She Loves Me
The first day of the event was not good for Neal. He was sitting in the front row, sandwiched between his mother and Princess Marya, the latter of whom was determined to cling to him. Because of her, he couldn’t meet Sia or Charles who were sitting with all the other starlites right across the arena. Neal looked at the empress for help. She shrugged helplessly.
Neal shut the outer world and concentrated on the one face that calmed him. Marya was still chatting about whatever competition was being held, thinking that he was looking at it intently.
The time came when Sophia lost the match. He saw that she was hurt. But she went back to her place showing her sportsmanship. Neal could not look at that sad face anymore, knowing that it wasn’t in his power to do anything. He returned to his surroundings.
“What is that girl’s problem?” Marya said. She was looking at Sophia.
“What happened?” he asked her.
“I have a kind of feeling that she doesn’t like me. And I haven’t even met her.”
Neal glanced at Sophia. “Why would you think that? She is just upset that she lost.”
“This has been going on since the morning. If she is upset to lose, she should make her opponent and her nationals uncomfortable. What have I done to her?”
“I’m sure you are mistaken.”
“I’m not,” she said sternly.
The next day started with the same story.
“Prince Philips is looking here very strangely,” Marya said.
“He is just upset that he lost,” Neal said with a feeling of deja vu.
“I’m warning you. He is looking at you in a hostile manner.”
“I’ve never met him in my life.”
“I wonder if it is a starlite trait, that girl lost and made me uncomfortable. Now Prince Philip lost and it should make you.”
Sophie was not present and Neal waited for the next day. The only match he cared for was Sophia’s. He saw her close her eyes and murmur something before the fight started.
The two women moved in a circle. Neal looked at her face. She was smiling, like she knew a secret nobody else did. He found himself getting lost in that smile. The cheers of the crowd brought him back to his senses. Sophia had disarmed her opponent in one swift move. They had not even gotten in the air.
“Look at her,” Marya said. Neal was already looking at her. She was in the air taking a victory bow. She looked in his direction and her smile vanished. Marya continued, “Who does she think she is? Just because she had an easy win, she can’t look at me like that.”
This time Neal had seen it. He assumed that Sophia was looking at him and not Marya. What could she have against Marya? Neal remembered the previous day and looked at Philip. He did not seem hostile at all. He was happy as he had won his match and was to fight King Suffle for the finale.
Sia caught him looking and signalled him to meet her outside. Neal excused himself and went out.
“I had to tell him,” Sia whispered.
“What did you tell him?” Neal asked with his eyes wide in horror.
“Not everything,” Sia assured, “just that you needed my help. He saw you at the orchards.”
Sia told him the whole story.
“He was jealous? How is that even possible?” Neal stared at her.
“He thought I was infidel.”
“I didn’t know that starlites felt envy.”
“Envy, passion, possessiveness, joy, hurt,” Sia said rolling her eyes. “You know we feel everything but love.”
“I’m sorry,” Neal said, “Do I need to apologise to him?”
“There’s no need for that. But why are you grinning like an idiot?”
“I happen to enjoy the company of great minds.” Neal winked. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go back to the said company.” He walked away with a new spring in his steps.
“Has anybody ever told you that you are brilliant?” Neal asked Marya.
“Once or twice,” she replied with a charming smile.
“Don’t let that fool you,” he said. “You are a genius.”
“Thank you,” she said. “May I know what profit have you gained from my genius?”
“I mended the fence with Prince Philip because you told me he was upset with me,” Neal said with a smile. “A very minor misunderstanding.” He took her hand in his, “I must thank you. You’ll be a great ruler.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” she said putting her other hand on the pile of hands. “Maybe I should talk to the girl.”
“I think that would be ill-advised.”
Marya smiled. “Your empire, your people, your rules.”
“You told me it wasn’t her,” Philip said to Sia pointing towards Neal and Marya.
“Don’t be stupid. There would be no problem if she was the one,” Sia said. “He is just admiring her ‘great mind’.” She rolled her eyes as she had understood what he was doing.
“Then who is she?” Philip asked.
“You can take a thousand guesses and you won’t get it right.”
“You guys also see that,” Alex exclaimed. She had not heard their conversation but had seen them looking at Neal and Marya. “Charles and I were also thinking the same. Looks like Princess Marya is finally succeeding in her efforts.”
“You are all wrong,” Sia said putting her hand on her temple. “And please stop staring at them,” she said in a slightly higher voice.
Charles who was sitting between Philip and Alex agreed. “Neal can’t help being charming. He seems to forget what designs this princess has on him, or he would have kept his smiles in check.”
“Princess Sia is the only sane starlite I know,” Marya commented on the other side of the arena.
“Everybody looks insane to a genius like you.” Neal could not stop smiling.
“She is the only person among the lot,” Marya said, “not staring at us.”
“I’m sure they are all watching the competition. We are just seated directly across them.”
“No, Sia’s brother and sister-in-law, the prince and princess are definitely staring here. She has stopped Prince Philips and the girl next to her is still shooting daggers at me. What have I done to her?”
“You are the genius.” Neal showed his palms.
“Do you happen to know this girl?”
“She works with the guardians,” he said, “a commander I think.”
“I hate how starlites look at humans like a source of amusement.”
“Let’s not go there,” Neal said. “They may just be planning to kill us all and take over.”
Marya chuckled. “That may be true.”
The fourth day arrived and almost everybody was in a good mood.
“Today is the last day that I have to bear those stares,” Marya said, “From tomorrow the separate events will start.”
“We’ll see them at the farewell ceremony.”
“A break is good enough for me.”
Sophie had similar thoughts. “I can’t wait for the separate events to start,” she told Sia, “it’s so boring at the grounds.”
“You live in the grounds.” Sia knew perfectly well why Sophie was uncomfortable in the arena. If only she could make her realise that.
“Unfortunately,” she sighed. “But we’ll have so much fun at the ball.”
“We are going back before the ball ends. So I don’t think that I’ll have that much fun.”
Soon it was time for Sophie and Rhythm to fight for the title.
Rhythm smiled, Sophie grinned. The smile was friendly, the grin taunting.
They took their positions at the ground. This time there was no circling. Rhythm went for the attack straightway. Sophie blocked it with her sword, but could not shake her off. Rhythm pressed hard. Swords still crossed, they both went high in the air.
The crowd stretched their necks.
The swords parted with a burst of energy which backed them both to far corners. Rhythm attacked Sophie again, aiming for her torso. With a horizontal swift, Sophie blocked the attack and the sword flew away from Rhythm’s hand.
As the sword threatened to hit the ground, Rhythm dived and grabbed it mid-air. Sophie flew down to match Rhythm’s altitude. The fighters looked at each other, fire in both pair of eyes. Both were panting. The hold on the swords tightened. They dashed towards each other. The sound of clashing swords reverberated throughout the otherwise noiseless arena. It rang again and again and again till the crowd could not keep tabs. Then it stopped. For a second, everything was still.
Rhythm and Sophie were frozen mid-air, Sophie’s sword a centimetre away from Rhythm’s left eye.
A congratulatory smile spread across Rhythm’s face. Unlike Sophie, she was a graceful loser. Sophie could not help but return a warm smile.
The crowd which had been holding its breathe, raised an uproar. Rhythm hugged Sophie and whispered in her ear, “That was the best fight I ever had.”
Sophie wished that she had done the same when she had lost.
“I hear that the starlites are having a ball,” Marya told Neal.
“I was not aware,” Neal said. His gaze was glued to the arena.
“Don’t you think that humans should also have one too?”
“Why do I think what I think is a question I don’t like to think about.”
Instead of laughing, she said in a solemn voice, “I promise I won’t try to dance with you at the ball.”
It did not have the intended effect on the listener. “Then who’ll dance with me?” Neal asked.
“Whoever you want.” Marya knew that he wanted someone else.
“I don’t like balls or dance.”
“Just because the prince does not like to dance doesn’t mean that the subjects do not deserve one.”
“You are right,” Neal said, “We should have a ball.”
“You want to have a ball but not participate in it?” Natalia asked her son.
“That’s correct,” Neal said. “We should have a ball in honour of our guests like any good host.”
“But you won’t be there.”
“I won’t be comfortable among all these foreigners.” They both knew it was a lie.
“You can have one dance?” she pleaded.
“I don’t want to.” That was the truth.
“We’ll have the ball the same night that the starlites are having it?” Natalia asked. She knew what he wanted to do.
“That’s our only window.”
Natalia smiled. “Then we’ll have the ball. Don’t tell anyone that you’ll be absent.” She had thought of something.
Neal returned the smile. “Then I should order some new clothes for the ball. It would look strange if I don't.”
“Just don’t do anything reckless.”