Whenever Jareth had bad luck with a girl he needed someone to complain to, and tonight it was the bartender. He hadn’t quite caught the man’s name, but he was a tall fellow with a long blond beard and waxed mustachios, and he listened well. Eventually, though, business picked up in the inn, and Mr. Blondbeard had to attend to other parties.
“It’s always hard,” said the person next to him at the bar. Jareth looked over, saw an old man. Bit paunchy, white shoulder-length hair combed straight back. His clothes looked expensive but overly used and years out of fashion: a long, worn black coat with silver buttons, laced black boots, silver hose with visible runs in them. Stains on his silk shirt, gray stubble on his jaw. Jareth himself wore a bottle-green suit, pants hemmed at the shin, and low buckled shoes. He’d always believed in dressing well.
“What’s hard?” he said, not much interested but with no one else to talk to.
“Time. How people change. You can’t ever anticipate it. You start seeing someone, and you think you know who they are. Then the years go by, and you end up with someone different than you started with.” The man sipped his mug of treacle stout, looking contemplatively up at the painting on the wall opposite, of The Abduction of Lorallis. Satyrs groping young maidens. “It puts me in mind of a friend I had. A panelord.”
“Really?” Jareth exclaimed, ears pricking. “You knew a panelord?”
“Aye, knew him well. We were close as brothers, once. Met him at Bettner College.”
“Are you a paneweaver too, then?” Jareth said skeptically. There weren’t many of them, after all. It took natural talent in the first place – not just anyone could weave a pane – and then years of study to learn to control it. And a panelord was no ordinary paneweaver. Only they could open their doors not just to Havershire or Borden Locks, but to far Samaway and the distant East, and even to other worlds entire.
But the old man shook his head. “No, no panes for me. I was studying philosophy. I thought I would go on to be a barrister, but it didn’t go as planned.” He took another sip of his beer, wiped away the dark liquid from his lips.
“What was your friend’s name, then?”
“I shouldn’t really say.” But then he shrugged, leaned in close. “But if you want to know, it was Cannody. Bryce Cannody.”
Hell, that did sound familiar. “You still in touch with him, then?” Maybe he could get an introduction. It’d be sweet to know a panelord. Maybe he could take a trip…
“No, not for many a year. Not since he lost his dear Tara.”
“Was that his girl?”
“His wife.” The old man shook his head. His eyes were damp, and Jareth could see it was no put-on. Sorrow had shaped his face from inside out. “Ah, he loved her so. Loved her with a passion that wracked him. You’re young, but even so maybe you’ll understand. If not… well, if you’re lucky, you’ll know a love like that before you die. Not everyone does.
“They met just after we finished school. It’s traditional, when a paneweaver gets their robes, to take a trip around the isles. A roustabout, they call it, and Bryce was kind enough to take me along on his. Ah, we had a fine time, wandering through the pubs of Quinck, going to the top of Mount Helston. Generally being drunken louts.
“Well, we took one pane further, to the coast of Selieu. I was a little worried about it, since after all he’d only just gotten his robes. What if we ended up getting stuck there? How’d we get home? But he just laughed it off, and summoned the pane, we stepped through that window in space easy as kiss your hand.
“It was in Selieu that he met Tara. First we’d gone to the town, a little fishing village, and drank raka. Then he said, let’s go down the water, and so we did.
“That town was famous for its oysters, and also for its pearls. So we walked down by the cliffs, and there we saw five or six young people diving for oysters. It may sound immodest to us, but the men just wore a bit of cloth around their parts, and as for the girls, they went naked as seals to swim. We went over and talked to them, and though only one spoke English, they welcomed us and did nothing but laugh. They shared their oysters with us and we sucked them straight from the shell with the sea-water still dripping from them.
“There were two girls there, and one was Tara. I doubt she was seventeen, but then Bryce was only twenty-two. And she was lovely, oh so lovely. I think he had never seen someone so natural or so bright. She was tanned gold from the sun, and her hair was golden too. She was lithe and limber, had spent her life so far just swimming and dancing, and there was a haze of freckles on her cheeks.
“And when she dove, ah, it was like watching an arrow slip through the air! She would leap from the cliff and point her whole body, and disappear into the waves with nary a ripple. I’ve known warriors who would charge an army with their swords swinging high, but none were so fearless as that Selliean girl.
“We went dancing with them that night, and I could see him looking at her with something like devotion in his eyes. One of her friends said her family had a bit of the blood of the sea sprites, the merwish. I know everyone says that, ‘Oh, I’m one-thirty-secondth faery,’ but when you looked at Tara you could believe it. Her eyes were just the green of the sea.
“The next morning, Bryce shook me awake and said we should leave now. I couldn’t see what the hurry was, until I saw Tara standing just behind him. ‘She wants to come with us,’ he said, just like that. ‘We’re going to get married.’
“I told him he was crazy, but he was adamant, and Tara said simply with her Selliean acccent, ‘I love him. We see all the worlds. Here, I only die.’
“So he summoned the pane back home. It took him some concentration this time, and for a second I was worried we really would be booking passage on a ship home. He had never opened a pane this far before, after all, and the further the journey, the greater the effort for the paneweaver. They say summoning a pane literally uses up your life-energy, and I know that that’s true. That’s why the weavers are always quick to open and shut their windows, and why they usually use a relay of multiple weavers to go long distances.
“His parents weren’t happy when he got home, that’s for sure. For a good two years they wouldn’t acknowledge Tara at all, virtually disowned him. But Bryce set himself up in business, and a paneweaver never lacks for work.
“He was good at it, too. He could send you and your whole carriage to Espanora if you had the coin, or drop a package on the front step of your aunt’s house in Yoder Lane. When he and Tara had a child, a little girl they named Sephanora, his parents came round. When he bought a house in Lakeside, they forgot they’d ever had a disagreement.
“Ah, those were golden years for those two. You can’t imagine the glory of being a young paneweaver with literally the whole world in front of you. Three days a week he would work, sending this traveller here, this shipment of dye there, always attentively, always developing his craft. Then, when it came Friday evening, he and Tara would decide where they’d want to travel, and set off with little more than few coins and a bag strapped over their shoulder.
“They ate scented chocolates in Callais-au-fein, they looked in on the shops in Lu-kwon. They sailed in the Bay of Tears, and swam beneath Queen Sola’s Falls. Sometimes Tara would swim nude, to the scandal of the locals. They slept between sheets of finest silk and at the top of Mount Heron in Lethiye, in the ruins of a castle there. They were more kings and queens than the actual rulers of nations.
“When Sephie was born they had to take a break, of course. They couldn’t be dragging an infant around so much. Then, too, Bryce’s father had made some poor decisions financially, and to get him out of the poor house he had to hand over a surprisingly sum. And maybe he himself wanted not just any place, but one place to call his own. A home, and a comfortable one. So they bought a new manor, and Bryce worked five days instead of three.
“On the weekends, now, he was too tired to take a trip every week. But Tara was restless. She was used to wandering the cliffs of her hometown, on her own time, with the sky above her. She wasn’t interested in what kind of sofa they purchased, or the state of the garden. She liked owning horses, and rode them joyously, but even her daughter seemed to hold limited interest for her.
“She pestered Bryce, and sooner or later he would relent. But now it seemed even the usual places weren’t enough. She had been to Davermark, and the Orange Coast, and the Tores Mountains. Where else could they go?
“Bryce wasn’t without curiosity himself. Where could they go? So he pushed further, to An’nu’nu’akia at the south pole, to the islands of Tor Aru, the dark caverns of Milastre. And finally, gathering his powers and concentration to a blinding point, he opened a pane to Felland.
“There are few that can open the panes from one place to another in our world, to be sure. One in a hundred thousand maybe, and maybe one out of five of them will ever develop their talent to a useful point. But even smaller is the number of those who can open a window between the worlds. One in ten million, perhaps five in all our country.
“These are the panelords, and what wonders they bring forth! Felland is the closest world to ours, as I’m sure you know, and I’m sure you’ve seen the moving statue in Timely Square, which Helmud the Farwalker brought back with him those centuries ago.
“But you’ve never been to Felland itself, I doubt. There small silver birds zip through the air on weird mechanical wings, and the Fellish stare at you like the stranger you are, with your furless skin and rounded ears.
“You can’t stay there too long, though. You’ll be lost, for certain, and it has happened many a time. It’s best to make your trips short, because the longer you stay, the more energy you will need to return home. It’s just this that happened to Helmud, and his grave is in their world, not ours.
“But Tara went there, and laughed, and showed the Fellish how to dive, which amazed them, for they hate the water.
“She was alive again, nearly exploding with energy, like a burning star. For weeks she spoke of nothing else, and barely seemed to notice her husband’s listlessness, his quickness to tire, or the new bit of gray in his hair.
“Travel within our world is demanding enough. But travel between worlds drains your life itself.
“Soon enough, though, Tara wasn’t satisfied. She could think of nothing but returning to Felland. And within a couple of months, Bryce felt well enough again to cast a new pane, and again they stepped through it, and brought back a souvenir, a gem that would expand and contract with a touch.
“And a little more of Bryce’s hair turned.
“‘Why stop at Felland?’ Tara asked. ‘Lots of people have been there. Probably dozens, maybe hundreds. Aren’t there other worlds?’
“There were, of course. Who knows how many? Like pebbles on the beach, but we ourselves like grains of sand to a grain of sand, and each pebble a million leagues away. But Bryce felt her hunger, told himself it was his own, and opened another pane, and another.
“Xao’xao: the world of the Rano, the bird-people.
“Uvalu-wu-alu: the cloud-world, where people live on floating trees.
“Danatias, a land of machines and burning smoke, which only two other living people have visited, and they only for moments.
“There were new lines in Bryce’s face, and at times he seemed to have trouble breathing. They barely returned from Danatias, and when they got back he collapsed and stayed in bed for three days.
“For a year, then, Bryce didn’t open another portal. He wrote of his experiences, and from each world he took a token to prove he had been there, and among the panelords he became famous.
“Eventually, though, Tara asked again.
“‘What use is life if you don’t explore?’ she challenged him. ‘You want to sit here in your armchair, when you could see worlds no one else, no one, has ever seen before? You have one life, and one life only.’
“‘I may not even have that, if this persists,’ he replied.
“‘One more,’ she insisted. ‘One more, further than ever. A door to the edge of possibility.’
“There was a wild light in her eyes. He knew it had gone too far, that when you push so much, you’re bound to lose yourself at some point. But at the same time, her fearlessness gripped him. He couldn’t say no to it. How could he live with himself if he didn’t find his true, absolute limits?
“He prepared carefully, laying his spells over the course of days, of weeks. But he could not achieve everything; if you wanted to expand your reach, you had to give up some stability. He would not be able to hold the portal open for long. Maybe long enough for him to step through and back; a minute, or maybe five, if his strength held out.
“Finally the day came. His runes were drawn in gold ink on the floor of his workroom. He said the words and made the motions, working unceasingly for hour upon hour, neither drinking nor eating. Nothing less would do.
“It took all his strength, every fiber, every bit of marrow, while Tara watched on. With voice hoarse, muscles straining, mind a single point of light, he wrenched open a door.
“It was small at first, but he fought it open. It was ten inches, then twenty. At thirty inches he could do no more.
“Through the pane they saw a eerie pink light. There were stones floating among pink clouds, and something shaped of rainbow light lifted itself on ray-like wings and floated toward them curiously.
“‘I can’t hold it open,’ he said through gritted teeth. He was sweating, his very organs trembling. Color seemed to be draining from him like water emptying down a sink.
“Tara, though, was looking through it with lips parted, in fascination. ‘It’s beautiful,’ she said.
“‘I have to close it.’
“‘She looked at him, and finally seemed to see the strain he was under. She nodded slowly. ‘All right, my love. Come find me if you can.’
“And with that she leapt through the pane, and into some other world.”
The old man was weeping silently now, tears wet on his cheeks. Before the two of them stood a number of empty glasses, as Jareth had kept buying rounds while the old man told his story. “He couldn’t keep the portal open. He tried, but… she didn’t come back. In ten seconds it snapped shut.”
“Do you think she’s still there, then?” Jareth asked. “In that unknown world?”
“Unless she’s… unless she’s passed on to some other world yet. Whatever awaits us all.” He shook his head in defeat. “I could never … he could never open it again. He’d spent too much of himself, passed some midway point where it ceased to be possible. No other panelord has even heard of such a place, much as they might wish it.”
“So you are him,” Jareth said, trying not to sound awed. “You’re Bryce Connady.”
“I’m just an old man,” he said, standing up. “And it’s time for me go home. Thanks for the beers.”
The bartender wandered over. “Any more? No? Be two silvers thirty pence, then.”
Jareth handed over the money. “Do you know who that was?”
“Sure. That’s Monro Hughman.”
“Maybe that’s what he goes by now. But his real name’s Bryce Connady.”
The bartender laughed. “Oh, he told you that one again, did he? His beloved Tara, flown from this world?”
Jareth was stung. “What, you think it’s funny? A man loses the woman he loves, and you laugh at him?”
“Don’t take it hard, lad. I know you’ve had a rough day yourself. But Monro tells that story at least once a week. He lost his wife, sure, when she ran off with a vintner down in Dockville.” He shrugged. “Guess he took it hard. Been drinking ever since, leastwise when he can get somebody to pay for it.”