Sophie was in a good mood. She had just gotten the timetable of the championship. It was to last a week. The events were distributed among the air, water and land, with more focus on land to enable more viewers. The championship had been finalized after about a month of discussions. They had decided to wait for another month as, to quote Sia ‘it will be the perfect weather’. This gave everybody plenty of time to prepare and practice. Travelling arrangements were made, boarding finalised and enthusiasm was top-notch.
Sophie was concerned with only one event - sword-fighting. She had no interest in other events such as shooting, race, or weapon-less combat. She didn’t even know or care what events were supposed to be in the water or among the humans.
The internal competition among the starlites proved her to be the best female swordfighter. King Suffle had won the male counterpart. Charlie had declared himself too busy with the preparations to participate. Sophie knew the real reason though. Charles thought such events to be beneath royalty. Sophie could swear that she had seen him smile when Alex lost her fight.
“I think we’ll do well in the shooting department,” Suffle said to Sophie during the shooting try-outs.
“Even the weapon-less combat is not weak.” The try-outs had been done two days earlier. “But I would have felt good about the race if we had our best flier competing.”
“Something happened to Berta?” Sophie asked with her eyes narrow. Berta was the royal messenger and the fastest Sophie had ever seen.“She is the best female we have, but I am talking about a man.” Suffle narrowed his eyes.
“Sulphur? He is not better than Berta.” Sophie furrowed her own eyebrows in reply.
“I’m not talking about him.”
Sophie’s eyes flickered to the past, but before its shadow could reach her face, she flicked it off. “Then who is our best man and why is he not participating?”
“Charlie,” Suffle said. “Charles can get a win for us if he participates. He needs to learn humility.”
“But who is the flier?” Sophie asked again tapping her feet.
Suffle ignored her. “I’m just fed up of these boys, Charles is too busy, Neal is too busy. How are we supposed to win anything?”
That diverted her. “Prince Neal is not fighting?”
“Not fighting, not shooting, no combat, not even,” Suffle paused, “I can’t remember… the thing that the humans do, what is it called?”
“Forget it.” He waved his hand. “How is your guardianship going?”
“You are in good company,” Suffle said.
“That I am. There are the weekly meetings, the captains and troops are good. No major problem so far with the nymphs either.”
“Humans are good. But I haven’t made any friends among them.”
Suffle tilted his head and raised his eyebrows. “You said the same thing last time.”
“Well…” She looked at her feet. There was not much need to meet humans in her daily life.
“Have you ever met the empress?”
Sophie’s ears tingled. “No, not properly.”
“She has invited you to visit her.”
Sophie pressed her lips. Neal had warned her about this. “Why?”
“Oh, nothing to be afraid of.” Suffle said avoiding her eyes. “You know how queens get bored easily. They need entertainment.”
“So I’m entertainment?” Sophie was hurt.
“Making the empress’s acquaintance will be good for you.” Suffle ordered.
“I don’t want to,” Sophie said pinching her nose.
“Are you afraid of her or something?” He frowned.
“You know I never lie,” Sophie said. “I expect the same from you.”
Suffle crossed his hands. “I’m not lying. The empress wants to meet you because she is bored.”
“And?” Sophie did not falter her gaze from his face.
“What will she do with me?”
“She is not going to eat you.” He shook his head. “She’ll talk to you and maybe play a game of nisiman with you. I told you we were playing nisiman.” The king was irritated now.
Sophie knew that not going would be better for her. If the prince had warned her, it was for her own well-being. But curiosity got the better of her and she said, “Okay. I’ll go.”
“Good,” Suffled said with a reassuring smile, “Tomorrow at noon.”
“The royalty should remember that the general people have work to do,” Sophie commented.
“She is your employer. Tell this to her tomorrow, when you meet her.”
“I’m only doing this for you,” she said as she left.
“I appreciate it.”
The next morning Empress Natalia said to her son, “I haven’t seen any new paintings in months.” The castle walls were filled with his artwork and she was used to see a new piece pop up every few weeks.
“I have not been getting time to paint,” he lied with a smile on his face. “With the preparations and all such.”
“You reek of paint,” she said, “as always.”
“Looks like I need to invest in some perfume,” he said tersely, “with guests coming and all.”
No matter how hard she tried, Neal never let his mother inside his shield. Even he didn’t know if he had built this wall around him to hurt her or to protect himself from people like her. But to his credit, Neal never behaved anything less than the charming prince he was supposed to be, at least in public.
‘If I could not see through his charming smiles, I would also think that his life is perfect, like everyone else thinks.’ Natalia let it go and instead enquired about the preparations for the upcoming championship.
“They have smoothened the grounds,” Neal informed her. “Today we start the plinth. In fact I was just about to leave for the arena.”
“Good,” she replied.
“It would be good if you came,” he said without meaning it.
“I would rather not,” she said. “You can manage just fine on your own. Besides I have a game of nisiman to look forward to.”
“Who is it this time?” he asked dryly.
Sophie was greeted at the gate of the castle by a girl in her late-teens. “The empress is waiting for you. If you could follow me,” she motioned and started to walk.
The guide looked aloof and uninterested. Her face was covered in freckles and acne. “Here we are,” the girl said stopping at a door, “Please wait here.” She went inside and Sophie heard the empress’s voice inviting her in. Sophie went in.
“Your Highness,” she said and saluted.
“Please sit.” The hostess pointed at a seat in front of her.
Sophie sat down on the edge of the chair.
“Please help yourself,” the empress said as a servant brought refreshments and she busied herself in making tea. Sophie found it odd that the empress didn’t order a servant to make the tea.
She looked at the empress not knowing what to say. Her figure was intimidating, with big shoulders and golden eyes. Neal’s hair reminded Sophie of the night sky while Natalia had hair the colour of coals. The prince had inherited her complexion though. Her nose was broader than his, and her thin lips were curved into a smile.
“You are very quiet,” the empress observed. “I hope I’m not trespassing on your time.”
“No, Your Highness,” Sophie said quickly, “I’m just concerned about the purpose of this meeting.”
“There is no need for fear,” the empress assured.
Sophie gave her the best smile she could muster. ‘Why would she think me afraid? Unless there is reason to be?’
“You play nisiman, don’t you?” Natalia asked.
“I know the rules.” Sophie had practised it a day before.
“I love to play nisiman,” the empress said. “But nobody wants to play with me,” she pouted like a child.
“Why would such a situation arise?”
“Isn’t it obvious? I rule. They cannot win.”
Sophie nodded although she couldn’t understand the logic behind it.
“King Suffle said that you never lie.”
“Yes,” Sophie confessed, “I make it a point not to lie.”
Natalia chuckled. “I can’t say if it is a good quality or bad.”
‘It was his idea,’ Sophie realised. “King Suffle suggested you to play nisiman with me?” Sophie asked.
“Yes, will you?” Natalia pleaded while taking out the nisiman set Sophie had not noticed before.
“It would be my honour, Your Highness.”
“Good.” Natalia opened the semicircle into a full circle with criss-crossed black and white patches on it. The game board consisted of seven concentric circles. The empress placed a human like figure in the centre of the board. The aim of the game was to reach this figure before your opponent.
“Starlite or nymph?” the empress asked. Both players got twenty pieces each. Starlite pieces were white while the nymph pieces were black.
“Starlite.” Sophie started filing the white blocks on the outermost circle.
“You know we have to bet on the game,” Natalia said.
Sophie suddenly understood the trap. She could not say no to the empress now. “Bet? But I don’t have anything to bet.” Sophie clenched her sweaty palms.
“You have yourself,” the empress said. She chuckled on seeing the look on her face. “Relax dear. If you lose you just have to come here again.”
“And make the same bet?” Sophie gave a half-smile.
“No dear,” Natalia said, “just be present here. It won’t even matter even if you sit like a statue. Although, I’m sure you’ll find it much better to engage in conversation.”
“For how long?” Sophie asked, “I can just come and go in a minute.”
The empress stroked her chin. “The exact time we spend on the game,” she said after a moment of thought.
She asked a servant to get her a time-keeper. The servant returned within a minute with the desired object.
“And if I lose, I’ll give you anything you want.”
“Anything?” Sophie was impressed. “You must never lose.”
“Anything as long as it is not detrimental to the well-being of people, planet, country and population.”
“Seems fair.” Sophie knew what she wanted and she had promised not to ask for it. She didn’t worry about it because she knew she was to lose.
Before the empress could make her first move, there was a knock at the door, followed by the freckled girl. She seemed shaken.
“His Majesty demands an audience with Your Highness,” she blurted out while doing the salute. When the empress did not move fast enough; the girl gulped and whispered, “Urgently.”
“I’ll be right back,” the empress said without losing her composure.
She rushed out leaving Sophie alone with the prepped up board.