Jareth lifted his hand and knocked gently on the door. Not getting a response he pushed the door slowly open and peeked around the corner. On the far side of the room in the generous four poster canopy bed, Sarah was sound asleep, the claret cover heaving slightly with the rise and fall of her breathing chest. Bright gray light illuminated the room from the tall windows, soft and mellow it trickled through the gauzy lace curtains and painted faint rectangles on the tiled wooden floor and yonder furnishing, as if a hesitant artist had daubed their paintbrush across the interior. The only thing heard in the room was the silent ticking of a clock and the soft breaths of his guest. With gentle footfalls Jareth went and sat down on the bedding next to the young girl, reaching out to nudge her on the shoulder.
She moaned and then her lids fluttered up, bewildered first and then, as comprehension dawned upon her, he became astonished to see irritation and annoyance marring her pretty face.
"It's nearing dinnertime, so I was wondering if you might be hungry, Sarah," he gently offered. Sarah shook her head and looked away and Jareth took a breather before deciding to ask about it. "Other than not being home, Sarah, what is wrong?"
Sarah shook her head again, still without saying anything. For a moment Jareth recollected their interactions that day. His Earthly guest had gone from frightened to happy while settling in. She had seemed curious and bright upon interrupting him earlier that afternoon. Now she was upset. After a moment of consideration, he figured what it might have been. Standing up he retreated a step to give her space.
"I was busy earlier, all sweaty and worked out and not in the shape to confront a young lady. Not after having a shower at least. But I really wouldn't mind showing you around after dinner. Right now I have a few friends coming over who can be interesting to meet," he coaxed in a voice as low as the thunder of a distant, rolling storm. "But if you rather wish, you can have your meal brought here."
"I'm not really hungry," Sarah said as she sat up in bed, pulling her legs underneath her and folding her arms around her chest as if she was freezing. And perhaps she was, Jareth thought. Celestians and other humanoids were so much more sensitive to changes in temperature than daemons of his own ilk were. Their range of comfort was so narrow. He'd have to make sure her room was warm.
"Are you cold?" he asked and she shook her head in reply.
"I'm more like... Tired. Confused. But I'd love to see your place." The last sentence was said with a trace of buoyancy, barely a notable change from the earlier dejection. For the first time she met his looks in earnest – and wasn't there a faint glitter therein? Like coins thrown in the deep green of a water well, mostly covered in algae yet briefly catching a ray of sunlight. He was sure he hadn't imagined it at least.
Perhaps Jareth had been about as encouraging as he intended, for not much later Sarah sat primly at the table in his penthouse dining room while the last of livery-clad servants finished laying out the food, white-glowed hands putting down plate after plate with delicacies. The room rested in a placid and warm dusk produced by dimmed headlights and candles in coloured glass-jars scattered across the table. Outside the crepuscular light was turning purple as the night closed in and the large, red orb which was the Infraheim sun descended towards the horizon. Below them the city of Labyrinth was lighting up rapidly, sparkling more and more intensely for every minute passing. Tearing her eyes off the breathtaking view, Sarah turned her attention to the pleasantly-smelling meal and noticed that along with the sort of food she was used to eating, there were dishes similar to what she had received at the converging at Whitehall. She spotted meat and rice and things she recognized as fruit and vegetables, though they were not of any Earthly flora. She also discovered dishes being totally outlandish to her; she had no idea if she was seeing meat, fish or vegetables. Some of it even appeared to be – crawling, thus she quickly decided to pass on that selection.
Jareth also waited quietly, staring thoughtfully at the empty places further down.
"As I earlier mentioned, others will be joining us soon," he finally said.
"Ones whom I count as friends."
"Lady Nurah?" Sarah asked hopefully. Jareth felt a smile twitch his lips.
"I don't know if she'll make it to this meal, but there's a place reserved for her. There always is."
Counting the settings, Sarah noted that there were five in addition to the one she imagined as Nurah's.
"Patience," Jareth said gently, not looking at her, his brief jovial demeanor returning to the same solemn complex one it had been before. For the second time that day Sarah felt like a silly little girl. Ruefully she thought he was succeeding where Julianne had failed - reigning her in. She began to resent him for that. At least the servants were not witness to it, since they had already completed their task and left through the large doors at the yonder wall.
Not long after nine soft chimes were heard from a clock mounted on the wall. Sara had looked with puzzlement at that timepiece earlier, it had four hands and was numbered from one to 13. Two of the hands were moving in accordance like a regular clock, while one was moving backward and the last seemed to not be moving at all, but was stuck on the number 4. As the last reverberating chime rung out into silence, the doors opened up again and a tall and slender woman walked into the dining room. She had skin as black as coal, yet her hair was fair as a Scandinavian's and fell in flooding waves over her bare shoulders. Her brightly crimson dress appeared like painted upon her busty body and she had large hoops in her ears. But the most astonishing thing was the curved, silvery horns protruding from her temples like with an Aries!
Just behind her stalked an elderly-looking man; barefoot and naked but for the short dark-blue woolen kilt around his hips to preserve modesty, fastened with a wide, decorative silver belt. His pale skinned body was covered in tattoos, red and green meandering vectors outlining what appeared to be letters of some kind, intermingled with pictures of beasts.
Jareth stood and opened his arms in welcome. Evidently he was in his true element. His posture relaxed, his hands more animated while he greeted his friends.
"Welcome!" The duo bowed in response. "Please, be seated." The horned woman took the chair to his left and the elderly man sat down next to Sarah. "Orora, Cascal, allow me to present Sarah, daughter of Lady Julianne formerly of Lealia, present days of England, Earth." Jareth went on, gesturing to his guest, "Sarah, this is Professor Orora, my court physician and Cascal – one of the best Shamen in Labyrinth," he concluded indicating the man next to Sarah.
Sarah gave them each a courteous nod, though she wasn't sure how to address Cascal. When she turned her head she saw something shimmer out of the corner of her eye; the air around Cascal glistened like starbursts, and youth replaced age in his countenance. Yet when she looked directly at him he again appeared in the guise of the wizened old man she had first seen. It reminded her of the girl he had met at the Whitehall diner. The one who had been almost invisible, if you didn't look at her through that strange instrument called Radphaser. The Voidwalker, Sarah recalled her name as Cleanthia.
Orora and Cascal had but sat down when four more arrivals entered. Two mustached men who seemed to be identical twins, dressed in the same deep purple frocks with gleaning buttons and wide, ostrich-feathered hats which they swept off their heads in unison upon arriving, displaying salt-and-pepper hair combed back and with protruding widows peaks. Behind them walked a lithe woman with an almost bluish tint to her pale skin. She was attractive, but in a very harsh way. Everything about was hard and sharp, high cheekbones, high arched brows and a pointed nose. Her raven bob-cut hair contrasted with the white in what appeared to be a dress uniform with a broad scarlet sash around her narrow waist. By the side, she carried a slim rapier, the gemstones on the hilt glittering in the lamplight. Half a step behind followed a swelte woman, also in a dress uniform, a red this time.
Rather than standing this time, Jareth waved them in, while an entrée of consommé magically appeared in cups in front of each of the dinner guests. It was steaming faintly, emitting promising bouquets of palatable flavors. Watching the others, Sarah picked a similar silvery spoon and savored the soup, it was delicious, tasting like minestrone soap but spicier and pleasantly creamy. Once again, Jareth presented Sarah before going on with announcing the newly arrivals.
"Sarah, allow me to introduce the brothers Revin and Galim, accountants at the treasure, Endrara, my Commander in Chief and her subordinate, agent Levantine!"
Sarah immediately recognized Levantine for the Kim Kardashian lookalike with the horns from the Hallow Ewe fiesta. The daemoness looked almost reticent, it was obvious that dining with the king was not an everyday occurrence for her. Endrara on the other hand carried herself like she was invincible and owned the world – as if she was queen and Jareth her subject rather than the other way around when she in a very genteel manner held out her hand for Jareth to kiss. After that she took her place next to Cascal, head held high and an aquiline, watchful look with which she scrutinized Sarah as the newcomer she was. Watching her Sarah understood that she was in the presence of a very dangerous woman.
"Jareth," Endrara began without preemptions. "I've just received a message from Eralda, Lealia. It appears to be three agents coming our way. They're aiming to enlist in the quest against the Alien."
"What alien?" Orora asked. Putting down her spoon, she leaned forward, facing the warrior.
"The one threatening all of the Seven Cosmoses," Endrara responded coolly, with a voice as if she was questioning if the medic had been hidden under a rock for some decades.
"And just why are they coming here? What makes them think that this alien should be secreted in Infraheim, the smallest and youngest of the Cosmoses?" Orora in turn appeared to be insulting Endrara's intelligence and it became apparent to Sarah that these two women were resenting each other.
"Because of your encounter, Your Majesty," Endrara turned to Jareth, ignoring the horned woman. "It's not a meal discussion, as certain people may find the military lingo boring, however I've been analyzing your observations and I am certain the Alien has taken its refugee in Infraheim after intercepting Earth. That it may be hiding somewhere within Labyrinth. Biding its time."
"Waiting for what?" Jareth asked, facing the warrior.
"We don't know yet."
"You really don't?" Orora raised a neatly plucked brow. "Not even with all your incredible intelligence deployed?"
"No, have you any better ideas?" the Commander in Chief turned her attention back to the medicus, the dagger-pointy fringes of her hair brushing her protruding cheeks as if they were threatening to cut through them. As she spoke the candles adorning the table wavered and flickered in a most eerie way and the temperature seemed to drop. Sarah felt an unexpected shiver of unease lick itself down her spine.
"As a matter of fact," Orora began, but Jareth cut her off.
"Leave that to after the meal, miladies. You're uncomplaisant to our guest. I imagine Lady Sarah cannot be less interested in your private disagreements. Instead, tell me who's on their way here, Endrara! After that I'd like to know more about that discovery of yours, Orora, as it may change medicine as we know it altogether."
As Jareth spoke the candles settled themselves again and the room temperature returned to normal. Sarah inhaled, realizing she had forgotten to breath.
"Altogether my ass," Endrara huffed under her breath as she spiked a cube of bread on a tiny fork and ingested it before putting down her cutlery. "Coming here is an Ebraan man named Tilathian. Formerly Secret Agent to Her Majesty Queen Sarentona of Terandabar, these days a diplomat, although he's kept his military rank of a Centurian Knight, which indicates he's still doing undercover work for her. Even wet if I should make an educated guess. Then from old Taronda there's a Mage Supreme named Chervin."
"Chervin," Jareth echoed his name and Sarah recalled that he was acquainted with the Tarondan.
"And finally a, uh, a woman. Named Atrey Oine." Endrara made a face. "An Eraldan Cybernetic Entity."
"A Cyborg," Orora cut in and drank of her wine. "Do not think less of them because they are made out of artificial matters. Of silicone, synthothein and mechanical parts. You do have a few of them in your sold as well, if I remember correctly."
"They're expendable brutes," Endrara shrugged it off as if the argument was purely off-topic. Then she continued, pretending that this altercation had not ensued at all. "This trio is ready to go after the foe. Not to kill mind you, but merely to observe, since we cannot engage in a battle with the Alien before knowing what it really is. Where its soft spot may lie. There might even be a chance for us to communicate with it. Understand it. Possibly even find a way to elucidate this without being contingent on violence. It'd be so much better for all of us since we wouldn't have to offer expenses on warfare. But I'll take care of our visitors and share with them the intelligence we have. See what we can do, what we can learn."
"I thought you liked your game of violence, Endrara," Orora smirked, rose her green tulip-shaped glass and sipped of her wine. "Or am I being mistaken, have you got comfortable as you reached that rank of yours?"
"I'm not the one hiding indoors," the commander returned, and once again the candles danced, even fiercer this time. "And you don't need a microscope to see the enemies I face."
"You – or your weaponry wouldn't stand a day against a Zerancian double-helix virus," Orora shot back.
"Enough," Jareth cut them off, obviously vexed now. "How about the Voidwalkers. Have they gotten to work yet?"
"I'm not sure," barely notably Endrara shook her head. "My understanding is that the Eraldan Secret Service and the Thulean Voidwalkers are not on that well speaking terms with each other. Some conflict of interest no doubt. Therefore I deduce we'll have to ask the Celestians upon their advent. And be primed to persist in our interrogation."
"I wouldn't worry about that," Jareth replied. "I know Chervin. He's intelligent and very loyal to the Council. The old mage knows this is a question of survival. For all of us. He won't let internal conflicts stand in his way."
Now, Sarah couldn't wait anymore, no matter that she might be breaking all kinds of protocol, she felt the need to cut in.
"What is a Cyborg?" she asked, as images of Science Fiction robots and Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator were dancing in her mind. "Is it really a part robot human?"
"Sort of," Endrara huffed, but Orora leaned forwards towards Sarah and as Endrara ensued informing the King, the physicist decided to have a private conversation with their guest.
"A Cyborg – which is short for 'cybernetic organism' - is an umbrella term describing organisms with both organic and biomechatronic parts," the horned medic began. "Nine Lealian decades ago, or roughly 350 of your Earth years, if my mental arithmetic got it right - the Lealian technomages found it possible to tie a sentient soul to an adequately developed artificial intelligence. To create this 'new frontier' - a bridge between mind and matter. In short their thinking machines – computers – became sentient and able to think for themselves and not merely taking programmed order."
"They became alive?" Sarah asked.
"Yes, they are alive, in every sense we regard life, since they do have souls," Orora replied with a nod. "Not all people seem to grasp that, questioning the Cyborgs' claim to life since they have never been born but rather manufactured. But they do have souls, that has been confirmed enough times."
"They can go astral. Letting their mind leave their physical bodies, something every higher sentient being can learn to manage with a bit of training. And most of all – they can die."
Sarah swallowed at the very word. Die. So terminal. So final.
"What happens when a Cyborg dies?"
"They stop working," Orora answered. "You can charge them with as much power you wish, they still won't interact. Then their organic parts start decomposing. That's all proof I need that they are alive. The difference between life and death – or rather adequately not life – is what distinguish life the way I define it as a medic."
"Fascinating! So one of them is coming here?"
"Apparently so," the medic pondered. "She seems to be some type of warrior. Undercover Spy. Not like those Cyborgs I've met, mind you, which were mostly surgeons and similar professionals."
"Are there a lot of Cyborgs here?" Sarah asked. "In Infraheim."
"No we don't have them," Orora shook her head. "Only as visitors from time to time."
"You see our electricity doesn't work like in other universes. Too erratic. Our universe is still too young. It'll probably stabilize some millions of years from now, but that's none of our business since neither of us will be around by then."
Jareth regarded Sarah, absorbed by the way she interacted with Orora. The ease of her conduct. The natural animation of her hands, the enraptured glitter irradiating from her eyes and the pinkish blush of her cheeks, the way she seemed to forget the world around her and the food on her plate. She didn't appear half as forlorn as she had been just half an hour earlier when they entered the dining room. No, instead she was shining, radiant with relaxed inclination and that kind of self-confidence only people who had forgotten their egos could acquire. Unconsciously, Jareth slipped a hand under his purple vest, rubbing feverishly the skin over his heart. He could feel it drumming so loud it was a wonder people around him didn't turn around to check where the ruckus came from.
She was indubitably getting to him – sneaking under his skin - and he felt a sudden ineptness as this unsolicited yet pleasant thought. Falling in love with the daughter of the disreputable Reikan, that really wasn't supposed to happen, was it? She wasn't only inappropriate for the King of Labyrinth, she was also way too young for him.
Taking a large gulp of wine from his glass he forced himself to listen to what Revin was saying. Figures and numbers. Debit and credit. The boring necessities. Jareth deployed one of his more beloved traits - the ability to listen and remember while actually thinking of other things. Like Sigiria, the woman he was taking to his bed tonight. Her long, blue-black legs, her wavy silvery hair, gleaning yellow eyes and sharp carnivores, her tiny, spiraling horns. A true daemon and of a noble family too, cunning in the art of pleasing a man, since she had been taught by the best. Sigiria should be able to take his mind off Sarah – and this unexpected infatuation. Or so he hoped...