The Royal Secret
Sophie thought many times about going to the castle to meet Charlie. Something always stopped her. The thought of impropriety never stopped her barging into Sia’s room whenever she wanted. But then Sia had inherited her father’s power to make people feel comfortable and welcome. Charlie lacked that warmth in his nature.
He would nevertheless have gotten a meeting with Sophie, if she wasn’t worried about disturbing the newlyweds. Charlie and Sia had accepted her as their sister but the eastern princess may have her reservations. Sophie had never properly met Alex after the wedding and she wondered if it was by design. She did not want to make Charlie or Alex uncomfortable by seeking a meeting with either of them. This is what she told herself. In truth, she didn’t want to see the castle without Sia in it.
King Suffle had drastically increased his trips to the grounds. The mountains held no charms for him without his two daughters. Charles was taking care of the realm and Alex was taking care of the castle. But they were nowhere near filling the gap left by Sia and Sophie.
The king tried to fill the gap by lots of travelling and tri-council meetings. He would always try to meet Sophie on such occasions. Queen Crysta was finally fed up with the unnecessary meetings as those required her to travel to the human castle.
“If I knew you would be calling me here this often, I would not have taken the vow,” she had said as she tucked a white strand of hair behind her coffee coloured ear.
The empress Natalia promised her that there would be no more unnecessary meetings and turned to the king. “You need some excuse to come here. I get it. But you can come here without calling the tri-council every other day.” She scratched her nose. “We may even play nisiman.”
“Or you could take care of your realm,” the queen said, sarcasm dripping from her eyes. “Maybe talk to your son. Ask him about his married life. Have a hobby.”
One such day when the empress was defeating the king at nisiman she said, “I know you starlites don’t travel with all the ceremony like we do. But still as a king you need to follow protocol.”
Suffle raised his eyebrow in question.
“You are a king. You can’t go to the wall every day to meet a commander. Once or twice is okay under the pretence of inspection and survey. And frequent visits to her house are also not proper, even if you say you are just buying clothes. I mean how many summer clothes do you need?” Before he could protest she said, “Think about her. She would not want be known as the king’s favourite again.”
“Are you spying on me?” The king chuckeled. “Or is it Neal?”
“I won’t be an empress, if I didn’t know what’s happening in my empire. And you very well know Neal is in charge of the spies.”
“Neal is in charge of everything, you may as well crown him.”
“He knows he won’t be able to,” the empress paused, “what does Sia call it?”
“Shenanigans,” Suffle supplied.
“Yes, that.” the empress said. “He won’t be able to do them if he sits on the throne.”
“More of a reason, those shenanigans need to stop.”
“He is childish,” Natalia defended. “But you are not. Act like a king.”
“Can’t you call Sophie here under some pretence?” he pleaded.
“And make her known as the empress’ pet?”
The game continued in silence.
Suffle spoke after a while, “Looks like I lose. Remind me, what were the stakes?”
“Five games.” Natalia rubbed her palms flashing a wide grin.
The human castle had in fact started to see a lot more of the two starlites then it had before Sia’s wedding.
“I was just talking to the empress and she suggested me to give up the throne,” Suffle told Sophie on a Tuesday afternoon. He had called her to meet under the very nose of the empress, just to annoy her. The weather was pleasant and they had decided to take a stroll in the royal garden. The starlites did not walk on the ground but floated over the grass. Sophie enjoyed the way the tiny blades of grass felt on her bare feet and the king loved the smell.
“I think you both are already retired,” Sophie observed. “The princes are doing everything.”
“While we are off playing nisiman.” The king smiled.
“I didn’t know you played nisiman,” Sophie said inhaling the smell of the roses.
“Apparently I can’t.” He chuckled. “Charlie and Neal may have taken up the routine works, but some matters are better left in our skilled hands.”
“You could explain those matters to Charlie.” Sophie stopped at her place. “You know he is ready for the throne. He has been ready for long.”
“I don’t have any mistrust on his capabilities,” Suffle said, “But there are some things that I want to do myself.” He looked at the sky. “I don’t want to be just a witness to the great events. I want to be a part of them.”
“What great events?” Sopie furrowed her brow.
“Oh, nothing. Just events,” he waved his hand and resumed the stroll.
Sophie was not the one to give up. “Is this the same reason the queen and the empress are not retiring either?”
“Many heirs have to scrape their parents’ dead bodies off the throne," the king commented and suddenly got interested in a bush near him.
Sophie knew she would not get any answer from him. He had already said something he wished he hadn’t.
That night Sophie could not sleep. Another person would not have given much thought to the whole conversation. But she had known the king long enough to know he was hiding something important. Her thoughts engulfed all of the royals. The more she thought about it, the more the probability of their involvement increased. 'So this is why they are not retiring.’ She wondered if the next generation- Sia, Charlie, Neal, Maya and her sisters were also part of it. Sophie yearned for Sia’s presence. She believed Sia would have told her all.
‘Maybe she does not even know anything. She would have told me if she knew anything. But I never asked her. What if it’s a secret she cannot betray? I never told her about Neal’s sleepwalking. Perhaps she never said anything because it won't concern me.’
Sophie considered writing a letter to Sia but dismissed it as too insecure a method of conversation. Secrets should not be trusted in the hands of common messengers. Sia was Sophie’s closest shot to the truth. She was also the farthest from her.
Charlie was a puzzle in himself, a puzzle too easy to crack. He loved feeling important. Sophie knew that when asked about a secret, Charlie would say he knows nothing but in such a way that no one would have any doubt about his knowledge of some deep secret. The existence of the secret and his knowledge of it had no part to play in it.
Asking a nymph was too ridiculous an idea to even cross her mind.
Her thoughts finally rested on Neal. Maybe she could ask him. ‘No, I couldn’t.’ She laughed at the idea.
She had met Neal many times after the ball, but always in the passing and always as the prince.
“I’m just keeping an eye on him. I don’t know why Sia is so worried. Nothing seems wrong with him.”
By the time Sophie slept, she had concluded that the trio was expecting, hoping, something great to happen. It was something king Suffle wanted to be a part of and she had no way of knowing anything about it.
Days passed by and Sophie tried to forget about the secret. She never asked the king about it and he appreciated it. Every time she saw the prince, she wondered if she should ask him.
Another stroll in the garden was enough to bring the secret on Sophie’s mind. Last time the king had invited her under the pretense of familiarizing herself with the castle. ‘Of course he doesn’t know I have been here before,’ Sophie had thought. This time it was the prince. She was not clear on his agenda, but then, nobody ever was.
The king was with her. The prince and the empress were also taking a stroll but could not compete with their speed and were left behind.
“You are still thinking about what I said the other day,” Suffle said suddenly.
“I’m sorry. I can’t help it.” Sophie played with the shoes in her hand. “It’s eating away my brain.”
“It was my mistake to let it slip.”
“I know you are waiting for something to happen.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
“I won’t deny it.”
“Will I know when it happens? Will everybody?”
Suffle looked around. “Yes, eventually.”
“But you’ll know before everybody else?”
“I do hope so,”
“What if it already happened and you didn’t know?”
Suffle stopped. He pondered for a moment and looked in her eyes. “Sophie, do you know something I don’t?”
“No.” Her eyes narrowed. “I just know to ask a lot of questions.”
He smiled. “Looks like I taught my ways to someone.” He said more to himself than her, “It’ll happen.”
“But what is it?”
The talk ended but Sophie was still deep in thought. Her thoughts were interrupted by a familiar scent and she saw the prince coming their way.
“My mother thought you were lost,” he said. Sophie gave Neal a sideway glance and noticed the sceptical lines underneath his eyes.
But Suffle got the message and said, “Then I must fly at once and reassure her.”
“She is by the third row of petunias.”
Suffle flew away and Neal rolled his eyes. Sophie wore her shoes, quietly cursing the etiquettes.
“I feel like I’m missing something,” Sophie said giving her head a slight tilt.
Neal laughed. “You are missing a lot.”
“That I know,” she muttered.
“Strolls in the garden are the best way to have a private conversation,” the prince explained.
“Huh?” Her mind was still lingering on the conversation she had just had with the king.
“It is inconspicuous. In the castle, we are surrounded by servants. If you tell your servants to go out, they wonder what secret conversations are happening. Panic spreads. Take a stroll in the garden and no one is any wiser. No risk of hidden spies if you know the right spot. If you think they are by the petunias…”
“Oh!” was all she could manage when he stopped speaking.
“This is the royal way of doing things. You must be used to such things.”
“Hmm,” she said absentmindedly.
“They are probably chatting about me.” The prince was now aware of her lack of attention and decided to have a laugh on her expense.
“Or maybe you.”
“The nymphs are fed up of you,” Neal said biting his lip so as to not burst into laughter, “eating all their cake.”
“Hmmm.” Sophie said without listening. “What?” she suddenly realized what he had said.
“Miss Antofurota.” Neal grinned. “You seem preoccupied.”
“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” Sophie said, “I was dwelling on the conversation I just had.”
Sophie was unable to decide if she should ask the prince for information.
“What was the talk that got you so engrossed?”
Sophie stretched her neck to look at his face. She decided to trust him. “I think it’s some kind of secret,” she said in a low voice. “They are waiting for something to happen.”
Neal burst into laughter again. “Oh that little thing. They have been waiting for it for a long time, perhaps since before I was born.”
“But what is it?” She chanted in her head, ‘Don’t say redemption. Don’t say redemption.’
“He didn’t tell you their secret,” Neal said. Sophie waited for a what-makes-you-think-I-will answer but instead he said, “Can I trust you to not tell them ours?”
“The one I’m about to tell you. But first you have to promise me, you will never ask or talk to anybody about the whole thing.”
“Not even Sia?”
He shrugged. “I trust Sia.”
“I promise not to talk to anyone else about the whole thing,” she solemnly swore.
Neal looked around in a dramatic way and said, “It has already happened.” There was a grin on his face that told her he was proud of himself.
Sophie frowned and pressed her lips. “Your Majesty is pulling my leg.”
“I’m serious. It happened months ago.” He looked into her eyes and she saw he wasn’t lying. “It feels good to finally get it out.” He took a long breath.
“Why don’t they know it then?”
“Because I haven’t told them yet.”
“When will you tell them?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Perhaps I should let them figure it out by themselves.”
“So you haven’t told anybody?”
“I have told you.” He smiled mischievously while drumming his fingers on the back of his hand.
“I would have told Charlie if I could meet him,” Neal lied, “same with Sia.”
“I’m facing the same problem.”
“Why did they get married?” he sighed and Sophie realised his dire need of a friend. What Sia had said made sense now.
“To secure our borders.” Sophie skipped to say that Sia had to go because Neal wouldn’t marry Marya. Then she asked the question for a third time, “But what is it? The thing that happened.”
“Believe me, there is nothing more I would like to do than to tell you, but…”
“You can’t.” Her face dropped.
“I can. You can’t,” he said. “You can’t understand it. You don’t know about the big picture.”
“What is the big picture?” Sophie asked twiddling her thumbs.
“All of us.”
“I know it’s about the whole empire. That’s why-”
“No, the whole world.”
“So,” she said, “you have the fate of the whole world in your hands?”
“Not me alone,” he said, “we hold it, in our hearts.” He touched a finger to his chest where the heart lies. “And it is not the fate of the whole world. It’s tiny crack in a big glass. It may even go unnoticed.”
“And everybody has been waiting for it since forever?”
“My parents, the king, the queens, they had it all planned long ago,” Neal replied. “I won’t say forever though.”
“You are not happy about the planning.” She observed the unhappy lines under his eyes.
“Of course not,” he said. “Some things should never be planned. And the plan was too far-fetched.”
That was the second night Sophie had a problem sleeping. She wondered for how long she was to be in suspense. What was the big picture? She again took guesses about the secret, pondering over the major changes to have happened in the past few months. Many things had changed and she could not point to one particular event. Her own life had turned upside down in the time period.
She knew something had happened that would lead to the redemption of the whole world. But why did the world needed to be redeemed, she could not understand. Sophie had made another interesting observation. Although they all pretended otherwise, Prince Neal was not on good terms with the trio.
Suddenly a thought came to her. The prince had in essence not told her anything about the event and in return had secured her silence. ‘Did he lie to me?’ was her final thought before sleeping.