The Smell of Paint
The sun was about to rise when Sophie found herself climbing up the stairs of the castle with Allisa. After three storeys, Sophie decided to ditch etiquette and started flying. Allisa didn’t notice it. The freckled girl had led her like before from the gates, but this time she was in a great mood. She had not only introduced herself but had even ventured to tell Sophie that the game room was the empress’s sanctuary and the paint room was the prince’s.
“We are going to the paint room?”
“He always starts his day there,” Allisa said with a smile, “whenever he is here.”
“And you always escort everyone through the castle?”
“Actually.” She bit her lip. “I’m among Her Highness’s staff. I switched today with my friend. She does not like the ascent.”
“You are a good friend.”
Allisa blushed. “I have always wanted to see the paint room. Not many people are allowed there, you see.”
That explained her mood. When they reached the room, they found its wooden door open. Sophie was instantly hit by the smell she had learned to associate with Neal. It was a hundred times stronger here. The girls entered the room. The wooden cupboard carved in the wall seemed to be the only piece of furniture belonging to the room. It was open and showed boxes of paint, papers, brushes etc. The chair, the table, the sofa, the other cupboard; all other furniture seemed to be had thrown into the room in a hurry.
Sophie finally realized that the smell bothering her for long was of paint. It was surprising. She had seen many fresh paintings and smelled their paint. This was different and much better.
The prince was standing behind a big canvas which hid most of his body. Only his legs and hair were visible.
“Your Majesty,” Allisa said as she saluted him.
Sophie saluted too.
“Thank you Allisa,” the prince said without looking up at them. “You may go now. Please, close the door.”
Allisa did what she was told.
Before Sophie could say anything, he said, “The time-keeper is on the table. Do whatever you want; sit like a statue, take a nap, watch the view (he pointed at the window), or eat something.” He pointed at the table laden with different kinds of food. “Help yourself out when your time is up. But don’t disturb me.”
Seeing the quizzical look on her face he said, “Mother told me about the time keeper. You should have told me before.”
“I forgot, Your Majesty.”
Sophie occupied a chair. She was determined to sit like a statue. The chair was angled such that she could not see the painting but had a sideway view of Neal’s face. Looking at his face, she understood what he had meant by being physically present but mentally absent. His face was not hard in concentration, like Sophie had imagined artists to be. He had a blank expression, almost serene.
He would chew on his brush, mix his colours, gaze into the distance, close his eyes, smile at his ideas, murmur to himself; all without acknowledging her presence in the room.
Her thoughts started running after some time.
‘He wouldn’t know if someone came and stabbed him in the eye.’
‘I could do that.’ She smiled at the idea.
‘I would probably stop the attack though.’
‘Why does he always wear a white shirt? The ruffles are getting dirty by the paint. Come to think of it everybody is always wearing white shirts. I only have two white shirts. Should I buy more white shirts?’
‘I wonder what he is painting.’
‘The landscape outside maybe. Or maybe something from memory.’
‘Why is he barefoot? Who does he think he is- a starlite? Even I’m wearing shoes.’
Neal’s strokes had finally gotten a momentum. His left hand clutched the canvas while his right hand made swift motions with the brush.
‘Looks like he has finally decided what to paint. Normal people use the other hand to hold paint, not canvas.’
‘Why do these colours smell so good?’
‘Ooh starberries!’ Sophia thought as she spotted a bowl full of her favourite fruit lying on the other table. ‘Should I go and eat some? I may as well.’
‘Why did they not put a chair here along with the food? Looks like I’ll have to stand here for a moment while I eat. I’ll just take the bowl to my chair.’
‘His hair looks different.’
‘These starberries are delicious. If starlites could love, I would love these.’
‘These people are real weirdoes.’
‘How do they keep the starberries so fresh?’
’Rocus has it right. Even human clothes are not that much different from the starlite attire,” she thought, analysing the prince’s attire.
‘How tall is he really? He may be the tallest man I have ever seen.’
‘Oh God, I ate all the starberries. I hope he doesn’t notice.’
“Left cupboard, top shelf,” Neal said, “over the ice.”
“There’s a cupboard to your left,” he explained and vanished again in his world.
Sophie wondered what he wanted and opened the cupboard. To her utter horror, on the top shelf lay a bowl of half melted ice. It cradled another smaller bowl filled with starberries. Her face turned crimson. She did not know what to do but bring the bowl with her.
‘I’m not going to eat another berry.’
‘How many eyes does he have?’
‘Is he even painting? Or just spying on me.’
‘Who keeps fruits in a cupboard?’
‘At least I know how they keep them fresh. The ice has half melted. Which means it was kept around one or two hours ago.’
‘Was he looking at me the whole time? Analysing how an unsuspecting subject acts.’
‘These people are the creepiest.’
‘What more blunders did I make?’
‘Did I stare at him too much?’
‘I hope I did not make a bad impression.’
‘What is he thinking?’
‘I should have never come here.’
‘Oh no, I’m eating the berries again.’
‘I should buy these colours and make room freshener out of them. He seems to be using it as a perfume.’
‘Where can I buy these colours? Will they be too expensive?’
‘I should probably stop eating these.’
‘I wonder if he is still watching me like a hawk.’
‘I saved his life twice, he should remember that.’
‘Is he even painting? Sia had it right. Can’t trust him.’
‘I ate too many starberries. Will I get sick? Who gets sick by eating fruit?’
‘He has strange ears.’
‘Why can’t he talk to me?’
‘Why are here so many starberries? Is he also a starberry fan? Will he get angry that there are none left for him?’
‘How long has he been standing there? Isn’t he tired?’
‘I could have done something productive with my time.’
‘He must be hungry. If he is, it’s his own fault.’
‘Why did he give me more starberries?’
‘Are these starberries laced with something? What if I’m in a horror story?’
‘He keeps no servants around- no witnesses.’
‘There is no one around.’
‘What can he do? I can fly.’
‘Not if these starberries are laced with something.’
‘Is he planning to kill me?’
‘Or keep me prisoner in a secret dungeon below the castle. I wonder if that would include physical torture.’
‘Surely people will come looking for me.’
‘Nobody knows I’m here.’
‘She must be loyal to him.’
‘I don’t think I like her very much.’
Neal’s hand stopped. The artist took a few steps back so as to get a better look at his art. He tapped his chin with the back of the brush, still deep in thought. He rolled up his sleeves, mixed the colours and went back to work.
His bare left hand still clutched the canvas. Something on it caught her attention. She stared at it for five minutes, making sure that it was indeed what she thought. Sophie was stunned.
‘What am I supposed to do now?’
‘I should leave. Will it look weird if I leave?’
‘Where’s the time-keeper?’
‘I have overstayed.’
‘I should have left an hour ago.’
‘Damn those starberries.’
‘I could leave now.’
‘He’ll know what I saw.’
‘Why would he do that?’
‘Now I know why Sia wanted me to keep an eye on him. She definitely knows.’
‘Why would he do such a thing?’
‘If I ever did it, I would use the sure way. Direct knife to the heart.’
‘Could it have been an accidental scar?’
‘Too many of them for that.’
‘Maybe a big accident.’
‘Maybe he was into blood sacrifices. Hopefully just his own.’
‘Will I able to look at him in the eye now?’
‘Will I stare at his wrist now? Does his other hand have the same scars?’
‘These scars look many years old.’
‘How young he must have been then!’
‘Did he jump into the waterfall that day?’
‘Does he even sleepwalk?’
‘He is a big liar.’
‘Should I pity him?’
‘Being royal sure is trouble.’
‘He is the most peculiar person I have ever met.’
‘Poor guy. I hope he is better now.’
‘Damn now I know another secret.’
‘What was I thinking yesterday hoping to find the royal secret? I don’t like keeping secret. Serves me right.’
“How does it look?” Neal asked with a satisfied smile on his face. He turned the canvas in her direction.
She tilted her head. “It looks like me.”
Neal rolled his eyes. “It is you,” he said straightening his sleeves.
“And a bowl of starberries.” She turned a deep shade of scarlet.
“I name it,” he placed his open palms dramatically in front of the painting, “Happiness.”
“How about gluttony?”
He smiled. “Sophia, everybody has a weakness. At least it’s not something addictive or dangerous. Fruits are the healthiest.”
“I do look happy,” she observed. “Why did Your Majesty paint me?”
“Like I told you before, I’m not an old woman seeking company.” He opened his arms. “I’m a young artist in need of models. Landscapes are just not my thing.”
“What will you do with ‘Happiness’?”
“You can have it if you want. I should not be found in possession of pretty faces.” He winked. “It may send the wrong message.”
“You never painted Sia.” Sophie was sure Sia would have shown her.
“After I painted Charlie, she was sceptical about her portrayal. Charlie must have shown you his.”
“One of my earlier works,” Neal said. “It wasn’t that bad. So do you want it?”
“Yes, I look so pretty,” Sophie said. “I never thought that a painting would smell this good.”
“These are my special colours. Only one person in the whole world makes them.” There was pride in his voice.
“Must be expensive.”
“On the contrary, can’t be any cheaper.”
Sophie wondered if cheapest for a prince could be affordable to her.
“Where can I get some?”
“I didn’t know you painted,” he said.
“Then why do you want them?”
“They smell so nice. Should be used as a perfume.”
“Mother hates this smell. According to her, I always ‘reek’ of paint,” Neal said. “You know what? Just for saying such nice things and being my muse for today, you can have this box.” He handed her an unopened box.
“You know I could have sat still for the painting.”
“I wanted real expressions. Besides,” he smiled playfully, “it was fun to watch you sitting clueless, not knowing what to do with yourself.”
“I’m glad Your Majesty enjoyed it.” She plastered her face with the fakest smile she could manage.
“It was hilarious.” He laughed. “I’ll send the painting once it gets framed.”
“I hope I have paid enough price for not following Your Majesty’s advice.”
“Oh, I hope not.” He said.
The true meaning of the words was lost to Sophie but she found it hard to be angry at the prince, now that she knew what she herself wasn’t sure she knew.