The Starlite Princess
Sophie had grown up looking at the starlite castle. Being in a valley, it didn’t tower above every other building, despite being the tallest among them. Sophie had played in its garden as a child, dined at the great table as a family member and danced at the balls held in the hall; but she always returned to her home.
Her home had been the second tallest building in the starlite territory, a twin tower to the castle; only less majestic, less royal and more crowded. The castle was white, her home was grey. It was named ‘Cassandra Tower’ in the memory of the late queen. The starlites, however, called it by a more appropriate name- the orphan tower.
Sophie had seen neither of her parents. Her mother had died during childbirth and her father had died before that in the battlefield. When they were little girls, Sophie and her friend Sia often talked about their mothers. Sia too had no memory of her mother. So, most of these talks were based on their imaginations and what the elders had told them.
The tower was home to many other starlite orphans, but Sia and Sophie failed to become friends with any of them. The reason could have been that the girls were content with each other. It could also have been the jealousy Sophie’s association with Sia inspired in general or the intimidation Sia’s royalty caused.
“At least you have a father and a brother,” little Sophie had told her friend one day.
“Aren’t you a ward of the state?” Sia had protested. “Doesn’t everybody in the grey tower claims my father for their guardian? He says that he is a father to you all.”
Although it was the official stand, feelings have little to do with words. The king had adopted every orphan under his sovereignty and he performed his duties towards them without any hesitation. They were provided with the best education and training available to starlites. Still, Sophie was the only one who had taken these words to the heart. The others thought it better to be an orphan than have a father with hundreds of children.
The attachment between the two girls was such that the king and the prince also thought Sophie as part of their family. Although Sophie felt the same, she never forgot her status of a commoner.
Sophie had decided early on not to be a handmaiden or a companion to Sia. She could never work in a place she thought home, for the people who were her family. Working for the royals would have only confirmed to the general misconception of her privilege due to her proximity with them. The sword had always been her choice of vocation and she had enlisted as soon as she was of age.
The war had brought her the fame she had dreamt of for a long time. The first person she wanted to congratulate her was her friend Sia.
Sia gave Sophie a big welcome hug. “I’m so glad you are back, well almost all of you.” She chuckled looking at her short hair.
“Good to see you too,” Sophie said taking a seat on the big bed beside Sia. She noticed the new curtains in the room but chose not to comment. Her head hung low.
“People lose limbs all the time in battles; your loss will at least grow back.”
“I suppose I should be grateful.” Sophie gave a half-hearted smile.
Sia picked up a cherry from the plate of fruits on the table. “Grateful? You should be cheery! I heard you killed it in the battlefield,” Sia said. “Not that there were many people to see it.”
“The person who commands the whole army saw it. Who else matters?” Sophie smiled, wanting Sia to ask about her big news.
However, Sia missed the clue. “Neal?” She asked dumping the cherry in her mouth.
Sophie smiled smugly. “Yes.”
“I guess you are right. You picked the best time to show your skills,” she said, “more importantly, the best person.”
There was silence for a while as both girls got busy in eating fruits
“Hey, what happened at the ‘negotiation’ meet?” Sophie asked. After Prince Neal had called the truce, the terms were to be discussed in a political meeting.
“The temporary pause to the battle,” Sia said, “may become permanent after the peace meeting. The westerners are coming to finalize a peace treaty and this time it looks like they mean it.”
“Nothing that hasn’t happened earlier,” Sophie said shaking her head. “There is war and then there is peace, and then the war comes again.”
“This time it’s different. Everyone is coming: the emperor, the king, the queen, and every prince and princess.”
“All of them?” Sophie’s eyes widened.
“Yes, it would be quite a meeting,” Sia said. “We have less than a month to prepare for their arrival.”
“Charlie will be back by then?”
“I suppose,” Sia shrugged. Her twin had got married just before the war broke out and hadn’t returned home since.
“Oh, he’ll come for sure.” Sophie waved her hand. “What is a honeymoon compared to meetings like this?”
“I wish I could’ve gone to war with you,” she pouted.
“As long as the king fights, you don’t need to.”
“One person per family,” Sia muttered with displeasure. It was the rule of the land that only one person from a family could fight in a war at a given time. It was made after constant battles had wiped many family names.
“Don’t worry you’ll get your chance.” Sophie patted her shoulder.
“I’m sure I won’t. My big brother Charlie got the east all peaceful with his marriage. The north won’t even acknowledge our existence- either with war or with friendship. So unless we have a civil war which I don’t want—”
“We’ll always have the west,” Sophie interrupted.
“That’s the thing.” Sia got in a more upright position. “Father thinks they have an ulterior motive in coming here,” she whispered. Sophie realized that the princess had her own gossip.
“You mean a trap?” Sophie’s eyes narrowed.
“Kind of.” Sia gave a sly smile. “They want to trap Neal into marriage.”
“How do you ‘trap’ someone in a marriage?”
“They hope to pressurize him from all sides.”
“Don’t humans marry for love?” Sophie tilted her head.
“Not always,” Sia answered. “You are so naïve. Only the lucky ones find love and then also they have so many barriers to cross, such as pressure from family, society, economics and such.”
“It’s much better our way. We don’t let love cloud our judgment. Starlites are never pressurized into or out of marriage,” Sophie said as she gazed lazily through the window. “Unless you count the law that obligates us to marry exactly once in our lifetime.”
“Yes we would always do the practical thing; whatever is best for ourselves, our family, our nation, our world, the whole earth,” Sia said rolling her eyes.
“Well, it’s not that bad for him. If we and many other humans can live without love, so can the prince. He is the one waving the white flag with full enthusiasm.” Sophie pursed her lips.
“Poor Neal should not be made to pay such a hefty price for peace. He deserves his chances with love.” Sia added secretly, ‘God knows they are already very slim.’
“Why don’t you marry the starlite prince?” Sophie jested as she plopped a blue star-shaped fruit into her mouth. The fruit was called starberry because, like starlites, it is indigenous to the snowy mountains.
“Maybe I will,” she said in a mocking fashion, “and you can marry his little brother.”
“The one they call the depressed prince?” Sophie made a disgusted face. “I have better plans.” She would have flipped her hair if she had hair long enough to flip.
“Do tell,” Sia asked, “what exactly are your plans?”
“Glad you asked.” Sophie stood up and said with a smug smile, “The crown-prince was so impressed with my skills that he offered me a job.”
“What job?” Sia frowned.
“Well, there is only one job.”
“He wants you to join the guardians,” Sia stated.
“Should I?” Sophie asked sitting down on a nearby chair.
“For a sword-wielding girl like you, this is the perfect job opportunity.”
“Since there is going to be peace.” Sarcasm dripped from her voice.
“Since there is going to be peace,” Sia emphasized. “You’ll have to go back to what you were doing before the war.”
“Nothing but sitting in remote places hoping someone would attack.” Her lips curved down.
“You’ll be nearer to civilization this way,” Sia said. “What did you tell him?”
“I said I’ll think about it.” She stretched her hands lazily.
“Then it’s precisely what you need to do. Think about the pros and cons.”
“I’ll have to live on the grounds.”
“It’s not that far and is much better than being in some remote army camp.”
“But I’ll miss the mountains.” The chair dangled on its front legs as Sophie bent towards Sia.
“How do you know? What’s the longest you have been out of the mountains?”
“I’ll miss you three,” Sophie said in a childlike manner curling Sia’s soft golden lock between her fingers.
The princess chuckled. “We are there half the time. Well, Charles not that much now.” She rolled her eyes. “He used to be an energetic boy before I left him in all-male company. Now the lazy ass detests traveling down. Soon he’ll grow a belly like a father. You know, when we were little, Charlie and Neal were inseparable like us”
“I’ve heard marriage changes, people,” Sophie said. “And just because he doesn’t love fighting like you and me, you can’t call him lazy.”
“Meetings are hard work, dear sisters,” Sia said imitating her brother’s thick voice.
“We are getting off topic. You think I should take the job?”
“It’s just that you know nothing about the humans and the nymphs. You might be benefited by some knowledge about their culture and lifestyle.”
“Do I want to spend the rest of my lifeguarding a wall?”
“Don’t be so melodramatic.” Sia laughed. “It does not need to be the rest of your life. Do it for some time and then come back if you don’t like it there.” Sophie did not answer. “When you said you won’t be in our guards, I understood your disposition. But now I think you don’t want to be anything but a soldier. If that’s the case, you should decline the offer.”
“I’m too young to decide what to do with my life. Have you decided it?”
“I’m a princess. I can be nothing but a princess or a queen. Royalty is not allowed to work,” Sia said looking more magnificent.
“I don’t know if I’m jealous or relieved.”
“Your Majesty.” Sia’s chambermaid appeared with a scroll in her hand. After Sia had taken it, she left with a starlite salute.
Sia glanced at the scroll and squeaked, “Father is giving you the Starcrest.”
Starcrest was the second highest military award among the starlites.
“I did play an important part in the victory.” Sophie gave a close-lipped smile.
“I know father only sent you there to deliver the news,” Sia said, “because you were sulking.”
“Sulking rocks.” Sophie was unabashed.
“Here it says –‘The Starcrest is being bestowed upon…blah blah blah…for showing remarkable sword-fighting skills in extreme conditions and saving the life of the crown prince.’ You saved Neal’s life?”
“I guess,” she shrugged. “These things are common on a battlefield. You kill ”
“At least we will have that ceremony. I wish my father would throw a ball like the Empress is throwing in Neal’s honor.” Sia sighed. “Or let me throw a ball in his honor.”
“You can always go to the human ball.”
“No way. I went once. Human balls have humans.” Her nose cringed. “And they do the human dance. I bet you didn’t know etiquette restrains a starlite to fly inside human dwellings. We have to walk.” The last word was said with a mix of horror and disgust.
Sophie’s eyes widened. “I can’t imagine dancing without feet in the air. Where do they move?” Fighting with feet on the ground the was bad enough for her.
“I do love those human dresses though. Pity we can’t fly in those.” Sia pinched her velvet tights.
Sophie could not fathom Sia’s desire for a dress. Sia looked stunning in her pink silk shirt with gold embroidery matching the color of her hair.
“And shoes,” Sia blabbered on.
Starlites didn’t think it necessary to wear shoes as their feet were always in the air. Sophie wondered if the reason for Sia’s frequent visits to the human castle was an excuse to wear shoes. Even Sophie knew it would be an insult to the human royalty if someone went to the castle barefooted.
“We have socks,” Sophie said in defense.