This project is one that I’m holding close to my heart, for now. I would prefer not to say too much about it until the details of it are more clear to me, but I would love to use #NaNoWriMo as a way of gaining that clarity!
This is an extract from the material I’ve written so far.
She runs to her brother and throws her arms around his neck.
‘Alilah!’ he exclaims warmly, hugging her. ‘You are well, I hope?’
‘Quite.’ She stands back and regards him with shining eyes. ‘And you?’
‘I am very well, thank you.’
Alilah examines him. He does look different – he has a glow about him, an ease in his step, a gleam in his eyes that wasn’t there on his last visit. Before Alilah can ask him more, Josliehn has come forward, holding out the parasol Alilah threw aside when running to embrace Surtha.
‘You dropped this, Alilah.’ Josliehn says quietly, bowing her head.
A few more servants rush forward, offering to walk with her and hold her parasol, fixing the hem of her dress, asking her whether she is alright.
‘I am quite alright, thank you.’ She is struggling to keep the irritation out of her voice. ‘I would like to walk alone with my brother, please – Guenneth told me it would be permitted. But perhaps you could bring us some tea when we sit down?’
Josliehn bows again. ‘I will do that, Alilah.’
The servants begin to move away, retreating to their customary position on the front steps of the house, where they will await any further instructions.
Alilah turns to Surtha and whispers: ‘They will all stay nearby, of course.’
‘Of course.’ His eyes are full of humour. ‘But you have at least contrived to remove your train, your cloak, your jewels.’
‘I can contrive to get my way when I must,’ she says innocently, as she links his arm with her own and pulls him towards the rose garden.
‘I am well aware of that.’ He glances down at her hands, then winks at her. ‘And you’re not even wearing the family rings? The brooch? The pendant our father brought you, from the king of Izur? My goodness, Alilah … what insanity is this?’
‘It is far too hot a day for all that.’
‘True,’ Surtha chuckles. ‘Well. Let us walk…’
They proceed, arm-in-arm, down the small path that leads to the rose garden. Alilah cheerily holds her parasol aloft, stopping every now and then to smell a flower.
‘Oh, Surtha, is this not the most wonderful scent imaginable?’ she exclaims, when they reach the rose garden. ‘I do love this time of year. I love to walk through this garden and see roses in bloom, everywhere I look! How wonderful it is, that my birthday lunch will be held out here. Come – let me show you the table!’
She pulls him eagerly towards the table in the centre of the garden. It has been festooned with flowers, delicate ornaments and leaves, most of which have been painted in various shades of gold and silver. The plates and crockery will not be laid out until tomorrow morning, but the table settings alone delight her.
‘I helped to lay everything out. Guenneth … she gave me the usual talk about not doing the work of the servants, but as it is my birthday, I was able to persuade her that helping to prepare the table would bring me joy.’
‘I can see the influence of your artful eye,’ Surtha says with a smile as he takes a seat. ‘It is a lovely arrangement.’
‘Thank you, Surtha. I do love it! Now, I believe Josliehn will be bringing tea…’
She turns around to see Josliehn making her way down the path, bearing a tray, on cue.
‘Here you go, Alilah.’ The servant girl sets the tray down carefully. ‘Guenneth told me you liked almond paste with your tea…’
‘Indeed.’ Alilah beams as she catches sight of one of the plates. ‘Ooh, and you prepared fresh berries too?’
‘Yes, I picked them this morning.’
‘Wonderful!’ Alilah exclaims. ‘You are spoiling us, Josliehn.’
She sits down next to Surtha and pushes the berries towards him. ‘Surtha, you must try them – they are simply astounding. We had a wonderful crop this year. All of the gardeners have said so. And the paste! Oh, it is marvellous. Guenneth started making it a few weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to stop eating it since. Still, I must ensure that I reduce my intake before the winter gala. I may not fit into my dress, and what a scandal that would be!’ She giggles at the very thought.
‘Is there anything else I can get for you, Alilah?’ Josliehn asks. ‘Or you, Surtha?’
Surtha shakes his head. ‘I am quite alright, thank you.’
‘Do sit back down, Josliehn,’ Alilah urges her. ‘There is no need to trouble yourself any further. If we need anything more, we shall call you…’
Josliehn smiles and, with another bow, starts to make her way back to the steps.
Surtha begins to stir his tea, and Alilah sits back and examines him for a few moments. She doesn’t think she is imagining it – there is something different about him today. He’s sitting up a little straighter, no longer so weighed down by cares, as he seemed to be last time.
‘Surtha, you must tell me – what has made you so happy today?’
‘You are so much happier than you were the last time we met. I am thrilled to see your joy, of course … yet I am curious as to what brought it about.’
‘Oh? Well … I am no more cheerful than usual, I would say. It is very nice to be here, on such a fine day. And you know I enjoy talking with you –’
She impatiently waves his protests aside. ‘No, no, Surtha. It is more than that. I know it. Why, the last time you were here, the weather was equally pleasant, was it not? The flowers were as fragrant, the sun just as bright, and I as talkative as ever … yet it was a struggle to raise so much as a single smile from you.’
‘Really, Alilah, there is nothing to it. I am simply in a better mood.’
She reaches out and gently squeezes his hand. ‘Surtha, please. Let us not keep secrets from one another.’
He wavers. ‘I do not want to keep this secret from you, Alilah, but I must. If father found out … he would never approve.’
‘Hm. Well … I have such a secret too, Surtha,’ she confesses, whispering. She thinks this will make him feel more comfortable about opening up.
He raises an eyebrow.
‘Father has a book on the natural sciences that I have wanted to read for a long time … but you know that such things are not within the scope of my studies. Well, a few days ago, he had a meeting with the chancellor. While he was occupied, I sneaked into his library to find the book – and I took it!’ She claps her hands over her mouth. ‘I have been reading it ever since. Oh, Surtha, I would be in such trouble if he found out…’
He smiles a little sadly. ‘I fear that my secret would be viewed as worse than taking a book from the library.’
‘You know I will not tell anyone,’ she implores him.
His eyes look over her. Searching.
‘Alright,’ he says at last, heaving a great sigh. ‘In truth, Alilah … I have been longing to say this, even to just one person. I would not share this with anyone but you.’
He looks around carefully, making sure that the servants are some way off. Then, with his voice low – but his eyes bright and excited – he whispers: ‘I am in love.’
She claps her hands together. ‘Oh, Surtha! How wonderful!’
‘It is.’ A slow, bashful smile steals over his face. ‘I … I never thought it would happen to me.’
‘What?’ Alilah laughs. ‘You never thought you would fall in love? Oh, Surtha, you are absurd! Why would you imagine such a thing? I have seen how girls behave around you. I have seen how they smile at you, how their eyes follow you when you leave…’
He laughs. ‘They do nothing of the sort.’
‘Oh Surtha, you needn’t be so coy,’ she teases him. ‘Many women have yearned for you. I have seen it with my own eyes! At our last midsummer ball, I saw how they giggled and blushed every time you were near, hoping you would ask them to dance. And when you did – oh, how thrilled they were!’ She chuckles, then becomes wistful. ‘I have always longed to dance at the balls. Perhaps I shall, when father finds a husband for me. But one good thing about sitting on the ceremonial platform is that although I cannot dance myself, I can see everything that happens on the floor! Oh, how magical the dances are…’
She is lost in reverie for a few moments, thinking of the fine dresses, the music, the trail of lights that line the path up to the ceremonial platform. Her feet tap a little impatiently on the ground beneath her feet. ‘And so, Surtha, I’ve always been able to see how thrilled the ladies were when you would dance with them. But I knew, of course, that the woman to claim your heart would need to be special, indeed.’
‘Mm.’ Surtha looks pained – he has turned his face away from her to stare down at his cup.
She reaches out and clasps his hands. ‘You will introduce me to her, Surtha, will you not? She can be a sister to me, just as you are my brother. And father will be so pleased that you have made a successful match, after your last engagement failed. Perhaps he will allow you to sit at the head table with us again! You know I have missed having you sit next to me. Your bride shall sit with us, of course.’
‘She will be a sister to me – I just know it. We shall all sit together during the banquets, and when father finds a husband for me, he can sit with us too, and when the next midsummer ball takes place, and the dancing begins – oh! What a joy it will be! You and your beloved will dance next to us, Surtha – please say you will.’
‘Alilah…’ He gently extricates his hands from hers. His smile has faded somewhat. ‘That will not be happening.’