Jareth held four crystal balls close to his face. He stared into each of them in turn, catching the light. It seemed as though he were choosing among them. He took one of them and swirled it into the air, with a flick of his wrist. It floated away from him, became a bubble. Then it drifted through the open window beside which he was standing, and away through the darkening sky. The other three followed in turn, coldly beautiful bubbles floating through the dusk, turning and gleaming, mesmeric globes glowing in the dying light.
Sarah was still leaning limply against the tree, too dizzy to move, when the four bubbles approached her in the sky. She stared at them, entranced. She watched as the dazzling spheres floated toward her, slowly descending. They were dancing with the light, and she could hear music, an aching, haunting music, solemn, like a pavane. She was rapt. Her lips parted in wonder. The bubbles were close enough now for her to see that within the first of them was the dancer from her music box, twirling pirouettes. In each of the other three bubbles was another dancer, moving with sinuous elegance.
Sarah’s body swayed hypnotically in time with the music. She was the music and the dance. She was inside a bubble, dancing, dressed in a ball gown. Enchanted and enchanting, she danced slowly across the sky in company with the other dancers
A congregation of many bubbles crossed the night sky, each with a dancer within it. They were approaching one great bubble, as though attracted by some magnetic force. Inside the great bubble was a magnificent ballroom. Jareth was already dancing there.
Stephanie saw all of this through the mirrored portal. She knew what she had to do.
‘Thanks for everything!’ she told the family of pygmy griffins. She took a deep breath and rolled herself forward into the pool of silver, wishing to be in the great bubble with her sister.
The ballroom had once known opulence. Between glittering cornices were hung many long chandeliers where the wax, dripping for a hundred years, had formed stalactites. The silk covering the walls had faded and, in places, worn threadbare. Bubbles decorated the room, and the whole of it was contained withing the iridescent skin of one great bubble. A tall, gilt, thirteen-hour clock stood in a corner. It was almost twelve o’clock.
Sarah watched the dance, and the dancers watched her from behind their masks. The men sported silken shirts open to the waist and tight velvet breeches. Some of them wore wide-brimmed hats; others had capes or carried staffs. The women’s gowns left their shoulders bare and dove between their breasts. They had their hair coiffed high, and many wore long gloves.
The dancers moved in a ring around the ballroom, with a kind of lethargic brilliance, as though the party had been going on all night. Men who were not dancing lounged indolently against the columns, or in a cushioned pit in the center of the ballroom, in the company of women. Maids and footmen, with skin the color of old parchment, served them trays of fruit and refilled their goblets from decanters. And always the dancers were watching through the eyeholes in their cruel half-masks, from which snouts projected and horns sprouted above. Moving together or elegantly reclined, they watched Sarah, or watched each other watching, and beneath the masks the mouths smiled at each other like knives.
Sarah’s gown was silvery, the color of mother-of-pearl, with puffed sleeves. She had a pearl necklace on, and her hair was braided with strings of pearls. Her eyes were wide. She was the picture of innocence in that setting, a picture that excited the dancers, who never took their masked eyes off her, while they moved with weary grace to the cadence of a sinisterly beautiful tune.
That was the scene Stephanie saw when she arrived courtesy of the portal. One instant it was like she had plunged into ice cold water, and the next, she was standing there in the opulent ballroom, soaking wet. Well, at least she was finally free of the disgusting sludge she had been caked in. Two gorgeously gowned women snickered behind their fans at her. Stephanie paused beside a tall mirror and saw her image. She looked like a drowned rat.
The people passing behind her, in the mirror, were watching her like ravishing birds of prey. Stephanie had the feeling that as soon as she made one wrong move, they would all turn on her and attack. She clutched the dragon-slaying sword tightly in her hand. She found her sister again and carefully made her way towards her. She saw Jareth dance behind her sister with a voluptuous woman before disappearing back into the crowd. Someone grabbed her free hand, and she spun around with the sword raised, prepared to follow through with an attack. It was Jareth.
“It’s rude to invade other people’s dreams,” Jareth told her. He had kept an eye on her progress and decided to intercept her before she could rouse Sarah from her dream. He was surprised Stephanie had made it there, portal or not.
‘This is a dream?’ Stephanie thought, keeping her sword at the ready.
Jareth gave her a smile that made her feel as thought she was being stared down by a shark. “As amusing as it might be to guess your thoughts based on your facial expressions, I think I’ll let you speak now.”
Stephanie felt her throat loosen up a little.
“Sarah!” Stephanie yelled across the room. “Sarah!”
Sarah continued to traverse the room at a dreamy pace. She didn’t once look in her sister’s direction. The Jareth who approached Sarah was a resplendent figure, upright and blonde, in a midnight blue frock coat, diamanté at the neck, shoulders, and cuffs. Ruffs of pale grey silk at his throat and wrists set off the pallor of his skin. On his legs he was wearing black tights and black, shiny boots. He was holding a horned mask on a stick.
Stephanie looked back at the Jareth that still had a firm grip on her hand, confused.
“She can’t hear you,” Jareth said to Stephanie. “She can’t see you either. She’s too preoccupied with my illusion.”
Stephanie glared up at him. It was clearly more than that if Sarah didn’t hear her shouting at the top of her lungs. “What did you do to her?” Her eyes burned with a fire hotter than dragon’s breath.
“Tut. Tut. Such a frightful appearance.” Jareth waved his hand and Stephanie instantly transformed from drowned rat to belle of the ball. She was in an iridescent emerald green dress with puffed sleeves. And she had on an emerald necklace. Her hair was braided, half-up, studded with emeralds. She was completely dry. Jareth was actually surprised by the results. “There. Much better.”
Stephanie caught sight of herself in a mirror. She was surprised too. She looked every bit as beautiful as her sister. “Is this supposed to make me forget about my siblings?” she asked, putting on an unimpressed face. “How do we get out of here? Where is our baby brother?”
“Straight to the point. You’re not one for the subtle art of conversation, are you?” Jareth asked mockingly. “And do lower your sword. I can have you and your sister torn apart in instant in here, if I choose. And if you kill me, you’ll never know where I’ve hidden your brother.” Not that Jareth thought she could kill him. He certainly wouldn’t let her.
“I’m assuming he’s in the castle,” Stephanie said, keeping her sword up.
“Yes, but where in the castle?” Jareth asked with the tone of a teacher who was dealing with a particularly difficult child. “You’re not dim. Surely you’ve realized that the inside of the castle could be just as difficult to navigate as the labyrinth outside.”
Stephanie regarded her adversary for a moment. It had occurred to her that the inside of the castle could be convoluted. And she didn’t want to endanger Sarah. Stephanie glanced at the clock. They were short on time, but there was still hope. She lowered her sword. Rather than picking a fight, she needed to get away from Jareth and get her sister out of there.
It was Jareth’s turn to regard Stephanie. He was quite impressed with this one, as infuriating as she could be. But she was only so infuriating because of her talent for overcoming trials through her own strength. True, she had help finding the challenges, but she overcame the danger on her own.
There was a fire in her dark eyes that couldn’t be extinguished, and the fact that she had drawn the dragon-slaying sword was evidence that she had a noble heart. It would have been impossible otherwise. Noble hearts were dangerous. They were dangerous because they could put others first without losing themselves. They could survive without dreams.
Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that they preferred to work for their dreams, and had the strength to find new ones if they failed, rather than escape from reality and have someone else just hand everything to them on a silver platter.
Either way, Jareth had nothing to tempt her with. She shone too brightly. He wanted to test her will and break her.
“However did you make the pygmy griffins help you find the portal?” Jareth asked, posing a question that had been bothering him ever since he saw her with them.
Stephanie played dumb. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Trying to protect your new friends? You’re very loyal, very fast.”
While Stephanie was talking to Jareth, Sarah was dancing. Her dizziness ceased when she went spinning around the ballroom in Jareth’s arms. She was the loveliest woman at the ball. She knew it, from the way in which Jareth was smiling down at her. All his attention was on her. The touch of his hands on her body was thrilling. To dance with him seemed the easiest and most natural motion. When he told her that she was beautiful, she felt confused.
“I feel… I feel like… I—don’t know what I feel,” Sarah said.
He was amused. “Don’t you?”
“I feel like… I’m in a dream, but I don’t remember ever dreaming anything like this!”
He pulled back to look at her and laughed, but fondly. “You’ll have to find your way into the part,” he said, and whirled her on around the room.
She smiled up at him. She thought how handsome he was, but one didn’t tell a man such things, did one? More than that, there was something in his face that was openly enjoying the moment, without the mocking or secretiveness that she had seen on other faces here.
“And when you’ve found your way in, stay in your dream, Sarah.” Jareth’s eyes were looking straight into hers. His smile was serious. “Believe me. If you want to be truly free, wholly yourself—you do want that, don’t you?”
“Then you will find what you want only as long as you stay in your dream. Once abandon it, and you are at the mercy of other people’s dreams. They will make of you what they want you to be. Forget them, Sarah. Trust to your dream.”
Sarah was spellbound.
“Trust to me,” Jareth said, moving his face close to hers. “Can you do that?”
She nodded, and looked up at him with anticipation. He was going to kiss her. She shut her eyes. That was the way to do it.
“What is she doing?” Stephanie exclaimed, concerned. She tried to run to her sister, but Jareth, still gripping her hand firmly, pulled her back. He held her in his arms so that he was standing behind her, and they were both watching Sarah.
“Let’s just see how this goes, shall we?” Jareth suggested.
Stephanie could hear amusement in his voice. She decided to take him down a peg. “It’s not really you she’s thinking of, it’s Jeremy,” she said. She knew her sister had a crush on him, and his resemblance to what Jareth would look like if he was a normal human was uncanny. It was maybe even a little scary. ” ‘Find your way into the part’, that’s something he would say.”
“Who is this Jeremy?” Jareth asked, frowning.
“Like I’d tell you,” Stephanie said defiantly. He wasn’t getting any more information about her family, not if she could help it.
Something made Sarah open her eyes again. It was the silence. The music had stopped. She saw that they had been surrounded by all the other dancers. They were leering and nudging each other. She saw them biting their lips to hold back their laughter. Jareth seemed to be unperturbed, but she turned her face sharply away from his, horrified. He held her more tightly, and insistently sought her lips with his.
Stephanie struggled harder to break free.
Suffused with disgust, Sarah wrenched herself free, just as Stephanie stomped on Jareth’s foot. He was so surprised that he loosened his grip on her, and she escaped, running to her sister.
The clock struck twelve.
Jareth could not believe Stephanie had the audacity to stomp on the foot of the Goblin King. “That little—!” But he did not, as promised, have her or Sarah torn apart. He still had other aces up his sleeves.
Sarah and Stephanie each pushed their way through the jostling, jeering crowd. A man smiled foxily at Sarah behind his mask and grasped at her body. She smelled his evil breath on her face. She shoved him away angrily. A group of giggling women rushed between them, chased by merrily guffawing men.
Stephanie had similar encounters, but she managed to break free and navigate her way around the gigglers and guffawers. She gripped her sword tightly in her hand but did not use it. Something told her it would be a dangerous to threaten the dancers.
Sarah was knocked off balance and stumbled against a column. Crouching, frightened, she made her way out of the crowd, until she saw the shimmering membrane of the great bubble just in front of her.
Stephanie had almost reached her sister, when Sarah picked up the small, painted chair that was beside her with both hands and hurled it at the bubble.
The chair crashed through it. As the bubble burst, Sarah was sucked through it.
She was flying through space. Below, on the ground, she saw the faces of Ludo and Sir Didymus looking up at her. Their mouths were moving, as if they were calling out to her, but all she could hear was the thrum of rushing air.
Stephanie, who had not been far from Sarah inside the ballroom, was also sucked out. The wind whistled past her ears as she fell, waving her arms as if that could help slow her descent. Stephanie saw Jareth out the corner of her eye, flying away in the form of an owl. Behind her, the ballroom had collapsed and crumbled into junk. Strange things, and pieces of things, and things of pieces, were whizzing through space with the two sisters, some overtaking them, some receding.
Sarah started to recognize the objects. The dancer from her music box pirouetted past, upside down, followed by several of her favorite books, in random order, their pages flapping loose in the wind. Launcelot was not far away in the sky, and beyond him Sarah saw some gossip cuttings, and the spoon and egg cup she had used when she was a baby. It was an aerial Sargasso Sea formed of everything she had ever seen or imagined but rearranged in improbable combinations. ‘If this is the debris of the ballroom,’ she thought, ‘then all my life must have been at that ball, in disguise.’
The floating junk room of her mind stretched from horizon to horizon. Sarah saw Stephanie was falling too, but they were apart from each other. It was all speeding up, and beginning to spin around, faster and faster, in maelstrom, Sarah and Stephanie with it. The rush of air became screeching, untuned music.
It stopped. Sarah was on the ground, in her own clothes again. In her hand was the half-eaten peach. She held it up to examine it more closely. Its flesh was rotten. A maggot crept out from the pit. Sarah gasped, and flung the peach away, and fainted.