“You’ll have fifteen captains under your command,” Brones said to Sophie.
It was her first day and she had met her predecessor outside the wall.
Commander Brones was a middle-aged man of medium height and great build. His muscles were the kind a man cannot have without regular workout and dedication. His skin had a slight tan that starlites got after a considerable time away from home. It reminded her of Prince Neal.
Brones told her that he had spent the last two years with the guardians. Before that he was in the army. When his wife died, he decided he needed some time away from home. But now he craved the mountains.
All Brones knew about the young plump girl was that she was a decorated soldier and the prince had personally chosen her.
The commander tried to teach Sophie, all he thought was required to take his charge. “Each of the captains has a troop of guards under him. The number differs from twenty to forty. You should meet each captain at least once a day.”
Sophie calculated the number of men under her command and shivered.
“You’ll meet Colonel Hossier and the six other commanders of the team within the week.”
Sophie knew that each colonel had a meeting at least once a week with his commanders to discuss problems and strategies.
The commander dedicated his last day at the grounds to familiarize Sophie with all the captains. Throughout the day, they flew from one troop to another. Brones introduced Sophie to a variety of people and Sophie tried to remember every name and face. He talked the whole day and she listened trying to understand and retain as much as she could.
“So the colonels and commanders do not have a uniform but the troops and captains have to wear them.”
The uniforms were like the normal starlite wear- tights covered with a mid-thigh length shirt and a belt over the shirt on the waist. The major difference was that the white shirt was cotton and the black tights, which were a thicker cotton, were looser than their starlite counterparts. The captains also supported a button up coat with their name tag on it. It was more after the human fashion and a far cry from the starlite fur and leather. Sophie had also spotted some of the guards wearing black caps.
The moon had arrived by the time they were done with the fifteen troops and reached the front of a house. It was a white two-storey building with no stairs. The ground floor was a busy clothes store. The house was definitely built for a starlite.
“This was my house,” Brones said. “I thought I would save you from the trouble of house hunting.”
He opened the door. “No stairs means no intruders. Only a starlite can enter the house.”
It was a two room house furnished with wood. The door and two windows overlooked the busy street. “It’s very neat.” Sophie touched the smooth wooden table.
“I have taken out all my things. The lower part is not yours, but this floor and the roof belong to you.”
“It’s so perfect. Thank you for renting it out to me.”
“Glad you like it. I do hope you’ll be comfortable here. This is a very ideal location.”
“How?” Sophie asked. “This is nearer to the castle than the wall.”
“This city has the best market place. The elites and even the royals buy everything from here. Tourism blooms here and best of all,” he paused, “this shop has the best tailor in the country.”
“They make starlite clothes?”
“I haven’t shopped anywhere else since I found this shop. It does make only the kind of clothes we wear on the grounds.”
“Summer clothes.” She smiled.
“That reminds me, I need to buy new clothes for winter.”
“And I for summer.”
“Tell him you live here and he will give you neighborhood discount. One more reason I shop here.” He grinned. “Now I must bid you adieu and go back to the mountains.”
He left for the mountains like an arrow shot after a tight draw, enjoying the increasing thinness of air around him.
With time Sophie learned many new things about the humans and the nymphs and got acquainted with many people of both races. To her amazement, she felt them to be friendlier than the mountaineers. The starlites had always been jealous of her standing with the royal family and praised her connections for her achievements. Nobody down knew anything about that. To Sophie’s discontent, none of these acquaintances could be her confidante like Sia.
Her trip to the cloth shop had been very productive. The owner was a delightful man named Rocus. He informed her that he had been in the business for more than two decades.
“God bless you starlites,” he had said. “Same clothes for everyone. Humans here need separate clothes for the women folk. Then there are robes for the other people. Takes away half my business,” he had grunted.
He had then proceeded to explain that he did not make gowns and ‘other stuff’. “My clothes are the best. Even the Ol’ King had said, ‘Rocus, you need to shift to the castle.’ But I told him, I ain’t going anywhere. Leave my shop? Oh hell no. So now even if the crown prince wants to buy my clothes, he has to come to the shop himself.” He mumbled at the end, “Not that he ever comes or sends a servant.”
The first lesson from Brones was the same Suffle had given her- Nymphs are not evil. “Think of them as dangerous but not evil. Never forget that we are guardians, the protectors; not the killers.”
Sophie was on talking terms with many nymphs. Whenever she went to the beach, she saw one or more of them sunbathing or moon bathing, stretched on the scarce land or the rocks in the ocean.
The beach was a paradise, just like Suffle had said. The view of the ocean was breath-taking in itself; the soft sand, the cold breeze, the smell of the sea was enough to make anyone smile. The beach was the cleanest place under the sky that she had ever seen. The flowers on the beach were not only beautiful and heavenly smelling, they were also arranged and groomed in a way that lured people.
Sophie had yet to see a nymph who was plain or ugly. They were all mesmerising. The nymphs had all kinds of eye colour, hair colour, skin tones, height, weight and features but somehow they all had one common feature in their body- natural beauty. The nymphs never tried to enhance their beauty, nor did they need it. They never had a worry about how they looked. They never worried about what clothes to wear; they never wore any. The clothes were strictly saved for when they wanted to cross the wall.
Sophie was in the habit of being at work more than required. There was nothing for her to go back to at home. If nothing, she would take strolls at the beach. The nymphs did not mind her much. Sometimes a few curious ones would ask her about the mountains and her life as a starlite.
One such evening Sophie found Masha alone at the beach. She had talked to her once or twice before.
“Thin crowd today,” she commented.
Masha looked at the intruder of her solitude. “Everyone is at the celibacy celebration of the queen.”
“You don’t like it?” Sophie felt something strange in Masha’s tone.
“I just don’t understand it,” she said. “All of a sudden, a nymph stops being a nymph. Can you think of it? Never having sex for the rest of your life.”
Sophie thought about it and decided that she would not like it.
“And it’s different for us nymphs,” she continued, “it’s like a drug we can’t live without.” Masha looked at Sophie and gave her a rueful smile, “I suppose it’s different for you people. You don’t feel.”
“We do feel,” Sophie said sternly. “We just can’t feel love.” She showed one finger. “Only one feeling. Fear, anger, pride, we feel all that I’m going to let this slide as I feel you are upset about something else.”
“Tanya has also taken the vow,” Masha whispered. “She is so young and she is so happy about it.” Masha hesitated, “I saw her weeping after her last conquest.”
Sophie had no idea who Tanya was, but she guessed her to be a nymph close to Masha.
“Do you think it can be remorse?” Sophie supplied.
“Remorse or no remorse,” she said, her voice getting louder, “It’s impossible to give up.” She whispered, “And then they just take the vow.”
Sophie was told that the conquest was like an unquenchable thirst. No matter how many men they seduced, it could not be fulfilled, only subdued. They were always hungry for more.
“Tell me one thing,” Sophie asked Masha in an attempt to change the topic. She was beginning to feel uncomfortable. “What will happen if you stole a nymph’s heart?”
King Shuffle was curious by nature and he had taught Sophie to always try to know more about things, even if she thought it unnecessary. And she desperately needed to change the subject at the moment.
“We can’t,” Masha said. She smiled through the corner of her mouth. “But, I can tell you what happens if I steal a starlite heart.
“You can do that?” Sophie’s eyes got wide with shock.
Masha waved her hand. “Don’t worry. Nobody’s going to steal your heart.” She scoffed. “It will be a wasted effort, hard work for nothing.” She shook her head, “I mean, we all know, nobody can love a starlite.”
Sophie nodded murmuring the age old line from the tale, “You shall not receive love from nymph or human, that is only fair.”
She didn’t think Masha would hear it. “Then who will love a starlite?” She pursed her lips. “Another starlite?”
“Oh no! I’m agreeing with you,” Sophie said in rushed tone. “It’s just I always remember it like this. That’s what the magnificent queen said.”
Masha rolled her eyes. “You think the story is right? That this is some kind of curse? That the humans are better than us?”
‘They do rule us,’ Sophie wanted to say. But instead she asked, “Have you ever stolen a starlite heart? How does it look?”
“Have you seen a heart getting stolen?” Masha tapped her fingers on Sophie’s arm.
“Yes,’ Sophie said remembering the day. “A nymph with green eyes and curly black hair stole a girl’s heart right in front of me. I could not do anything. But it was empty.”
Masha nodded. “You remember how it looked?”
Her brow furrowed. “It looked like a big pink bubble, if you could touch bubbles.”
“If it was filled, it would have been crimson. The darker the red, the stronger the love,” Masha said. “If I were to steal your heart right now, it would be transparent. No colour.”
“Not even pink?”
“Not even white,” she said with a chin tilt. “Pink is for non-sexual love. You know, parents’, siblings’, friends’ love.”
“We don’t even get that.” Sophie’s mouth tasted sour.
“Nobody can love a starlite,” Masha repeated in triumph.