Aldous Ranulf remembered when his sister had been sworn into Unity, nearly twenty-one years ago to the day. It was a grand ceremony, thousands of people present to support their new representative. Their father hadn’t been dead a month, by that time.
And Moira hadn’t been dead a week before Aldous replaced her, Unity anxious to fill the empty seat and try to find some normalcy in the chaos. They’d told Aldous by telegram. Telegram! “Moira Ranulf found dead. Come to Gallontea. Need you to identify the body, stop.”
Aldous had been in such a rush to get down there, he’d taken a train with general seating. Years ago, he might’ve just chartered a dragon for a private flight, but of course, that sort of thing wasn’t allowed anymore. Draconic protesters put an end to that whole economy: something about unfair working hours.
So he’d already been in a foul mood when he’d reached Gallontea, where he’d learned he wouldn’t get a ceremony like Moira’s. He wouldn’t dine with the Magistrates. He wouldn’t have a ball held in his honor. There was too much work to be done, they said. All Aldous did get was a pat on the back, a stack of paperwork, and shallow apologies from people who didn’t know anything about Moira besides her name.
“We’re sorry that your sister’s mutilated body washed up on shore,” they said. “Do you know why someone might’ve killed her? Gambling debts? An opium addiction? Some scandalous secret I can tell all of my friends?”
When they realized Aldous knew as much as they did, they sent him home with a cold, “You won’t be needed until next year’s conference. We’ll contact you.”
Aldous wished Gareth could take the job, but it wasn’t until he’d been sworn in that they’d even told him where Gareth had run off to. Gareth might still be able to take over the position when he returned, but Aldous doubted he’d want to. This was just Aldous’ luck.
Aldous had managed to reserve a private box on the train back to Adondai, which brightened his mood somewhat. He could almost forgive his siblings for abandoning him – for a time, at least. The train platform was empty when he stepped off, and his private carriage waited for him outside. He sank into its velvet cushions with a sigh.
“Stop at the theater before taking me home,” he called to the driver. Aldous pulled the curtains shut as they passed through Adondai’s unfashionable neighborhoods. In Adondai, that meant most of them. When the carriage finally rolled to a halt, Aldous climbed out before the driver could help him. He breathed the city air – it was unpleasant, but it was his. In this city, everything was his.
“Wait here,” he called to the driver. “I won’t be gone a minute.”
The carriage sat in front of the Adondai Royal Theatre, a rectangular brick building with grand buttresses and wide windows. Aldous owned the building with another gentleman, and his monthly salary waited for him inside. Other Unity members lived on inheritances, but Gareth Ranulf Sr. had racked up massive gambling debts and reduced his children’s inheritances significantly.
Aldous wished he could dig the drunken sod up out of his grave to thank him, now. With his small inheritance, Aldous had bought two factories. From there, he’d build a textile empire – even people in places as far as Alfheim were wearing his linens. He owned six factories now, along with theaters and restaurants, and had shares in dozens of other promising enterprises.
The Sheman province effectively belonged to him.
As he started up the theater steps, Aldous glanced down to straighten his suit, wrinkled from the stiff train ride. A pair of boots entered his periphery seconds before he collided with their owner. When he looked up, his angry words caught in his throat.
“Pardon me, madam. How clumsy of me,” he said, offering a bow to the woman who’d run into him. He took her hand, which was soft and unblemished, and pressed a kiss to it.
“No, it was completely my fault. I’m sorry,” she said, then laughed a little. She waved a stack of papers in her hand. “I was trying to read and walk at the same time.”
“That’s nothing to apologize for – you have nothing to apologize for, except perhaps for being too lovely. I would ask your name, but it can’t be anything other than Ellaes. You could blind a man with your beauty, goddess.”
The woman stared at him a moment, then burst out laughing. “How many women do you use that line on, I wonder?”
“If I’ve said it before, I never believed it until you,” Aldous said. The woman shifted away, considering him, and he considered her in turn. She wore a red satin day dress that showed her curves and complimented her warm brown skin. Her lips and cheeks were tinted with a subtle rouge. A few strands of her curly hair fell into her eyes – captivating eyes framed by thick eyelashes and dark brows. After a moment, Aldous asked, “Do I know you from somewhere?”
She smirked, and Aldous was forever changed. “No, I don’t think so. Excuse me.”
With that, she continued down the steps. Aldous jogged after her. “I’m sure that I know you. We met in my dreams, perhaps?”
The woman stopped and stared at him. “Did you really just say that?”
“I can’t believe it, either,” Aldous said. He winced and held a hand to his heart. “In your presence, I’m reduced to cliches.”
The woman laughed and shook her head, curls bouncing. “You really are something. Go find other prey: I’m not buying it.”
“Wait!” Aldous called, again following when she continued down the steps. He changed his approach. “I’m sorry, truly. I find that false bravado is the easiest way to get over nerves, sometimes. Really, I do think I know you. You performed on Unity Island, didn’t you? For the Conference Festival?”
“Oh! Yes, that was me.”
“You were the most enchanting Edith I’ve ever seen. I mean it.”
The woman turned toward him, reconsidering. “Thank you. Are you a Unity Representative?”
“I wasn’t then, but I am now. I just took over for my sister — she, ah, died last week.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said with more earnestness than the people who’d actually known Moira.
“As am I. It’s been difficult,” Aldous said, with the earnestness of someone who had. “But let’s not dwell on tragedy. What brings a promising actress like you to my theater? Looking for a job, I hope?”
“Your theater? Is it really?”
“Quite so.” He held out a hand. “Aldous Ranulf, at your service.”
The girl smiled warmly and took Aldous’ hand. Her handshake was firm, her fingers calloused. “Dinara Condeh, at yours. And I was looking then, but I’m not now.”
Aldous beamed at her. “My hiring staff has excellent taste. No more traveling circuses for you, then? The Webhon Players, wasn’t it?”
Dinara’s smile dimmed at the word ‘circus,’ but she nodded. “Yes. I wanted something more permanent. You said your name is Ranulf? Are you related to Gareth?”
“He’s my brother!”
“What a small world! He’s very kind. We met the night of my performance, actually.” Dinara put a hand on Aldous arm, which he covered with his own. “If you see him, tell him I’m sorry for his loss, as well.”
“Your condolences mean the world, Ms. Condeh. I know my brother will appreciate them as much as I do. I’m afraid I must be going, but I’d very much like to see you again.”
Aldous kissed her hand again. Dinara laughed as she pulled it away, waving a goodbye to Aldous before continuing down the steps. He let her, this time.
“Well, you know where I work,” she called over her shoulder. “Come and see me sometime.”
Aldous watched her go. She truly was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She’d make a good wife, once her northern accent had been smoothed out and he’d done something about her profession. She’d be his.
Just like everything else in this city.