After five – or was it seven enjoyable dishes – the extravagant banquet was coming to an end and Sarah was beginning to feel exhausted. The airless heat in the room, generated by too many people and too many candles embraced her like a soft and clammy cocoon, making her almost drowsy. There were old-school spinning fans mounted in the ceiling, ornate and gleaming brass fixtures, but they didn't seem to help a lot. She could kill for some fresh air right now, she felt while resting her head upon her knuckles and listening to Chervin. He was telling an essentially interesting story about his home Alozzia on Taronda. That exotic planet was located in a universe far older than this one or Earth's or any other among the Seven Cosmoses and on any other occasion he would have held her captivated, yet now she had a hard time focusing.
"Tormenius!" High King Angarian suddenly called, lifting his empty goblet. Most of the nearby guests quieted as the outburst cut like a thunderclap through the ambient buzz. "Have you any of that special wine of yours? The one from the land of Further Yonder."
"I thought you'd never ask!" came a response from someone who Sarah couldn't see. As she bent herself backwards and stared beyond the chair of Aitoola the Illuminate, she spotted a heavyset but stately man stand and then haste down the aisle in the other direction followed by a long-legged young girl with flying, purple hair.
Only a moment later his spot was claimed by a tall woman who had imperious facial features and purple-and-gold robes. An ornamental tiara which shone like the moon was mounted on her forehead, augmenting an elaborated updo of jet-black hair and her make-up displayed sharp contrasts of red and black against white. Her dark eyes flashed as she turned to the King, saying something which Sarah couldn't hear, yet Angarian's face took on a virulent look which didn't become him the least. A brief exchange took place before the King suddenly lifted his head again, glancing down the table.
"Saph.. uh, Sarah," the King called out and when she understood she was being addressed, Sarah felt her cheeks starting to burn at the fairly unwelcome attention. Once again was she remained of that strange name and conjecturing where it might be cropping up from. "Sarah, come on over here! Her Majesty the Queen Columbina of the Seven Illustrious Islands wishes to have a word with you!" he then called and diffidently, she excused herself to Chervin, stood and walked past the dozen or so dinner-sets over to where Angarian was sitting together with a few dignitaries encompassing that spectacular woman who was Queen Columbina.
Colombina turned her attention to Sarah and a held together smile split her face. "Pleased to meet you," her voice was polite but affection-less. There was something about her moderate attention that made Sarah think she was appraised – and even beneath that, the most unexpected and peculiar sense of familiarity, as if the two of them had in fact met earlier – a sudden strange sparkle ablaze in the dark eyes of the Lady. Yet the notion was gone as quickly as it had appeared and Sarah tried to understand if it had really transpired or if she had imagined it all. Accepting the outstretched hand, she curtsied graciously, intuiting it was expected of her.
"Here's a girl who's manners are sensibly polished," Colombina glanced at King Angarian. "I still don't understand why you won't do something about your sister Fabienne." The name was spoken with utmost contempt.
"I'm a lord over the natural magic, not of souls," King Angarian gently reminded Colombina as he too stood and took her hand. "It's not in my power to control the natures of people. I wouldn't be able to rule as king should it be otherwise. I'd be accused of being a tyrant then, indicted of controlling people's minds." The way Colombina let him step into her personal sphere with such an ease told Sarah that she was Angarian's wife. "And you wouldn't be Queen, sweetheart," he rounded off with a tilted grin, which Sarah in spite of herself found charming.
"I hear humility in that," Jareth cut in, where he came strolling from the other side, clearly still playing at exasperating everyone he could get at. "Colombina, that's a pretty good bargain so I wouldn't keep quibbling..."
"Who asked you?" Colombina spat before dramatically swirling around and marching off with her head up high and crimson dress billowing formidably with each step.
"You just made everything much worse, Jareth!" King Angarian snarled as he glanced over to where his wife had disappeared.
"I live to serve," the spiky-haired man smirked in return, a fine grain of mockery in his voice, just as in his leer, while he made a sinuous gesture with his right hand which was just this side of being gay.
"Now, is there something on your mind?" King Angarian asked impatiently. Several people turned their heads at the debase tone of his voice and Sarah felt her nerves strain, the sweat travelling down her spine wasn't just from the heat of the hall. She hated being caught right in the middle of this and she craned her head to see where Chervin went, but his dark curls were nowhere to be found.
"As a matter of fact, yes," Jareth said, suddenly completely staid, surprising Sarah with his abrupt shift in demeanor.
"Is it unclassified?" King Angarian asked with a glance at Sarah.
Jareth seemed to hesitate.
"No. I am sorry Sarah," he added with a sober nod to her, making her feeling awkward and even more aware of her junior age and poor clothing. Smiling the best she could she curtsied and left, making as quick an exit as possible to avoid the mingling people.
As she made it down a long hallway, she cut a detour into a ladies' room where two young women, a blond and a brunette, were enhancing their make-up, generously borrowing each other's tools while gossiping about some people Sarah didn't know. They paid her no attention whatsoever as she slipped inside of a booth and then exited again, quickly washing her hand afterwards, turning decorative porcelain faucets which squeaked and buzzed as they sputtered out their liquid content. She managed to wet her dress and blushed when the brunette glanced over at her. But her gaze was rather uninterested and she soon went back to paint a mouche at the left corner of her mouth instead and Sarah slipped away more or less unnoticed.
The area off the hall where the feast was taking place was much less boisterous, but the goings-on were more distinct. She saw large wooden barrels rolled through a vaulted opening and into the hall, a group of uniformly dressed women chatting about the vintages of the wines brought in. There was also Tormenius, the heavyset, moustached man from earlier, standing near and talking to her mother, Julianne, while smoking a pipe. He was wearing a white and red-striped three piece which looked at least one size too small, straining over his wide belly and he had shiny red shoes with golden fastenings.
As Julianne was seemingly asking him something, Tormenius reached inside of a west pocket and brought out a large, golden watch-case hanging on a chain. He scrutinized the clock with a grin and Julianne nodded curtly at his reply. Was it late or early? Sarah had no way of knowing, it felt to her as if they had spent days at the dinner table, still she was far from ready to leave this spectacular fiddle-faddle for the dullness of Chelsea again. She had no inclinations to be a runaway Cinderella and she didn't think Chervin would be the prince that came chasing after her. Or Jareth for that matter.
When Sarah approached, the quintet of women smiled at her. A thoughtful smile, full of soul. Sarah couldn't contain her own smile in return as she regarded them in their purple and black outfits of short dresses with wide tutus, small sequin-covered boleros and satin sashes accenting their slender waists. On closer inspection, she realized that they were all magnificently beautiful, each in their own way with elegantly applied although a bit too generous make-up. She also noticed that her mother kept throwing them looks of disdain.
"Ah, this lovely girl sure must be your daughter, Julianne, dear!" Tormenius said as he laid his warm, dark eyes upon Sarah. "Need I introduce myself?" Sarah shook her head, now very shy and he beamed at her, holding out a pudgy, short-fingered hand. "Tormenius, Royal Sommelier." His grip was warm and firm in spite of the dough like hand. "I was just assuring your mother that the wine will be absolutely perfect!" Julianne seemed nonplussed, as if it were all an accident. "And that the time was not too late. Especially not on a night like this - it never gets too late. Not even if the sun should happen to raise."
"Oh, Tormenius is known for partying way into the midmorning," came a voice from the thong of uniformed young women and almost startled the obese man jerked his head towards them.
"Oh, how rude of me! Sarah, these ladies over here are part of my following, among my most devout. They are called the Vizelians."
"Hello," one of them, a petite and curvy oriental girl greeted kindly. "Delighted to finally meet you in person, Sarah, as I've heard so much about you. My name is Ezmeralda." Instead of holding out her hand, she put her palms together and bowed. Sarah wasn't sure what to do, so she gave a small curtsy back.
"Uh, I hope those words spoken were, well, nice," she replied, trying hard not to blush.
"Rest assure they were," the first speaker, a tall and black woman beamed. "I'm Yoona." After her the others introduced themselves as Lesiri, Kazia and Jezebra.
The expressions of Tormenius and the Vizelians were all either pleased or hopeful but her mother had a very stern look marring her features. Sarah faltered once she met her mother's judgmental gaze.
"I'll leave you alone now," Julianne said, "I'm sure you're capable of handling it from here."
"Oh, of course... of course," Tormenius acceded, nodding gallantly. Julianne beckoned for Sarah to follow as the group they left behind recommenced their work. Once out of earshot, Julianne turned on her daughter.
"I don't want you around them."
"Oh? But they seem like nice people," Sarah was puzzled, she could envision worse people to be around, both here and back home. "They all appeared sincere, mannered and..."
"They're not good people in practice, it would be highly improper for you to be seen in a company like that!"
"Would you please, for once, just explain?" Sarah's voice had risen a little. She was sick of being left in the dark about everything. "I can always ask someone else if you won't tell me now," she added mischievously.
Julianne regarded her daughter as if she was searching Sarah's soul.
"You've been around drunks before, right?"
"Well, there are those dudes in Whyte Park," Sarah offered blandly, brow furrowed as she briefly recalled those old and haggard men with ragged clothes who were ever so often sitting on the benches, drinking from bottles in paper-bags. "But it's not like I've been talking to them or anything."
"Now, these people are always drunk. It's a religious practice. It's said they don't even need wine at times. Something about ecstasy and revelation through, well..." Julianne looked like she was struggling. "It's something about spirituality through wild nature and it's believed that alcohol makes it easier to get there. Those disciples following Tormenius have done quite a few pretty crazy things over the years, so don't let their appearances fool you," she consummated darkly. Sarah was floored at first, then she became suspicious.
"You aren't just saying that to scare me off, are you?"
"No. I really mean it," Julianne shook her head.
She had never seen her mother like this, perhaps it was actually good advice. Lowering her head she said nothing.
"I'm going back in to the feast. The dancing will probably start soon," Julianne went on. "Don't wander too far and don't talk to strangers," she added before turning around and leaving Sarah in the hallway to roll her eyes at the pointless guidance her mother had just given her. Everyone was a stranger at first, before you got to know them. Besides, she not knowing anybody around here was mostly thanks to her mother. She figured that knowing men like Chervin and Jareth earlier in her life would have made her life and outlook on the world a whole lot different.
Shrugging it off, Sarah tried to find the nearest exit so she might get a little fresh air. Upon turning in the other direction, she discovered a broad flight of stairs carrying upwards in a dimly lit shaft. Classic art of the kind she assumed was valuable covered the walls and in niches stood polished armor panoplies. Intuition told her that this area was not private dwellings, so she confidently kept going, letting the stairs carrying her up and deeper into the palace building. The treads alternated between black and white, making her think of piano keys as she ascended.
The stairs ended at a small landing where only a tiny lamp with a beaded shade relieved the dusk. On the other side of the parlor was a heavy oak door with a stained-glass window, it was partly ajar, and with a nudge Sarah pushed it fully open. She smiled at what she found beyond, a courtyard lit with nocturnal lanterns and with a neatly tended garden of delightfully smelling roses, tulips and flowers she didn't recognize, espaliers with wine and benches and tables of wrought iron around a fountain spring with an angel statue of pink marble. The lenient gurgling sound of the fountain was almost the only thing heard. Surrounding the small space was the sheltered, colonnaded walkway she now stood in. Thick stone pillars lined the inner side of the walkway and mullioned windows were mounted at even intervals along the outside, some of them with stained glass depicting flowers and birds. Walking all the way around the courtyard, Sarah found stairs exactly opposite the ones she came up. The copper-coloured moon was canvasing the walls of the Whitehall palace and tiny fireflies had come out. It looked magical even for a dwelling of Celestians.
The grass was soft and cool as it brushed against her bare ankles, somewhat long, with tiny white and pink flowers sticking up here and there and Sarah walked across it right to the spring. She saw her reflection in the softly swirling water and after deciding she didn't look all that bad, she kicked off her shoes and stuck her bare feet in the cold water, wriggling them against the sudden chill. Little bright fishes swam up and darted away, sometimes forgetting they had done so and repeated the routine. When Sarah, tired of watching them and could no longer feel her feet, she stepped out and dried her feet on the grass. While putting on her chaussure she seized one wistful glance back at the trees, before heading for the next flight of stairs.
That was when she heard muted talks emitting from the gap of a slightly open door. Faint light and the smell of tobacco was also seeping out and she lapsed as she recognized the voices. Sarah had never been the overly nosey one, but when she heard that name 'Saphira' again, it became impossible to not listen in.
"... your opinion of Saphira then? You think she has what it takes?" that was Chervin, her tablemate.
"I'm not sure really," the voice of Tilathian. "She's still so very young and have lived her whole life on Earth. But mainly because we don't know what's needed to defeat the Alien."
What Alien? Sarah frowned.
"According to her father's prophecy she's the one who will deal with this threat." That was a woman's voice which Sarah didn't recognize.
Whose father? Sarah thought. Mine? The imprisoned one?
"My Queen seems to think differently," Tilathian contemplated. "Besides, I've never given that much for Lealian seers. They often let their own personal subjectives cloud their judgement. Hypnosis or no hypnosis."
"Your Queen probably want someone from Terandabar to take care of this anyway," the woman returned, her voice deep and handsome yet somewhat character-less. "So that she may bask in the glory. Or at least the reflection of it. No offence, old friend, but I know your kind well after all those years of co-work."
"Suffice to say you're bothered with insulting me but not my queen."
"You insult her all the time, Till," Chervin's voice was mocking merrily.
"Yes, that's my prerogative," the Terandabarite diplomat giggled.
"She has a point," Chervin interjected, suddenly with a sedate edge honing his voice. "We need to have the best people our Cosmoses can offer if we are to go up against that strange thing. Taken that those Voidwalkers can find it, foremost."
"And what do we do if they find it?" Tilathian asked. "We still don't know..."
"I guess we simply have to cross that bridge when we get to it," the woman deduced. "I'm all for a good fight, but as Till says, we don't know what kind of battle it'll be. If any."
"Atrey, don't believe for a second that the Alien is going to succumb, let itself be defeated," Chervin's voice deepened. "It sent a piece of Mitarium through the realms. Into OUR universe, mind you. Do you know how hard that is?"
At that the woman, who apparently was named Atrey, replied something Sarah didn't understand, but involved the word 'nuclear'. Yet it sounded dreadful enough for Sarah to take a small step back and she became aware that eavesdropping on these people was probably not a good thing. She might have dined with them, but she was far from acquainted with them anyhow and she didn't know how they would react should they discover her.
"I insist on being cautious," Tilathian went on. "Know thy enemy and all that jazz. If we run headfirst into a fight shorn of any preparations we might as well..."
Sara turned around and slipped back into the shadows, she felt as if cold and heat was running down her torso and mingling in her belly to congeal into thorns of pure fear to bane her viscera. What was that threat they were talking about? What Alien? Why did they believe she was going to fight it and even defeat it? And why hadn't she heard about all this before now? Was this a trap, were they going to lure her into this madcap scheme, up against a creature apparently even more bizarre than those who dwelled here? As a sacrifice or what?
Quickly but silently she retreated from her vantage point, slipped back the way she had come and down the stairs. She needed to talk to someone, and that someone was not her mother, so much was for sure.