The Ball — Part 3
Though he had stepped forward with an amicable smile and an air of confidence, Baron Argus Ladorio was not by any means at ease.
“I do not believe that Nell should retain her title, even in the case that she continues to play an active role in o—”
“A strange thing to say, Sir Ladorio.” The carefully constructed argument, which Argus had spoken in a perfectly steady tone, was silenced midflight by one of the king’s pawns. Governor Lurubia, a man in charge of not but a tiny town in the middle of the far off countryside, had intentionally cut him off in a blatant show of disrespect. “The title of hero is bestowed not for one’s reputation, but rather one’s competence. Handing it off to another, less capable individual is making a mistake of our priorities, and should not be seen through regardless of how concerned the public is with her ability.”
“We cannot dismiss the worries of our citizens, Lord Lurubia, for there is no smoke without fire,” said Argus. “To be frank, I believe that their very concern serves as evidence that she is not competent enough to truly fulfill her duties.”
“Have you not heard of the incident that took place in Sengillia?”
“I certainly have, but I don’t quite see your point…”
“If you have heard of it, then you should have also learned that Nell had single-handedly repelled a veritable army of monsters without so much as incurring a single casualty.”
“…I cannot say that I have not.”
Argus was so annoyed by the governor using one of his schemes against him that he almost flew into a fit of rage, but he was not so foolish as to do such a thing before another noble, let alone a whole crowd headed by the king himself. The only visible indication of his rage was a momentary twitch of the brow.
“Her inability to make any reports despite the extent of her power only serves to evidence that she was dealing with something incredibly fearsome, a creature so overwhelming that encountering it would have led any other to certain death,” said the governor. “Her return should not be met with criticism, but praise. The hero is not an almighty god. We cannot always be so naive as to expect her never to be impeded.”
Again, Argus was assailed by irritation, both because the other man was insulting him in public, and because many amongst the crowd had failed to stifle their laughter.
The hero, on the other hand, had wistfully smiled to herself whilst muttering in agreement, “It’s true. And I had to deal with two of them. Both Yuki and Lefi are so incredibly overwhelming that you can’t really even begin to imagine all the crazy things they can do.” But because she had spoken under her breath, the words had remained unheard.
“How about we hear an opinion straight from the horse’s mouth then? What say you, hero?” The baron realized that continuing to argue against Raylow would only put him at a disadvantage, so he sought out a more vulnerable target. “What do you think of the current circumstances? I would have liked to avoid putting it this way, but it remains a fact that you are partially responsible for the current state of our nation.”
“Oh, uhmmm…” Nell hadn’t expected to be addressed, so she faltered, but only for a brief moment. “I don’t think I’m as strong as I could or should be. At least not yet. My lack of strength is the only reason I was unable to make any timely reports, as well as the only reason I caused you all so much worry.”
Argus felt his lips curving into a confident grin. The foolish young maiden was saying exactly what he’d hoped she would.
“But even so, I will not give up my mantle. Casting it away at a time like this due to outward pressure is not something I or any other true hero could ever do.” Her voice carried her conviction throughout the ballroom. “I chose to take on this role to protect this country. I’ve been putting my best foot forward ever since I was first acknowledged. And that is what I will continue to do, regardless of what other people think. Because the only opinion of my standing I care about is my own.”
“Do you truly believe that? Do you truly mean to make a claim as irresponsible as one stating that the opinions of others are completely irrelevant?”
“I do. Because they are.” She slowly cast her gaze around the room as she spoke. “Fulfilling this role is nothing but an attestation to my own will. I am protecting this country for one reason, and one reason alone. Because I love Allysia. That is why I will, if given the chance, continue to carry out this duty of mine. That is why I have resolved to stand firm and fight for this country, even if it costs me my life. And that is why no opinion is relevant but my own.”
The smile that followed the declaration sent the crowd into yet another frenzy. Compliments began flying at her from all directions. Many a young man spoke to her valiance, named her a saint, and complimented both her inner and outer beauty.
It was then that Argus’ mask finally broke. The fox-like smile he was known for vanished, leaving nothing but an irritated frown in its wake.
She had continued to stand firm in the face of his criticism. Despite his best efforts, every single one of the attacks he had launched on her psyche had proven fruitless. And it was not just her. There was no unrest to be seen. Not in the hero, the king, nor any of his loyalists.
There were only a scant few voices willing to voice their support for the baron’s argument. He hadn’t expected any of the individuals who typically remained neutral to offer him their assistance, but he had been under the impression that his allies and those he bribed would have at least stood by his logic. He knew that this was in part a fault of his own making. The hero’s success in Sengillia made her arguments more convincing. If she had not driven off the horde single-handedly, there would likely have been many more willing to speak at length about the extent of her weakness. Even those that wished to see her removed understood that it was not currently in their best interests to publicly denounce her, and that speaking up would put them in the minority. Thus, they had silently switched camps and left Argus out to dry. Even in spite of the exorbitant amounts he had put in their coffers.
What infuriated him most, however, was not the public shaming, but rather that he wasn’t being taken seriously. The hero had, without even waiting for his reply, already moved on to entertaining the princess and another young child, one that looked to be a visitor from a foreign state. Likewise, the king was only barely paying him any attention. His eyes and ears had both been redirected towards the sight of his daughter enjoying herself, as if to declare that Argus was not even worth his time. Their attitudes made it obvious that they had no idea just how perilous the situation they were in really was.
Argus had a trump card. He did have one final concern about playing it: the hero’s fiancé. He had heard that the pair were in the honeymoon phase. And as such, he had expected him to have remained by her side and offered her his support, especially in a time that was sure to be rife with hardship. His spies had, in fact, reported that the Masked Meister had every intention of participating in the ball.
And yet, he was missing.
Argus couldn’t help but suspect that the man was attempting something behind the scenes. The suspicion was one driven by how poorly everything was going, a conjecture based upon nothing but his own irritation. Knowing that, he took a deep breath, calmed himself, and discarded it.
It didn’t truly matter what the meister was doing. The final act of his scheme certainly had been predicated on the presence of both of the major threats to its success. But even with the meister gone, he was still sure to succeed. The only true prerequisite was the hero’s presence. He knew that he would be able to steer the scenario in whatever direction he wished, even if the meister was to meddle and decrease the plot’s effectiveness, for skillful use of rhetoric would cover for all that went wrong.
Allies in positions of power would have been nice to have, but they were not by any means necessary. All he truly needed to do was pull the wool over the eyes of the idiotic masses and manipulate them. As he had been doing. He had already sown all the seeds of his success. All the rumours that he had spread to degrade the hero’s reputation had led the common folk to doubt her. No matter what happened, Argus was convinced that he could easily steer his conspiracy back on track. Because he still held the upper hand.
“Your majesty, I am terrible sorry to interrupt you in the midst of such an enjoyable evening, but I implore you for a moment of your attention.” A soldier, more specifically a member of the royal guard, entered the ballroom and hurried to the king’s side.
Many noblemen began gathering around the pair and throwing all sorts of gossip around as the guard whispered his report into His Majesty’s ears. But not Argus.
Because unlike them, he was celebrating his success.
“Hmmm…” Once the king was done listening, he straightened his back and spent a moment in contemplation. “Thank you for informing me of this matter.” Dismissing the guard, he turned to the audience gathered around him. “Ladies and gentlemen, listen carefully. The castle has been placed under siege by a group of fools. Several men have infiltrated it and initiated an armed assault.”
Noise rippled through the ballroom.
“The nerve! To ruin such a wonderful occasion!”
“Armed men!? Here!?”
There were two distinct groups. The first was composed of those that panicked, while the second was composed of military personnel, men who flocked to the king’s side.
“Your majesty, you must evacuate immediately! Please, allow us to escort you to safety!”
A series of officers gathered around him and formed a circle to serve as shields and protect him from any potential assailants. But rather than evacuating, the king simply continued to speak.
“Calm yourselves!” Unlike most others present, the sovereign had retained his nerve. His voice, which boomed throughout the room, did not fully restore order, but at least managed to abate any panic. “There is no reason to be in such a fluster. The assailants have already been dealt with accordingly. I have only chosen to make this announcement to inform you that the man responsible for having them removed shall soon be arriving.”
Argus raised a brow in suspicion. He had not expected such an announcement. His men had been ordered to stay put, not come to the ball after the completion of their task. Anxiety struck him. Something was wrong.
“You may enter!”
The doors swung open following the king’s order to reveal a pair of men.
“W-what!?” The baron reacted with a start.
Because the commander of his forces really had come. Just not of his own volition. The soldier, who was still wearing armour denoting his rank, was much less conscious than the man carrying him on his shoulder.
Argus had never before seen him in person.
But even then, he recognized him.
The one man that he had been concerned would throw off his plans.
The Masked Meister.
“Good evening,” said the meister. “I’m here to crush a few puppeteers.”