The rabbit was muttering to himself. He often muttered to himself, but most especially when he was out on royal business or when the weather was bothersome. On this occasion, both were the case, so, as you might imagine, he muttered a good deal.
“It would snow early, wouldn’t it, oh yes, it would. The snow knew I was to be out today, and it came early just to make me cold. Well, I’ll show it. I won’t be cold at all. I’ll be the warmest I’ve ever been. As soon as I deliver these last two invitations, I’ll have a nice hot dinner. Oh dear, is that the time? Well, a nice hot supper, then. Oh, I do hope I’m not too late for supper. There’s always evening tea, I suppose. I wish I didn’t have to go all this way. Why they’re even inviting Her, I’ll never know. She’s nothing but horrid to poor Alice. And this other one, well, I haven’t the faintest idea. I just hope he doesn’t bring any of those grimy goblins with him, oh dear, oh dear…”
And on he went, a white figure hopping and scurrying through the new, powdery snow as the daylight slowly faded.
When he reached his first destination, he paused at the gate. He realized quite abruptly that he had never come calling here as a mere visitor before; rather, his prior visits had been when he was in Her employ. He was suddenly very unsure of whether he should ring the bell or approach the manor house and knock at the door as he had always done. A good deal of muttering accompanied this debate.
Finally, impatient, and horrified at the thought of being late for supper altogether, the rabbit hurried up the drive. His hand certainly did not tremble as he lifted the heart-shaped knocker. He most certainly did not emit an undignified squeak as the gilded envelope he held forth was snatched from his paw by a hand laden with heart-cut ruby rings, nor did he sigh with relief when the owner of the hand merely “Hmph!”’d and slammed the door in his face without further tirade and, best of all, not a word about heads or relieving them from bodies.
The rabbit scampered back out the gate and toward the town below, checking his pocket watch every few steps. When he reached the right rabbit hole, he pressed his other paw to his waistcoat pocket to make sure his final envelope did not fall out. Rabbit holes may be the fastest way to travel Between, but it certainly wouldn’t do to lose his cargo on the way from Wonderland to Underground. He tucked away his watch, squeezed his eyes shut, and jumped.
He fell so long that he fell back up, and he landed with much muttering upon a cobblestone path with tall walls on either side. He dusted himself off and turned to go, only to find the corridor he had first faced was now a dead end. “Oh, I do so hate mazes,” he grumbled.
“Maze schmaze, watch yer mouth!” “Yeah!” The rabbit turned at the sound of voices behind him.
“Oh. It’s just you,” he sniffed at the two, well, four guards. Two guards stood in front of two doors clutching crested shields. Two more guards clung behind the shields upside-down, with their toes hooked over the tops and their heads peering out from the bottoms, so they looked like a pair of double-faced playing cards.
“We could say the same to you, Rabbit,” one of the guards sniffed, and the other three hid their heads behind their shields and snickered.
“Come on, then, I must get to the castle,” the rabbit said, one foot tapping the ground as he checked his pocket watch.
“You know the rules, Rabbit,” a guard chastised.
“But I haven’t time for riddles today!” the rabbit moaned. “Oh, I pick the door on the left.”
“But what if it leads to certain death?” one of the upside-down guards cried.
“Well then, at least I will be dead and not late for tea,” the rabbit sighed, and he looked so pathetic that the guards took pity on him.
“Oh all right, come on, old chap,” they muttered and opened the door. “But next time we expect a good game!”
Relieved beyond measure, the rabbit bounded through the open door, across the courtyard on the other side, and up the steps to the castle beyond. He handed his envelope to the filthy goblin who answered his knock, and then skipped off, quite pleased with himself that he would make tea time after all.
Behind him in the castle, the goblin clutched the envelope carefully and went looking for his master. He found him in the great hall lounging on his throne, one leg thrown carelessly over the chair arm as he toyed with a crystal ball.
“Message for you, Your Highness!” the creature croaked, holding forth the pretty envelope.
The man on the throne raised an eyebrow, tucking away the crystal and taking the envelope from the small, grubby hand. Inside was an engraved invitation, which read:
To His Royal Highness Jareth
You are cordially invited
To attend the Midwinter Court
On the usual day
At the appointed hour
And then below this, in neat script:
I’ve a favor to ask you. -Sarah
All the goblins in the great hall stared as their king tilted his head back and laughed.
* * *
On Midwinter morning, the Three of Hearts was in the gardens. Everything looked resplendent with twinkling lights and tiny ornaments strung on every tree. His work was almost done, and he was very carefully arranging the last of the holly wreaths when he was interrupted by an indignant shout.
The Four of Hearts stood below the ladder shaking his fist up at him. “You’ve put them all in groups of three!” Four cried.
“Naturally,” Three replied and went back to his work.
Four stamped a foot. “But how am I to put four ribbons on three wreaths?”
“None of my business,” Three said airily.
“Oh, why I ought to—” and on and on they went. In fact, they may still be out there arguing now.
Inside, the court was underway. At one end of the room, two young women sat on regal thrones. The dark-haired one wore a pale gossamer gown, and the firelight couldn’t seem to decide between reflecting off her dress or the ornate S atop her throne. She was tying a blue ribbon in the pale hair of the other woman, whose fingers idly traced the outline of the A carved in her own chair.
Guests vied for their attention, and while the girls mostly had eyes for each other, some of the court succeeded: a particularly lumpy dwarf bustled about, arguing with the white rabbit, and the damnable Hatter was always at one elbow or another. Musicians played joyful carols, and a massive yule cake dominated the banquet tables, along with every other delightful dish you can think of. Candles adorned every surface, and the hall was full of cheerful light to drive the cold winter away.
Away from the revelry, in a dim corner, a woman with outrageously red hair pouted. She sat with her chin in one hand, twirled a red straw around a red drink, and stared at the court with narrowed eyes.
She started when a tall, thin man plopped down beside her. "You, too?" He asked, conjuring a peach from the air and taking a bite.
"Me too, what?" She asked, eyeing his spiky blue-streaked-blonde fronds with suspicion.
"Out of favor. With the queens." It wasn't a question, and his nonchalance irked her.
"I'm the only Queen here," she snapped before she could think better of it. "Those two don't know a thing about ruling. Haven't even beheaded anyone." She sniffed.
"Oh, you don't have to tell me," he sighed. "Neither of them would know real magic if it bit them." He leaned back, leather jacket creaking.
She smiled. "You’re him, aren’t you? You’re the Goblin King. Wasn't sure at first, but a bauble like that--" Here she pointed with the sticky red straw at the now-visible pendant around his neck. "Underground magic, that is. Couldn't be anyone else."
He smiled back, a toothsome grin. "And I know you. Your reputation precedes you, of course, Your Highness of Hearts. There are few of the old caliber these days."
She preened under the compliment and, influenced by the drink or the season, decided to return one. "I quite like your labyrinth, you know. Although you should take better care of the hedgerows. I'll send some of my gardeners over to manicure them; a Six and a Seven, that makes your number, doesn't it?"
He inclined his head as his grin turned wolfish. This was playing out even easier than he’d thought. "It does, indeed. Your Highness is most generous. You must allow me to give you a gift in return." He waved a hand and a crystal orb appeared, balanced atop his fingertips.
"What is it?" She asked, half-entranced already, watching the orb dance as he turned his hands.
"A crystal," he said. "Nothing more. But if you turn it this way..." A final flick of his wrist, and the world fell down around them in a shower of brilliant red. It took her a moment to recognize the objects falling gently like scarlet snow. "Rose petals," she whispered.
She raised her eyes and gone was the banquet hall, gone was the midwinter court. She was in a garden. But not just any garden: her gardens, how she had always dreamed of them. Red roses as far as the eye could see, their fragrance heady in the air. She laughed and turned to speak to her companion... but she was all alone. For a moment, she was puzzled. Someone else had been there, hadn't there? But no matter, who could possibly matter, when there were roses. Laughing, she ran further in.
Jareth reached over and downed the sweet red drink. “It’s only forever,” he mused, standing up from the now empty table. “Not long at all.” He glanced across the hall, caught the eye of the dark-haired woman, and nodded once. Sarah smiled at him and nodded back, squeezing the hand of her fair-haired companion. Puzzled, Alice followed her gaze, but all she saw was a pale, white owl that stretched its wings and eyed her rabbit.