The next day Sophie bought a pair of shoes from a starlite shop. The shop was an oddity and did not offer much choice. It suited her perfectly.
Sophie had been issued shoes to practice as part of her training in the army. It had turned out very fortunate. This kind of foresight was the reason they always thrived in battle. Sophie was also glad that the shoe etiquette was not waivered even in the battlefield. She shuddered at the thought of being shoeless at Xeo.
The Crescent waterfall was a famous picnic spot among both the humans and the starlites. The waterfall was about four hundred feet high from the ground but the depth of the water pit remained a mystery. Folklore said the water joined a river in the underworld. The daredevils among the starlites were would for place bets on who could go lowest along the waterfall.
It was a beloved spot for the trekkers, the ghost chasers and the sightseers. At least a hundred people, consisting both the starlites and humans drowned every year in the pit. The bodies could never be recovered.
It was midnight by the time Sophie reached the waterfall. She had been meaning to avoid the tourists and had learned that night would be the loneliest. The deafening sound of the waterfall covered every other noise. The night was starry, but without a moon. The scenic beauty of the place captivated her senses. Wanting to break-in her new shoes, she started walking along the side of the pit.
She was surprised to see a figure standing on top of the waterfall.
‘Another daredevil,’ she thought.
Instinctively, she flew towards the figure. Sophie was just in time to recognise the man before he jumped into the pit. She was glad to have caught him, for he was a human.
“Were you committing suicide?” she asked him as she placed him on the ground. She had to shout to be heard over the water.
“Of course not,” Neal said, “I was only…” He did not complete the sentence.
Sophie looked at him waiting for the answer. He was in his night clothes and looked as if he had just gotten out of his bed.
“You are not to tell anybody this,” he said with full authority.
“I suffer from somnambulism.”
“You walked this far in your sleep?” Sophie wondered how a sleepwalking man could have fared well in the battle. “Don’t you have guards to watch over you?”
“Sleepwalking is a powerful thing. As for the guards, I’ll have a talk with them,” he said with anger, “I could’ve died here. I guess I should thank you for saving my life.”
“It’s my honour, Your Majesty.” Sophie remarked to herself that she won’t be getting a Starcrest this time. “Should I drop you at the castle or you want me to get someone?”
Neal assured her that there was no need for either of it and he could manage on his own. “What are you doing here?” he enquired.
“Experiencing life on the grounds.”
He smiled at the answer. “I see. You’re thinking about the job offer.”
She answered in the affirmative.
“This,” he said indicating at the empty place, “is not life. If walking was your sole purpose, you could’ve done it in the mountains.” Sophie did not correct him by pointing out that it was the temperature and climate she was trying to familiarise herself with. He continued, “If you want to experience the human life, you should come to the ball tonight.”
“I,” she hesitated, “I don’t think it would be a great idea, Your Majesty. A starlite at a human ball will attract attention unwanted to me.”
“Then come disguised as a human.” He shrugged.
“Then I’ll have to dance,” she said with a frown. The starlite rule for balls was you either dance or leave. Starlites were not into small talk.
“So what?” Neal decided to omit the fact that even though dancing was the major object of the ball, it wasn’t mandatory.
“I can’t do the human dance,” she said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“You mean the footwork?”
“I don’t even know what human dancing looks like.”
“It’s pretty easy. If you can fight with your feet down the in snow, I’m sure you’ll manage the dance.” Seeing her still apprehensive he said, “Your enemies met you on the grounds, now let your friends also experience it.”
Sophie wondered what he meant by friends. There wasn’t going to be a single friend of her in the ball. That was undisputable.
Neal produced a piece of paper from his pocket. “Not my first time to have found myself in such a situation,” he explained as he scribbled something on it, “one has to be prepared.”
He folded the paper and handed it to Sophie. “Give this to Sia. She’ll know what to do.”
It felt very covert to Sophie, who took it with a ‘Yes, Your Majesty’ and flew away.
“See you at the ball,” he called after her with a wide grin, “Sophia.”
Sophie was impatient for the morning to come. The note which Neal had given her contained only one word- ‘Anna.’ Sophie had spent the rest of the night wondering who Anna was. She went to the castle as soon as she felt it appropriate.
Sia awaited Sophie with eagerness. Sophie had told her about her plan to go for the stroll and the princess wanted to hear all about it. The most important thing that she wanted to know was her decision about the job.
She was startled when Sophie came to her room and gave her a piece of paper without saying a word.
“How did you get yourself into such a scrape?” Sia asked on reading the note.
“You met Neal,” Sia said. “You have to go to the ball tonight.” Sophie could see Sia wasn’t happy at all about it.
“You got all that from one word?” Sophie was astonished, and also a little afraid as Sia was turning a bad shade of pink.
“How did he convince you to go to the ball?”
“Job research. The prince said I’ll have some human exposure at the ball.”
“Never believe a single word that comes out of his mouth,” Sia spat the words. “I’m fed up of his shenanigans. You don’t need human interaction. You will only interact with starlites or maybe nymphs.” She took a deep breath in hopes to erase her frustration.
“Alisha,” Sia called her handmaiden who appeared at the door in an instant. “Get Vega. Fast. With her tools.”
Sophie did not know who Vega was but hoped her tools included something to calm Sia down. “I have already said yes. So…”
“You are right you cannot back out now. Just brace yourself and get it over with.”
“Is a human ball that awful?” Sophie ventured to ask now that Sia’s face was returning to its usual white. “Who is Anna?”
“I am, or rather was for one night,” Sia said. “Neal had this awesome,” Sia said rolling her eyes at the last word, “idea for his first ball. He begged me to come to the ball so that he could have someone he knew to dance with him.”
“Don’t he have human friends?”
“The sad truth is he does not. Everybody is not as lucky as me.” Sia smiled at Sophie. “Anyway, I hadn’t been to a ball ever, so I agreed. I think it was also because of the dress. He introduced me as his cousin Annabella and told me to act like a human. Turns out I’m not as good an actor as Neal. And maybe, that’s the reason, he doesn’t have any friends.”
“You really hate him for this. How bad was it?”
“It was fine till the human girls swarmed him and he ditched me and I had to talk to humans.” Sia shivered.
Sia turned pink again but this time it wasn’t anger, it was embarrassment. “Let’s just say it was the day I realised we need to know more about humans. I said such silly things. It still haunts me. Neal thought it was funny. I was so angry that I hung him upside down from his ankles. He thought it to be funny too. The man’s idea of fun is completely out-of-place.”
‘The prince does not seem to be the kind of person one should get involved with,’ Sophie cautioned herself. ‘Or maybe it is Sia’s anger for one time clouding every other thing.’ She resolved to ask Sia some other time.
“So now to business,” Sia said. “You will need a dress.”
“Don’t you have the dress you wore?”
“Of course I do. But it won’t fit you. I was fifteen at the time.”
“Thus you called Vega.”
“She is a starlite who makes human dresses. And wonderful dresses they are. She is quite famous among the humans. Not so famous among her own people though. Also, she is the person to give you insights about the humans. I bet no other starlite knows about humans more than her.”
“I came as fast as I could,” Vega said. She was a short woman with bug like eyes and unnaturally black hair. She was carrying a big box which Sophie understood to contain her tools.
“How are you, Vega?” Sia asked kindly.
“Busy,” she said curtly. “With the ball tonight I’m neck deep in work.” It was evident she was not happy being summoned on a busy night.
“I’m about to give you some more work.”
“You want a dress?” she asked. The ‘why’ was hidden in her expression.
“She,” Sia pointed at Sophie, “needs a dress, for the ball tonight.”
“In starlite fashion?”
This part of the conversation was lost on Sophie.
“Stand here, like this,” Vega instructed Sophie who obeyed. “A little up. Yes that’s perfect.”
Vega took her measurements and left. “I’ll have it delivered,” were her parting words.
Sia spent the rest of the day explaining the human etiquettes to Sophie, and how she was to behave among the people. Sophie came to know that ‘starlite fashion’ dress meant a dress in which she could fly above the ground without anyone noticing.
“Vega will make the dress a little longer so that you can have your feet in the air. Also a heavy lace in the bottom will help keep it down.”
Sophie’s concern was maintaining the same altitude throughout the night. It would be floating more than flying.
“Don’t let Neal ditch you, like he ditched me.”
“But then how will I mingle with the humans?”
“You don’t need to mingle. Just observe them from a distance. That’s all a guardian needs.”
The ball was to start at sundown. Vega delivered the dress in time, as promised. The dress was of an ice blue colour. The bodice was made up of lace of the same colour, which went up to the neck and the wrists. The skirt was plain but the material gave it an elegant shine. Heavy lace adorned the bottom as Sia had predicted. The dress had a triangular cut at the waistline, so the bodice made a W shape at the back.
Sophie dressed herself at the castle.
“Your hair was a tangled mess before. And now it is just a two minute job to set it,” Sia said looking at her handiwork.
“It wasn’t a mess.” Sophie protested .
“You know what I just realised. People say a girl should change her hair if she wants to change her life.”
“Looks like my life is about to change.” Sophie rolled her eyes.
“All done,” Sia said as she finished the final touches on Sophie’s face. “It is such fun to play dress-up with a life sized doll.”
“You can always have Alisha be a doll for you,” Sophie said dryly.
“She gets afraid. You know it’s supposed to be the other way around.” They had not asked for Alisha’s help as Sia wanted it to remain a secret.
“I have not seen many human dresses but Vega is sure an artist. How much do I owe her?”
“You don’t. It’s a gift.”
“You know I don’t take gifts from you.”
“It’s from Neal. He should pay for making you go.” Sia said in a sinister tone, “I will make him pay.”
“I’ll return it tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Sia raised her hands in defeat, “Give it back to me. I’ll pass it to Vega.”
“I should go now.”
“Come back directly here, no matter how late it gets.”
“I will,” Sophie promised.