Doubtless, my great-grandfather had meant to make a statement with the ‘Grand Staircase’ when he designed the family manor. If he’d meant to make walking down it feel as obvious as possible, then it worked very well. I didn’t appreciate the foresight since said staircase was the only way down to the party I was supposed to be hosting. Instead of being responsible, I stood at the top of the sweeping marble structure and huddled into my slightly wrinkled suit. It was a reasonably good place to procrastinate my impending social failure.
The ballroom below me was tastefully laid out with a lot of flower arrangements, tables, and banners, all in silver and red. The family company, Alistair Phantasmagoria, was celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary. No one had asked my opinion on the planning of the event, so all I knew for sure was that there’d be about two hundred people attending. Also, the event was four hours long. I couldn’t manage interacting with one person for five minutes, let alone two hundred for four hours.
According to the clock hung on the wall, I had about fifteen minutes before I either made an appearance downstairs, or someone came looking for me. I preferred the voluntary option, so I began inching my way down the staircase.
Any hope I had of avoiding people was dashed before I even reached the floor. From out of the still-fussing set-up crew emerged the photographer for the company website. The guy blocked off the base of the stairs with an inexplicably outgoing personality and a large camera.
“Jasper! I want to get some photos of you before the event starts. Do you have a minute?”
Not only did I have a minute, I also doubted I had much of a choice. A helpless glance beyond him didn’t conjure anyone to rescue me. I condemned myself to suffering and dropped down the last couple steps.
“Um, sure. You want me to stand anywhere specific?”
The photographer, who’s name I’d forgotten, adjusted something on his camera, then aimed it at me. “Actually, there is almost perfect. Can I get you to move that way a bit? Yes, good. Turn this way a little. Chin up more. And smile!”
One thing I could claim was at least the ability to fake a nice smile. I was directed like a stringless puppet for another couple minutes, then released.
I stuffed my hands in my pockets and wandered in an arbitrary direction. I got about thirty seconds to nearly relax before I was located by the party’s event coordinator, Riah Earnest.
Her name I remembered, because ‘earnest’ described her quite well. Constantly optimistic, she was short and nearly round, with the bright, dark eyes and circular ears of the Kiore race. True to her species, she dressed in very colourful patterns and had tons of jewellery, picked more for individual sentiment than the look as a whole.
“Mr. Alistair, I’m so glad I’ve found you, there’s a glitch in the program that we need to discuss.”
“Okay . . .” That did not sound promising.
Riah continued, “We have it in the program that your uncle is introducing speakers for the Grand Opening. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to convince him to cut his business trip short to make the event. Since you’re here, however, I’m hoping you’ll stand in for him.” Her brightly painted claws shuffled through a portfolio, producing a sheaf of paper that she offered to me. “These are the notes.”
I didn’t take them, my ability to move seized up in alarm. “I . . . what?” I managed inanely. “No. I can’t – talk, in front of everybody.”
“Oh, you won’t have to do a speech,” Riah assured. “I simplified things for you a little, it’s really very straightforward. Just give these a read so you know what’s happening. I’m sure you’ll do fine.” She pushed the papers into my hand, then whisked away to deal with a crisis involving string lights.
I glanced down at the paper already getting damp in my palm. Straightforward.
Rather than start reading, I rolled up the paper so I couldn’t see any words. If I was going to do awful, I could do it without purposely giving myself time to freak out. I checked the clock again. Just under four hours and ten minutes left.
People had started to fill the ballroom, so I decided to waste ten minutes getting ginger ale at the bar. I regretted the carbonation almost instantly, but it was still better than the dry, gummy feeling caused by the prospect of public speaking.
I’d just about finished the drink, delaying for every possible second, by the time my ten minutes ran out, and someone in company colours came weaving through the crowd to fetch me. I could either go willingly, or have everyone present forever talking about how I disappointed my family’s heritage. Neither was a comfortable option, but at least I saved some face with the first one. leaving my glass on a nearby table, I unrolled my notes and shuffled toward the stage.