Sophie found it very strange to enter through a window, although she agreed that it was better than the stairs. A starlite meeting room was of course not thought of when the castle was built. Sophie was sure if it had been thought then, she would have had a door to enter instead of the six feet window.
The prince was standing on the other side of the table, his back to her. She again pondered on the peculiarity that unlike the empress, the prince never had any servants waiting on him.
“Your Majesty,” she said to aware him of her presence.
“So, Commander Antofurota,” Neal turned; a smile on his face. “You must not be at a loss in guessing the reason of this meeting.”
Sophie knew that it was about a promotion but she did not want to sound presumptuous.
“Please sit,” he said on getting no answer from her.
He took his seat opposite to her and Sophie observed the customary tea-tray on the table.
“Everybody in the guardians knows that Colonel Hossier will be leaving in a few months’ time. And you have been named by him as his successor.”
Sophie’s face lit up. “It would be an honour.”
“Finally.” He smashed his palm on the table. “This calls for a celebration.”
The prince got up and opened a cabinet behind him. He placed the two glasses on the table and poured the red wine in them.
“This shows how little I know about my guardians,” he said toying with the glass in his hand.
Sophie looked at him. Something was wrong. But she couldn’t pinpoint it. He looked the same, talked the same, smelled the same, but something about the prince was off.
“Duke, Qureshi, Poles and Richards,” he said, “I talked to four guys and they said no. The first person Hossier names, is ready to take the job.”
Sophie took a big sip from the glass. She was grossly uncomfortable for some reason. “Any more people to say no to the job couldn’t have been left.”
“I guess that’s true.” Sophie felt that the prince was not in the conversation. His head was somewhere else.
The prince got up and started pacing the room. He was constantly tapping his fingers on the back of his hand.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said, “starlites and humans are not that different.”
“I suppose we aren’t.” Her eyes narrowed at the sudden introduction of the subject.
“Still we live in completely different worlds.”
“It’s the cultural gap.” Sophie said in a matter-of-fact tone, “It all comes down to three things.” She raised three fingers. “We can fly.” She closed one finger. “We have no problem breathing on high altitudes.” Another finger closed. “And then there’s love,” she said closing her hand.
“Yes love,” he said breaking his pace. He turned to look at her. “This love thing is strange. It is just a feeling. Like every other emotion you feel- hate, envy, discomfort.”
“Yes, we do feel every emotion but love.” Sophie agreed.
“This is strange, why do starlites marry then?” He was standing right behind her chair.
“Because it’s the law,” Sophie informed him.
“So would you still marry if this law was absent?” he asked, looking intently in her eyes.
“Yes, I would,” she replied. ‘I swear, this is the weirdest job interview ever,’ she thought.
“Companionship, I guess,” Sophie said. “Children, maybe.”
“So, if a human could provide all these, would you marry him?”
Sophie choked. “Of course not.” The wine she was drinking threatened to come out of her mouth. Inter-species marriage was not frowned upon, only because nobody had the audacity to even think about it. “Humans marry for love,” she stammered.
“Not all,” he said. “My father was in love with another, all his life. And my mother never loved him.”
“I never knew my parents. I’m sure that they did not love each other. But they did not have this threat over their head, of falling in love with another.”
“Nor did my parents,” Neal muttered. He slowly walked towards his chair and sat down.
“It is one thing that the humans are not in love,” Sophie said. “But it is another thing for a human to know that he can never fall in love with his or her spouse.”
“You have to feel something.” Sophie thought that she detected pain in the voice but quickly inclined for frustration. “For instance,” he said in a calm manner, “what will you feel if I kiss you?”
Sophie wondered if she should fly out of the window. Instead she decided to try humour. “Desire to kick you where it hurts.”
“I mean with permission.” Neal stood his ground.
“Starlites feel that. It’s called lust.”
“Yes.” He nodded. “Lust without love. Humans do that sometimes.”
Neal closed his eyes and went into a deep reverie. Sophie did not know what was happening. She nervously took another sip of the red wine, emptying her glass. The glass in his hand was full. Yet she wondered if he was drunk.
“How do you know?” Neal opened his eyes and said, “That it is not love that you feel?”
“How do you know that it is love that you feel?” Sophie countered.
“How do I know?” he smiled. “You can’t stop thinking about a person. You want to see them, talk to them, be near them; every chance you get. You smile every time you think of them. Sometimes, you have a weird feeling here.” He pointed to his chest. “It pains you to see them with someone else. Has it ever happened to you, Commander?”
“Can’t say that I have. But Your Majesty seems to be talking from experience.” If the prince was in love, it would explain his behaviour. She had heard humans did stange things in the name of love. But why was he telling her all this was lost to her. ‘Perhaps I am his only friend.’
“Have you ever been stabbed in the heart?” Neal asked instead.
“Do you know how you will feel if I took a knife and stabbed you in the heart?” Neal stood up and made a stabbing gesture towards her.
“Pain, I imagine, and fear,” she said. “Fear of death.”
“See, we can imagine things without experiencing them,” he said in triumph.
“I suppose.” Sophie was not convinced.
“Now instead of stabbing,” Neal said slowly, “imagine loving someone.”
“I can’t. I don’t know what to imagine.” Sophie stood up. She was feeling uneasy.
Neal emptied his wine glass in one gulp. “Okay,” he said crossing the table once again. “Look into my eyes.”
“What do you feel?”
“Your eyes have golden specks in the black irises.”
“That’s what you see. What do you feel?”
“I feel like this is pointless,” Sophie said.
Neal grabbed her by the hand and dragged her towards the empty space in the middle of the room. Her head starting spinning.
“Remember the ball,” he said. His voice had a sense of urgency to it. It was a demand as well as a plea.
He moved her like he had at their first ball. Sophie remembered floating. “Remember us dancing at the ball. What did you feel?”
“I feel dizzy,” she answered honestly. He stopped moving her.
“Remember the nisiman game?” The urgency, the demand, the plea, had a hint of hope in it.
“What did you feel then? Remember the day I made the painting.”
Sophie closed her eyes. “It smelled nice,” she said.
“What did it smell like?”
“Just like this.”
“You.” It was half question half answer.
“Remember the tournament. Remember Princess Marya.”
Sophie’s stomach churned. “I hated her.”
Sophie felt uneasy. Why was he talking like that? Why were they still dancing?
He asked again, “Why did you hate her?”
“I don’t know,” she cried.
“Why did you say no to Wilson Williams?”
She gasped. “How do you know that?”
“I know everything Sophia.” Neal smiled. Everything was wrong with the smile. “It’s you who needs to know.”
Sophie could not say anything. She opened her mouth but no sound came out. Her vocal chords felt paralyzed. They were standing still but she felt dizzy. His hands were still on her. Her body shivered. He cupped her face. Her body froze, sweating at the same time. She couldn’t breathe. He moved closer to her. Her heart raced as if about to fail. She could feel his breath on her cheeks. All blood in her body rushed up.
His lips didn’t touch her; instead they whispered in her ear, “I’m in love with you, Sophia…”
Her ear didn’t hear the words; instead her mouth vomited warm red liquid all over him. She fell in his arms, her eyes gazing in the infinity.