Jareth scowled at his reflection in the mirror. It wasn't so much the reflection, actually, as the occasion which necessitated it. Why his cousin (on his mother's side, and three or four times removed) suddenly decided to invite him---no, that wasn't it---all but demand his presence at one of his balls was entirely beyond him. And why did that accursed fae have to nurse an obsession with England? England of all places! Jareth did not, on the whole, object to the mortal realms. Italy he rather liked; he was particularly fond of Venice. But no, his cousin had been coveting England for several hundred years, and now, roughly a decade after the dawn of what the Europeans called their nineteenth century, his cousin had finally gotten his anxious foot back through the long shut door. Jareth supposed he should be thankful; his cousin had probably been holding celebratory soirées every evening, and this was the first time Jareth had actually been required to make an appearance. Too, there was the peculiar nature of Jareth's own kingdom, but common courtesy insisted that he at least accept one of his cousin's invitations. Jareth scowled again at his reflection. At least he could still be imposing, he reflected as he adjusted his tailcoat---a shade of blue the color of nightmares and moonless nights---and summoned a crystal. He let the orb fall and vanished amongst its shattered remains.
`My dear Stephen! How glad I am to see you,' a gentleman in a green velvet coat addressed the man who had just appeared beside him looking somewhat dazed.
The man called Stephen appeared to sigh. `And yourself, sir, as ever,' he answered with perhaps a touch of weariness in his voice. Something seemed a little odd to him, and it was a moment before he noticed that the hall was lighted more completely than was usual---hardly any corners or alcoves appeared to be in shadows. The stage as ever held only the one fiddler and one piper, but the effect of twice the typical number of candles throughout the hall was striking. Stephen began to think that perhaps he preferred the semi-gloom after all. He searched his mind to make some complimentary comment on the change. `Is there some particular celebration tonight, sir?' he managed to inquire.
`Why yes!' declared his companion. `Tonight is the anniversary of my eldest sister's disinheritance from the family. She'd tried to ally herself with our second cousin against our father. Once she'd killed our father however, the cousin imprisoned her and tried to take the throne for himself. However, he was betrayed by one of his footmen, who released my sister from her dungeon. In return, she plucked out the servant's left eye and his heart, which she used to command him to kill our cousin. I believe she intended to have him impaled upon a rowan tree, but my brothers and I arrived before the deed could be carried out, and I had the happy thought of giving him to a mutual cousin of ours who has all sorts of useful dungeons for putting such people in. I invited him tonight, and you shall have the pleasure of meeting him---not the traitor cousin, of course, the other one. As for my sister, we agreed we didn't have to kill her, so we confined her to a lonely little castle with her mutilated servant for company. She's still there, I suppose.' The gentleman paused for a moment as if trying to remember something else about his sister, then he shrugged and continued, `But she was always very fond of dancing, so we told her we'd celebrate her defeat with a particularly fine ball whenever we remembered.'
`I see,' said Stephen. Accustomed as he had become to the gentleman's fondness for bloody family history, he found that this particular tale ranked among some of the milder accounts he could recall. `And is that how you became king of Lost-hope?' he asked.
`Oh, no,' his companion answered. `I had to kill a couple of my brothers and their families, but that was really quite a trivial affair and doesn't bear remembering.' Stephen could do nothing but nod at this. He and the gentleman stood together a while at the head of the room, watching the guests arrive. The two of them together made an odd, yet fitting sight, for two more opposite men could not be found---not merely in appearance but also station, temperament and ancestry. Stephen, on the one hand, was dark-skinned and dressed in the modest, unobtrusive fashion of a London butler---one spared the inconvenience of liveried attire. The gentleman next to him, in his dark green tailcoat, was of fair complexion, almost a glowing white. His hair was particularly abundant, shining and silvery, and remarkably reminiscent of thistledown. The one, of course, was human, and the other an immortal ruler of a minor fae kingdom. And any fae with the ability (and inclination) to see a person's disposition would have observed that Stephen was all that was diligent, patient and gentle---in short, that he embodied many of the best qualities of humans---while the gentleman with thistledown hair was himself a noteworthy specimen of the inclinations of the fae: whimsical, yet with a handful of lasting interests; inclined towards cruelty; and egotistical beyond the proudest of mortals. Each man, in his way, stood as a prime example of what he was, and both presented striking representations of masculine beauty.
Let it not be said, though, that these were the only two handsome figures in the hall. Not a single person in the room could be called plain, not one even merely tolerable, but the gentleman and Stephen were uniquely remarkable until the appearance of one guest who had just arrived in a fall of glitter like shooting stars. This tall fae, wearing a coat the color of nightmares and moonless nights, scanned the crowd with mismatched eyes, searching for one face in particular. Or rather, one head of hair. The relationship was undeniable, however distant it might have been; the tall fae's own light blond hair was wispy, but not so light as his cousin's that it stood up into the air in any direction. Mismatched eyes eventually met cold blue ones, and Jareth briefly contemplated transporting himself to his cousin. He decided against it and began to make his way through the crowd on foot. Most fae didn't like sudden movement, unless they themselves were the ones doing the moving.
`Ah, Jareth, there you are!' the gentleman with thistledown hair called. `And how is our cousin doing?'
`James Greensword?' Jareth replied, raising an eyebrow. Of course, that was why he was here. `I really don't know. It's been a century or two since I last looked into that particular oubliette,' he added along with smirk simultaneously proud and indifferent.
The gentleman openly laughed, to Stephen's surprise, evidently enjoying a familiar joke. `Oh, but where are my manners?' he said at last. `Jareth, this is my dear friend Stephen Black, who will one day be King of England.' Jareth raised both eyebrows this time. This did not fit in with what he knew of royal succession among mortals, but he chose to ignore the curiosity rather than question his cousin on the matter. After all, the king of Lost-hope was known for his skill in divination. `And Stephen, this is my cousin Jareth, King of the Labyrinth . . . or are you still going by Goblin King?'
`Goblin King is the official title.'
`But such an inconvenient one.'
`Oh, believe me, the position has its rewards,' the Goblin King, his tone itself indication of his satisfaction with title and kingdom both. The king of Lost-hope looked doubtful but smiled in pleasure as Jareth and Stephen exchanged small bows and murmurs of gratification in making the other's acquaintance.
Just then, the gentleman's eyes lit upon someone else in the crowd, and he excused himself to seek out whoever it was that he had spotted. Jareth and Stephen were left together in silence. It had been a while since Jareth had spoken with an adult mortal, barring an occasional grief-stricken mother who decided---too late---that she had not, in fact, really desired to wish her child away to the goblins. It had been longer since he had engaged in any form of polite conversation with any mortal at all. He settled for, `I confess I'm relieved to find tonight's celebration commemorates only his sister's imprisonment in the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart. I always disapproved of the time he pushed his enemy's children out of the belfry.'
Stephen half hid a grimace. `That event was re-enacted not long ago,' he commented, more than a little astounded to be casually conversing with another fae king. He was nonplussed by Jareth's comparatively non-violent inclinations. On the one hand, the Goblin King apparently imprisoned enemies---his own and other people's, but he did not appear as shockingly blood-thirsty and callous as his cousin was. `The recent . . . ceremony only used straw dolls dressed as the children,' Stephen added.
`I am glad to hear it,' Jareth acknowledged. `The killing of children is an unpardonable waste.' He smiled at Stephen, although not very reassuringly. `I find it far more to the point to turn them into goblins, which, if equivalent to corpses on many levels, are at least animate and therefore marginally more useful.' Stephen found himself reassessing his opinions of the Goblin King until his thoughts were interrupted by, `What brought you to the acquaintance of my charming cousin?'
Stephen opened his mouth to begin, then paused. Whenever he had tried to speak of his enchantment back in England, he had found himself telling some outlandish story full of inexplicable references to magic. Nonetheless, he had been directly asked, and it would be rude of him not to answer. He could always apologize if he ended up speaking the normal nonsense. So Stephen resigned himself to his fate, and was surprised to find that he said exactly what he wished to say; apparently that particular aspect of the enchantment did not apply here.
Stephen told how his master's fiancée had died only days before those two were to wed. How the London magician had called upon the gentleman with thistledown hair to bring her back to life, and how the gentleman had claimed one half of the woman's life in return. He eventually arrived at his own meeting with the gentleman, at which, having tended to his toilet, the gentleman had been so impressed by Stephen that he instantly proclaimed he would be Stephen's friend and benefactor.
Jareth chuckled. `Typical of him,' he commented. At Stephen's puzzled look, he explained, `My cousin has a habit of finding something mortal and latching on to it until it goes the way of all mortal things. But this must be your master's young wife.'
And so it was. The gentleman was returning to them, a beautiful young woman on his arm wearing a gown the color of an autumn sunset. The dress, Jareth thought, did not perhaps suit the young woman's age, but it flattered her person very well. He even began to regret that the majority of mortals he encountered were of the snotty-nosed, whiny, self-centered type. However, it was an easy progression from there to the thought that he was the King of the Goblins and moreover the King of the Labyrinth, and whatever his cousin thought about the matter, there was more pleasure to be had from the power of the Labyrinth than constant dabbling about in the mortal realms. Still, the woman was quite pretty . . . .
`Ah, I'm glad to see you two have been getting along together so well,' the gentleman with thistledown hair greeted them. `Jareth, please allow me to present one of the most charming young women in the whole of England, Lady Pole.' Turning to the woman on his arm, the gentleman continued, `Lady Pole, this is my cousin Jareth, the Goblin King.' The young woman blinked at the title, but made no other reaction.
Jareth bowed for the second time that evening, though with greater deference than he had granted Stephen Black. `It is an honor to make your acquaintance, my Lady,' he said, speculating as he did so about the other women whom his cousin apparently classified as among the most charming in England.
Lady Pole returned a curtsey and answered him, `Your Majesty is most kind.' Her voice, Jareth noted, was somewhat detached; another characteristic of his cousin's: the mortals he sought out had a tendency to grow weary of him. Jareth wondered if it was something in the nature of the magic his cousin employed, or merely that the mortals caught onto the tedium of the immortality that surrounded them.
His cousin was speaking again, `. . . I customarily open the ball with Lady Pole but, Jareth, as guest of honor, I was going to give you that distinction tonight.'
Jareth, master of his expression though he was, blinked in genuine astonishment---no mere polite surprise or mild interest, such as he had deliberately expressed earlier. So stuffing James Greensword into an oubliette made him a guest of honor tonight? He was not about to complain, but this gesture coming from his cousin was unprecedented, as far as he knew. His cousin was looking remarkably pleased with himself, rather as if he had just performed the greatest act of generosity imaginable. Which was probably the case, Jareth reflected, endeavoring to conjecture where the catch was. If he read the mortals aright, this would be the first time anyone other than his cousin had ever danced with Lady Pole. Jareth considered his cousin again, this time detecting a slight glint in his eye. He did not absolutely understand that gleam, but he had a good idea what it meant and answered his cousin's request, `It would be a great pleasure, cousin.'
Jareth took Lady Pole's arm and lead her to the head of a line of dancers, hoping that some source of knowledge---internal or external---would inform him of the steps. The music began, and to his relief, he found that it was one of the dances he knew. Even so, he could feel the instructions to the dance in the notes the fiddle and pipe played. Left hand full turn, cross and cast up the set, right hand full turn . . . . With one set of figures established, Jareth looked for a way to begin the second. He reflected that this evening he would probably be compelled to begin every conversation that did not include his cousin. Lady Pole certainly seemed unlikely to speak to him first.
`Would I be correct in surmising that my cousin is acting well outside his established pattern of events?' he asked his partner.
`Yes,' she answered. `I gather you performed him some particular service in the past?'
`I imprisoned a mutual cousin. It made for a tidier business than killing him outright, though he may well have died by now.' Lady Pole looked puzzled, as if she could not reason how one would not know the conditions of one's prisoners. `It's been a while since I checked,' Jareth elaborated, wondering what it would take to maintain a constant flow of words with this mortal.
Lady Pole surprised Jareth by beginning the next exchange herself. 'I had assumed that as our host's cousin, you are yourself fae, and yet he introduced you as the Goblin King. Is goblin, then, another word for fae?'
Jareth grinned in answer. `Not exactly; I am the King of the Goblins, not a king who is a goblin. Goblins themselves are generally small, furry creatures who were human children before they came under my power.' Lady Pole made a curious gesture that seemed to have been both a shudder of horror and a shrug of indifference. It amused Jareth, in that it revealed Lady Pole's natural sensitivity as a human, but also a cultivated reconciliation to the ways of the fae. It was something the Goblin King saw often in the Labyrinth, if not so well refined: humans learning to accept that there was more to the worlds than their own and that, in the end, they really were nothing special. `My kingdom, and several others, listen to the wishes of mortals, and grant them if the wisher speaks seriously enough. Needless to say, in my case, people usually discover that they did not truly desire to wish their children away to the goblins until it is, of course, too late. Generally, once mortals have finished dealing with us, they have learned some lesson that suits their folly.'
`And what lesson do you teach them?' Lady Pole asked.
`That wishes have power,' Jareth replied. He allowed Lady Pole to absorb that before adding, `And ultimately, that what is said cannot be unsaid.'
The dance ended and Jareth bowed to his partner. His cousin walked by at that moment, and quietly whispered, `Thank you.' Jareth smirked. So his cousin needed help collecting mortals, did he?
Not long after, Lady Pole would remember Jareth's words when her friend spoke aloud a wish that seemed to condemn her to share the same fate as Lady Pole herself.