She wishes she could send some comfort his way (1,300-word fiction)

A continuation of my Ballroom Project saga! The part of the story that occurs right before this scene can be read here.

When Surtha arrives, he is ordered to sit before his father and the rest of the family. Orvec is seated to his right, with his bride Beneth alongside him and her family, the Gastaia clan, taking up the remainder of that side of the table. Albalia and her clan take up the entirety of the table’s left side, while Alilah is sandwiched between both of her parents.

Eitrem raises an eyebrow as Surtha, per the guards’ instructions, is led to a chair in the centre of the room. “Well?” he spits.

Surtha glowers resentfully at him. “I am here. As requested.”

Alilah is shocked by his appearance. She loves her brother: his laughter, his delightfully irreverent streak, his cheeky remarks at stuffy official functions, and the fact that he is the only one in the family she can truly talk to – Orvec tends to look right through her and pays minimal attention to her. But today, Surtha looks pale. Drawn. A shadow of his usual self. She doesn’t understand it.

“Oh, indeed?” Eitrem’s voice drips with sarcasm. “And are we all supposed to dance in the streets over the fact that you have deigned to appear? Deigned to join your family, on such a crucial occasion?”

Alilah knows why this discussion could not have been carried out in private, father to son.

She knows her father’s preferred routine well.

The humiliation has to be public, performed in front of servants and the rest of the family, to really drive home the point to Surtha that he has failed. The scene will begin in a relatively unhurried manner at first, with Eitrem making just a few remarks – everyone is finishing their lunch, while Surtha has been ordered to sit in front of his father and wait for him to finish eating: wait until he is ready to deal with him.

Out of the corner of her eye, Alilah sees that servants are quietly but urgently looking for excuses to leave. They hope to be out of the room before Eitrem starts shouting in earnest. No one can know the exact moment his rant will begin, but once it does, no one is allowed to leave the room, or there will be hell to pay. It is considered highly disrespectful for any peroi to leave the room when their master is speaking.

The atmosphere grows ever more icy, and Alilah observes – as she usually does on these occasions – that there is a silent battle of sorts being waged between the senior family members and the servants. The peroi want to ensure that as few of them as possible will still be present when Eitrem lets loose, while the family members want most of them to say, and keep finding reasons to make them come back to the table: they don’t have enough wine, a sudden small spillage has occurred which needs to be mopped up right away, they urgently desire a fan to cool them down, or some other request.

Eitrem likes to have the largest possible audience when he launches into a tirade.

Alilah’s nerves are in ribbons.

When her father is finally ready, he fixes his eyes on Surtha and says: “Well.”

One peroi who had almost made it to the door freezes, then miserably turns around, knowing that there’s nothing for it but to remain. Eitrem gets out of his seat, walks slowly and very deliberately to the window, and paces about in a pseudo-casual manner.

Well, Surtha,” he drawls. “You have let us all down to such an extent, I barely know where to begin. Truly … you have outdone yourself. I almost have a mind to commend you on the achievement, as I didn’t think it was possible for you to fail on so many fronts. If you accomplish nothing else in life, Surtha, you can at least say that you accomplished that.”

A further volley of jokes follow: Eitrem warming to his them of how he ought to congratulate Surtha for attaining a level of incompetence that he didn’t know was possible. The rest of the family chuckle appreciatively.

This is all part of his routine. Whether he’s haranguing a household servant, one of his government advisors, an underling in the office who has not completed some task to his satisfaction, or anything else, the method is always the same. He builds it up into a great comedic affair – playing to his audience, whom he likes to be as large as possible – before abruptly switching into a devastatingly cruel diatribe. Having made his fortune in an aggressive media environment, Eitrem has a great sense of showmanship: of turning everything he does into a carefully constructed spectacle.

Alilah has learned it is best not to interrupt him … but the sight of Surtha’s pale face makes her feel as though her heart is being torn from her chest. Her beloved brother is sitting still, gazing into the distance – looking, for all the world, like a ghost – and she can take no more of her family’s jeering laughter.

“Father, please…”

“SILENCE, ALILAH!” Eitrem rounds on her, furious that his routine has been interrupted. He was about to deliver his great punchline right before the switch into cruel behaviour, but now, thanks to his daughter’s interruption, his momentum has been interrupted. The moment lost.

A sound in the corner makes everyone turn around – everyone but Surtha, that is. A peroi girl has been sniffling quietly throughout her Eitrem’s rant. Now, in the sudden silence, her noise is audible. She gets fixed with a steely glare from Eitrem too, and is ordered out of the room.

Once she has hurriedly been escorted away by two other peroi, Eitrem storms back to the window for a few moments, breathing heavily, annoyed that his great punchline moment was lost, and he must now switch to the cruel persona sooner than usual.

He paces around for a while – a great sense of theatricality to his movements. “Yes, I hardly know where to begin…”

Alilah, too, begins to weep. Why is Surtha still so silent? He may be physically present but mentally, he is not – she can see that. She is desperately worried about him.

“First of all,” Eitrem says, “what is this about you ending your engagement to the heiress of Conthrai? Her father called me yesterday, in a fit of rage.”

Surtha shrugs.

“And the minor matter of your defection from the selection rounds, with the utterly preposterous excuse that you ‘didn’t feel able to complete the application’ for the securement council. What sort of codswallop is that? What are you doing with your life, boy?!” At this point, his fury reaches such a height, it seems he can contain it no longer. He strides across the room and with one sharp blow, strikes his younger son across the face. Alilah gasps, stricken, but Surtha stays silent, letting his head slowly move back into its former position and raising his eyes to stare at his father.

“Your brother has plans,” Eitrem shouts. “Why, he is set to unite our forces with the great strength of the Gastaia” – here, he nods at Beneth, who beams at him in return – “he is set to break the siege of our outposts next month, he is using his career in the priesthood to great effect. And all you want to do is waste your life, sitting in that hovel of yours, not making even a pretence of an effort to raise your station or uphold the honour of this family.’

A bitter whisper from Alilah’s left. “Just like your mother.”

The entire room is still. Alilah glances at her mother and sees her smirking slightly as she sips some tea.

Surtha is as still as a stone. He simply sits there – Alilah wishes he would look at her, wishes she could send some comfort his way, but he will not turn his head. Will not catch her eye.


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