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cosmicwind
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Soon enough every guest stood expectantly behind their chair. Sarah saw Julianne three chairs away from her, conversing a handsome gentleman with thin murrey braids falling over his shoulders and down his obsidian suite. He was tall and wide-chested, however he looked weighted down as if he had been carrying a lot on his shoulders for a lengthier time. Next to him stood a tall and pale lady with make up in an elaborated style and her hair dyed blue and decorated with pearls and oyster feathers. She was dressed in a likewise blue silk gown endowed with sequins and lace and while her bosom was high, her waist was so small that Sarah held no doubt that most of the men would be able to lay their hands around it and having their fingers converging.

To the blue-haired lady's right, Sarah noted a funny little dwarf who had jester written all over him. He was outfitted in a red and green checkered dress and had hair like Albert Einstein and bronze rings in his disproportionally large ear lobes. The place right across her remained empty for a while, before it was taken by a tall and solemn man with violet eyes beneath a too long, carroty fringe. He was perusing an instrument he wore in a golden chain around his neck, and first Sarah assumed it to be a watch, but he was looking at it a bit too long and thumbing at it now and then. Was it mayhap this world's equivalent to a smartphone?

Hearing someone clearing his throat to her left, she turned to face a dark-skinned young man holding out a slender, long-fingered hand at her. He was dressed in a frock and a purple silk tie decorated with tiny cog wheels and adorning his left eye was an old style monocle, rimmed in gold.
"I'm Chervin, Head Magician of Alozzia in Taronda," he introduced himself, gazing at her with peculiar gray eyes in an elongated, elfin face beneath an unruly mass of dark locks. She took his hand, noted that it was sinewy and unusually cold and adorned with several rings, all of them with red stones.
"Sarah Williams," she rejoined shyly.
"I know," Chervin beamed, displaying snow-white teeth. "Everyone here tonight knows who you are."  

"They do?" puzzlement and a few grains of embarrassment coloured her voice and she felt her eyes smart briefly in consternation.
"Indeed," his grin grew wider as he nodded his head; there was something soothing in that rich baritone of his, as if he understood her disconcerting predicament.
"Curious, because quite a few seem to have mistaken me for someone named Saphira."
"Saphira, yes," Chervin lowered his voice, his eyes growing more solemn. "She could have been you – had circumstances been different. However don't expect me to clarify, milady, as I do not cogitate it's my place to do such a thing. I may tread on several tender toes, including yours, should I undertake such a venture."

Sarah may have desired to inquire about such a peculiar statement, yet now High King Angarian took his place at the upper end of the table as the very last one among the gathered. Upon lifting his glass, the profusely glittering lamplight caught the luxuriant ruby of the wine.
"To peace, to prosperity and to life!" he toasted, his voice carried as if amplified. It was echoed in a jubilant rumble throughout the hall. Sarah looked over at Jareth just in time to see him mouth 'to you' and wink at her before returning his attention to the woman next to him, another of those super-models wearing a short black dress looking almost painted upon her sumptuous body. A waterfall of perfect butter yellow locks cascaded over her narrow shoulders, so brilliant and saturated they were almost appearing to emit light on their own. Her silvery eyes were focused on Jareth who was saying something to her and she let hear a ringing laughter as her eyes briefly darted over to Sarah.

"That's Lady Mizumi, Auditor of Deep Magic," explained Chervin while pulling out her elegant chair and Sarah sat down upon the plushy, crimson seat. Perceptibly he had followed Sarah's gaze. "Watch out for her! She may look gentle and caring, although she has a heart of ice paired with a brilliant, knife-sharp mind and she's debauched and completely ruthless, not bothering with whom she steps upon to reach the beckoning goal she has set herself upon."
"Thanks for the warning," Sarah turned to face her tablemate who was making himself comfortable in the chair next to her. Instantaneously livery-clad servants began to appear, filling glasses with sparkling, red wine, juggling the green bottles like balls as they went, their hands covered in gloves whiter than snow.

As soon as their glasses were filled with claret liquid, Chervin raised his at her and they toasted, clinking their glasses silently and Sarah sensed the beginning of an unexpected liking for this low-keyed, suave man. Sipping at her wine Sarah was astonished at its abrasiveness, almost scafing against her tongue - conversely, she wasn't used to wine and she imagined it was an acquired taste. Feeling her mother's eyes on her, Sarah supposed Julianne wanted to see how her daughter would handle this kind of beverage. Lowering her glass she sat it beside her plate.

Instantly Chervin re-caught her attention. While the servants began serving the first dish, he was pointing out the rest of the assembly around them. The youth opposite of them had introduced himself as Garvil, and the instrument he was using was a kind of spyglass, something he called a Radphaser. The seat next to him, beside the dwarf, which Sarah had assumed to be empty, did actually have an occupant, a girl named Cleanthia.
"She's a Voidwalker," Chervin explained. "They are somewhat, how should I say, invisible."
"Invisible?" Sarah echoed before savouring the first piece of her meat, it was luscious, delicious, by far among the best she had ever eaten; still it didn't take her mind off the mystery presenting itself in front of her.

"Yes, mainly because they partly exist in another, parallel universe to our regular. So our brains tend to unsee them and to completely forget they are there. But Garvil is using a Radphaser to regard her. Garvil!" he then addressed the redheaded man opposite of them, who lowered his instrument and turned towards Chervin and Sarah. "Let Sarah here borrow your Radphaser, will you, so that she too might behold the sweet Cleanthia!"
"Why, of course!" Garvil smiled generously and held out the little brass object towards Sarah, who took it in her hand, surprised of how light-weighted it felt – and still sturdy in a way. Garvil showed her how to use it, to hold it in front of her right eye, and to aim it at the chair next to him.

As Sarah turned in that direction, she noted that there was actually something 'misty' in place across that chair, something vaguely resembling a human form, a bizarre distortion that seemed to pull at her eyeballs. Almost as if it was a ghost there, shimmering in and out of her vision, breaking up the spectrum. Upon looking just the slightest way in another direction, she was for a short time seeing a young woman there, but then the nebulous apparition vanished, and Sarah couldn't for her life recollect her features. Next she raised the Radphaser object to her eyes and used it the way Garvil had shown her. Thus she became able to really perceive Cleanthia. She was a petite, lovely-looking girl with blond ringlets fanning out from her head and back from a round face with kind, almond-shaped and sea-blue eyes and a pointy little nose sprinkled with freckles. She smiled.
"Hi Sarah!" she said, her voice open and merry.
"Hello Cleanthia," Sarah replied. "Nice to meet you."

They chatted a bit before Sarah returned the instrument to Garvil and Cleanthia told her:
"You know you can still hear me, even though you might forget me. But hopefully the Radphaser will help our kind to be perceived and recollected a bit easier."
"I won't forget you, I promise," Sarah asserted, glad to finally be making friends for real in this strange world. While looking at the amorphous form which Cleanthia had returned to, she found the Voidwalker almost easier to see, or at least envision.

Cleanthia went on conversing Garvil and Chervin resumed his introductions. The handsome man next to Julianne was called Lord Orinian and he was in fact Chervin's superior. The dwarf's name was Pereon. He held out a blunt-fingered hand to Sarah, and as she took it, she was surprised of his iron grip. The blue-haired lady between Orinian and Pereon was called Rayda and she was a cousin to Angarian's wife - the Queen Colombina.

On the other hand of Chervin sat a woman who's names was Atrey. She was model-perfect in her dark features and with large doe's eyes and next to her was a striking man named Tirkar. There was something with Atrey which made Sarah pucker her brows, it wasn't just that Atrey didn't appear to be eating or drinking anything. It was the way her hair lifted when she moved her head, the way her eyes and unpainted nails were glistening when she animated her slender hands. She appeared – well unreal, as if she had stepped out of a manga.

Looking down the table Sarah saw no one else who seemed perturbed in the same way she was. They were mostly caught up in talk, occasionally letting hear a toast together with their nearest comrades. Turning around, she looked up the table, immediately noting how Jareth was swirling his utensils in the food while still listening intensely to Lady Mizumi.

Finally, Chervin took the chance to introduce Sarah to the auburn-haired and broad-shouldered gentleman on her other side, who had been caught up in a discussion with his tablemate up until now. His name was Tilathian, originating from a world called Ebraa, a diplomat in the pay of Queen Sarentona of Terandabar. The queen was a haughty beauty sitting all the way up by the King. Next to Tilathian sat a petite Indian woman in a pink sari and a glittering stone mounted upon her forehead. With her gray-stroked hair and sun spotted, wrinkled skin she appeared to be the only one in this room who was obviously old - and she was referred to as Aitoola, the Human Illuminate.

"It's nice to meet you, Lady Sarah," the Illuminate said in a proper English accent.
"You too, Ma'am Illuminate."
"Well, for the sake of convenience, please call me Aitoola. No need for titles among compatriots." Sarah jolted at her words. Titles. Compatriots.
"Of course. Please call me Sarah."
"Doesn't it amuse you," Aitoola then inflected as she cast a furtive glance over to the seemingly empty chair next to Garvil, "that the Voidwalkers are dining in the Hall of the King tonight. While the most prominent people of our home planet are not even aware of this festivity?"
"The Voidwalkers, yes! The obscure folk! It makes me reminiscence the feast of the last Khalif," Jareth smirked as he speared a piece of cut meat upon his fork, adding mashed potatoes to it.
"What feast?" Sarah asked brightly.

"Don't you dare answer," Mizumi goaded Jareth in a vicious but low whisper.
"Oh Mizumi - you spoil my fun," Jareth shot back tauntingly before he devoured his mouthful.
"Your fun!" a profligate riposte. "All that's ever matter to you! There's nothing more important to Jareth but Jareth himself."
"Come on, Mizumi," Tilathian leered, leaning forward to face the golden-haired lady, her striking profile rubescent and somewhat contorted as she wrinkled her perfect little nose. "It's no secret that you regretted what happened that night. But it was your own fault."
"Don't you dare," Mizumi repeated herself, "as I know a few things about your dirty little games as well."

"Oh Mizumi," Jareth clicked his tongue. "You make me so disappointed. What's a little fun in the long term of tedium? These are the things we seem to remember and rejoice in on unremarkable nonentity days. I say better to regret what you did than bemoaning what you never managed."  
"It's not that easy and you know it," Mizumi hissed and put down her fork so hard it clattered against the china. "If it wasn't against protocol, I'd turn that little Ebraan spy into a toad. Not that it would change much anyway."

Hearing that Thilathian was just snickering and raising his glass of wine towards the Auditor before he turned to Sarah and toasted with her, blinking one eye. Sarah in turn realized that it wasn't rocket science to figure out what had happened between this Mizumi and the unknown Voidwalker.

"I guess that's it," Jareth sighed histrionically. "Maybe we should talk about the unwelcomed visitor instead, Aitoola," he said innocently, facing the Indian. "Isn't it alleged to have been sighted in your home world?"
"Go ahead and talk about the feast of the last Khalif," the Illuminate returned, taking a swift mouthful of wine. Mizumi made a noise of remonstration.
"Absolutely not!"

She was missing something here, Sarah thought as her eyes slid to the woman next to Jareth, taking in the excellent cut of her clothing and the prim arrangement of golden curls on top of her head.
"What visitor?" she prompted, provoking another twinkle in Jareth's exotic eyes.
"Don't answer," said Aitoola sharply to Jareth.
"This is ill-fated to become the dullest dinner conversation I've had in a long time," Jareth pouted.
"None of what you have to talk about is dinner conversation really and that's why it's always dull," Mizumi retorted resolutely.

"I should think such sweet fare," Jareth was now indicating the glass of wine in front of him, "would make you all that much sweeter. Alas, I am disappointed." Sarah held back a giggle.
"If you think aggravated is interchangeable with melodramatic, you've a lesson coming," Mizumi spat, her eyes charring.
"I could learn from you," Jareth replied lugubriously, still with a twinkle of jauntiness in his miss-matched eyes. Sarah lifted the wine to her mouth to hide the smile that spread across her face. She understood very little of what had just been exchanged but in an odd way she found Jareth amusing.
Two livery clad servants bowed deeply before they slid to the sides with the flowing grace of dancers and placed white-glowed hands on shiny brass doorknobs, opening up one large, paneled oak door each, admitting Sarah and her mother into a large and sumptuous ballroom of a kind that could put Buckingham Palace to shame. It was about five normal stories up to the cross-vaulted ceiling which was painted like a starry sky in blues and gold. The vaults were carried by slender pillars made by some kind of glittering transparent material, lit from inside by a shifting spectra of rainbow colours which spilled out and reflected against the polished marble floor in a dazzling carnival of hues. In divergence the walls were calmingly white and hung with large works of art, some classic, others of the modern kind still others impossible to classify. Through high and pointy windows on their right hand, the last dying embers of daylight spilled in, failing to compete with the profusion of glittering light inside. Soft music from piano and strings could be heard through the muted buzz of voices filling the hall.

Though the hall itself held nothing against the captivation of those inside. They were about two hundred revelers gathered, perhaps three. Standing in small groups with high-steamed glasses in their hands and with the sparkling lights from the crystalline pillars and chandeliers bouncing off their jewelry and sequined dresses they all looked like Hollywood stars, attendants of an Oscar Gala or a Nobel Price celebration. The brilliance of such a gathering almost struck Sarah dumb, she almost expected celebrities like Prince Charles or Orlando Bloom to be among them. But no, this was a very different kind of gathering, she realized. Virtually as if cut out of a fairytale. More Disney than Woody Allen.

"To Julianne, welcome back!" a gaudy male tenor suddenly reverberated across the large hall.
"Julianne?" someone else, a woman this time. Precipitously it felt as if every single eye in the bedecked ballroom turned to regard Sarah and her mother stepping over the threshold. These weren't the eyes of the everyday suburban people she knew, the neighbors, the kids and the teachers in the school or the parents of her friends. These were eyes that had seen the world, seen ugliness and beauty, horrors and wonders, joy and sadness. Now appearing as if they were ascertaining someone like her for the very first time.

Sarah became rooted to the spot as a hush fell upon the nearest guests, torsos turned and necks stretched, people posing themselves to see better. She wasn't sure if she was ready for this, she felt so inadequate in her cheap red dress and amateurish make-up, like a cat among the ermines. The music which had sounded until now quieted, one single end note ringing out into nothing.

"To Saphira!" another cheering went up. It echoed from every corner, and shining glasses were raised to her. With knees going week she laughed nervously. This diverse nobility evidently had her confused with someone else.
"Um ... hi," she quietly responded, surprised to hear her own voice reverberate at the back of the hall. "I'm Sarah, not Saphira. Sarah Williams from Chelsea, London, England. That's in, uh, the United Kingdom," she went on, under the impression that very few in this gathering had any idea what she was talking about. Every single attendant looked utterly bewildered and Sarah felt guilty for letting them down.

"The child doesn't know her own name!" Sarah heard someone whisper. Now it was her turn to be confused. Looking around for her mother, she realized that Julianne was standing stock still, mouth pursed in a thin line. Something was truly wrong, it felt like an ambush. Before she could ask questions a hand clasped on her shoulder, a hand that was definitely not from someone she knew.

As if drawn by a magnet, Sarah's gaze followed the large hand on her right shoulder and found herself facing a tall and smart-looking man who appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties posed just behind her. He was dressed in black leather pants and a likewise black, gem-studded leather jacket over a white lace-covered shirt with wide lace cuffs poking out from under the arms of the sharply cut jacket. Yet his most notable feature was the hair, whitish blond, long and spiky, standing upright as if electrified. He looked like some kind of visual kei artist or as if he was role-playing something faux medieval.

When she looked into his eyes she found them being mismatched – one of them a yellowish hazel, the other a grayish blue. The effect was frightening, those were eyes possessing a sinister quality, yet softened by lines of kindness and perhaps merriment radiating from the corners. Eyes that turned her cold yet lured her in. His pointy brows didn't help much either. It made him look like an older brother of Cloud from Final Fantasy. Behind him were a few more people also looking completely out of place. Sarah felt a peculiar chill shoot through her bones and glanced back to the crowd. They seemed to have lost interest in her and her mother now, and resumed their previous conversations.

"Glad to see the festivities are under way," came the elegant man's smooth voice and thus Sarah recognized him as the one who had greeted Julianne earlier. "Good to see you at last, Saphira." Picking his hand of Sarah's shoulder the blond stranger moved along into the crowd. She felt a mixture of relief to be free from the pull of those burning eyes and an odd sense of disappointment from a potential opportunity lost. A path opened up as other guests moved aside for him. Greetings were uttered as his entourage passed, and last in the group walked a petite girl who looked a bit like Kim Kardashian – but with a pair of black, curved horns adorning her temples, one of them pierced with a silvery ring. She gave Sara an odd, long and knowing look. Sarah became astounded and it appeared as though her mother felt the same way.

Once the eccentric group had dispersed into the crowd, another man appeared before them. He was even taller than the flamboyant tenor, broad over his shoulders and with long flaxen hair falling in waves over his torso. He wore a two-piece outfit resembling a dress uniform, navy-blue with a double row of spherical brass buttons, decorated with medals and pins, epaulettes covering the shoulders and with tassels hanging from the left side. The glow of the entire place might as well have emanated from him since his jovial and generous smile could have lit kindling.
"Welcome, Lady Julianne and the lovely Sarah! I am exceedingly delighted to see that the two of you could attend this party," he beamed as he closed in. First Sarah expected Julianne to hold out her hand for him to kiss, the way she had seen other women greet the male attendants around. Instead Julianne quickly stood in between her daughter and the impressive man.

"I wouldn't think so," she almost hissed and Sarah blinked at the unexpected chill of her mother's voice, moreover she wouldn't know what to call the redness gathering in her mother's face.
"Oh come now, milady, let her enjoy her first Hallow Ewe. Remember what I said in the letter. We wouldn't any trouble, would we?"

Even from her angle could Sarah tell that her mother had gone pale and livid. Was this regal man threatening them? Or what was the cause for the toxic grains hidden in this stranger's honeyed voice? This well concealed wiliness which even deterred her normally so collected mother - what was going on?

"Noble King Angarian. Make no mistake that either of us would want any trouble," Julianne was almost whispering. "We came here upon your invitation, because protocol bade me so. Your majesty, even after all those years I haven't forgotten my manners. Or the melancholic nostalgia for what was once my home. Something I wished for Sarah to also see, before it became too late for her to appreciate it. But I have not disremembered the way you treated me back then. Your refusal to see who was guilty and who was innocent, victimized in this disaster which befell upon us by the unfortunate circumstance that I married the wrong man."

High King Angarian's smugness slipped off his face minutely and Sarah quickly added two and two. So this was the man who had once forced her mother in exile, after the failed attempt of a coup instigated by her husband and father – Sarah's grandfather. The ruinous events this strange woman Umbrianna had hinted at upon her visit to London.

Yet before any more inimical words could be exchanged, the man with the miss-matched eyes returned, bringing a high-stemmed glass with something sparkling in, which he presented to Sarah.
"Since the Eraldians are intent on throwing a wet blanket over this..." he mused as he turned and looked at Julianne and King Angarian's fuming faces for a moment, "...happy occasion, I feel obligated to make up for it. Have some Champagne! You too, Julianne." He had in fact brought two glasses and with a flashing smile he all but shoved the second one into Julianne's hand. With the same gracious movement he threw an arm around Sarah's shoulders and swept her away into the crowd. "Resume your merriment," he said simply to the crowd.

As if everyone in their vicinity had been holding their breath underwater, the conversations rose up again like a gasp for air.
"So ... who are you?" Sarah asked the tall man who led her deeper into the crowd. She held on to the glass of Champagne, waiting for a spot to put it down, as her mother never let her taste wine.
"I'm Jareth. Has Julianne ever mentioned me?"
"No," Sarah humbly admitted. "She never told me about this place before, I had no idea it even existed. And I don't know any of these people."

"Such a shame," Jareth contemplatively replied, sounding like he was sincerely meaning it.
"Why did they mistake me for this Saphira by the way? Who is she anyway?" Sarah felt very unlike herself as she gazed at his slim, sinewy form, remarkable hairdo and the way the lights played across the unusual angles of his face. There was something there which was not... really human.  
"You'll find out eventually," his reply was secretive and slightly laden with pity. "For now, though, the feast is about to begin. I am sure King Angarian is persuading Julianne to join in for real as we speak."

"My mother never even told me she and I originated from beyond the stars," Sarah recommenced, "that she had a husband who was imprisoned for trying to dethrone a king. She never told me we were... aliens." As the last word fell of her lips Sarah she felt silent with comprehension and an indistinct nausea churned in her belly.
"You're not really aliens," Jareth tried to sooth her. "Not more than another hundred million or so living on Earth, intermingled with the majority of the human race. You think the Chinese are foreign, wait 'till you meet the Thuleans or the Ebraans. Or other people coming from – well, elsewhere. Like us."
"Lealia?" she asked, after having struggled for a few seconds with remembering the name of the planet they were on.
"Lealia yes. There are other worlds too. I come from a place called Labyrinth."

"Labyrinth – that's a strange name. No offence."
"None taken. Labyrinth is a strange place in the eyes of most in here. Conversely we find their places strange, so I guess that makes us even."
"You must tell me about your world!" Sarah kept her gaze on Jareth's face, trying to figure him out. "Might you know why my mother was so resolute against telling me about this place?"

"I understand – to a certain extent - why she wouldn't want to tell you. Who wants to grow up learning you're part of a minority most people does not even know exist? I imagine she intended to let you know when time was due. Besides, most people here simply don't have their heads on right," Jareth suddenly sounded almost scornful, lashing out with a long-fingered hand at the gathering, several rings flashing. "Your mother had enough sense to stay away for a while, but our kind can be persistent. She's been hurt." The smooth arrogance slid from his voice with those last words. Jareth turned to Sarah as he concluded. "It's not my place to tell you more than so right now. Wait for Julianne, eventually she let you know what you need to know."

Sarah felt dismayed, there were secrets hidden here which she couldn't wait to unearth, it was more to this than just a merrymaking on an alien world, she could feel it in the undercurrents like cold drafts around her ankles and she wanted to plead with Jareth to let her in on those secrets everyone but her seemed to know. At the same time Jareth's words made some strange kind of sense, regardless of what little else really made sense in this world. He was under no liberty to tell, it would have to be her mother apprising Sarah of what she needed to know.

Sarah may have disclosed her longing for adventures, something else beyond the dull world of Chelsea, but now right in the middle of this ostentatious technicolor festivity, she had to admit it wasn't really that astounding. Don't wish too hard as the saying went.

While they were talking, Sarah hadn't been aware of where they were heading, but when they approached a large table at the end of the vast hall she refocused on her surroundings and stared in awe at the unstinting feast that was being set. Gold rimmed plates made from the finest of china on snow-white tablecloths and so many forks, knifes, spoons and glasses that she didn't know how half of them could be needed. The decorative cutlery appeared to be made out of gold and silver as well, as were the rings around the linen table napkins. Large pottery of brightly coloured exotic flowers were sat at intervals in the middle of the table, intermingled with ornate golden candlesticks with burning candles, but there were spaces enough between those decoration to enable people to see each other across the table. Above hung crystal chandeliers with a plethora of bulbs lighting up the high, cross-vaulted ceiling above in a warm orange.  

The guests of the King posed themselves at varied intervals around, waiting for Angarian to take his place and Sarah wondered how they found their way to their chairs, since there were no name-tags or any other apparent seating system. Jareth ushered Sarah to a chair some eight yards away from the head of the table before taking his place two spots away from her on the other side. Since she didn't know any of the people gathering around her, Sarah felt a little less comfortable now that her guide had left her, even though he was just sitting diagonally from her. Silently she regarded those people in their elegant fineries, perfect hairdos and stylish make-ups, who were cheek-kissing and chattering merrily among each other. They all seemed sophisticated and courtly and she had no idea what to say to any of them.
While listening to the undistinguished noise of shower water in the bathroom, Antolas turned toward the window and looked out into the lush beauty of the Whitehall Park, really seeing nothing except the image of Cynthia, his beautiful, bright, energetic wife. The one Regular who had perceived him – and loved him in spite of his ephemeral nature. In his powerful position, Antolas had his choice of women, but in spite of her race, Cynthia had seen the way to capture his heart fully and completely. He missed her – the loss of her still didn't seem real. Fuliginous sorrow soon grew to overwhelming feelings of guilt. She had been a Regular and he had known it all the time that she would wither away from him and die within 18 Lealian years. Regulars seldom lived past 25 of them. Still he had a hard time bearing the loss, especially as Cleanthia had grown up to resemble Cynthia to such a painful extent.  

Baby Cleanthia had been a beauty. Her eyes were blue, almost like a Thulean summer sky in color and they got bluer as she grew older. Cynthia had kept Cleanthia's hair long with soft flowing curls when she was a little girl. She used to rub rose water into it so it always shined and smelled beautiful. Staring out into an overcast morning, Antolas could remember that scent so vividly.

Now his Cleanthia was here in Eralda together with him on a mission – her first real mission, and within High King Angarian's proud court even so. The Recruiter who had hired them for the job had talked about locating an Alien. A strange creature which had emerged into the Seven Cosmoses from the outside. Something of which they knew very little and understood less.

For a long time the sentient races of the Seven Cosmoses had believed their Multiverse Realm to be the only one, a complete hyperorb engulfing all that ever was and with nothing outside it. People hadn't even envisioned the existence of an outside to the Cosmoses. Then a hundred years or so, physicists had been able to calculate the possibility of something more existing adjacent to the known universes, something beyond them. That strange 'outside' had been painted in mystery colours, frightening and thrilling the people with its perceived exotic values, an almost insolent notion. No one knew what was out there; no one could even begin to guess. Still there were speculations flying. Some believed that the limbo outside was where the gods had gone; other believed it to be the true realm of the dead souls – the Lethe.

Not even his people, the Voidwalkers, had managed or even dared to venture there - especially since not knowing what to find or if it would even be conceivable to return. Antolas also had to admit that another reason for not trying was their fear of failing. A fear of admitting a limitation to the perceived omnipotence of their racial abilities.

Antolas' thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door to the suite, he called out for the knocker to enter and hesitantly the wooden drawdoor slipped to the side, displaying a young, fair-skinned Regular girl. She was hardly more than a child; still he knew with painful clarity that she had already lived out more than fifteen percent of her allotted life-span.
"Is anyone here," she gazed around the room as her eyes uncomfortably slid over his presence, trying to understand what she was seeing, since her brain failed to really register his presence. The youth strained her smarting vision through the radiance enwrapping Antolas' amorphism - she could barely make out the shape of the Royal guest, the flow of his long and blond hair became streamers of scintillating flickers hurting his eyes.

"Yes, I – Antolas from Thule am here, together with my daughter Cleanthia."
"Antolas, yes. You are the, um, Voidwalkers, right?" For a brief moment she vacillated as she wedged a swirling shadow-glimpse. Her seeking, emerald-green eyes had finally found his form and she was doing her best to try to focus at a transparent luminance wavering to and from in her visual perception. One dart to the left or the right, and she'd lost sight of him completely, more or less instantly forgetting where he had been and what she had seen.

"Yes I am," Antolas more or less repeated himself.
"Good... uh," she focused again and blinked, steadying herself against the doorjamb.
"Close your eyes instead and simply listen to my voice," the Voidwalker advised, knowing this would provide the errant girl with an easier report. She complied and shut her eyes firmly. In the bathroom he heard his daughter shut off the shower and he wished she'd stay in there a bit longer, since another Voidwalker entering the room would probably petrify this poor thing.

"The High King Angarian wants you in his office at ten 'o clock," she finally informed. "I'll be back here a quarter before and escort you there. In spite of us using a back door and a service elevator, I advise you to follow close behind me or you might startle people who we meet on our way to the King."
"I promise," Antolas affirmed before silence momentarily sealed his concealed lips. Then he dismissed the girl, who left with a breath of reprieve. Moments later his daughter stepped out of the bathroom, dressed in a sabanum, her cascade of radiant silver-blonde hair still wet from the shower.

"Who was it, Papá?" she asked in her gentle voice.
"One of the king's servants. We're expected in the Royal Office within two hours from now. This'll give me a chance to shower too and for us to finally get something to eat."
"Good idea," Cleanthia avowed. "I'm really starving."

***

With a gesture like a starving lion, Jareth bit in to the sandwich and tore off a hefty chunk, hardly tasting, hardly chewing before swallowing down with a large gulp of wine, almost choking upon the arduous flavor against the back of his mouth. Then he put the goblet down on the table with a resounding clang.
"So he has the guts?" he asked of the young woman in front of him. It was something of a rhetorical question, still her dark head bobbed for confirmation, her daemon's horn glittering mutedly in the overhead light, the small silvery piercing ring she had attached to the left horn tinkling against the hard, blue-black surface.
"Yes, King Angarian is inviting Mizumi for this year's Hallow Ewe Fiesta," she repeated and tried to meet the King's gaze. His odd eyes always made her confused. The blue and the green – the latter with a dilated pupil. They never seemed to express the same thing, one was cold and calculating, the other compassionate - and as such they made her insecure.

"On a night when I cannot decline, due to the Council meeting the next day. Darn protocol, darn Angarian," Jareth growled mutedly and reached for the goblet again, but without lifting it to his lips, instead he was content with fingering its stem, feeling the decorative swirls of art noveau stems scafing mildly against his fingertips, turning him more alert. He would have to come up with a plan, there was no way he was going to deal more than necessary with his ex-fiancée at that evening. She had made his life miserable once and it always grated at his despondent mind that he had let her do it – and that she still seemed to hold some kind of power over him, even if that power was merely extent to making him infuriated these days.

"Your majesty," his informant caught his attention again.
"Yes, Levantine!"
"There's one more thing you need to know about the party attenders." Levantine shifted from one foot to the next. "High King Angarian has also invited Julianne, former lady of Ursain. She's arriving together with her young daughter Saphira. The latter known as Sarah these days."
"Reikan's daughter," Jareth was beginning to feel a build-up of a headache behind his eye-lobes. No doubt because of hunger and dehydration, he had skipped both lunch and dinner today due to his royal work-load and this sad excuse for supper of wine and redfowl sandwich was doing little to improve his well-being.

"Yes," Levantine confirmed, hoping to become excused, when Jareth was in that foul mode you'd never know what could happen and she had no wish to be the receiver of one of his infamous tantrums. She wouldn't for her life cause him to hurl that goblet of wine against her.

But instead of any kind of frenzy she saw a smile form upon his sensitive lips. No, make that a leer, and his eyes followed, contracting barely notably as something effervesced therein. Doubtlessly he was up to something. He finally drank of his wine while regarding Levantine over the brass rim of the goblet.
"What would you say about coming with me to Whitehall over the next weekend?" he asked. "To be my second pair of eyes. I would need your tracing skill to keep tab on certain persons for me."

***

Three hours later Antolas and Cleanthia were passing down a short hallway, following closely to Cerone. The servant girl had learned to rely upon their audio traces, listening to the even rhythm of their footfalls rather than turning around to check them out. Most Regulars were unable to catch small nuances as breathing and heartbeats, however that didn't seem to bother Cerone, she had soon learned to – if not becoming comfortable in the presence of the Voidwalkers – so at least accepting. The trio continued to the top of a staircase, past another opulent hallway and through a large set of double-doors, then they were inside of the stately office of King Angarian himself.

The King and his Queen were waiting for them, and Cleanthia remembered her name as Colombina. She had kind and curious dark eyes with which she regarded the father and daughter and peculiarly enough, she kept focused, ostensibly unbothered with their appearance – or perhaps one should say un-appearance. Instead she was smiling and held out her hands for Cleanthia and Antolas to take, and they greeted the Queen courteously. After that they both turned to the King.  

When Cleanthia faced Angarian, she seeked his eyes, trying to discern his emotions. He was so much taller she had to tilt her head back and beautiful with his faultless features, high cheekbones, and the golden blond hair that hung past his broad shoulders. There was something formal about his carriage, though, and she reminded herself that this man was actually the mightiest one in the universes, at least when it came to executive power.

The introductions were brief and while a servant arrived with refreshments, they small talked a bit. Soon enough the King went down to business. Lugubriously he delineated the thing that had emerged from the outside through a rupture in the spatial fabric, and his following request was straightforward.
"Find this Alien. But do not engage, just tell us where it is. Then my people will handle it the way we seem fit."

"How will you approach it?" Antolas asked, fearing that the Eraldans would not hesitate to use brute force already from the start.
"We'll see about that when the creature is found," the King's words were gentle but clear enough, he refused to let anyone else in on his plans. "We need to know what's going on out there, we need to if possible understand this Alien before we can decide what to do with it. How to fight it."
"But what if it's not hostile? Will you still fight it?" impelled the Voidwalker. "I imagine it's more lost and confused than actually inimical. A stranger in a strange land looking for a way home."
"What makes you reach that conclusion?"
"I don't claim to know a thing about this Alien, Sire," the Voidwalker admitted with a frank, somewhat humble voice. "But I do know a lot about being this stranger."

"Very possible, Voidwalker. However, I wouldn't hesitate one second in finishing it off in case it poses any threats to the Seven Cosmoses," came the royal retort. "It's my extensive responsibility to protect what I have been coronated to protect. If that means shooting first and asking later, I am very much fine with it."
"But first you must know where to shoot, right?" Antolas laboured to keep the disdain out of his voice. "Or you might just end up harming it - and to an extent turning it from indifferent to outright hostile. We wouldn't want that, right?"

Cleanthia found herself writhing with embarrassment. Her father could be an obstinate old bastard from time to time, and it didn't get better since the King was struggling to regard him. Realizing that both the King and the Queen had probably forgotten she was there, she decided, perhaps against better understanding, to speak up.
"Let us find this alien, Your Majesty. Let us see if we can also find where it came from and if there's a way we can send it back home that way." She watched as three surprised heads turned in her direction, confusion from the King and Queen, pride beaming from her father's crinkled green eyes.

"Our kind has always known 'different'," she went on. "Always understood what it means to be excluded, unseen and disregarded. Because of our propensity we have been called 'the faceless' by the majority. Faceless or shadowless and other much more horrid and scurrilous things which I do not care to reiterate. If we hadn't had our aptitude, I imagine we'd be considered pariah. But now people out there need us. They need us to walk the void, to go where no one else is able to go. To see what no one else is able to see. But that doesn't mean they accept us. Far from it. So in a way I think that we perhaps understand this creature. Or at least a little bit. Our kind has always prided usselves with doing the impossible – so perhaps we can try to find a way to communicate with it."  
"Saphira?" High King Angarian mused while his solicitous blue eyes shifted from Lord Orinian to his Cyborg agent Atrey and back again. "A daughter of Reikan? I wonder where that old bastard might've squirreled her away all those years. His significant other was Lady Julianne, who divorced him after the slipshod insurrection. The ill-faithed woman chose exile, and left for Earth. That's about as much as I know about her."

They had sat down in a Royal Longue, where the bright midmorning sun was shining in through large, round windows, bringing out hues and shades in the smoothly elegant, dominantly white furnishing and adding gently saturated depths to the calming blue walls which displayed hints at sea-inspired murals. The exquisite rays glittered, fractured and decayed into green in the water of an aquarium were the most brightly coloured, exotic fishes were indolently swimming about. This lofty place of lenient and comfortable less-is-more elegance was quite a bit more casual than Angarian's formal office and the king had offered light refreshments which they enjoyed while Atrey reiterated to the king what she had told the Tarondan Lord the day before.

"Reikan told about his daughter when he was heard almost immediately after his capture," explained Atrey as she fearlessly met the eyes of her King. "According to him, Saphira was prophesied to banish a big threat to the Seven Cosmoses about four standard years in the future. Consequently Reikan appealed he would have to be pardoned to enabling him to teach her how to fight, naturally unmanageable when in prison."
"Sounds to me rather a condemned man grasping at straws, than a sighter telling of possible futures," Angarian snorted. Orinian had to stop himself from rolling his eyes, it was evident the King knew very little of, or cared very little for how sighters worked – or perhaps he was just letting his mind be clouded by his old aversion of the former Lord Reikan of Ursain.

"Sire, he was under hypnosis when telling this," Atrey elucidated. "95% of all sighters perform their divinations and receive their visions while being hypnotized or drugged. It's no secret that very few people can accomplish a true sighting during normal conditions. The Celestian brain, as with most thinking specimens, is simply too preoccupied with external sensations through the normal seven senses to be able to reach those channels which are receptive for the imprints in the time-space flux and able to see possible futures or past occurrences. Not to mention evaluating them. They need to shut down most interference, like sights, sounds, smells, electromagnetic currents and further on - to quintessence on the flux. Often only doable under altered conditions."

"What you must take in mind, gentlemen, is that Reikan was not put under hypnosis because of sighting reasons," Atrey went on. Angarian was now studying her intensely. No matter how used he was to Cyborgs these days, he still felt a certain discomfort upon viewing a person who didn't move an inch in her relaxed, contemplating status. Most people tended to shift position, blink or scratch themselves somewhere now and then. Cyborgs did neither; they had no need for these little ticks. Atrey was akinetic like a statue.
"Reikan was under because you were questioning him," the king stressed matter of factly. "To ensure he was telling the truth. Common procedure of criminal investigation."
"Of course," Atrey avowed. "However none of the jail personnel knew the man was a sighter. So no precautions for that aspect were taken. We were completely startled when Reikan fell into sighting trance and began talking about common occurrences."

"How accurate were they?" Orinian asked. At the same Queen Colombina slipped inside, closing the hallway door silently behind her. Without a word she came over and seated herself in one of the vacant chairs, the silk of her blue tunic whispering faintly as she arranged it gracefully over her long legs. The king gave her a silent nod of a greeting and Colombina nodded back, a gentle smile gracing her red-painted lips, her countenance lighting up, dark eyes twinkling. Orinian observed the royal duo thoughtfully; it was obvious that they had found a low-keyed, down to earth love after all those years. Who could have thought....?

"The sightings were correct enough," Atrey commenced after a courteous acknowledgment to the queen. "Upon investigating them I found them coming close to a probability of 80% - at least in those parts I've been able to analyze hitherto. Including the economic recession we've just emerged from and which is still plaguing Earth, Nibiru, Xanadu and Avalon Occidenta. Add to this the assassination of president Dekarmon in Elasastia."
"So how about Reikan's presumed daughter?" Angarian probed.
"That's the focal enigma, Sire. I've been trying to locate this Saphira now for quite some time. First I thought her to be a biological daughter of Reikan, but I found no records of earlier marriages of his, in spite of his age of almost 200 years. Neither any indication that he should have sired a child otherwise. So I began looking for disciples. Women who could've been his children in spirit rather than flesh and blood. But there were none of that kind either. Reikan was not the teaching kind, the one to take youths under his wings. He left that for others in his county. For instance his younger brother Calen, the alchemist – the present lord of Ursain."

"You're talking about Reikan's daughter Saphira?" Queen Colombina suddenly cut in and Atrey glanced over at her.
"Yes, the presumed daughter Saphira," the Cyborg replied. "The one I've failed to locate in spite of years of tries, and am now beginning to believe to be non-existent."
"Oh she exists all right," the Queen said in an arid no-nonsense voice, yet her lips twitched in a barely concealed jollity. "She's the daughter of Lady Julianne. They live on Earth in a place called England."
"I know what England is," Atrey confirmed. "A part of United Kingdom, an island kingdom of Western Europe. They speak English, a deviation of Commonspeech, spiced with local lingua and without the Curzulian tenses."

"Yes," the Queen confirmed as she brazenly tasted some sparkling wine out of her husband's glass. "Most probably the language made Julianne choosing that part of the world. However the English language is common in many other places on Earth including on a large part of the Atlantean double-continent. The one the humans these days refer to as America, the demise of Atlantis having been reduced to nothing but legends with these fast-living people. But I digress. Reikan and Julianne's daughter was born just about a season before Julianne became exiled from Eralda and left Lealia entirely. Julianne brought her young daughter with her to Earth, where she was named Sarah."

"Sarah?" Orinian raised a brow. "As in Lord Abraham's wife?"
"Yes," the Queen nodded her head. "Sorry to say, it was probably not to commemorate your late nephew, more a way of making the girl blend in, Sarah is a rather common name in these parts of Earth. Saphira would be more – well, exotic. Since Julianne wished to hide, it was better to give her daughter a neutral name. I've been keeping an eye on the two of them from time to time, primarily because I felt responsible for them. I've even visited Sarah a while back, and held a short interview with her, trying to probe how much she really knew about her origin. Which turned out to be very little of significance. She's not even aware of her status as a Celestian."

"Wait a moment here," Atrey cut in. "A season before Julianne was exiled, My Queen is saying? This denotes that the girl is less than four years old."
"Yes, 15 of the Earthly years to be more exact," Colombina replied.
"I was looking for a mature woman," Atrey went on. "Someone about ten Lealian years of age. That should explain my failure."
"But how can we expect someone as young as her to take on whatever has come through the spatial fabric?" king Angarian looked more worried now with this knowledge at hand.

"Perhaps this heralded battle won't take place until years in the future," the Queen guessed. "Perhaps it won't even be a battle in our belligerent nous. Don't forget that whatever came through to our realm is probably totally alien. We're even referring to it as the Alien. So how do you defeat something so outright different? Probably by fighting in a way we do not comprehend now. Yet presumably possible for this four cycles old girl to grasp. In any case we need to locate the Alien." Now Columbina directed her attention to her husband. "Angarian, I came here primarily to tell you that the Voidwalkers have arrived. They've been lodged in the Western Palace Wing by now and are establishing themselves as we speak. I'm here to ask you when you may be able to receive them."  
 
The king stretched his neck and rolled his shoulders, aiming to gain time. Sure, he had invited the Voidwalkers to Whitehall, to receive help with locating the Alien. But even he couldn't hide the discomfort when thinking of these strange, more or less creepy humanoids. The Voidwalkers had a habit of constantly slipping from your mind, you forgot about them even if they were in the room, you lost sight of them as if they were truly indiscernible and you disremembered their features the moment they left. In some cases you almost forgot they had even been there. All this happened since they didn't really exist in the real, fourth dimensional space, but primarily on a level next to it, slipping in and out of through declensions in reality as easy as smoke whirled through openings in a structure. Thus they played tricks on the brain, which defended itself by choosing to disremember their presence.

"Tell me about them!" the king urged and Columbina reached inside the inner pocket of her thin, gray satin jacket to retrieve a note paper. She folded it open in her lap and dipped her eyes to brief over her scribblings.
"The man is called Antolas; he's been in the business now for a bit more than ninety Lealian years. I've, uh, jotted down his appearance the best I could. Tall, fair-skinned, green eyes. Thulean of origin like most of his kind. He's a pro, at the prime of his career. The best there was according the Royal Recruiter who sent them here. He has brought with him his daughter. Cleanthia is still a novice, still in training. Looking a lot like her father, from what I could make it. Her mother was a Regular. A Lealian woman, from the Republic of Neltra. This makes the girl something as unusual as a Voidwalker cross breed. Most probably she became included in the package because our Recruiter believes that she, with her mixed race status, could have some new angles to contribute with."

"How old is the daughter?" Atrey asked, facing the Queen, who looked up at the Cyborg.
"Twenty Thulean years, that's roughly five of ours."
"Then she ought to befriend Saphira," Atrey reasoned. "That can be useful; the girl will probably be petrified when the veils covering her future get torn aside."

"Al right," the King decided to bite the bullet. "I'll see them within three hours from now, I'll send a servant." Then he turned to the others. "The Royal sighter Sarmonian told me to invite Julianne for this year's Hallow Ewe, however he couldn't perceive why. Now we know it. Saphira is apparently on her way already, and that should make some of our difficulties easier to deal with. Atrey, thanks for your valuable contribution in this matter!" he then dismissed the Cyborg agent, who stood and left the room.

When the Cyborg closed the door behind her, the king turned to Orinian.
"Will you have the time to lunch with the Queen and I? I've invited Queen Sarentona, who arrived early this morning. She's a bit jet-lagged but she accepted the offer. I hope we may engage in some more pleasant subjects than the dire matters at hand for a while. Just to rest our poor brains."

That was something Orinian found delightful and agreeable, and he accepted the offer with a placid smile pulling at the corners of his lips.  

****

When Julianne had finished, Sarah sat in silence, taking her eyes from her mother and trying to deliberate on the scenery as it went by, but she was too overwhelmed to actually focusing on anything passing by out there. Seconds felt like minutes. Then minutes stretched too far in both directions, into memory and distress. Her mind was in turmoil, it had been quite a lot to take in during such a brief period of time. Umbrianna had been partly right and now Sarah understood that what she reminisced of her father and their mansion had not been from England or even Earth, but over in this unfathomable realm which was called Eralda. Where they were going now.

As if her thoughts had triggered it, the carriage began rolling faster and faster until they were heading straight into the air! With a gulp, Sarah closed her eyes and took a firm hold of the armrests. The vertigo pitching her stomach and lacerating her mind was definitely one of the scariest feelings in her life. It wasn't like flying to Spain two years back; a trip in a plane had felt quite different, quite safer. They hadn't been half as vulnerable inside that large and air-tight machine as they were now, in this small, old and suddenly very rickety-feeling carriage.

She was almost certain she had fainted because when she opened her eyes the carriage had halted on a rocky outcrop. Her mother opened the door on her right hand.
"Final stop," she smiled, "all passengers off!" But her smile, Sarah noted, failed to reach the eyes. Instead she appeared quite edgy, hard-strung nerves all over the place. They disembarked and without further ceremonies began walking, something that surprised Sarah a lot - her ever-polite mother had forgotten or neglected to thank their driver.

But as she turned to look, she noted that the whole equipage was gone, as if it had never been there.
"Mother," she pulled at Julianne's arm, making her halt and turn around.
"Darling, I'll answer all the questions you can think of, no matter that I know they are plentiful. But later. Now I must concentrate on where we're heading, because I have to make sure I make the correct impression after all those years. There are no second chances for these things, you know."

Sarah didn't, but she kept her mouth shut nonetheless. The air was very thin and chilly so she stayed close to Julianne as they continued the ascent on foot, up narrow stairs cut out in the hillside. As she glanced to her right, she noted a myriad of glistening lights, like a blanket of sequins - a small town residing within a valley surrounded by blunt and bluish, snow-capped mountains partly obscured by small, elongated clouds.
"That's Elefteria. The capital of Eralda," Julianne offered upon noting Sarah's gaze. "It's not even one tenth the size of London, but mesmerizing nevertheless. That would be for another visit."

So they were going back later! Anew, Sara felt excitement stir within her.

Night was beginning to fall, careered from the far side of the skydome and only birdcalls and the sounds of wind whistling through branches interrupted the silence. The breeze ruffled flower petals and dandelion fluff floated in the cold air like small vessels bound for arbitrary destinations. Sarah was a bit riled that she hadn't thought to bring something warm. She was starting to feel small again and she wasn't sure whether she liked it or not. Craning her head, she noted that quite a handful of stars were out already, peeking out between ranks of cumuli, even though the sun had yet to disappear in the west. On the eastern horizon a large and copper red moon was climbing. Or was it another sun? It shone so bright it was almost impossible to tell.

Suddenly, a golden glow filled all her senses and she felt surprisingly light and happy. The very next moment a high and ornate iron gate appeared before them and it opened to let them in. This gate also carried that coat of arms with the dragon and the swords, thus Sarah understood that they had now reached the goal of their journey. Whitehall, where this enigmatic king dwelled. Sarah turned to see if there was anyone who operated the gate, but she spotted no one, it seemed completely automatic, or at least managed from a distance.

Julianne led them through and they come upon a number of complexes which formed what looked like a small village. It was certainly richer than any other town Sarah had ever been to, even if its size was a far cry from Chelsea, let along London. But it was posh to say the least; this gated society with opulent villas with large and elegant gardens and with fancy vehicles parked in the driveways in front of the houses. They didn't look like any cars she knew, and she wondered what kind of vehicles they really were. She wished she had felt safe to ask her mother, but that would certainly have to wait.

As they passed through the surprisingly empty streets, Sarah felt that the place stretched on and on. Towers started showing over some of the buildings and gradually Sarah realized they were coming upon one of the greatest structures she had ever seen. Even larger than the Wembley Arena where she, Doris and Lydia and Lydia's mother Renée had gone to see Justin Bieber the same spring. All this wealth made Sarah feel quite out of her element and she wished to cling a little more to her mother, something she tried stringently to not show.

When they rounded one last corner they were finally able to behold their radiant destination. As if born of the wind and the rain, an elongated but low cliff rose from the surrounding land. Crowning this vertical structure was a fabulous palace. It blazed in the dazzling light of the setting sun, a gigantic Fata Morgana lit all over with golden, pink and purple floodlight, subjugating the gathering dusk, sparking white fire from white stone and proclaiming a vain triumph over the surrounding lands and destiny - an imaginative explosion of beauty and colour.

Instinctively Sarah reached for her mother's hand and yet was she ambivalent about the fact that the grip she got in return was firm and sure. This was the Whitehall Palace, no doubt about it! Too late to go back now. Her life was about to change forever, she was intensely aware of it.

It only took them minutes to walk the bricked way leading across pastoral lawns and up to the entrance of the large structure, where a broad staircase took them up to a magnificent portico. The doors of the palace made a grinding sound as they were opened, obviously operated from afar as well. Sarah felt her stomach twist. Just beyond those doors awaited the rest of her life.

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