Neal looked flushed. He was still in his travelling clothes. “Barthlow says that you have to strike the first blow for the plinth. He won’t start without it.”
“Barthlow can be a bit…”
“Of a prick? Pain in the neck? Senseless? Moronic?” Neal supplied.
“Stubborn and superstitious.”
“Incompetent fellow,” Neal spat the words.
“Calm down Neal,” Natalia instructed.
“He knew we were starting today. He could’ve told me this beforehand. It could’ve been arranged.” He was drumming his fingers on his palm. “The fool wasted our whole morning.”
“Anger doesn’t suit you. It’s not that big of a problem.”
“It’s a two hour travel to the arena,” Neal said trying to sound calm, “We should get going.” His voice still quivered a little.
“I’ll go. You stay here,” the empress suggested.
He took a deep breath. “I think that would be better.” He sat down looking at the floor.
“I’ll just inform Miss Antofurota that I forfeit and then I can go.”
“You were playing nisiman?” He looked up at her.
“We didn’t start.”
“You said forfeit.”
“We placed the bets.”
“The usual?” Neal’s lips curled in disgust, “Anything she wants.”
“Damn it.” Neal clasped his wrist.
Natalia rolled her eyes, “What can she ask for? I don’t think she is avaricious.”
“She’s curious.” He grabbed the table. “Why are you people determined to make my life as complex as possible. First the king goes out and tells her there’s a secret and now you are forfeiting the game. You may as well give her the truth on a silver platter.”
“Surely she doesn’t know,” Natalia started.
“But she’ll ask about it and you will have to tell her.”
The empress did not reply.
“A blabbering king and a gambling addict empress,” Neal muttered.
“I’m not a gambling addict,” the empress said with gritted teeth.
“I’m sorry,” He lied. “I’ll take care of it. You should go to the arena.”
Natalia rolled her eyes at the exaggeration. “You take care of her.”
“God help Barthlow,” she said getting out.
Sophie smelled him before she saw him. For long, Sophie had been at a loss to pinpoint the delicious smell she had stuck in her head. After much brain-scratching, she had decided it was a smell she had picked somewhere in the castle. She was at a loss at naming the scent though. Now she realized it was the prince. His face was a little pink when he entered. Sophie attributed it to the heat outside.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said in a business-like tone. “Some urgent business came up and the empress had to go.”
“Okay.” She tilted her head. “I’ll just leave then.”
“As per my understanding you have placed bets on a nisiman game,” Neal said taking the empress’s seat.
“Yes,” Sophie replied. “We can always reschedule.”
“No you can’t. Once the bets have been placed and the pieces have been arranged, the players can’t leave without declaring a winner.”
Sophie rolled her eyes. She recapped in her mind, ‘The prince warns me that the empress and the king have planned something against me. The king sends me to the empress. I take a bet I know I’ll lose. The prince won’t let me leave. I would have been afraid if it wasn’t a bloody nisiman game.’ It was hilarious how seriously he was taking it. Sophie was also surprised to see that all the servants had now left the room.
“But Her Highness has left.”
“I’m going to play as her proxy.”
“There is no logic in this,” Sophie said, “I was sent here because Her Highness was bored. Now she is gone and we have to play.”
“She wasn’t bored.” Neal whispered, “She has a gambling addiction. The king lost the bet and he had to supply five more innocent players to her. I knew one day or the other, it will be your turn. If you don’t play with me, you’ll have to play with her and it will only fuel her addiction.”
“Why does nobody plays with Her Highness? Why does the king need to supply players?”
“My mother,” Neal said, “always wins at nisiman. Nobody wants to play with her and lose another bet.”
“Oh!” Realization hit her. “She rules at the game.”
“So what did you bet?”
“Not another game I hope.” He raised one eyebrow.
“No, Her Highness had said that I could sit here like a statue if I wanted.”
The prince smiled. “Now, that would be interesting.”
Sophie knew he was again planning one of his shenanigans and it could only mean more trouble for her. “And we have to time the game,” she informed.
“Okay.” Neal eyed the time-keeper.
Sophie had expected a why.
He said, “You can forfeit the game if you want to.”
Sophie knew what she wanted. She couldn’t ask about it to the empress but she could ask the prince. “If I win, I get anything I want. Will Her Highness be giving it or Your Majesty?”
“Since I’m playing,” Neal said, fully aware of her ‘anything’, “it will be me.”
“I don’t leave my battles without a fight,” Sophie stated.
“I have the nymphs,” he said. “I get the first move.”
Sophie wasn’t an expert in nisiman. She hadn’t played many games but she was sure it was unusual for a game to be that time consuming. She wondered if it was a new record. It was definitely a new record for her to sit that long with someone without talking. The prince had his full focus on the game and he didn’t utter a single word other than ‘your move’ during the whole game. He made calculated moves, thinking for at least a couple of minutes before each move. Even when it was Sophie’s turn, he stared at the board willing it to incline in his favour.
Sophie found it hard to replicate his focus, especially when it wasn’t her move. Still she kept her eyes on the board, and found her bored gaze tracing the lines of his right hand. His hand was a paradox in itself; an artist’s gentle hand covered with calluses and scars. It moved in a nimble way on the board. He had a habit of rolling a piece over and over in its block while he thought about his move. He wore no rings. The ruffles on his white sleeves reached up to his palms. Sophie noticed his palm was sweating.
She blamed it on the travelling attire. His green travelling cloak covered the most of him, but Sophie could see a red gleam on his chest which she recognized as the royal ruby. Just like Charlie’s sapphire, it marked him as the heir to the throne.
Sophie tried not to look at his face for it might’ve looked rude. Her eyes gazed through the room, trying to find something interesting. She wondered why the servants had left. They had shown no intention to leave while the empress was in the room. Whenever Sophie had been to the Starlite castle, it had been buzzing with servants. ‘Except when the prince is present.’ She realised that the prince never had servants around him. It hadn’t looked out of place in the garden and when he had warned her about the trap, she had thought it was secrecy keeping the servants out.
She was lost in thought when his hand moved to stop the time-keeper and he said, “I win.”
Sophie inventoried the game board. “It reminds me of us,” she said, “at the battle- two against many.”
Only two of her starlites remained on the board. While Neal had a larger amount of his colour left.
“The difference Miss Antofurota,” he said with a smile, “is that you and I were on the winning team.”
She was not surprised at her loss. Sophia had never fancied herself a nisiman champion. If she had lost a physical sport, she would have been sorry.
“It was a long game,” she commented.
“Yes, I suppose it was.”
“Intentionally long,” she emphasised.
He narrowed his left eye. “Just because you lost—”
“I could have lost an hour ago.” Sophie stated, “Your Majesty dragged the game. All nymphs are in the innermost circle. You only needed one to touch the human.”
“I had told you,” Neal said, “You’ll have to pay if you don’t listen to me.”
“This was payback?” She tucked her chin.
“More of a lesson,” Neal said. “If your friend warns you, you should listen.”
“So Your Majesty is my friend?”
He shrugged, “I’m not saying best friend or confidante.”
Sophie agreed and had no other reply. “Are all humans weird or is it just the royals?” She asked suddenly.
“Excuse me?” Neal was taken aback.
“I feel like a game of nisiman has been given too much importance here. Her Highness has to trap people and Your Majesty tries to save them beforehand.”
“No.” He laughed. “I think it’s just my family. By the way, you don’t have to fulfil your side of the bargain.”
“I will,” Sophie stated, “I made a promise.”
“To the empress,” Neal said. “I’m not a lonely old woman in need of company, like my mother.”
“Still, I would like to pay my dues. It’s a matter of honour.” Sophie didn’t know it but something inside her wanted to come back to the castle.
“I’m giving up my claim here. Enough of your time has been wasted. You don’t have to waste any more of it if you don’t want to.”
Sophie smiled. “I never do anything I don’t want to.”
“Really? So you came here because you wanted to and not because you felt obliged?”
“I was curious. I wanted to know what was going to happen.”
“Then you and I have a lot more in common than I thought,” Neal said. “We are both wilful.”
“Don’t you always have to do things you don’t want to?” Sophie asked, “To keep up appearances. I mean,” she paused, “you are a prince.”
He looked amazed. “Most people think royalty always gets their way.”
“I have seen royalty from proximity.”
“Well, the trick is to let people think you are doing what they want. And not let anybody know that you are doing things you are not supposed to.” He snapped his fingers like performing a magic trick.
“That’s an interesting approach.” Sophie felt it was a coward’s approach but she asked, “How does Your Majesty accomplish this coup?”
“For instance when I have to sit through a boring meeting, I make them think I’m listening to them; when I’m not.”
“I would just storm out of it.” Sophie laughed.
Neal shook his head. “You would be a terrible princess.”
“We should be glad I’ll never be a princess.” She grinned.
“You can never be sure how things turn out.”
“Yeah, if I had won and asked for your empire, I could’ve been a princess.”
“The empire is not mine to give. But I would have given you my crown happily.” He held his ruby pendulum in his hands.
Sophie rolled her eyes. “And I thought people fought for empires.”
“They do. It’s their duty.”
“What if you don’t want to do your duty?”
“Then I don’t do it.”
“You wanted war? You wanted to live on the snow covered mountains?”
“What’s wrong with living in the mountains?” Neal said, “And all those people I killed the other day, I did because I was raged with all the deaths.” He took a deep breath. “I did not want war. It was a step towards what I wanted- peace.”
“The championship. Did you want that? Did you make it happen?” Sophie could not ask him the question she wanted to ask so she decided to be content with the one she could.
He gave a sly smile. “I may have written a letter to Sia. I try my best to get what I want,” Neal said, “and I want this.”
“Why do you want the championship? You are not even participating.”
“I have my reasons.” He smiled again.
“Why did you make Sia do it?”
“The idea was good. But if I had suggested it I would have to do all those talks and meetings and stuff.” He crinkled his nose. In truth, Neal was sure of a deep scrutiny of all of his plans by his mother.
Sophie was not satisfied with the answer. ‘Maybe the human princess was successful in her attempts. He would see her again,’ Sophie thought. She asked him, “When should I come to pay the price?”
“Whenever it suits you.” He shrugged. “Tomorrow, next week, next year.”
“I don’t think I want this thing hanging over my head for that long,” Sophie said.
“Tomorrow it is then,” he agreed, “at first light.”
“I’m taking away this nisiman set,” Neal told his mother.
“I have more.”
“What kind of empress are you?” He waved his palm. “Gambling and conning innocent people.”
She laughed. “You make me look like a con-woman.”
“That’s what I said.” Neal touched his thumb to his fingers making a circle. “Con.”
“Come on, there are people worse than me,” she said. “I gather you won.”
“Of course I did,” Neal said, “But you are not getting the prize.”
“So you pardoned her.”
“She did not agree for a pardon.”
“So, you are getting the prize? I should have known.” She threw her palms in the air. “You won’t miss any meeting with any starlite, would you?”
“I,” he pointed a finger at himself, “played the game.”
“But she was the fifth and last one,” Natalia complained like a child being declined a treat.
“Sophie was right. Royals are weird.”
The words were too low to be heard, but the empress caught one of Neal’s rare smiles.