She must reach her brother. She must. She can’t quite see him – it seems to her that he is standing at the other side of a vast, unfamiliar hallway, his silhouette barely visible – and she is running to reach him, yet the faster she moves, the further he slips from her view. She dimly perceives that he has cupped his hands around his mouth to call out to her, he appears to be shouting at the top of his voice … but she doesn’t understand him, can’t discern his words.
She projects his name across the hallway with all of her might: “Surtha!”
She must reach him – she must.
Yet already, his silhouette is fading from her view, along with the walls that surround them both. She realises, with a jolt, that the hallway was never real; her waking consciousness is taking over and she is becoming ever more aware of the sheets and pillows that support her weight. The dim outline of her bedroom window. Hurried footsteps in the corridor outside.
Still, she struggles to hold onto the dream. She takes a deep breath, tries to sink back into slumber and summon up the cavernous hallway in her mind’s eye. She won’t open her eyes completely, won’t allow the world to intrude. She must reach her brother. She must.
But now there is a knock at the door, followed by the voice of her maid Argana. “Alilah … my revered lady, sorry – my revered lady Alilah. Are you awake?”
With a sigh, Alilah opens her eyes. She can tell by Argana’s panicked tone that she must have woken later than her mother would have liked.
It is her oldest brother’s wedding day. Not Surtha’s, but Orvec’s. She has been given precise instructions. She must ready herself for the traditional blessing that she and Surtha will perform before Orvec and his bride say their vows. They are to bestow a blessing on his new union, a blessing on the offspring that will result, a blessing that will honour him and his progeny as the true and natural heirs of Orsthai, forsaking any such claim that they and theirs may hold…
“I am awake. Give me a moment…”
Innaia and Argana will be waiting outside, ceremonial dress in hand. She can already picture them both; almost feel their anxiety seeping through the walls. Before she greets them or grants them into her chambers, however, she needs a moment alone.
She paces to her window and – briefly smiling at the sight of her beloved rose garden – leans her head against the glass, hoping the coolness will still her racing thoughts. Surtha. Why did she have such a unsettling dream of him? Why now? She will see him soon: indeed, he will most likely be downstairs with their father already, or just about to arrive.
She has been training for two years now – in a select circle of noble Orsthic priestesses, led by her mother – to navigate the realm of dreams, to hone her telepathic skills, to sharpen her visions … and though she is far from adept at such things, she has learned enough to know that dreams with such a potent charge always signify something of importance.
There are certain techniques of the mind she can use to arrive more quickly at the heart of the matter … but another, more insistent knock at the door disturbs her concentration. She sighs and shakes herself out of her reverie. She will have to speak to Surtha later and discern his trouble, if he is indeed experiencing any.
Argana is alone: an unusual state of affairs, Alilah observes, though Innaia is no doubt close at hand.
“My revered lady Alilah,” Argana says again, performing a hasty bow, “your gown is ready. And your mother will be here soon, I received word from the upper maids a little while ago –”
Innaia appears at the end of the corridor, almost sprinting in her eagerness to reach Alilah’s chambers, and – with a terrified glance at Alilah – whispers something in Argana’s ear. The other maid’s eyes widen. “Please, my lady,” she hisses, proffering the dress forward, “Innaia says she’s on the staircase, she’s almost here.”
“Alright. I will be quick.”
She has just finishing attaching the ceremonial cape – each ancestral gemstone that adorns it is arranged in the precise order that her mother prefers, representing key figures from the foundation of the Orsthic faith to the present day – when her mother enters, flanked by two of her senior attendants.
Alilah wishes Guenneth could have been here today. Of all her mother’s servants, Guenneth is the nicest. Guenneth is her favourite. But she has some kind of family business to attend to…
“Mother.” Alilah inclines her head as Albalia casts a critical eye over her costume.
She and her mother have very little in common, in either appearance or temperament. Albalia is tall – taller than any other woman Alilah has known – with high cheekbones, smooth olive skin and a sheet of long black hair that flows down her back, almost reaching her calves. Her fathomless dark eyes have been known to transfix even the boldest challenger, render even the most learned, articulate scholar dumb before her, and are all the more piercing for the widespread knowledge of her great skill in discerning people’s true motivations, ascertaining their desires, unearthing their deepest secrets.
Alilah takes after her father. She has fine, brittle hair that is too weak to be allowed to grow far past her shoulders. She is short in stature, with plump cheeks, skin prone to dryness, and small wide-set eyes. She is considered pretty, charming, and in possession of the pleasing manners that any noble young woman of Orsthai is expected to have. Yet she has not inherited the striking beauty of her mother and her mother’s kin. Her presence shall never be as commanding, her force of will shall never be as strong, and she has always known that Albalia resents this.
Orvec is the one who bears their mother’s likeness. He is the one who can hold a room in thrall with little effort. He is the one who wins their mother’s favour.
Surtha, who is not related to Albalia at all – he is the product of a liaison between Eitrem and a middle-class mistress who has now been deceased for several years – is treated with either indifference or contempt by the high priestess. Tolerated because of Eitrem’s lingering affection for his late mistress, he is allowed to visit the house on an occasional basis, yet Albalia rarely acknowledges him, almost never looks at him, addresses him only when she must.
This is a continuation of the story that began in The Ballroom Project: Chapter One.