The Ball — Part 2
Editor(s): Speedphoenix, Joker
“A wonderful evening to you, Milady. I am Elmeray Favorangue of House Lottnis. It is an honour to make your acquaintance.”
“Likewise, I, Morbedd Suoh of House Portereye, feel the very same way. You are like a diamond amongst gems, Milady. You shine far greater than any other present at this ball.”
“And I am Toola Zytothinko Fanothername. As a man whose house bears firm ties to the church, I am delighted to be allowed the opportunity to be graced with your presence.”
Nell found herself surrounded by young noblemen shortly after stepping into the ballroom, the vast majority of which happened to be around the age where one would often express interest in seeking a partner and fathering an heir.
“Thanks e—” Nell caught herself in the middle of defaulting to her usual speech pattern just quickly enough to sweep it under the rug. “I thank you all for your kind words and greetings. I am Nell, and while I do not belong to any particular house, I serve this country as its hero and guardian.”
The training she had undergone to qualify her for her role left her with no issues exchanging simple pleasantries. Yet, she found it tiring nonetheless. The skill was one she rarely used in her everyday life, and as such, she felt as if she would revert to her usual manner of speech if she did not remain entirely focused on the words that left her mouth. As there were those that wished to find fault in her about, she had no choice but to fight off the urge to relax.
“You shine with as much beauty as the morning sun over a glimmering field of flowers, Milady,” said Elmeray. “I was not made aware of the fact that our hero was a maiden so fair.”
“Hear, hear,” echoed Morbedd. “You are as radiant as a saint and charming as a celestial.”
“You are undoubtedly this ball’s jewel. There exists no man whose eyes would not be pulled to the allure of your form,” added Toola.
“Thank you. It brings me no end of joy to hear such praise.”
Being surrounded by handsome young noblemen and admired like a princess was something that many young women fantasized about. So common was the desire that it became a fairytale staple. While the words did grab her attention, they did nothing to her heart. She remained completely unswayed. The men around her were objectively good looking, but the sweet nothings they tried to whisper her did nothing to her heart. Even the smile on her face was one not genuine in nature.
The sensation of remaining unaffected whilst living a fantasy felt strange, jarring even. She suspected that it was because she knew. She knew that the praise did not come from their hearts. That they did not love her. Nor she them. Hearing their words only served to make her realize just how much affection she had for the man she had chosen. And how much his words meant to her.
It was a thought that put a smile to her face, a natural one. She turned red without fail every single time he praised the way she looked in a dress. Because she knew that he was expressing his honest, heartfelt feelings without any bit of restraint or impurity. That too was why so many were drawn to him. It was his gaze. Rather than allowing it to run shallow, he saw through people. He saw what lay within their hearts and judged them for who they really were.
Upon realizing that she’d let her business smile slip, Nell restored it and once again turned to face the crowd appealing for her affections. Whilst conversing with them, she kept her ears wide opened and listened in for any potential threats. But instead, she was greeted only by contempt and jealousy.
“How dare a mere commoner attract so much attention? Does she think herself some sort of princess?” spat a noblewoman.
“The nerve of her! I cannot possibly believe that she would so brazenly show up at a gathering like this after causing such a stir!” added her friend.
The affronts were intentionally spoken just loudly enough for her to catch wind of them. She was fully aware that it was an attack on her psyche, an attempt to destroy her confidence. But like the many attempts to woo her, it did little to affect her. Gently pressing a hand against her left shoulder was more than enough to fully restore her confidence.
“What’s the matter, mademoiselle?” asked Morbedd.
“Nothing, Sir Portereye. I am simply finding myself a bit stiff given that I have yet to grow accustomed to such fine garments.”
“I recall often feeling the same in my youth,” acknowledged the aristocrat. “But do not worry, for soon, you shall grow accustomed to formal attire. It will be but a few occasions before you find that putting your beautiful figure on display shall become second nature. I would be able to provide you many such opportunities, my fine hero. I happen to have a great interest in your beauty, and would love for knowledge of it to propagate throughout the realm. I assure you that, should you choose to wed me, I will fill your wardrobes with dresses even more gorgeous than the one that currently adorns your form.”
“A cowardly move, Sir Portereye! You should know better than any other that attempting to get a lead on the rest of us is in poor taste! But if you have chosen to play your hand, so too must I! My lady, should you marry into House Lottnis, I can personally guarantee your position will fall second only to that of my first wife! You will command wide respect and be respected as a member of the nobility. It is an offer I am absolutely certain you will find to your satisfaction.”
“Thank you very much for your kind offers, gentlemen.”
Nell was fortunate enough not to need to reject each man individually, for every time one man stopped boasting, another would take his place and brag about his house, as if to appeal to the hero before she could find the opportunity to reply to her last suitor. None seemed even remotely aware of the displeasure she hid beneath her smile, nor did they even begin to suspect that she had no intention of even considering wedding any of them, nor that she disliked them to begin with given their pride and propensity to regard the less fortunate with disdain.
Though she didn’t touch it this time, she once again directed her consciousness to her shoulder. Or more specifically, the invisible eye that rested on it. It was one of his, an item he’d affixed to her in advance as a part of his preparations. From what she had been told, it wasn’t alone. Many ears just like it had been scattered throughout the ballroom in order to allow him to observe the situation even while going about his other duties.
Knowing that he was still watching over her was one of the two factors that had allowed her to remain so surprisingly calm. The other factor was one that had to do with the environment. The people around her had turned out to be less hostile than she’d initially expected. That wasn’t to say that she was being held solely in high regard. There were still several groups talking about her behind her back. Some were whispering just loudly enough for their words to reach her ears, whilst others remained completely out of sight. But she had yet to be publicly denounced. None had stepped forth with insults or criticisms. The only insults she heard were ones laced not with malice or calculated logic, but rather simple statements of jealousy.
In a sense, she felt let down. Both Yuki and the king had made the situation out to be dire. They had told her that things were likely to take a turn for the worst. She too had been aware that the wind was far from blowing in her favour. And yet, nothing had happened. The climax she had expected was nowhere to be seen.
Though almost disappointed, the hero didn’t let down her guard. She kept her eyes peeled and her wits about her just in case her foes were simply biding their time in order to better execute whatever devious plot they had in mind. But even if they weren’t, the status quo could still be described as the calm before the storm.
Because even if those that wished to see her fall didn’t stir up the winds, he would. The moment he took centre stage was the moment the nobility would be blown away by an insurmountable gale. They would be sucked in and jostled about by a force of nature with no care for their standards, their norms, or any of their other thoughts or desires. He would march in under the assumption that he was surrounded by those that wished to wrong him and have them dealt with in a way that neither she nor they could fathom.
It was this knowledge that convinced Nell to write off over-exerting herself and only do what was necessary for the time being. Playing the role of a diversion and stalling until he was able to make his entrance was all she needed to accomplish. Thus, she carried herself with utmost confidence and grace. This too helped to abate the voices that would have otherwise wished to shame her. The combination of her confidence and her beauty stunned many would be hostiles into shock for reasons completely unrelated to politics.
“Are you enjoying the banquet, Nell?”
A voice deeper and more mature than those that had been attempting to woo her grabbed the hero’s attention. It was one she recognized, one that belonged to the man who lorded over all of Allysia.
“Of course, your majesty.” She bowed elegantly after turning to face him. “I have nothing but gratitude to offer you. Thank you for inviting one as undeserving as myself to an event this wonderful. Your grace truly knows no bounds.”
The men crowding Nell immediately backed off to give the pair space as they engaged in their conversation. They were not so boorish as to interrupt His Majesty after he had gone out of his way to greet another. That, however, wasn’t to say that they began minding their own business. In fact, it was the opposite. An even larger crowd gathered to listen in on their conversation.
“There is no need for you to humble yourself so, hero. I know full well of the battles you have fought and the contributions you have made for our state and our people. I am not so foolish as to disregard one who holds such value.”
The conversation flowed so naturally that none came to realize that both parties spoke only premeditated lines, lines that they had worked together to arrive at following a series of detailed discussions. Reiyd’s words were meant to imply that those who failed to see her merit were mere fools, idiots blind to the facts that were. And to state that she had his backing, that any who wished to challenge her worth were in direct opposition to the will of the crown.
“It appears as if you’ve garnered an extensive amount of attention from members of the opposite sex.” The king looked around at the men gathered around her. And then chuckled as he spoke a line that dashed many of their hopes. “I suspect that your fiancé would likely grow jealous if he were to catch wind of this.”
“He certainly would,” she returned the sovereign’s laugh with one of her own. “He can be quite childish at times, and is rather prone to sulking.”
Many of the men and women who had remained silent to strain their ears reacted with a start. Unable to hold back their surprise, they immediately began gossiping with those that stood beside them.
“So the rumours were true! The hero truly does possess a fiancé!”
“The rumours? Are you speaking with regards to those that mention a relationship between the hero and the meister?”
“I was under the impression that heroes were not allowed to engage in romantic affairs given their importance to the country’s defence. At the very least, her predecessor remained unwed throughout his career.”
“I believe she may very well have chosen to wed precisely because her career is coming to an end. It certainly does seem like a fitting time for her role to be changing hands, after all.”
“A point well made indeed, sir. And if what I have heard is correct, then the Masked Meister is quite the famed warrior himself. If the two were to produce a child, then it too would likely grow into a fighter to be feared.”
“I have been quite curious about this meister fellow myself. I have heard rumours spread of his presence in the castle. I see no reason for him not to be present, and yet he remains nowhere to be seen.”
“Likewise. His official capacity is that of one of the hero’s key allies, a role that certainly does seem deserving of an invitation.”
The ballroom grew rife with discussion. Uninformed nobles from all three different factions began spreading rumours as they offered their opinions and speculations.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please!” The king’s voice returned the room to a state of silence just before the noise level grew out of hand. “It has come to my attention that many of you are concerned that the term of Nell’s service is coming to an end. Please allow me to clarify. She is not vacating her position. She will continue to serve us as Allysia’s guardian!”
Again, the old monarch’s words caused the room to stir. Because Nell worked not under the crown, but rather, the church. Reiyd had no power over the religious authority and could not force it to keep Nell in its employ. And yet, he made the statement as he would a royal decree. This, in essence, made it a threat, one that dared the church to embarrass him only if it did not mind feeling the full extent of his wrath.
It was the first time that the king had ever outright made a statement without any concern for the church’s desires since the incident in which he lost his son, after which the organisation had become much more heavily involved in political affairs. And yet, the king had insisted on stating that her role would not be in jeopardy regardless. There was no other way to describe the declaration but to label it a testament to the force of his will.
“She is vital in the defence of our country.” Reiyd raised his arms as he began to speak another premeditated line. His voice, loud and booming, echoed throughout the room for all to hear. “Her abilities are far more prolific than some of you may believe. Even Sir Remiero himself has already acknowledged both the current extent of her power and the potential that lies within her. And yet, it appears that some still find themselves unsatisfied. They obscure the facts and speak only the truths that they find convenient. They claim that she is weak, that she is worthy only of being removed from her position. It is a self-destructive act, one that reduces the might of our forces, and one that ultimately proves itself treason.” The monarch panned his gaze around the room as if to look upon all the faces in the crowd. “But rest assured. I know that none of you are so foolish as to even entertain such a thought.”
“It is as you say, Your Majesty.” Raylow stepped forward in support of his king’s words. “There is not a man amongst us witless enough to think that such a mighty warrior could possibly be considered deficient.”
“I am of the very same opinion. Any individual who voices a desire to have Nell removed is working against national interests and should immediately be put under suspicion of espionage.”
The man who had chimed in after Raylow was George Biverrell Abbott, chairman of the senate. Like the governor, he too had joined the king in a meeting immediately prior to the ball in order to discuss their approach. The senate functioned in an advisory capacity, and as such, had the tendency to remain neutral. And while the chairman himself was an exemplary example of this, he did have his own personal stance. He found the accusations laid against the hero suspicious, and so he had joined hands with the king, one of his most longstanding friends, in order to ensure that she would not be displaced.
Regardless of how they truly felt, most of the nobles in the crowd voiced affirmative opinions. None were willing to show any signs of disapproval following the king’s statement—
“It pleases me greatly to see that we are all in agreement,” said the sovereign.
—Except for one.
“If I may, Your Majesty.” A man stepped out of the crowd and bowed courteously right as the king was about to conclude that all had gone according to plan. “I certainly agree that the hero is incredibly powerful. She cannot be compared to ordinary men like us. But even so, I cannot state with confidence that I believe it would be in our best interests to allow her to retain her position.”
After exchanging a brief glance, Nell and the king steeled themselves for the battle to come and faced their foe head on.
Editor’s note (Joker): Hey, guys. Joker here. Just a quick update, a really good one. My dad made it home. We’re getting him settled in now. Thanks so much for all of your support. It really does mean a lot to me.