They arrive into a sea of colour, deep oranges and sumptuous reds, rich browns and glistening golds. So far, they seem to be the only guests. The air is quiet, pregnant with the expectation of what is to come. Sarah's first thought is that they've come into some lush forest as they did on her last visit here; everything around them seems to be full of life.
The ground beneath their feet is covered in a fragrant blanket of golden leaves and flower petals. Thick ivy and hanging vines climb around them, heavy with an assortment of tantilising fruits and gorgeous flowers; curling branches reach above their heads to form delicate arches, hung with glittering baubles and carefully tied ribbons. A multitude of coloured lights twinkle and dance amongst the branches and leaves, what may very well be tiny living creatures adding their own spark and spirit to the festivities. Even the air smells sweet and fresh and new. It's only when she catches the odd glimpse of whitewashed stone through the dense flora that she realises they must be inside a corridor of Jareth's castle. It's a total transformation. Gaelan has truly outdone himself in preparing all this.
She takes it all in for just a moment, eyes wide, lips parted, cheeks aglow with pleasure. When she looks to Jareth she sees he's watching the wonder unfurl in her face, rather than the scenery around them. There's something curious within his mismatched eyes. It takes her a moment longer to read it for what it is: anticipation. He's waiting for the light that must surely be in her eyes to be put into words. She squeezes his arm a little tighter and smiles.
“It's beautiful. Thank you. Thank you so much for sharing tonight with me,” she says. The pleased grin he gives in return is all the answer she needs.
There's a bronze-coloured curtain of thinly plaited vines directly before them, decked with dozens of small flowers. With a sweep of his arm, Jareth draws it aside. Immediately, music and merry laughter flood the senses, as though held back until now by some enchantment. They emerge into a grand ballroom, and Sarah sees hundreds of masked and beautifully dressed guests already dancing and revelling beneath the golden light cast down from the ornate chandeliers that hang above. Many of them start to turn at the sight of their king, murmurs of pleasure rippling through the crowd. Intentional or no, it looks like the Goblin King has gotten to make his grand entrance after all. Sarah's belly tightens at the sight of so many strangers and strange creatures, but Jareth is there by her side, squeezing her arm right back, smiling out from beneath his dark mask.
“You're going to shine amongst them, love. I know it. Will you come with me, celebrate with me?”
Sarah gives him a small smile. “Lead the way.”
It feels a little strange, but on the whole good to be on his arm as he leads them on a slow cycle around the room, making introductions and polite conversation. It's clearly been a long time since some of the guests have seen their king, and they're eager to greet him and his companion for the night. Jareth introduces her by name, and gives no further explanation as to her status nor presence here, but by mere association with the king, she hears herself called 'Lady Sarah' so many times that she finally gives up on correcting them. She finds herself kissed on both cheeks more times than she can count, marvelled over and made much of by the elite of the Goblin King's realm. Names and faces all blur into one, no matter how hard she tries to remember them. There's too many for her to keep track of, and yet more to come.
She sees happiness and well-meaning staring out at her from dozens of pairs of eyes, the broad smiles underneath the varied masks telling her that these well-wishers are genuine in their enthusiasm. However, she can't help but notice that some of them seem to step back from the pair of them too quickly after greeting their king, as though unsettled by, or at the very least unsure of her presence. She isn't given time to dwell on it though, as more introductions are made, more smiling guests clasp her free hand and kiss her cheeks, and Jareth slips easily into his role as host. A little schmoozing seems to be needed; the king hasn't been seen in his realm for days, and it seems everyone wants a piece of him.
He's charming and witty, and makes her feel completely at ease even with so many strangers, drawing her into every conversation, rather than leaving her on the sidelines. He's respectful of her too, hands always in their proper place, with none of the groping they get up to in the privacy of their own company. The arm linked with hers is nothing but gentlemanly, yet he still manages to make her smile with the occasional touch with his free hand, light and affectionate, brushing a stray hair away from her face; a light caress of her shoulder when he introduces her to a particularly good friend.
He leans in close now and then to murmur in her ear, warnings on how not to let an ageing faun draw her into a debate over human beliefs and religions – she'll never hear the end of it, Jareth insists; he passes on bits of gossip about some of the more interesting guests.
A comment about two raven-haired identical twins standing in the far corner – each wearing his own emerald-green mask – leaves Sarah's mouth hanging open in shock. Apparently, for the last couple of centuries, the two brothers have been playing at tricking a beautiful wood nymph they both love, each taking it in turn to pretend at being the other, that they might spend a night in her arms under the guise of a single name.
Jareth laughs at her shock, leaning in even closer to divulge the rest of the tale: the crafty young nymph wanted both men for herself from the beginning, pitting the brothers against one another so that she might have the best of both worlds. The brothers believe she loves only one of them, and give her that single name each time, but the nymph finds her pleasure in loving them both. It's no longer clear exactly who's tricking who, but the three of them seem contented enough to go on fucking one another indefinitely, and so no one interferes in their affair.
When Sarah asks, only half-jokingly, if everyone here has such an adventurous sex life, Jareth gives her a grin. “They do now,” he says, with a wink.
He hasn't so much as kissed her hand in over an hour, and yet her body remains warm all over for him, just by being in his presence. She's practically purring as he continues to show her off to the other guests. With her head full of half-remembered names and titles, it takes her a while to place exactly how she's feeling, why Jareth's treatment of her pleases her quite so much.
A queen, Sarah. He's acting as if you're his goddamn queen.
If Jareth notices her slight stumble during that moment of sudden revelation, he doesn't say a word.
In a rare moment of respite from the other guests, he guides her towards a long table, laden with all sorts of different fae food and drink; she hadn't even realised it, but her stomach is starting to growl. If Gaelan has outdone himself on planning this celebration, the castle's chef has positively laid heaven on a platter before the guests. Jareth encourages her to try a little of everything, smiling as she gives soft little sighs of pleasure around each delicious mouthful she tries.
He joins her in sampling a bite here and there off the various dishes and trays, but he seems more intent in watching her enjoy herself. It's a most inopportune time to remember his comment about finding eroticism in the sight of a woman eating, but the thought wedges itself in her mind and refuses to budge. From the sly grin he wears, he's thinking it too. He lifts a morsel of something between his fingers, and brings it to her lips, miming for her to part them. She accepts with an embarrassed little eye-roll, allowing him to slide the hors d'oeuvre into her mouth. Feeling a little wicked, she's sure to brush her lips over his thumb as she takes his offering.
She starts to chew, and a multitude of flavours explode onto her tongue: pastry and some sort of savoury cream, alongside at least a half dozen different rich vegetables, the likes of which she's never tasted before. Her eyes roll again, this time in bliss. Her pleasure must be written on her face, as Jareth grins at her before sucking the thumb her lips touched briefly into his own mouth. While her belly is still fluttering from the sight, he slips a fluted silver goblet into her free hand.
“For the toast,” he explains. “I suggest you go easy after the token mouthful. Far be it from me to tell you what you can and can't drink, love, but it's a lot stronger than any champagne you're used to.”
She only nods, still trying to accept the beauty of the room and of him, the beauty of this whole night. She toys with the thin stem of her goblet, giving her idle hand something to do, and can't repress her smile when Jareth slips easily behind her, drawing their linked arms lightly up her back in the process. It gives her the delicious sensation of being trapped but not really, held at the Goblin King's mercy. He uses the pretence of reaching for a goblet for himself to lean his body into hers, reaching his free arm in an achingly slow gesture around her hips towards the table. His hand lingers over the pre-poured selection of drinks, and the point of his chin pushes against her bare shoulder, his lips nuzzling briefly into the tender line of her neck. He inhales deeply, and she feels him smile against her.
“You really are beautiful, you know that? There's not a man in this room who doesn't envy me right now. Gods, I'd like to show them just what they're missing.”
She manages to hold back the goofiest of giggles, but only with a terrific amount of willpower. “What happened to keeping your hands off me?”
“I think I'm doing a splendid job.” Before her, Jareth splays his hand and turns it palm side up, a one-armed shrug. True enough, that hand hasn't actually touched her, and continues not to as he finally chooses a goblet. Still, she isn't fooled by this show of innocence. He draws his arm back, goblet and fingers only a hair's breadth away from her body. For just a moment, his lips move closer to her earlobe. “However, I never said a thing about my mouth.” He plants a tiny kiss directly beneath her ear, and it leaves her burning.
She shudders, and curses herself, knowing he'll feel it. An involuntary, “Huhmm,” escapes her.
“Eloquent as well as beautiful, I see.” Jareth retreats to a more gentlemanly distance, the picture of propriety once more as he escorts her on his arm. He tilts his goblet towards her, and graces her with a wicked grin. “Come, pet. I think it's past time I gave the gathered masses their little speech so they can start getting pissed.”
Even without the benefit of a raised step or platform to perform the toasts from, Jareth commands the room with his deep, rich voice. Every eye is upon them, and after a brief moment of panic, Sarah finds herself watching the Goblin King along with the rest of the guests, a private smile made entirely public before their audience. She finds she doesn't mind a bit. Jareth greets everyone, lords and ladies, various magical creatures alike, as if they're old friends, making light of his brief absence while giving no excuse nor explanation for it.
There are chuckles throughout the crowd when he begins the yearly offering of thanks by thanking Gaelan wholeheartedly for keeping the castle standing in his stead. The red-haired castellan steps forward to give a dutiful little bow, looking splendid in scarlet and gold, a nervous smile winking on and off beneath his chequered pantalone mask. Sarah grins at him outright, and is delighted to see that smile grow a shade brighter before he slips back into the crowd to hide. The man deserves praise for all he's done tonight.
More thanks are given. Sarah doesn't understand all of the references, but Jareth speaks plainly and passionately about his realm, and it's obvious the year has been a prosperous one. His sonorous tones soothe and ground her, and she finds her gaze wandering over the crowd, taking in all there is to see. There's no sign of Gaelan – no doubt the man has retreated into safe anonymity now that his work is done – but she spots two familiar faces in the form of the troublemaking twins Jareth pointed out earlier. Sarah has to bite back a grin when she sees a willowy-looking brunette standing, smiling between the two men, both brothers' eyes now locked on her rather than their king. Who exactly is fooling who? She leaves them to their complicated affair as she goes on people watching.
Through the throngs of guests, a sea of different wigs and masks, there's one who continues to draw Sarah's attention back to her. For a start, she seems to be the only guest – besides the two enamoured twins, of course – who doesn't seem to be watching her king. No, the woman's eyes seem reserved solely for her. They make eye contract more than once, Sarah growing more and more uncomfortable each time, with how long their gaze holds. She is always the first to break it.
It isn't that the woman looks ominous. A mysterious little smile seems to have taken permanent residence upon the pink mouth beneath her copper-coloured domino, warming what would otherwise be a simply striking pixie-like face into unearthly beauty. She's tall and lithe, with skin so pale it seems almost to glow with silver light. Her hair is a sheet of golden silk, shot through with strands of warm copper, to match the form-fitting gown she wears. She stands out a mile, even amongst the array of stunning fae beauty around her. Sarah can't help looking back at her now and then, and is slightly worried to see the woman still staring right back at her, still smiling, refusing even to blink under her gaze.
Cheers and applause erupt around them as Jareth finishes his speech and makes the ceremonial toast, but Sarah hardly tastes her small sip of champagne. Though the mysterious woman continues to smile at her, quite warmly in fact, Sarah can't help her growing unease. The feeling only grows stronger when the crowd finally disperses, and Jareth turns to her with a smile, some joking quip already on his lips. His smile dies when he follows her gaze and sees just who she's looking at. He stiffens almost imperceptibly, but Sarah feels the motion all the way through their joined arms, clutching tight within her chest. Clearly the mysterious woman and the Goblin King are already acquainted.
He recovers quickly, a careful mask of mild boredom swift to replace the clear shock in his eyes and the tightness of his mouth. “Come on,” he says, in a low voice. “I'm afraid there are lots of other guests I must speak with, lest I be called a dreadful host.”
It doesn't take her long to see that Jareth is deliberately avoiding any sort of meeting with one guest in particular.
Whenever the woman raises her head to be seen through the crowd, Jareth turns them slightly in a different direction, shaking hands and accepting kisses, making yet more polite small talk. Sarah hardly pays attention to him. Her eyes are trained on only the golden-haired woman, picking her out through the scores of smiling guests, and panicking when she finally loses track of her in the crowd. She turns to Jareth, almost ready to say something about the mysterious woman, but then she senses an undeniable presence behind them, feels warm eyes moving along the back of her neck. Before she can move, a pale, long-fingered hand closes around Jareth's shoulder.
It's alarming to feel just how hard her heart is pounding as the two of them turn together to face the woman – more so as, for the first time that evening, Jareth actually releases his tight hold on her arm.
“Orlaith.” His voice gives away nothing.
“Jareth, dear. At last.”
The woman is even more beautiful close up. Her eyes are the same deep, polished copper as the thin streaks in her hair, her smile positively enchanting as it flashes for the receptive Goblin King. Sarah looks between them, the man and the woman, so much and so little to read from just one stare. Of course he has history, any man has history, but the woman standing directly in his present is clearly not quite so ancient history as he's lead her to believe. Not his queen, but what, then? The three of them spend a long moment of silence in each other's company, but it's plain to Sarah that, in the golden-haired woman's eyes, she might as well not be there at all.
“Well, what's the matter with you?” the woman asks in a silky tone. “Come here, you awful thing.” There's a scent of oranges and cinnamon as the woman leans in closer, and Sarah can feel the exact moment her heart rips in two: the moment Orlaith brings her lips to Jareth's cheek in a warm, welcoming kiss.
Who's fooling who, indeed?