The entire world was composed of porridge. Sarah stared at the bubbling pot and wondered briefly if it would ever run out, or if the pot would be full when the world fell down in shards.
"Stop dreaming, girl! Stir that pot or it'll end up sticking. The porridge must be of an even consistency!" Spritch bustled by the bank of stovetops taking up the left wall. He tasted the contents of a pot that was being stirred by a brownie and nodded. In the back wall were ovens that were recessed into leviathan bone, and a gigantic hearth on which an entire goat carcass roasted. He ducked as a tray of pastries was taken out and placed on the bench, clapped his hands together and raised his voice. "SERVICE IN TEN. LOOK LIVELY."
The kitchens stirred in a flurry of action. Steam formed clouds in the air and the pungency increased to a point where Sarah could no longer smell any one thing. Teams of sprites flew strapped stacks of plates the length of the vast benches, nearly braining a brownie as they dipped to avoid the rib bones that buttressed the room. The sprite's harnesses briefly became entangled in the clockwork which lead from the throne room to the pits, but they tore free with a high-pitched chitter of annoyance. Cogs rained down on a gremlin, bouncing off his sparsely haired head and plopping into the bowl of custard he was stirring, and Sarah ducked at the screech of rage as a hastily flung ladle sailed over her head. The ladle bounced off a rusalka, who hissed, turning to reveal an impressively pointed set of teeth.
"We'd better get this out. Here, I'll help." Hoggle had appeared at her side, without her noticing.
"Thank you, Hoggle! You're a life-saver!" Sarah braced herself to lift the pot down from the stove. "Got it?" At Hoggle's affirmative grunt, she released one handle onto his upstretched hand and wheeled around. The pot barely cleared the ground as they began laboriously shifting it towards the dining hall. They staggered to the side to avoid a minotaur with a platter of roasted meat and finally lurched to a halt in front of Head of Hall Truckle, who ticked an item off a long list without looking at them and said "Over there!"
They deposited the pot in front of a harassed looking wolf-girl who pushed it into place with one hand while lifting a platter of eels over their heads with the other. Sarah stared briefly in amazement, and then staggered sideways as Hoggle tugged her out of the way of a tray of steaming leek and blackbird pies. She grabbed two off the tray as they passed, dodging the korrigan’s snap, tossing them to Hoggle. If she could just get outside! The sun had just risen over the clouds and it was going to be a glorious day. Whirling and sidestepping as Hoggle ducked under the tables and ran the length of the hall, Sarah bumped into the Fuath.
"I’m sorry, Fuath." Sarah ducked her head and stared at the hem of the Fuath’s green dress, edging away. No one wanted the Fuath’s attention.
"Young…" the Fuath stared into the middle distance as a young hob whispered ingratiatingly in her ear "Sarah. Sarah Williams. You are a kitchen drudge, are you not? But not for ever, oh no. Why, we see great things for you, Sarah Williams. Walk with me."
Sarah’s eyes almost flicked up to meet the horror of the Fuath’s noseless face, but she remembered herself and fixed her gaze firmly on the Fuath’s spiked tail. A nixie snickered the expression on Sarah’s face, probably because Sarah could feel the terror freezing her features. Sarah leaned as far away from the Fuath as possible.
The Fuath dropped a webbed hand on Sarah's shoulder and Sarah stifled a shudder as the clamminess penetrated through her thin shift.
"You see, Sarah, I don't think you quite understand the... exigences of keeping a leviathan such as the Goblin Kingdom running. Why, his Majesty himself said to me the other day—"
Riders swept by and the Fuath and Sarah squeezed to one side. The Fuath opened her mouth to continue when a young goblin came running up.
"Your Fuath-ness. You need to be seeing this. You need to be seeing this right now."
The Fuath looked at the goblin consideringly. "What is it, Runcle?"
"It's that Ludo! The dhole boys cornered him again and—"
The Fuath swore venomously and turned to go. Sarah heaved a huge sigh of relief and then the Fuath looked back. "Sarah Williams."
Sarah couldn't help it. Her gaze flicked up to the Fuath's face.
"—it was hilarious." Hoggle drained his tankard. Sarah looked around. She was in the servants' Common Room and judging by the shadows, it was late afternoon.
"That bitch," said Sarah.
"Eh?" Hoggle sniffed, and then blew his nose on his sleeve.
"I—it was morning, and now it's not. That BITCH. She took the whole day!"
Hoggle gestured for a refill. "She's the Fuath. You know what she's like. One step from the Teg."
"That doesn't make it right. It's not fair."
A wood-may leaned over the table and sneered at Sarah while re-filling Hoggle's tankard. "That's right, Princess. It's not fair."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "Shut up, Ruslana." Ruslana propped the tray she was carrying on her hip and dumped a bowl of stew and a bread roll in front of Sarah, deliberately brushing Sarah with her thorn-encrusted elbows. Sarah just as deliberately didn't wince, and leaned forward. "Hoggle, why doesn't somebody do something? They've got no right to just take like that!"
"We don't do anything because they can take like that! It's only a day!"
Sarah opened her mouth again and then closed it as Toby ran in and flung himself at her. "SARAH! You should have seen it! It was awesome! We were testing the rigging on Melchior, the new dragon and then Sir Didymus took me up. We did loop the loops and everything!"
"Toby, it's very good of Sir Didymus to take you up, but you have to remember not to bother him." She hugged Toby tight with one arm—after ten seconds he started to squirm and she released him with a kiss on his forehead. Toby scrubbed at his forehead and then at his dripping nose with the same hand.
"'Twas no bother at all, fair maiden!" A short ginger kitsune with wiry hair bowed low over Sarah's hand and kissed it. "The lad is most valiant and would prove an asset to the Brotherhood of Riders."
Sarah withdrew her hand sharply and lowered her voice "He's also human, not one of the Teg. You know they'll never let him—it's a miracle they let you, and you're not human! It's not fair to give him false hope like that."
Sir Didymus gestured in the air and presented the flower that had just appeared in his hand to her with a flourish. "My lady, the only false thing about hope would be not to have any."
Toby grinned at them. "I'm going to ride a dragon, Sarah. I won't be stuck in the pits!"
Hoggle snorted into his beer, but Sarah ignored him. "Sir Didymus—"
Sir Didymus flashed Sarah a charming smile. "Thomas. I insist."
"Thomas, then. You simply cannot ignore the reality of life in the Castle like that. As humans, we're too valuable to risk. If we die out there, our lux animae is wasted."
Hoggle laughed out loud "Who was protesting that life wasn't fair and they had no right a second ago?"
Sarah flushed "I don't think it's right. But like everyone else here, I keep my head down so it doesn't happen to me."
Thomas arched an eyebrow knowingly at Hoggle. "Ah. The Fuath?"
"A whole day." Hoggle sipped his ale.
"My lady, you have been most greviously used. I can only ask that you allow me to make amends in some small way." Thomas began patting down his pockets exaggeratedly. "Now, where did I put that—?"
Sarah waved her hands desperately in front of her face. "Noble Knight," she began. Thomas's face lit up and he pulled a scarf out of his pocket. And then his face fell, as he continued to pull a conjoined string of scarves. "Sir Didymus!" Sarah sharpened her voice, but Didymus still didn’t appear to notice. He threw the scarves onto the table, and Sarah grabbed the pile of material and pushed it to the middle. Thomas pulled a toad out of another pocket and gave it a startled look before setting it on the weathered wood. "Please, Sir Knight—" she said, pleading.
"Fair maiden, I have it this time. Just let me—" said Didymus.
Hoggle pulled Sarah back cautiously. "Hoggle! This never ends well. I have to stop him!" said Sarah.
"Because everyone else has been so successful? You'll never stop him," said Hoggle.
"That doesn't mean I shouldn't try."
Sir Didymus pulled a clockwork rooster out of his doublet, sighed, and threw it on the table next to the toad. It started ticking, and then ruffled bronze neck feathers and crowed a coarse clash of metal. Toby reached out excitedly, and in doing so jostled the lantern on the table. A bit of lux animae wafted out and onto the table. The rooster bent grindingly and drank from the puddle, then straightened, looking much more alert. He strutted a step or two, and appeared to catch sight of the toad. The toad phlegmatically shuffled to the left, and the rooster followed, an actinic light shining from his copper eyes.
Hoggle drank deeply from his ale. Sarah regarded the toad and the rooster dubiously. Sir Didymus was still muttering and patting his pockets, and she reached over and took his hands. "Sir Knight, you are valiant and chivalrous, but this offense is not yours to make reparations for," said Sarah, smiling at him.
Sir Didymus looked touched, and then bowed deeply over her hands, pressing a kiss to the back of them. "Fair maiden, your kind heart is only exceeded by your wisdom," said Didymus.
The rooster sidled closer to the toad, and Hoggle signalled for Ruslana. "A meal for the boy, and ale for the lot of us."
Sarah frowned. "Juice for Toby."
Toby looked up in protest and Sarah frowned at him fiercely. He puffed a breath of air that briefly raised his blond bangs, and poked at the toad, which ignored him stoically. The rooster arched over the toad and pecked it. The toad looked sour, Toby looked fascinated, and Sarah sighed.
There was a crash as the door flung open and a group of a dozen Riders strode into the room. "Wench! Mead!" Sir Owain, the tallest of the group, flashed a charming smile. A beetle girl raised her iridescent elytra, letting the filmy wings underneath partially unfold, leaning forward onto the table with excitement. Serafima poked a head covered with feathery flames out of the kitchen, saw the Riders and rolled her eyes. Sarah caught Serafima's eyes; they shared a conspiratorial smile. The Riders strode over to a table. The sprites occupying it hastily grabbed plates and bowls as they could manage and vacated. Sir Gaheris swept the table clean, half-finished bowls clattering and spilling their contents on the floor. There was a mutter among the sprites, and Sarah heard a hissed "Let it go!" A green hob rushed forward to lick up the spilled food, and a gremlin bustled around collecting the bowls and hurrying them into the kitchen.
"What are they doing in here, anyway? They've got the Dining Hall! Not like they have to eat down here with us common folks." Hoggle said, watching the Riders with a sour expression on his face. Sir Didymus looked at Hoggle steadily, and Hoggle said "Beggin' your pardon there, Sir Knight. I always think of you as one of us."
Sir Didymus bowed deeply "And I, for one, could wish nothing more than to be counted as such."
Ruslana came forward with serving tray, bearing hastily filled goblets of mead. She moved around the table dispensing them, hastily putting down the tray as she was pulled onto Dinaden's lap as he seized both her and a goblet with equal greed. Owain looked at Ruslana and then looked away with a set expression. Ruslana stared at Owain murderously for a second and then forced a smile onto her sharp face. Sir Didymus muttered "Here now. That's not chivalrous!"
Sarah laid an absent hand on his arm. "Hush. Ruslana can take care of herself," she said. Hoggle chuckled earthily. The inhabitants of the Common Room appeared to hold their collective breath.
Serafima flickered out of the kitchen, and placed a jug unobtrusively next to Ruslana. Ruslana grinned and refilled Sir Dinaden's goblet, and shifted her weight until she was hanging off the edge of his lap, held by his hand across her hips. Sir Dinaden absently drained his cup and put it down on the table, where Ruslana refilled it.
Sir Dinaden shifted in his seat, then winced, putting his free hand on his belly. He belched sonorously, which was greeted with cheers from the other Riders. Sir Dinaden released Ruslana to use both hands to hold his stomach. Ruslana slipped down from his lap and went over to the kitchen, where she stood in the door.
Sir Owain raised his goblet. "Riders!" The Riders raised their own drinks back and yelled raucously. Sir Owain got up and stood on the table, and goblins scurried to clear the brass lanterns full of precious lux animae off the table before Owain's gold-inlaid boots kicked them over. "My Lords!" The Riders yelled louder and waved their goblets. Fae at nearby tables ducked to avoid the flung mead.
Sir Dinaden had fallen sideways onto the bench and was clutching his gut and moaning. His gut was starting to writhe alarmingly. Sarah regarded Sir Dinaden with caution and said quietly "Toby. We'd better go."
"But Sarah, I haven't eaten yet!"
Sarah broke open her roll, slopped some stew into it and handed it to Toby. "There. Now we have to go." She loaded their dishes onto the tray in the centre of the table. A small speckled troll trundled over to collect it.
"The lass is right, young Toby. You should listen to your sister." Hoggle displayed his usual survival instincts by going to the wall, to give as wide a berth as possible to the table of Riders.
Sir Didymus bowed deeply and said, "Fear not, My Lady! I will protect you!"
Sarah ignored the fact that she towered head and shoulders over him and curtseyed as she got up. "Your chivalry becomes you, Sir." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Toby reach back to the table, but by the time she turned around he was staring at her innocently, standing beside the empty table and dribbling stew down his arm. She grabbed Toby's other arm and pulled him after her, following Hoggle as they skirted the floor.
Sir Owain was still speaking on the table. "And it is on this very day, this glorious day, that we lead the raid on Drowned Ys and did what no other city has done in a hundred years!" Sir Dinaden sat bolt upright, turned a peculiar shade of greeny-grey and clutched the edge of the table. Sir Owain continued. "We rode our dragons right into the bitch and we TOOK HER HEART!" He brandished an organic-looking bundle the size of a large dog, that was glowing blue-white. "Enough lux animae for the whole year! And you know what's better?"
"What?!" the Riders chorused, drinking deep.
"Why, that we—bitch Goddess." Sir Dinaden had leant forward and vomited all over Owain's feet. Half-digested fish-heads slimed Owain's gold-inlaid boots, and the entire room recoiled from the stench. Ruslana laughed so hard she had to grip the door frame to remain upright. Owain looked down at the wreck of his fancy boots with narrowed eyes and then over at Ruslana. He flicked fish-heads off his boots as he went, scattering Teg and lesser fae alike with ichthyic slime. An echo of power started to sound around him and Sarah thought desperately Shit, he's calling on his dragon, ducked lower and hurried Toby along the wall.
Ruslana waited in the doorway, still laughing, until Owain was almost within arm's length (harm's length, whispered a voice in Sarah's mind) of her. She cast her lashes down, and swept a deep curtsey. "Fath—I mean, Sir Knight. I see that your great feats do not extend as far as your feet. Unless the raid on Drowned Ys was accomplished by smell? Certainly, I can see that such a thing would make them quail." Ruslana looked at Owain's thunderous face and burst into gleefully vicious giggles. "In case it is not plain, bathe thyself, thou reeky fen-sucked hedge-pig!"
Owain gave a strangled roar, and reached for Ruslana. Giggling helplessly, she ducked back into the kitchen. The aura of power around Owain increased, and his hand dropped to the knife at his side.
"Oh, balls," said Hoggle. Hoggle grabbed Toby's right hand, Sarah grabbed Toby's left hand, and together they ran for the door out of the Common Room, to the Cloisters, Sir Didymus trailing behind them. Almost to the door!
There was a crash and a clatter and a crunch and then Sir Owain was flung backwards out of the kitchen, landing on the floor with an audible thud. The light in the Common Room changed from dim blue-white to a warmer, more dangerous orange glare. Serafima appeared in the door of the kitchen, her alated arms growing longer until the pinions of flame touched each wall of the Common Room (a good fifty yards each side. With the portion of her brain that wasn't taken up with Get out, get out, get out GET OUT GETOUT, Sarah wondered how big Serafima actually was). Serafima's crest raised and the air sizzled. She paced forward and mantled over the unfortunate Owain.
"What are you doing in my kitchen?" Serafima's words came out as a wash of heat. The entire Common Room seemed paralysed. Sarah weighed up the advantages of moving and not-moving for a minute and then prodded Hoggle into motion. The group edged towards the door. Ten yards!
Sir Owain rallied. Sarah tried desperately to shut him UP, goddess, just let him apologise, Herne the Horned One, how can bravery lead to THIS MUCH STUPIDITY stealthily make the door before he opened his mouth, but she was too late.
"I? I was merely trying to discipline your kitchen wench!" Owain had raised himself up on his elbows, and didn't appear to notice Serafima's hackles rising. "Your staff is in need of a firmer hand than they receive! Your girl poisoned one of my Knights!"
Serafima's voice rose in a screech. "First of all, Sir Knight, I take responsibility for my own. Secondly, are you accusing me of serving poisoned food?" Flames shot from her wings and Owain fell back against the floor, eyes wide. Serafima raised her head. Her eyes were white, and Sarah flung herself forward, landing over Toby in the doorway and stuffing her fingers in her ears as a fireball expanded from Serafima.
There was a tremendous boom, and then the flame was gone as quickly as it arrived. Sarah raised her head cautiously. Gremlins huddled on the floor. The Riders appeared stunned. Serafima looked vaguely shocked too, which was—good?
Sarah turned her head and saw a pair of calves encased in leather boots. Oh. Not good.
"What," said a calm voice above her head, "Is this."
The stunned calm of the room disappeared. Sir Owain picked himself up, only to prostrate himself on the floor again, babbling excuses. Serafima dropped a polite curtsey and then retreated to the kitchen.
Ruslana entered the Common Room from the kitchen rather precipitously, clearly having been thrown out by Serafima. Sarah stifled a smile and Ruslana glared at her, before dropping her head and attempting to blend in with the walls. She'd actually begun to change colour from her usually greeny-brown when Jareth spoke again.
"I am so pleased to see my Riders are in such high spirits."
Sarah winced and quietly rolled off Toby, crawling back until her feet hit the door jamb and then pushing up to press her back against the solidity of the wood. Toby shook himself and then rolled upright. He started patting the pockets of his tunic. Sarah tried to catch his eye, but he avoided her gaze and she didn't dare make a sound. Jareth strolled forward, and Sir Owain pressed his face into Jareth's boots. Jareth shoved Owain away with a careless kick, then frowned at a goblin until it seized a piece of cloth and began polishing his boots. Sarah reached out and yanked Toby into the shelter of the doorway and slapped a hand over his mouth to stifle any cries of protest. Toby squirmed in her grasp.
"I suppose asking why there was a fireball in my servants' Common Room would be pointless?" Owain had, by this stage, recovered some of his dignity and puffed himself up to answer, but Jareth punctured his bombast before it began. "Owain—why is there a chicken on your foot?" Owain looked down, and indeed there was a chicken. Toby's chicken. Sarah closed her eyes in horror, and then snapped them open again as Toby squirmed out of her grip to go and collect his pet.
"Serafima. Do you have an explanation?" said Jareth.
Serafima poked her head out of the kitchen, crest demurely lowered at the back of her neck and blue eyes downcast. "No, Your Majesty?"
Jareth raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps I should rephrase. Serafima, give me an explanation." There were strange harmonics in Jareth's voice and Serafima was drawn out of the kitchen.
"I.." Serafima began, obviously fighting the Influence.
The chicken had been edging away from Toby warily as he tried to lure it back to him. It edged until it bumped against Jareth's boot and paused, seemingly fascinated by the shiny surface. Jareth looked down in surprise. Serafima backed away until she reached the door to the kitchen and then disappeared into the dark. The rooster pecked Jareth's boot.
"What is this metal thing?"
Jareth swooped down, grabbed the rooster by the neck and raised him to eye-level. The rooster, obviously possessed of more bravery than sense, raised his comb and attempted to crow, but his throat was throttled by Jareth's grip, and all that came out was a distinctly unmusical clank. Jareth regarded the rooster with an air of weary jaundice, then twisted his gloved hands over each other in a complicated looking gesture. The rooster condensed, seeming to grow transparent for a second before coalescing into a crystal ball. Jareth turned the crystal ball and looked into it, then carelessly flicked it from one hand to the other.
"Please, Your Majesty, may I have my pet back?" said Toby.
The entire Common Room turned in unison to stare at Toby who was bravely marching towards the Goblin King. Sarah was frozen in horror, Didymus whined quietly deep in his throat and Hoggle grunted.
"Huh. Obviously got brass ones, he does."
Sarah turned to stare at Hoggle in disbelief, and Hoggle qualified, "Talking about the rooster!"
Sir Didymus nodded enthusiastically. "Indeed he does! I got him from an artificer in the pits, and I assure you he is anatomically correct!"
His tail wilted along with his enthusiasm as Sarah turned her disbelieving stare on him.
Jareth had decided to be amused. "Well, you're a likely lad, aren't you! And what's your name?"
"Toby, Your Majesty. Toby Williams. And that's Hancock."
"I—see." Jareth regarded the-crystal-ball-that-had-been-Hancock with an enigmatic look. Jareth bent down to Toby's level and held the ball out. "Your pet? Well, I like to see a lad with a little initiative. As a matter of fact, you've reminded me of my mission here."
Jareth straightened up. "Hear this—the Court of the Faerie Queen is coming to treat in two days time. Serafima, you will work with Truckle and Spritch to ensure a magnificent feast. I want young Toby here serving—outfit him as a page. Owain—" Jareth's gaze rested for a second on the fish-slimed hall "Clean yourself and this mess up, man." With that, Jareth turned to exit the common room, throwing the crystal ball over his shoulder as he did so. Toby dived to save the ball as it first became larger, then recognisably became Hancock again. Hancock opened his wings and desperately tried to fly. He landed with a noisy crash on the common room floor, bending the bronze feathers on one wing. Sarah huddled against the doorway as Jareth swept past her and felt, more than saw, a smirk.
"Well," said Hoggle. "That's a hell of a mess."
Toby's pocket croaked.
Sarah kicked her feet out over the edge of the leviathan. The stacks were warm against her back and clouds moved leisurely by below over a patchwork quilt of greens. They were over farming country at the moment. Hopefully that meant that the raids would net a grain other than oats. Spritch cooked well, but tended towards unexpected flourishes. Time before last, the porridge had had puffin’s feet in it. Sarah considered herself lucky that Serafima cooked for the servants. She’d rather have good plain food any day!
Claws clicked on the metal platform behind her and Serafima said, "Young Sarah Williams, should you be out here?"
Sarah turned and grinned at Serafima. "Should? Weeeell, technically speaking, probably not, but Truckle sent me to give a message to the Riders and didn't specifically tell me to come straight back. So I'm taking an hour."
Kobolds toiled in the distance, mining the excess leviathan shell at the edge. They dumped the metal scale, each flake many times bigger than a human, into a cart sitting on rail tracks. A kelpie waited patiently until the cart was full, ready to pull it back into the pits to be processed. Sarah knew that each kelpie was as tall as she was and half again, but from this distance they looked like ants. But then, they were living on the back of a leviathan—to it they must all seem like ants. She wondered if the leviathan even realised that thinking beings were living on it.
The Cloisters spread out from the mining and branched between buildings like veins. Sarah saw a familiar blond head by the Dragon Mews, with Sir Didymus next to him.
"There you are." Serafima sat down on the edge next to Sarah, and placed a plate of bread, cheese and fruit between them. Sarah grabbed a slice of apple, paired it with a slice of cheese, bit into it, and moaned appreciatively.
"Serafima, why don’t you run the main kitchens?"
Serafima held her hand over the plate for a minute before choosing a slice of roast pumpkin and topping it with salted ground nuts and spice. "Mostly because I can’t stand the Riders, dear. Idiots. Thinking I would poison food!"
Sarah looked at Serafima for a second and Serafima looked back seriously before her beak gaped in a grin. "The poison was in the drink, of course!"
Sarah laughed. "Of course!"
"I’m a cook, not a chef. Oh, I can do all the fancy twiddles, but I don’t enjoy them. I’d rather spend my days making things taste good than look good. Which is why Spritch is head of the main kitchens—he cares about appearances."
Sarah nodded, and spread a slice of bread with dried pear paste and topped it with blue cheese. There was silence for a moment, and then Serafima said "And what were you thinking about so seriously, young Sarah?"
"This and that. Do you think the leviathan knows that we’re alive?"
"Oh, absolutely! Didn’t you ever wonder why you only ever see leviathans this big when they’re cities? They don’t grow that big in the wild, y’know. They need a steady source of lux animae to get this big and then keep growing. And the Teg are the ones who can channel lux animae into a pool and the king—"
"Or queen," interrupted Sarah.
"Or queen," agreed Serafima with a smile, "are the only ones who can link with the leviathan to feed it the lux animae."
Sarah took a huge bite of bread and spoke around it. "Oh. Is that why the king can tell it where to go?"
"It is indeed. I don’t know what your parents were thinking, not telling you this before."
Sarah swallowed, and shrugged. "I don’t know what they were thinking either, but I doubt it was about me."
"Has anyone heard from your mother, child?"
Sarah looked down at the platform and traced along the edge of a scale. "There was a rumour that she’d left Drowned Ys for the Eastern Wastes, but no one knows for sure. I can’t even speak to anyone who spoke to her directly in Drowned Ys."
"Oh, child." Serafima drew Sarah to her plump chest, and Sarah allowed herself to be comforted by the scent of cinnamon and myrrh that wafted from Serafima’s feathers. The pocket of Serafima’s apron moved.
"What—?" Sarah drew back and Serafima laughed and upended her apron. Hancock tumbled to the deck, all ruffled bronze indignance and copper curiosity.
"That damn bird!" Sarah flicked his wattles, which rang with a warm chime. "Why don’t you serve him up for dinner?"
"I doubt even my skills can make metal tasty, if you’re not a dragon. Besides, he drank lux animae. He’s as alive as you or I! It was only a tablespoon, true, but how much life does a metal rooster need?" said Serafima,
Sarah brightened. "We could feed him to a dragon!" Hancock tilted his head and then pecked viciously at her hand. Sarah withdrew it just in time. Hancock’s beak struck the deck and the impact shivered through to his tail feathers.
Serafima laughed. "Dragons get fed the choicest of scale. They’re fat and lazy, when they’re allowed to be! Why would they want to go chasing one scrawny chicken around? Because Hancock would almost certainly object to being eaten. And what would Toby say?"
Sarah grimaced. "I don’t know why he needs a rooster as a pet. Although it’s better than the damn toad." Hancock preened under their gaze and then began strutting round them aimlessly.
Serafima sighed. "Hancock was chasing the toad through the kitchens this morning. Spritch was eyeing them for the porridge pot. I managed to pick up Hancock, but the damn toad got away. I don’t know where it is."
"Mmm." A breeze stirred up one of the clouds below and a tuft drifted up to the edge of the leviathan. She kicked her feet through it, enjoying the cool damp. "Serafima, Toby’s got his heart set on being a Rider. I don’t know how to discourage him."
Serafima looked sad. "Do you think you should?"
"We’re—Serafima, we’re human. That rare beast, 100% human! We’re too valuable as a source of lux animae. You know they’d never let Toby on a dragon. They won’t even let me down when we dock at the markets to trade!"
Serafima raised a sardonic eye-crest at Sarah. "Ah, but Sarah, you’re not only a source of lux animae, you’re a source of potential sources of lux animae. Of course they’re not going to let you go."
"I wish the Teg could generate their own lux animae. I’m sick of losing days every time I catch the Fuath’s eye."
"Losing days happens to us lesser fae too—though not with as much frequency. Less lux animae, y’see. I think we all wish the Teg could generate, dear. I’m amazed that no one’s tried that particular experiment. Imagine it—the gathering and channelling of the Teg with the generative powers of a human!" Hancock stopped strutting for a second and eyed them, a look of unexpected intelligence in his mad eyes.
"I’d hardly call you a lesser fae, Serafima. I didn’t even know you could do that—" Sarah’s hands shaped the air incoherently—"in the Common Room before."
"I’m just a cook, Sarah. The fire powers do come in handy, I will admit, but I am just a cook."
Sarah crumbled up a slice of bread and scattered it before Hancock, who scratched the ground but appeared otherwise uninterested. Serafima detached a small bag from her waistband and upended it on the platform. Steel and brass shavings heaped between them. Hancock clucked, sounding content and then began pecking at the metal scraps. Sarah looked at Serafima and Serafima shrugged. "He’s like a dragon—made of metal and needs metal to grow," said Serafima.
"Speaking of dragons and Toby—how am I going to persuade him away from being a Rider? It’s an impossible dream," Sarah said.
"I think it depends on how hard you dream. Look at all this!" Serafima’s gesture encompassed the entire leviathan. "Leviathans in the wild are maybe ten to fifteen yards. Dragons are smaller than a person—unless they find an easy source of ore, they just don’t grow! Dragons prey on leviathans! And yet here we are. Dragons you can ride on, dragons that the folk bond to, leviathan-cities—"
"Firebirds as cooks!" Sarah smiled at Serafima teasingly.
"As you say. Firebirds as cooks. I’d better get back to the main kitchens—there’s a lot of work to do. More, 'cause those damn Riders grabbed more people when they raided Drowned Ys and I have to make sure Spritch doesn’t spoil the food, produce a feast AND train up new staff—speaking of which, there are some humans. If you could come and help with the orientation, it would be appreciated." Serafima gathered up the plate and swept the crumbs from the bread and the metal over the side. Hancock gave a squawk and chased after the metal shavings, and Sarah shrieked and grabbed him by the tail as he dove over the side.
"Idiot bird." Sarah tossed him up onto her shoulder, where he wobbled briefly. Serafima chuckled and reached out a clawed hand to scratch his throat. Hancock crooned a brassy shimmer and arched his neck.
"Come on, girl. There’s work to be done."
Sarah ducked under a fall of gauzy silk and into the door of the hall. Sprites were flying the silk up to decorate the ribs that vaulted the Dining Hall. She smiled at Sir Didymus, who was directing a crew of goblins into scrubbing the tables that ran the length of the hall. Truckle saw her and called out "You there!" but Sarah ducked her head and held up a hand.
"Can’t stop, Head of Hall, I’m on an errand for Serafima!"
Truckle didn’t look happy, but didn’t detain her any further as Sarah hurried into the kitchen. A dark-haired man was standing by the main bench, gaping at the activity around him. Sarah tapped him on the shoulder.
"You’re the new guy? Serafima asked me to show you around. Hand me one of those baskets by the bench, grab the other and follow me."
Sarah weaved through the kitchen, then looked back. New Guy was standing slackjawed as an eight-foot-tall gryphon carrying a tray of freshly baked pastries bore down on the bench that New Guy was standing at. "Oh, for crying—" she reached out and yanked him out of the way. "Lesson one, New Guy. About the only thing that will get out of your way are the sprites, and that’s just 'cause you’re bigger than them. Everything else, get out of its way, especially if it’s carrying something hot. Now, follow."
"That—that was a gryphon!" New Guy was stammering, but at least he was following. Sarah passed the stoves.
"Yep. And that’s a gremlin, and those are sprites, and that—" Sarah indicated Ruslana, who sneered at her, "is a wood-may." She reached over and grabbed a bowl of sweet carrots with sesame from the stove beside Seraphima and tossed it at New Guy, then grabbed a second one for herself. "This is the main kitchen. Food for the Riders and the Court gets prepared here. Us servants eat in the Common Room, where the food’s usually better anyway. It’s round the back, to the left of here. I’ll take you there later." Serafima smiled at Sarah. "Usually, no one cares if you eat as you go, but with the feast, ask before you grab something unless you know that there’s enough."
"But—you didn’t ask." New Guy sounded bewildered.
Sarah stuffed her mouth full of the contents of the bowl and spoke around it. "'at’s because I know there’s enough." Sarah placed the bowl on the trolley of dirty dishes and ducked out the side door, into the Cloisters."That was the kitchen, and these are the Cloisters. Stick to them, unless you know where you’re going—dragons don’t eat flesh, but they’re not above taking a snap at something that irritates them. You don’t want to be under their feet in the Landing. Also, the Riders like to scare the lesser fae. We use the cables to strap to in times of high wind. Make sure you always have a harness and clip on." The covered walkways branched, and Sarah took the right branch. Up ahead was a huge scale set at a slight angle in the ground, with a bar attached. Sarah nodded to the lindwyrm beside the door, and then waited as it squirmed over and wound round the handle, the scale edging over as the wyrm contracted. "Lindwyrms understand our speech, but we can’t understand theirs. They’re poisonous, so never try and open this door yourself—even if you got gloves, it weighs more than you do. If a lindwyrm isn’t here, grab a troll. They’re not affected by the poison. Do you understand, New Guy?"
"Why—I, yes, I understand." New Guy hastily swallowed carrots, and looked around bewildered. He placed the bowl on a strut beside the scale.
Sarah sighed and grabbed a torch from a barrel beside the door, dipping it into the fire. "You’d better collect that on the way back. In the leviathan, we use fire—they’re largely fireproof, since they’re born in lava. Up on top, we build from what we raid—mostly metal, straw and wood. If it’s flammable, we use lux animae. Be careful with it, it’s precious and—" Sarah glanced sideways at Hancock, who was still perched on her shoulder, "unpredictable. Speaking of lux animae, look down when you’re around the Teg."
"Why, are they that stuck up?" New Guy sounded surprised.
"They’re thieves. They’ll steal lux animae from you if you meet their eyes, and you’ll lose time." They walked past a room spilling out gold light into the passage, and Sarah nodded into it. "Salamanders sleep in there. Nice things, but they get hot if they get excited. Best if you don’t go in."
"I.." New Guy stopped in the middle of the passage and threw his basket of food down. "Look, can you stop treating me as if I’m stupid? I’m new, but I am able to think! And my name’s Mark."
Sarah propped her basket on her hip. "But I—" Hancock twisted to look at her, and she took a deep breath. "Sorry. It’s just this damn feast, and everything has to be perfect, because you bet his majesty will notice if it isn’t. But you’re right. Shall we start again?" Mark smiled at her and she noticed that he was—kind of cute, actually. "Hi. I’m Sarah. Where are you from?"
Mark took her hand and shook it. "I’m Mark. I’m from all over, although lately from Drowned Ys."
"Wow—actually from Drowned Ys? The raiders bought back a huge bundle of lux animae from there! Can you imagine? What’s it like living with so many humans?"
Mark held up his hands. "Living with humans is nothing special—this is AMAZING, though. I’ve never even seen half of the folk that live here. Ys is a pretty big city, and I’ve heard that there are gryphons out in the Haunted Heights, but I’ve never actually seen one! Is lux animae that glowing stuff?" Sarah nodded, and started walking again. Mark picked up his basket and strolled behind, starting to laugh. "It’s precious?"
Sarah thinned her lips. "It makes the leviathan fly and grow! So yes!"
"It’s just—we have an entire river of the stuff in Ys. It floods every night!" Sarah glared at him and he held up his free hand. "It’s the truth! Would I lie to a pretty girl?" Hancock made a leap off Sarah’s shoulder and scrabbled at Mark’s chest, clawing and pecking. "The hell?"
"Hancock! What in leviathan’s name—" Sarah grabbed at the rooster, holding down his wings and cutting her finger on one of his pinions. "Ouch! I’m sorry. I don’t know why he did that." Hancock escaped from her grasp and ran up her arm to her shoulder again, where he glared offendedly at the world.
"No harm done." Mark extended a hand to her basket. "Want me to take that while you stop your finger bleeding?" Sarah looked unsure, but let him take the basket as she hunted through her pockets and bound her finger off with a scarf. "Anyway, I don’t know why you’d think the worst of me! I’m completely trustworthy!"
Sarah rolled her eyes and grabbed her basket back from Mark. "Absolutely trustworthy? Whole rivers of lux animae? Who ever heard of anything like that!"
"Can I ask questions?" said Mark.
"Sure. This place runs on gossip, so I don’t see why you should be left out!"
"Where are we going?"
Sarah’s jaw dropped and she looked blank for a second. "Didn’t I say? Usually everyone eats in the Common Room, but we’ve got no time for that today. Besides, Serafima’s in the main kitchen, so we’re bringing food to the pits."
"... What are the pits?"
"You’re—no, you’re not kidding. Sorry, you don’t know this stuff. Um, well. You know how leviathans are constantly growing? Well, the shell grows first and then the leviathan inside grows to fit. If you keep taking the shell from round the edge, the leviathan doesn’t grow any bigger, we get metal to make stuff. Sometimes we stop mining, but bigger means slower too, so we don’t generally. Um. What else? The metal gets refined in the pits, which is where everything gets made." They passed a ladder, leading up to an opening in the shell above. "The dormitories are up there. No light and it’s pretty cramped, but all we ever do in there is sleep, so it doesn’t really matter. Anyway, the pits are pretty horrible—dark and hot. There’s a lot of light-sensitive fae down there, so carry your own light source and careful where you wander 'cause a lot of things will eat you if your light goes out. You’ll probably end up in the pits after the feast."
Mark looked around and made a face. "Great."
"Unless you have any other skills?" said Sarah.
Mark shrugged. "I used to work as a baker."
"Oh! Then you won’t be in the pits. You’ll probably be with me in the kitchens!" Mark smiled at her and Hancock shifted discontentedly and clucked. She reached up a hand and scratched Hancock’s chest. "Almost there. Hey, Mark?"
"Why aren’t you freaking out more? I mean, you’ve just been seized by raiders."
"What, your Riders? They’re not so scary. Besides, why would I freak out when I’ve got a pretty girl to charm?" He smiled at Sarah and Sarah smiled back. "Seriously—I’ve spent most of my life travelling. And I’ve always wanted to see a leviathan. I figure when I get bored, I’ll just leave!"
Sarah snorted. "My dad, Toby and I came here when I was eight and Toby was just a baby. I don’t think you’re going to find it easy to leave."
Mark puffed out his chest. "No one can stop me from going where I want to!"
Sarah rolled her eyes and Hancock fixed a mad eye on Mark. "How would you get out then, genius?"
Mark’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. Then: "Oh. Erm. Well, I’ll keep it a secret until the crucial moment!"
"Uh huh." Sarah shared a glance with Hancock.
"Well, I’ll be sure and take you with me when I go! Your beauty can only inspire me to greater courage!" Mark bent and kissed her hand and Sarah blushed.
"We’d better hurry." said Sarah, looking away from the torchlight in the hope of disguising her flushed face. Hancock fluffed his feathers with a musical sound.
"One more question," said Mark.
Sounding plaintively confused, Mark asked, "Why do you have a metal chicken on your shoulder?"
"Sarah Williams! Plates to the kitchen to rewash! Everything must be sparkling."
Sarah planted her fists into the small of her back and arched until her body was bent like a bow. Achelois, her back ached! She grabbed the stack of plates, supporting it on her hip. She trudged across the hall. Leviathan. The end of this day couldn’t come soon enough.. She got to the heavy push door of the kitchen, turned and leaned back against it. Who had closed it? Then she heard voices. Ruslana, and... Mark?
"Drowned Ys is amazing. You know that all the secrets of the world come there? There’s someone called ‘L’Inconnue’ who knows everything."
Sarah peeked through the porthole window in the door. Ruslana was at the sink, and Mark was leaning on the dish-trolley beside her. Ruslana flicked water at Mark. "If it was so amazing, why’d you come here! Oh right—you were captured by Riders."
Mark grinned at Ruslana brilliantly. "Riders? They’re not so scary. I’ve spent most of my life travelling. And I’ve always wanted to see a leviathan. I figure when I get bored, I’ll just leave! And I’m not likely to get bored when I’m talking to a pretty girl such as yourself!" Sarah’s lips parted. That was the exact same speech he gave to her!
"Huh. I bet you’ve got no idea how you actually would leave." Ruslana wiped a plate half-heartedly, watching Mark out of the corner of one eye.
"I do too! But I’ll reveal it when the time comes." Mark sounded mysterious and important.
"Well, you’d need a dragon, or a flying fae. But none of the fae here would help you, and have you worked out how you bribe a dragon? Or even talk to one?" Ruslana said.
"I... no. But I’m sure you’d help me, wouldn’t you, sweetheart?" Mark leaned in, seemingly untroubled by the way Ruslana’s thorny arms were moving back and forth as she scrubbed a pot with particular viciousness.
Sarah kicked open the door and marched over, dumping the stack of plates loudly on the trolley. "I thought I was going with you!"
Mark grinned, and slipped an arm around Sarah’s shoulder, drawing against him. He rested his chin on Ruslana’s shoulder. "You can both come with me! The more beautiful women, the better!" Ruslana snorted and elbowed him with malice, and Sarah ducked out from under his arm. "Sarah?"
Sarah couldn’t make her voice work for a second, and then said "I thought—I. Sorry. I have to go now," and she averted her face and ran from the kitchen.
"Great view from up here," said Hoggle. Sarah jumped as Hoggle sat down beside her on the stairs halfway up the largest chimney stack. The crumbling brick behind her radiated warmth, and Hancock was pecking at the lichen that grew on metal deposits from the smoke. Sarah turned away to wipe her face, grateful for the gathering night. Fluffy cumulus clouds were still bathed pink by the setting sun and cumulonimbus clouds advanced their anvil-heads with the darkness. "You want to talk about it?"
Sarah sniffed, and smiled wanly. "Not really—I just. I was stupid, and it was embarrassing. I just want to be special and to have adventures. I guess there’s not a lot of chance of that here." Her gesture took in the smoking stacks, and the bustling Landing. Acthnici and Salamanders had been let out of the pits and were wandering around, causing what was no doubt chaos from the ground, but bathing the Landing in a golden glow. Truckle was looking harassed and directing goblins in polishing the scales, and will-o’-the-wisps giggled as they bounced through the air.
"I think," said Hoggle slowly "That adventures would be downright uncomfortable for folks as is having ‘em. History ain’t made by sitting at home."
"Oh, it’s just. I wish. I wish—," said Sarah. The sky lit up as lightning flashed between the clouds. Hancock screeched, and Sarah sighed and picked him up as a crash of thunder sounded.
"Come on, girl. There’s a storm coming, and I don’t mean just the weather," said Hoggle, spitting over the side.
Sarah gathered her legs under her and stood still for a second, the strengthening wind whipping her hair around her.
"I wish I was anywhere but here."
Full dark had fallen. The Riders stood impassive and gleaming around the Landing as hobs, nymphs, kelpies, dryads, wolf-girls and beetle-fae and, it seemed, the entire population of the leviathan fought for space in the Cloisters. Sarah used her knee to push a brownie aside and jammed herself into a vaulting pillar. Toby, looking unusually clean and dapper in his page’s tunic of velvet, bounced up and down on his toes beside her, and Hoggle clung to the sill tenaciously and refused to be moved. Lightning flashed again, lighting up the leviathan from underneath and Sarah blinked in the strobe. For a second, it looked as if buildings had grown across the Landing’s opening to the edge, and then the thunder cracked and in the glare that followed, Sarah saw a building move. Her breath came faster and Toby clutched her hand as Hoggle swore viciously beside them. It wasn’t a building, it was a dragon. Huger than any other she’d ever seen. Its head had swept-back horns. The lightning flashed again and the other dragons (buildings whispered her mind) lowered their heads as the flattened their forequarters. Riders descended, armour gleaming and formed a diagonal line across the landing. Armour clanked as they rested their hands behind their backs and waited.
"WOW!" Toby whispered, pulling Sarah and Hoggle in. ‘They’re so... shiny! Why don’t our Riders look like that?"
Sir Owain, standing in front of them in the Landing, overheard and snorted. "Because we have better things to do than shine armour, boy," he said quietly. Nearby Goblin Riders caught the exchange, and an almost soundless chuckle ran around the Landing. The Faerie Riders were too much on their dignity to actually turn, but their gleaming armour suddenly appeared more decorative than intimidating.
The largest dragon in the centre prostrated itself and the Faerie Riders at the edge of the Landing stepped forward. Lightning flared again, and all laughter among the onlookers died. Standing on the dragon’s head was a woman. Sarah suddenly felt lumpen and mortal and horribly, horribly plain. For the woman’s face was the most beautiful she’d ever seen. Pale and fine-boned, with a cruel red mouth and eyes that sent a chill through to Sarah’s bones.
The Queen of Faerie smiled, but her smile did not lift Sarah’s heart. Sarah thought of tigers and predators in the grass, and she gripped Toby tightly and dropped her head with something not as fully formed as a thought, but an inchoate feeling of no. The Queen stepped forward from the dragon’s head onto the backs of Riders who had prostrated themselves before her. She advanced to the centre of the Landing, gauzy silk flowing over tightly fitted chainmail. Her chainmail rang with the sound of silver bells. She dazzled by the light of the will-o’-the-wisps, chainmail and pearlescent skin, red lips and golden hair shining. She raised her head, and Sarah cringed as the Queen’s gaze paused on her for a second and then moved on.
Jareth emerged from the shadows of the Cloisters. "Your Majesty. Welcome to the Goblin Court," he said, and half-bowed, his cape sweeping forward. The Queen laughed, and Sir Owain sighed as if his heart had been stolen from his chest.
"Cousin! Why so formal?" The Queen swept forward, holding out her hands. Jareth took them, and stood with a neutral expression as she kissed both his cheeks. "Why, it seems like yesterday that my parents took you in after your parents—well. You know. And here you are, with your own leviathan! I would not have thought it, but it is a good match. So quaint! Of course, very rustic, but really, quite charming!"
Jareth turned to stand beside the Queen, and tucked her hand into his arm. "I’m ecstatic my endeavours meet with your approval, Yvaine. But come—we have a feast awaiting us!"
They proceeded out of the Landing and into the path through the Cloisters, Goblin and Faerie Riders falling into two columns behind them. The rest of the inhabitants of the leviathan started to move, and Sarah cried out as she lost her grip on Toby’s doublet and was swept away from him by the moving crowd.
"The lad’ll be fine," said Hoggle, clinging onto her hand, but then he lost his grip and disappeared behind a troll.
Sarah struggled against the flow of the crowd for a second. A quinkin’s long arm prevented her from turning, and the spriggan beside her jabbed her with bony fingers. The light was almost blotted out by the taller fae around her, and the air smelled of lightning. Sarah was shoved to the edge of the Cloisters, and hung onto a column, desperate. She scanned the crowd and spotted a tell-tale blue tunic on the other side of the Dining Hall forecourt. "Toby!" she yelled across the space. He waved to her from the Cloisters on the other side and the movement clearly caught the Queen’s eye.
"Why, what’s this?" Yvaine halted, forcing Jareth to halt with her.
"One of the pages, Yvaine. I hadn’t realised that the Faerie Kingdom was so short of company that you had to pay attention to a servant—or is it merely that your rituals leave you so deprived?"
Yvaine shrugged. "I wonder that you can bear the place so dark. But it must be hard for you—I would not care for our visit to leave you deprived. Here, let me help." She gestured with her free hand, and balls of coloured lux animae began to float freely around the forecourt. One floated free, ascending above the Leviathan, lighting up the anvil heads of clouds as it went, but Yvaine didn’t appear to be concerned.
Jareth showed his teeth, and said "Your generosity is, as ever, appreciated in the spirit in which it’s offered." The Queen threw her head back and laughed, and they strolled through the open doors into the Dining Hall. The balls of lux animae followed. Will-o’-the-wisps chased after them greedily, performing a dizzying dance of light and causing the Riders’ armour to reflect silver ripples onto the walls of the hall, and the crowd of lesser fae who followed. Truckle was waiting inside the hall to greet them, and bowed down, her nose almost touching her knees.
"Your majesty—majesties. If you would take your seats at the high table, the feast will begin."
"Why, how charming!" said Yvaine. "And who is this?"
Truckle straightened and looked at Yvaine in surprise. Yvaine’s eyes widened and she inhaled deeply and a small ball of lux animae floated from Truckle’s eyes, nose and mouth into Yvaine’s hand. Yvaine clenched her fist around it and the lux animae disappeared. Yvaine’s knife-edged beauty glowed. Truckle stood for a moment, and then vaguely wandered off to the end of the hall, as if she’d forgotten what she was doing.
A hiss travelled round the hall, with mutters of "Stolen" and "took her time and "not hers" coming from the lesser fae. Jareth regarded the Queen levelly.
"I would," he said, "appreciate it greatly if you would refrain from stealing lux animae from my subjects while you are here."
The Queen pouted at him. "Jareth! She’s only a servant. And surely you wouldn’t begrudge me my little amusements." She reached with her free hand and stroked his face. He caught her hand and bestowed a neatly vicious kiss on it.
"Surely a servant is below your notice, Yvaine. After all, I seem to recall status being of paramount importance in our youths. Or did I misremember that intrigue with the Rider? What was his name, again?"
Yvaine pulled her hand from Jareth’s grasp and colour rose in her cheeks. "It was such a long time ago, I hardly remember. I’m sure it wasn’t of any importance. The fancies of young girls!" Yvaine said, tossing her head back to release a ripple of laughter.
Jareth’s smile froze, and he raised an eyebrow at Yvaine. "Of course. No importance at all."
Yvaine opened her mouth as if to speak, but then they were ascending the steps of the dais to the high table. She sat gracefully to the right of Jareth’s throne, and Jareth reclined louchely. "Bring wine!" he said, and goblins scurried to obey.
In the kitchen, Serafima was fuming. Her eyes had lightened in colour from their usual happy sky-blue and were now the blue-white of metal just before it turned molten. She caught Sarah’s arm as Sarah walked in. "Here. Chew this."
Sarah opened her mouth to say "What?" and Serafima popped... something, into her mouth. Sarah chewed reflexively. Ugh! Salt and bitter!
"Hazel twigs and salt. Use her Influence on the Goblin Kingdom, will she? We’ll see about that!" Serafima bustled off, still muttering indignantly, and then went into the pantry. Hobs were standing by the huge kitchen fire, ladling coals into braziers with their bare hands. Serafima came out of the pantry with a several containers of dried foliage. Sarah blinked at her, and Serafima shoved a bunch of leaves and a length of string into her hands. "Bundle this. I want it tight, not burning too quickly." Sarah closed her mouth and began looping the string around the leaves, leveraging it against itself with knots. Ruslana stopped as she walked past to smirk at Sarah and Serafima shoved leaves at her as well. "You too! Plenty to be done, I want each of these braziers smoking nicely!"
Sarah sniffed the leaves in her hands. Sage? Ruslana did the same, and muttered "Rowan."
"That’s right. sage, rowan and yew. We’ll see how her Nibs does with influencing people with this in the air!" said Serafima.
Sarah finished a bundle and laid it on the bench-top. Serafima grabbed it, gathered up one of Ruslana’s bunches and threw it into a brazier, along with her own finished bundle. "Well? What are you waiting for? Lid on, out into the hall, one in each corner of the dais, specifically before the Queen, then spaced around the edge of the hall. GO!" Hobs scattered out the door. Sarah gathered up more leaves to bind together.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Toby make a face as he chewed on hazel twigs and salt. He walked to the corner where the kitchen scraps were hurled, and then Sarah lost sight of him as Spritch bellowed "First course PLATED, out to the tables now!"
Sarah briefly caught a glimpse of Toby again as he lined up with the other pages to take a plate of roast pig’s trotters and mustard fruit. The fires roared and a hob grabbed the sage from her hands almost before she’d finished the last knot. She saw Mark as he quickly walked by with a heavy platter on his shoulder. He grimaced what could have been a smile, and Sarah smiled back. Next to her Ruslana was doing the same, and the smile dropped off Sarah’s face. Ruslana glared at her and jerked a knot viciously tight.
The Hall was thick with smoke. Serafima pulled the kitchen-hands close. "Right. We need to gather the plates, but those bastards are stealing lux animae left, right and centre. Sarah, Ruslana, take a platter each and go clear the high table. Mind your manners and keep your eyes down."
They shuffled out into the hall, eyes on the stained floor. The air was hazy with smoke Sarah saw Ruslana duck a thrown goblet out of the corner of her eye. Ruslana flushed a dull red-brown and turned, opening her mouth. Sarah caught Ruslana’s elbow "Eyes down," she hissed. Ruslana shifted her shoulders, flicking Sarah’s hand off, but lowered her head with a creak.
"Thanks." Ruslana said, quietly.
"Us against the Teg, right?" Sarah felt, more than saw, Ruslana’s grudging nod, and then they were at the dais. They walked up the stairs, Sarah feeling fear cold in the pit of her stomach.
"I’ll do our side, if you’ll do theirs." Sarah said.
Ruslana nodded, abnormally quiet.
Eyes down, mind your manners, chanted Sarah inside her head. She reached between knights, gathering bowls, stacking goblets and sliding trenchers onto her tray. Sir Dinaden nodded at her, his face flushed with drink, and as she leaned between him and Owain he said loudly "Tha’s good, good girl. Bet you’re thankful to be here. Faerie court, huh!" Dinaden huffed a breath laden with drink over her, and Sarah controlled her face and kept her head down. Beside her, Owain looked uneasy. Sarah leaned between Owain and the Queen. "Flash and sparkle, no substance! Give me honest ugliness any day!"
She saw the Queen turn her head. The Queen’s mouth showed white teeth and Sarah dropped her eyes to the table and picked up a spoon.
"Honest ugliness?" The Queen sounded amused. "Why, I merely allow a freer society, and naturally attract the best. Do you know that I have women Riders?" Sarah could feel the weight of the Queen’s eyes on her, and she fought a shudder and leaned forward between the Queen and Jareth. The Queen stopped Sarah with a gentle hand on her upper arm, and said "Why, you’re a pretty child. How would you like to become a Rider?"
Sarah flushed, placed her tray on the floor, and kept her eyes on the table. "I’m human, your Majesty. I can’t be a Rider."
"Why, nonsense! Asezozel here is a human and one of my most faithful knights." Further down the table, a tall woman with a scar on her face leaned forward and smiled easily. Toby was standing behind the dais—his eyes grew wide and he rushed forward to refill Asezozel’s goblet. Asezozel’s smile grew wider and she inclined her head towards him, saying something that Sarah couldn’t hear. Sarah shifted uneasily towards them and then the Queen stroked her cold white hand down the side of Sarah’s face and under her chin, tipping it up. Sarah could feel the Queen’s body heat on her back. "Wouldn’t you like to be part of my court? It’s much more luxurious than here. We have far greater reserves of lux animae. You work in the kitchens, yes? Haven’t you ever given any thought to how it would feel to be riding a dragon with the wind in your hair? I can give that to you."
Sarah glanced at Toby, who was standing and staring at them, open-mouthed with longing as Asezozel looked on indulgently. Jareth shifted restlessly beside her, and she looked at him instinctively. She met his mismatched eyes for a second and an unreadable expression crossed his face. He smiled darkly and Sarah snapped her gaze back to the table in a panic. A cold sweat broke out on her skin as Jareth leaned forward and his gloved hand traced the same path down her face the Queen had stroked previously. He took the Queen’s hand, and Sarah’s head was tipped towards the ceiling by the combined grasp of their hands. His breath stirred Sarah’s hair as he spoke.
"Surely you would not deprive me of my amusements, Yvaine? After all, as you observed, I have no female Riders."
Yvaine chuckled, and her mirth shook through Sarah’s body. She spoke again, so close to Sarah’s ear that the movement of her lips almost touched it in a kiss. "Ah, I’ve missed you, Jareth. We should have done this long ago."
Jareth pulled Yvaine around Sarah, and onto the arm of his chair. "An oversight I intend to make up for, I assure you." He stroked a finger down Yvaine’s throat, and her eyes closed as she sighed, and relaxed into him.
Sarah stood there for a second, looking at the picture they made. Silver-blond hair mixing with wheaten-gold. Black gloves on white skin, and two cruel mouths smiling in pleasure. Jareth looked away from Yvaine and raised an eyebrow at her. "You’re still here?"
Sarah flushed, humiliated, and gathered her tray and fled the hall on unsteady legs. The sound of their laughter seemed to follow her.
Ruslana met her at the door to the kitchen. She held the door open for Sarah mutely, and Sarah nodded gratefully, not able to speak yet.
In the kitchen, Serafima crashed a cleaver viciously down on a joint of meat. "Teggish scum. Ruiners." She raised the cleaver over her head and bought it down with a crack of bone. "It’s them as gives the fae a bad name. All shiny and glitter and please and thank you, but fancy manners don’t change the fact that they’re parasites. Their leviathan runs on the dead, and no amount of paint and perfume can disguise that stench."
Ruslana drew Sarah over to the sink, taking the tray from Sarah’s hands and depositing it on the trolley. She waved a thorny arm in front of the dish-pig, which snorted indignantly and then retreated to the muck heap. Ruslana plunged her hand into the first one sink, then the other and allowed the water to drain from both, reaching overhead to open stops and divert a bit of the hot water into the corroded taps to refill the sinks as she used her other hand to sprinkle soap flakes into the water. She slapped a cloth into Sarah’s hands. "Come on, wash."
Sarah began wiping at a plate mechanically. Ruslana watched her for a second, and then made a clicking "Tchah!" noise and withdrew it from her hands, drying it and putting it on a small stack of clean plates to the right. "Clean the next one."
Sarah picked up the next plate from the stack and began wiping. There was a hard crusted spot on the porcelain and she picked at it with her fingernail. It lifted off in a flake and she drew her cloth over the plate in a spiral from centre to edge. She flipped it over and washed the back of the plate from side to side. Ruslana grabbed it from her and dunked it in the second sink of clean water, drying industriously.
"You can’t—you can’t let ‘em get to you like that, Princess." Ruslana’s voice was kind.
Sarah flushed and ducked her head, and picked up the next dish, scrubbing at it energetically. She dunked it in the clean water, and then set it in the rack to drain. Ruslana picked it up, and slowly began to dry, watching Sarah. Sarah started scrubbing faster, until the dishes were stacked in the drying rack, four, five, six. She slowed her pace, and watched Ruslana out of the corner of her eye.
"It’s. I don’t want to. But I can’t help it." Sarah said, slowly. "I don’t know anyone who can. They’re beautiful and shiny and they make you feel like—" She waved her dishcloth in the air, and Ruslana took another plate from the rack, concentrating on it. "They make you feel like you’re dirt. Lower than dirt. Because you can never be as beautiful or elegant as they are, but they make you want to be. And so everything they do to you is OK, because maybe, just maybe, their elegance might rub off."
Ruslana stared fiercely at the plates. Sarah watched as Ruslana opened her mouth and then said creakily. "...yes. And if things don’t go their way, if something turns out to be a mistake, they just throw it away, and say ‘Well, it’s obvious that you can never be —’" Ruslana crashed a dry plate fiercely onto the pile and picked up the next "special, or even worthwhile because you have thorns and you’re not pretty, you’re an embarassment, there’s no point even providing you the same opportunities. So they cast you off, and your mother hates you. And I hate them, Sarah. Hate."
Sarah’s breath caught and she looked around nervously. "Be careful, Ruslana."
Ruslana looked at Sarah and Sarah’s breath caught. Ruslana spoke in a fierce whisper. "I’m sick of being careful, Princess. You might be happy here, with dishpan hands and the fact that you’re never going to be anything but a cog in this machine that runs around the Teg. But I’m going to get out."
"They’ll hear you!" Sarah was whispering too.
Ruslana flicked a glance in the direction of the High Table. "Only if they care to listen, and I think they’re a bit busy now."
Sarah leaned toward Ruslana."But how—?"
"I’ve got a plan, all right? I’ll get out of here and I’ll go to Drowned Ys and I’ll be whatever I want to be. You should come too, Princess," said Ruslana, sounding improbably normal and matter-of-fact.
Sarah stared for a second, her heart expanding in her chest. But— "I can’t. There’s Toby."
"Ah." Ruslana looked sad. "You ever work out that sometimes chains aren’t made of steel, you let me know."
"What do you mean?" Sarah’s voice held a warning, but Ruslana disregarded it.
"I mean, Himself knows you’ll never leave as long as Toby’s here. So he tosses Toby in the pits, where you’ll never see him. You spend the rest of your life searching for a way to free him, or even spend some time with him and in the meantime you get older and maybe you fall in love with Mark, because he’s what there is. So you have kids, and forget about Toby, and then you can’t leave because you couldn’t get them out, either. And so it goes." Ruslana was matter-of-fact, and Sarah felt resentment swell.
"What’s the alternative?" said Sarah, rudely.
Ruslana shrugged. "I don’t know. Just—if Toby get a chance to get out, let him take it, OK?"
Sarah nodded, slowly, and then found that she’d cleared the last of the dishes from the sink. She dried her hands on Ruslana’s dishtowel.
Spritch fussed over. "Ah, excellent. Girls, if you could please take the main subtlety out?"
Serafima carried the bowl of cream she was whisking over. "It’s big. Wouldn’t it be better to have a wolf-girl take it out?"
Spritch threw his hands up. "The impact of the dish would be ruined! My beautiful dragon should be presented by two beautiful maidens!"
Sarah, Ruslana and Serafima exchanged glances. Sarah’s eyebrows were raised, Serafima looked ironic and Ruslana mouthed "Beautiful?"
Spritch clicked his tongue, and dragged Sarah and Ruslana over to the main bench, where a pastry dragon with berries for scales stood surrounded by piles of sugar tinted gold and arranged in metallic drifts around marzipan trees. "My masterpiece! Now, careful how you go there." Sarah looked helplessly at Serafima, but Serafima shrugged, and spooned a generous line of cream onto the dragon’s back before retreating back to her bench with the remains of the bowl. The platter was lifted up onto their shoulders, and Sarah and Ruslana staggered under the weight.
"You OK? I can get someone else to take it," said Ruslana.
Sarah sighed. "No, it’s OK. May as well just go on. Come on, feet!"
Ruslana looked at her askance as they staggered through the door to the Hall. "Look, we’ll drop it if we keep doing this. Grab my shoulder and step with me."
Sarah reached out her right hand and grabbed Ruslana’s shoulder. Ruslana reached out her left hand and set it on Sarah’s shoulder. "Ready?"
Sarah grunted, then said "On three. One, two—" and they stepped out together.
Sarah could feel Jareth’s eyes on them as they advanced down the hall. The tray bent their heads forward and to the side, and she was fiercely glad that her vision was restricted to the scales at her feet. Her heightened colour could be attributed to lifting the tray. Ruslana’s hand tightened on her shoulder in invisible encouragement, and then they were at the High Table.
Yvaine was sprawled in her seat, colour high as she smiled into her wine. Ruslana and Sarah set the platter down and Yvaine spoke. "Such a pity I can’t tempt the girl here to come with me. Think of the wasted opportunities!"
Jareth hummed noncommittally, sipped his wine, and watched Sarah over the rim of his goblet. Sarah took a step backwards, but stopped as Yvaine raised an eyebrow. Ruslana’s hand closed convulsively round Sarah’s arm, and Sarah saw Toby walk up and stand behind the Queen. "Luckily, not everyone has proven blind to the opportunity. Young Toby has agreed to join me on my leviathan," said Yvaine. She drew Toby forward with a hand on his shoulder, and Asezozel advanced behind him, trapping him between Jareth and Yvaine.
"He is still my subject," said Jareth. His tone was mild but Sarah could hear the Influence ringing over the words, sounding through her body to strike harmonics off her bones. She shivered with the force and could feel Ruslana shift uncomfortably beside her, but Yvaine merely smiled, luminous and greedy.
"Have you ever sworn loyalty to Jareth or the leviathan, child?"
Toby darted a glance at Jareth, but shook his head.
"Then all you need to do is swear to me that you’ll serve me and my court and the deed is done."
The entire hall was still. It appeared as if the leviathan itself was holding its breath. Sarah’s mouth opened, but Yvaine flicked her fingers and said "Silence!" and not a sound would come out of Sarah’s mouth.
Toby still hesitated, but then said "Sarah, she’s gonna let me be a Rider! I’ll have my own dragon and everything. I—please. Please."
Sarah twisted her hands in her skirt. And then, she heard an echo of Ruslana’s words: if Toby get a chance to get out, let him take it. Tears started in her eyes, but she raised her chin and smiled at Toby. Toby looked startled, then raised his chin and said "I’ll swear!"
Yvaine lowered her eyelids, looking felinely satisfied. "Then swear, young human. Swear by blood and bone that you’ll serve the Queen of the Faerie Court in all her commands."
The hall seemed to darken, and Toby’s high voice rang out through the air. Asezozel bent to whisper in his ear. "I swear by blood and bone that I will serve the Queen of the Faerie Court." He paused, and Asezozel poked an armoured finger into his back. "Oh! Um, in all her commands."
Lightning flashed and thunder crashed simultaneously, strobing the hall in light. The Queen smiled, triumphant. Jareth was looking directly at Sarah, studying her as though she was a new species of lichen growing on the leviathan. Something cold and alien looked through his eyes. Tears started running down Sarah’s face, and she gave a mute wail of agony. Ruslana looked nervously at Jareth and Yvaine and started tugging on Sarah’s arm. "Sarah. Sarah. Come away."
Sarah let herself be led to the kitchen. She felt the Queen’s influence stretch and snap as she walked through Serafima’s threshold. A low moan came out of her mouth, and Ruslana supported her as she swayed on her feet. Serafima glanced at them and frowned. "What happened?"
In spite of the removal of the Queen’s Influence, Sarah found she still couldn’t speak. Ruslana sighed and said "The Queen—"
An anguished scream sounded from back of the kitchen, as a lampad opened an oven door and smoke poured out. "MY DESSERTS," screamed Spritch, clutching his face. Serafima looked over and swore. "Waste and ruin. Ruslana, take one of my possets and tuck Sarah into bed. I’ll come by later—right now, I have to somehow produce desserts for an entire hall," said Serafima. She dumped a measure of flour into a bowl and cracked six eggs into it, then grabbed the bowl and walked towards the chaos at the back of the kitchen.
Ruslana darted over to the pantry and measured out liquid into a mug. "Come on, Sarah. Let’s get you to bed." She drew Sarah, unresisting, across the kitchen and out into the Cloisters. Ruslana nodded at the lindwyrm, and led Sarah up the ladder and into the dorm.
The room was dimly lit and there was barely room to stand up. Sarah curled up on her bed and Ruslana threw a thin cover over her. "Try to sleep."
Sarah felt her eyes grow heavy and she slipped into a light doze. Her dreams were restless—thorns pricked beautiful maidens who smiled at Sarah and then immediately fell into a death-like sleep. A young girl with golden hair said "But wolves are the point of exploring, aren’t they?" and trailed a red cloak in front of leering men with axes. Breadcrumb trails were scattered in front of birds who turned into princes, and fell upon the food ravenously. One of the swan-men looked up at Sarah and said "The most important thing is never to give up, really," as he pointed a wing onwards. A woman with enormously long hair and no hands sat bleeding in a garden bed as she ravenously ate greens. She looked at Sarah and pointed with her bloody stumps towards a tower which grew among vines. Sarah climbed the tower, and at the top, a prince sat with his back to the window. He didn’t look at her, but said "I can’t look out the window, Sarah Williams. But you should."
Sarah looked out the window and saw Toby. He was seated on a dragon and smiling as roses drank his blood. The roses grew vigorously along the roadside in a riot of brambles, their scent drugging the air. Flowers swelled and grew and one grew larger than all the rest. As it blossomed, a woman clad only in her long blonde hair was revealed in the centre of the bloom. She stepped out of the rose, growing as she did so, and roses bled beneath her feet and writhed under her, bearing her aloft.
"Toby! Toby," cried Sarah as she leaned forward from the window, but he didn’t hear her. The rose-woman did and she looked towards the window and smiled—and Sarah recognised her as the Queen. Yvaine turned her face back towards Toby and said something to him. Toby laughed, and Sarah noticed human bones twined with the brambles. She leaned forward, trying to catch Toby’s attention, but he didn’t take any notice.
"You’ll never make it."
Sarah started as the Prince’s voice sounded in her ear. "I thought you said you couldn’t look out the window."
"Did I? I’m not looking out the window, Sarah Williams. I’m looking at you." He looked at her as if something puzzled him, and Sarah absently noticed that his eyes were different colours.
"How do I stop her? How do I rescue Toby?"
"You’ll never do it. You’ll never rescue Toby. Stay here with me, instead." The Prince smiled at her and Sarah blinked at him.
"But—I have to."
"Then you’d better hurry," said the Prince, laying a hand on her shoulder and directing her gaze out the window. Toby was almost white. The Prince chuckled, and said "Before you’re too late."
Sarah felt those words strike a deep foreboding. She turned to ask the Prince—something but he gave her a seraphic smile and straightened his arm. The windowsill connected with the back of her knees. Sarah flung her arms to keep her balance, but the Prince seemed to evade her grasp as if he was water. She fell, and a bell began to trill. She fell and fell, past the tower, through darkness and all the while the Prince’s face appeared as at the top of a well. "Too late," said nameless voices.
She landed with a thump and opened her eyes with a start. Hancock was pacing along the length of her bed, sounding an alarm-like trill.
"What—?" Sarah rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and put her other hand out to calm Hancock. He evaded her outstretched hand, rushing up her body to peck at her face. Sarah jerked to the side, and his beak struck the pillow. He tilted his head, looking at her alternately through copper then aluminium eyes. Sarah heaved herself from the bed, and staggered to the ladder. She could feel the leviathan’s shell vibrating. At the exit from the pits, the lindwyrm was twined around struts. Sarah stepped from the door and almost lost her footing in the gale. A passing peryton braced her with its antlers and helped push her to the Cloisters.
"Better strap in, little human. The storm’s here, and it’s going to be a leveller."
Sarah clipped her harness onto the guide cable and made her way in fits and starts towards the side-entrance to the kitchens. Serafima was overseeing the clean-up of the feast. She smiled at Sarah.
"Hello, child. Feeling better?"
Sarah nodded. "Still groggy, though. Have they left yet?"
Serafima shook her head. "Last farewells out in the landing now."
"I’d better go say goodbye to Toby, then," said Sarah.
Serafima frowned at Sarah. "Why on earth would you do that?"
Sarah forced a smile. "Oh, didn’t you hear? The Queen offered Toby a chance to be a Rider. So he swore fealty to her, and he’ll leave with her. I’ll miss him, but—it’s his dream."
Serafima grew pale. "Child—you can’t. You can’t let that monster take him."
Sarah stared at Serafima. "It’s his dream—Serafima, what aren’t you telling me?"
Serafima twisted her pinions in her apron. "I assumed you knew! Everybody knows, for all nobody talks about it. How do you think they live in such luxury? How are they able to live such a soft life?"
Sarah clenched her hands into fists and then reached out to still Serafima’s pinions. "Serafima. I don’t know—whatever you’re saying, I haven’t heard, I don’t know.." Serafima hesitated and Sarah reached to grab her by the shoulders. "You cannot let me walk into this blind. For my sake, for Toby’s sake, tell me."
"We do not often speak of it, because we are afraid. Their ears are sharp and their power is vast and strange—accidents befell those who spoke out, so it was safer not to speak of it." Serafima spoke in a low voice. "We just assumed that everybody knew, and never thought that some day Yvaine the Beautiful, Yvaine the Bloody would outlive her notoriety."
"Serafima—," said Sarah, nearly hopping from leg to leg in impatience.
Serafima sat down on a chair beside the hearth and smoothed her apron. "The leviathans live on lux animae. The Teg can’t generate it in anything like quantities sufficient to run a leviathan, but they can channel it. And steal it."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "I know this, Serafima. Tell me why I shouldn’t let Toby go!"
Serafima’s eyes flashed fire and Sarah fell back, abashed. "Those of us who have been here from the beginning have our own guilt over complicity, child. This is not easy to tell you." Serafima drew a deep breath and said, "We here on the Goblin Kingdom leviathan live by stealing a day here and there. We are not the largest and we run poor. The Faerie kingdom is luxurious. They have lux animae to burn. They take entire lives."
Sarah blinked at Serafima. "I don’t—what?"
"The Queen made a bargain. Vast wealth and power in exchange for three lives every seven years. Not only a day, a moment, but their entire lives and every possibility of what they could have been." Serafima spat into the fire. "She gets others to pay the tithe."
"Others?" said Sarah.
"She’s going to sacrifice Toby! I have to save him!" Sarah whirled and began to run from the kitchen, but Serafima caught her by her left wrist.
"It’s not that easy, Sarah. He’s vowed himself to her. Words have meaning—he’s bound."
Sarah clenched her fists. "So tell me how I can break the binding. There must be a way."
"The Queen is running tight on time. She has nine months, and I don’t think she has the full three yet. She can’t sacrifice anyone who hasn’t bound themselves—and if the sacrifice isn’t made, her power fails," said Serafima.
"How do I stop her?"
Serafima’s crest slicked down tight to her neck. "I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone knows. The only two people around at the beginning were Herself and Jareth."
"I have to try." Sarah found that tears were threatening to spill. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, impatient, and Serafima released her wrist.
"I know you do, child. Go."
Sarah ran across the kitchen and out the door. Her feet beat a pattern of too late, too late on the scale, but she ran. Out the Hall and into the Cloisters. Bracing against the wind, no time to clip her harness onto the cable and ricocheting from upright to upright, to the landing. Toby’s face peered whitely from Asezozel’s cloak and the salamanders and will-o’-the-wisps couldn’t compete against the lowering gloom. Jareth was bowing low over Yvaine’s hand, and they both appeared unaffected by the wind. Sarah collapsed at the Queen’s feet.
"Please. Please. You can’t. You can’t take him—he’s my brother."
The Queen smiled. "Why, it’s the little maid. Are you sure I can’t take you away from this life of drudgery? I promise, you’d never have to wash another pot again." Jareth smiled mockingly beside her.
The tears spilled over, and Sarah let them fall. "Please. He’s my brother, and he’s only little. He doesn’t deserve to be sacrificed. Please. Please."
The Queen’s eyes hardened and her nostrils flared. "Who told you?"
Jareth blinked in satisfaction. "Why, Yvaine. They may be mortal, but they do talk. Besides, does it matter?"
Yvaine took a deep breath. "True." She turned to Sarah and extended her hands. Sarah took them automatically, and scrambled up. "Why, your brother will be honoured above all others! He will live in luxury and never know a moment’s pain!"
"Until you kill him." Sarah spat on the scales of the Landing. Yvaine looked genuinely puzzled, and Sarah saw a howling emptiness in her eyes. The world narrowed, and Sarah could only think I must free him as she lunged for Yvaine. Yvaine stepped back, startled, and Jareth caught Sarah around the waist, laughing as she fought.
"Sarah!" Toby reached for her from the back of the dragon, but Asezozel pinned his arms and swathed him in her cloak.
"I don’t think she’s listening to you, Yvaine." Jareth’s voice held amusement as he controlled Sarah’s struggles with no apparent effort.
"No. A pity. Still, it was pleasant to see you again, Jareth," said Yvaine.
Jareth bowed ironically, and said "Yvaine."
The Queen turned and stepped lightly onto the dragon’s clawed foot, and from there onto the base of its neck. She nodded to her court, and one by one, the dragons turned and dropped off the edge of the leviathan.
Sarah sobbed as Jareth dropped her onto the scales. Hancock raced over and mantled over Sarah protectively.
"Why, you appear to miss the boy," said Jareth.
Sarah choked. "He’s my brother. Of course I do!"
"The two do not necessarily follow," said Jareth. "And I suppose you’d do anything to get him back?"
Words failed Sarah and she nodded miserably.
"You are expressly forbidden from stealing a dragon and following him. You will fail." Jareth’s voice was cold and matter-of-fact. Sarah found herself bridling but forced her eyes down to the scales.
"Yes," Sarah muttered.
Jareth kicked at Hancock. "And keep that damn bird out of my sight!"
The wind howled, and Sarah collapsed to the scales and wept with despair.
"Get up." A hard foot prodded at Sarah’s shoulder. She made an incoherent sound of rejection and buried her face in her arms. "Get up."
Sarah rolled over and stared at Ruslana. "They took Toby," said Sarah eventually, her voice thick with tears.
"I know. And you can either sit there and cry for the rest of your life, or you can get up and do something about it. You have to decide—are you just going to let them do this to you? Are you just going to let them take and take and take and never say a word in protest because you’re a servant and that’s just how it works? Come on, Princess. I’m going. You can come with me. But we have to go right now," said Ruslana. Her eyes burned with passion and Sarah found herself standing without consciously deciding to.
"What can I do? She’s taken Toby," said Sarah.
"And you’re going to get him back. But it has to be now." Ruslana held out a hand. Sarah looked at it suspiciously for a second, then breathed deeply and reached out and clasped her own hand with Ruslana’s.
"What are we going to do?"
"... I don’t know. But we start with getting out of here," said Ruslana.
"Will you get Mark to help us?" asked Sarah.
Ruslana considered this briefly, then shook her head. "No. You and I are used to sneaking around. We’re going to need to be quick and quiet, and the less fuss we make, the better."
"Where are we going?" said Sarah.
Ruslana shrugged. "I figure we make it out of here to Drowned Ys and then see where we go from there. You can see if you can get some more information, and I can do... something. Anyrate. We get out of here, then worry about it."
"Well then. Let’s go." said Sarah.
They met again outside the kitchen. Sarah had her bundle of clothes strapped to her back. "Got it?" Sarah spoke in a low voice, in spite of the fact that the wind snatched the words from her mouth as soon as she said them. Ruslana nodded, and then glared as Hancock popped his head out of the bundle on Sarah’s back.
"Did you have to bring the damn rooster?" said Ruslana, annoyed.
Sarah looked wounded. "I can’t believe you’d suggest that! Of course I’m taking him. He’s all I have left of Toby! Besides, Jareth would probably kill him if I left him here."
Ruslana made a sour face, and then swung the kitchen door open. She held a finger to her lips and they eased the door gently shut. They each grabbed a cloth and tiptoed to the pantry.
"I’ve already packed something for you." The fire flared and illuminated Serafima, sitting in a chair and watching them quietly.
Ruslana widened her eyes and said defiantly, "I don’t know what you’re talking about!"
Serafima looked at them steadily, and Sarah felt a flush climb up to the roots of her hair. Ruslana tilted her chin and looked away.
"I’m sorry, Serafima, but I have to go," said Sarah.
Serafima smiled, and opened her arms. Sarah looked at her for a second and then she flung herself into Serafima’s familiar embrace. Ruslana made a creaking noise, and then did the same. Serafima’s wings folded around them and for a second Sarah allowed herself to believe that she was safe, and that Serafima would fix everything. She pushed back, and raised her chin.
"I’ve packed you food, in those two panniers there. They’ll strap to your backs. Longer-lasting stuff in the bottom, fruit and the like on the top," said Serafima. "Oh, girls. I know that you have to go, and I’ll delay them as long as I can."
Sarah nodded around the lump in her throat. Ruslana cleared her throat and swung the two panniers off the bench.
"If you make it to Drowned Ys, I have a cousin who works in the market. His name’s Gaius Secundus," said Serafima. "Now. There’s nothing much else I can offer you—I’m just a cook. But I just want to give you these," and she handed them each a hazelnut. "If you are in a situation that is far over your head and you need some protective camouflage, crack these. I don’t know exactly what they’ll do—my mother gave them to me, but I wanted to follow a different path and only used one. It helped, but not in a way that I expected. Now go! Hurry! Be quick and quiet!"
Sarah shoved the nut into her bundle of clothes. Hancock pecked at it desultorily and she tapped him on his metal comb. "Leave that alone!" said Sarah.
Ruslana shoved her nut into her pocket and moved impatiently to the door. "We have to go now, Princess. Before the Riders recover from the feast."
Sarah moved to the door, then hesitated and turned back. Serafima smiled, and Sarah stepped out into the night.
The Mews was deserted. The wind howled around the outside walls, and dragons clanked and grumbled in their stalls.
"What now, genius?" Sarah kept her voice to a furious whisper.
Ruslana hissed, and moved around the walls at a crouch, keeping to shadows. They paused in the corner and Ruslana said "You know Owain’s my father?"
Sarah blinked at her. "Er. No, I didn’t. Congratulations?" Ruslana turned and looked at her, and Sarah offered weakly "I’m sorry?"
Ruslana shrugged. "He’s kind of a bastard. Abandoned my mother and me when it was clear that I wasn’t going to look Teggish, with the thorns and all. But I’m still his daughter, for all he denies it. And that means I can channel lux animae, a bit. And also—"
"You can talk to dragons!" Sarah’s voice rose with excitement, and Ruslana held a furious finger to her lips in response.
"Who goes there? Show yourselves!" Hoggle unclipped his harness from the cable and strode into the centre of the weathering yard. Sarah went to stand out of the shadows, but Ruslana gripped her shoulder fiercely. They crouched, hardly daring to breathe. Hoggle waited for a second and then turned to go. Ruslana slumped with relief and as she did so, scraped one of the thorns on her elbows down the mews wall. Hoggle stiffened and turned around, advancing on the corner.
Sarah sighed, and stood up. "Hello, Hoggle."
"Sarah, it’s you. Better get inside, this storm’s not going to blow over soon." Hoggle’s eyes were obviously adjusting to the light, for he saw Ruslana crouching behind her and stiffened. "What—Sarah, what are you doing?" said Hoggle.
Sarah gripped her clothes and stared fiercely at Hoggle. His gaze took in her clothes, and Ruslana carrying the panniers. "Oh no. Sarah, you can’t."
Sarah strode forward and grasped his hands. "Hoggle, I must. It’s for Toby."
Hoggle closed his eyes. "Well, if you must, you must. But I’m coming with you." Ruslana and Sarah both started to protest, but he held up a hand. "Now, there’s no use arguing, I’ve made up me mind."
Sarah drew a breath to protest further, but Ruslana said "Fine. Now be quiet," and with that they were on the move again. They ducked into the prep room, and Ruslana grabbed several sets of riding leathers. "Aha! Take these, wear ‘em. It gets cold when you’re riding, Owain said. Also, a hat, goggles and ear protection."
Hoggle grumbled. "Why should we do that?"
Ruslana stared at him. "I don’t know, but it’s part of the Rider’s uniform for a reason, so we take them."
"Which dragon are we going to take?" said Sarah, pulling on the leathers.
Ruslana shrugged. "I’m not bonded to any of ‘em, and I’ve never fed any of ‘em. So really, just whoever is prepared to take us."
Sarah struggled with her voice for a second. "That’s your plan?"
Ruslana glared at her. "It’s a hell of a lot more than you’ve contributed, Princess. Unless you’ve got something useful to say, you can just shut the hell up."
Sarah threw her shoulders back and stepped forward. Ruslana stood straighter and dropped her hands by her sides. Hoggle stepped inbetween them, with hands outstretched. "Girls. Fight later. Right now we need to escape."
Sarah dropped her chin and nodded, and Ruslana looked away. "I’ll see who’ll speak to me. Hang on," said Ruslana. Sarah shifted uneasily as the seconds crawled away, and then Ruslana spoke. "Got it. Over here," and she led them out of the prep room and towards a small stall in the furthest corner of the Mews. They unlatched the door and stepped forward warily. Something shifted in the dark, and Sarah’s breath caught. A light flared in the corner of the stall and Sir Didymus looked at them gravely.
"I cannot let you pass, fair maidens." He rested his hand on the red to grey to black dragon beside him. The dragon was significantly smaller than many others Sarah had seen, but it was still at least twice Sarah’s height at the shoulder. She swallowed, and the dragon regarded them with interest and blinked.
"Sir Didymus—" Sarah’s voice failed with frustration. They’d come this far!
"I have sworn an oath." Didymus stood straight and proud and true. Hoggle made an incoherent noise of frustration and pushed forward. Sir Didymus’ eyes narrowed and he pulled a bodkin out from his riding leathers. "Do not presume upon our friendship. I will keep my word!" Hoggle bared his teeth and picked up a wooden plank that was on the floor, gripping it like a bat.
Sarah took a deep breath. "Sir Knight. What was the word you gave?"
"I have sworn that so long as I retain the spark of consciousness, I will fight to defend the Goblin Kingdom from any and all threats!" said Didymus.
Sarah stared at him. "Didymus, we’re two girls, a dwarf and a metal rooster. We intend no harm to the Goblin Kingdom." Hoggle edged into the shadows and Sarah lost sight of him.
Sir Didymus looked disapproving. "And your attempted theft of the dragon? That is indeed harm, for it is dragons are a resource that leviathans can’t spare."
Ruslana rolled her eyes. "You’ve got to be kidding me. Melchior’s a runt! I heard Father say that’s the only reason that they let you be a Rider."
Sir Didymus looked wounded, and Sarah stepped forward, hands outstretched. "Please, Sir Didymus. I must rescue Toby."
Sir Didymus looked torn for a second. He bit his lip, and then pointed his bodkin straight at them. "I cannot go back on my word."
Hoggle stepped from the shadows, and clipped Didymus neatly behind the ear with the plank. He caught Didymus as Didymus crumpled, and lowered him gently onto the straw. "Well, now you won’t have to," said Hoggle, gruffly. He caught Sarah and Ruslana looking at him. "What? He told us himself. ‘As long as he retains the spark of consciousness!’ So if he’s unconscious..."
Sarah clapped her hands. "He hasn’t breached his oath. Hoggle, you’re brilliant!"
The dragon swung his head around and looked at them with interest. Sarah caught her breath, but Ruslana stepped forward.
"Melchior says he’ll help us, if we’ll let him go free afterwards. He hates it here—the other dragons pick on him," said Ruslana. "We’ll need to put his harness on and strap ourselves in. Sarah, come help me with this."
With a little direction from Melchior, they managed to get him harnessed. Sarah stared at the unconscious Sir Didymus for a minute. "What do we do with Sir Didymus?" she asked, looking over her shoulder at Ruslana. Hoggle snorted and Ruslana shrugged.
"Can’t leave him here, he’s duty bound to give the alarm. We’d better take him with," said Ruslana. And with that, she helped Hoggle lift Didymus onto Melchior, into the third saddle along Melchior’s spine.
Sarah patted Melchior uncertainly on his multi-coloured hide before starting to climb. He made a grumbling sound, and nudged her upwards until she was seated on his spine just before his hindquarters, in the fourth and final saddle. Ruslana climbed easily into the pilot seat between Melchior’s forequarters, and leaned over to haul Hoggle up. Sarah checked her straps, and then braced herself as Melchior lurched forward and through the vast stable door.
The leviathan was dark and deserted as Melchior slunk silently through the Dragon Walks to the Landing. In the distance, a lone light glowed from window of the Throne Room. Sarah held her breath. Almost there! They grew closer to the window, but were afforded some measure of protection by the high walls of the Cloisters adjoining the Walks, until finally they were crossing the Parade Grounds, running the gauntlet between Throne Room and Barracks. Hoggle muttered "Here we go," and Melchior started off across the open lit space.
Sarah was thankful for the wind—it whipped her hair around her face, but at least it hid the sound of Melchior’s claws on the scale. They’d crossed half of the vast Parade Ground, when the light changed. Sarah looked up and saw Jareth in the window of the Throne Room. He looked down at them and she met his eyes. For a second, they both held still—then his eyebrow quirked and he shouted "Guards! Guards!" There was a clatter from the Barracks that bordered the parade ground.
"Shit," said Ruslana, succinctly, and then she kicked Melchior. "Run."
Melchior increased his pace, breaking from a slinking sneak into a bone-jarring trot, and then a shambling run. Riders swarmed out of the Barracks. Sarah was briefly aware of Owain wielding an axe and grabbing onto Melchior’s harness by his forequarters, but then Ruslana swung a thorny foot and he was gone. Sarah hung on as Melchior rounded the corner at speed, careening into the Cloisters. She grunted as his hindquarters slammed into an upright, but her straps held and then finally they were onto the Landing. Melchior’s gait improved with room to stretch out, and then they were at the edge of the shell and falling.
They plummeted through cloud with Melchior’s wings half open. Above them, Sarah could hear shouts as Riders harnessed dragons and launched from the leviathan.
"Ruslana!" called Sarah. "We’re being chased. If Melchior has any ideas, better do them soon!"
Ruslana swore, and glanced grimly upwards. She patted Melchior’s neck. "He’s got an idea, but you’re not going to like it," Ruslana called back. "He says there’s too many of them and they hunt in formation. We need to go deeper into the storm and hide." She reached down beside her into a long pouch strapped to the harness and pulled out a series of light metal poles with cloth attached. "Attach these to the harness beside you—there’s a recess and then you pull straps around it, then crouch down low in your saddle as you can. Pull the cloth above you and fasten it to the other pole. Melchior says not to touch him or the poles. Make sure you stay in your saddle."
"Why?" said Sarah.
"Lightning. And make sure you’ve got your leathers laced across your face and ear protection in." Ruslana suited her actions to her words.
Sarah sighed, and said "Balls." But she settled the goggles on her face.
The storm roared around them and Sarah’s muscles ached. For all that Melchior beneath her was radiating heat, she was chilled to the bone, and cramped from hours of hunching in her saddle. Icy needles had found every inch of exposed skin, and she could no longer feel her face. Ahead of her Didymus was groaning. Hoggle was huddled into as small a ball has he could possibly manage. Ruslana turned and tugged the leathers away from her mouth as she waved. "Melchior says that there’s a city ahead. And we’ve lost the Riders—Melchior says the command to retreat went out an hour ago, but he wanted to be sure."
"Thank Aeolus!" said Hoggle. Then Melchior dropped below the clouds, which broke apart to stream sunshine on the city below.
Drowned Ys lay open and golden before them.
END OF BOOK ONE.