Chapter 24:

How It All Began - Part 6

The Heroes' Story After Saving the World

If it hasn’t been made clear before, Zenia was decidedly taking the lead. As we walked to the ballroom, I kept wondering if that was how women felt most of the time. Not taking the lead, of course, but being dragged along as an appendage.

Thinking back, my experience with the one woman in my old life was different. Maybe it stood out to me now, because Zenia in every way defied my expectations.

Wow, social biases sure did a number on me.

It felt oddly reassuring, though, having her be so determined in what she was doing. Because even if I didn’t lack determination, I still lacked the confidence to pull through.

Her determination was uplifting, however. And when we entered that ballroom, I felt as if I was supposed be here all along. By her side.

The double doors leading to the ballroom reached to the ceiling a couple feet above our head. They were guarded by two gentlemen who opened the doors with such timing that we didn’t need to stop in our stride.

The two men were both clad in suits similar to mine, though they filled them up much better than me. Their eyes were covered with plain white masks the shape of some canine.

The sight of Zenia and her brother holding me at gunpoint (swordpoint?) now seemed more distant than ever.

Festive music could be heard escaping from behind the doors. When the doors were opened it was as if the sound broke out with a stream of warm air. Mixed together were the scents of sweets and alcohol and good mood.

Zenia led me inside.

We entered the room in an elevated position, a wide set of stairs leading to the main area.

We all know that scene in some movie when the princess is presented to the guests at a ball.

To me this was that moment.

We descended the stairs to the ground. I kept my eyes fixed at a certain spot in front of me. I wasn’t sure if Zenia was doing the same or not, but that did not matter. For the time being I was just an accessory to her. She may have been greeting and smiling at the people around us. To me that did not matter. I had no connection to these people anyway.

Only when we reached ground level did the people begin to move into my field of view. A few dozen people wearing white canine masks scurried around carrying trays with small canapés or glasses of beverages spanning a wide array of colors.

Most guests seem to have come in pairs of two, with an odd triad as well as singles alone and happy in between. It was a mixed crowd, though every one of them exuded elegance.

Suddenly remembering why I was here, I quickly scanned the room beneath my mask. Zenia’s brother was nowhere to be found.

I noticed a slight pull on my arm and realized Zenia was trying to pull me a certain direction. As I slowly turned left, I noticed at the far end of the room a tall armchair. Though “throne” would be the more appropriate term, I guess. I always imagined thrones were made of solid gold, or at least some other sort of precious metal. If I looked closely this one seemed to also be mostly made of solid metal but varnished with comfy cushions on the seat and the backrest.

Of course, a throne could not simply be left standing empty in the middle of the room, which was why an elderly man was sitting in it. He wore an extravagant coat over a suit, with the coattail [JP1] resting comfortably on the stone floor to his feet. He did not wear a full-blown crown. However his short hair, which had a couple of stylish gray streaks on the sides, was adorned by an unobtrusive golden diadem, the tips of which just about grazed his eyebrows and rested on his cheekbones. Its purpose, I assumed, was to meet the requirements for a masquerade ball while also making him easily identifiable.

“That is my father,” Zenia muttered as we continued our stride towards the throne. “I will curtsy in front of him, you will kneel behind me. Then I will take the left seat. You will stand behind me.”

Those sounded like clear instructions to me, but of course I remained cautious.

As we neared the step elevating the throne and the seats next to it, I let myself fall behind. After walking onto the stage, Zenia stopped, her heels mere centimeters away from the edge. She was about the same height as me now.

Placing her left foot in front of her right, she tucked on her dress and lowered her head.

Trying not to fall over in my rush I fell to my right knee and looked to the floor. As I lowered my body, my eyes passed the exposed ankles in her shoes. She didn’t properly think that through, did she? I could only hope the mask did its job of covering my face, because it was turning beet-red. Although my complexion didn’t allow it to show properly.

Through the blood rushing through my ears, I could hear Zenia curtly say “Father,” after which she concluded her gesture, promptly marching towards her designated seat.

Barely able to catch up I shot upward and jumped up the step to follow her. I tried telling myself that I probably did not look as disheveled as I felt in that moment, but still, I did not dare look in her father’s direction.

Only after I placed myself behind Zenia’s seat did it occur to me, that she was talking about her father’s left, not our left and I was thankful for my brain in that moment to just not think. I became hyperconscious of my breathing for a second.

I tried focusing on the conversation in front of me.

Dave Mania