Audience with the King
Upon reaching Elefteria and the wondrous castle of Whitehall, Julianne requested and was granted a private audience before High King Angarian so soon that she had hardly time to brace herself for the potentially trying and humiliating encounter. This felt like the hardest thing she had ever done, even topping her decision to flee and take refuge on Earth fourteen years earlier. She was received by a tiny and timid puck servant and escorted through the labyrinthine palace. The small, spry and fleet-footed being in a flowing snow-white silk tunic and with blonde hair woven tightly under a silver mesh cap brought Julianne through long galleries hung with marvelous art and adorned with impressive statues. Halls where their footfalls echoed into silent emptiness as they crossed the shiny marble floors. Julianne became shown up broad and imposing staircases and finally through an outer office where clerks and secretaries were full at work with typing on computers and talking on picture phones, the buzz of activity fermenting the air like statics of a thunderstorm. The resemblance to any Earth office was almost scary, only the more sumptuous furnishing and the greater racial variation of the workers, including greenish dryads and small pixies, told Julianne that this was not some Earthly authority at work here.
The servant led Julianne to a small waiting alchove were golden lanterns hung in niches, casting a warm, inviting light except where pillars and drapes contrived to create equally inviting, restful pools of shadow. Here she was offered a seat and refreshments. Water, wine, fruit and small pastries were carried in on shiny plates, but she was too nervous to be able to ingest anything. Instead she settled for a few mouths of fresh and slightly carbonated water. Moments later the servant reappeared, curtsied and asked her politely to follow. Julianne stood and was guided up a few steps to an ornate set of double doors, the servant opening one of them and admitting Julianne into the office of the King.
Her casual stroll across the decorative rugs covering the floor belied the tension knotting her stomach as she faced the imposing man in the grand room. Once, she had loved him. Trusted him. Worshipped him. She remembered the past with such aching clarity it took her breath away.
Only when Julianne stood before the King of Lealia could she make her fury known and reveal her true intentions for having seeked him out. She wanted her child back, and King Angarian had better be prepared to assist her in the ordeal!
Sitting behind his large desk, with the great garden of Whitehall as a backdrop through a floor-to-ceiling picture window, Angarian was listening to the daughter of his old rival with well concealed pique, hands folded together in front of him on the polished mahogany surface of his desk. When Julianne was done he sat almost immobile saying nothing for a while. It aggravated her, but such was his intention and she was not going to give him the pleasure of seeing her annoyance. When he finally spoke it was with a clement, almost indifferent-sounding voice.
"Did you two fight before she left?" he asked.
"She didn't 'leave', of that I'm sure," Julianne replied, her eyes smoldered with the burn of dry ice. She had quite a bit harder to conceal her anger and her contempt for this man. "She was taken."
"Taken? By whom?"
"If I'd knew that, would I come here, you think? And humiliate myself before you?"
"I cannot answer that," his voice stayed unflappable, she failed to provoke him so far. "The only thing I know to this point is that Sarah is not here. At Whitehall. I could order a search for her, Julianne. But first I most know that she's not staying away on purpose."
"Because if she does, then you and Sarah have other problems to solve than ones that can possibly involve me."
Julianne sighed and swallowed.
"I didn't mean that kind of 'why'," she said pointedly. "I meant 'why' as in 'why should she?'"
"She's fifteen years old, Julianne," the King pointed out. "As a fifteen years old, she has just begun to live her life. Naturally she wants to try new things. To probate her limits. From what I understand she only recently learned about the true nature of her background and her powers. The things she could do; the places she could go. Naturally she's curious, and nurtures a desire to exam what she's got and see what's out there."
"She's still in school," Julianne protested.
"Yes, that's because you put her there," first now she could trace a faint edge to his otherwise so mellow and composed baritone. His next words were as soft as silver slivers, piercing the heart with such deftness that you barely knew where the pain came from. "You chose this human travesty instead of giving your daughter the upbringing a Celestian child ought to have. A gouvernante could have taught her all she needs to know and taken her around the world and shown her rather than tell as they do in those ludicrous human schools. But you did not come here to speak of tutelage, no?" he held up his hand as a kind of stop sign, to show that he wanted to move the conversation back on track again.
"Angarian, please," he kept his voice solemn, there was no invitation in asking her to use the surname. "If there's by any chance a reason for her to leave on her own accord, I would like to ask you to consider this and envision where she could have gone."
"I cannot imagine any place," her words encumbered with acquiescence.
"So you come to me," he said impassively and she wondered what it was he hid. She had never known him for anything else than a smooth tactician, a chess player with several draws ahead in his mind. Mutedly she nodded her head, indicating for him to go on. "Yes, I may be able to put together a search party and locate your daughter, Julianne. But I have my own dilemmas to cope with, things eating off my time. So if you wish to add to my work load I will naturally have to ask for something in return."
"I understood as much," Julianne admitted, feeling her shoulders slump and the King changed position in his chair, leather creaking mutely beneath him as the weight shifted. "What is it you wish?"
"I wish to expand Enangar. Take the settlement further inland."
"But that's going to cost. To make that land safe. Those beasts in there..."
"Tell me about it. But we are getting crowded in all inhibited worlds there is now. I'm not sure how long it'll take for Toyahda and her people to find other planets."
"So what can I do?" Nervously Julianne found that she was fingering her bracelets and ceased hastily, letting them rattle back under the sleeve of her mauve camisole. As a response, Angarian leaned forwards as in instigating a plot, reaching out to touch her shoulder, and Julianne had to brace herself to not balk. She was here to sell her soul to get her daughter back, it would do no good to recoil now.
"When your husband Reikan – your ex-husband as I've come to understand it now – was defeated, there were a few of his adherents who managed to slip out of the net. There always is, you know," his lowered voice resounded his statement. "They're still hostile to me, and I've finally found out what to do about it – and to gain a little bit too."
"What do you mean, you plan to use me as a bait to drag them out in the light?" Julianne could hardly believe what she was saying. "To give them a late-coming mopping up?"
"No, on the very contrary. I wish to sway them. Bring them in under my umbrella again. Now, I assume a little bribery would do. A little inducing of pristine, fertile, paradisiac and most of all free land. I want to make these people Counts and Countesses over parts of that lush and delight haven which is Enangar. To make it even more appetizing, I want you, Reikan's lovely wife, to persuade them of the value of this unique and generous offer. If you can in a believable way convince them that you are behind this idea, they'll not recognize it as coming primarily from me, since all and everyone out there 'know' that you and I are not on speaking terms."
"If you can't beat them, join them, you mean?"
"More or less. I'll kill two birds with one stone. I be rid of those adversaries of mine by converting them and I'll get a handful of eager colonists to bring out to that new frontier."
Then Angarian proceeded to tell Julianne who he wanted her to see and talk to. It was a list of half a dozen names, and it felt doable, she realized. Not an easy task, this dissembling made her feel dirty – almost like a prostitute. Yet when she forced herself to think about her daughter – her little girl and all the terrible circumstances she might be in, then talking to a few hard-to-sway rebels did suddenly not sound that bad.
"I'll do it," she established, leaning back a bit from Angarian and his touch. "Count me in! For this at least."
"Thank you, Julianne," came the unexpectedly sincere reply and Julianne forced herself to meet his navy-blue eyes.
"And my daughter?"
I will do what I can - which is indeed a great deal," the King promised, peremptory dismissal in his voice, but just as she stood to leave, he changed his mind and addressed her again and she vacillated, facing him once more. "Julianne, there's one thing I'd like for you to know. I never blamed you for what was instigated by Utrorion and Reikan. I know very well that you had no part whatsoever in those shadowy subversions. I'd also like for you to know that you're welcome back at Whitehall whenever you wish. So is Sarah."
"Thanks, but I'm doing fine in England," her reply fell off her lips more curtly than she meant to. For a brief second she thought of adding something to gloss it over with, then she decided against it. She had no obligations to Whitehall. Not even manners.
High above the flat sea she soared, carried by the current of the air, her skin alabaster under the floating cloak, her face covered by a filmy white veil. Beneath her the cold and barren islands of ice flew in the churning ever-restless waves of the polar sea, the starry winter night an imposing dome of obscurity over her small form. To her west, the sea was black and forbidding except for a distorted reflection of the icy moon, which on those waters melted into a long silvery smear.
Descending rapidly, she stepped down onto the parapet beside the small, insignificant concrete building. There she rested, breathed in the biting cold through her widened nostrils, the arid air callous against her naris as the stillness became more profound, the difference between frost and ice in the winter night. No wind ruffled the matte snow and darkness hung with folded wings but at the horizon the Aurora Borealis was swaying and pirouetting in her blithe dance, her undulating translucent veils painting the night in garish colours.
When they perceived her presence the two armed men turned around, raising their black instruments of death. Seeing nothing they became short of breath by anxiety, their flesh trembling in fear and exertion. They looked upon her but couldn't see her visage, not her eyes and no lock of hair.
"Take me inside," she commanded, her modulated soprano mysterious and unknowable and they could do nothing but obey. Afterwards, when their superiors would question them, they would both answer that they weren't able to do a thing, they were under a spell and loss of all will and resolve.
Jareth and Sarah's next planned terminus was the conservatory referred to as 'the birdhouse' since it held avians from all over the universe, even if not all of them were birds in its true sense. No, there were a lot of large insects, batlike mammals, lizardians and even vegetables, like the looping roses of Maronja. But the two of them never made it that far. While heading down the flowerbed-lined walkway across a larger open field, they were intercepted by three people riding those lime-coloured feline mounts Sarah had learned were called Eucheetahs. The one up front on the leading animal was no other than Chancellor Nurah, her copper red hair fluttering behind her like a war banner.
Halting their Eucheetahs, the trio stopped and were off before the astonished Sarah and the more poised King Jareth. But contrary to what they expected, Nura didn't become the one to take the floor. Instead the man to the left of her stepped forward. He was a tall and beefy thug dressed in military garbs, with a with a brawler's scarred jaw and a nose that looked like it had been used to break a hard fall. He appeared devoid of any emotion, like a computer game badass. But there was apparently more to him since his sudden appearance didn't seem just accepted but encouraged by the King.
"Anfrado? What brings you here?" Jareth asked.
"Me and my men, we cannot cross the Outer Ridge the way we ought to," the military began to a sharp salute, his cold, gray eyes barely grazed over Sarah's appearance before focusing completely on his King. "It seemed early on to be a symptom of a greater problem. It's like something closes us in. Last week one of the guys took off, trying to break through. He never made it back, and we haven't heard anything from him since. Whatever may be that thing breaching our world is now impeding my work, too," he declared plainly and without pomp.
"The Alien?" Jareth shot a cursory glance at Nurah.
"Yes, my Lord," the Chancellor confirmed.
"When was the last time you were able to cross regularly?"
"Three days ago, just before you summoned the Council to discuss the Alien."
"Why didn't I hear of this sooner?"
"I supposed that either we could fix this problem, or it would work itself out before too long," Anfrado proclaimed, steadfastly meeting the scrutinizing gaze of his king. "I fear that we're becoming occluded, that the whole Infraheim realm is being cordoned off from the rest of the Cosmoses."
"How about the portals?"
"They're still operative, My King," the third rider said, a black elfin-like man dressed in a purple coat suite with a matching west and with a silvery high hat, now held in a slender fingered hand. "At any rate those in central Labyrinth. But there have been disturbances, we were not able to connect to Lealia earlier today. However, that could be due to the ongoing time-flux." He paused to reach inside a pocket on his west, retrieving an instrument in gleaning brass, which looked like a pimped clock. Opening up the case he glanced down at the instrument before raising his eyes to face Jareth again. "Fifteen minutes have passed over there during the last three days, and it'll take another week before it slows down enough to guarantee a safe passage for the general public."
"And how about the other Realms, Uldus?" Jareth asked as he rubbed the root of his nose in frustration.
"Ebraa and Avalon are off-line which is as expected since they run on the same axis as Lealia, but Xanadu/Thule is also disconnected, which is more strange."
"They have been wavering, we received a warning from them this morning to seize portalling altogether until the anomaly has been found," Uldus went on. "As a matter of fact, the only connection still open is Earth. The least used."
"We all know what that may implicate," Nurah said.
"We're being staked out," Anfrado's voice was grim. "Selected for the slaughter."
At his words, Uldus eyes widened and he turned to Jareth as if seeking strength and even Nurah looked a bit unsettled. Sarah swallowed, suddenly the sunlight seemed less cheerful and warming and a chilly wind drew dried leaves across the lawn and the path and assaulted the nearby tree crowns, hissing through the leaves. Next thing the Eucheetahs were stirring and trampling, their ears plastered backwards against their majestic heads, fangs almost bared. Something was afoot here and Sarah had no idea what, other than that it was petrifying.
Then Jareth let up his voice.
"Now, calm down everyone," he ordered indomitably, making even the trio of felines less tense. "Nothing has happened yet save for some anomalies at the borders and a man missing. He might as well have gone AWOL or had a perfectly natural accident. Continue your search for him, Anfrado! A few flukes with the Portals shouldn't worry a clever fellow like you, Uldus! Nura, I want you to collect all signs of extraordinary disturbances and report to me later tonight. Lastly – do I have to remind you that we are the Infraheim? We are strong, brave and ingenious. We have never been defeated. We have always won – one way or the other. We intend to do it this time too! Am I making myself clear?" As he finished he rose a white-glowed index-finger in the air and the gesture almost mollified even the gyrating wind around them.
"Aye, my king!" Anfrado saluted and Uldus nodded his head in unison. Only Nurah looked a bit thoughtful as she stood back and grabbed the halter of her Eucheetah.
"What about those on their way here?" Sarah asked and turned to Jareth. "Will they make it if the portals are closed?"
"That is left to see," he replied as he turned towards her, his voice unexpectedly mild.
"Nurah," The King then addressed his Chancellor, and she straightened up her back, re-focusing on him. "I want you to get in touch with Lady Cordelia on Earth. If everything else goes wrong, there are ways to protect Earth and Cordelia is the only one who knows about them."
"Now, I don't understand," Nurah appeared a bit lost. "Shan't we first..."
"No matter what," Jareth added steel to his voice and a muscle flicked briefly in his cheek. "Earth must be saved. Because if it is lost, then all else will die eventually."