The Starcrest ceremony was conducted a week after the event leading to it had occurred. The whole council was present for it with the exception of the royal couple Prince Charles and Princess Alexandria.
The hall filled with sounds of ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ as the king pinned the star shaped diamond on Sophie’s chest. Sophie was on her knees, the soft blue carpet caressing her through the black velvet tights she wore. She kissed the king’s hand as per tradition. Even after all his battle years, it was soft and as cold as snow. He whispered, “You have made your father very proud.”
Sophie wondered for a moment if he was referring to himself or her biological father. She looked in his eyes for a clue but the only thing she saw was Sia’s blue eyes in his round face.
“Thank you, Your Highness.”
Sophie asked him after the ceremony if she could take some of his time to discuss a personal matter.
“Of course dear,” he said, “bite my ear off.” He led her into the library.
“Prince Neal offered me a job,” she said as she sat on a chair across the king. A big rectangular table separated them.
Sophie smiled. King Suffle was always aware of everything. It was his habit to be in the loop. His naturally jovial nature made people comfortable enough to tell him everything. He was a father figure not only to Sophie, but too many other young starlites as well. Of course Neal respected him enough to ask him before offering the job to Sophie.
“You haven’t given him an answer yet,” he said. His elbows were on the table, his fingers intertwined to make a platform for his chin.
He looked straight at her. “I know what you must be thinking. You have never lived in the grounds. You have never even been to the grounds.”
She protested that she had been to the grounds a couple of times, but not for more than a few hours.
“My advice would be to visit the place. Roam around and learn a little bit about the environment, the culture, the people. See if you like it there.” He waved his hands.
“It’s not only that.” She confessed, “I’m not clear about what the guardians do.” She would have blushed if it was anybody else, but it wasn’t in the king’s nature to make anyone feel judged.
“Hmmm.” He thought for a moment and said, “You know how the nymphs harm humans?”
“They seduce the men and have sex with them. The men die immediately afterwards.” Sophie had heard it was supposed to be the best sex of their life but she had her doubts. She questioned how anybody could have been alive long enough to vouch for it.
“Not only that. As a guardian, it will be your duty to save the women too.” He withdrew his hands from the mahogany table.
“I thought the nymphs were all females.” Sophie’s eyes narrowed in confusion.
“Yes they are. The nymphs don’t cause any physical harm to the women, they steal their hearts.” His eyes aimlessly wandered among the various shelves of the library.
Ripping off somebody’s heart was serious physical harm in Sophie’s dictionary. She tilted her head. “What does this mean?”
His eyes darted back to her. “It’s not literal. In the human world, ‘stealing someone’s heart’ means making someone fall in love with you. With reference to the nymphs it has another meaning. A nymph does not steal the actual beating heart from the body; she takes the control that another heart has willingly given.”
Sophie said nothing. He understood her confusion and tried to explain in a better way. “When a nymph steals a heart, she gets control over whoever loves the human girl. Nymphs can turn this control, this love, into a tangible object. The girl is not physically hurt and if she is lucky enough to not have a lover, she gets her heart back. But if some unfortunate boy is in love with the girl, he is as much doomed as a man seduced by the nymph.”
Her brow furrowed. “So the nymph calls him to herself and has the killer sex?”
“Yes, a mental call. He is drawn towards her. Think of it as a twisted form of the control that love has on humans.”
Sophie sighed. “It’s so sad. A man has to die because he loves a woman who is stupid enough to fall into a nymph’s trap.”
He leaned forward. “The humans need us because of this reason. If only the men were in danger, they could have made an army of women.” He pinched his nose. “The nymphs live in the ocean and the humans have built a huge wall along the coastline. No human is to cross it, unless it’s a woman claiming her stolen heart. Nymphs can cross the wall only after they have taken the vow of celibacy.”
“What is the vow of celibacy?” Sophie wondered how much was there to learn about this new job.
“It’s when a nymph stops being dangerous to humans. She stops seducing men and stealing hearts.”
“So, it’s retirement.” Sophie nodded.
“Not exactly. The vow of celibacy can be taken at any age. I have been told that the day on which they get the celibacy tattoo on their wrists is considered to be the biggest day of their life. They celebrate it as being free from the curse.”
“Nymphs don’t like killing humans,” she deduced.
“No, they don’t. And I want you to always remember that. They are just addicted to sex. I have heard of nymphs returning stolen hearts when they thought the female’s love to be true and pure.” He was transported to the past by some old memory.
“Guardians don’t kill nymphs, do they?” Sophie appealed with her eyes. She crossed her fingers for a negative answer.
“Not unless there are extreme circumstances. The guardians just have to guard the walls twenty-four seven. The wall has gates throughout it so as to enable the celibate nymphs to cross. Even if they catch a nymph seeking trouble, she is returned to Queen Crysta.”
She slouched. “So that’s all the guardians do? Guard the wall and open the gates.”
“It is hard work,” Suffle said. “The wall is broken at several places. The nymphs keep enhancing the damage. Humans are always sneaking out.”
“Why would the stupid humans do that?” Sophie pressed her lips.
Suffle smiled. “You will understand when you see the beach. The nymphs do an assiduous task on its beautification. It is paradise,” he said. “But not all guardians guard the wall. It’s the work of the troops. The captains manage the troops. As a commander, your work will mostly consist of strategy and administration.”
“Administration.” Her face dropped. There was no way she was going to take the job.
“Commander Brones has expressed his wish to come back to the mountains. You’ll be taking his place. Nice man he is.” Suffle tapped his chin. “Your responsibility as a commander will be to see that the work is being done efficiently by your juniors as well as your seniors. You’ll have to conduct surprise inspections, go to the other side of the wall and most importantly, it will be your duty to make sure that the problems of the troops reach the ears of the Chief Guardian. Chief Guardian is a much esteemed position to hold, the highest a starlite can get in the human court. It will not surprise me if you become the Chief Guardian in two- three years.” The king corrected himself, “or whenever the post becomes vacant.”
Sophie saw on his face, the pride he would feel if she became the Chief Guardian. If he said it will be vacant in two- three years, it will be vacant by then. He believed her capable of reaching there in the time. She decided it was worth a try.
“But don’t you think I should start at the bottom? As a captain maybe,” she voiced her doubts.
“Bottom?” His brows furrowed. “That ship sailed last week. You will make a fine commander. If you don’t have faith in yourself like I do, at least trust the decision of our Chief Commander. It is part of his command. The Chief Guardian reports to him. Do you think Neal would jeopardise the guard by giving you a job he thinks you are not capable of doing?”
Sophie smiled at the boost of confidence. “I’ll take a stroll,” she yielded.
“Take a few. Brones won’t leave until next month.”
Sophie asked him how long the training period will last.
“Training?” Suffle scoffed, “all you have to do is guard a wall.”
Sophie made a face but said nothing. She knew he was teasing her.
He chuckled. “You already had your training in the army. Nymphs fight like humans, though they are a little more vicious.”
Sophie could not think of anything else to ask. She was wondering if the king would suggest a few places suitable for the strolls she was to take. But the king gave their conversation a new turn.
“I assume Sia told you about our upcoming guests.”
“Yes, I’m surprised.”
“The westerners are as desperate for peace as we are, though their reasons may be different.”
“I can understand their reason. They have no chance on the battlefield. Why are we desperate?” Sophie’s hand unconsciously went to her hair.
“Peace should always be top priority, even on the battlefield.” His gaze again wandered to the past.
Sophie wondered how she had never seen the peace loving side of her king before. He continued, “Remember, we still don’t know what weapon was used for the destruction of the whole human unit.”
Sophie looked down, ashamed of her imprudence.
“The emperor believes a marriage to be the only permanent solution,” he continued.
“So it is a ruse to display their eligible bachelors and spinsters.” She smiled.
“Ruse?” Suffle chuckled. “They are doing it very openly. They are bringing even the ineligible one.”
Her upper lip rose at the corner. “What do they hope to accomplish by that?”
The humour was still intact on his face. “They will ask the nymph queen Crysta and me and you and anybody else they can find to pressurize the poor lad into marriage.”
“And they expect to succeed by such means?”
“It’s hard for a person to say no if everyone he knows is asking him to do the same thing. If you want to pressurize me, won’t you take the help of Sia and Charles?”
“Even Alex and anyone else from the council I can get.” She joined in the humour.
“Exactly.” As she rose he said, “I do think this is the job for you; unless of course, you find the grounds uncomfortable and inhabitable.”
“You think it possible?” She stared at him with raised eyebrows.
He shrugged. “You should visit the Crescent waterfall located at half mile north of the human castle. I can’t remember who, but some young starlite had advised me to visit it, and I’m glad he did. It is the most beautiful place in the human territory I have ever seen.”