Alilah 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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
Alilah has a favoured spot in her much-loved rose garden: a gnarled tree with a long drooping branch. It is here that she retires to consider the events of the morning. Orvec, she knows, will be in his element before the visiting dignitaries, Beneth by his side. There will be much glad-handing and speech-making in the court today, with every noble family from Orsthai and its hinterlands showering blessings on the new couple.
Thankfully, Alilah is not needed for any of that. Her role will come later.
She closes her eyes and leans her back against the wise old tree, her thoughts still on Surtha. After the terrible scene with their father that morning, he was sent straight to his guest room with orders not to emerge until it was time for the ceremony. Alilah, meanwhile, has spent the afternoon in prayer and contemplation with her mother and the other priestesses, not one mentioning about the breakfast scene until they arrived back at the house.
While they were removing their prayer regalia in Albalia’s morning room, Alilah had ventured to ask, “mother … do you think Surtha is alright?”
Albalia snorted at this. “The boy is sulking over a ruling that didn’t go his way, I expect. I hear he immediately withdrew his application for the securement council after one of his city development proposals was vetoed, in a fit of pique. Well! His mother was exactly the same. Always inclined to sulk as soon as she had to do some hard work. Throwing tantrums as soon as it became clear that she wouldn’t get her way. Always a complaint. Always a gripe. A shame the boy couldn’t have taken after his father instead.”
Her expression had been fierce as she stared into the mirror, pulling out her earrings with greater force than was necessary and impatiently brushing her hair. Alilah hadn’t dared to say anything more.
The breeze is pleasant, carrying the most beautiful scents her way. She allows herself to smile and relax for a moment, until she hears slow footsteps behind her.
Surtha. His arms tightly folded, his gaze cast downward. He walks slowly to the drooping branch and takes his place beside Alilah. They often sat here when they were younger: the two lesser children of the family, the two who would never shine as brightly as Orvec could.
Alilah puts her hand on his shoulder and gives it a gentle squeeze. “Surtha … won’t you tell me what ails you?”
He shakes his head and smiles a little sadly – not quite looking at her, but turning so that she is in his peripheral vision. “Nothing you can help me with.”
“Is it the ruling?” Alilah is tentative, unsure whether she ought to bring this up. “Mother said you were upset about that. But I hope you know, Surtha, that there will be other chances to make a difference to the city. Do what you want to do. This has been an enormous setback – I can well imagine that – but you can…”
“It’s not the ruling,” he says quietly, “though that didn’t help matters.”
“Father said you had broken off your engagement,” she says gently. “Is that it?”
He still doesn’t look up. Alilah watches him, furrowing her brow and wondering what – if anything – she can do to draw him out. Coax him out of whatever dark place he has disappeared into within himself.
She lays a hand on his folded arms, causing him to finally look at her. His eyes are swimming in pain.
“Surtha, please tell me.”
His voice is croaky. “I cannot. I am sorry, Alilah … but even to you, I cannot.” He impatiently brushes away tears.
Alilah stands still for a moment, not knowing what to do. The breeze is picking up speed. The wedding will begin soon. “Well,” she says eventually, “we should go back inside.”
They walk back to the house, arm in arm. Before
“Surtha, I will say just one thing –”
“You don’t have to tell me why you are so low today, if you truly don’t wish to. But there is one thing I want you to know. Even though everyone else may speak harshly of you … I believe in you. I understand you. I do hope you believe that.’
He gives her a small smile that finally reaches the corner of his eyes – the first smile she has seen today that resembles his usual ones. “Thank you.”
Chapter One of the Ballroom Project (working title) is available here.