He acknowledges her with the briefest of nods (880-word fiction)

Albalia’s sharp gaze takes in Alilah’s dress and cape – Alilah sees her checking that the ancestral gems are correctly arranged – then she nods and turns away.

“Come. Eat, and we shall then prepare the grounds. I will go to the kitchens first, I must consult the chefs…”

Downstairs, Eitrem is seated at the head of the breakfast table, flanked by two of his advisors. Alilah performs a short curtsy as she passes him to take a seat to his left side. “Father.”

He acknowledges her with the briefest of nods before turning back to his advisors, looking vexed. They are whispering about something, Eitrem gesturing furiously.

Alilah smiles as a couple of servants step forward, tray in hand, to lay out her preferred fruits. “Thank you.”

“Surtha has not visited the temple in weeks,” she hears her father say. “He has not completed his application for the securement council – the deadline has passed – and now, he isn’t here today. What is he doing? Has he any idea what a fool he is making me look?”

Alilah feels her heart begin to pound.

“Father,” she says softly, “I dreamed of him this morning, dreamed he was trying to speak to me –”

“It is almost noon,” he continues, still addressing his advisors, “and the bride’s contingent will soon arrive. Where is he?”

Alilah reaches for a sliver of watermelon – noting as she does so that her hands have begun to shake. “Perhaps he is ill, father,” she suggests as calmly as she can.

Eitrem turns towards her, narrowing his eyes. “Ill?” he barks. “Oh, he is all kinds of ill, I’m sure. He is looking for attention.”

She takes another slice of watermelon, carefully lays it on top of the first. She will place the apple slices around it next. “When was he supposed to be here? He may yet arrive.”

“He was meant to be here at sunrise, Alilah, so no. I do not hold out a great deal of hope.” He turns around, locks eyes with one of the communications department servants standing by the door. “Peroi! Have you heard from Surtha?”

The servant lowers his gaze to the floor. “We … we have not, my lord.”

“Right. Right.” Eitrem leaves the breakfast table in a fury and strides to his office down the hallways, where Alilah hears the clatter of the communicator lid hitting the floor and knows he has begun to call Surtha. He is not at all put off by the fact that Surtha doesn’t answer the first time, or the second, or the third. He continues calling until his son eventually picks up, and when he does, he roars at him down the mouthpiece.

Alilah is dimly aware of his diatribe, hears him asking about what the hell Surtha has been doing lately, and why Eitrem has had to ring him so many times this morning, when he knows full well that he has been in his room the entire time. The useless lump hasn’t been anywhere else in weeks, by the sounds of things. But this stunt has gone too far.

She reaches for the fruit plate again. The apple slices are in place now, so the orange segments come next.

“I will send guards to your room at once,” she hears Eitrem bark. “They may have to blast the door down, they may have to drag you out of that fetid place, kicking and screaming. I don’t care how they get you here. But you will be here, boy, and you will account for yourself.”

The lid of the communicator is slammed on again.

“I meant every word,” he snaps to some guards who are standing nearby. “Go to that cave of his, and drag him out the door.”

Albalia, returning from the kitchens, now enters the breakfast room. She frowns slightly and glances in the direction of her husband’s office. “What on earth is he shouting about now?”

She takes the seat he has vacated, and servants immediately rush forward to clear away Eitrem’s plate and set up a tray of her preferred foods.

“Surtha,” Alilah whispers. The final stage in her fruit arrangement is to add a few grapes to the side of the plate, so she chooses the smallest ones she can find.

“Hm?” Albalia turns her frown towards her.

“There is some concern about Surtha.”

Albalia raises an eyebrow at this but does not otherwise react. She accepts a cup of tea proffered to her by a servant and takes a sip.

“He is late,” Alilah adds. “I think father is angered by it –”

“Not my concern. He is not my son,” her mother says at once, holding up a hand. Alilah’s heart sinks. She had a feeling her mother would respond in this way – that she would, as usual, be irked by the memory of Eitrem’s mistress.

“Your father may have insisted his son play a role in the ceremony,” Albalia goes on, “but if he fails to appear, no matter. You can do it alone.” She gives her daughter a tight smile. “So. We shall go to the grounds shortly. I just need to check a few details with the bridal party.”

This was the latest instalment of The Ballroom Project! The part of the story that immediately precedes this one can be read here.


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