After the Ball
“You pulled another Anna tonight,” the empress scolded her son.
“Yeah, so?” He shrugged. Neal was on his wooden desk, drafting a letter the empress had asked him to write. The desk was attached to the wall and he could see the midnight sky out of the window. It also meant that his face was not visible to his mother.
“These schemes will result in nothing.” She crossed her arms across her chest not choosing to sit on the vacant chair. It was the only other piece of furniture in the little room.
He put the pen down. “I’m not trying to achieve anything.” He turned to face his mother. “I only invited her so she could get a little knowledge about the human culture.”
She shook her head. “So we have one more curious person among us.”
“It was just preparation,” he said. “She is to join the guardians.” He went back to his letter.
“In the place of commander Brones?”
“What’s her name?”
“Sophia Antofurota,” he replied, smiling as he had managed to thwart his mother’s anger.
“She is the war heroine who got the Starcrest?”
“Uh huh,” he said without looking up from his letter.
After watching him in silence for a few minutes, she said, “You know I’m proud of you? After all your tricks and schemes.”
“That’s sudden,” Neal said. “I know you are, just like I’m proud of you.”
“Sometimes I think I did wrong by you,” she whispered.
“Yes you did,” Neal said. It pierced her heart. He looked at her and smiled with affection. “You have spoiled me too much. Sia would vouch for that.”
The empress knew that neither the smile nor the affection was genuine but she settled for it. Neal’s true feeling was that wrong had been done to him. His mother remembered the blunder Sia had caused as Annabella. “Miss Antofurota did a much better job than Sia. The only reason I could spot her was that I did not recognise her.”
Neal chuckled, “Anyone would do a better job than Sia.” He imitated Sia’s soft voice, “Why would I take horses to travel? They are quite heavy.”
Her eyes crinkled. “I liked the stairs part better.”
Even though Neal hated his mother, he always tried to hide it behind his cheerful smiles. That was his way to torture her. He knew she was an expert on lies & liars and thus relied on her motherly instinct to see the bitter truths and sarcasms.
Meanwhile on a higher altitude, Sia was having thoughts about the same night, but with emotions contrasting to those being expressed on the ground. It had been the longest evening of her life. She had made a complete fool of herself and decided that humans and starlites were two opposite poles. But it was before she had the power of knowledge on her side. Now she knew better than to think the two races could live in seclusion.
It was way past midnight and Sophie’s absence made her nervous. Sia hoped that Sophie did not have a regrettable experience. A knock on the window got her attention. Sophie was hovering there, still in her blue dress. Sia opened the window.
“It’s freezing out here. I should have taken my coat,” she said as she entered the castle. “Give me my clothes. I need some fur and some food. I’m starving.”
“There.” Sia pointed towards the pile of clothes Sophie had left behind. “I think I have some food here.”
“Here’s the dress back for Vega. I have no idea how much to pay for it,” Sophie said as she handed the dress back to the princess. “Can you ask her?”
Sia dodged the question. She knew Sophie won’t be paying anything for it.
“God, you are starving!” she exclaimed on seeing Sophie attack the plate of food.
Sophie gulped the food she was chewing. “I have eaten nothing since lunch.”
Sia cringed. “Food was that bad?”
“Did not see it,” she replied, still busy with devouring the food. “It was on the first floor.”
Sia’s eyes gleamed with hope. “And you were skeptical about the stairs?”
“I did not want to go alone. You know the host cannot eat at the balls. And you said I should not let him ditch me,” Sophie said with urgency and stuffed a handful of food in her mouth.
“And why are you so late?” Sia said hiding her disappointment. “I told you to come here directly.”
Sophie furrowed her brows and gulped her food. “But I did come here directly,” she retorted.
“Wasn’t the ball supposed to end at midnight?” Sia tilted her head.
“So?” Sophie looked up from the plate.
Sia waved her hand. “The sun will be coming up in a couple of minutes.”
“Really?” Sophie’s lips twisted. “Time does fly by.”
“So you enjoyed yourself?”
“It was okay. I didn’t get as tired as we are used to get at a ball. That must be the reason.” Sophie shrugged, “Do you have any starberries?”
“What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t?” Sia smiled.
“A very bad one,” Sophie replied.
“So did anyone catch you? Notice you?” Sia asked handing her a bowl of berries.
“I don’t think so,” she said, “But I did not talk to anyone. If anybody had any doubts, I suppose they kept it to themselves.”
“So what exactly did you do?” Sia asked, “If you didn’t eat or talk to anybody.”
“Exactly what you told me to do.”
“And what was that?”
“I was dancing with the prince.” A smile spread over her face. “Human dancing is so easy and fun; we can do it all the time without getting exhausted.” She stretched her arms.
“You look fatigued, and sleepy,” Sia said. “Tell me one last thing. What have you decided about the job?”
“I’m taking it.”
“Superb,” Sia clapped her hands.
Sophie slept that night wishing the ball had lasted a bit longer. She was always among the last to leave, at the starlite balls. She may have been the only starlite thinking about the ball but she was by no means the only one wishing it longer. Many other humans were of the same opinion.
Among them were a few girls who had hoped in vain to get a dance with the prince. They joined the prince in remembering the blue gowned girl. However, their feelings were in stark contrast to his.
Neal consoled himself with the fact that he had stretched the ball as much as he could and that he would see Sophia again as a member of the guardians. He could not get any sleep. Important matters kept presenting themselves, one after the other.
There were also a bunch of people who thought the ball went too long. This group comprised of the elders, the people who could not or would not dance, the guests who could not or would not enjoy the marvellous feast, the people who preferred the peace and quiet of their homes to the spectacle and liveliness of the ball and the people who loved to dislike anything. Some of them did not wait to see the end of it while some dutifully remained till the event ceded.
Empress Natalia did not fancy herself to be in either of the two groups. She was the kind of person who was always satisfied. Her philosophy was to choose to be happy rather than depend on anything or anyone for her happiness. She was content with the length of the ball even though it had lasted longer than planned. The ball had been a success; everybody had liked the food and arrangements, as far as she could tell. She was happy, the guests had been as happy as could be expected and the smile on her son’s face looked genuine for once.
She hoped to continue seeing it, even if it was the result of his defiance.
Sia knocked at the topmost window of the northern tower of the human castle. She knew it to be Neal’s room. Neal opened the window. He had just finished his letter.
“I promised myself that I’ll make you pay for this,” she shoved the dress through the window into Neal’s hands.
“You came all the way here at first light, to make me pay. I’ll have to ask your father to increase your allowance. How much?” Neal mocked her..
“Pay me in truth,” Sia demanded. She was still standing in the air.
“At least come in,” Neal urged. Sia came inside and he asked, “What do you want to know?”
“Why were you at the waterfall?”
“It’s nothing like that,” he sighed looking at her creased forehead, “And don’t you go ratting on me.”
“I will if I think it right.” Sia licked her lips.
“Sia, you worry too much.”
“It’s not baseless,” she argued.
His jaw clenched. “I am not suicidal.”
“Aha!” Sia smiled in victory, “I had not said anything about suicide.”
Neal rubbed his temples in defeat. “What do you want?”
“Tell me what happened last night,” Sia commanded, “And don’t you dare lie.”
“You are the only person to whom I never lie.” He looked in her eyes and told her the truth.
“Don’t worry about Sophie, she won’t tell a soul. She did not tell me anything,” Sia said reassuring him.
His eyes widened. “Then how did you know?”
“Sophie says she is going to the Crescent and returns with a note from you. How hard is it to deduce the rest?”
“I could have been taking a walk.”
“I knew I could’ve been wrong.” She said with her hands on her hips, “But I’m always right.”
“So what am I supposed to do with this?” Neal pointed at the dress.
“The next time, if you want an Anna,” Sia said, “wear the dress yourself.”
His nose cringed. “Too short.”
“At least Sophie had a better experience than me.”
“You are never going to forgive me for that?” He bit into his upper lip.
“I forgave you long ago,” Sia said. “If only I could forget the embarrassment that easily.”
“Had anyone even guessed your true identity?” Neal said, “I think all the humans have forgotten it.”
“You think too much.”
“I have been told that.” He smiled.
“It gives me shivers when I think what must be going inside that evil brain of yours.”
“You would have people believe I’m some demon sent from hell,” he complained.
“And you would have them believe you are an angel sent from up above.”
“I may be,” he said, “for all you know.”
Sia yawned. “Now I’m going home and will sleep through the day.”
“I may do the same.”