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Marten of Astraea

The Exiled Prince

0 · 437 views · located in The Underground

a character in “Labyrinth: New Tales of the Underground”, as played by diabolicalxdamsel

Description

Name
Marten Gwyndion

Image

Appearance: Marten stands at a tall 6'1 with a lean, lanky build. His sallow skin is a soft pale, he has a strong jawline with prominent cheekbones, a straight pointed nose, and a high forehead. His eyes are dark, almost as black as his hair that hangs limply by his ears. His clothing is often black as well and lacking of any embellishments or designs, outside of a gold-embroidered collared shirt for formal events.

Age:Looks to be in his mid to late thirties, but is a good deal older.

Personality:
Marten carries a heavy air about him. He received the brunt of his mother's curse, and his heart has been overwhelmed in Darkness his whole life. He comes off as broody and standoffish when he isn't conducting business . However, he is drawn to extravagant parties and crowds of people, and he can sometimes be seen smiling and laughing in jovial company. He isn't necessarily menacing or cruel, but his selfishness makes him very shortsighted, and he gravitates towards any fix that promises to make him forget out his own sins.

Equipment:
Since his exile, he has lost possession of his most powerful items. He wears his mother's ring around his neck. It functions as a sort of charm to help maintain the little Light inside him. He also wears a pair of gold cuffs, a sign of his exile and demotion in the kingdom.

History
A few years after Lili gave birth to Astraea's brightest star, Marten came along as a terrible reminder that the curse of Darkness still clung to the royal family. While Dedric's very presence brought a sense of happiness and ease, Marten carried with him a heavy aura of fear and despair. Even as a child, members of the court avoided much contact with the boy, and teacher after teacher resigned due to their own growing uneasiness around him. He grew up a dark shadow hovering in his brothers light. Dedric was one of the few that didn't shy away from him, and was granted the task of keeping watch over his little brother. People feared his Darkness, so he was often under close supervision and strict rules in order to keep him from drifting further into it. Dedric became his watcher, limiting him from other children and soon became a bit of a bully, exercising the power he had over his sibling. All precautions were for naught once Marten became a teenager. He got his hands on a book of spells and began practicing black magic and sorcery. Feeling despised and unwanted in his kingdom, he desecrated his father's sword, turning into a tool to cut the veil between the Aboveground and the Underground. He would sneak away, joining bands of unsavory humans, partaking in a menagerie of vices and seducing the women. His meddling with the two worlds coaused near disastrous consequences . Nearly a dozen humans had to have their memories wiped, two gnomes suffered traffic-related injuries, and a unicorn foal was nearly lost to the Aboveground for good.
His behavior also sparked the wrath of Queen Mab who had to send several of her best magic-workers to undo the damage. Marten was put on tribunal, his father's sword was destroyed, and he was made to stay locked in his castle for an indefinite amount of time.
He couldn't take it. The news of his actions spread wildly across Astraea and citizens used them as evidence to prove that he was an incurable monster. Just one last time, using what power her had left, he managed to cross over again. This time he stayed, spending several weeks sharing a trailer with a human woman. He was passed out next to his companion in an abandoned warehouse, looking nearly catatonic in his heroine haze whenever he was finally found. His brother dragged him back home and the woman never knew what had happened.
Luckily, no one passed the veil this time, but it was soon discovered that Marten made yet another detrimental mistake; he fathered a child. Suddenly, Marten was finally hit with the concequences of his doings. Fearing that the child had inherited his Darkness, Mab, Dedric, the Astraean court, and eventually Marten agreed that she should remain in the Aboveground. For his crimes, Marten was shackled with a pair of gold cuffs made to block any and all of his power.
As his world purified the substances from his body, his guilt grew. He knew he had done a terrible thing. He blamed the curse for forever marking him as an evil man. He had a child who would never know her father. Over the years he tried desperately to gain a window to the Abovegound, to see his daughter's face and know that he at least made one good decision in keeping her there. One of his servants took pity over his distress and agreed to help just one time. His heart broke at the sight; sitting on a stool, a little black-haired girl was staring at the ground, tears streaming as she apologized to a screaming woman who was cursing her existence wishing it never happened. He couldn't live with himself if that continued, desperately he asked for a favor from an acquaintance that could cross over with some help and could take her someplace safe. In exchange, he offered any and every service that he could at any time he would be needed.
He managed to get one more peek at his daughter a few years later. From a world away, he saw his child nestled on a couch in between a handsome couple as the woman read from a copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. He could finally be at ease.
Nowadays, he functions as nothing more than his brother's servant. As a figurehead, he still attends social events, but he is largely uninvolved in political matters. He believes that he has quite earned his pitiful position and feels the his is atoning for his sins.

So begins...

Marten of Astraea's Story

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Jareth The Goblin King Character Portrait: Prince Dedric of Astraea Character Portrait: Marten of Astraea
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"Yes, yes I'm coming," muttered an irritable Marten Gwyndion into one of his gold cuffs that had began to glow in a bright light. He had nearly finished dressing and was throwing on a loose, collared black tunic when he received his summons. Quickly, he cupped some cold water from a basin by his wardrobe and splashed it on his face. He ran his hands through lengthy coal black hair and tucked his mother's ring that hung from a black cord under his collar. He never cared for mornings, but he was always expected to be one of the first out of bed to prepare the Prince for his daily duties. Stifling a yawn, he left the safe confides of his bedroom in a brisk walk. His older brother hated to be kept waiting.

He had long grown accustomed to the servants diverting their gaze and distancing themselves from his path, but many still made the effort to address him with some respect. Long before his exile, rumors spread about Lili's youngest son.
"He's a bad seed, I tell you." He once overheard a court member say when he was a child.
"Mark my words, he'll be nothing but trouble and misery for this kingdom," another had said
"He is Darkness reborn" the cook theorized.

Marten would grow to fulfill some of the kingdom's expectations, earning a reputation of being a menace, a deviant, and a selfish addict who nearly threw Astraea into yet another state of turmoil due to his actions. Life wasn't easy being the child who carried the brunt of his mother's curse. When Lili allowed the influence of the Lord Darkness to enter into her pure heart, it became divided, possessing equal amounts of both energies. Her offspring weren't so evenly split. The eldest, Dedric, came to the world like like a breath of the eternal spring the kingdom dwelled in and smiled happily just hours after his arrival. He radiated a sort of purity that caused servants and citizens alike to look upon him like a child messiah. Marten's birth on the other hand carried with it a cold reminder that the curse still possessed a firm hold over Astraea. He certainly didn't look evil, but he carried with him a cold, heavy aura that induced a sense of dread to anyone around him.

Growing up, he endured a parade of tutors and nursemaids, most of whom struggled to treat him with the same warmth and affection as Dedric. Other children avoided him altogether, too afraid to even pick on him. His brother never seemed affected by his presence, and generally treated with kindness and fairness though he was often bossy and used his position as future king to call the shots during playtime. However, he couldn't resist the attention and adoration of his other peers, and soon left Marten to his own devices.

As teen, he became fed up with the sympathetic gestures of his parents. His brother had long sided with his friends and often reminded Marten of the terrible thing he had inside him. He developed in interest in the magical sciences, finding black magic in particular to be the most gratifying. With little effort, he could bring life to inanimate objects, he could manipulate the elements and bend them to his power. At last he felt a sense of control, a reason to take pride in himself in his brother's shadow. Dedicating years of study to his art, he grew more powerful, as did the Darkness in his heart. His depression, anger, and sense of isolation deepened and he resented his home for rejecting him. He found a way out, a way to pierce the veil between the Underground and Aboveground. On the other side, he found a marvelous world with a tremendous population of rejected souls...and they welcomed him into their company with open arms. For the first time in his life, Marten felt like he belonged. He ran wild in a bustling human city of tall gray towers, thick black smoke and vices to ease every pain he suffered and women who found him to be a handsome bedmate.

He jumped between worlds as often as he could get away with, but he never learned to seal the portal behind him. An unknowing human would be crossing through an alley on a winter's night and find themselves in a blossoming warm forest bathing in sunshine. A gnome would be digging for truffles and cross over onto hard, black pavement, standing face to face with a starved, feral stray dog. By then, Marten's mind was clouded by a variety of substances. He wasn't aware of the mayhem he had left behind.

Even after the courts found him out and put him on his first trial, he went back. He couldn't stand returning to the faces that now glowered in their confirmation that their young prince did the Darkness' bidding. He fled back to the Aboveground swearing never to return. He found a human woman who shared her ramshackle trailer outside of her city. Together, they spun deeper into their addictions hiding away in abandoned warehouses and buildings, lounging in their mindless stupors.

At last, he was found by the imperial guard that had braved the crossing to bring him home. In his absence, a unicorn foal, the purest of creatures that helped anchor the light to Astrea, had wandered through his portal and was nearly lost to the Aboveground. This was the worst crime he could commit and finally had to pay his dues in full. Mab sentenced him to exile, stripping him of all titles, revoking all of his magical ability, and putting him under Dedric's watch. Outside of formal affairs where he still acted as a sort of figurehead, he was sentenced to stay inside the castle indefinitely.

After suffering months of withdrawal, he discovered that he made another mistake, a mistake that would finally wake him up to the true impact of all his meddling.

Lilian

That's what he called her. Near the end of his trials he had been informed that he had conceived a child with his human partner. He knew what she was like. He knew what kind of home the girl would grow up in. At first he begged, pleaded with the high court to steal the girl away and bring her to him. They denied his request, citing the fact that she carried the curse as we'll and that there was already too much darkness in Astraea.

"Besides," his brother said "you certainly don't have the best track record for responsibility and I have far too much on my plate dealing with your disasters to look over your illegitimate spawn as well."

Reluctantly, he agreed and prayed that the woman would do good with the child. He was never told her name, never saw her face, but finally Marten Gwyndion knew pure, unconditional love and took on his punishments without resistance. He became a servant to his brother and put his whole existence in his hands. After all, what better way to make up for his shortcomings, than to serve the Prince of the Light himself? He was given gold cuffs, shackles tied to a ring his brother wore that would glow anytime he required his assistance.

Still, Marten couldn't resist working one more bit of magic. After seven years of secrecy and asking for help from some unsavory characters, he opened a window into his daughters world. Helplessly, he watched tears stream down his child's face as her mother unleashed an avalanche of hateful words, words he had heard people say about himself in secret whispers, but never in ear-splitting screams. In a panic, he searched his kingdom and beyond for help. On a stroke of luck, the Goblin King paid his city a visit. He had heard about how he traveled to the Aboveground and stole a child. He promised Jareth anything and everything if he would just take his daughter someplace safe. The deal was struck and Jareth delivered as promised. A few years later, he managed to peek through one more time. At ten years old, his black-haired girl sat snugly in between a pleasant middle aged couple. The woman was reading, exaggerating her face and voice and making her laugh. The man put an arm around her, and Marten felt a pang in his heart. A least she was safe, safe and so very happy.

His brother found out, jailing his helpers and installing around the clock watchers to make sure he never used magic again.

"Put her far from your mind," his brother said "you're nothing to her and she's perfectly happy with her human parents. Let her live her life."

Since that day, his life had become a regular routine of service to Dedric and he was never out of his sights for long. Dedric liked him close, even when meeting with high officials, Marten stood behind him like some silent, shameful child. Occasionally, he got to enjoy some peace from his brother's presence at formal parties where he was too busy striking trade deals and alliances with other rulers to be bothered.

Today wasn't any different than the others before. He was to directly go to his brother's bed chamber and prepare him for the day. He walked down the long hallway with its elegant vaulted ceilings and gigantic windows overlooking the sunrise as it peeked over the distant mountains. He didn't bother to knock when he approached his brother's door.

____________

Dedric was still in his dressing gown when he heard his door creak open.

"Marten, I have some news" he said without turning around. He knew whenever his brother walked into a room; the air always felt chillier. "The High Court has just announced where they will be holding their centennial ball."

"Oh?" Marten replied. "By the sound of it, they didn't accept your application for it to be held here."

Dedric shook his head, frowning as he finally turned. "Unfortunately not. Mab seems particularly adamant about the Goblin City hosting the festivities." He knew that would get his brother's attention.

"No kidding. My, that ought to prove to be...well interesting to say the least."

"Ugh, it's going to be a disaster if you ask me."

Not that Dedric thought ill of the city or its king, he actually didn't think much about the place at all. At his core, he fancied himself a businessman of sorts wheeling and dealing on behalf of his kingdom. He knew how to positively charm leaders and push trade agreements in his favor. He thrived in his position, managing to shield much of his country's infighting from other nations. Astraea's prime export was its bountiful crops, boasting the widest variety of produce in the Underground. His kingdom was also envied for its natural beauty, the vast wilderness around the city forever bloomed in endless spring, not counting the winter that his mother first unleashed the dreaded curse.

He saw the Goblin City as a quirky little place, an ancient husk of a city populated by untold numbers of unpleasant creatures and one lonely man. It possessed no exports (unless someone ever needed sand, hedge bushes or garbage), Jareth never seemed to bother too much in maintaining foreign relations with his neighbors, and the city itself was just...well, dull. Sure it was a special place in its own way, much like a skeleton of a man still walking around powered by his own refusal to die. Dedric just didn't see anything beneficial in conducting business with the place. He would have preferred to skip the event altogether, but he knew his attendance was not optional and would reflect poorly upon him among the Underground.

"And on top of that," he said "we only have two weeks to prepare. I'll be needing you to compile a list of anyone outside of the High Court who will be expected to attend."

Marten nodded as he opened the wardrobe and laid out the day's clothing. Dedric moved to the mirror as his brother began dressing him.

Like his brother, Dedric inherited their father's black hair, but his lay in tousled curls like their mother. He also had Jack's piercing blue eyes that could disarm even the most rigid of maidens. He was just a bit taller than Marten, but that could have been in the way he carried himself: straight back and chin tilted high. Marten tended to slouch, eyes watching the floor. He pitied the man sometimes. He was born with far more Darkness in his heart and thus became attracted to its power. Dedric really tried to lend a hand growing up offering companionship and tutoring him when his teachers tucked tail and ran. However, he was five years older and thus inevitably joined the ranks of his fellow noble peers who didn't care for the younger prince's company.

So whenever Marten first started causing issues some thirty odd years ago, Dedric felt partially responsible. He knew his brother possessed Darkness inside him, but he didn't do enough to help keep it under control. Now, after having to ask Mab for permission to wipe the memories of half a dozen humans that had wandered into his forest from the Aboveground, after having to sneak a twenty man search unit into the Aboveground to frantically search for a lost unicorn foal, after having to deal with the humiliation of the court accusing him of hiding the truth of his brother having a love child with an Aboveground human, after an untold number of trials, he felt that he had Marten properly supervised. For fifteen years, he had not practiced any magic. Dedric knew about the first time he had opened a window. He had peeked through his bedroom door and decided his rule breaking slide. Seeing his poor Lilian suffer her terrible fate was punishment enough. During the Goblin King's still too recent visit, a servant told him that she had overheard Marten strike up some bargain with him in order to have the child taken someplace else. Once again he kept silent. After all, he knew she was being abused and she was still his niece; he wasn't heartless. But after that, Dedric watched him, keeping tabs on all of his known contacts for magical ingredients. Sure enough, he caught his brother red handed a few years later checking up on his daughter again.

"Look at her, she is perfectly fine, happy, and heathy" he had told him. "She has a father, a mother; you can let her go. Now I'm reporting this violation of your exile to the High Court."

Over the years, Dedric would glance into his niece's life. He watched her grow and made sure no one from the Underground brought her to his kingdom. She may have looked kind in her world, but he feared what Darkness she had inside her. Besides, he had plans to produce an heir himself, though he knew his time was starting to tick away. A wife was hard to find when all the women around him were so star struck, they forgot to behave like normal persons.

"When will you be needing that list" Marten asked as he finished his task.

"As soon as you can" said Dedric "I have come up with a few trade routes I'd like to discuss with some neighbors to the North and East."

One thing was for certain, no matter how droll of a party he had to endure, he wouldn't be leaving empty handed.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Prince Dedric of Astraea Character Portrait: Marten of Astraea
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"Great Lady of the Stars, your humble child beckons you..."

Marten pressed his forehead into the opal-colored tiles of Astraea's temple floor. With his knees curled beneath him, head down, and arms extended toward's her figure's feet, he began his morning prayers.

"May your kingdom remain in unity and may your light pierce through its Darkness."

The temple sat just outside the capital city, topping a large, gently sloping hill. It was a open air structure reminiscent of Grecian architecture with a large dome propped up by a dozen marble columns adorned with feather-light white cloth. The statue depicted a toga clad woman with hair spilling down to her knees. She wore a simple banded crown around her brows and her face was tilted upward. One arm hung down holding a pair of scales that would tilt during times of disharmony. The other arm extended high above her, fingers stretching towards a silver and gold star that floated independently above her.

"Guide the Great Prince Dedric on the noble path of justice and may he never stray away from it. May the people forever hold you in their hearts so fully that they have no room for the temptations of Darkness. Protect us from all that is evil, all that is cold. May the roots of our eternal spring hold fast against the destructive forces of fear, hate, and greed."

It was during this ritual that Marten felt at peace. Away from the whispers and the stares, he felt secure and loved in the light of his goddess. He had become quite the spiritual man in his atonement, and before Astraea's statue, he felt a humility without self-hatred.

"Watch over the Royal party as we begin our journey through the Underground to spread your blessings and secure our place in the realm."

He felt the breeze pick up and the sun had rose over the trees, casting a rich, golden glow on the temple floor.

"And as always, watch over your daughter in the Aboveground. Hold her in your holy embrace and keep her safe from all harm. May she know the Light of love and may it always lead her home.

He stood and presented an offering of a basket filled with cherries at her feet. He would be back later to pay his respects with Dedric before their trip, but he always preferred to worship alone.

_____


"Did the court receive the guidelines I expect them to follow in my absence?" asked Dedric as Marten secured the clasp of his mantel that draped over his shoulders.

"Of course," said Marten. "And yes they know how to reach me should you be needed, and yes Lord Marrowing has agreed to head the Festival of Ferns while we're gone, and yes our cargo station now has plenty of mirthberry wine and gilly figs to present to our neighbors. We are all set to go, brother. We're fine."

Dedric sighed and nodded. "Right. Excellent. Now if you can just carry those bags down to Hugo..." he said pointing to two sizable sacks of some thick, red leather. With a groan, Marten managed to lift them both and carry them on unsteady legs to where the royal party was packing.

Unlike most of the Underground kingdoms, Astraean nobility did not travel by instantaneous means. The world outside their land benefited by the warmth and sunshine that accompanied the party as it traveled, spreading bouts of good weather and crop growth. Travelling by foot was one way Astrea did their part in maintaining the overall well being of the Underground. The journey usually required a good deal of forethought, planning, and communication between the cities that they would be staying in. Dedric had spent the last week mulling over letters and invites, requesting audiences with various noblemen pitching promises of unique goods in exchange for room and board. After arranging some meetings, Dedric surmised that the journey would last them a good ten days. He hated being away from his city for so long. Why did the high council insist on extending the ball for two entire weeks century after century? He wouldn't require more than five days to get his own affairs in order, he was certain. The rest would simply be a waste of time that is unless he could spend it wooing a potential wife. He felt somewhat resentful that his disaster of a brother had long managed to spawn his own offspring without really meaning to, while he had to dance around bureaucracy just to get an audience with a proper woman. Then again, Marten's tastes were far lass refined.

He closed his eyes, walking himself through a mental checklist several times over. Everything was in place. He just had to loosen his grasp over his city. This trip would be the longest he'd been away from home since his reign began. He walked towards his enormous bedroom window. Parting the curtains, he gazed down at the citizens that and begin to populate the sidewalks, ready to bid their leader and hero farewell.

_____

Marten tugged at his collar as beads of sweat already began to trickle down his neck. Dedric insisted that he wear the lined dress shirt despite the heat. The temperature would drop once they were out of Astraea, but until then he was roasting. His brother approached, donned in white and gold and gave him a firm clap on the back.

"Let's go see all those loving faces" he said smiling widely

"Loving faces, right" replied Marten as he watched his brother practically leap onto the wagon that would be parading them through the city. It never ceased to amaze him how quickly the man could go from being gruff and business-like to warm and sprightly. Dedric offered an arm and helped hoist him up. Dedric took his place at the head of the wagon while Marten took a seat on a bench behind him. He detested nothing more than these overblown processions. They were all the same: Dedric basking and beaming in the light of his people's adoration, the same people who subsequently cast scorns and jeers like stones at the younger, exiled prince and still he had to wave. Still he had to smile and carry on, numb himself against the world and be a martyr to it.

The half-hour ride felt endless, especially in his hot clothing. At last, it was over. He could crawl into the confides of the royal carriage and peel off some of his regalia.

Three weeks he thought. Nearly three entire weeks away from that damnable castle. He hadn't been away from home since his sentencing. The High Council granted him the privilege to travel. His behavioral record had been spotless for twenty-five years outside of the one incident of peeking into his daughter's world. He could feel years of tension melt from his shoulders as he watched the city shrink into the distance.

"Yeah, I'm going to miss the place too" he heard a wistful Dedric say.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Joby Jones Character Portrait: Prince Dedric of Astraea Character Portrait: Marten of Astraea
Tag Characters » Add to Arc »

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"Great Lady of the Stars, your humble child beckons you..."

Marten pressed his forehead into the opal-colored tiles of Astraea's temple floor. With his knees curled beneath him, head down, and arms extended toward's her figure's feet, he began his morning prayers.

"May your kingdom remain in unity and may your light pierce through its Darkness."

The temple sat just outside the capital city, topping a large, gently sloping hill. It was a open air structure reminiscent of Grecian architecture with a large dome propped up by a dozen marble columns adorned with feather-light white cloth. The statue depicted a toga clad woman with hair spilling down to her knees. She wore a simple banded crown around her brows and her face was tilted upward. One arm hung down holding a pair of scales that would tilt during times of disharmony. The other arm extended high above her, fingers stretching towards a silver and gold star that floated independently above her.

"Guide the Great Prince Dedric on the noble path of justice and may he never stray away from it. May the people forever hold you in their hearts so fully that they have no room for the temptations of Darkness. Protect us from all that is evil, all that is cold. May the roots of our eternal spring hold fast against the destructive forces of fear, hate, and greed."

It was during this ritual that Marten felt at peace. Away from the whispers and the stares, he felt secure and loved in the light of his goddess. He had become quite the spiritual man in his atonement, and before Astraea's statue, he felt a humility without self-hatred.

"Watch over the Royal party as we begin our journey through the Underground to spread your blessings and secure our place in the realm."

He felt the breeze pick up and the sun had rose over the trees, casting a rich, golden glow on the temple floor.

"And as always, watch over your daughter in the Aboveground. Hold her in your holy embrace and keep her safe from all harm. May she know the Light of love and may it always lead her home. 

He stood and presented an offering of a basket filled with cherries at her feet. He would be back later to pay his respects with Dedric before their trip, but he always preferred to worship alone.

_____


"Did the court receive the guidelines I expect them to follow in my absence?" asked Dedric as Marten secured the clasp of his mantel that draped over his shoulders.

"Of course," said Marten. "And yes they know how to reach me should you be needed, and yes Lord Marrowing has agreed to head the Festival of Ferns while we're gone, and yes our cargo station now has plenty of mirthberry wine and gilly figs to present to our neighbors. We are all set to go, brother. We're fine."

Dedric sighed and nodded. "Right. Excellent. Now if you can just carry those bags down to Hugo..." he said pointing to two sizable sacks of some thick, red leather. With a groan, Marten managed to lift them both and carry them on unsteady legs to where the royal party was packing.

Unlike most of the Underground kingdoms, Astraean nobility did not travel by instantaneous means. The world outside their land benefited by the warmth and sunshine that accompanied the party as it traveled, spreading bouts of good weather and crop growth. Travelling by foot was one way Astrea did their part in maintaining the overall well being of the Underground. The journey usually required a good deal of forethought, planning, and communication between the cities that they would be staying in. Dedric had spent the last week mulling over letters and invites, requesting audiences with various noblemen pitching promises of unique goods in exchange for room and board. After arranging some meetings, Dedric surmised that the journey would last them a good ten days. He hated being away from his city for so long. Why did the high council insist on extending the ball for two entire weeks century after century? He wouldn't require more than five days to get his own affairs in order, he was certain. The rest would simply be a waste of time that is unless he could spend it wooing a potential wife. He felt somewhat resentful that his disaster of a brother had long managed to spawn his own offspring without really meaning to, while he had to dance around bureaucracy just to get an audience with a proper woman. Then again, Marten's tastes were far lass refined.

He closed his eyes, walking himself through a mental checklist several times over. Everything was in place. He just had to loosen his grasp over his city. This trip would be the longest he'd been away from home since his reign began. He walked towards his enormous bedroom window. Parting the curtains, he gazed down at the citizens that and begin to populate the sidewalks, ready to bid their leader and hero farewell.

_____

Marten tugged at his collar as beads of sweat already began to trickle down his neck. Dedric insisted that he wear the lined dress shirt despite the heat. The temperature would drop once they were out of Astraea, but until then he was roasting. His brother approached, donned in white and gold and gave him a firm clap on the back.

"Let's go see all those loving faces" he said smiling widely

"Loving faces, right" replied Marten as he watched his brother practically leap onto the wagon that would be parading them through the city. It never ceased to amaze him how quickly the man could go from being gruff and business-like to warm and sprightly. Dedric offered an arm and helped hoist him up. Dedric took his place at the head of the wagon while Marten took a seat on a bench behind him. He detested nothing more than these overblown processions. They were all the same: Dedric basking and beaming in the light of his people's adoration, the same people who subsequently cast scorns and jeers like stones at the younger, exiled prince and still he had to wave. Still he had to smile and carry on, numb himself against the world and be a martyr to it.

The half-hour ride felt endless, especially in his hot clothing. At last, it was over. He could crawl into the confides of the royal carriage and peel off some of his regalia. 

Three weeks he thought. Nearly three entire weeks away from that damnable castle. He hadn't been away from home since his sentencing. The High Council granted him the privilege to travel. His behavioral record had been spotless for twenty-five years outside of the one incident of peeking into his daughter's world. He could feel years of tension melt from his shoulders as he watched the city shrink into the distance.

"Yeah, I'm going to miss the place too" he heard a wistful Dedric say.

Later on when they were well away on their journey Dedric pressed his fingers into his temples and attempted to massage out a headache that had started when the carriage crossed onto the rocky, unused roads several miles out of the Goblin City.

"You'd think Jareth would have a mind that some of us would be coming in on foot." he griped "I swear that is the third enormous washed-out gulley we've had to drive through."

He watched Marten roll his eyes unsympathetically. His younger sibling never fully understood the importance of a king being serene and centered when entering the realm of politics nor did he seem to care that the rough transportation was putting that state of mind in jeopardy. 

Their train consisted of a small fleet of foot soldiers, several wagons bearing wine and fruit as a token to their host, a small ensemble of musicians, and several of their finest horses that shared a similar appearance to the Andalusian breeds of the Aboveground. Dedric and Marten would mount their own shortly in preparation of entering the city.

The early afternoon sun managed to penetrate through the hazy sky and through the carriage windows.
"Shut those blinds, brother. The light is doing nothing to alleviate this pounding in my skull."

Marten was just about to pull them closed when the Goblin City came into full view. He drew in a breath. Even from a distance, he could see banners for the Forgotten Desert, Empyrean, and other kingdoms that had arrived. Life around the castle seemed to flourish more than he had expected...it looked greener, fresher than how Dedric had described the place.
"Looks like the Astraean Spring has beaten us here."

Dedric leaned out, arching a brow. Marten knew his brother would mask his surprise.

"Huh. So it would appear....Oh, and look, even the Arid Flats look just as clean and inviting as I remember."

Marten sighed, refusing to let Dedric's foul mood spoil his own rare happiness. He was actually looking forward to seeing Jareth once again. He hadn't even spoke with him since he sent him to the Aboveground with a letter addressed to the people that took in his daughter. Under the conditions of his exile as well as Dedric's watchful eye, he had to express his gratitude in the form of a letter smuggled from the castle. He was a much bolder man then; he hoped the Goblin King wouldn't scoff too terribly at his current, pitiful state.

~@~

Some days before the ball was to occur Joby took the time to explain more about her perspective to her new friends.

"You know, I used to make up places like this" Joby had said one evening. She had been uncharacteristically quiet after dinner. She was sitting in front of the fire, absently stirring a cup of pre-bedtime tea, letting it grow cool and unfinished. The face that had met her meal with its typical, cheery smile, had slowly turned hard in the following hours. Her mouth looked tight and her eyes dull and distant.

"Magical places I mean." Her lips curled over her teeth as they struggled to shape the vowels to tell a story only her parents and girlhood therapist knew about.

"You see, some of the people in my world are, well, troubled. Some live hard lives and gravitate towards certain addictive substances as a means to cope, but they can only cope as long as they have the substance. My mother was one of these people. She was addicted to heroin. Things were...okay...whenever she had it. She would poke this needle in her arm and for the next few hours she would lie on the couch. She looked almost comatose. It made her practically incapable of caring for me. The man she bought from...the man I was named after...he was a good friend of hers like an uncle of sorts to me. He taught me how to read and how to cook for myself. He even got onto her sometimes about how she treated me."
Her spoon clacked a little louder against the walls of her mug. 

"But I guess that's not important. Anyway, whenever my mom didn't have this stuff, she would turn...angry. My father took off before he even knew mom was pregnant with me. She told me I looked a lot like him and I think she blamed him for many of her problems. She really only talked about him when she wasn't high. She said she saw a lot of him in me. I guess that's why she projected her anger onto me."

Her eyes hadn't left the fire, but they had become unfocused and hard and her mouth grew thin. She stopped stirring.

"When she couldn't get a fix, she would say these terrible things to me...about me. Sometimes she would be screaming, shaking my shoulders and telling me how all of her suffering was because of me. She said I was a bad seed...and a bad child...she said she could see a monster inside me. You see, things happen to severe heroin addicts if they can't get the drug. They can get sick...sometimes they hallucinate. She told me she could see a demon inside me. I-I think maybe she couldn't bear to see her own darkness you know? The people she hung around...the things she did...but she never saw what it was doing to me. As I said, my Uncle Joe taught me to read. If he loved anything as much as he loved burbon, it was a good story. My first book was given to me by him. It was a big, thick anthology of fairy tales. It became my escape, my solace. At first, I let the pictures guide my imagination, but soon, I could make worlds of my own. I withdrew inside myself. When mom went into one of her rages, she became a dragon, and I a lost princess being kept prisoner. Sometimes, I could make myself believe that I had a real family out there that would come and rescue me. When she was high and I had to care for myself, I pretended I was alone. I knew when mom was far too gone to notice me. I remember imagining I was a warrior knight practicing my sparring by smashing glasses with a curtain rod. Mom usually slept through the noise.

She laid her still full mug on the table next to her. She drew her knees against her chest, propping her chin on top of them and wrapped her arms around her legs.

"I went deeper into my imagination...pretending became real. Whenever I sensed mom growing agitated, I could take myself someplace else. We kind of switched places during those times, her pacing around the house making a racket, me sitting quiet and far, far away from her. Fantasy became more real to me than my actual life. There were rules, structure, predictability in stories. I think that's what disappointed me when I first came here, to realize that life in the Underground could be just as complicated and just as frightening. Back home though, fiction saved my life. The only way I knew how to survive living in...in...hate and filth and misery...was to convince myself that it didn't exist."

Her eyes began to well up.

"So now I have these...gaps...in my memory. Well, not gaps exactly, more like events that never happened. With some help from my wonderful, kind, loving parents that adopted me and a therapist, I've managed to remember a few things, but so much of my childhood is still lost to the things I made up. So..."

She had to steady her breathing, she could feel her heart thumping frantically against her chest. Her hands shook. She blinked, finally releasing a hot tear that streaked slowly down her cheek. She swallowed and steadied her voice. God, this was hard.

"So I don't know everything that has happened to me when I was a little girl....and I'm not sure if I ever want to."
Though she faced the fire, she stared straight through it. She remained silent for a few more moments before she snapped out of her trance. She shook her head, and turned back to her friends. Her chipper disposition slowly returned as she hurriedly mopped her face.

"Oh my. I am so, so sorry for burdening you with such an unhappy story," she said as she leapt to her feet and began to busy herself with cleaning dishes. " I've never even told my friends in the Aboveground about that. I don't know what came over me exactly. It's been on my mind for days now. I don't know...I just felt this compulsion, this need to air out some of my dirty laundry. Please don't feel sorry for me. I was picked up one night by a social worker. I was finally rescued and the two most wonderful people in the world chose me to be their daughter. It was hard in the beginning and it took a couple of years to fully get me out of my own head, but they loved me and cared about me enough to work through those difficult first years and ever since, I have been very blessed and very happy."

She dried her hands and clapped them together, smiling brightly at her friends.

"So, who's up for some tea?"

Over the span of nearly two weeks, Joby adjusted to life in the Labyrinth with surprising ease. She insisted on making herself a useful member of both the household as well as the Goblin City. She breezed through the Lady Knight's collection of botany books and found herself familiar with most of the native plants in a matter of days. She took on the task of caring for the surrounding orchards and delivering food throughout the city. Residents began to whisper among themselves about the plants' extraordinary response to the Abovegrounder's care. Her very presence seemed to bring new lushness to the hedge maze, especially along the areas of her daily travels. Produce would grow ripe in just hours after her touch. Some of the grounds keeping staff began to gripe about having to trim the hedges more frequently than usual. Joby on the other hand merely assumed the rapid botanical growth was part of the Underground's magic. She struck a bargain with a local goblin seamstress in which she cared for her own flowers and garden in exchange for a ball gown.

"Yew sure have a way with my lilies, missy," she told her one day. 
"I don't know about that, Finchie," replied Joby "I think they just have a way with me."

She grew familiar with several of the city's residents and discovered a culture worthy of some admiration. She found goblins to possess a blunt genuineness that was tremendously lacking but entirely necessary among her own kind. She loved their unapologetic attitudes and how, unless in the presence of their king, weren't afraid to speak their minds entirely. In so many ways, they reminded her of her Uncle Joe, and being in the city brought her back to the rare, happy moments of her turbulent childhood when she got to spend nights in his cluttered trailer listening to his hoarse growl of a voice bestow wondrous fairytales and solid words of wisdom. For the first time, she felt as if she could be her genuine self without worrying about who was watching. She didn't have to whisper when she spoke to the flowers, she shared stories with the goblins and didn't have to curb her enthusiasm in making big gestures and funny voices, she spoke her mind freely and honestly without the fear of ridicule. Here, she was more than some quirky hired hand; she had value, a real sense of self-worth. Nestled in the twists and turns of the labyrinth, Joby found her freedom.

She also found an unexpected vibrance within the walls. The labyrinth and the very city hummed with its own energy that she first felt in the hedges and then through the stone bricks. One day, Joby was strolling through one of the many narrow passages sliding the palm of her hand along a wall as she walked.

"You're very much alive, aren't you?" she had said.

At once, she could hear a groaning of shifting stone and she knew that the maze was taking her somewhere. One left turn and she stood before a magnificent tree, a tree that she didn't know had stood since the construction of the castle, but she marveled at the knotted, crooked branches, long thick roots, and dark, drooping leaves. She leaned against one of the walls smiling in silent gratitude.

Through Mag and the goblins, she learned about some of the kingdom's history. She heard the legends of Jareth's predecessor, the fearsome tyrant Ivor the Hammer Fist as well as his demise and the banishment of his cruel, child-enslaving chancellor. There was a lot of rumor and speculation about who was behind the former ruler's death, but it was clear that Jareth saved the lives of the children and dedicated his life to bringing life and stability back to the dying kingdom. In her mind, he became a sort of champion for the defenseless and forgotten, a symbol of hope for little lost souls such as what she had once been. Her perspective on the Goblin King changed tremendously since their initial meeting. She had to press harder for more details on the story of Sarah Williams. It seemed to be a sore subject in the city, and several of the goblins she spoke with didn't readily offer their personal opinions on the king's behavior back then. She got the gist that he had acted entirely counter to the rules and expectations of his ruler ship, that for the first time he acted out of selfishness and pinned many of the citizens against each other. Even still, many goblins in the city felt that their king took responsibility for his actions, even granting knighthood to several individuals that were brave enough to take a stand against him including Hoggle. 

Joby began to look like a proper denizen of the Labyrinth. Instead of cutoffs and tye dye, she wore Mag's borrowed breeches and tunic as well as a pair of sturdy brown boots all of which were a little too big on her. With the movements of the maze at a stop, and traps blocked, she eventually managed to learn her way around the place without the help of the orb. Instead, she wore it as a pendant, a much smaller sphere incased inside a slender, silver claw that hung from a long chain around her neck.

Although, she didn't know how or why, Joby could feel something within herself changing as well. One morning, she spent a solid fifteen minutes studying her reflection in the polished surface of one of Mag's shields. She poked and pinched her cheeks, tilted her chin this way and that, opened her mouth wide sticking out her tongue, and ran her fingers through her hair. She didn't appear to look any different, but she felt well.... healthier . She awoke in the mornings full of a spirited energy that didn't settle until sundown. She worked happily and tirelessly when she usually required caffeine or sugar by late noon back in Boston. She even felt that her brain was functioning with more clarity; her memory grew sharper and her thoughts became more present. Despite her worries about home, spent her days in a profound state of solace. She spent the early mornings watching the sun rise over the Arid Flats and dry ocean bed beyond it and couldn't help but believe the she had been pulled into the world for a reason.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Jareth The Goblin King Character Portrait: Joby Jones Character Portrait: Prince Dedric of Astraea Character Portrait: Elspeth Empyrean Character Portrait: Marten of Astraea
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The Labyrinth was bracing itself.

With the influx of so many new and strong personalities all arriving at once and the presence of so many non indigenous magical species, the maze almost groaned in its obligation to accommodate them all. Some groups that were arriving attracted its attention like the Astraeans whose people and magic was similar to the Labyrinth's own energies and hungers. But there were other groups that seemed to repel the Labyrinth and cause a kind of oppression like the Empyrean whose primarily leader was to descend to the ground for the first time. It was hard to say if the Labyrinth's attitude was somehow a reflection of Jareth's own projected anxieties, and this would not have been such a far fetched theory if it were not for the fact that while the Labyrinth and Jareth were consciously linked their subconscious wants and needs were separate and unique to each individually. Indeed Jareth's primary relationship in his life was the Labyrinth itself. Even the goblins took second place over the wants and needs of the great maze and that was one of the many seldom understood and known truths about the kingdom and Jareth's position there.

Jareth could feel the Astraeans arrive. And was relieved privately at the thought that both ruling brother and outcast had come with their party. While Jareth had had personal dealings with Marten, who was a weak but redeemable man, Jareth had had little reason or desire to deal with Dedric. When Marten had been punished Jareth had been included in the formal inquirers by the high council and had originally acted as a character witness and spoken in Marten's defense. Jareth had been honest about what he'd seen in the man. Technically, despite his position and the goblin King Jareth was also considered a figure among the ranks of the Good Neighbors (a collective grouping of magical men and women able to cross worlds in the interest of aiding those that fell in some way into the human vein). Jareth provided less services than others who shared his duties but nevertheless he had his obligations just like any of the Good Neighbors did.

He just didn't generally discriminate when it came to the type of people he was willing to help. Some had spoken against his bargain with Marten. But Jareth had always defended his role in the business reminding his critics that it was not in his nature regarding the subject of the aid he provided to pass unneeded judgement. Jareth would be glad to see Marten again, even if he hadn't thought about the man in a long time.

as for the Empyrean, Jareth's reactions and vice verse would be hard to predict. Ozias had made it clear in no uncertain terms that Jareth should expect resistance if not outright defiance and misplaced anger. in some ways he was almost expecting another Sarah and a part of him hoped that the lady Empyrean would indeed live up to her hype. At least then Jareth could respect her for her spirit if not the depth of her understanding regarding his perspective of their worlds and their individual roles there in.

It was all bound to be very....Interesting.

The Astraean nobles and their representatives approached the wall that surrounded the Goblin City and its labyrinth. Dedric watched a distracted Marten lean towards the window, shoulders slumped, hands clasped, one thumb tapping an anxious beat against his wrist. Marten, like most Atraeans, struggled in concealing his emotions. Dedric on the other hand was well practiced in the art of revealing nothing but a facade of cordial charm and impeccable manners. However, within the walls of the carriage, he hid none of his growing irritation at the state of his younger brother. He found it unseemly for a ruler, even an exiled one, to show any kind of nervousness or apprehension when conducting business outside of his borders.

"Will you stop that" he snapped, leaning forward to slap Marten's restless hands. "And sit up straight. They're going to present you like a real prince for a change so start acting like one."

Marten straightened his shoulders, Dedric's words doing nothing to ease his anxiety. He knew he had a real chance to prove to the High Council that twenty-five years under exile changed him for the better, that he had freed himself from the clutches of darkness' influence and was ready to reclaim his place and perform his rightful duties as a prince of Astraea. All he had to do was not choke. He just had to stay close to his brother, pay a little lip service to Mab, admit his wrongs if asked, and carry himself with the confidence and ease of a man who had never known shame. Simple.


The carriage halted. It was time.

From seemingly out of nowhere, flower petals began to fall on the main road that lead to the castle. In the distance, came the echoing of bells and flutes as well as a chorus of voices chanting;

Ringle-rangle, ringle,rangle....

Flickering lights whizzed to the front of the parade. They rained a shower of sparks before transforming into their full size. In a flash, about a dozen winged creatures, a little smaller than the average human danced and sang in merriment, donned in glittering thin cloth that appeared to grow from their bodies. Some transformed their appearance to look just like some of the onlookers in the crowd. Following them were the childlike greenies. Donned in thick, woven cloths of brown, they bounded in playing pipes and rattling tambourines. Others performed acrobatic feats, flipping and tumbling with incredible energy. The last of the representing fae were the dwarves. Some pounded deer hide drums, others handed out tiny bottles of wine, and others performed their own set of tricks for the onlookers. A loud clanging of bells signaled a brief silence and then all the creatures began to sing:

Deep there above the greenery
Meddle and mischief sing the Wee
Hidden among the greenery
"We are the Free-Folk," sing the Wee

Nettles and nuisance bring the Wee
Tingle and tangle sing the Wee
Under the forest canopy
"We are the Free-Folk," sing the Wee

Tatter and scatter bring the Wee
Freckle and fumble sing the Wee
Getting you from behind a tree
"Fun is a wonder," sing the Wee


Illusions of forest animals appeared and bounded through the parade. Deer trotted along greenies, rabbits hopped around the sprites' feet, and birds looped and darted around banners. One of each magical being proceeded to the front, joined hands, and sang:

We are the Wee
As you can see
So wild and free
So sing the Wee

This would be the first Centennial Ball in which the beings of the forest would have proper representation. Despite the ills Astraea suffered under Lord Darkness' curse, the union of Jack and Lili brought a deeper understanding and friendship between the humans of the city and the creatures of the forest. Their reign, though marred by some infighting, brought forth a stronger bond and respect between the two cultures. Under Jack and Lili's rule, Astraea became a truly fair kingdom in which all voices were heard. The party of sprites, greenies, and dwarves, collectively known in Astraea as the Wee, symbolized that bond and trust; they were the overseers and watchers of the forests of the unicorn.

Unicorns were a rare and incredibly important element to the underground. As the purest of all creatures, they anchored the light to the underground and kept the scales from tipping towards the darkness. They only lived in Astraea, leading many interested scholars to debate if they stayed there because of the eternal spring, or if their very life and presence was what kept the spring in Astraea. One thing was certain, the nobles and denizens alike made their protection the highest priority. As a means of keeping their unsteady word tethered towards the light, the people too were encouraged to keep their own hearts pure and serene. To symbolize the pure spirit of Astraean life, several dozen young maidens clothed in soft pastels paraded behind the Wee. They carried the banners of the kingdom and performed another important piece of music. They sang Lili's song, a beautiful trilling of the loveliest voices in the kingdom:

Come down sparrow, sing me good morning.
Rise up sun like the arch of the sky.
Living river, turn light to diamonds
When I look in my true love's eyes.
Like a child feels watching a rainbow.
Like a bird feels the first time it flies.
I feel magic stirring within me,
When I look in my true love's eyes.
Young as any spring, his eyes almost sing.

Come white moss, weave us a carpet
Spreading oak make a shade where we lie.
Leaves and branches, whisper a love song,
When I look in my true love's eyes.
Young as any spring, his eyes almost sing to me

Come down sparrow, sing me good morning.
Rise up sun like arch of the sky.
Living river, turn light to diamonds
When I look in my true love's eyes.
_____
Dedric and Marten followed close behind at the very center of the parade. Dedric's horse was white and gray with a long, elegant waved mane. Its bridle was adorned in bluebells in the same soft shade of blue as the enormous mantle that graced Dedrics shoulders. The rest of his ensemble consisted of a cream-colored tunic underneath a cream and gold embroidered vest. He wore a fitted pair of tan breeches and dark brown knee high boots. A gold crown topped his head.
Marten rode beside him, his steed in shades of black dappled it in white, starbursts that dotted its his hindquarters in constellations. He wore his standard black attire nearly from head to toe, save for his cuffs, gold collar, his own gold vest, and a cape that hung across his chest and over his shoulders in an unbecoming shade of lavender. His own crown was a simple gold band that hung a little loosely on top of his limp hair.

Dedric maintained a warm, jolly persona as he waved at the detestable creatures of the city.
He hated goblins and everything about them. He found them to be ugly-spirited little brutes with selfish, self-serving hearts and a thirst for dark magic. They gravitated to darkness and power. He would never forget the story of Blix, Lord Darkness' right hand man, and the one Dedric found solely responsible for the near murder of the unicorn stallion. To him, it was that wretched animal more so than his sweet mother, who nearly destroyed Astraea. He was the one who shot the dart. It was he who stole the horn.

He successfully drove the lot of them deep into the swamps, in the mucky mires with the witches where they belonged.
The notion of having to be amiable around the little monsters and their keeper was the biggest thorn in Dedric's side. He was the first of his family to have any real goals outside of his kingdom's borders. Astraea was an integral part of the whole underground, but no one before seemed interested in expanding its influence, especially his poor parents who were content with making house calls to commoners and frolicking in the forest rather than conduct some actual work in the interest of their people.

Behind the royal party came wagons filled to the brim with foods, ales, and other gifts for the hosts. At the rear, marched a fleet of royal guardsmen.

At last, the train came to a halt before the castle.

The announcement ceremony featured more than a dozen kingdoms from across the underground. Just a few of which included representatives from the Earthlong and Drow elven people, Several dwarves clans, and representative parties lead by the child-like Ozma of Oz, the White Queen of Underland, and representatives from Narnia and Never Neverland. A large assortment of Good neighbors from across the underground were also present along with many individual sorceress and underground folk who held no particular titles but who served various functions in the Underground.

One by one the titled parties came, announces by Scheherazade.

Jareth greeted them all in accordance with tradition. Most he'd only ever heard stories about and some he'd never heard of at all. As they came Jareth studied their parties, mentally making notes regarding what their appearances and demeanor s revealed. Ozma was one he planned to speak to about an alliance in the future between she and the child-like Empress whom was currently serving as a member of the High Council. He could also detect signs of a few who looked eager to bring forth their own business when the time was right. Many of the rulers were women, a common occurrence in the underground considering Queen Mab being a female herself and the embodiment of great mothers everywhere.

Finally, the proceeding were due to conclude with only the Empyrean Empire and the Kingdom of Astraea left to e announced. Jareth found it ironic that the two groups had managed to be left for last. Jareth had had dealings with both and was curious to see their reactions to his presence. The Empyrean specifically was of personal interest given that if thing had turned out differently it might have been he and Elspeth walking together in the procession as husband and wife, mutual leaders of the Empyrean empire. Granted Jareth would never actually see Elspeth's face since the traditions of her people required her to remain asked, but never the less Jareth was deeply curious about the young woman who by all reports deeply hated him. Jareth was good at being cast in the role of villain. He hoped he didn't disappoint the Empyrean, whatever she thought of him.

The brothers dismounted and took their place near the rear of the line. Marten took his position behind Dedric who was to lead their party inside.

"Feeling nervous, brother?" he heard Dedric ask.

Of course this was a redundant question. As much as he tried, Marten was a true Astraean and struggled to mask his emotions. Still, he tried to maintain a casual air, running a hand through his hair as he gave a shrug.

"Oh, a bit I suppose," he said. "But I think things will go smoothly as long as I keep my head down. Besides, you're the one who's about to step in the spotlight."

"About that," Dedric responded still facing forward. Marten caught a note of humor in his voice he was not sure he liked.
"I believe I forgot to mention that I spoke with Mab before we left home. She and I have both agreed that you should be the representative of the kingdom. After all, you need a proper opportunity to show how you've improved, and to exhibit your skills in diplomacy. She wants to see if you would be prepared to take on your duties as a prince should she decide to free you from exile."

Dedric finally turned to a stunned Marten with a somewhat mischievous glimmer in his eyes.

"My, and I thought you couldn't get any paler."

He only felt slightly displeased about having to step from the spotlight on this one, but Dedric reasoned that he could conduct business much easier as a result. While Marten fumbled through the formalities, he could watch the floor and plan his future meetings with the Underground's upper echelon.

The younger sibling stared into the approaching doorway as if it were the entrance to a slaughterhouse. The man slowly shook his head.
"Do you think it wise? I-I mean I haven't really been in a position of leadership in decades, and I certainly don't possess your mind for diplomacy, I'm shamefully unpracticed in court affairs, I'll make everyone uneasy, and what if I'm called to speak? You know my voice doesn't carry well a-and-"

Dedric sighed, grabbing the man's shoulder and turning him towards him.
"You're going inside and meeting your friend, not your doom. Relax, little brother. It's nothing more than politics. Now, straighten your back, tilt that chin up..."

He fixed Marten's collar and smoothed his cape over his shoulders. He gave a firm clap to his back.
"...and breathe for goodness sake. You can do this."

Dedric rarely expressed affection towards his bother in the public eye, but he temporarily stepped down from his position as Marten's hard-nosed warden to ease his nerves.

He then unclasped his own mantle and passed it on to a servant. He also removed his cown and swapped it for his brother's more simple circlet, an action that promted gasps and smiles of approval from some of their party. It wasn't like him to be so humble, but he felt the action would set him up to be the warm, shining star the rest of the underground was expecting to see. Even kind deeds could be strategic moves in Dedric's book. Some small factions back home had begun to see him as a power thirsty egoist, an image he planned to conceal from the others. Even the party was hand picked to ensure attendees were sympathetic to his rule.

He still expected to outshine his brother, but he wanted to do so as little as possible. Not only would he be free to carry out his plans to build alliances, he would also be able to evaluate Marten. He was as curious as anyone to see how he would perform. On one hand, he would be sad to lose the best helper he ever had, but he would be thrilled to see Marten freed from his terrible reputation once and for all.

Dedric was right. It was high time that Marten showed his true capabilities as a leader. He had the knowledge and skill, he just needed to channel some of Dedric's confidence and control. The queen of the Forgotten Desert call his name. He stepped to the front of the line and led his group into the ballroom.

He could feel the eyes watching him, he caught expressions of curiosity, apprehension, and disgust. He willed himself to maintain his dignity, to carry himself like a proper nobleman. He knew he was trying too hard. His posture felt too stiff, his jaw clamped tensely, and even the rhythm of his footsteps seemed too calculated. The burdens of his over thinking eased however as he neared Jareth. His face softened and a hint of a real smile tugged at his lips. He clasped the Goblin King's arms with an unexpected enthusiasm.

"We come in friendship, we come in unity."

Marten didn't have any friends to speak of, but he considered Jareth to be the closest thing he ever had in the Underground to one. While their whole world seemed divided as to whether or not he was a good man, Marten saw in Jareth a kindred spirit, another individual whose actions both shook the realm and brought uncertainty to his kingdom's future. Perhaps he didn't know Jareth that well, but he had an inkling that he shared the same regrets, that he too was haunted by his own selfish past. He knew how it felt to be hated, feared and kept at a distance from the rest of society. Much of the realm had a very fixed definition as to what goodness meant, and it made no room for the likes of men like them: men who had made unsavory choices in the past and aimed to change. For many, good and evil was a black and white matter; there was no standing in between.

He remembered approaching him, empty-handed and desperate. He knew Jareth had conditions tied to his ability to travel to the Above. But he only had to hear Marten's story to take the bargain, and in seventeen years he had yet to call for his end of it.

Marten's gratitude and admiration of the man shone through his face. Perhaps at last he would get a chance to thank the Goblin King in person for saving his Lilian.

~@~


Truth be told, Elspeth hated her mask regalia. All of her masks were hand-crafted in the Empyrean artisans' workshop in the palace, the very same one she often poked her head into to see what works were underway amongst those granted access to its use. When she was a child, she'd wait until her governess might fall asleep in the afternoon, as she was so prone to do, and sneak into the great hall where the masks were put on display for guests to see during public court or significant functions. She'd always peered up to the dozens of masks shining from their dependable posts upon the great stone walls, wondering how it was that the sunshine never tarnished their quality. What a sad day it was when she discovered that those masks on display were replicans--the real masks were stored safely in a guarded wing. They were still well cared-for, but part of the romanticized aspect of wearing the masks on the wall that she'd grown up seeing had been just slightly dashed.

Those who took care of the masks were masters of their craft. She was so surprised upon examining the secured masks to discover that while durable, they were also light and easy to breathe through.

What she hated, perhaps, wasn't the regalia itself—but the stark reminder of her parents' memory.

But as much as she hated her mask regalia, it felt far more inconvenient to suffer the idea of being required to wear it when outside of the kingdom. She'd only been out and about a few times, but never on The Ground. But today marked the day where her feet would walk on solid earth for the first time.

The luckdragons, ten in total, descended upon the upper landing of the castle, not far from the tower where Jareth had considerately chosen to house The Empyrean and her entourage. Sayer stood by vigilantly, watching the flying beasts as they all touched down expertly. Elspeth's small fleet were smaller, more nimble creatures than the ones that had spirited Sayer and his knights from The Sky to The Ground, not causing too much strain on the ancient castle's structure.

Elspeth descended from atop her own magical beast, much to Sayer's chagrin. He strode to her side and walked alongside her. She could feel his chastising eyes boring through her blue-and-white travel mask. "Riding your own dragon is not considered Empyrean-like conduct," he reminded her gently, but predictably.

Elspeth didn't allow him a verbal reaction, simply walking on as she felt she ought to. It was rare that she didn't provide a snappy comeback or outright comply with Sayer's recommendations. Besides, who was he to tell her that she couldn't ride the luckdragon she'd trained and loved since she was a small child? "We appear to be on time," she reported, her voice not obscured by the covered mouth of the mask. "Who has arrived below?"

"The Astraeans," Sayer answered dutifully, nodding to two of his knights ready to open the door into the castle. "Here is our home for the duration of your visit."

Elspeth waited until the doors were shut to remove her headpiece and mask, her long brown hair covered by the blue scarf that had also edged the mask itself. "It'll do," she said quietly, not wanting to admit that she was quite impressed with whatever trick had been pulled to adorn the ceiling so beautifully. "We've arrived with plenty enough time to prepare for the ball. Ariadne is not far behind."

Sayer nodded and gestured toward her chambers. "Then you'd better be on your way," he remarked quietly, watching her gather her skirts and move forward, shutting the door behind her. He knew she'd be poor company until she permitted herself to have a good time. He was sure that the only person who'd know how to deal with her otherwise would indeed be Ariadne, as much as he hated to admit it.

He exited back onto the landing and decided to keep an eye out for the handmaiden to pass the time.

As was customary Ariadne was due to arrive on the tail of everyone else. It was her duty to ensure everything had been packed correctly and that all the lesser servants under her were in top form that were coming with the Lady Empyrean as well as those where were to stay behind and manage the basic functions of the kingdom.

The other benefit of this duty was that Ariadne had plenty of her own time to prepare for the journey to the underground. It was time to change things. Ariadne had served the Empyrean in one way or a other for centuries, whether the current leaders realized it or not. Much of her magical abilities were rooted in her attempts to remain ageless and flawless in everything she did. Yet immortality was not natural to the Empyrean people and the cost of Ariadne's maintenance had been costly. All magic came with a price whether it came naturally to an individual or was learned or acquired later. Ariadne had taken about as much as could be taken from the empire without it completely crumbling.

The time had come for a change of scene.

The Labyrinth was the most ideal candidate for her relocation in centuries. Its largest appeal being that the kingdom was naturally regenerative, meaning there would be no plausible limit to what Ariadne could utilize for her own interests. Unlike many of the powers that were currently in route to the castle, Ariadne had no interest in the Kingdom or Jareth specifically. Her ambition was not to seize the kingdom. Rather, she desired only to immerse herself into the flow of its neutral magic. Magic that she would intimately twist to her own desires and needs. As a sorceress her own power and knowledge likely rivaled Jareth's but was perhaps more limited despite that she was more mobile than he was. Once the Goblin King caught onto her presence and intentions he would surely find it difficult to isolate her from the greater design.

Ariadne planned to seduce and entice the labyrinth as much as she repelled it. in this way it would both resist and accommodate her will until she was so inter grated into the old magic that it would naturally protect her interests.

But the business was complicated. In the past when Ariadne had need to change her identity it was a simple matter of retiring as her old self for awhile and re-emerging as a slightly new identity. But this time wouldn't be so easy. Ariadne intended to create a diversion that would cause the Empyrean Empire to take up issue with Jareth and fan the flames of their distrust for him. Ariadne had to fake a terrible demise that would free her up to conduct her business and caste suspicion on Jareth and his people. There were stories of course that assassinations were not unheard of in the kingdom. Ivor the Hammer Fist was proof of that and Ariadne was so good at spinning the sins of the past into the realities of the present. she simply needed to bide her time.

final loading of the luck dragons was almost finished and Ariadne was due to mount and arrive within the half hour. It was time to summon her favorite pets in preparation for their arrival. Reaching into her skirts Ariadne removed a handful of small obsidian stones carved with vicious little faces. Kneeling as if to secure one of the last of her personal boxes, Ariadne poured them onto the ground and removed a small vial that was disguised as one of her teardrop earrings. Unplugging the stopper she gentle poured the small liquids contents over the stones and made a mooching sound as if she was calling a small animal to attention. within seconds the stones broke apart revealing little black gremlins about the size a bats with yellow eyes and chattered and bickered I. Some sort of chattering language.

Ariadne smiled almost lovingly and opened her box witch the creatures promptly climbed into. she then stood. It was time to leave the Empire for the last time. Ariadne had no intention of ever returning.

True to form a half hour behind her mistress Ariadne arrived. Dismounting on the platform and moving elegantly and in a calm and reserved manner toward Ozias. "I assume my lady is inside, let us see if we can improve her temperament before its time to be announced."

Ariadne offered Ozias a placid though friendly smile and for once her benevolence seemed completely genuine instead of its usual fabrication. And why shouldn't the sorceress be generous? The Lady Empyrean was about to get her first taste at real leadership and even Ariadne who normally didn't take real pleasure in anything was very interested in seeing how Elspeth faired.

"You have to do it." Ariadne said firmly.

The Empyean empire was due to be announced within the half hour and in classical style Ariadne was going over the expected protocols of the announcement ceremony that all the kingdoms were required to participate in.

At the moment Elspeth was in the middle of taking issue with the finer points of what she was expected to do when she came face to face with the Goblin King.

Elspeth shook her head as she frustratedly smoothed her hair back, sleekly pinned back to make her mask easier to apply and wear for long periods of time. Her clear face was devoid of any makeup or pigment of any kind--but was beginning to cloud with a burgundy tone, standing out against her pure-white ensemble. "There's no reason Sayer can't do it," she grumbled back, refusing to look Ariadne in the eye as she gazed ahead into the massive mirror above the silver vanity table, which no doubt Jareth had specifically picked just for her.

"Actually, there's every reason that Sayer can't do it."

Elspeth glanced over her shoulder at the sound of his voice. Her cousin stood in the doorway, armored arms folded across his metal-plated chest, the pinned drape of fabric bearing the Empyrean crest clipped to his shoulders. She didn't waste any time. "But you're the one who's got the relationship with The Goblin King," she spat sullenly, refusing to acknowledge their host by name.

Part of her knew that she was being more than absurd. Part of her knew that there was every reason for her to be the one to lead the procession and greet Jareth. Part of her knew that by this time in her life, she should be able to just let that hurt go. She'd never even been face-to-face with him before. But the rest of her knew that she had every single reason to be affronted by him, to have him arrested where he stood if he even dared think of setting foot into her skyborne kingdom. Yet, here she was in his subterranean kingdom, on his turf, taking temporary residence in his castle, partaking in his food, his drink... It was insufferable.

"Elspeth." Sayer gave a short nod to Ariadne, stony and steadfast in her expression. "Ariadne's right. You're The Empyrean. This is your first Centennial Ball, and your first major engagement in your position. You must do right by all of us and represent us."

She let out a small growl through her teeth, then shook her head. "I just won't do it."

Sayer glanced again at Ariadne, smirking the corner of his mouth just slightly, then back to Elspeth. "Okay, Elspeth. You win."

A small part of her loved hearing those words. She smiled satisfactorily and turned to the large table not far from Sayer, reaching her hands out for her mask. Sayer watched as Ariadne seemed to gracefully fly to the table, deftly picking up the strong, light, simple mask, adorned with feathers and the very slightest crystal detail. She placed the mask upon Elspeth's ready face. "Thank you, Sayer," Elspeth drawled out, hardly muffled by the material. "It means a great deal to me."

He turned on his heels and gestured toward the door. "Onward we go," he said warmly. He let the younger woman lead the way as she reached two small gloved hands to pick up her skirts. Ariadne shot a quick glance at a few of Elspeth's attendants; they scurried forth to follow behind her as part of the procession, dressed in robes of sunshine yellow and cerulean blue, but devoid of masks, themselves.

Sayer and Ariadne stood in the room, watching after them. "I'm going to slip away," he informed the handmaiden. "This was the only way we were going to get her out of there."

It was as the Queen of the Forgotten Desert called her name that Elspeth realized that Sayer wasn't beside her. She silently cursed behind her mask, thankful to have the exterior shell to mask her surprise and sudden bolt of frustration. Of course he would do something like that.

No matter, though. She looked ahead into the vast ballroom, surprised at the assortment of emissaries and attendees from far-off lands. For it being such a backwards kingdom, the formality assigned to this grand event surprised the young Empyrean as she took a step ahead. She could see hundreds of heads turn in her direction at the sound of her name. Undoubtedly, many of those gathered had never seen her before--at least, not in the traditional mask garb of generations of Empyrean royalty. The unspoken mythology of Empyrean rulers who wore masks beyond the borders of the kingdom was easily on their lips and minds as they measured her against their own expectations. Very few of them had ever ascended into the clouds to visit her kingdom, where no one had to wear masks. Surely at least one of them would have met her at home at some point, to provide some kind of friendly or familiar face...

She confidently strode ahead, seemingly floating along in place as she'd practiced for so long. She kept her focus ahead, not wishing to distract herself from her goal: getting away from Jareth as quickly as possible.

Finally, she stood before the tall man with the unique features. She worked to stare at the middle of his forehead instead of into his slightly mismatched eyes, not wishing to give him the benefit of a full lock on eye contact. She kept her posture rigid as she braced her eyes and let her calm voice carry without shouting, "... we come in friendship, we come in unity."

She kept her eyes up and raised as she wound about to stand beside the other rulers gathered. The sooner this was over, the better...

When it was Elspeth's turn to walk the procession, Jareth noted that Ozias wasn't with her and the thought made him smile slightly to himself. The knight must have pulled a fast one on her. Jareth was sure given how hard she stared in front of herself. Jareth could almost imagine the little wrinkles around her young eyes as she furrowed her brows behind her mask in fustration and forced decorum. Of anyone that had come, the Empyrean was the most mysterious. Both her mask and outfit shrouding much of her physical features and making it hard to determine her age or anything else about her if one didn't already know. That was the point of the custom, he supposed. The people of the sky rarely trusted ground dwellers and most all of them tended to have a very high opinion of themselves. The Empyrean were no different as a people in that regard.

Still in spite of all the pageantry the most important indicator of who Elspeth really was was the only thing that was clearly exposed. Her eyes. seeing into her eyes was all he needed to get a glimpse of her true character and of course when Elspeth approached him and said her dutiful words, he noted how she would not truly look at him.

The behavior was both childish on her part and disappointing to Jareth. He wanted her to face him, to look into his own eyes and see that they were both more than they appeared to be. He hoped on some lever she would catch a glimpse of his humanity and, in spite of anything else she might ever think of him, remember it. But Jareth wasn't going to force the issue. Sooner or later she would have to deal with him directly and the sooner she accepted his hospitality if not his nature the better for both of them.

While Elspeth was speaking, Jareth noticed that she forgot to extend her arm, no doubt because she consciously had no desire to touch him. Procedure demanded the gesture however and there could be no exceptions. To avoid breaking with the flow of their greeting Jareth subtly over reached with his own arm and lightly circled her smaller wrist with his thumb and pointer gently tugging it so that it would appear they were making the proper contact but in a slightly daintier way than the rest. The audience would hopefully assume that Jareth was simply taking more care with the Emprean given that it was her first ball and that they shared a unique history that the others did not. If Elspeth was smart she would keep still and not react even though Jareth was quite sure that if she wasn't being watched by over a hundred people that the young Empyrean might have assaulted him over it.

"You may go in friendship, Elspeth. We are all united in peace."

Elspeth didn't permit her body language to waver, but couldn't do much to hide the sudden glare that bore through the mask. She inconspicuously tugged her arm back with a slight pivot of her elbow, not visible to anyone else but Jareth as the most subtle warning for him to let her go.

How she wanted to take that moment to spin around and address the crowd, to tell them of Jareth's grave sins against The Empyrean and its people. How his irresponsible actions put her in this insufferable position before she was ready to carry the kingdom on her shoulders. How he'd robbed her of the two people she cared about most in the world. She could make her case passionately as those gathered would listen to her every word. And even if they didn't believe her, at least the truth was out in the open.

And action would have to be taken to investigate the allegations.

But, she'd have to wait. She had no idea if she had allies or enemies before setting foot into the kingdom. She'd have to meet the others. She glanced about quickly, catching sight of the Astraen Prince Marten (intriguing, indeed, that he be here), Queen Mab, and more. Surely, there had to be someone sympathetic to her cause.

She stepped backwards carefully, hoping that this would be a more direct indication that Jareth ought to return her hand. As she stepped backwards she flicked her brown eyes up, shocked to see the startling contrast between his irises. Intriguing. She blinked, and finally crossed her eyes back to the ground.

The moment he didn't have to touch her anymore, Jareth let Elspeth go. Ironically that moment occured about the same time she looked him in the eyes and he caught her startled expression at the realization that one eye looked diffrent than the other. Jareth knew that most people assumed his irises were diffrent colors. One being a blue green and the other practically black. But the truth was Jareth's pupil on one side was perpetually open to its widest point and thus dominated the middle of his eye. It was generally startling to people who ever bothered to really take a good look at him and almost no one ever considered wondering why he looked that way or the effect the anomoly had on the Goblin King's sensory experiances.

For his part when Jareth caught a glimpse into Elpeth's eyes, he mourned for her. The anger and hostility she presented on the surface was nothing more than a mask covering a much deeper hurt. A hurt she undoubtedly held him responsible for.

Its only forever
Not long at all
Lost and lonely,
That's Underground...

Jareth knew he would have to tread carefully with the Empyrean. The temptation to hurt her in order to free her would be strong in him. At this point cruelty would be the only thing she would trust from him. She was so young. Old by human standards perhaps, but young by his. He pitied her for it. While Jareth knew he was not responsible for the things Ozias implied she was accusing him of, Jareth suspected that someone somewhere was culpable somehow and he did not look forward to the day when the truth was foxed out.

But the Goblin King had little time to think on these matters fore he felt Mab arrive with the rest of the High Council. Her presence was like a balmy summer fragrantly blossoming all at once with sudden opressive yet alluring warm. For an irrational two seconds Jareth instinctually wanted to grabbed Elspeth and drag her behind him as if to shield her from Mab's gaze which was trully timesless, all knowing, and all seeing.

Jareth's eyes swiftly scanned the room for Ozias who he knew was not far from Elspeth. Even though he and Jareth were friends, at any sign of impropriety Ozias would have intervened to protect and defend the Empyrean and wouldn't have hesitated to cause permanent bodily harm against Jareth if the situation had warranted. But for now Jareth wanted to hand Elspeth off so that Ozias could help get her out of the way as Queen Mab and her Council announced themselves. Jareth as both the host and one of Mab's favorite children would be expected to come to her side as immediately as possible.

"Mab, she's here. Go." Jareth warned under his breath just audibly enough for Elspeth to hear him.

Jareth's tone and alert expression was less dominating and more full of acute concern that not even he was probably aware was discernable.

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Character Portrait: Jareth The Goblin King Character Portrait: Joby Jones Character Portrait: Ozias Sayer Character Portrait: Elspeth Empyrean Character Portrait: Marten of Astraea
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Character Portrait: Jareth The Goblin King Character Portrait: Joby Jones Character Portrait: Ozias Sayer Character Portrait: Hoggle the Dwarf Character Portrait: Elspeth Empyrean Character Portrait: Marten of Astraea
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Character Portrait: Jareth The Goblin King Character Portrait: Prince Dedric of Astraea Character Portrait: Marten of Astraea
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With that, the first assembly of the Centennial Ball was adjourned. Joby took a moment to suppress some very old memories that Mab had somehow drew from her. She rose from her seat, thankful that the most dreaded part of her duties had ended. She happily bid her friends farewell as one by one they scattered to their own stations.

Joby had been told that she would soon be escorted by a man from the Enchanted Forest. She slowly entered the crowds shooting glances at every man with long blonde hair that she saw (there were several) but none seemed to register who she was.

She saw Jareth approach the curtained box that held the childlike empress. He came out with the fragile girl held aloft in his arms. She wasn't aware of the concerned and fearful mutterings around her. Her eyes grew wide and she watched with a sort of fascination as he carried the girl away from the bustling people. The vision had recalled one of the memories that had flashed in her mind under Mab's dissection. She remembered the chilly nipping of a November night as the air rushed at her small windbreaker and nightgown. She remembered watching a long black cloak trail behind a shoulder that she had peeked behind to see the world rush past her at a remarkable speed. She remembered a few notes of a lullaby, an incredible feeling of complete and utter safety, and then awakening outside the door of her parents.

"The nerve of that wretched toad" a voice squawked behind her. Joby spun to face an elaborately dressed creature with the neck and face of a stork dressed in a frilly, periwinkle gown. She was rapidly swishing a large, lacy fan as she were sweltering in the cavern-like coolness of the hall. "thinking he's going to win sympathy by filthying our beloved empress's gown with his grubby paws."

Joby cocked her head.

"Sympathy for what might I ask?"

The bird woman flailed her little hands dramatically.

"What? What you say? Heavans, dearie just name it. He's been a menace to the kingdom since he got the crown if you ask me and he's only gotten worse since that incident with that girl."

Joby frowned. She had never before heard of Jareth being capable of doing anything worth this creature's intense scorn. Well, she did agree that he was rather self-centered and shortsighted in the Williams incident, but surely something like that wouldnt have gotten the attention of all these people, could it? The tiniest inkling of doubt penetrated her mind. Was the Goblin King actually...bad? She would have to investigate further.

"Well it appeared to me that he was simply helping the Empress. She does look as if she's awfully sick."
The woman clicked her beak in disproval. "Oh, and you are his publicist, hmmm? Trying to find any sort of dim light to shine on him hmmmm?"

Joby was about to have enough of her.

"No, but I am a representative of this place and--"

Before she could finish, the lady glared at her and snapped her beak again

"Well then! You have some nerve trying to weasel your little opinions into the public forum! Doing it on his behalf, are you? Well I for one will not stand to have a wicked little Abovegrounder approach me and start preaching such falsities"

And before Joby could remind her that she was the one that approached her, she whipped around craning her neck high into the air and trotted off.

Joby leaned to the side to get a better look into the lounge. She couldn't believe that she had just doubted the king's conduct. She smiled within a group of scowling faces, but the sight stung a little too. It reminded her just how much she missed her own father.
Just then, she felt a small tug at her skirt. She smiled down at the little tutu-wearing girl that had accompanied them. The sound of her voice nearly made her jump out of her skin. She hadn't realized the child was just another goblin in disguise. Her encouraging words were a welcome comfort after the bird woman's tirade. She squatted down to be closer to her level.

"Thank you, Tilly-Whim is it? I suppose a breather could be in order. Would it be any trouble for you to tell Mr. Baltasar where I will be? I seem to be having some trouble locating him."

Spurred by her new assignment, Joby looked around for the Astraen prince. However, she quickly got distracted by everything around her. She passed creatures with plant-like bodies made of bark and leaves. Sprites whizzed by in numerous colors. She swore she saw grinning cat fade out of existence. With her back towards a corner, she slowly walked backwards until she bumped into someone.

"Sorry!"

_________
"...and how much cut and polished emerald does his majesty require?" asked the green velvet clad Ozian Minister of Trade as he peered at Marten through a pair of the famous green-tinted spectacles. "You know if you have your own jewelers, we can ship the raw material at a third of the cost."

Marten hadn't been paying attention. He had been distracted at the sight of the Goblin King gently carrying the weary Childlike Empress. He watched him followed by Glinda stride towards a private room, the ageless little girl's forehead resting against his shoulder. He thought of his own child and wondered if he had carried her in the same manner. The shame bit at his heart. He should have been the one to take her. He should have fought harder to keep her or at least begged the council to banish him to the Above to take care of her. Anything but cower in his dungeon back home. For once, he envied his host for possessing a greater fatherly instinct than he.

"...your majesty?"

Marten blinked, shook his head and snapped his focus back on the minister.

"Sorry, I'm afraid I didn't quite get that last bit."

The minister pursed his lips causing his mustache to bristle impatiently.
"You can get the materials raw for cheaper. Do relay that to your brother, yes? He seems to be the business head after all."

Marten felt his cheeks burn at the thinly-veiled insult, but he brushed it aside and nodded.

"Of course. If you'll excuse me, I need to erm,"

He couldn't think of a good reason for his departure so he simply jerked his thumb somewhere behind him and proceeded to walk in that direction.

He let out a long exhale as he found a quiet corner. He faced the wall as he tried to pull himself back together. He always felt awkward when running business alone. Like his parents, he felt more comfortable in natural places, away from crowds of people. The distraction during his conversation with Oz shook what little resolve he had. He was long out of practice in handling bureaucracy and it made him feel like an utter failure. He looked down at his cuffs. He had been a servant for so long that he had forgotten how to stand on his own. He took a deep breath and took a step back.

As he did, he felt his back bump into another.

"Sorry!"

Another apology chimed in unison, and he turned to face the representative from Above. She glanced up at him, her face momentarily blank until she registered who he was. But with a start she clapped her hands together and pointed at him.

"You!"

_________

Joby shook her head and quickly took a bow.

"I-I mean, your highness. Sorry! I still haven't adjusted to using formalities."

She straightened her shoulders and extended a hand.

"Joby Jones, representative of the Labyrinth" she said smiling through her embarrassment.

________

The smile was what struck Marten first. From the shape of the mouth to the alignment of the teeth, that smile looked exactly like his mother's. He took her hand and shook it.

"Marten, Prince of Astraea." he replied as he shook her hand. "And I'm afraid handshakes are not so common place in our world."

He bowed deeply and regarded her countenance. Her large, dark eyes looked nearly as black as his, but they glittered with a sort of merry warmth that his lacked. The structure of her cheeks and jaw was prominent but softened, she had a tall, noble forehead framed by little clusters of feathery black curls and a small nose that upturned slightly at the end. She apparently dressed to appear more imposing, but her delicate features and kindly expression betrayed her disguise. She certainly didn't remind him of any of the Abovegrounders he had been in cahoots with.

Well that was odd.

He knew she came from there. He swore he could detect just the slightest scents of asphalt, concrete, and car exhaust. She spoke with the accent of the people he had met Above. She lacked the ethereal graces of his kind, and seemed truly amazed by the goings on around her. And yet something seemed strange. He couldn't put a finger on as to what it was, but she didn't entirely feel like an Abovegrounder. Her energy mingled effortlessly into the Underground as if she were a part of it.


Joby continued speaking.

"I was told that you might enjoy stepping outside and touring the gardens."

______

Joby herself was hoping to get a chance to explore the castle's orchard. It was one of the few gardens she had yet to explore and she had been told of its unique varieties of fruit-bearing trees and bushes.

She watched the prince's face soften with relief, and suddenly he did not look as rigid as he did in the procession.

"Some fresh air and quiet would be splendid" he said. He offered her his arm, and they walked out of the ballroom towards the East end of the castle. Though she didn't quite know the way, Joby walked on guided by a sense that she could not name. She felt it over her weeks of gardening, and it seemed to be getting stronger. Somehow, she could feel and recognize the life energies emanating from a large population of plants just around the corner. They walked out of a set of double tinted-glass doors.

She and the prince both exhaled in unison.

The garden expanded out into a large, half-moon sort of shape that was quartered by two crisscrossing pathways. Smaller, flat stone trails cut through the orchards and raised box plots full of berry plants.

"Dude..." Joby breathed.

She marveled at the arrangement of the place. Plants were carefully laid out in organized, natural clusters. Instead of having a lot of one species grouped an isolated, they grew in scattered groups next to other varieties in order to appeal to the insects that pollinated them. The trees flanked the two big pathways and also boasted different kinds of fruit. Joby had long envisioned her ideal garden and she felt as if she had just stepped right into it.

"So you have a fondness for plants?" she heard Marten ask.

__________

The lady had stopped abruptly as soon as they stepped outside. She seemed quite awestruck at the place. She slowly nodded in response to his question.

"Yeah, you could say that. I do landscaping back home"

Landscaping Marten mused. He thought back to his time above trying to recall what the job entailed.

"You shape and design the properties of other people?"

"Yeah, that's right. I feel the most at home when I'm around dirt and greenery."

Marten smiled "My people and I share the same sentiment. He hold the natural world in the highest regard and the kingdom is blessed to be thriving in an eternal Spring."

"My favorite season. Eternal you say?"

"Indeed. The weather is always pleasantly warm, and flowers bloom everywhere and anywhere you can imagine."

"Sounds like paradise"

Marten gave a small chuckle "We may have been called that a time or two. So where do you hail from, Miss Jones?"

"Boston."

At this, Marten laughed "A landscaper in Boston? So that means you get to work in pleasant weather for what? Three months out of the year?"

"Hey now," Joby responded in amused defense "It's actually four thank you very much. Say...."

She turned and eyed him suspiciously. "How do you know of the weather in Boston anyway?"

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Marten froze.

Damn he thought and hung his head. He had the opportunity to share company with the one person who knew nothing of his former crimes and he had nearly blown it.

"I, erm, spent a short time there some years ago."

Unfortunately, he had Miss Jones' full attention now.

"What made you want to go there of all places?" she asked

"Well, that's just where the doorway opened."

"By what you've told me of your world, I don't know why you'd ever want to leave."

_______

She saw Marten's face briefly shift expression. His lips tightened and curled down, his dark eyes dimmed with some unknown grief, and for just a moment he looked much older.

"Guess you could say I needed a vacation."

Joby pretended to be distracted by an apple hanging from a low branch, and allowed him to walk a few paces ahead. He seemed to be in need of a private moment with his thoughts.

"And what did you think of Boston?" she asked after he made a little space in between them.

"Loud."

Joby laughed and cupped the half-ripened apple in her palm, carefully rotating it to examine the unripened green. Before her eyes, the skin darkened and turned red. She gasped and whipped her hand away.

What the heck is happening?!?

Marten turned back looking concerned.

"Are you alright?"

"Uh, spider" Joby said quickly and pointed at the tree. She wasn't even afraid of spiders.

"So, tell me more about Astraea."
_________

Marten proceeded to tell Joby of Astraea's significance within the Underground. She seemed somewhat distracted throughout most of the conversation. He occasionally glanced at her from the corner of his eye, and noticed that she spent a large portion of their walk rubbing the palms and fingers of her hands and looking down at them with an odd, furrowed expression. However, he did spark her interest at the mention of unicorns.

"They can only live there?" she asked

"Yes. It is one of the last pure places in our world, and even it has been tainted by Darkness"
_________

The prince became quiet. His head hung a little, his long black hair shielding his face. Joby looked at him from time to time. There was a slight slouch to his posture as if his shoulders carried the burden of some invisible weight. His dark eyes were deep set into his elongated face. He had a tall forehead and high, sharp cheekbones that made his pallid skin appear sunken.

"Is that why you left for a while?"

"Well,"

Marten paused, lips still parted in mid-thought.
"Yes, I suppose you could say that."

His face looked pained and he bit his lip in a similar way that she did whenever she chose to refrain from speaking further.

"I'm sorry. It's rude of me to pry like that."

"No, it's quite alright. So, tell me more about yourself, Miss Jones"

"There isn't much to say really. I'm horrendously boring."

"I have trouble beliving that. The Underground tends to filter out the boring outsiders"

Joby shrugged. "There's isn't much to tell. I go to work, play in the dirt, go home, clean up, read a little, write a little, cook a meal, go to bed, and wake to do the same again."

It seemed strange. Joby lived by that pattern for well over five years, but it felt like she had been in a dream when she thought about it. It was as if life in the Underground began to feel more like reality to her.
___________
Marten didn't know why, but he wanted to know something more about the girl. Although much older, she seemed to strongly favor his own daughter.

"Would it be rude to ask your age? Time functions a little differently here and lifespans tend to stretch."

"Twenty-five, at least I think I am. I hope my birthday hasn't passed back home."

Twenty-five. thought Marten. How many years have passed since he had been there? Has it been so long?

He looked to his companion with fresher eyes. Was his own precious girl so grown already? He dismissed the thought. The notion brought fresh pain to an old wound.

"Lets see if I can figure this out still...according to your world I am....seventy-five years old I believe."

"Old enough to be my grandfather."

Marten chuckled.

"I was a young man of fifty when I was in your world. Spent my visit running around as a um, a "punk" " I believe was the proper term.

Joby laughed. "I have to say that I struggle to picture you wearing tattered jeans and patchy jackets. You know, my mom thought herself to be a punk as well. Oh man, she was OBSESSED with the Sex Pistols, you heard of them while you were there?"

Marten's throat felt abnormally dry all of a sudden. For some reason he feared whatever words were to follow. He nodded as Joby carried on.

"Yeah, well she and all her stupid punk friends had nicknames, and she called herself Connie Rotten."
_____
The name stopped Marten in his tracks. He stared dead ahead at the stained glass doors. All was blank in his mind except the dull thumping of blood coursing madly through his skull. He couldn't turn back to look at her, he dared not. Surely he misheard. Surely his former lover was one of an untold many Connie Rottens.

He took a deep breath and tried to steady himself.

"Miss Jones, wh-who suggested that you escort me on this stroll?"

"Jareth, I think."
_________
"....Marten?"

The man had been standing as if frozen for a few moments. She stood behind, curiously watching as he occasionally shook his head.

"You alright?"

It seemed to take him a moment to realize that she had asked him a question.

"Huh? Oh, yes. Q-quite, Miss Jones, but I think I need to excuse myself right now. I-I, um, seemed to have forgotten to um,"
He never told her what. He just pointed to the doors and began to briskly walk back inside.

Setting

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Character Portrait: Jareth The Goblin King Character Portrait: Joby Jones Character Portrait: Marten of Astraea
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Marten's mind was reeling. He needed a shadow to duck into, a place where he could take a moment to recollect his thoughts. Frantically, he searched the hall until he finally found an open doorway. The room was a small lounge where goblin servants were serving wine. The only occupants were a young couple flirting in a corner, some travel-weary sprites, and a couple of elder women sampling the reds. He leaned against a wall and started to rub his neck. He thought of his life in the Above, before his brother ripped him from it.

There were three of them at the time: Connie Rotten, Joe B. Damned, and he was Marty Stray, an awkward third wheel dragged along by a spunky runaway and her dope peddling companion. The girl was like a flame, and he a naive moth forever following the toss of her golden curls. She was all that was wild and bold and daring: all the things he could never be. She ran towards any disaster she could dive into, and she pulled him along. Joe was a good decade older, and knew the consequences of fast living. But he took their currency all the same and did nothing else to keep their vices in check. Besides, his own love of drink kept him from riding too high a horse. They made an inspirable trio of lost souls sharing the dive into oblivion. Perhaps they spent most of the time out of their heads, but they had fun. With years and regret distancing himself from the man he used to be, Marten understood that the relationship was more codependent than genuine. Still, it was the first time since the loss of his mother that he truly felt understood. He had a life and friends that were ripped away from him in the middle of the night. Even after the foot soldiers carted him away back through the portal, after he was locked away, after he learned of the near disasters that occurred through that open portal, Marten never felt the weight of his actions until he heard of his daughter, the daughter who quite possibly stood in the garden outside.

Impossible. The word rang through Marten's mind like a mantra.

He left the parlor and headed back into the ballroom, eyes frantically seeking the one person who could clear matters up.
Jareth. Why was he doing this?

He watched a long haired gentleman rouse the Goblin King from his slumber. Marten hesitated. He had no wish to catch Jareth at a bad time, but it was vital for him to know what was going on. He glanced around nervously until no one appeared to be close to earshot. No one else occupied the room, but his eyes still darted around as if he was expecting someone to leap out of the wall.

"Jareth" he whispered in hoarse urgency. "What in the name of all that is good and right are you thinking? I-If the council knew that you br-" He seemed at a loss for words. "Gods, if Dedric knew, he'd string you up on the battlements himself! It's not that I'm not, well, I'm sure you can imagine the shock she gave me. But why, Jareth? Here? Now?!? He struggled to be coherent. "For one, I can't fathom how it could possibly help you, and for another..." his excitement sputtered out into weariness "...why didn't you tell me?"
___________

Joby didn't ponder too much on Marten's swift departure. She was distracted with her own thoughts. She walked slowly through the garden, rubbing her hands together and staring down at them.

This is insane. Am I really making things grow?

She walked by a green-skinned fruit that looked similar to a peach. She laid her palm against it and stared. Nothing happened. She tried focusing. Not the slightest change. She thought about the other occurrences, and her time spent nurturing the plants of the labyrinth. She thought about her state of mind before each incident and how she had either been cheerful or admiring. She thought about how pretty the fruit would be when ripened and about how fondly she loved the whole orchard.

The green faded and turned into a soft shade of orange in a matter of seconds.

Joby stared at the fruit, her mind seized by a peculiar thought. Was there real magic in her? Some humans acquire it in the Underground, don't they? She looked up at the tree and at its unripened yields. She focused on feelings of hope, on happy promises that she would help ensure the safety of it and all the other fruit trees in the labyrinth. Shades of orange spread up, and the fruits quickly grew plump and heavy. She made a little delighted squeal, clasping her hands together. Her heart was thumping madly and she suddenly felt somewhat dizzy. She leaned against the tree's trunk, picked a fruit, and took a bite, knowing she would be safe to do so.

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Character Portrait: Jareth The Goblin King Character Portrait: Marten of Astraea
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Jareth was in the middle of cradling his head in his hands and collecting himself before he had to face people again when Marten decided to appear full of questions.

"Hello, Marten. So nice of you to drop in." Jareth muttered once the other man finally tried to take a breath. "I must say, I've had a fair amount of accusations thrown at me in the last several days you you really are going to have to be more specific. If you can't tell I don't have the foggiest idea of what in hell your talking about. So with that said, do clarify so that I can decide if I want to bother defending myself. What exactly have I done to you? Hm?"

Jareth straightened somewhat and crossed his legs, folding his hands into his lap.

Setting

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Character Portrait: Jareth The Goblin King Character Portrait: Prince Dedric of Astraea Character Portrait: Marten of Astraea
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Marten blinked. He studied Jareth's face wearing a bemused expression. The man looked honestly as perplexed as he did. His face fell, he turned his gaze to the floor feeling rather embarrassed. Of course it wasn't her.

"My apologies, sire. I was touring the fruit garden with your representative, and she reminded me of..." he shook his head and cleared his throat. A small part of him felt disappointed that the girl wasn't his. She possessed a remarkable warmth he thought only emanated from his kind. Perhaps she was just brighter spirited than the Abovegrounders he knew.

"Anyway, it was a ridiculous notion to even come up with."

He rubbed the back of his neck as he searched for his next words. Jareth was on the defensive, and Marten had no intentions of causing him trouble.

"With my brother and all, I never got the opportunity to thank you for saving my Lilian. I know my voice holds little sway among the underground, but I am willing to stand in your defense should the need arise."

He hovered a little, recovering slowly from his former shock.

"Has it been so long already, Jareth? I look at your young friend and I struggle to believe that my little girl could be that grown."

He felt suddenly heavy. He had tried to forget the fleeting years, forget the moments he never saw and never would see. He hoped his own daughter wore a face like Miss Jones, a twinkling, jovial expression that surely knew pain.