“Why are you crying?” Neal asked his mother. He felt like he had just woken up from a vivid nightmare.
“You did not drink it!” she exclaimed, wiping the tears she hadn’t noticed flowing out.
‘SOPHIA!’ he remembered. “How is she?” he asked.
“She is fine. She is sleeping in one of the rooms.” The empress had not bothered to check on her. She assumed her to be fine. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Neal realised that he smelled of vomit. The room did too.
“Call the tri-council,” Neal said, “It’s very critical.”
“I’ll send somebody to clean you up,” Natalia said in acquiescence and left the room.
“What has been done?” Neal asked the trio. The four of them were in a big oval room. It was the most secure place in the castle. No servants were allowed.
“We are investigating but still have no clue as to who could’ve done it,” the empress said with her hand on her temple. “Edward is still trying to analyse, with his team, what kind of poison was used.” She was sitting on one end of the square table between Crystal and Suffle.
“I’ve met Sophie,” Suffle said looking left at Neal. “She is awake and doing fine. It was lucky that your medic had the antidote.”
“No it wasn’t,” Neal said and the three pairs of eyes looked at him.
“The wine was not there to kill me,” he stated. “I would be dead if it was.”
Natalia took a sharp breathe. “You did drink it.”
“Yes,” he said in the same tone. “I drank the wine, but much later than she had. So my symptoms appeared in the confinement of my room.”
“Why did you not take the antidote?” Crysta asked, her eyes searching for something in Neal’s.
“The doctor had only one dose,” Neal said in a matter-of- fact tone.
“And you thought saving her life was a better idea?” Natalia stood up. Her palms banged on the ornate table.
“I did not die,” Neal said gazing at the tall thick wall. There were no windows in the room. “Why did I not die?” His question was not philosophical but rational, one that needed to be answered.
“First I demand an answer.” Natalia was still standing. Her whole body was trembling. “Why did you not take the antidote? Do you have no regard for your own life? You. Do. Not. Get. To. DIE.”
“It’s obvious isn’t it?” Crysta said. “Natalia, you are too disturbed to see it. He—”
Neal cut her mid-sentence. “Who would you want alive?” Neal looked at Suffle. “Me or her?” When Suffle did not answer, Neal continued, “A person who is dying to die. Or a person who is happily living?”
Crysta laughed. The noise was dark and terrible. “You don’t want to die. You wanted her to live.” Her disdain for him exceeded his disdain for them. She had not forgiven him for wrongly hating them.
Neal glared at her. “We have more urgent matters to discuss. Why did I not die?”
“Because you are special,” Suffle said, “Maybe it didn’t work on you.”
“I had the same symptoms that she had. I think the poison was not to kill. It had an ulterior motive.” Neal looked at all three of them one by one. The faces provided no answer.
“It may be a slow poison,” Natalia said. Her hands were still shaking. “You should get yourself checked.”
“They are checking the wine,” Neal said. “We’ll know soon.”
“Why would somebody risk poisoning your wine for nothing? Who could’ve had access to the room?” Crysta said. Her eyes had not left Neal’s face. She was sure of finding a secret there.
“It must be somebody from the castle.” Suffle said. His chin was resting on his palm.
There was a knock on the heavy door. The four of them looked at each other. The servants knew that they were never to be disturbed in this room.
“Must be something about the poison,” Neal said. He crossed the room in three quick paces and disappeared behind the door.
“He is in love with the starlite,” Crysta said as soon as the door closed behind Neal.
“Crysta,” Natalia exclaimed, her face covered in her hands. “Sure you remember what happened the last time.”
“He started hating the three of us and threatened to kill himself.” Crysta was unfazed. Natalia fidgeted at the word ‘threatened’. Neal had done more than that. He had tried to kill himself. Crysta continued, “But it was because he thought, still thinks, that we had planted Sia in his life.”
“He still thinks the same, what more can go wrong now?” Suffle added, “Maybe he was destined to fall in love with one of us. We just had the wrong person last time.”
Natalia looked at Suffle. A ray of hope gleamed in her eyes. “You think it possible?”
Before Suffle could answer, the door opened. Neal entered and bolted it again.
“We need to send a message to Queen Sia.” His voice trembled slightly but still had a sense of urgency to it.
Sophie woke up in a room she had never seen before. The lights were dim and the curtains were closed. She could make out the silhouette of a person sitting on a chair next to her bed.
Flashes of the previous evening came to her mind: the prince, the promotion, the wine, the talk. The last thing she remembered was something round and black with streaks of gold.
“Am I ill?” she asked sitting up on the bed.
The silhouette opened the curtains and said softly, “You were poisoned.”
As sunlight entered the room, Sophie recognized the silhouette to be king Suffle.
“Who would poison me?”
“Nobody wanted to poison you,” he said taking his seat.
She wrapped her arms around herself. “It was for the prince,” she realised. “Is he all right?”
“Fortunately, Neal did not drink it.”
Sophie smiled. “That’s good.”
Suffle got up. “I should inform the medical team that you are up.”
Soon Sophie was surrounded by a team which asked many questions about her health but answered none of her. She realised that she was to be under observation till they discovered the name of the poison.
She waited for the king to return but he was holed up in a tri-council meeting.
After Suffle had left, the empress had visited her. Natalia made sure that Sophie was comfortable in the castle and in want of nothing. It was hard to comprehend why the empress was not in the meeting that kept the king busy.
Sophie ventured to ask the empress if the prince was all right. She had heard the witness account from the medics that the prince had been covered in her vomit. “I would like to apologise for puking on His Majesty,” she said to the empress, an embarrassing smile on her lips. Sophie also remembered that the prince was on edge about something. ‘Did he know that his life was in danger?’ Sophie thought, ‘No, I know the reason. I wish I could just remember it.’
The empress’s expression was just pure love. She touched her cheek. “You have already done enough for him,” she said with a motherly affection. “He could have been here instead of you.”
The empress continued, “I’m sure he would have come to thank you personally, but he is not here. Given the imminent danger to his life, he has gone into hiding. There is someone inside the castle who wants to harm my son.” Her expression had changed into hatred.
Sophie grimaced. “I hope that the traitor is caught soon.”