Sophie was counting the days till Sia’s arrival. The days seem to drag but finally her wait was over. A huge inflow of guests filled the empire on land as well as water. The royalty on all three sides had made ample arrangements to make the guests feel comfortable. Prince Charles had arranged for a welcome feast in their honour, Prince Neal had secured entertainment from around the land and Princess Maya had ordered more holes in the wall.
As soon as she could, Sophie demanded a monopoly on Sia’s time. Sia told her all about her new home and her married life while Sophie filled her in with details about her new home at the grounds and her life as a guardian.
“You have to see my new house. It’s above a garment store.”
“And you are excited because?” Sia raised an eyebrow.
“It’s the most famous shop in the whole empire. Elites come there to shop.”
Sia dramatically put her hand on her heart. “For a minute there I thought that the ground has changed you.”
Sophie shook her head in disdain. “Tell me about your castle.”
“The castle is at the highest peak. The view is breath-taking. And they have these beautiful apple orchards. Princess Marya is so sweet. I’m on such good terms with her.”
“What about the depressed prince?” Sophie asked.
“Please don’t call Ez-her that,” Sia emphasized.
“Okay,” Sophie raised her hands in defeat, “How does he look? Does the stories do him any justice?”
“He looks exactly like we heard.”
“I wish I could see,” Sophie caught herself before Sia could reprimand, “uh, meet him in person.”
“The girls he meets in person tend to end up in his bed,” Sia said with such a flat face that Sophie couldn’t comprehend whether she was amused with it or appalled by it. Seeing Sophie at a loss for words, she smiled. “Enough about him. There are so many things I need to tell you. Getting married really changes everything.”
Sia kept talking about her married life and Sophie found herself thinking that she would not mind that life, if only she could retain the occasional use of her sword. By law, she had to get married in a couple of years. She didn’t quite hate that law even though she found it disturbing. The idea of having someone who wouldn’t leave you till death, was too sweet to forfeit.
“You are not participating! I can’t believe it!” Sophie exclaimed. “You are in cahoots with Prince Neal and Charlie.”
“I know they both have their reasons and so do I.” Sia said biting her lower lip to hide her smile.
“Charlie’s reason is pride. ‘It’s not fair to him.’ Or are you going to use Prince Neal’s ‘it won’t be fair to the others’? Because if really want to bolt, any reason may suit you.”
“My reason is far more important.” Sia made a dramatic gesture towards her belly, “It won’t be fair to the baby.”
“Wow.” Sophie’s eyes grew wide. “Congratulations,” she said hugging her.
“I haven’t told Charlie or father yet. So hold your tongue the time, will you?”
“Yes, Your Majestu.” Sophie said. “Why do people keep on piling secrets on to me?”
“What kind of secrets?” Sia asked raising her brow.
Sophie thought about Neal’s wrist and the scars on it but decided against telling her. Even if Sia knew, it wasn’t her secret to share. She had come upon it by chance and it would only embarrass the prince.
“Well one day King Suffle let something slip. They are waiting for something big to happen. And then Prince Neal told me that it has already happened and I should not tell anyone about it. But he can’t tell me because I don’t know what the big picture is,” Sophie said it all in a rush. It had been bottled up inside her for long.
“When did he tell you?” Sia asked. Neal’s last letter told her much, but she needed to talk to Neal.
“About two months ago.”
Sia put her hand on her mouth. “Oh! You know about the prophecy.”
“What kind of prophecy?”
“There’s this prophecy about a girl.”
Sophie leaned towards her. “What girl?”
“Neal thinks it’s you,” Sia whispered.
A shiver ran through her body. Neal had a reason to inform her. She gulped. “Me?”
“Once there will be a girl, who will have crazy sword skills, an innocent heart, and the capability to,” Sia said, “believe in anything.” She let out a big laugh.
“That was mean,” Sophie said crossing her hands and turning away. “Marriage has made you mean.”
“Silly, there is not a monarch in the world who doesn’t have a secret. Phil’s brother is so secretive that he never even leaves his room.”
“Is that why all royals are weird?”
“Are you calling me weird?”
“You are turning a secret into a joke. Yes, I’m calling you weird.”
“Okay.” Sia decided to give in. She had thought about it for long and had decided that her friend deserved the truth. And now the opportunity had presented itself without much effort on her part. “I was not supposed to know. But the trio thought….," Sia paused, ,"and then Neal was furious. So he told me. His secret was eating away his happiness. And I think he is better off having turned all his anger towards the trio.” If Sophie had been holding it for months, Sia had borne it for years.
“But what is it?”
“It’s a decades old secret, before you, me or Neal were born. There would be chaos if it comes out. But if Neal says that something has happened...”
“Why does the prince hate the monarchs? If it is something they did before he was born, why does it only affect him? Why not you, Charlie or the nymphs?”
“Some years ago, the trio tried to,” Sia paused, thinking of a way to make Sophie understand without giving away the truth, “uh, do something. When Neal understood what was happening, he felt like an experiment. That’s when he,” Sia checked herself.
‘That’s when he tried to kill himself,’ Sophie completed in her mind.
“That’s when he told me,” Sia completed.
If the reason for his attempted suicides were the trio, Sophie could understand his hatred. A shiver of emotion ran through her. “But it works,” she asked scratching her head. “It will be good for all.” The word ‘redemption’ kept ringing in her ears.
“The trio never planned it. They were just hoping to make it right. Neal refuses to understand this.” Sia looked at Sophie, “That’s why I am always worried about him.”
There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. Sophie did not know what to say. She did not know what she felt. But she knew her feelings were intense.
“You must not come here often, to the mountains,” Sia said trying to lighten the mood.
Sophie was relieved at the change of subject. “The king is mostly on the grounds, in the human castle. And you are not here. My job is there. So, what’s the point in coming here?”
“What about Charlie?”
“I don’t think he misses anyone,” Sophie said. “He has his wife, anyways.”
“Charles is lazy with his feelings,” Sia said. “You know that. He won’t write to me much, because it would be too girly. He won’t go down to meet you because it would be against protocol and he won’t meet Neal because, he doesn’t want to be called a brown-noser. But ultimately he is like you.”
“You could have gone to meet him. If Neal could go to the mountains, he would have. In one of his letters he told me how much he wants to meet Alex.”
“Prince Neal writes to you?”
“Of course,” Sia said playing with the ring on her finger. “Who else would he write to?”
Sophie calculated the number of letters she had written to Sia and gladly found it to be satisfactory.
“Did he ever, um, write about me?”
Sia’s lips tightened. “Neal?” She wondered if Sophie had any knowledge about his plans.
“Yeah.” Sophie said blushing slightly, “I made a fool of myself when I ate all of his starberries. I had written about it in my last letter,” she reminded Sia.
“Your name may have popped once or twice.” Sia smothered a giggle. “I’m curious. How many starberries did you eat?”
“Well.” Sophie tapped her fingers together. “There was a bowl this big,” she made a gesture with her hands, “and then another bowl. But I did not empty the second one.”
Sia chuckled. “One would think your salary is not enough to feed you.”
“It’s not my fault. I was bored,” Sophie complained. “You know his shenanigans.”
Sophie had already narrated the whole story to Sia in her letters and do had Neal.
“I don’t think he minded the starberries. If anything, he would have enjoyed it. He lives for these kind of things. Just don’t eat any more starberries in front of him.”
“I don’t plan to be in front of him for a long time.”
“I hate to break your bubble Sophie, but your long time ends tomorrow.”
Sophie rolled her eyes. “I was hoping that his face would disappear among the crowd.”
Sia answered with an even bigger roll. “He would be having a front row seat in the arena.”
The sword-fighting and weapon-less combat were to take place at the human arena where the humans and some select nymphs with tattoos could also enjoy them.
“Well, I won’t be eating there.” Sophie shrugged.
The next morning was filled with excitement as the events started at the grounds. The arena was oval with the perimeter constructed to imitate the steps of the stairs. The seats closest to the ground were reserved for the royalty and the participants.
The rules were stated once more. For all the duel competitions, there were to be four matches. The first round was between two randomly selected participants out of the three empires. The second round was to be held between the winner of the first round and the remaining participant. The third was for the losers of the previous matches. The finale would be between the winners of the second and third rounds.
King Suffle started the day by defeating his eastern competitor. The crowd watched with their eyes glued to the sky. Some among them were experiencing their first ever starlite sword-fight.
“Tomorrow, I’ll defeat your husband,” Suffle said to his daughter as he took his seat between his two children.
“I suppose you don’t think you’ll be playing overmorrow.”
“What?” he exclaimed, “The loser’s game? Whoever wins that game will get to taste defeat from me once again.”
“Father you are overly confident,” Charlie said, “Just because Prince Philip is not present at the moment.”
“He isn’t here? Where is he?” Suffle looked around.
“He had some work.” Sia shrugged.
Sophie who was sitting next to Sia found it strange that Philip could have work in this empire. She looked around to see if she could spot him but instead she spotted Prince Neal. He was sitting on the other side of the arena, directly facing them. His gaze seemed to be at the play area where the humans were having the shooting competition. The empress was sitting to his left and to his right was a girl who Sophie assumed to be Princess Marya. Princess Marya seemed less interested in the game and more in talking to her neighbour. Sophie looked at his face and realised that he was neither interested in the conversation nor in the competition. His irises were not moving like one would expect from the audience of a shooting competition. His face and his gaze were steady like he was staring at something. Sophie smiled and shook her head in appreciation. Like he had told him during that game, the prince was not there. She marvelled at the beauty of his plan because, even the princess was fooled as he occasionally threw a grunt in her direction. She also laughed secretly at the princess’s stupidity. ‘She’ll never succeed in trapping him,’ Sophie thought.
Soon it was her turn to fight. She was to fight an eastern girl named Rhythm, who looked slightly younger than her. Rhythm’s face radiated expectations and enthusiasm. “Rhythm is a strange name,” Sia commented.
Alex agreed. “Her mother wanted a unique name.”
The two players circled the ground with their swords pointed at their opponents. They held no shields. The fight started with both of them clashing their swords while still on the ground. One, two, one, two, their feet and swords moved as if in a badly choreographed dance sequence. Then they took altitude. They were wearing the fighting attire but without armour, since the swords were blunt. Rhythm managed to save Sophie's attack on her neck and throw her off. Sophie tried another attack but Rhythm ducked and Sophie was swerved off. Rhythm attacked her now, putting all her weight into the attack. Sophie used both her hands on the sword to defend herself. She could not throw Rhythm off so she went low. It made Rhythm lose her balance and she started falling. She gained her balance before hitting the ground and made another thrust towards Sophie. Sophie bent and grabbed the end of Rhythm’s sword with her left hand. She attacked Rhythm on the shoulder using the sword in her right hand. Sophie threw Rhythm’s sword off her, making Rhythm lose her balance once again, or so she thought. In a flash of lightening, Rhythm’s sword was on Sophie’s neck while Sophie was still trying to regain her upright posture.
The crowd which had been watching in suspense burst into cheers for the victor. Holding back tears, Sophie shook Rhythm’s hands. With a stoic face, she went back to her seat.
Sia knew the best thing to do was not to talk to Sophie. She was in no position to see or hear anything. Speaking was out of the question for her. Sitting there was a pain for Sophie, but she knew if she ran away, she would look like the sore loser she was. So she sat through the whole ceremony, gritting her teeth and controlling her tears, reliving every moment of the fight. She dared not look at Rhythm, or anybody else. She had no idea that two people on the opposite side of the arena were discussing her actions. The actions which were done almost absent-mindedly.