“Good afternoon, beautiful,” Aldous Ranulf said, holding an arm out for his date.
Dinara took it with a smile, linking it with her own. “Good afternoon, Mr. Ranulf,” she said.
“Come, we’ve seen quite a bit of each other these last weeks, haven’t we? I wish you would call me by my name.”
“And you must understand why I’m wary of doing so,” Dinara countered. She was, after all, talking to a Unity Representative. “Where are we going, by the way?”
Aldous led her down the down the steps of her rented flat and into the busy street, almost seeming to choose a direction at random to set off in. The day was dreary, threatening rain overhead though not a drop had fallen — Dinara had begun to realize this gloomy weather was the default in Adondai.
“I thought we might take a turn about the town together,” Aldous said. “With such a lovely creature on my arm, I’ll be the envy of every bachelor we meet.”
Dinara rolled her eyes. “I have a deal for you.”
“And what’s that?”
“I’ll call you by your given name if you lighten up on the flattery.”
Aldous laughed, the sound as polished as the rest of him. “Though it pains me, I accept your terms. Come, darling, have you seen Tylney Park yet?”
“I don’t believe I have.”
“Then let me be the first to show you!”
Aldous and Devikra walked arm in arm down the sidewalk, heading toward a part of town Devikra hadn’t yet seen. She wasn’t yet used to the inconsiderate bustle of Adondai streets, less urgent than Gallontea, and much less kind. When she was with Aldous, though, it became bearable. Even if they didn’t know who he was, the people could sense something inviolable about Aldous’ person and steered well out of his way.
Dinara hadn’t realized they’d be walking so much, but she was glad for it. She used to walk everywhere with the Webhon Players, but it had been weeks since she’d gotten any sort of vigorous exercise. She wore the quiet but elegant walking dress Aldous had bought her, which was hemmed several inches off the ground for ease on outings such as these. She hadn’t bothered with a parasol; there was no point, in the Adondai gloom.
And the park, when they reached it, seemed as bleak as the weather. But like everything in Adondai, it had a beauty of its own. The strict order and militant trimming had an elegance, Dinara thought, but that elegance was undercut by the jagged lines of all the trees that had already dropped their leaves. Dinara wondered, had she come at the peak of summer and not the onset of winder, if this would be a place of joy and life, as she thought parks ought to be. She doubted it. Adondai was many things, but it wasn’t joyful.
But the company was pleasant, at least. Aldous continued his self-appointed mission of acquainting Dinara with the important Adondai gossip. From him, she’d learned the secrets of people she didn’t even know, people she’d only heard of. He told stories, gesturing with his free hand as he did, of the latest flubs and flounders of Adondai nobility, and Devikra listened, hoping she would never have occasion to meet these people if this was how they behaved.
She liked being a confidant, though. In her life, she’d never stayed anywhere long enough to learn the local gossip, to be a part of it, even — she felt sure, after all, that as Aldous laughed at Adondai’s ruling class, they also whispered and speculated about his new sweetheart behind his back.
“Say,” Aldous began, after finishing up a shallow story about some lord whose wife was cheating on him with a musician, “We’re near one of my factories. Would you like to see it?”
Dinara’s eyes widened. She’d heard a great deal about the source of Aldous’ sizeable income — it was, after all, one of his favorite things to talk about — but she hadn’t seen any of the famed factories herself.
“I’d love to,” she said.
“Wonderful,” Aldous said, patting Devikra’s hand and steering her toward a looming gray building in the distance. It had few windows and smoke poured out of the chimneys. “Let’s pop in for a quick tour, shall we?”
Dinara had never seen anything so sad.
Traveling with the Webhon Players, she’d seen enough suffering to last a lifetime. Sometimes, when she thought of all that was happening in the world — the corruption, poverty, industrial greed — she felt ill. This world was too cruel. The suffering she’d seen shouldn’t exist, and yet she was frequently faced with the truth of it.
Most of the villages they passed through were stuck in poverty and the past, unaware of the benefits of modern science and medicine that they lacked. They didn’t see the good that Unity did, only saw the harsh local judges and heavy taxes, so Dinara couldn’t blame them for hating Unity.
When the Webhon Players visited, they brought smiles to the faces of people with no reason to smile, told stories of a world better than the one they lived in. It was Dinara’s favorite thing about being with the Players.
But these people…Dinara couldn’t tell them there was a better world, couldn’t pretend. They knew too much about the world they lived in, and that was the problem. They saw what it did for them, and it wasn’t much. Dinara couldn’t tell them there was a better world because, in this cold, miserable factory, she almost didn’t believe it herself.
Dinara liked to believe the world changed every day, that it would continue to do so. As long as people believed there must be something bigger, better out there — be it a god, a guardian, a feeling or way of life — there would be. As long as dreamers walked the earth, there would be people who chased those dreams, and dreaming was the best any of them could do.
But standing with Aldous up on that balcony, looking down at the factory floor, where his employees were busy at work, Dinara didn’t see any dreamers. As Aldous excitedly pointed out his rows of new equipment, explaining that they were the most efficient on the continent, workers looked up at him with hate in their eyes. They looked up at Dinara with hate, too.
She was one of them, now.
Down below, a young girl paused her work for a coughing fit. The supervisor walking the floor yelled at her, simultaneously snapping a long strip of leather he carried with him. The girl went back to work, visibly fighting back her cough.
Aldous nudged Dinara, and she realized he’d asked her a question.
“Sorry?” she shouted, tempted to cover her ears. The roar of the machines below drowned out both of their voices. It tried drowning out Dinara’s thoughts, as well. “I can’t hear you! How do your employees work here every day and not lose their hearing?”
Aldous took her hand and dragged her down a narrow hallway, bringing her to a small, gray office — everything in here was dull and gray. The walls, the machines, the people, the morals. Closing the door muted the cacophonous machines somewhat, but Dinara could still hear their chugging below. She felt it in her heart, which matched their rhythm.
“Some do,” Aldous said with a shrug. “Lose their hearing, I mean. It’s a tragedy when it happens, and I do what I can to compensate the workers appropriately.”
Dinara wondered what compensation could ever make up for these working conditions.
“You seem distracted, my dear,” Aldous continued. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” Dinara said quickly. “I just…oh, well I thought children weren’t allowed to work in factories anymore.”
Aldous raised an eyebrow. “Unity’s Factory Regulation Act raised the minimum employment age to nine, it’s true. But many lie about their age to get hired, of course.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Most families need as much money as they can get, so if the children are willing and able to work, who am I to stop them? That’s why, now that I’m a Unity Representative, I’m going to look into getting the Act overturned. It should be a matter of the parents’ discretion, whether their children can work or not.”
Dinara felt sick again. “Oh.”
“Was that all?” Aldous asked. “Something else is bothering you; I can tell.”
“Very astute,” Dinara said, the sarcasm slipping out before she could stop herself. She cleared her throat. “Well, I…I thought you produced textiles,” she said. The shiny metal parts she’d seen on the conveyor belts below hadn’t looked like textiles.
Aldous shrugged and smiled. “That’s the usual game, but sometimes popular demand calls for a change.”
“So…what are they making down there?” Dinara asked.
“Yes, of course. Unity might have need for them soon, after all.”
Dinara covered her mouth, horrified. “Why would Unity need that many guns?”
“Come, dear. I know it’s dreadful to think about, but I’m sure you know the answer. There’s a high chance that this conflict with Orean will become a war, and I intend to be ready if it does. And if it doesn’t, well, I’m sure I can still find buyers.”
“But what about the diplomatic team?” she asked.
Aldous frowned, narrowed his eyes at her. “That’s highly classified information. How do you know about that?”
“Um,” Dinara said, her heart practically stopping in her chest. How could she possibly answer that? “I…Oh! Gareth mentioned it,” she lied.
To her relief, Aldous sighed, rolled his eyes, and said, “Yes, that sounds right. My brother has never been good with keeping secrets. Well, if you know already, I suppose I don’t mind telling you: I doubt they’ll succeed with their little mission. The rest of the Unity Representatives feel the same. Orean has been pushing their boundaries for too long as it is—,”
“Stop!” Dinara said, “ I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
Aldous clicked his tongue and took one of her hands in his. Dinara had half a mind to pull away. “I can see this has made you uncomfortable. Don’t worry, you’ve done nothing wrong — I should have seen this coming. In the future, I’ll avoid discussing business matters with you.”
He flashed a charming smile. Dinara didn’t see any relation between Aldous and Gareth, though she’d searched Aldous’ face for it many times. They had similar jawlines, she supposed, but Aldous had nothing of Gareth’s gentleness. Aldous had been generous to her, though, and to the Webhon Players as well, buying them entire wagons of new supplies before they left Adondai. She felt indebted to him, in a way.
Aldous approached Dinara, his smile softening as his hand came up to touch her cheek. His touch was gentle, almost tender. “I’m glad you came here with me, all the same. I wanted to see you today because I’ve been meaning to ask you…” He trailed off, biting his lip, then laughed at himself and shook his head. “Well, I’m throwing a ball next week, and I was wondering if you’d like to be my guest.”
“Oh,” Dinara said. She remembered how she’d felt when she met Roman, the thrill that had gone through her the first time he’d asked her to dance. What she felt now was nothing like that. Aldous didn’t leave her dizzy, he left her feeling secure. Safe. That was everything she’d told herself she wanted. “Yes, I’d love to.”
Aldous’ answering grin was resplendent. As he closed the distance between them, tilting Dinara’s face up to his, Dinara briefly felt the warmth and safety of being in Aldous’ arms twist into something like a cage. But she let him kiss her, and when he pulled away, he said, “You’ve made me very happy, Dinara. Let me take you shopping today — I’ll buy you the most expensive gown in the city, if you’ll let me. Come, we can leave the back way so we don’t have to pass through the open floor again.”
Dinara remembered the faces of the factory workers on the floor below and her smile fell. Aldous didn’t even notice.