Neal had had a lonely childhood. He was confined to his room for the most of it, under the pretence of a sickly constitution.
His father had died in a war while he was a baby. Neal didn’t remember his father’s face but people often commented on his likeness to him.
The only presence in his life was his mother. She had taught him how to behave and what to say and he had always followed her orders. The empress had taught her son to lie but he couldn’t be as good as her. He could not lie to himself.
Natalia was always happy, no matter what. Her bloody past, testing presence or cloudy future, none could take the smile away for long. Neal tried to copy his mother but his happiness could never become anything more than a mask. He never found a reason to be happy with his life.
As a kid, Neal was told not to meet anybody else, not to go out of the castle alone and never to tell anybody the secret. When he grew older, King Suffle took pity on him and he was allowed two friends- Charlie and Sia. Neal was so shadowed from the outer world, that when he saw those two flying around recklessly, he could not understand what was happening. He could not fly, then why could they? It took him very long to realize that they did not have his power, the power to love. He loved his mother, his friends and even king Suffle, who was like a father to him.
After Neal was allowed friends and was deemed old enough to go out, his life got a little better. He and Charlie grew up doing the pranks one expects from boys their age. Neal derived his joy from planning the pranks while Charlie enjoyed the outcomes. Sia was too virtuous to take part in any of these events and preferred to spend her time in the mountains, away from the filthy boys.
Despite everything, their friendship had lacked the closeness that Neal saw in others. Neal knew that his secret was acting as an invisible barrier, cutting him off from everybody else. He wanted it to end, but his mother would not let him.
He would often ask himself who she was protecting, him or herself? According to her, he had no claim on his own life. It belonged to the people. He was the sole heir, just like his father had been. And he was to hide from those very people; just like she had been hiding all her life.
Natalia was a princess from a distant northern empire, who had travelled this far to seek asylum after all of her family and friends were brutally murdered by usurpers. Everybody knew this much, but the complete truth was hidden. How much afraid the young princess was at the time and what steps she had taken to hide herself were not commonly known facts.
The secrets ran in the royal family like blood coursing through the veins. Neal’s father had married Natalia because he had his own skeletons in the cupboard. The secrets bred and multiplied, crushing Neal under their burden since before his birth.
Then one day, he saw something ugly that made him hate the three royals. He had seen their hope. He was disgusted and had decided not to trust anyone again. But there was one person who he thought deserved to know everything. She had promised to not tell anybody how much she knew. It was amazing how shredding that one secret strengthened their friendship. Sia had become dearer than Charles. He was not alone any more.
Now with both of them married, he felt lonely and outraged. There was no one to joke with him, no one to talk, fight or share secrets. In his desperation, he had told his latest secret to Sophia Antofurota. And once again, a shared secret paved way for a new friendship.
“I enjoy the company of starlites more than I enjoy the company of humans,” Neal said, “What does that say about me?”
“It just means, you need to make new friends,” Sophie replied. They both were again in the garden, but this time they were sitting on chairs.
“I would have you know that I have plenty of friends,” Neal lied. “And they all happen to be humans.”
Sophie rolled her eyes. “I have made many nymph friends. Maybe you should also try it.”
“No thanks. I can think of better ways to die,” Neal smiled.
“Really?” Sophie said, “I can’t.”
“Next time you meet one of your ‘friends’, ask her a question?” Sophie raised her eyebrows and Neal continued, “A couple is on the beach. Two nymphs spot them. One of them goes for the male and seduces him. The other steals the heart of the female. Who gets the man?”
“That’s easy,” Sophie waved her hand, “The one who goes first. And I’m guessing because the nymph who stole the heart had to steal it and then call the male, the seducing nymph would win.”
“Your guess is as good as any.”
“Guessing?” Sophie pursed her lips. “It is exactly the fact. A man once fallen for a nymph can never love again. Trust me, I know everything.”
“I don’t trust anybody,” Neal stated. A sad truth lay behind the humour.
“You trust Sia.”
“Who told you that?”
“I know everything,” she repeated smugly.
“She is the exception that proves the rule.”
“So you don’t trust the king, the empress, Charles?”
Neal scoffed. “The king and the empress are among the people I mistrust the most. Charles is too naive to be trusted or mistrusted.”
Sophie’s eyes got so wide that she felt her eyelids would tear.
“They are always making all kind of stupid plans,” Neal continued.
“But the plans do work out, don’t they?”
“Which brings me to the reason I’ve called you here today,” Neal said, “They both are planning against you. I wanted to warn you before but then we ended up talking about something else.”
Sophie laughed. “Your Majesty has serious trust issues.”
“You have serious trust issues,” Neal replied, “You trust everyone.”
“Why would they harm me?” she argued.
“Who said anything about harming you?”
“You just did.”
“I said they are planning against you, not planning to kill you,” Neal said. “What kind of people do you think they are?” He ran his fingers through his hair.
“I think they are honourable people.” Sophie crossed her hands. “And Your Majesty needs some help.”
“Whatever suits you.” He crossed his hands as well.
They stared at each other in silence for a while.
“You’ll pay for this,” Neal finally said uncrossing his arms.
“Is Your Majesty threatening me?” Sophie leaned towards him. She was not afraid of him anymore.
“You will find yourself amidst whatever plan they are hatching and you’ll pay for it. And then you’ll remember my warning.” His voice indicated danger.
Sophie gulped. “I wish Sia was here,” she blurted out.
“Who doesn’t?” Neal rolled his eyes. “I miss Charlie.”
“I could deliver a message to him,” Sophie offered.
“Or you could go and meet him on your own.”
“Why should I? I’m not the one missing him.”
“I’m angry at him. I haven’t met him since his marriage and it’s his fault.”
“I hate those siblings, both of them,” Sophie said.
“Okay you win.” Neal put out his hands in defeat. “Why are you angry at both of them?”
“Like it wasn’t enough for them to get married and forget us. As an added bonus, they both got peace,” Sophie spat the last word.
“And what is your problem with it?” Neal loved peace. “I have worked hard for it.”
She stretched her arms. “I haven’t used a sword in a long time.”
“Five months is not that long.”
“I fought one.” Sophie gestured with her finger. “One good battle in my life and it may be my only.”
“We fight battles every day.” Neal sighed. “Some are less visible than the others.”
“Why do you need to get philosophical on everything?” Sophie was so irritated that for a moment, she forgot she was talking to a prince.
“Why do you need to kill a man every day?”
“Not every day. Once in a while will do. The past generation got to fight so many wars.”
“It’s one of the reasons that a full family is so rare in our lands. Do you know how lucky Sia and Charlie are to have a sibling?”
“Families would be complete if remarriages were allowed.” Sophie whispered, “Not everyone dies on the battlefield. I killed my mother.”
Neal was too shocked to voice anything but a mutter. He hadn’t known anyone who would take their parent’s death so lightly. Saying that her mother died giving birth to her would have been the normal course of action, along with a few words like unfortunately and sorry, added with a sad expression.
“You know what would be great? If we could have battles without the deaths,” Sophie said.
“We already have that,” Neal said. “It’s called sports.”
“Do we?” Sophie stared at his face.
“Well we have the concept,” he said sheepishly. “Now that we have peace, we can have an inter country tournament or something.”
She grinned. “It sounds delightful.”
“Now this should turn you into a peace loving creature.”
“Your Majesty forgets that he is in starlite presence,” Sophie said. “A starlite cannot love.”
The resulting curve on his lips made Sophie desirous to explore whatever secret he hid behind it. “Make your peace with peace then,” he said.
‘Why do I feel like he is planning something, every time he smiles?’ Sophie thought as she left the castle. She was not wrong.
Although she hadn’t found any reason to mistrust Neal yet, she hadn’t forgotten Sia’s anger from the day of the ball. But still Sia had reminded Sophie in her last letter about her promise to be a friend to Neal. Sophie hoped to keep her word.
Prince Neal had some pressing business to take care of and was not seen for the next few days. His plans had been discreet and his path well hidden.
The day after Sophie’s conversation with Neal, a starlite messenger arrived for Sia. She would not give the envelope to anyone but the princess. Sia recognised the uniform as of a starlite royal messenger but knew that she was not sent by her family.
The princess checked the swear words she wanted to shout. She would not swear in front of servants. Instead she murmured, “Neal you are a moron and a half. What were you thinking?”
The messenger saluted her with a flutter and handed her the envelope bearing Neal’s seal. The princess left her in the waiting chamber telling the servants to take care of her.
“This better be good,” she murmured as she opened the envelope.
In half an hour the messenger was gone with Sia’s reply.
Sia was left to wonder why it was so difficult to say no to Neal. ‘Because he is always right,’ a little voice in her head said.
“I am indeed curious,” Sia said to her mirror. “I’ll know soon."