being. The hourglass was made of pale wood that had been beautifully etched with Celtic knots, the glass was tinted a faint green, and it was filled with fine black sand.
Jareth flipped the glass over and set it down. "Your time is up when the sand runs out," he explained.
His words belied nothing, but he was still throwing her heated looks and it made Sarah uncomfortable. She was too aware of the careful dance between them; too aware that it was wrong on many levels and that the longer she stayed near him, the more likely she was to respond to those looks with some heat of her own. "Are we done here? I'd like to get back home." It was running away, she wasn't proud to admit that, but it was safer than staying.
"I suppose so," he sighed dramatically, "if you must leave. But beware, Sarah: the less time you spend with me, the longer the longer it will take to fulfill your debt."
He needed something new, something different—a challenge worthy of his great skills.
Sarah awoke with a groan, her throat tight. Momentarily disoriented, she glanced around her room. The night was still dark, her clock telling her it was just past midnight. Her post-dream routine was beginning to become all too familiar, something that worried her.
Sarah got out of bed and began to pace the length of her small room as she thought about the agreement she had just made.
Jareth had always had the amazing ability to bother her without even trying, but something about this last encounter put her on edge. The way he had acted tonight, the way he had carried himself... it had been different from the man she had seen in the Labyrinth. He had always frightened her before, had always carried an edge of danger, but tonight he had fair screamed of it.
Sarah paused at that thought. He hadn't done anything worse than usual to make her feel more threatened than expected, but there had been something about him that spoke of… spoke of what? She wanted to say violence or perhaps cruelty, but he was always cruel and violence didn't quite fit. The had been something intense, something that seemed second nature to him, like it had been there all along and she was only now just noticing it. Perhaps he had hidden it from her before. It was not comforting to think that she knew even less about the Goblin King than she had previously thought. She shivered, wondering what new revelations their next meeting could bring.
Sarah paced a little more, feeling like a caged animal, before she spotted an object on her vanity that hadn't been there when she had gone to sleep. Idly, she ran her fingers over the necklace that teased her throat, stepping closer to the table to take a look. Sitting oh-so-innocently in the center of her vanity was the hourglass.
There was just the barest dusting of black sand in the bottom bulb.
A/N: Originally chapters nine and ten. Readers of the original story might notice the first major plot change here.
Disclaimer: Same old, same old. I own nothing.