"Jareth?" Julianne frowned dubiously while searching along the sinister rift in the time-space fragment which travelled roughly along the rupture in the street, tracing the newly created fault and tried to find a nidus. "No, not Jareth." The feeling of this gash was of pure malice, an evil she couldn't even begin to comprehend and put relevant words or a meaning to. This had nothing to do with the lord of Infraheim. Jareth might be a scoundrel and a trouble-maker but he was not the one to kidnap an underage child on a pure caprice.
"No, this must be a coincidence, my overheated brain seeing a connection where there are no such," she thought out loud as she stared over the seemingly calm street intersection, where only the crack in the street and two boarded windows in the building across the street spoke of the earlier incident, since most of the mess had been efficaciously cleared away. "Of course there are spiky-haired men in funny clothes in London too. It might just be one of the refractory rascals in the neighborhood, those punks who do harmless chit-chat with kids and scare them. None of them could do any actual harm to my daughter. But what then has happened to her? Where is she?"
"Your suite, milady," the impish butler said and bowed as he opened up the ornate and polished, dark-brown wooden door in front of Sarah. "One of the best in the Eon Tower, take my humble words for it, I've seen them all," he beamed.
"Why, thank you!" Taking her eyes off the funny little man in green satin livery she took two or three steps inside of the compartment and there she ceased. Staring in awe at the lavish room, lit in low-dimmed headlight, she realized that one might well fit her and Julianne's Chelsea flat within it and still get plenty of rooms over. Three of the walls were lined with dark oak panels, and the ceiling was held up by massive wooden beams as black as if they had been charred in a fire. The floorboards were polished shiny and mostly covered in elegant rugs with swirling abstract patterns. As she walked across, the floor creaked.
The dark-woodened furnishing consisted of two sofa sets, a work-desk with a chair, two extra chairs, half a dozen floor-lamps made out of ornate brass and a huge cupboard. That one yielded a large plasma TV set and a stereo, which the butler displayed by opening the two large doors up front after having placed her borrowed books on the work desk. He proceeded with turning on some soft muzak of the kind Sarah connected to hotel lobbies and shopping malls. Finally he walked over to the window and with a press on the same remote which operated the stereo, he withdrew the curtains, showing a night time vista of the moderately lit park outside with the resplendent city of Labyrinth as a beckoning backdrop.
"It's amazing," was all Sarah could come up with as she continued inside, her feet sinking down in the soft, warm red carpet. "I've never seen anything this opulent, let along stayed in it. When Jareth returns I must remember to give him proper thanks."
"O, don't you worry about it," the butler grinned and stroke his white-streaked, auburn goatee. "Our lord will guess as much, he's a very empathic man. So you might as well skip that part, and go on talking about the important stuff."
"But politeness demands...."
"Bah, politeness," the butler laughed – a gentle sound, almost like a tiny Santa Claus. "That's one of those extraneous things the people of Elsewhere always engross in. Intricate steps alike a dance. Snobbish and time-consuming. Here in the Labyrinth, we are much more direct. Tea?"
"Um, yes please," Sarah staggered, taken aback by his rapid change of subject.
"Black, red, green, yellow or blue?" he counted upon blunt fingers.
"Um, black..." she'd never heard of anything like blue tea and she wasn't sure if she dared to try such a novelty. Not the first night here at least.
"Honeyed, sugared, minty, syrupy or nothing in?"
"And with scones, cakes, cupcakes, sandwiches, orange cake, chocolate cake, apple pie...."
"Just make it a regular tea, please." She felt almost overwhelmed by all those choices presented to her.
"But I assure you, milady Sarah, that the apple pie is quite delectable. And it comes with vanilla cream which is of the most superb kind."
"I'm fine with just tea thanks," she tried to finish the conversation, she wasn't sure she could eat anything anyhow, she was still in a kind of chock after what had happened earlier in the day. Then becoming whiskered away to this place didn't exactly lessen her confusion.
Finally the butler imp bowed, turned around and went back out of the suite again, leaving her alone with her muddled contemplations. Sarah slumped down on a sofa made out of a soft and warming textile dyed in the same royal red as the rug and embroidered with golden and purple swirls forming elegant flower patterns. The furniture was soft and inviting and Sarah kicked off her shoes and pulled up the legs in front of her, leaning back against the armrest and would've fallen asleep if not so many thoughts and emotions had been competing for her attention.
Once again, Sarah went over her earlier conversation with Chancellor Nurah. After a sudden outburst of anger she had asked for apology but in response Nurah merely smiled.
"It's understandable that you become upset, dear child," she remarked as she plopped down next to Sarah on the settee. "You're still scatterbrained by your sudden trip here and the questions dancing in your mind threaten to overwhelm you."
"How can you know all this? Do you read minds?"
"No, I'm merely observant of people's countenances and yours telling me all I need to know."
"That's more than I know at the moment," Sarah admitted as she put down her read. "As a matter of fact, I'm all confused, I have no idea what is happening. Jareth, uhm King Jareth visited me in England and..."
"Skip the King part, Jareth is fine," Nurah assured.
"Well, Jareth and I had just exchanged a few words when there was an earthquake. Only that it wasn't a quake – as far as I can tell there was something attacking us. That something is perhaps identical to what people around has been referring to as 'the Alien'. A kind of creepy creature everyone seemed worried about when I visited Whitehall for the Hallow Ewe Fiesta the day before yesterday. Or is it still Monday here?"
"The day of the week," Sarah clarified.
"Oh, we don't do these things here," Nurah explained. "Here we just number the days in a season from one to 100. And we have four seasons. Autumn, Spring, Summer and Dry."
"No such thing – not if you mean with snow and frost and chill. No sledges and jingle bells. No snowmen or ice-skating. And yes," Nura returned to the subject, "Jareth believes it's the Alien that attacked the two of you. What for we cannot tell at the moment, that's one of the things he's trying to find out."
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Not at the moment dear, but I would be lying if I didn't admit that there seems to be those out there relying on you."
"Because of my father's prophesy?"
"Yes," the Chancellor nodded her head solemnly. "But if you – or anyone else for that matter – should stand a chance to defeat this creature, we must first understand it quite a bit better."
"Seriously, what do they think someone like I can do?"
"We don't know that yet. Perhaps that is our fortuity."
"Meaning what?" Sarah swallowed in confusion.
"That it might be just the springing element of surprise we need to triumph. A secret weapon. So secret that we don't even know it yet."
"I still don't understand."
"Trust me, Sarah, you're not alone. I can say we are all more or less in the dark when it comes to this threat. But we need to do the best out of the situation - to liaise. That's where I choose to become engaged. I just learned from Jareth that High King Angarian of Whitehall is putting together a team which is to seek out the Alien and analyze it. To understand it better. Without primarily engaging - that is to be the next step. I'm going to ask the King that this team should be put in contact with me. You see, I'm a bit more optimistic than the rest. Since we know very little of this Alien it gives that it doesn't know that much about us in return. On top of that, we're on our home turf. So I think we might well come out victorious from this venture. You see, dear Sarah, I have a few ace cards in my deck ready to play with."
"Sounds great," Sarah gave an audible sigh of relief, this was the first time she had heard anything remotely positive. "Anything that can help us defeat this Alien is a good thing."
"Anything?" The Chancellor echoed. As she continued to study Sarah she added, "think well on choices you may be forced to make."
"What do you mean?" Sarah swallowed against a sudden confusion which tumbled through her like a landslide.
"You will know what you must do in the far reaches of the ground, my dear girl."
"Nura," Sarah decided to ask something which might be as hard for the Labyrinthine woman to answer as these resent topics, but which felt just as urgent. "Do you know how long I might need to stay here?"
"Too early to say," the Chancellor shook her head. "Now, let me ensure that you receive a guest room, a place for you to rest and to sleep. Jareth might be long, both because of the urgency of the situation and because time doesn't always run in concord between the universes."
"Time doesn't always run in concord between the universes," Sarah murmured to herself where she sat in the sofa, staring out through the dark window. She wondered what her mother was doing at the moment.
Julianne wasn't sure who might be disposed to help with finding her daughter - and if they would put personal interests aside? She didn't want to risk endangering let along losing her Sarah, not her on top of everything already taken from her! Her beloved, her father, her choice of career, her very home – all because of some wile play for power which she had desperately tried to avoid – only to find herself lugged in without clemency – just because she had been her father's daughter.
Utrorion had gambled with high stakes and he had involved his son in law, Julianne's husband Reikan in it too. Their aim had been to rescind the current governance of the Seven Realms and replace the Order of the Intercosmic Council with themselves as rulers. But they failed and King Angarian of Whitehall made sure they would not get a second chance by killing Utrorion and ostracizing Reikan. Both men's properties had been confiscated along with those of their more ardent followers. Hence Julianne found herself homeless and despised, looked down upon and with a one year old child on her arm. Devastated had she fled the Celestian Realm and taken refuge on Earth to shake her pursuers. She settled in England and there she raised her daughter, pretending to be just another human single mother. Pretending it so well she had finally almost taken to believe it herself.
Eventually King Whitehall had absolved her and told she was welcome to return to Eralda but then Julianne was the one to decline. She was not ready to face those who had been supercilious and dishonored her earlier. Besides she had a child to care for, a child she had no intention of subjecting to the scorn of her own bad name. The reason for her to remain in England had been to ensure that her daughter remained safe and sound. Yet even that had failed – and Julianne doubted very much it was a coincidence that this occurred just three days after her daughter's first visit ever to Eralda.
Fleetingly she figured that the lesser Celestians may be more tractable – especially those who had previously expressed desires to win Julianne over for their case. The ensuing credence was that most Celestians had poor secret-keeping knacks. Those who would tell Julianne what they knew would have no qualms in spreading word to others that Sarah had gone missing.
After failing to establish the exact cause of the marred earth, Julianne determined it best to choose one, or a few allies – whom she could trust to at least keep a lookout. Only three came to her mind, and two were rather dubious gambles: Cordelia, Tormenius and Valendian. As far as the gentle Valendian was concerned, the Royal Herald could be helpful, since he was more or less constantly in transit between the Cosmoses and due to his profession he would probably apprehend Julianne's need for discretion. However the tree-eyed man was very close to King Angarian. The Royal Sommelier Tormenius may be a safer bet. Of course he also had a good relationship to King Angarian, but that night at Whitehall he had let Julianne know that he'd never condemned her for the deeds of her husband and father. On the contrary he had been one to put in a good word for her. How shame had burned on her cheeks at that moment, just minutes after she had told her daughter to not associate with Tormenius' employees.
Finally Lady Cordelia. Even if she wasn't conveniently located closer to the locus of the truth, Cordelia could offer valuable counsel. She was probably Julianne's best choice in terms of allies, the cousin of Lady Colombina tended to avoid constant contact with most Celestians and just as Julianne had she settled to live among the humans on Earth. Therefore, Cordelia may not be the most strategically-placed friend Julianne had, even if she was the closest - no, make that about the only friend she had left among the Celestians. Cordelia had loyally stayed by Julianne's side when all else came tumbling down around her.
Cordelia believed her when Julianne claimed to have nothing to do with her father's and her husband's tries at revolution and she defended her friend, voted against the banishment, and ultimately made King Angarian and his Council change their mind about Julianne's role in the disastrous endeavors. For that support Julianne was eternally grateful, even if she hadn't really forgiven the members of the Council and hardly sat foot in the Celestian Realm after that. Upon further reflection, Julianne felt a little trepidation that she was evaluating her friends according to their usefulness. It made her feel bad but she justified it as something absolutely necessary in this case. She was a mother and she'd do anything for her daughter. Also a mother, Cordelia would surely understand.
Not hesitating any longer, Julianne made sure no regular humans were seeing her before she transformed into supernatural mode. The intersecting streets were more or less empty in the late mid-afternoon sun, the only signs of life were a garbage truck with men emptying trash cans a bit away and a drunk on a bench in the sun. Who would believe a drunk, she thought, before she left the sleepy London suburb and set off to visit Cordelia.
Traveling across water and land she made it rapidly towards Austria where her friend lived these days. Since she traversed not just the three spatial dimensions but also vertically against the time, the trip took her little less than five minutes in real time, which lessened her worry about what might happen back home in England during her absence. She threw off the pretense once she arrived at the foot of Cordelia's mountain chatel without incident and hastened to climb the broad stone stairs towards the tall and imposing century-old red-brick building which was brooding in the shadow of a steep mountain wall, slate-gray windows scrutinizing her cogitatively.
Here in the Alpine mountains it was already winter, with glistening snow on the hillsides and in the shadows beneath the tall pines and the air was refreshingly chilly and filled with the tang of resin, molding leaves and earth, the sky unpolluted and starkly blue. Because of the altitude there was a rarified thinness to the air which made Julianne's head spin as soon as she had cast off supernatural mode and returned to the guise of a mere human. Compensating she took a deep oxygen-immersing breath, before she pressed the ornate brass door bell, listening to the deep ding-dong signal inside the black-painted wooden door.
Cordelia received Julianne with soft cordiality. Offered a cup of Ceylon tea and biscuits, Julianne took her place next to her friend in a plush lion-yellow coach in front of the living room hearth where a merry fire was crackling, the dancing flames lending the room a heartfelt orange hue.
"You appear outright fraught," Cordelia pointed out without any preamble. "Ease your heart, my dear!" The name of her daughter was all that broke over the lips of Julianne. When Cordelia made no additional comment, Julianne sipped the tea and continued.
"She is missing."
"Missing? Since when?"
"Since this morning. She hasn't been in school. I just learned from two of her friends." Julianne could hardly recognize the strangled tone in her own voice.
"And you don't think she's just – well, skipping school? For one reason or the other? Kids tend to do that now and then."
"No," shaking her head, Julianne put her tea cup down, since she doubted her ability to hold it without spilling the beverage all over while being so upset. Instead she accepted the offered the paper napkin and dabbed her eyes, cursing sotto voce as she saw the black marks of smeared make-up at the pink tissue. "She's not," she went on. "I sensed for her all over, even on the trains towards London. She's not – she's not in our universe anymore, or I'd found her within the limits she could have travelled."
Cordelia had the good grace to look surprised – though in truth she wasn't – and she waited for her friend to calm down.
"Does anyone else know?" she asked.
"Only her friends, the neighbor daughters. I hope..." Cordelia drank from her tea, forestalling the rest of what she knew Julianne was going to say. "Of course this would happen after she became known to all Whitehall! This is all King Angarian's fault! Sarah didn't know any better so naturally she would talk to anyone and everyone. Such as Chervin and Jareth," Julianne snorted loudly. "I'd ask them, but I wouldn't want to give them the satisfaction of believing I can't control my own daughter."
"But you can't," was the sage reply, "and it's not your fault."
"What exactly are you implying?" Julianne now looked aghast and her belly clenched. More words bubbled up inside her, angry words, but Cordelia went on unobstructed.
"It's not unusual that kids run away at certain ages," Cordelia's voice held a bite that she hadn't intended, but she went on. "I think you may need to estimate how well you know your daughter. Everyone came away from the Hallow Ewe Fiesta at Whitehall with the impression of Sarah as intelligent in many ways and charming to a fault. Even my sister Rayda was impressed and you know how persnickety she is. She sat opposite of Sarah by the Hallow Ewe dinner and told me the young woman was even capable to handle the concept of Voidwalkers. Rayda believed she would live up to her true name. Perhaps she has gone off to do just that!"
"How dare you!" all but whispered Julianne, shooting rays of ice from her eyes. Standing up she felt her hands ball and her jaw strain. Cordelia though seemed unperturbed, further rankling Julianne. "You sit here, safe in your pretentious castle, and presume to tell me how to raise my child! You, who're not on speaking terms with your own children! You, incapable of being a mother!" Knowing the last was a particularly cruel thing to say, she turned to leave.
"And yet you came to me," retorted Cordelia. There was no anger or spite in her voice, just composed statements of facts. "I can only marvel at your desperation, dear Julianne. Is there no one you trust?" she finished, seeing the distressed look upon her friend's face. "It must be difficult to choose between those who would both help you and hurt you and those who would never truly harm you but never really help you." Cordelia paused, knowing she had hit the reason for Julianne's visit. "I will do what I can, dearest, but I suggest widening your gaze. Have you considered Lady Aitoola?"
"I haven't," conceded Julianne. Thinking about it, the Human Illuminate was probably her second best ally. Wouldn't the Indian understand Julianne's reluctance to trust other Celestians?
"You should confer with her. She might be both able to and interested in helping you."
"You think so?" As the adrenaline influx died down, Julianne suddenly felt so tired and she slumped down in the coach again, taking a sip of her cooling tea. In that instance she felt overridden by guilt. She knew why Cordelia was not on speaking terms with her children, and that reason was the very same which had exiled Julianne to Earth – Utrorion and Rican's sad excuse for revolution.
"I do," Cordelia said in a frank voice. "Now, do also take inventory of your acquaintances in the earthbound supernatural society, see if there are some debts to collect. There's always people who owe our kind for help we have given in the past simply because it was in our power to do so."
"Thanks for the advice, I'm sure there are a few," Julianne replied. "I'm deeply repentant for what I said about your children. I really didn't mean it. It just – came out."
"It's all right, I know what you're going through, Julianne. Just try to best your temper, will you. Or those who still look down upon you might use it against you."
"I'll remember that," Julianne nodded her head before she stood again, biding her fare well. "I'll have to return to England, just in case that my worries should be nothing but false alarm from a concerned mother and Sarah should decide to come back."
"Yes, perhaps she just went to London to shop. She is her mother's daughter after all," Cordelia said and finally she made Julianne crack a smile, a little sunshine after rain.
Moments later Julianne left Cordelia's abode with a conviction.