THE STARLITE HEART
IMPOSSIBLE TO LOVE
Text Copyright © 2016 Heena Patwa
All Rights Reserved
The dedication to this book cannot be to anyone but my sister, my sole motivation and the reason behind everything.
Table of Contents
[+ Chapter- 1 The Battle of Xeo +]
There once lived a magnificent ruler
With the whole world as her empire.
The empress on envisaging her final hour,
Called her three children to her.
“My time has come, and I must leave,” said she.
“When I’m gone, this world will be your responsibility.”
The three heirs looked at her holding their breath,
Waiting in anticipation, the final decision before her death.
She continued, “Since I won’t favour one of you above the others,
I have decided to divide my realm into three independent spheres.
Tell me my children, what is the greatest power of all?”
“Love,” all three of them replied without a moment’s stall.
The queen was much pleased with the reply
And said that one wish to each of them she would supply.
The eldest of them was a girl; Nymphadora was her name.
She wished for the power to seduce each and every man.
“Very well,” said the mother.
“Like a man falls in the water
Every man will fall in love with you
And after he makes love to you,
He will draw his last breath
Like he drowned in the ocean’s depth.
The siblings were in shock.
The mother spoke,
“Go into the ocean, you won’t drown.
I give you the water crown.”
The queen gave her the sphere of water,
And nymph was called her every daughter.
The middle child was a boy named Star.
He got so terrified by his sister’s power
That he asked to be very very far.
He said, “I don’t want to fall in love, ever.”
“Very well,” the queen said as she had before.
“You will not feel love, neither the pang nor the pleasure.
You will be free as the wind,” said the empress.
Before he could smile she gave the curse.
“The wind will blow away
Any love that comes your way.
As you are not willing to give love
You shall not receive love
From nymph or human. That is only fair.”
The queen gave him reins of the air
And the ability to fly as high as he might.
His descendants are called the starlites.
Now the queen turned towards her youngest,
Who was by far the most…..
The prince shut the book with a heavy hand. He killed the light at his table and the room became as dark as the night outside. Coincidently, it matched with the tone of his hair, his eyes and his mood. He had just finished writing a letter to a queen. His new resolve would be giving as much displeasure to the reader as it had given to the writer, but it was necessary.
The past few months in the hilly forest had given him a lot of time to think. He had thought about his life, the lies it contained and the future it held. But most of all he had thought of that one person.
In contrast to before, now the thought made him smile. He tried to hide it from himself, unconsciously drumming his fingers on his palm.
Looking out of the window, he thought about the events that had happened during his absence. The building on this side of the castle was home to the royal ministers and officers of high rank. The sky was not cloudy enough to hide the stars and the moon. It enabled him to see the traces of fire damage on one particular part of the building.
The noise of the guards changing places claimed his attention. It was midnight. He looked at them with displeasure. When death came none of them could help.
His thoughts wandered back to her.
“I wish I were a starlite. Then maybe I could fly over to her window.”
His subconscious laughed at the irony of the situation. If he were a starlite, he would not have such feelings towards her. “I don’t love her,” he reminded himself. “It’ll pass.”
He walked away from the window and into his inner room. This little room contained only a cupboard, a chair and a table containing one big three dimensional map of his empire. On illuminating the room, the map became more comprehensible. It showed a peninsula surrounded by ocean on three sides and snowy mountains on the rest. A huge wall ran along the entire coastline. It was built centuries ago to keep the nymphs out. The ocean contained the words ‘Nymph Territory’ just as the mountains contained ‘Starlite Territory’.
Not bestowing a single glance upon the map, the prince took out a set of keys from the table’s drawer. The keys opened a cupboard. It was filled with documents, seals and other such items but its main purpose was to conceal a secret passage to another room.
This secret room contained only one piece of furniture, a cupboard. Paintings covered almost every part of the four walls, most of them featuring the same female. The centre of the room contained a blank canvas, ready to be filled.
The prince opened the cupboard. It was divided into two parts. The left part contained colours, brushes, plates and other such things needed to make a painting.
For a clueless spectator, the things in the right part would not make any sense. It was a curious set of things for any man to have in his cupboard, especially so if he happens to be a crown prince. But that’s what secret cupboards are made for- to hide what society thinks to be abnormal. The right part contained seven things- a bowl, a teacup, a chess piece, a silver ring, an ice blue ball gown, a small knife with clotted blood on the blade and a feet long braid of platinum blonde hair.
The prince gave all of it a fleeting glance and smiled. He took out his paint things. Painting always calmed him. He knew what he was going to paint- a girl with fish like pout and chocolate brown doe eyes, dressed head to toe in white fur. Her square face was a little flushed by travel. It was adorned by a few stubborn strands of hair falling out of her helmet. He remembered her to be splattered with water, dirt and a little blood.
The memory was about a year old but it was as fresh in his mind as if it had happened a moment ago.
Sophie was disappointed with the battle. She had been thwarted even an inkling of the war glamour that she had always yearned to get. The starlite king Ruffle had led them towards an easy victory at Fort Plier- the highest mountain peak in the area. Sophie did not stand out; she had no claim on fame and no stories to tell.
King Ruffle had a consolation prize for her. She was to deliver the news of the victory to their Battle-leader Neal. Neal was camped at Xeo with one of the human troops. It was less than an hour’s journey for a starlite like her.
When Sophie reached Xeo, all her glee disappeared. The gloomy human faces told her that their position was not as pretty as at Fort Plier. She had assumed that being on higher grounds would give them an advantage, but the case seemed opposite.
The humans wore grey uniforms with heavy metallic armour. Sophie felt that it was a poor choice given their situation in the snow-covered mountains. She, like all other starlite soldiers, was wearing a white fur uniform. The only armour she wore was the helmet protecting her favourite body part.
Sophie gave her name and office to the soldier guarding the main tent. She was let in. Almost everybody was surrounding a table invisible to her, with their shoulders hunched and eyes in the centre. She could see only blobs of hair.
“We are outnumbered.”
“I have information that they would be here in less than an hour.”
“We’ll think of something,” a composed voice said. “I believe we have some good news.”
The group dispersed a little. The Battle-leader became visible to Sophie. She walked forward and greeted him in the starlite fashion by crossing her fluttering palms on her chest. There was now only a table separating the two of them. Neal looked at her, took a deep breath and said, “Fort Plier.”
“We have captured it. Sir,” Sophie said looking at her feet. “The enemy is either dead or captured. Sir.”
The nervousness in her voice was easy to comprehend. She had seen his tall, thick-necked figure in the past during some parade or the other. However, it was her debut in front of those almond eyes embedded in the diamond face.
“Splendid,” he said but did not look like he meant it. “We need more people here,” he said more to himself than to her and everybody nodded in agreement.
“Fly right now and send as many men as can be spared,” he ordered her and added a ‘thank you’ as an afterthought.
Sophie departed immediately but stopped in her tracks on hearing an ear- deafening blast from the camp site. To her utter horror, the camp had turned into a pit of fire. She had no hope of finding anybody alive, but still she returned and looked.
“I don’t know what new weapon they have got on their hands,” a deadpan voice said, “but it is far more advanced than the burning coals we are used to.”
Sophie was speechless. The Battle-leader was not only alive but also unharmed; though his white face and grey clothes were covered with soot. What alarmed her more was that he did not seem devastated by the sudden death of his whole unit.
Her eyes were still on the burning wreckage when Neal casually dusted the soot from his clothes and said, “I don’t think that anybody else is alive.” He had said that without betraying a tinge of emotion in his voice or eyes.
Sophie was in a state of shock even though she had not known any of them. Unlike Neal, she was not very good at hiding her feelings.
“Don’t bother going back,” Neal said. He was searching in the rubble for anything useful. “The king would be coming soon. A blast like this would not go unnoticed.”
“It will take them about an hour.”
“We don’t have the leisure to wait for them.” Sophie recalled what she had heard earlier. The attack was anticipated sooner then they could afford. She wondered if she should suggest flying out of there. Carrying him away to Plier did not seem like a hard task. She did not suggest it for the fear that it would make her look a coward.
“Then we will hold them off as long as we can,” she said with a level of determination only novices can have.
“What’s your name?”
“Do you have any weapon?” He asked getting soot out of his hair.
Sophie shook her head. She carried only a small pocket knife with her which could be no good in combat. The sword was thought to be a useless weight for the journey.
Accessing her own vulnerability, she realised that the prince had no fur or armour to protect him.
“We can fly out of here,” she suggested.
“You can, I can’t,” he replied. “If I abandon my post, we will lose this battle and maybe the war. If I’m able to protect Xeo till backup comes, we have a chance to end this.”
She lifted her head and tried to look as tall as possible (which was a foot less than Neal). “Then I can’t leave either.”
That earned her an amused smile from the prince. “We are in luck. I have got two of these.” He handed one sword to her. “You will be fighting humans. You know the rules?”
She nodded. The battle rules stated that humans should fight humans, and starlites should pretend to be human while fighting them. “I cannot fly.”
Neal explained the strategy to her. “We think… thought that they will come from that direction.” Neal pointed at the valley in the left. “They will have to climb up here. We had planned boulders and fire arrows for them. But now that they are destroyed, we cannot stop them like I had hoped. Our only way is to fight them as they come.”
They could see heads emerging out of the valley. “They must have been sent to analyse the situation and report back,” Neal whispered.
“They won’t.” She grinned.
Five men charged towards them with swords in hand. Sophie knew that the enemy wasn’t expecting anybody there. They were here to claim the ruin. Two of the men targeted her while Neal engaged the other three.
One of the men was all muscles while the other was tall and lean. She clashed her sword with the bulky man while ducking from the tall guy’s sword. He was taller than average which proved advantageous for her. Her helmet took the blow and fell off unleashing her braid previously tucked inside it. Sophie had taken the utmost care to safeguard her hair. Long hair did not adorn a battlefield. Her brain spun for a moment by the blow. One of her opponents took the opportunity and managed to scrape the back of her neck. Sophie winced. It stung but wasn’t a deep cut. Fighting on the ground was turning out to be a challenge for her. She slipped and fell face up on the soft snow.
The bulky guy raised his sword up high, aiming at her throat. The tall man had claimed her sword and was standing beside his comrade to watch the kill. Her heart threatened to stop but her brain urged her to survive. Sophie summoned all her energy and kicked the tall man on his shin. He fell on the snow face down with both swords in his hand. The bulky man was stunned for a second, his sword frozen mid-air. She jabbed her knife in his foot and he lost his hold on the sword, stomping in pain. Sophie rolled to her side and missed the sword by an inch. She found something strange on the ground. For a second she thought it was a rope but then she realised that it was her hair. Pure rage fuelled her body as she rose up.
She picked up the sword and slayed the guy lying on the snow with one swift blow. The tall guy tried to retaliate but was no match for her. She finished him by piercing his heart.
Sophie had just enough time to get her knife, when her eye caught a man trying to attack her comrade from behind.
“Bloody backstabber.” She hurled the knife at him, which hit his neck, killing him on the spot.
Neal had already killed one of his challengers and now he slaughtered the other. Sophie noticed that he had one sword in each hand. She imitated him, at the same time taking care of wearing her helmet back.
“Good work,” he commented, “but more will follow.”
They did not have time to calm themselves as more enemies came running towards them. They were more than she had time to count. The cut on her neck stung terribly. Her body was stiff due to the temperature and she also felt the fatigue of the flight and fight at Plier claiming their share.
But to their advantage, they both held two swords each and Sophie had not gotten in a forgiving mood yet. Her rage fuel was still running high.
“Defence would be the best strategy here,” Neal said, drumming his fingers on the sword hilt. Sophie had not waited to hear the wisdom and was already engaged in a fight.
Neal was half surprised half irritated to see that she was on the ultra-offence. They weren’t coming at her, she was going after them. Fighting uncountable enemies alone was Sophie’s idea of a good battle. She was fighting like a raging bull in the ruedo and Neal feared for her safety.
They had killed a couple of foes and injured a few when they caught the welcome sight of the starlite army in the sky. The enemy line retreated hastily.
“If I may say so, Miss Antofurota,” Neal smiled in a wicked manner. “Your hair has proved its worth in gold.”
Sophie gritted her teeth. “I would still prefer it on my head, Your Majesty.”
King Ruffle congratulated them both on the victory. “Prince Neal, to say the truth, I’m relieved to see you alive. We feared the worst when we saw the blast. I count ten bodies,” he said, “including the injured.”
Neal greeted the king in his human fashion while the king gave him a starlite greeting. The only difference between the two gestures was that the hands fluttered in only one of them.
“Someone was feeling a bit light headed, I suppose,” Neal said maintaining the dignity of his office.
“Yeah, I suppose the climb up would have been exhausting for the poor chaps,” Ruffle said, not getting the joke. Sophie’s head was still covered with the helmet. “Nevertheless, let me be the first to congratulate you on your victory. You too, Sophie, I’m glad to see you unharmed.”
Sophie didn’t say anything.
“It does feel good to have a burden lifted from your head.” Neal’s wink got unnoticed by everyone but Sophie.
The king started to enquire about the blast and tried to guess what weapon and technology were responsible for it. Sophie used the chance to leave unnoticed.
Ruffle and Neal discussed their next move.
“They will be ready to talk now,” Neal said. “How many captives do we have at Plier?”
Ruffle’s brow creased. “Talk now? We have crushed them. They have even lost at the waterfront. There is nothing to be gained.”
“Peace is not nothing.”
The king crossed his arms. “I should remind you that we have had the illusion of peace numerous times during the last century.”
“We may as well try once again.” His voice was calm and his intention clear.
“I’ll send a peace envoy,” the king said.
Sophie was getting patched up by the medics when the prince approached her.
“So, Miss Antofurota.” He smiled. “How attached are you to your home?”
Chapter 2 The Starlite Princess
Sophie had grown up looking at the starlite castle. Being in low grounds, it didn’t tower above every other building, despite being the tallest. Sophie had played in its garden as a child, dined at the great table as a family member and danced at the balls held in the hall; but she always returned to her home.
Her home was the second tallest building in the starlite territory, a twin tower to the castle; only less majestic, less royal and more crowded. The castle was white, her home was grey. It was named ‘Cassandra Tower’ in the memory of the late queen. The starlites however called it by a more appropriate name- the orphan tower.
Sophie had seen neither of her parents. Her mother had died during childbirth and her father had died even before that in the battlefield. When they were little girls, Sophie and her friend Sia often talked about their mothers. Sia had little memory of her mother. Thus, most of these talks were based on what the elders remembered about the mothers.
The tower was home to many other starlite children, but Sia and Sophie failed to become friends with any of them. The reason could have been that they were content with each other. It could also have been their jealousy of Sophie’s good luck or the intimidation of Sia’s royalty.
“At least you have a father and a brother,” little Sophie had told her friend one day.
“Aren’t you a ward of the state?” Sia had protested. “Isn’t everybody in the grey tower claims my father for their guardian? He says that he is father to you all.”
Although that was the official stand but feelings have little to do with words. The king had adopted every orphan under his sovereignty and he performed his duties towards them without any hesitation. They were provided with the best education and training available to starlites. Still, Sophie was the only one who had taken these words to the heart. It is better to be an orphan than have a father with hundreds of children.
The attachment between the two girls was such that the king and the prince also thought Sophie as part of their family. She also thought the same but never forgot that she wasn’t one of them.
Sophie had decided early on that she wouldn’t be a hand maiden or a companion to Sia. She could never work in a place she thought home, for the people who were her family. Working for the royals would have only confirmed to the general misconception that she was privileged due to her proximity with the royals. The sword had always been her choice of vocation and she had enlisted as soon as she was of age.
The war had brought her the fame that she had dreamed of for a long time.
The princess’ room was no doubt the first place for Sophie to go when she returned.
Sia gave Sophie a big welcome hug. “I’m so glad that you are back, well almost all of you.”
‘I should have picked it up,’ Sophie thought about her lost braid.
“Good to see you too,” Sophie said taking a seat on the big bed besides Sia. She noticed that the room had gotten new curtains but chose not to comment. Her head hung low.
“People lose limbs all the time in battles; your loss will at least grow back.”
“I suppose I should be grateful.” Sophie gave a half-hearted smile.
Sia picked up a cherry from the plate of fruits on the table. “Grateful? You should be cheery! I heard that you killed it in the battlefield,” Sia said. “Not that there were many people to see it.”
“The Battle-leader saw it. Who else matters?” Sophie smiled, wanting Sia to ask about her big news.
However Sia missed the clue. “Neal?” She asked dumping the cherry in her mouth.
Sophie smiled smugly. “Yes.”
“I guess you are right. You picked the best time to show your skills.” Sia gave thumbs up to Sophie.
“Hey, what happened at the ‘negotiation’ meet?”
“There is a temporary pause to the battle,” Sia said, “which may become permanent after the peace meeting. The westerners are coming to finalize a peace treaty.”
“Nothing that hasn’t happened earlier,” Sophie said shaking her head. “There is war and then there is peace; and then the war comes again.”
“This time it’s different. Everyone is coming: the emperor, empress, king, queens and every prince and princess.”
“All of them?” Sophie’s eyes widened.
“Yes, it would be quite a meeting,” Sia said. “We have less than a month to prepare for their arrival.”
“Charlie will be back by then?”
“I suppose,” Sia shrugged.
“Oh, he’ll come for sure.” Sophie waved her hand. “What is a honeymoon compared to meetings like this?”
“I wish I could’ve gone to war with you,” she pouted.
“As long as the king fights, you don’t need to.”
“One person per family,” Sia muttered with disgust.
“Don’t worry you’ll get your chance.” Sophie patted her shoulder.
“I’m sure I won’t. My big brother got the east all peaceful with his marriage. The north won’t even acknowledge our existence- either with war or with friendship. So unless we have a civil war which I don’t want—”
“We’ll always have the west,” Sophie interrupted.
“That’s the thing.” Sia got in a more upright position. “Father thinks that they have an ulterior motive in coming here,” she whispered. Sophie knew that the princess had her own gossip.
“You mean a trap?” Sophie’s eyes narrowed.
“Kind of.” Sia gave a sly smile. “They want to trap Neal into marriage.”
“How do you ‘trap’ someone in a marriage?”
“They hope to pressurize him from all sides.”
“Don’t humans marry for love?” Sophie tilted her head.
“Not always,” Sia answered. “You are so naïve. Only the lucky ones find love and then also they have so many barriers to cross, such as pressure from family, society, economics and such.”
“It’s much better our way. We don’t let love cloud our judgement. Starlites are never pressurized into or out of marriage,” Sophie said as she gazed lazily through the window.
“Yes we would always do the practical thing; whatever is best for ourselves, our family, our nation, our world, the whole earth,” Sia said rolling her eyes.
“Well, it’s not that bad for him. If we and many other humans can live without love, so can the prince. He is the one waving the white flag with full enthusiasm.” Sophie pursed her lips.
“Poor Neal should not be made to pay such a hefty price for peace. He deserves his chances with love.” Sia added secretly, “God knows they are already very slim.”
“Why don’t you marry the starlite prince?” Sophie jested as she plopped a blue star-shaped fruit into her mouth. The fruit is called starberry because of it’s ……to the starlite inhabited mountains.
“Maybe I will,” she said in a mocking fashion, “and then you will be sorry to see me go.”
“No I won’t. I’m leaving anyway.” Sophie would have flipped her hair if she had hair long enough to flip.
“Where will you go?” Sia did not believe her for a second.
“That’s what I have been trying to tell you.” Sophie stood up and said with a smug smile, “The crown-prince was so impressed with my skills that he offered me a job.”
“What job?” Sia frowned.
“Well, there is only one job.”
“He wants you to join the guardians,” Sia stated.
“Should I?” she asked sitting down on a nearby chair.
“For a sword-wielding girl like you, this is the perfect job opportunity.”
“Since there is going to be peace.” Sarcasm dripped from her voice.
“Since there is going to be peace,” Sia emphasised. “You’ll have to go back to what you were doing before the war.”
“Nothing but sitting in remote places hoping someone would attack.” Her lips curved down.
“You’ll be nearer to civilization this way,” Sia said. “What did you tell him?”
“I said that I’ll think about it.” She stretched.
“That’s precisely what you need to do. Think about the pros and cons.”
“I’ll have to live on the grounds.”
“It’s not that far and is much better than being in some remote army camp.”
“But I’ll miss the mountains.” The chair was now only on its front legs as Sophie bent towards Sia.
“How do you know? What’s the longest you have been out of the mountains?”
“I’ll miss you three,” Sophie said in a childlike manner curling Sia’s soft golden lock between her fingers.
The princess chuckled. “We are there half the time. Well Charles not that much now.” She rolled her eyes. “He used to be an energetic boy before I left him in all male company. Now the lazy ass detests travelling down. When we were little, Charlie was with Neal as much as I was with you.”
“So you are adamant that I must go.” Sophie threw the lock.
“It’s just that you know nothing about the humans and the nymphs. You might be benefited by some knowledge about their culture and lifestyle.”
“Do I want to spend the rest of my life guarding a wall?”
“It does not need to be the rest of your life. Do it for some time and then come back if you don’t like it there.” Sophie did not answer. “When you said you won’t be in our guards, I understood your predisposition. But now I think you don’t want to be anything but a soldier. If that’s the case, you should decline the offer.”
“I’m too young to decide what to do with my life. Have you decided it?”
“I’m a princess. I can be nothing but a princess or a queen. Royalty is not allowed to work,” Sia said looking more magnificent.
“I don’t know if I’m jealous or relieved that I’m not royal blood.”
“Your Majesty.” Sia’s chamber maid appeared with a scroll in her hand which she handed to Sia and left with a starlite salute.
Sia glanced at the scroll and squeaked, “Father is giving you the Starcrest.”
Starcrest was the second highest military award among the starlites.
“I did play an important part in the victory.” Sophie gave a slight close-lipped smile.
“I know my father only sent you there to deliver the news,” Sia said, “because you were sulking.”
“Sulking rocks.” Sophie was unabashed.
“Here it says –‘The Starcrest is being bestowed upon…blah blah blah…for showing remarkable sword-fighting skill in extreme conditions and saving the life of a crown prince.’ You saved Neal’s life?”
“I guess,” she shrugged. “These things are common in a battlefield. But I would have deserved the honour even if I had not killed that one back stabber.”
“At least we will have that ceremony. I wish my father would throw a ball like the empress is throwing in Neal’s honour.” Sia sighed. “Or let me throw a ball in his honour.”
“You can always go to the human ball.”
“No way. I went once. Humans balls have humans,” Sia said, “doing the human dance. I bet you didn’t know that by etiquette a starlite is not supposed to fly indoors. We have to walk.” The last word was said with a mix of horror and disgust.
Sophie’s eyes widened. “I can’t imagine dancing without feet in air. Where do they move?” Fighting with feet on ground was bad enough for her.
“I do love those human dresses though. Pity we can’t fly in those.” Sia pinched her velvet tights that matched the colour of her royal blue cape.
Sophie could not fathom Sia’s desire for a dress. She thought that her friend looked stunning as always in her pink silk shirt with golden embroidery that matched the colour of her hair.
“And shoes,” Sia blabbered on.
Starlites didn’t think it necessary to wear shoes as their feet were always in the air. Sophie wondered if the reason for Sia’s frequent visits to the human castle was an excuse to wear shoes. Even Sophie knew that it would be an insult to the human royalty if someone went to the castle barefooted.
“We have socks,” Sophie said in defence.
Chapter 3 Nymph knowledge
The Starcrest ceremony was conducted a week after the event leading to it had occurred. The whole council was present for it with the exception of the royal couple Charles and Alexandria.
The hall filled with sounds of ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ as the king pinned the star shaped diamond on Sophie’s chest. Sophie was on her knees, the soft blue carpet caressing her through the black velvet tights she wore. She kissed the king’s hand as per tradition. Even after all his battle years, it was soft and cold as snow. He whispered, “You have made your father very proud.”
Sophie wondered for a moment if he was referring to himself or her biological father. She looked in his eyes for a clue but the only thing she saw was Sia’s blue eyes in his round face.
“Thank you, Your Highness.”
Sophie asked him after the ceremony if she could take some of his time to discuss a personal matter.
“Of course dear,” he said, “bite my ear off.” He led her into the library.
“Prince Neal offered me a job,” she said as she sat on a chair across the king. A big rectangular table separated them.
Sophie smiled. King Ruffle was always aware of everything. It was his habit to be in the loop. His naturally jovial nature made people comfortable enough to tell him everything. He was a father figure not only to Sophie and Neal, but too many other young starlites as well. Of course Neal respected him enough to ask him before offering the job to Sophie.
“You haven’t given him an answer yet,” he said. His elbows were on the table, his fingers intertwined to make a platform for his chin.
He looked straight at her. “I know what you must be thinking. You have never lived in the grounds. You have never even been to the grounds.”
She protested that she had been to the grounds a couple of times, but not for more than a few hours.
“My advice would be to visit the place. Roam around and learn a little bit about the environment, the culture, the people. See if you like it there.” He waved his hands.
“It’s not only that.” She confessed, “I’m not clear about what the guardians do.”
She would have blushed if it was anybody else.
“Hmmm.” He thought for a moment and said, “You know how the nymphs harm humans?”
“They seduce the men and have sex with them. The men die immediately afterwards.” Sophie had heard that it was supposed to be the best sex of their life but she had her doubts. Her question was that how anybody could have been alive long enough to vouch for that.
“Not only that. As a guardian, it will be your duty to save the women too.” He withdrew his hands from the mahogany table.
“I thought the nymphs were all females.” Sophie’s eyes narrowed in confusion.
“Yes they are. The nymphs don’t cause any physical harm to the women, they steal their hearts.” His eyes aimlessly wandered among the various shelves of the library.
Ripping off somebody’s heart was serious physical harm in Sophie’s dictionary. She tilted her head. “What does that mean?”
His eyes darted back to her. “It’s not literal. In the human world, ‘stealing someone’s heart’ means that you have made that person fall in love with you. With reference to the nymphs it has another meaning. A nymph does not steal the actual beating heart from the body; she takes the control that another heart had willingly given.”
Sophie said nothing. He understood her confusion and tried to explain in a better way.
He pinched his nose. “When a nymph steals a heart, she gets control over whoever loves the human girl. Nymphs can turn this control, this love, into a tangible object. The girl is not physically hurt and if she is lucky enough to not have a lover, she gets her heart back. But if some unfortunate boy is in love with the girl, he is as much doomed as a man seduced by the nymph.”
Her brow furrowed. “So the nymph calls him to herself and has the killer sex?”
“Yes, a mental call. He is drawn towards her. Think of it as a twisted form of the control that love has on humans.”
Sophie sighed. “That’s so sad. A man has to die because he loves a woman who is stupid enough to fall into a nymph’s trap.”
He leaned forward. “That’s why the humans need us. If only the men were in danger, they could have made an army of women. You know that the nymphs live in the ocean and the humans have built a huge wall along the coastline. No human is to cross that wall, unless it’s a woman claiming her stolen heart. Nymphs can cross the wall only after they have taken the vow of celibacy.”
“What is the vow of celibacy?” Sophie wondered how much was there to learn about this new job.
“It’s when a nymph stops being dangerous to humans. She stops seducing men and stealing hearts.”
“So, it’s retirement.” Sophie nodded.
“Not exactly. The vow of celibacy can be taken at any age. I have been told that the day on which they get the celibacy tattoo on their wrists is considered to be the biggest day of their life. They celebrate it as being free from the curse.”
“Nymphs don’t like killing humans,” she deduced.
“No, they don’t. And I want you to always remember that. They just can’t help it. I have heard of nymphs returning stolen hearts when they thought that the female’s love was true and pure.” He was taken by some old memory.
“Guardians don’t kill nymphs, do they?” Sophie appealed with her eyes. She crossed her fingers praying for a negative answer.
“Not unless there are extreme circumstances. The guardians just have to guard the walls twenty-four seven. The wall has gates throughout it so as to enable the celibate nymphs to cross. Even if they catch a nymph seeking trouble, she is returned to her queen.”
She slouched. “So that’s all the guardians do? Guard the wall and open the gates.”
“That work is hard,” Ruffle said. “The wall is broken at several places. The nymphs love to do that. Humans are always sneaking out.”
“Why would the stupid humans do that?” Sophie pressed her lips.
Ruffle smiled. “You will understand that when you see the beach. The nymphs do an assiduous task on its beautification. It is paradise,” he said. “But not all guardians guard the wall. That’s the work of the troops. The captains manage the troops. As a commander, your work will mostly consist of strategy and administration.”
“Administration.” Her face dropped. There was no way she was going to take the job.
“Commander Brones has expressed his wish to come back to the mountains. You’ll be taking his place. Nice man he is." Ruffle tapped his chin. "Your responsibility as a commander will be to see that the work is being done efficiently by your juniors as well as your seniors. You’ll have to conduct surprise inspections, go to the other side of the wall and most importantly, it will be your duty to make sure that the problems of the troops reach the ears of the Chief Guardian. Chief Guardian is a much esteemed position to hold, the highest a starlite can get in the human court. It will not surprise me if you become the Chief Guardian in two- three years, or whenever the post becomes vacant.”
Sophie saw on his face, the pride he would feel if she became the Chief Guardian. He believed her capable of it. She decided that it was worth a try.
“But don’t you think I should start at the bottom? As a captain maybe,” she voiced her doubts.
“Bottom?” His brows furrowed. “That ship sailed last week. You will make a fine commander. If you don’t have faith in yourself like I do, at least trust the decision of our Battle-leader. It is part of his command. The Chief Guardian reports to him. Do you think Neal would jeopardise the guard by giving you a job that he thinks you are not capable of doing?”
Sophie smiled at the boost of confidence. “I’ll take a stroll,” she yielded.
“Take a few. Brones won’t leave till next month.”
Sophie asked him how long the training period will last.
“Training?” Ruffle scoffed, “all you have to do is guard a wall.”
Sophie made a face but said nothing. She knew that he was teasing her.
He chuckled. “You already had your training in the army. Nymphs fight like humans, though they are a little more vicious.”
Sophie could not think of anything else to ask. She was wondering if the king would suggest a few places suitable for the strolls she was to take. But the king gave their conversation a new turn.
“I assume that Sia had told you about our upcoming guests.”
“Yes, I’m surprised.”
“The westerners are as desperate for peace as we are, though their reasons may be different.”
“I can understand their reason. They have no chance on the battlefield. Why are we desperate?” Sophie’s hand unconsciously went to her hair.
“Peace should always be top priority, even on the battlefield.” His gaze wandered to the past.
Sophie wondered how she had never seen the peace loving side of her father figure before. He continued, “Remember, we still don’t know what weapon was used for the destruction of the whole human unit.”
Sophie looked down, ashamed of her imprudence.
“The emperor believes that only a marriage will guarantee permanent peace,” he continued.
“So it is a ruse to display their eligible bachelors and spinsters.” She smiled.
“Ruse?” Ruffle chuckled. “They are doing it very openly. They are bringing even the ineligible one.”
Her upper lip rose at the corner. “What good would that be?”
The humour was still intact on his face. “They will ask the nymph queen Crysta and me and you and anybody else they can find to pressurize the poor lad into marriage.”
“And they expect to succeed by such means?”
“It’s hard for a person to say no if everyone he knows is asking him to do the same thing. If you want to pressurize me, won’t you take the help of Sia and Charles?”
“Even Alex and anyone else I can find from the council.” She joined in the humour. “Exactly.” As she rose he said, “I think that this is the job for you; unless of course, you find the grounds uncomfortable and inhabitable.”
“You think that’s possible?” She stared at him with wide eyes and raised eyebrows.
He shrugged. “You should visit the Crescent waterfall located at half mile north of the human castle. I can’t remember who, but some young starlite had suggested that I visit it, and I’m glad he did. It is the most beautiful place in the human territory that I have ever seen.”
Chapter 4 The Stroll
The next day Sophie bought a pair of shoes from a starlite shop. The shop was an oddity and did not offer much choice. It suited her perfectly.
Sophie had been issued shoes to practice as part of her training in the army. It had turned out very fortunate. This kind of foresight was the reason they always thrived in battle. Sophie was also glad that the shoe etiquette was not waivered even in the battlefield. She shuddered at the thought of being shoeless at Xeo.
The Crescent waterfall was a famous picnic spot among both the humans and the starlites. The waterfall was about four hundred feet high but the depth of the water pit remained a mystery. Folklore said that the water joined the river Styx in the underworld. The daredevils among the starlites were well-known for placing bets on who could go lowest along the waterfall.
It was a beloved spot for the trekkers, the ghost chasers and the sightseers. At least a hundred people, consisting both the starlites and humans drowned every year in the pit. The bodies could never be recovered.
It was midnight by the time Sophie reached the waterfall. She had been meaning to avoid the tourists and had learned that midnight would be the loneliest. The deafening sound of the waterfall covered every other sound. The night was starry, but without a moon. The scenic beauty of the place captivated her senses. Wanting to break-in her new shoes, she started walking along the side of the pit.
She was surprised to see a figure standing on top of the waterfall.
‘Another daredevil,’ she thought.
Instinctively, she flew towards the figure. Sophie was just in time to recognise the man before he jumped into the pit. She was glad that she could catch him, for he was a human.
“Were you committing suicide?” she asked him as she placed him on the ground. She had to shout to be heard over the water.
“Of course not,” Neal said, “I was only…” He did not complete the sentence.
Sophie looked at him waiting for the answer. He was in his night clothes and looked as if he had just gotten out of his bed.
“You are not to tell anybody this,” he said with full authority.
“I suffer from somnambulism.”
“You walked this far in your sleep?” Sophie wondered how a sleepwalking man could have fared well in the battle. “Don’t you have guards to watch over you?”
“Sleepwalking is a powerful thing. As for the guards, I’ll have a talk with them,” he said with anger, “I could’ve died here. I guess I should thank you for saving my life.”
“It’s my honour, Your Majesty.” Sophie remarked to herself that this time she won’t be getting a Starcrest. “Should I drop you at the castle or you want me to get someone?”
Neal said that there was no need for any of it and he could manage on his own. “What are you doing here?” he enquired.
“Experiencing life on the grounds.”
He smiled at the answer. “I see. You’re thinking about the job offer.”
She answered in the affirmative.
“This,” he said indicating at the empty place, “is not life. If walking was your sole purpose, you could’ve done that in the mountains.” Sophie did not correct him by pointing out that it was the temperature and climate change that she was trying to familiarise herself with. He continued, “If you want to experience the human life, you should come to the ball tonight.”
“I,” she hesitated, “I don’t think that it would be a great idea, Your Majesty. A starlite at a human ball will attract attention unwanted to me.”
“Then come disguised as a human.” He shrugged.
“Then I’ll have to dance,” she said with a frown. The starlite rule for balls was you either dance or leave. Starlites were not into small talk.
“So what?” Neal decided to omit the fact that even though dancing was the major object of the ball, it wasn’t mandatory.
“I can’t do the human dance,” she said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“You mean the footwork?” Neal’s eyes got wide.
“I don’t even know what human dancing looks like.”
“It’s pretty easy. If you can fight with your feet down the in snow, I’m sure you’ll manage the dance.” Seeing that she was still apprehensive he said, “Your enemies met you on the grounds, now let your friends also experience it.”
Sophie wondered what he meant by friends. There wasn’t going to be a single friend of her in the ball. That was undisputable.
Neal produced a piece of paper from his pocket. “Not the first time that I have found myself in such a situation,” he explained as he scribbled something on it, “one has to be prepared.”
He folded the paper and handed it to Sophie. “Give this to Sia. She’ll know what to do.”
It felt very covert to Sophie, who took it with a ‘Yes, Your Majesty’ and flew away.
“See you at the ball,” he called after her with a wide grin, “Sophia.”
Sophie was impatient for the morning to come. As soon as she felt that it was appropriate enough (which wasn’t either soon or appropriate), she went to the castle.
The note which Neal had given her contained only one word- ‘Anna.’ Sophie had spent the rest of the night wondering who Anna was.
Sia awaited Sophie with eagerness. Sophie had told her about her plan to go for the stroll and the princess wanted to hear all about it. The most important thing she wanted to know was her decision about the job.
She was startled when Sophie came to her room and gave her a piece of paper without saying a word.
“How did you get yourself into such a scrape?” Sia asked on reading the note.
“You met Neal,” Sia said. “You have to go to the ball tonight.” Sophie could see that Sia wasn’t happy about it at all.
“You got all that from one word?” Sophie was astonished, and also a little afraid as Sia was turning a bad shade of pink.
“How did he convince you to go to the ball?”
“Job research. The prince said that I’ll have some human exposure at the ball.”
“Never believe a single word that comes out of his mouth,” Sia spat the words. “I’m fed up of his shenanigans. You don’t need human interaction. You will only interact with starlites or maybe nymphs.” She took a deep breathe erasing her frustration.
“Alisha,” Sia called her handmaiden who appeared at the door in an instant. “Get Vega. Fast. With her tools.”
Sophie did not know who Vega was but hoped her tools included something to calm Sia down. “I have already said yes. So…”
“You are right you cannot back out now. Just brace yourself and get it over with.”
“Is a human ball that awful?” Sophie ventured to ask now that Sia’s face was returning to its usual white. “Who is Anna?”
“I am, or rather was for one night,” Sia said. “Neal had this awesome,” Sia said rolling her eyes at the word awesome, “idea for his first ball. He begged me to come to the ball so that he could have had someone he knew to dance with him.”
“Doesn’t he have human friends?”
“The sad truth is that he does not. Everybody is not as lucky as me.” Sia smiled at Sophie. “Anyways I hadn’t been to a ball ever, so I agreed. I think it was also because of the dress. He introduced me as his cousin Annabella and told me to act like a human. Turns out I’m not as good an actor as Neal. And maybe that’s why he doesn’t have any friends.”
“You really hate him for this. How bad was it?”
“It was fine till he ditched me for human girls and I had to talk to humans.” Sia shivered.
Sia turned pink again but this time it wasn’t anger, it was embarrassment. “Let’s just say that it was that day I realised we need to know more about humans. I said such silly things that still haunt me. Neal thought that it was funny. I was so angry that I hung him upside down from his ankles. He thought that was funny too. The man’s idea of fun is completely out-of-place.”
‘The prince does not seem to be the kind of person one should get involved with,’ Sophie cautioned herself.’ Or maybe it is Sia’s anger for one time clouding every other thing.’ She resolved to ask Sia some other time.
“So now to business,” Sia said. “You will need a dress.”
“Don’t you have the dress you wore?”
“Of course I do. But it won’t fit you. I was fifteen at the time.”
“That’s why you called Vega.”
“She is a starlite who makes human dresses. And wonderful dresses they are. She is quite famous among the humans. Not so famous among her own people though. Also, she is the person to give you insights about the humans. I bet no other starlite knows about humans more than her.”
“I came as fast as I could,” Vega said. She was a short woman with bug like eyes and unnaturally black hair. She was carrying a big box which Sophie understood contained her tools.
“How are you?”
“Busy. With the ball tonight I’m neck deep in work.”
“I’m about to give you some more work.”
“You want a dress?” she asked. The ‘why’ was hidden in her expression.
“She,” Sia pointed at Sophie, “needs a dress, for the ball tonight.”
“In starlite fashion?”
This part of the conversation was lost on Sophie.
“Stand here, like this,” Vega instructed Sophie who obeyed. “A little up. Yes that’s perfect.”
Vega took her measurements and left. “I’ll have it delivered,” were her parting words.
Sia spent the rest of the day explaining the human etiquettes to Sophie, and how she was to behave among the people. Sophie came to know that ‘starlite fashion’ dress meant a dress in which she could fly above the ground without anyone noticing.
“Vega will make the dress a little longer so that you can have your feet in the air. Also a heavy lace in the bottom will help keep it down.”
Sophie’s concern was maintaining the same altitude throughout the night. It would be floating more than flying.
“Don’t let Neal ditch you, like he ditched me.”
“But then how will I mingle with the humans?”
“You don’t need to mingle. Just observe them from a distance. That’s all a guardian needs.”
The ball was to start at sundown. Vega delivered the dress in time as promised. The dress was of an ice blue colour. The bodice was made up of lace of the same colour, which went up to the neck and the wrists. The skirt was plain but the material gave it an elegant shine. Heavy lace adorned the bottom as Sia had promised. The dress had a triangular cut at the waistline so that the bodice made a W shape at the back.
Sophie dressed herself at the castle.
“Your hair was a tangled mess before. And now it is just a two minute job to set it,” Sia said looking at her handiwork.
“It wasn’t a mess.” Sophie pouted.
“You know what I just realised. People say that a girl should change her hair if she wants to change her life.”
“Looks like my life is about to change.” Sophie rolled her eyes.
“All done,” Sia said as she finished the final touches on Sophie’s face. “It is such fun to play dress-up with a life sized doll.”
“I have not seen many human dresses but Vega is sure an artist. How much do I owe her?”
“You don’t. It’s a gift.”
“You know I don’t take gifts from you.”
“It’s from Neal. He should pay for making you go.” Sia said in a sinister tone, “I will make him pay.”
“I’ll return it tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Sia raised her hands in defeat, “Give it back to me. I’ll pass it to Vega.”
“I should go now.”
“Come back directly here, no matter how late it gets.”
“I will,” Sophie promised.
Chapter 5 The Ball
Sophie felt overwhelmed at the sight of the human castle. It was big and intimidating, with two towers emerging at the sides. But the cause of Sophie’s worry was the fact the she had never been to a human ball before, or had any other human contact, ever. Starlite balls, she had had her fair share of them. She wondered how the nymphs held their balls.
At the balls she had been to, there were always people she knew. At least some friends or acquaintances were always to be found. The only person in this entire ball who knew her was the host and their acquaintance was limited to two meetings. “Both of which resulted in me saving his life,” she reminded herself.
She looked around at the ball. Splendidly dressed bodies with unknown faces surrounded her. To her relief the one known face spotted her and approached. Neal was wearing a dark blue coat. As he came closer, Sophie realised that he looked much different now that he was groomed in proper fashion. The first time that she had seen him, he was camped for battle on a mountain. The next time he had just got out of bed and jumped into a water pit.
‘Now he actually looks like a prince.’
“Care to dance?” Neal extended his hand.
“My pleasure, Your Majesty.” She gave him her hand which he kissed and then escorted her to the middle of the dance floor.
Once the dance started there wasn’t much for her to do but float. It was a slow dance and they took a traditional position. Neal was directing her like a puppet master directs his puppet. The hall was much larger than the hall at the starlite castle. Still it was packed. Sophie was glad for it as it meant little movement for the couples and no group dance.
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