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THE CARNIVAL SAGA

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CARNIVAL IN VENICE

Sarah looked out through the hotel window and glanced at the sky. It was overcast but not raining. She had already realized that Venice in February was a rather chilly place, and she was very glad that she had brought her cashmere woolen overcoat along. "Maybe that's why they have their carnival at this dismal time of the year when it is neither winter nor spring," she mused. The ongoing carnival certainly provided the city with a glittering and slightly mad framework. The days and the evenings were full of events, beautiful parades, open air theater, special music and dance shows, art exhibitions and parties all over town.

Sarah was in Venice on a special scholarship attending courses on the Commedia dell'Arte Theater. It was really a dream come true. She had hardly been able to believe her luck when the application had gone through. Then came the hard part of convincing Dad and Karen that she was old enough to be on her own in Italy.

"Dad, I'm twenty years old, and I already have an independent life at college," she had persuaded her father.

It was trickier with Karen, who absolutely refused to even consider her going at first.

"You have never been abroad before. You can't compare it in any way with college here in the States."

"But, listen, I'm not going to be on my own. I'm going to attend classes, there will be other students and teachers," Sarah had pleaded.

Finally, her stepmother had given in but only after a lengthy contact with the international college, which organized the programs, and after herself choosing the student hotel where Sarah was to stay for her sojourn in Venice. Karen had also taken the initiative to contact the family of another student from Sarah's college, who was going to Venice at the same time, and it was agreed upon that the two girls should stay at the same hotel.

Sarah, who knew Frances only by sight before their leaving for Europe together, found that Frances was a quiet, dreamy and easygoing companion, and she didn't disturb Sarah in any way. Sarah also found that she enjoyed having someone in the foreign city to share her meals and evenings with, at least in the beginning. Soon enough Sarah had a lot of new student friends from all over the world, and both her days and evenings were by now very busy.

Sarah and Frances had already attended a couple of private parties in Venice, invited by Italians, who themselves were engaged in either the international college or the theaters in the city. It had been an exhilarating experience. As everyone's burning interest was the theater, the party often started out with a play enacted in the courtyard of an old house or palace. No other stage setting or props were necessary. Sarah saw "Romeo and Juliet" for the first time in such a surrounding, and it was pure magic.

In the beginning, Sarah had faithfully written home about everything that happened to her, but as the hectic weeks bore on, her letters became more and more summary; she certainly didn’t entertain her father and stepmother with accounts of parties that ended in the wee morning hours and if telling about an especially interesting museum or sight she had visited outside Venice, she didn't reveal that the visit had included an overnight in the country together with friends.

********************

This morning she had decided to go shopping before classes began. She had promised to find something special for Toby. Toby, now six years old, had been heartbroken when she left. Italy might as well have been the end of the world. He couldn't even imagine how far away it was; Sarah had had to comfort him endlessly, promising to call him and speak to him over the phone when she arrived in Venice, all to reassure him of that she was still alive.

"You are not going into the Underground again?" he had wailed in real fear.

And Sarah had felt a pang of uneasiness and fear herself. Since their joint adventure in the Labyrinth, she had come to feel very close to Toby, and she loved her little brother with a protective, almost motherly love. She felt as if she was the only one in the whole world, who was able to protect him from all the evil that lurked out there.

When Toby first had mentioned the Labyrinth and their ordeal there, Sarah had been greatly alarmed and confused. How could he remember anything about what had happened to him there? He was but a baby at the time? In the end, she accepted that Toby did indeed remember, and she concluded that the Labyrinth had put its eternal mark on Toby as well as on her. She also became aware of that it was only to her that Toby ever mentioned the Labyrinth. It was their secret not to be shared with anyone else.

Sarah wrapped her coat around her and grabbed her books and bags and left the hotel in a hurry. She didn't intend to return until later in the afternoon. It had started to rain after all, and she cursed herself for forgetting the umbrella. Maybe if she took refuge in her favorite church nearby for a little while until the rain stopped?

She had found this little church just by accident one day when — feeling the urgent need just to be alone for a while — she had ducked in there to avoid an unwanted encounter. It wasn't a place that tourists visited; hard to determine what style it was built in, rebuilt and redecorated countless of times, but it suited her needs for privacy. She could sit down in a corner, well hidden behind Gothic pillars and not be seen by anyone. At the altar, there was a beautiful statue of Maria with the Jesus child that, in a way, reminded her of herself and Toby. So she had made it a habit to go into this church almost every day just to collect her thoughts and to contemplate. Now she made her way cautiously through the aisle not to disturb the few worshippers, who were around at this time of the day, and she sank gratefully down on the bench and finally allowed herself to think about Jareth.

********************

Sarah remembered feeling so strong and exhilarated just after having returned from the Underground, reveling in the thought of having defeated him at his game. But after a while this feeling wore off and was replaced with a nagging uncertainty. She saw her friends Hoggles, Ludo and Sir Didymus often enough, but no one ever mentioned Jareth's name. Soon it became an obsession to her to know about him, to know what he was doing. She started to ask furtive questions but only got evasive answers.

When yet a year had passed, she confronted herself with the truth and admitted that Jareth was constantly in her mind, and she realized that he, in his own way, had defeated her. She was no longer dictating the conditions for their relationship — if there was a relationship worth mentioning.

Suddenly she started to feel his presence around her. She didn't see him or hear him, but she was absolutely sure of that he was around. And she would never forget the night when he finally reappeared.

It was an unusually dark and dismal night. A storm was raging outside, and she was alone with Toby in the house. Dad and Karen were away for the weekend visiting friends. Sarah felt anguish and anxiety and found it totally impossible to sleep. She had stayed up by the fire in the living room reading a book but couldn't concentrate. Finally, she threw the book aside and went to the window. The rain was pouring down outside. She put both her hands against the window pane and whispered fretfully

"Jareth?" — "Jareth, are you there? Why don't you show yourself to me?"

And at that very moment she could see him reflected in the glass.

She got so immensely scared that she lost her balance and fell to the floor. When she had recovered her composure, she looked around, and her eyes fell on a pair of black, high-heeled boots. As her eyes traveled upwards, she saw his legs covered in skintight black leather, a billowing cream-white silk shirt underneath his cape of black feathers, and finally she saw his face surrounded with his wild, spiky, shoulder-length, blonde hair. He regarded her coolly with an amused air, and his lips were curled into his ever-present mocking but gentle smile.

"Missed me?" It was more a statement than a question really.

"Why can't you leave me alone?" she cried out in exasperation.

"But really, Sarah," he laughed softly and lowered himself to her level, sitting down leaning back on his heels. "Don't you think that is a pretty wild accusation under the circumstances? What do you mean that I’ve done during the last year that has been such a bother to you? I must say that I have done nothing but kept away."

Sarah began to cry, "You are here all the time. I want you to leave me alone!!"

"Is that why you called me just now?" At which Sarah cried even harder.

Jareth tsked gently and began drying her tears with his gloved hand, and finally he brought out a big handkerchief in silk with lace trimmings, gave it to her and made her blow her nose. At last she calmed down enough to be able to look at him and talk to him.

"I can't stop thinking about you," she admitted at last and observed for a fleeting moment that her remark triggered an expression in his eyes that she couldn't interpret.

"Do you blame me for that?" he ventured cautiously.

"Yes," she said defiantly "I do think that you are doing this to me on purpose!"

He laughed softly. "You overestimate me and underestimate yourself."

When she looked as if she was starting to cry again, he rose to his feet, took hold of her gently but firmly, lifted her effortlessly in his arms and carried her to the bedroom. Sarah got frantic for a moment not knowing what he was about to do and began beating his chest with her clenched fists.

"Come, come now. Stop playing around. It is definitely time for bed," he admonished and secured her hands with one of his.

She relaxed at last and let him slip her between the sheets. He tucked the blanket around her and sat down beside her on the bed.

"I will never harm you, you must believe that," he murmured soothingly like a lullaby in her ear and began stroking her thick, dark hair.

Sarah felt drowsy and sleepy as a feeling of warmth emanating from him enveloped her. When he rose to leave, she felt panic again and reached out for him, grabbing hold of his arm.

"Please, don't go yet," she pleaded, and she could feel him hesitate for a fraction of a second.

Then he lay down beside her on the bed, on top of the covers. He put his arms around her. She permitted herself to let go and just indulge in his nearness, hiding behind the fact that she was almost asleep and no longer could be held entirely responsible for her acts. She nuzzled her nose into his silk shirt and deeply inhaled the scent of his skin. It was intoxicatingly sweet, and she started to tingle all over; that was the last thing she was conscious of before falling asleep.

When Sarah woke up next morning, she thought that everything that had happened to her the previous night had been a dream — until she found the silk handkerchief under her pillow. She had then to admit to herself that he had been there, in her room in her bed. The revelation left her shaky and bewildered. She waited for him to appear again the next night, but he didn't come. She heard nothing from him and saw nothing of him for several weeks, and she was despairing again.

Then, one brilliant sunny afternoon, when she sought relief from the sultry heat under the big trees in the garden, all of a sudden he was there, standing in front of her, looking as cool and unperturbed as ever. When she asked where he had been all the time since their last meeting, he merely stated that he had been busy, not elaborating on the subject. She felt a pang of jealousy and wondered to herself, whether he had been occupied with more zealous and silly young girls in his Labyrinth, who had wished away their brothers. But when she saw a faint knowing, wicked glimmer in his eyes, she got the uneasy feeling that he could read her mind, and she tried desperately to think of something neutral; she sought to get through to him, but he was absent-minded, haughty and rather unpleasant during the entire visit and when he left, she wondered dismally why he had shown up at all. The next days she was dejected and depressed, and Karen thought that she was ill and wanted her to see a doctor. Sarah refused however and crouched stubbornly like a wounded animal in her room, suffering through sleepless nights with hot, dry eyes, burning from unshed tears.

When she thought that she could stand no more of this and had to find a way to end it, he came to her room one night a week later and lay down beside her on the bed. For fear of him disappearing again if she made a false move, she didn't dare say a word, but merely turned towards him and touched his face, just to make sure he was real. She traced the outlines of his fine-boned features, feeling that he had shut his eyes and that his mouth was not smiling. He caught her hand and kissed her fingertips lightly. Then he wrapped his arms around her and sighed in her hair. The hard knot in her chest untied, and blood began to pulsate again through her whole body. She sank into her relief as if going down into a coma, and she almost instantly fell asleep without having uttered a word to him.

He came back to her during several nights like this. Sarah reached the point of not being able to go to sleep if he wasn't there, holding his arms around her. ‘He is becoming an addiction to me,' she thought to herself. Then he was gone again for more than a month before turning up the next time, on this occasion full of mocking glee and mischief.

So, Sarah saw a pattern develop, and she could do nothing of her own will to change it. Jareth came and went into her life just as he pleased. He didn't inform her about his comings and goings, and the mood he was in when he appeared, was totally unpredictable. Sarah became very apprehensive, never knowing from one moment to the other whether she was going to meet an ice-cold, wicked stare or a soft, amused gleam from his mismatched eyes; whether he was going to taunt and ridicule her or wrap his arms around her for comfort.

By the time her application for the scholarship went through around Christmas, Sarah hadn't been in contact with Jareth for over a month, and she didn't see him or hear from him before she left for Europe. In Venice, she was so busy with all new impressions and everything new happening to her that she didn't think about Jareth at first. But he gradually returned to her thoughts, and she started to wonder whether he knew that she was in Italy and decide after a while that if he was capable of reading her mind and appear and disappear at will, he must surely know that she was here by now.

A week earlier in a record shop in the center of Venice, she became acutely aware of his presence again. She had sauntered in there and was browsing through the CDs trying to find some soft and relaxing music that would help her go to sleep at night, when the shop assistant, at the request of a customer, put on a CD to be played over the shop's loudspeaker system. She instantly recognized Queen and their beautiful song "Who Wants To Live Forever?", and she felt as if something hard hit her in the chest. She knew with certainty that Jareth was around somewhere nearby and that he wanted to make his presence known to her. She couldn't explain to herself why she knew for certain that it was a message from him; she couldn't either have explained it to anyone else without sounding ridiculous. She just knew with every fiber in her body that it was so.

Since that day a week ago, she had had a fever in her body, a terrible unrest that made her look for him everywhere. Why didn't he show himself to her?

********************

Sarah opened her eyes again and looked up into the church ceiling, far above her head. She threw a glance at her watch and realized that she had been sitting there almost an hour, lost in her thoughts. She sighed and decided that she would have to postpone looking for presents for Toby to another day. If she didn't leave now, she would be late for class. She left the comforting stillness of the church and went out into the street. Luckily, it had stopped raining. She ran to catch the next vaporetto that would take her downtown.

Almost out of breath Sarah came running into the courtyard of the institution, where today's lecture was going to take place. She rushed up to the benches where the other students were already sitting waiting and dropped down beside Frances, who had kept a seat for her.

"You're late!" Frances whispered exasperated.

"Yes, yes, I'm sorry but I was delayed at the hotel" Sarah lied avoiding eye contact.

Class today was going to be a demonstration of how the Commedia dell'Arte Theater had made its influence over the Mime Theater, and a group of Italian mimes was going to enact a classic comedy from the Commedia repertoire in their own way. Signor Bertoldi, one of the teachers at the international college and their special instructor, moved in front of the group to introduce the actors and the play.

It proved to be a magical afternoon as the age-old story of love and deceit unraveled before them. Pedrolino was forever crying under a tree because his beloved Columbina only had eyes for the dashing Arlechino, who in his turn was only interested in how to get the most out of Pantalone before his employer Il Capitano found out that Arlechino was beating him to the fortune. Frances, who was particularly fascinated by Mime Theater, sat entranced through the performance and didn't observe Sarah fidgeting by her side. Although the show was interesting enough, Sarah couldn't concentrate, and she didn't take part in the discussion, which took place afterwards.

After classes, Sarah followed her friends to the canteen but found that she wasn't very hungry and only had some grapes for lunch. Frances admonished her and tried to persuade her to have some pasta, but Sarah couldn't even think of food just right now. Instead, she joined the discussion at a nearby table concerning the plans for the evening. ‘Anything' she thought mentally gritting her teeth ‘but staying in my room alone with my thoughts.'

Sarah finally made a date for later on in the evening and then realized that she felt exhausted. She excused herself and started for home. Frances cast a worried glance after her. Frances sensed keenly that something was profoundly disturbing Sarah at the moment, but as Sarah wouldn't confide in her, there was nothing that Frances could do to help her.

Sarah stepped off the vaporetto and went through the small, winding street, leading to the old beautiful building, housing the student hotel she was living in for the moment. A young family was managing the hotel and did it very efficiently. Sarah stopped at the reception to see if there were any mails or other messages for her, but her box was empty, and her heart sank again. Even if she wouldn't admit it to herself, she waited every day for a sign from Jareth, but none had come so far. She felt tears stinging her eyes, and she had to compose herself through pure will so as not to reveal to the young man, who smiled at her from behind the desk, how upset and unhappy she felt.

Sarah had her room at the top floor in the house, which meant that she had to climb four stairs every day, but she didn't mind; the view from her room was breathtaking, overlooking the canal and all the pastel-colored houses that lounged along it. Even before she reached the fourth landing, she could hear that the radio was playing in her room.

"For heaven's sakes," she burst out aloud, "I don't mind Gina turning on the radio when she is tidying up the room, but I would appreciate it if she could remember to turn it off when she is ready!"

Her steps echoed in the empty corridor, and abruptly she became aware of the music emanating from her room. David Bowie was singing "Loving The Alien." And just like in the record shop the other day, she froze in her tracks and felt the hair stand on end at the back of her neck, and she knew then without any doubt that Gina had nothing to do with this. She entered her room cautiously not knowing what to expect.

At first, the room looked quite normal to her; then she spotted the box on the bed and the large, cream-colored envelope on top of it.

Sarah approached the bed as if a cobra lay sleeping there. She picked up the embossed envelope and saw that it was adorned with a golden crown. She carefully eased out the card inside and read with rising alarm: "Prince Stefano di Corsari and his family would be greatly pleased to welcome Miss Sarah Williams to their home tonight for supper and dance at 9:00 p.m."

Sarah didn't know Prince di Corsari personally but like anyone in Venice, who had the slightest connection to the theater, she knew a lot about him. With his immense fortune, he had on his own fully restored an 18th century theater and without his support the season would be less glamorous to say the least. He sponsored guest-plays by the most fabulous actors and brought in whole foreign theater companies for the season. This year Theatre du Solei from France was due to give two great performances, all thanks to the Prince. The humble mention on the card of "supper and dance" was the understatement of the year. The huge party that was going to take place in Palazzo Corsari had been the talk of the town for weeks. Anyone of any importance would be there, and whoever that had received an invitation on this occasion could stop worrying about the rest of the season; every door would be open in Venice for her or him.

She put the card down and turned to the box. With trembling hands, she opened it. It contained a beautiful evening dress in black georgette silk. She could see at once that it was exquisitely cut, and it had no extra decorations. She gasped when she lifted the dress out of the box because beneath it lay a pair of black lace panties in tanga fashion. The lace work that adorned the front seemed to be handmade, and the back of the panties was — as this model requires — only a piece of silk string that held the panties secured between one's buttocks. They looked truly outrageous. She held out the dress in front of her to examine it. She could see that the front of the dress was only meant to cover the breasts, and it was kept in place with two silk straps that crossed themselves over one's back and were fastened to the skirt at the waistline. The skirt seemed to sway delicately at every movement. Sarah realized that this dress could not be worn with a bra or any other underwear, save perhaps for the tanga-panties.

Sarah laid the dress on the bed and sat down in her chair, drawing up her legs under her, hugging them as if seeking comfort from somewhere. She sat there unmoving for hours thinking of what to do; the velvet evening slowly enveloped the city and still she didn't move.

Finally, she got up.

"Okay Cinderella," she said to the room, "we might as well try these goodies on."

She undressed and hesitantly put the tanga-panties on, feeling the lace tickling her skin. Then she slipped the dress over her head and let it fall down over her body. It felt like a caress, and it could have been made for her; maybe it was. The scanty but beautifully cut front of the dress covered the better part of her breasts but not fully so. When she moved, and the heavy silk moved with her, the outline and roundness of her breasts became just barley and teasingly visible. She took the dress off again and started pacing the room. She knew already that she would go to the party. She felt compelled to.

Half past eight she threw herself in the shower and started getting ready in a fury. She had no time to properly dry her thick, dark hair but toweled it dry the best she could and stroked it wet and shiny away from her forehead and back behind her ears. She put on the panties and the dress, and she took her mother's small diamond earrings and no other jewelry, no watch, no nothing. Then she threw her cashmere overcoat over her shoulders.

"Okay Prince Charming," she addressed the room again through clenched teeth, "here we come!"

When she came down to the reception, the young man managing the desk called out to her. "The gondola you have ordered is waiting for you."

Nothing surprised her anymore.

********************

She left the hotel and went to its landing-place where the gondola waited.

"I want to go to Palazzo Corsari," she said, and the gondolier nodded as if he already knew that.

Venice by night was a magical place. Nothing seemed quite real anymore. Sarah felt as if she was stepping into a dream. The lights of the city had begun gleaming and were reflected in the water surrounding her. The sounds were subdued, and she could distinctly hear the gondolier's oar when he dipped it into the water. She sat alone in the sumptuous gondola and shivered in the dank, cold air. A slightly putrid smell from the canal-water blended with the salty breeze from farther out where the lagoon met the sea.

They left the busy main canals and turned into smaller, quieter waterways. In the distance, Sarah saw the huge Palazzo Corsari ablaze with lights. The palace had been in the Corsari family for several centuries and belonged to the jewels in Venice. Although it threatened to sink into the water like all other old buildings in Venice, it still had an air of vitality around it; maybe because it was still inhabited by people on a daily basis and didn't just function as a museum. The Corsari family had decided though to keep parts of the palace open a couple of days in the week for selected groups to enable the public to see some invaluable works of art.

When Sarah arrived at the landing-place in front of the palace, a servant approached her, helping her out of the gondola. She turned to the gondolier to ask him whether she should pay for the ride, but he had already left the quay and was heading towards the city, a black shadow against the illuminated water.

She made her way to the huge palace gates and followed the servant inside. A doorman, dressed in what seemed to be an original 18th century uniform, reached out to take her coat. If he had thoughts about her cashmere coat among all the full-length furs, nothing in his bland face showed that. She could have been the Queen of Saba for all he cared; he treated her as such. When she finally stood there in the vast entrance in her gorgeous and daring black silk dress, with her still wet hair and only the diamond earrings to adorn her and the air of total innocence about her, she was breathtaking and striking as lightning. She wasn't aware of this, and she didn't observe that people halted for a second on their way into the ballrooms just to look at her.

Another doorman, who guarded the entrance to the ballrooms, took her card and announced her name. Sarah hoped that the message was lost in the general din of the evening and that she could slip into this magic unnoticed. She could see a file of vast rooms, elaborately decorated, stretching out in front of her. The ceilings with huge chandeliers were so high above her head that the paintings up there were almost lost in the shadows. She advanced hesitantly and looked around for any familiar face in the crowd, but she didn't recognize anyone. She observed for the first time that people were staring at her, and she felt a shiver of discomfort. When she looked around again, she could feel them appraising her and trying to get into eye contact with her. She moved quickly farther into the ballrooms and hoped to find something to drink. She felt thirsty all at once. In the distance, she could hear live music and reckoned that the dancing was going on in one of the inner rooms. She looked at the crowd around her and saw that people were wearing just about any kind of costume tonight. She saw the most expensive and beautiful carnival costumes blending with sober evening wear and the most outrageous trash. Some were wearing masks but not everyone. She looked around once more searching feverishly for Jareth. She started to feel a quiet desperation. Where was he? Was he going to leave her here all by herself in this dream or perhaps nightmare?

Suddenly Sarah sensed his presence behind her back. She involuntarily drew her shoulders together as if expecting his hand there, but when he touched her, he softly traced his gloved fingers down her neck and over her shoulder until he reached one of the two tiny silk straps that held the front of her dress in place. When she instinctively wanted to lift her hand to her chest to keep the dress from falling off, she found that she was unable to move and stood frozen, slightly shaking.

"So, you made it after all," Jareth said. "Such a pity had you missed out on the best party of the season. Ah, and by the way, may I compliment you on your choice of dress? A carnival costume tonight would have made you appear just one in the crowd, don't you think so?"

Sarah found that she could move again, and she turned around to face him, making him let go of her dress.

She stopped breathing for a second when she finally confronted him. He was more beautiful and terrible than she remembered him. He was all dressed in black tonight; all the way from the exquisite handmade leather boots; the tights in black silk, looking as if they were molded on his muscular thighs and clinging like skin to his slim hips; the high-collared suede leather jacket carelessly unbuttoned to reveal the soft silk shirt with diamond buttons, open low to the waist. On his ivory-pale chest, the pendant shone almost indecently against all this blackness. His hair sparkled like a silver halo around his beautifully drawn pallid Fay features; shadows and light playing games over his aquiline nose and arched wild eyebrows; his savage and sensual mouth curved into a vicious smile as he sexily wetted his thin lips, for an instant revealing his pointed teeth. She finally lifted her head and looked into his mismatched diamond-hard eyes, one blue and one hazel, and it felt like an impact. He didn't look at her, he looked into her, and she felt as if she couldn't keep a single thing a secret to him.

"I didn't want to come, and I didn't choose the dress!" she blurted out, instantly recognizing how silly and contradictory that sounded under the circumstances and she blushed furiously.

Jareth curved his thin lips into the mocking smile she knew so well. Instead of commenting on the obvious he remarked demurely "However, here you are and more breathtaking than ever."

He let his eyes travel up and down her figure, and she felt it to be offending and an outrage more than an appraisal. He laughed softly and wickedly as if sensing her discomfort. Sarah was on the verge of biting him off with a pert remark when she caught site of the hunger in his dark, brilliant eyes, and a shudder of fear went through her. She knew that he had a purpose with the night ahead of them and she, groping around in the dark, could only smell the danger and guess at the consequences.

The King reached out one of his long slender gloved hands towards her, and Sarah took it. She glanced furtively at him as he languidly and gracefully made his way through the crowd. It was more a fluid movement than a purposeful walk. She had no trouble following him, and this added more than anything to the eerie feeling she had of acting in a dream.

The noise from the crowd sounded like a constant murmur, almost soothing in its monotony. The rooms, which they now passed through, were situated in a row facing the canal and opening out onto a large balcony through numerous windows. In spite of the number of people and all the burning candles — all chandeliers in the ceilings were lit by living candles — Sarah felt cold and shivered slightly.

"Yes, I agree that it is rather chilly tonight," Jareth observed. "Let me get you a glass of wine."

He looked around for a table with refreshments or perhaps a waiter that could help him out but since neither was at hand, he produced a beautiful antique Venetian glass with red wine out of thin air and offered it to her.

"It isn't poison or sleeping-drugs, whatever you might think," he added amusedly, seeing her apprehension.

Sarah drank the wine greedily and realized in an instant that she was both hungry and thirsty, not having had anything to eat since morning. The wine exploded in her veins, and she felt the warmth of it travel through her entire body in seconds. Her cheeks flushed slightly, and there was again a sparkle in her eyes when she turned to him.

"I am hungry too," she said almost in a childish way.

And then she blushed deeply as he leaned down to her and purred in her ear "Well, let's quench that hunger then."

He chuckled deeply in his throat as the innuendo hit home. It was a low, sexy sound, and she closed her eyes and shivered almost to the point of clattering her teeth when he took a strand of her still damp hair in his hand and put it in place behind her ear, sending tingling waves of electricity through her.

Sarah felt being cornered, and her temper rose. "Why do you always try to twist my words around?" she challenged him.

He raised his eyebrows in mock hurt. "Do I?"

Sarah was all exasperated by now, and she almost felt like hitting him as no argument in words seemed to penetrate his guard. Just when she was about to confront him, a party of dancing and singing people came tumbling into the room. It was a mixed bunch, some dressed in beautiful and expensive evening clothes like herself and others in elaborate and fanciful carnival costumes. The two young Italian men leading the dance spotted her and gave a shout of delight.

"Look, Look!! Isn't it ‘Little Black Riding Hood' all alone in the forest!" they chanted and began to circle around her in a mad prancing dance.

All the others joined in, and she found herself standing like a stalked animal in the middle of the ring that wavered and billowed around her ever faster.

"We cannot leave ‘Riding Hood' here at the mercy of the Wolf, we must save her, we must save her!" they sang, and one of the two leaders ventured forward and took hold of her. She looked frantically around for Jareth, but he was gone.

********************

Sarah found herself being swept away like a leaf in a storm. The whole party surged on into one of the vast ballrooms, where the old parquet floor was filled with dancing people, and the immense sofas almost collapsed under the weight of the twisting bodies lounging there.

The young Italian flashed a mischievous smile at her. "I'm Rafael," he informed her. "I've been watching you all evening. You are the most beautiful girl here tonight. Please tell me who you are ‘Riding Hood'."

"I'm Sarah," she smiled at last because he was utterly disarming.

Of course, she didn't believe his pledges — most likely he told every girl that he adored her when he met her — but right at this minute it didn't really matter. She let her guard down and relaxed.

"Sarah who?"

"Sarah will do for you," she laughed.

"Beautiful Sarah, are you hungry? We were just about to eat."

"You bet!" she grinned in earnest and shone up considerably.

Rafael motioned her to stay on the big sofa, where he had put her, and said that he would surprise her with a plate. Other men and women from the party presently came and joined her on the couch or on the floor in front of it carrying plates and wine glasses. A young woman dressed in lace and silk from the 18th century and with a classical carnival mask in front of her face sat down next to her. The woman removed her mask and fanned herself with it. It must have been rather hot and stuffy to wear that thing all evening. She was beautiful indeed, but Sarah found her older than she had expected. Her blonde hair and pallid features were flawless, but she had an air of maturity that one didn't expect to find before seeing her face. She smiled, when seeing Sarah, as if they already knew each other, and Sarah grew uncertain and immediately put up an inner guard.

Rafael came back with a plate loaded with all kinds of delicious things and landed it into Sarah's knee. He then turned to the woman sitting beside her and asked "Anna, shall I get you anything too?"

"Pretty, pretty boy," the woman called Anna smiled. "Yes please, but you can leave that champagne bottle here." She took the Dom Perignon from him and relieved him of some of the glasses that he was carrying.

Anna poured out champagne in two glasses and handed Sarah one.

"Your company," Anna said cautiously, "won't he be missing you?"

"He comes and goes," Sarah murmured evasively. "He will be back later on."

And uttering the words, she knew instantly that this was true. She knew deep down in her soul that Jareth would be back for her tonight, that he wasn't done with her yet. And as the truth dawned upon her, she felt a hot surge hit her stomach, and her knees went all weak. Luckily, she was sitting down.

After a while, Sarah felt heady with the champagne, and she went to the dance floor, unable to sit still anymore. The music was loud and made serious conversation almost impossible, a fact that Sarah welcomed since she didn't want to commit herself in any way this night. Rafael tried to maneuver her into a slow waltz, but she wriggled out of the attempt; she danced with strangers, men and women alike, keeping herself aloof and merely closing her eyes when she felt their hungry and greedy eyes travel her bare shoulders and back. Once or twice she caught sight of Anna, who didn't dance and still sat on the sofa in her beautiful costume and made conversation with whoever was at hand. Most of the time she talked to Rafael and Sarah could feel somehow that they were talking about her.

Then, for a fleeting moment, Sarah thought that she saw Jareth among the dancers. She almost stopped, alarmed, and her dance partner also made an abrupt halt, wondering what had happened. Sarah didn't listen to his anxious questions, but kept looking urgently for Jareth. Had he been dancing? — Who was he dancing with? And then Sarah got an extreme feeling of déjà vu. Without a word, she left her stunned dance partner standing alone on the floor and started to search for Jareth. She knew that she had been through all this once already — in the ballroom in the Labyrinth. She was enacting the ballroom-scene in reality! If this was real . . . She wasn't sure of anything any longer, but that somehow or other Jareth had staged the scene.

Sarah made her way through the dancers and crossed the threshold into another room. She thought she saw Jareth again and headed in his direction, but again she was mistaken. Her heart was now beating wildly, and she felt desperation and a wave of nausea swept over her. In bad need of fresh air, she approached one of the large open windows that left her access to the long balcony facing the canal. She was about to lean herself for support against the gilded window frame when she felt his hot breath on the back of her neck, and his arms encircled her slender waist in an iron-grip. He pulled her close, so close that she felt his pendant leaving marks between her shoulder blades, his whole body outlined against hers. She could feel every detail of him, from his hard thighs against hers and his naked breast through his almost unbuttoned shirt against her bare back.

"Enjoying yourself, Honey?" he whispered as he slowly traced her ear with the tip of his tongue.

She didn't trust her legs anymore and leaned against him for support as wave after wave of heat washed over her. Before she had time to collect herself and answer, he turned her around in his arms, and she saw his smiling mouth. The rest of his face was in shadows that didn't reveal the expression of his eyes. She could only see them glimmer at her in the dark.

"I want to finish the dance we once started, Sarah," he said, gently but firmly moving her out on the dance floor.

She moved with him but only at his will. She wasn't sure though that it was the dance in particular that he wanted to finish tonight. In the ballroom in the Underground, there had been a certain air of romance, which wasn't present here; here, the mood was filled with more frenzy, the pulse was beating stronger, the music was louder and he held her more tightly.

He was an expert dancer, and she only had to follow him; it was as if they were floating an inch above the floor, not touching the ground. She realized that he had removed his gloves when he pressed both his hands to her naked back. She flinched involuntarily as if burnt with red-hot irons. He entwined his fingers in the tiny silk straps of her dress that lay crossed over her back. Her eyes widened in apprehension as she envisaged that he was going to pull the straps down over her shoulders and expose her breasts. He grinned mischievously showing his feral teeth when he spotted the alarm in her eyes.

"No, no, dear Sarah," he cooed soothingly in her ear and then added teasingly, "of course I wouldn't dream of undressing you here in front of all these people. They don't deserve to be offered such a delight!"

Her eyes darkened as anger rose in her throat. Furiously she tried to free herself from his grip.

"My God," she hissed fiercely. "What am I to you? A toy? A thing?"

She managed to get an arm free, and she slapped his face. And regretted it almost at once because his face froze, and his eyes darkened. She flinched as if expecting him to hit her back.

"I don't hit women," he bit out barely audible through his clenched teeth.

Then he kissed her.

They had stopped dancing and were standing body to body in the middle of the dance floor in the surge of the crowd. He still held her with one arm tightly secured against his body. With his free hand, he took a hard grip over her neck and forced her to turn her face up to him. Then he sucked at her lower lip and bit her, just hard enough to make her cry out. He slid his tongue into her mouth gently and urgently probing every corner of it. He licked her lips and then covered her mouth with his, pressing his teeth against hers, devouring her. She shuddered and fell into him, grabbing hold of the soft leather of his jacket for support. Her entire body was on fire; a fire making its way relentlessly from her thighs over her belly and breasts to the beating pulses on her throat and finally reaching her swollen lips. She opened her eyes wide and looked at his face, austere and drawn, a mask of desire. Never in her life had she been kissed in such a way. It was lovemaking in itself. She reached out for him tentatively, responding, wanting to touch him everywhere, suddenly not getting enough of him. With a trembling hand, she traced the outline of his lips. He stood absolutely still, but she could feel him shaking too under her touch. He took hold of her hand and started kissing each finger in turn, finally licking her palm.

"What do you want from me?" she whispered.

His face softened, his eyes regained their mocking glitter, and his lips curled into a wolfish grin

"Why, you of course, all of you."

Before she could comment on that, not knowing whether he made a fool of her or not, he loosened his tight grip on her, but took hold of her arm, perhaps to support her because she stumbled slightly.

"Come," he added in a light voice. "There are things that I like to show you."

He took her with him towards a huge door in the ballroom that seemed to exit out onto a garden within the palace. In the corner of her eye, she became aware of that Rafael and Anna were having an argument. Rafael was gesticulating and evidently shouting something, and Anna put a hand on his chest and tried to calm him. When Jareth passed the group, still holding Sarah securely by the arm, Anna let go of Rafael. She turned to Jareth, curtsied and said in a low, pleasant voice "Good evening, Your Majesty." Jareth turned his face to her and made an elegant bow. But he didn't make any comments.

Sarah, however, felt a pang of uneasiness and insecurity and she whispered flustered "You know her?"

"I know many people here tonight," he remarked calmly, but he didn't elaborate on the subject and kept walking with easy grace towards the garden door.

They came out into what appeared to be an atrium, an outdoor enclosure in the middle of the palace. When Sarah looked up, she could see the stars glimmering above her. An aromatic and flowery smell emanated from the bushes and trees around them. Jareth didn't stop but kept walking towards a flight of steps leading down to yet another level. She could faintly hear the beat of heated music. The rhythm was sensual and throbbing. She caught herself thinking of the Rio Carnival instead of this one in Venice. He stopped before descending, released his hold on her arm and turned to her. It seemed as if he hesitated just slightly before entering the room below.

"Feel like playing games?" There was a malicious glint in his eyes, and the smile on his thin lips was more vicious than mocking now. "The stakes are so much higher this time than the last time we had a go at it, you realize that, don't you?"

He looked intently into her eyes as if seeking the answer there.

Sarah's heart was now beating so fast that she thought that he would be able to hear it. He reached out his hand and outlined the delicate curve of her breast that was revealed by the loose and heavy fall of the silk material, which made up the front of her dress. Her nipples hardened and she knew that it showed through the supple silk. He moved his hand yet again and touched her nipples, brushing over them. He might as well have put at torch against her skin because she felt the heat in her body exploding again like pain. She found that she couldn't, wouldn't, withdraw. His touch was achingly arousing and she squirmed under it; she knew and could see that none of this escaped him. His intent seemed to be deadly, and he was killing her with caresses. Lust, desire, naked hunger, all feelings played like light and shadows on his face and something else, extremely terrible and frightening, that she couldn't yet name, was there in his eyes. He scared her, he taunted her, and she wanted him so badly that she was shaking with the need.

"Not yet, my little one," he purred deep in is throat, as if reading her thoughts, and then he bent down over her, sought the tender spot behind her ear and placed a feathery kiss there, moving on to her earlobe that he took in his mouth and sucked on it, twirling his tongue around her diamond earring.

‘Why is it that I can't resist him?' she wondered in desperation. ‘I can't let him do this to me.' And to regain control of herself she broke free. He let go of her, but the smile on his mouth told her that he did it because it suited him and not because she forced him.

"Come, come," he urged again.

When they entered the room, Sarah could see beautiful young girls in elaborate silk dresses dancing in the center. They were swaying to the beat of the heavy music as if in a trance. The room was in semidarkness, and the rest of the guests seemed more or less to be part of the shadows. As the beat quickened and one girl in particular began to move her body in trashing convulsions, some of the men moved in around her and started to touch her everywhere. With quick, violent movements, they tore off the silk that covered her body, and she didn't seem to even notice that she was naked. They looked like at flock of vultures going down on their prey. She was now totally at their mercy. The men lifted the girl onto a table, pinning her down to it. They parted her legs and exposed her. Then one of the men opened his fly, brought out his engorged member and plunged it with a savage thrust into the girl who let out a wailing cry. With a few strokes, like an animal, he was done with her, and the others were now taking their turn to abuse her. The girl was rolling her head from one side to the other on the table, hardly conscious any longer. But after a while the nature of her cries started to change, the wailing turned to lustful moans, and she soon climaxed in total abandon.

Sarah cried out too and turned to Jareth, mouth still open now with a silent cry. He looked at her with fierce fathomless eyes.

"I want to leave!" she cried. "Please let me go, please let me leave this place!!"

He didn't answer but again took hold of her upper arm to keep her from running away.

"I hate you, I hate you!!" Sarah screamed and tried with all her might to free herself from his iron-grip. "Why do you want to show me this sordid and evil scene? Is it something that you enjoy?"

"Show you what?" He arched his eyebrows in mock surprise.

Sarah stopped in her tracks and turned abruptly to the dance floor, but the men and the ravished girl were nowhere to be seen. All confused by now and rage and fear mounting inside her, she whirled around yet again to face him

"How dare you use your evil tricks on me!" she shouted. "How can you be so cruel to me? What have I done to you?!"

For loss of words at last, she raised her free hand and began to hit him. He had no trouble though catching her hand in mid air and securing it to his chest. She tried to jerk her hand away, his skin burning her fingers.

"Ah, cruelty now, that's an interesting subject!" He flashed his eyes towards her and his voice took on an edge all of a sudden. "You can never be sure whether what happened out there on the dance floor was a trick of mine or not, can you? I use cruelty when it serves my purpose. Just like you do. You and I are very much alike, my dear Sarah, much more than you would like to admit."

"No, let me finish," he interrupted as she drew a breath and with flaming eyes and flushed cheeks wanted to contradict him.

"I know you better maybe than you know yourself. And I know, ever since our first meeting five years ago, that you have the potential for cruelty within you. You can be as cruel as I can be, I have already said that to you once before, and that is why we match each other so well. I knew then, and I know now that you would kill to protect what you think belongs to you and to get what you want. You once nearly killed me."

Sarah's eyes widened as she in a flash remembered the last moments of her stay in the Underground. She could see him so vividly in front of her, promising the world to her, to be her slave and to love her always, pleading with her to accept his terms and let go of Toby and how she had crumbled him with her words.

Her heart sank and a chill descended upon her ‘What is he going to do to me? Is this revenge for what I once did to him? Has he waited this long to destroy me?' The frantic questions kept swirling around in her head and made her dizzy with fear.

She started to draw backwards towards the wall trying with all her might to find a way to escape. With each step she took, he followed and then they were standing at the wall, she with her back to it and he covering her with his body so close that she could feel every inch of him, and his hot breath was on her face.

"I want to leave!" she cried again in anguish.

"No, you don't," he whispered silkily into her ear. "Don't lie to me. You can't lie to me; you know that, don't you?"

The rage and fear were almost choking her by now and it was fueled by the fact that she felt her body betraying her. He was so close, and the heat from him ignited her skin. As if sensing this, he pressed himself even closer to her, and she gasped and opened her eyes wide when she felt his arousal, his manhood growing hard against her belly. He swiftly bowed his head and kissed her hard on the neck, leaving a mark there; maybe wanting to leave his mark on her.

She finally felt something snap within her, and her legs buckled under her. She wanted to cry, to hit him, to run away from him, to cling to him and kiss him so much that it hurt and so that she could make him cry out in anguish and pleasure too. When he felt her fall, he lifted her in a swift, smooth movement and gathered her up in his arms. She took hold of him and buried her face against his neck, just above the high collar of his leather jacket, where his skin was all soft and exposed. He carried her out of the room hurriedly with quick, silent steps.

********************

He went upstairs in the palace, and the sound of the party and the music gradually subsided until all the sounds Sarah could hear was the echo of his footsteps against the marble floor in an endlessly long galleria and the furious beating of his heart in her ear. She could feel him clench and unclench his jaw, and he held her close to him in an embrace that was as gentle as it was brutal.

Suddenly he stopped and kicked a door open with his boot. He entered quickly, put her down on an enormous canopied bed and shut and locked the door behind them with a snap of his fingers.

The silence and stillness around them were deafening. She sat up at the end of the bed and looked at him standing in front of her, arms folded, his face in the shadows.

"Where are we?" she whispered. "We can't stay here, someone will find us."

"I can bring the Underground with me if I need to," he replied under his breath. "As far as the crowd downstairs is concerned, we don't exist to them just right now. No one knows where we are, no one will ever find us here."

"And no one will miss you," he added.

He slowly began to pace the floor in front of her. She could see him moving in the light from the big window, ablaze with moonlight. She felt like being in the presence of a huge wild animal, a black panther stalking its prey, and she started to shiver uncontrollably.

He moved closer to her, looming over her. She shrank back a little and tried to swallow her rising fears. Then he knelt in front of her to come level to her face. He moved closer to her body, gently caressing her legs, forcing them apart and all the while pushing her dress up towards her waist.

"Please don't hurt me," she said in a small voice.

"Shhh…" He put a finger on her lips. "I will never hurt you. I have already promised you that."

Then, in an agonizingly slow movement he pulled the tiny silk straps from her shoulders, let the heavy silk fall down to her waist and uncovered her breasts. She gasped as she felt the cool air against her skin, and then she cried out as he leaned in against her and took one of her nipples in his mouth. She wasn't prepared for the surge of exquisite pleasure that hit her when he started to suck her nipple and twist his tongue around it. Weakly she wanted to fall back onto the bed but he surprised her again when he took her other nipple between his thumb and forefinger and squeezed it hard. The blazing pain turned into excruciating pleasure, and her blood started to pound between her legs in rhythm with the raging beating of her heart. He immediately eased the pain with his mouth, blowing wet kisses all over her breasts.

He put an arm around her waist and drew her closer still towards his body, moving further in between her legs. She thought wildly that he must be able to feel her pulse and the oncoming rush of wetness below by now, since all that separated her mound from his naked breast, was the flimsy lace of the tanga-panties.

He continued to fondle her breasts with his free hand and his mouth, and she closed her eyes tightly and arched her back, closing the gap between them further, feeling an unexpected need not to lose contact with his supple fingers and soft lips. She heard a low sound from him, more like a vibration than a sound, as he feathered kisses and nibbling bites all over her bosom and stomach, leaving traces of his teeth on her breasts as he licked and sucked at them again.

He got to his feet at last and removed the dress from her. When she lost contact with his body and for a moment believed her free, she made a dash for the door as if by reflex. He had anticipated as much, for he caught her in a swift, merciless grip and secured her body against his with his strong arms as if trapping her in a vise.

"Where would you go?" he breathed softly against her mouth.

She stopped fighting and leaned panting towards him and then flinched as she got in touch with his rock-hard, throbbing erection.

He chuckled amusedly as she gazed up at him, eyes two dark liquid pools. "Yes, Honey, that is what you do to me."

She saw his smiling mouth, but when she looked into his smoldering eyes, they were not smiling. Instead, she recognized in them his carnal hunger, his terrible desire and craving for her, and she caught her breath with a hitching sound in her throat. Her skin went on fire, and she amazed herself with her need to touch him and began furtively to explore and caress him. He let out a deep shuddering sigh and threw his head back.

Then he bore down on her, savagely biting, kissing her neck just below her ear. She could feel his sharp teeth grating her skin, and she whimpered grabbing hold of his shirt for support, the pulse in her throat fluttering like a bird caught in a cage. He wrapped his arms around her and pressed her into is body so hard that the diamond buttons in his shirt and his pendant hurt her and left marks on her breasts. All the time she could hear him moaning low deep down in his throat, and he was still moaning when he started to kiss her. He forced her mouth open and filled it with his tongue. He licked and sucked her lips and bit her tongue. He licked her nostrils and her cheeks and then he covered her mouth again. It was as if he wanted to eat her alive. She tried to gasp for air, almost fainting by now.

He pushed her back onto the bed among the down-filled pillows, his weight pressing her down as he followed. She breathed raggedly, and her chest rose and fell in frenzy. He rolled to the side and put his hand on her belly and ran it over her in long, calming strokes and eventually her anxiety subsided. It was but a brief pause though, being in the eye of the hurricane as she was. His hand moved to the exquisite lace of the tanga-panties, and he began to finger the trimmings. He took hold of her and turned her around in the bed and played with the silk string of the panties, all the while tracing the supple roundness of her bare buttocks with his fingertips. She was squirming under his touch by now, fighting to turn around again, feeling utterly helpless in this position. She managed to face him again only to have him take a firm grip of the panties and rip them off her in one savage pull.

Now she lay completely naked in front of him, dark hair spilt like ink over the pillow, flushed cheeks and erect nipples, her eyes wild and pleading at the same time.

"I want you naked too," she whispered with a shaking voice and started to tug at his shirt.

He got on his knees in the bed and pulled off the jacket, the shirt and the pendant and exposed his smooth pale chest, where the muscles rippled under his soft skin with every movement he made. Then he kicked off his boots and removing his black tights, freed his achingly hard manhood. She opened her mouth slightly and took in the sight of him; he was so incredibly beautiful in his state of arousal. The throbbing between her legs was becoming almost unbearable, and she just had to touch him. She reached out her hand and put it around his velvet hardness. He groaned and involuntarily jerked, raising his hips to her hand. Then he gently removed her hand not wanting her to bring him over the edge just yet.

He stretched her out in the bed and began caressing her belly moving down to her mound, covered with dark springy curls. She gave a cry and tried weakly to stop his hand, but he parted her legs and began slowly but insistently to fondle her most private part, rubbing her wetness all over it, slowly inserting a finger in her throbbing tight channel as his thumb found her clit and began to flick it. She emitted small panting moans all the time and arched her back against his hand, dying if she lost contact with him. He then bent down over her and started licking her folds from the bottom and up until he reached her most sensitive spot. He took her clit in his mouth and flicked his tongue around it and inserted yet another finger into her. Sarah screamed now, a long wailing cry of need, and she frantically entangled her fingers in his hair as if to make him stop and end this terrible pleasure. Then she tightened, feeling her whole body contract around his fingers and orgasmed for the first time in her life. All the while he kept licking her and fondling her, kissing her thighs and biting the silky soft skin of her folds. Over and over again she climaxed as he brought her over the edge with the intense pleasure he gave her with his fingers and lips.

She opened her eyes as she felt him leave her body, and she moaned craving more. But he was only going to shift position so that he could kiss her mouth again. She feverishly started to move her hands over his body almost scared of herself now, wanting him so badly that she would die if he left her there unappeased. He looked down at her and saw the need and desire mounting in her eyes.

"Do you want it now?" he whispered huskily with a shaking voice, betraying his own need. She nodded, but he insisted "Say it, say that you want it. Say that you want me!"

"I want you, Jareth," she groaned "I want you, I want you! Please take me! Undo me! Kill me if you like! But give me the pleasure now!"

Then she heard a sound from him that was a mixture of a roar and a cry, and he took hold of her thighs and parted her legs so that she lay all open in front of him, and he entered her with one swift movement, pushing himself up to the hilt deep inside her. She cried when the pain hit her, and she couldn't help the tears sting her eyes. He immediately softened his strokes and started to kiss away her tears, one by one. He forced himself to lie almost still for a moment inside her, but as the pain lessened and was replaced by utter pleasure she dug her nails into his buttocks and pressed herself towards him.

"Kill me, kill me!" she hissed through clenched teeth, and he started to move inside her with long, furious strokes, filling her up to the brim, stretching her tender walls to the utmost, finding every sensitive spot within her, and when she started to tighten her muscles around him and spasm after spasm began to shake her, and when she screamed his name as the last control snapped, his whole body tensed and with an anguished groan he released himself and shot his seed deep into her again and again until he was all spent. Then he collapsed on top of her, and they lay quiet in the bed at last, sweat glistening limbs still entangled, the rhythm of their lovemaking slowing down, heart beating against heart, his head heavy on her breast and, in the end, an infinite solace seeping through their bodies, bringing them mercifully to oblivion.

********************

Sarah woke up, and she didn't know what time it was. There was no clock in the room, and she hadn't brought a watch. But the moon was gone, and the sky wasn't pitch-black any longer. She eased herself up in a sitting position and looked down at Jareth sleeping by her side, his arm over her body. She felt sore all over, and she blushed although she was alone but for her sleeping lover when she remembered their lovemaking. It was still a wonder to her that she had been capable of this abandon.

She gazed again at Jareth and realized that she had never really looked at him properly. He was certainly the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Never had she met with anyone where pure, raw sex, subtle eroticism, beauty, force, powerful evil and languid, easy grace blended and made up an entity in the way it did in him, making a perfect and unique being. Now she looked closely at him and found that when his eyes were closed and his face and body at ease, there was also something vulnerable about him. He looked almost fragile there in the bed beside her. She scrutinized his face closely for the first time. There were small lines at the corner of his mouth and finely drawn blue veins on his eyelids; she found that he had long dark eyelashes almost like a girl. His cheekbones were angular and pointed with the skin drawn tightly over them. This feature gave his face a sharp and rather austere look that was softened only by his sensual mouth, at rest for the moment, the mocking smile gone from his soft and sensitive lips. She couldn't help herself, but she wanted so much to touch him and very lightly she caressed his face and chest. He made a small sound and just turned a little, securing her closer to him with his heavy arm.

She mused about his words from yesterday. He had talked about cruelty, and she had feared his revenge. But surely he didn't hate her now? How could he have made love to her in that way if he hated her? He couldn't have wanted to destroy her, could he?

She turned her gaze towards the window and stared at it as the awful truth started to dawn on her.

He had destroyed her in a way. He had.

She continued to stare at the window now without seeing it anymore.

"I love him," she said in an anguished voice to the room. "I have loved him since I first met him five years ago."

Her thoughts trailed to the fatal day when she had carelessly invoked this fate on her without thinking twice. She had more or less blundered into his world and had had no inkling whatsoever that she was walking on quicksand the moment she set foot in the Labyrinth. "It's a piece of cake," she had said the way silly, unthinking girls would do, not having a clue about the consequences of their acts and their words. And with one gesture and one word she had turned everything around her into ashes. It was true, of course, that she had saved Toby that day, but it was her own fault that Toby had to go through the ordeal in the first place, and she knew that he wasn't unmarred by the experience. She couldn't blame Jareth if he wanted to destroy her after what she had done to him.

And he had bided his time. He had gradually stolen back into her life, and somewhere along the line she found that he was constantly in her mind and that she couldn't live without him in the end. The mere thought of him turned her inside into liquid fire, an ache in her heart and her guts.

What would become of her now? The idea of getting married to a nice, young man and go to live in Suburbia was a scorn under the circumstances. There wasn't even the slightest chance left for her ever again to lead what others might call a “normal” life. Whose baby would she have if she couldn't have his child?

As the width of the consequences of her situation gradually hit home, she was filled with the most heart-rending desolation and despair and she began to cry. She curled herself up around the excruciating pain and almost choked on her sobs, and the tears were streaming down her face. She could feel him wake up behind her, but she couldn't stop crying, she just tried to hide her face from him.

Jareth didn't say a word. He just took hold of her extremely gently and wrapped his legs and arms around her, drawing her back against his chest, cradling her like a baby. He bent down over her face and kissed her wet cheeks with small tiny kisses, trying in vain to comfort her. But she kept crying with tightly shut eyes, tears dropping on her breasts and his arms. Her whole inside was one terrible cramp, and she couldn't untie the knot. He began to rock her gently and whisper sweet nothings in her hair. Still, he hadn't asked a single question about the reason for her despair. But Sarah wasn't surprised. She knew that he knew, without asking any questions.

At last, the cramp inside started to dissolve and in the wake she began to shiver uncontrollably. Then she gave in and fell against his chest, still crying but the sobs weren't so loud anymore. He still rocked her and held her tightly to his body. She heard him murmur in her hair, and when he raised his voice a little, she could finally make out the words.

"I love you," he whispered with soft desperation. "I love you, I love you, I love you! I could die for you! I would kill for you if I had to!" And he repeated it over and over again like a mantra.

She raised her head and opened her eyes at last and looked at him, and he looked down at her. His eyes were so soft in the darkness that she could hardly see that they were of different color. Just barely could she make out the smoldering glimmer in their depths; a testimony to the fire within that he kept at bay. She opened her mouth to speak to him but no sound came, and tears began to flow from her eyes again. He licked her tears away and turned her gently around in his arms to face him.

"Shhh…," he murmured against her cheek. "Don't cry anymore. It's over. It's over. You needn't be afraid."

And then she felt him grow hard again. He bent down and opened her mouth with his tongue, and she let it happen. In her exhausted state, she was prey to any feeling. He lifted her up and pushed himself quickly and urgently inside, keeping her in his lap, facing him. He held her tightly around the waist for support because she was swaying in his arms as if all the bones in her body had turned to liquid. She moaned now with open mouth, panting as he was filling her with relentlessly hurried thrusts as if he couldn't wait for his release. They kept looking at each other with wild hunger, not wanting to miss a single detail of what the pleasure did to the other. He moved hard and uncontrolled within her now. She took hold of his head and locked her eyes into his when she felt him coming, and he let her see his face when pain and pleasure hit him and mingled there as he emptied himself into her, and she screamed as she dissolved in his fire; then she fell backwards onto the bed, his arms breaking her fall and there she lay, eyes now closed, still joined to him, his cock slowly calming down inside her and that was the most comforting feeling she had had during the whole night; could he stay within her like this, nothing evil would ever happen to her again she thought as she succumbed to sleep, putting her head at rest in his hands as he cradled her.

One more time before the morning broke he took her. She drifted to the surface of her sleep feeling him moving stealthily and silently inside her. She didn't want to wake up but indulged in laying almost perfectly still under him with closed eyes and let the sensation wash over her in waves, concentrating on the almost unbearable pleasure building up in her guts. He hardly moved at all but for the slow pressure of his huge hardness pulsating within her. Her body betrayed her when her muscles started to contract around him, but still she didn't open her eyes. She could feel him smile against her cheek when he realized that she was awake, and he buried his head at her shoulder purring softly and groaning with the pleasure as he found his relief, and the orgasm rippled through her body like tiny sparks of electricity.

********************

The bleak morning light filled the room when Sarah sat up in the bed with a jerk and found that she was alone. For a panicky moment, she wondered if Jareth had left her already. Then she turned her head and saw him standing by the window. He was dressed, and she silently got out of the bed, wrapping a sheet around her and went up to him. He was looking out over the grey canal, and he didn't immediately turn to her. When he did, his face was composed and guarded, but she could see that his eyes were weary and tired. He smiled though when he saw her approaching.

"Good morning, my little one," he said to her and gently caressed her cheek. Then he turned to the window again and sighed "It is time that I sent you back to your room by now."

She winced although she knew she must have to accept the inevitable. "When will I see you again?" she asked in a small voice.

"Soon" he answered not making another comment, and she wondered with a sinking heart what "Soon" meant to a man, who had lived in centuries already and for whom "Forever" was not long at all. He moved his now gloved hand in under her thick, heavy, dark hair and caressed the nape of her neck. He lifted his free hand gracefully in the air and at the top of his fingers a shimmering crystal unexpectedly materialized. He turned fully to face her, and she could see the embers of fire glimmer faintly deep down in his beautiful eyes. He composed his face once more, and she found herself looking at him almost in awe because he appeared before her like the true King he really was at that moment. He still held her by the neck in a firm but gentle grip as he brought the crystal to her face. It exploded in a white light that blinded her, and she remembered nothing more until she woke up in her own bed in her hotel room hours later.

********************

An insistent telephone signal cut through the silence and made her scramble out of bed, and she nearly fell to the floor not taking into account how exhausted and weak she really was.

"Sarah!" Frances shouted at the other end of the line. "I have been so extremely worried about you. What happened to you last night? You're not hurt in any way, are you?" she continued anxiously.

"I'm all right Frances," Sarah said in a voice that she hardly recognized herself. "I'm just so very tired. Could you please make my excuses to Signor Bertoldi and tell him that I am ill today but that I will try to come to class tomorrow?"

"Sarah, I'm coming over to your room." Frances sounded as if she wouldn't take no for an answer. "If you need a doctor or something I will have to arrange that." And before Sarah could protest, Frances had put down the phone.

Sarah moved on shaky legs towards the mirror in her room, she had to make sure in a hurry that she could show herself to Frances. She stopped almost bewildered in front of the mirror because it took a while for her to recognize herself in the image of the strange girl, who looked at her from the glass with big sad eyes that held shadows of passionate and violent images in their depths. She wore her plain cotton nightgown, but when she lifted it, she could see the marks of his lovemaking all over her body. She hastily covered herself and for safety's measure she wrapped herself up to the neck in her bathrobe, and then she fell down on the bed, because her legs didn't support her, and she began to shiver violently. That was how Frances found her some minutes later.

"Sarah won't you please tell me what has happened to you?" Frances insisted alarmed at the sight of her friend.

Sarah took Frances's hand. She knew that she must somehow reassure Frances and convince her that no real danger was at hand.

"Look Frances," she said weakly. "Just right now I can't tell you what has happened to me, and I'm not going to serve you any cock-and-bull-story about having eaten the wrong kind of oysters or anything like that. I need to rest today and then I will be fine. I promise you. I just need to sleep a little."

"You sound more as if you are trying to convince yourself rather than me," Frances sighed and put a hand to Sarah's forehead. "But, okay, I'll leave you here, and I will ask the reception to send you something light to eat and I will look in on you when I'm back in the afternoon."

Frances put a blanket over Sarah and remained sitting beside her for a while until she could see Sarah drifting off to sleep. Then Frances tiptoed quietly out of the room.

Hours later, when Sarah woke up of her own accord, she found a note by her bed from Frances saying: "You were sleeping when I looked in on you, and I didn't want to wake you up. Please call me as soon as you can."

On the table beside her bed was a plate with some chicken sandwiches and mug of tea. She brought the food with her and sat down by the window. The tea was cold, but it didn't matter. She ate the sandwiches in small bites, trying to think of nothing at all. She found that it felt good to eat, and she relaxed a little. Then she leaned against the back of the chair and tried to approach her thoughts.

She found that she at least could think of Jareth without starting to cry, but the dull ache in her heart and guts made her pant quickly when she with the utmost effort took hold of herself to keep the pain from seeping out into her entire body. It left her shaking for a long while.

She sat by the window for several hours contemplating her situation. In the end, she had to admit to herself that she couldn't solve the problems for the moment and decided to call on Frances. She needed someone to talk to. She put on a turtleneck sweater and a pair of jeans and went to look for her friend.

Frances was reading when Sarah entered, and she leaped to her feet from the bed and went straight up to Sarah and put her arms around her. Sarah put her head on Frances's shoulder and started to cry — tears that she thought she had exhausted long ago. Frances didn't say anything to her but just held her and stroked her head and hair. At last, the tears subsided and Frances sat them both down on the bed.

"It is someone you love, isn't it?" Frances asked. At which Sarah nodded silently as the tears welled up into her eyes again.

"I watched you for the last week," Frances continued, "and I came to the conclusion that your anxiety had to do with someone, who meant that much to you. You weren't listening to any of us, and you were constantly on the lookout for messages, calls and letters."

"Has he hurt you?" she added worriedly.

Sarah shook her head.

"Can you tell me about it?"

"Not all of it," Sarah sighed.

Then she tried to tell Frances about being constantly apprehensive and watching, about being at the mercy of someone, who came and went randomly in her life, about being in love with someone that she might not be allowed to live with. And maybe Frances couldn't take it all in, but it was a great comfort to Sarah to have her there to talk to.

********************

Sarah attended classes the next day. She and Frances had agreed on to tell anyone who asked that Sarah had taken ill during the evening in question and stayed in her room. As Frances corroborated the story, no one would question its authenticity.

It was good to work again, but Sarah's heart wasn't in it anymore. She couldn't bring herself to write home, which resulted in anxious telephone calls from Dad and Karen. She told them that she had a cold and would be all right in a couple of days. Anyway, her stay here was drawing to a close, and she would soon be going back to the States. The mere thought of that made her feel sick. She didn't want to go anywhere, and she didn't want to stay either. At nights, she lay in her bed listening to the silence, wondering if one could die from a broken heart.

She ran into Rafael one day at the Piazza San Marco. They greeted each other awkwardly. None of the bouncing vitality from the ball was present in Rafael today. He was very correct and guarded. She sighed inwardly and guessed that the stigma of her love was written all over her face.

Then she pulled herself together and decided to go out and look for the present to Toby that she had promised him. She couldn't very well come home without it. She went at first to the big department stores, but she didn't find anything that appealed to her and feeling rather tired and listless she turned to the smaller shops that had a variety of old and new things, hoping that she might become inspired there instead.

Finally, she stopped in front of a little antique shop. When peering through the window, she could see both books and toys and a beautiful Harlequin-doll caught her eye. ‘Well, that is something that I could really get him, isn't it?' she thought, Harlequin, or Arlechino as he is known in Italy, being one of the principal characters in the Commedia dell'Arte Theatre. She went into the shop and asked to have a closer look. She could see at once that it was a valuable piece of art and perhaps much too expensive for Toby, but she didn't care. She had set her heart on it.

"Could you please gift wrap it for me?" she asked the shopkeeper.

The little man was happy to oblige; she was his first customer for the day. When he went out into his store to look for some extra fancy paper, Sarah began to browse the shop. There were so many things crammed onto the shelves and tables that it was hard to move around. When she backed a little to get a better view of a painting, she accidentally knocked some books to the floor. She bent down to pick them up when one of the books opened up at her feet, and she stared down at the poem, written on its pages. It was in German and the title read "Erlkönig." She knew from literature classes in college that it was a poem by the world-famous German author Goethe, but never before had she thought about what the title might be, had Goethe been an English writer instead of a German. Then perhaps the title had read "The Fay King." She froze and stood staring at the book for what seemed an eternity. Then she felt Jareth's presence very strongly around her and she knew without any doubt that this was a message from him. She knew the poem very well, yet she read the chilling little piece again about the child, who died in his father's arms when the father tried to save his son from the Fay King.

‘Yes, it is true that also you are prepared to kill to get what you want,' she thought. ‘You have said as much to me, and I believe it to be true because I'm dying without you!'

When she leafed through the book, a note appeared between the pages. She caught it before it fell and looked at it with apprehension. It was a card in thick cream-colored paper and the calligraphy was unknown to her. It simply read "Don't be afraid. I will be with you soon!"

The shopkeeper came out and found her staring at the books and almost in tears, and he thought that she was alarmed because she had possibly caused damage to the books, and he tried to reassure her that no harm was done.

She only smiled and shrugged a little. "I'll have this book too," she said.

"Si signorina, would you want to have this one gift wrapped as well?" the shopkeeper asked and peered at her over his glasses.

"No, thank you," she answered, "it's not a gift; I'm buying it for myself." And she cautiously slipped the book into her bag.

When she left the shop and came out into the street, she found that she could breathe again for the first time in about a week. She now knew with certainty that his "Soon" also meant soon the way she figured time. Her body started to tingle all over.

"If I can't live without you, if I am dying without you, then there is no option for me, but to go and live with you, wherever you are," she said aloud.

People who went by looked curiously at her standing there in the street, hugging her bag to her chest and talking right out into the air, but Sarah didn't care. Without warning, she felt all weak and at the same time a great burden was lifted from her as she realized that there was but one choice.

And she started to run back to the hotel.

********************
To be continued in "INTERLUDE"