Sophie felt overwhelmed at the sight of the human castle. It was big and intimidating, with two towers emerging at the sides. But the cause of Sophie’s worry was the fact the she had never been to a human ball before, or had any other human contact, ever. Starlite balls, she had had her fair share of them. She wondered how the nymphs held their balls but soon brought her focus to the task at hand.
At the balls she had been to, there were always people she knew. At least some friends or acquaintances were always to be found. The only person in this entire ball who knew her was the host and their acquaintance was limited to two meetings. “Both of which resulted in me saving his life,” she reminded herself.
She looked around at the ball. Splendidly dressed bodies with unknown faces surrounded her. To her relief the one known face spotted her and approached. Neal was wearing a dark blue coat. As he came closer, Sophie realised he looked much different now that he was groomed properly. The first time she had seen him, he was camped for battle on a mountain. The next time he had just got out of bed and had walked to the top of a waterfall.
‘Now he actually looks like a prince.’
“Care to dance?” Neal extended his hand.
“My pleasure, Your Majesty.” She gave him her hand which he kissed and then escorted her to the middle of the dance floor.
Once the dance started there wasn’t much for her to do but float. It was a slow dance and they danced in a traditional position. Neal was directing her like a puppeteer directs his puppet. The hall was much larger than the hall at the starlite castle. Still it was packed. Sophie was glad for it as it meant little movement for the couples and no group dance.
Neal was the centre of attention and he kept his office by smiling and nodding in every direction. Sophie noticed many people watching the dance from the upper floor. Some of them had been dancing before.
“Dinner’s on the first floor,” Neal said. He had followed her gaze. “I thought it would leave more room for dancing. Of course the empress had other plans. She doubled the guest list.”
“I’m sure all the guests are delighted by her plan,” Sophie said in a formal tone.
“Not all. Some of them would have enjoyed being invited more if their ‘inferior’ friends were not invited.”
Sophie did not think it fit to comment on the matter.
“I should congratulate you on getting the Starcrest.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“Sia talks a great deal about you. Even Charlie does. But he mostly complains about how the king favours you girls above him.”
“It’s sweet of the princess to talk about me,” Sophie chose to ignore the second part.
“So you assume she only says good things about you?” Neal raised his eyebrow.
“No, Your Majesty, you misunderstand me,” Sophie said without losing a beat. “It’s good to be talked about among the elites, even if they say some bitter truths about you.”
“You are a treasure,” he chuckled. “Why don’t you try politics?”
“I’ve got another job offer to think about right now,” Sophie said with a poker face. “Why does Your Majesty keep giving me job offers?”
“I would burst into a laughing fit if you and I were not in a formal ball right now.”
“I would not want to cause embarrassment to Your Majesty.”
“Then I take it you will keep our little secret to yourself,” he whispered in her ear.
“I’ll take the secret to my grave,” she said and he knew she meant it.
“I don’t think that would be necessary. But I like your spirit.”
After some minutes of silence, Neal asked Sophie if she was tired.
“Not at all Your Majesty,” Sophie replied. Even if she were, she was the kind of person who would consider admitting it as a sign of weakness. She wondered why he would ask her such a question. Was she looking tired? Who could get tired floating around? The starlite balls were tiresome. Starlites did real dancing.
“So you are up for another dance?”
“Sure.” Sophie remembered her orders of not letting him ditch her.
“So Sophia,” Neal said with a smile, “How does a starlite ball differ from a human ball?”
“The music is faster. The clothes are of course different and we don’t dance on the floor. We dance in layers. The room is filled up to the roof. We take up much more space for dancing. The dance is exhausting. Sometimes we have the ball on the frozen lake, when it is not frozen. The sky is our roof and the water touches our feet. You never know when or whether the ball ended.”
“It sounds interesting,” Neal said, “Our balls are not always this boring but even the good ones would look simple in comparison to your balls.”
“What are the good balls like? And why is this not a good one?”
“Well, for starters, this is my home and not a public ball room. It’s filled up to capacity. Think of a bigger place with lesser crowd and a little more lively music.”
“I think this is a good ball, Your Majesty.”
“Now you are just being polite.”
“Oh no, I never lie; even for the sake of politeness.”
Sophie saw some animation in his eyes and wondered what he was thinking. Perhaps he thought she was lying. Or maybe he was thinking how a life could be led without lies. Finally he said, “You and I are total opposites.” There was a kind of smile on his face that Sophie could not comprehend.
“I wish I could see one of your balls,” he said wistfully. They were now moving round and round at their spot. Sophie had no idea that the move was called the fleckrl; neither did she have any inclination to know.
“Your Majesty must surely know humans have trouble breathing at the altitude.”
“But starlites don’t have any problem breathing here. Do you feel hot here?”
“A little, yes,” Sophie said, “I’ve heard the guardians trade their wool and silk for cotton.”
“Yes, they do.” He asked, “Is the food there much different than ours?”
“I wouldn’t know Your Majesty. I have never seen human food.”
“You can try now. Like I said, dinner is on the first floor. Dance and dinner, they both continue all night long.”
“Does Your Majesty want to eat?” Sophie was not hungry but she took it as a hint that Neal wanted to eat.
“I cannot eat at my house, until you all get out.”
“That’s a way to put it,” Sophie said. Even at starlite balls the host was not supposed to eat. “At least we found something common in our balls. Sia hates this rule.”
“Charles is a big fan though.”
“He had his own rule. It’s not a ball if he has not talked to every girl present.”
“I don’t think his wife will appreciate this rule,” Sophie smiled.
“Speaking of Charlie, when is he coming back?”
“Sia is sure he’ll come back before the big peace negotiation.”
“Yeah, he loves such meetings,” Neal said. His ears turned a little pink and Sophie remembered what Sia had said about the trap.
“He is the peace-lover of the family.”
“With you three always ready to fight.”
“King Suffle, Sia and you.”
Sophie hadn’t expected to be acknowledged as a part of the family. ‘Maybe Sia and Charlie do talk a lot about me.’ She said to Neal, “What about Alex?”
“Alex married Charlie to strengthen our ties with the easterners. How’s that war-love?”
“This shows you haven’t met her yet. As for marriage, it’s not something Sia won’t do in a heartbeat.”
“Really?” A smiled crept on his face.
Sophie did not answer.
The hall started getting less crowded, and they got more space to dance. Every couple was now moving better on the floor.
“You make a convincing human,” Neal said.
“People see you walking in a ball gown and they don’t give it another thought,” Sophie said, “You may put on a pair of velvet tights and a fur coat and tell everyone you are a starlite. Nobody is going to question you.”
“I have been told to have a passable skin tone,” Neal said, “but starlites have to fly. I can be a starlite no more than you can be a nymph.”
“I can be a nymph,” Sophie said, “for about a minute and half.”
“That’s an impressive time. Good thing I haven’t timed holding my breath,” he said, “Or next you’ll say I could pass for a nymph.”
“Let me think.” Sophie closed her eyes in mock imagination. “Nope, not a pretty sight.” She immediately regretted her insouciance.
“Why hadn’t I find you before?” Neal tried to suppress his laughter.
Conversation ceased for some time, as Neal tried to gain advantage of the thinning crowd by doing some space utilizing moves. Sophie had no idea what steps they were doing. She was in doubt whether the couple looked any good performing them.
'He must know what he is doing," she assured herself.
“Lots of space to dance now,” she observed after about half an hour of silence.
Neal twirled her. “I wonder why."
Sophie decided to ignore the sarcasm. “Everybody is leaving."
“About time,” he said, “this is the last dance.”
“Human balls do get over soon.”
“Interesting,” Neal observed, “Sia had a different opinion.”
He saluted her in the human style when the dance ended. “I bid you a good night, or whatever is left of it,” Neal said with a smile, “Miss Antofurota.”
“Goodnight to you too, Your Majesty.” Sophie started her salute in the human style, but then she let her hands flutter for a second. She was sure nobody but Neal saw it. “God, you really can’t lie,” he said.
“I don’t,” she emphasised.
Sophie left the ball thinking it wasn’t as bad as Sia had said. In fact it wasn’t bad at all. If only she had managed to eat a little.