Alice Uzara really wanted to cry. Today had been hellish. At work at the International Importer’s Association, Tosh E’Kun had started the crude jokes. “I move that we import some young blond-haired prostitutes—prostitution’s the only industry that thrives during an economic crash.”
A Papadakos said, “Not blond. I want some Asian girls, only they have to have tits. A guy likes tits to hang on to so he don’t fall off.”
Alice cleared her throat.
The Vanderholm steward looked her up and down as if she didn’t have any clothes on. “Oh, I forgot there was a woman in the room.”
Mr. Soyet looked around. “A woman? Oh. You mean Alice.” He turned his back on her.
Ugly Uzara, that inner image that reminded Alice what others thought of her, laughed raucously. “They forgot you are a woman.” She laughed again and produced a memory of a dozen pretty little girls giggling and taunting her with cries of Ugly Uzara before they ran and hid.
Alice knew from long experience that responding to the taunts would only make things worse. She glanced at her notebook. “If I’m going to take a proposal for relief to the legislature, I’ll need more details than you’ve given me. I can get you a tax break on the stored goods you can’t sell. Do you need loans for outstanding bills that you can’t pay because you can’t sell your inventory? Is that a concern?”
“I don’t see how you think this new government is going to do anything for us. They’re as broke as everybody else.” Soyet sneered, making Alice feel stupid.
Ugly looked over Alice’s shoulder. “Nobody listens to you.”
Now at home again, Alice wrapped a belt around the middle of her brown and white dress and glanced at the clock. She had a few minutes before Papa would scold her for being late to dinner. She checked her appearance in the mirror.
Ugly Uzara looked back at her and said, “You don’t have any curves unless you count the one in your nose. It’s no wonder the men at work made jokes about you. It’s all ugly girls deserve.”
Alice tossed her head and replied, “At least, I look respectable and tidy.”
For a reply, Ugly Uzara produced an image of Caroline Rouseff, the prettiest girl in the university, with her lush dark curly hair and petite curvy body. Caroline always looked respectable, tidy and beautiful. Rumor had it that she was practically engaged to U’Kee McKinsey or would be if her family had their way. Alice swallowed the lump in her throat as she thought about U’Kee with Caroline. U’Kee had been her idea of the perfect man ever since the first time he asked her to dance. He was big enough to make her feel small and dainty. He was funny, polite and an excellent dancer.
Her phone rang, startling her. She picked it up without looking at the caller ID. “Alice Uzara.”
“Alice? Henry Fortenac here. I called to congratulate you on graduating first in our department.”
Alice instantly grew wary. Was this some sort of trick? This was the first time a man had ever called her on the phone. No. She’d known Henry all her life. He didn’t play tricks. He’d occasionally spoke to her at university—mostly to ask her for help on his schoolwork. She wanted to return the compliment. “I saw in the paper that you finished next to me. You must have really cruised through your orals.” Alice collapsed to the floor. That didn’t sound the way she meant.
“Orals went okay. Say, the reason I called was to see if you’d like to go out to dinner and celebrate graduating with me. We could find someplace nice and go dancing afterward.”
Alice floated up to the ceiling. For the first time in her life, a young man was asking her out on a date. “Sounds lovely. When do you want to go?”
“Tonight. I can take the seven o’clock train down, and you can pick me up from the station at seven-thirty. You can choose someplace with dancing.”
“Tonight?” She looked at her notebooks from work. She’d planned to go over Papa’s books to see if she could find specific information she could use in the relief package. Her heart hit the floor with a thud. “I can’t tonight. I have to go to work early in the morning, and Mama’s been sick. She still needs my help at dinner, but I’d love to go out when I don’t have to work in the morning.”
“You have a job so soon, in this economy?”
“I’m working as a lobbyist-advocate for the International Importers Association, trying to put together a relief package. What are you doing?”
“Me? Oh, uh. I’ve been working on the family books. The cousin who’s been managing the estate is really too old and too sick for the job. I’m trying to untangle the records.”
“That sounds like a lot of thankless work.”
“Yeah, it is. But you, you got a job with the IIA. That’s impressive.”
“Thanks. I have to go now, or I’ll be late for dinner, but I’d love to go celebrate when we’re both free.”
“That’s a date, then.”
Alice floated out her bedroom door, discarding her infatuation with U’Kee McKinsey who’d asked her to dance a half-dozen times at social events. Well, maybe she wouldn’t completely give up on U’Kee. He was possibly the only man in the country big enough to make her feel petite, despite her being nearly one and three quarters meters tall.
On her way down the marble stairs to the first floor of the ancestral home, Alice thought about Henry. Suddenly, Henry Fortenac became the most eligible bachelor in the country despite the fact that she’d known him all her life, and he was shorter than her and not truly handsome.
By the time Alice reached the doors to the main salon where the family waited for the butler to lead them into the dining room for dinner, Henry Fortenac had developed so much charm and wit that even he might be surprised to learn of his accomplishments.
Papa greeted Alice at the door to the salon. “You’re late.”
She glanced at the grandfather clock in the far corner. “Not very. I had a phone call.” She crossed the room to where her mama slumped on the sofa and kissed her forehead. “You look lovely. I’m sure you must be feeling a bit better.”
“I’m so weak, I can hardly move, and my arms ache.”
“Remember, the doctor said removing the lymph nodes would cause your arms to swell. They have good reason to ache, but really you look much less puffy. I’m sure you’re recovering.” Alice felt slightly thankful that her own appearance had been more of a pain than a pleasure to her. She’d never know the suffering Mama now endured with her loss of looks and important feminine body parts.
Mama picked at the blanket over her lap. “Who were you on the phone with?”
Alice almost shivered with delicious delight. She scanned the room to see who else might hear her answer. She tried to calm herself. “Oh, Henry Fortenac called to congratulate me on graduating at the top of our department. He and I were the top two graduates in poly-sci, so we’re planning on a dinner-date to celebrate.”
Papa turned his attention to his oldest child. “How are the Fortenacs? I thought they might be having money trouble, too.”
Alice furrowed her brow. “Henry did say he’s going over the family books because their steward is too old for the job.”
Papa nodded. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were in more financial trouble than we are.” Thus ended the news that Alice had been asked out on a date for the first time in her twenty-two years.
Alice began to worry about when she’d hear from Henry again. He didn’t call the next day. She’d just arrived in the main salon to sit beside Mama and wait for dinner when her phone pinged with an email. She pulled the phone from her pocket.
From across the room, Papa said, “If that’s the IIA, put it away.”
Alice tried to appear calm. She looked up. “It’s Henry. He’s moved back to the capital.” She read more. “Oh! He’s taken a job with president Yablonski and is working with Representative Spencer. “ Her heart sank. “We may have to postpone our dinner-date.”
Mama sat up straighter beside Alice and narrowed her eyes at her daughter. “Yesterday, Henry called you and asked you out. Today he’s emailing you. I had no idea you and Henry had become such good friends. When did this happen?”
Alice’s shrugged. “Henry and I’ve always gotten along. When we were young, he was mostly interested in boy-stuff, but he was always kind. We took a lot of the same classes at university and did some projects together.” She buried her attention in typing a short reply to Henry’s email. Congratulations on your new job. Maybe I’ll see you when I’m in the capital. - Alice.
Papa crossed the room and hovered near Alice. “So the heir to the Fortenac fortune got home from university and spent a couple weeks going over the family accounts, then he bolted back to the capital to take two jobs. I’d guess the mighty Fortenacs are as hard-hit with this crash as we are.” He put his hands in his pockets, rocked forward on his toes and chuckled.
Alice looked up at her papa. “They still own a quarter of this country. Henry says he’ll be visiting all their properties.” She bit her lip, wondering if she’d ever get her dinner-date.
Papa actually patted Alice on the shoulder. “I suspect he’s going to have to work hard to get that empire under control. Be patient, dear. He might not have much time for courting.”
Alice wanted to run out of the room and hide so she could contemplate her Papa’s understanding of her relationship. It was exactly the impression she’d hoped to inspire, but she and Henry still had never had a date.
Ugly Uzara turned Alice’s gut to a stone. “Henry never thinks about you, and anyway, he’s probably a drunk hanging around with Carl all the time. You know Carl showed up for class drunk more often than not.”
Alice said. “But Henry wasn’t drunk in class and he did his work.”
Ugly answered, “Ha, ha, ha. How would you know if Henry was drunk or not? You don’t know anything about men.”
Alice wanted to kick Ugly, but Mama was struggling to stand, so Alice jumped to her feet feeling guilty for not helping Mama sooner. She put her arm around Mama, helping her to walk to the dining room.
Henry didn’t call or send an email for a week. Papa asked every day if she’d heard from him, then assured her he was probably very busy. At the end of the week, Alice rapped on the door to Papa’s study, then entered with a couple notebooks in her arms. “I’ve outlined what I think the IIA needs for a relief package from the government.” She passed him a notebook. “I want to take my proposal to the capital next week. I wrote to Uncle Mash, and they invited me to stay with them while I’m there.”
Papa looked over the top of the papers Alice had handed him. “You’re awful eager to get to the capital. This wouldn’t have anything to do with Henry would it?”
Alice looked her papa in the eye. Without smiling, she said, “Yes, it does. He works for Spencer who should be on board with this.”
“Alice, it would help the greater good if you could flirt with him a little. Talk to your mama about being more girlish.”
“More girlish.” Ugly Uzara giggled in Alice’s ear. “It would help if you had tits.”
Alice wanted to grind her teeth and get out of this house. “I’ll manage my own relationship. At this point,” she waved her proposal at her Papa. “I think I’ll need to spend more time in the capital than I will here.”
“Yes, yes. Go hang out with your young man, but no hanky panky.”
“Henry has always been a perfect gentleman.” She was really irritated with Papa for the girlish remark so she added, “Besides, he lives in the Compound with guards all over the place, and I’ll be with Uncle Mash. I haven’t figured out how to manage hanky panky, yet.” She left the room.
Sunday evening, Mama was the one to ask at dinner. “Alice, what do you hear from Henry?”
Relieved to have an answer, she didn’t mention that his emails had gone to sixty other people too. “His sister Cordelia was badly injured in a fall and is in the hospital in Sylvana.”
Mama looked up. “Should I send the family a card? Is it serious enough that I should send something? We aren’t friends, but as one mother to another…”
Papa settled the matter. “Their son is writing to our daughter almost daily. You better send flowers.”
Alice broke into a sweat at her parents’ assumptions. Still, she wasn’t about to tell them that she barely knew Henry.
Monday morning, Alice took the train to the capital. She tried to remind herself that she was going on business to give legislators her proposal and answer questions about the state of the import business. She really hoped to see Henry. Maybe they’d even have their dinner-date. She bit her lip and worried that he might be in Sylvana with his sister.
From her reflection in the window, Ugly Uzara asked, “And just what do you plan to do about the difference between your parents’ expectations and the probability that Henry has forgotten about you? How did you let the lie get so out of hand? Your mama sent flowers to the Fortenacs, and your papa wrote a note almost as if you two were engaged. What will the Fortenacs think of you for putting yourself forward like that?”
Once in the capital, the morning grew challenging. Alice knew that she was only admitted to see the representatives because of her family name. Representative D’Hun bluntly said, “You come in here asking for relief for the richest people in the country. What I want to know is what you have to offer this country.”
Alice didn’t like confrontation, and this man clearly sounded angry; however, she hadn’t graduated at the top of her department because she came from a powerful family. She’d earned her grades and knew her job. “That’s a fair question, sir. I know it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, but the importers do care about the rest of the country. We’re talking about the most efficient way to import and distribute food across all the provinces despite our own financial limits. We want to keep vital goods flowing. We’re working with the rail system and local governments to see that food, clothing and medical supplies are distributed fairly without price gouging further down in the supply chain.”
Ugly Uzara hung her head and opened her mouth to apologize for not doing more.
Alice wanted to slap Ugly. Instead she looked up. “I didn’t elaborate on our efforts partially because I assumed they were obvious to anybody in power. I am well aware of the efforts my fellow students have made to serve this country and do not want to appear ungrateful to them, so I chose to focus on our needs rather than our contributions. Do you feel I should list all we’ve done to assist in this time? I can add a substantial list, but that would be against my principles, and may sound as if I don’t appreciate the contributions of other businesses. We’re all in this together.”
“No, no, Miss. You’re quite right. It wouldn’t be appropriate in your proposal, but you will need to be prepared to answer that question. Not everybody sees…”
Alice was shaking when she left D’Hun’s office, so she decided to give up calling on representatives and see if Henry was in Spencer’s office. She found the right office and knocked on the doorjamb. Suddenly, the whole world lit up.
Henry jumped up from his desk and rushed forward to lead her to a small sofa, then sat beside her. “What brings you to the capital?”
She explained her work while Henry actually appeared to listen to her. Feeling bolder, she added, “You still owe me a dinner.”
“I do. Are you free tonight?”
It actually sounded like Henry was eager to go to dinner with her. They made arrangements to meet outside the museum in the Government Compound. She’d never had a date before and suddenly couldn’t think of a thing to say. She started to stand. “I should get more of these proposals delivered.”
“Let me see it.” Henry held out his hand. “Better give me several copies. I’ll see Spencer gets one, and I’ll give copies to anybody I think needs one. I know some people.”
Alice felt slightly dizzy.
Ugly Uzara almost kicked Alice in the shins. “Who do you think you are? Getting all dressed up in a business suit and putting your hair up—making dates and arguing with representatives? It won’t take people long to figure out what you really are.”
Alice waved to Henry as she left Spencer’s office, still feeling disoriented. I’ve pretended and excused and exaggerated so long, I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. How could Ugly Uzara be a lobbyist dating Henry Fortenac?
The voice of Ugly Uzara reared her ugly head in the back of Alice’s mind. “Henry’s not all that smart, and he’s not good looking like U’Kee, and he’s probably a drunk. Nobody else would date him. You’re all that’s left.”
Alice scowled and stomped her way out of the legislative office building, telling Ugly Uzara, shut-up, just shut-up. Henry will suit my purposes just fine. I’m going to Sharif’s to buy a new dress.
When Alice entered the taxi to take her to the Compound, she still wavered between thinking she was out of her mind and telling herself there was nothing peculiar about going to dinner with someone she’d known all her life.
Ugly had been quiet and sulking ever since Alice defied her and bought a red dress with a full skirt that swirled around her legs.
Alice’s parents hadn’t helped with her sense of reality. Mama sounded ready to start planning the wedding. She called for the fourth time that day just as Alice’s taxi pulled into the courtyard at the Compound. “Mama, I’m at the Compound now, I’ll call you as soon as I get home if it isn’t too late. He didn’t say anything about dancing, so I might get home early. It’s Monday, after all, and we both have to work in the morning.”
Guards opened the doors to the middle wing of the huge government building as Alice climbed the stairs. Henry rushed forward to greet her. “There you are. Wow, you look stunning. Red’s a good color on you.” He took her hand.
He called me stunning and complimented my dress! Alice forgot where she was and didn’t hear another word for a full five minutes.
Henry nattered on, oblivious to Alice’s distraction. “It’s good to have someone from school here. I was going crazy isolated in the country, and everybody has left the capital. Come, I’ll show you around.” He introduced her to an older woman then headed in another direction. “The library is seldom open to the public, but it’s my favorite room for working.” He continued to chatter about the construction and history of the government building as he led her down a wide hall and through two glass double doors.
Alice finally narrowed her eyes at Henry. He’d said something about being isolated in the country. Was he lonely? Why would he be lonely? He had friends everywhere. However, if he’s lonely that can work to my advantage. What else had he said?
Henry led Alice through several rooms, then out onto the terrace facing the river and down through the gardens.They came in through a back door that led to a utility area, then up some stairs and into a red and gold salon. “We’re in the oldest wing of the Compound. This was the formal reception room for the colonial governors.”
Alice looked at the gold cherubs on the ceiling. “I’ve never seen the older parts of this place before. It’s really a bit of history. I wish we could have seen this when we were kids. It would have made all that stuff about the governors more real.”
Henry shrugged. “We need to move on if we’re to be on time for dinner.”
“Where are we going?”
Henry bowed before her. “Why Miss Alice Uzara, lobbyist for the IIA, you need to meet the president of the country, and the best place to do that is at dinner in the Compound.”
Alice wanted to shake her head. Was Henry suggesting he was taking her to dinner with the president?
He held out his arm to lead her away. They crossed the courtyard and entered the double doors to the presidential wing. He introduced her to the Chief of Staff.
Alice felt slightly dizzy and clung to Henry as the only solid thing in her world. She tried to pull herself out of her fantasy, but it seemed that she really was on a date with Henry Fortenac, and he really was leading her around the Grand Salon at the government compound, introducing her to staff and government officials. He presented her to the president and first lady and their children. She felt on firmer ground with the children. Henry chatted with them easily, and she soon felt comfortable enough to ask about their dog and stroke the big animal’s soft ears.
Henry led Alice into the dining room. Once seated, the conversation became general, then the first lady said, “Alice, I heard your mama has had cancer. How is she?”
“She’s doing okay. The doctor says they think the cancer is gone.”
The president picked up the discussion. “I’m glad she was able to get treatment. While I’m in office, I hope I can focus on building modern medical facilities. It’ll be a battle though, people can’t grasp the idea that access to good healthcare is part of economic stability.”
Alice felt touched that people had cared enough to ask about her mama. She listened as the president and first lady encouraged Henry to bring his younger cousins for a visit to the Compound. Their son, Tony, added his invitation. “Yes, please bring them. All our friends have left the city and there’s nothing to do.”
Soon the younger son, Joseph, asked a question that tickled Alice’s imagination.
“Papa, which animal would you choose in a battle, a dragon or a gryphon?”
The president put down his fork and considered the question. “I guess I’d choose a dragon.”
Intrigued, Alice asked Joseph, “Why do you want to know?”
“I’m a dungeon master. Do you know what that is?”
Alice grinned and leaned toward Joseph. “I guess, I’m the High Priestess Zephora.”
The dinner guests fell into a spirited discussion of the merits of dragons vs. gryphons. Alice found herself disagreeing with the president, but the Chief of Compound Security backed up her arguments.
The Chief of Staff seemed fond of dragons. “We really need a dragon or two to guard our dungeons here.”
Alice and the president’s daughter Sophia giggled.
The president chuckled, then changed the subject. “So Alice, tell us what this proposal you’re promoting is all about.”
Alice ran through her talking points. “We’ll get back on our feet again, of course, but right now we’re trying to buy and deliver food and essential supplies for the whole country while we’re short on money. I’ve found several places where tax deferments or loans would help us continue to operate.”
The president nodded. “Henry gave me a copy of the proposal. I do see your point. My job is to make certain that all importers would have access to the benefits and be treated equally. I’ll send copies to the border provinces.”
Alice looked at her lap, confused. He’d already read her proposal and agreed with it. He didn’t laugh or say the government didn’t have money. He was going to share it with others. This was just like school where she got praised for her work. She looked up. “As I think about it, all importers will have the same problems in general, but the details will vary. It was never my intent to leave out one group or another, but the only people I had access to were the IIA members. I’ll welcome all additions or information anybody can find for me.” She smiled at the idea of getting loans and tax breaks for people other than those dirty old men in the IIA.
Finally, the most delightful dinner Alice had ever attended came to a close. Henry had arranged for a staff car to take her back to her uncle’s house.
He walked her to the waiting car in the courtyard. “I can ride with you if you like.”
“But you’re eager to call the hospital and check on your sister.”
Henry glanced away, “I’m in charge of the whole family now and making the decisions for Cordelia’s care.” He bit his lip. “I do need to call, but I don’t want you to be uncomfortable with a strange driver.”
Henry’s vulnerability and courtesy gave Alice the courage to almost hug him. She rested her forearms on his shoulders and laced her fingers behind his neck. “Henry, I’ll be fine. Thank you for a lovely evening. This has been the most wonderful dinner of my life.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“You still owe me a dance. If your dance invitations are half as delightful as your dinner invitations, I won’t let you forget.”
“I won’t forget.” Henry helped Alice into the car.
Once home, Alice called her mama. “I’m safely home. You can stop worrying.”
“It’s early. I thought you’d be later. Where did you go? Did he take you someplace nice?”
Alice flopped back on her bed. “Oh, Mama. He took me to dinner in the Compound with the president and his family. It was the most wonderful evening ever.”
Alice heard her mama relating this information and Papa’s voice responding. The next thing she heard was Papa’s voice. “Did you really meet the new president?”
“I did. I met his whole family. Henry had given him a copy of my proposal. He said it might need additions, but he could see we needed some help to continue to operate. I’m sure the proposal is going to go through with some additions.”
Papa almost interrupted his daughter. “What is the president like? Is he stupid or crude? He’s a general. He can’t be refined.”
“Papa, the president is the most gracious and well-educated man I’ve ever met.” Alice paused to let that sink in for a moment. “He and his wife made me feel welcome. The dinner conversation was the most interesting and varied I’ve encountered. It was really a family dinner. His children were there.”
“How was Henry? Did you learn how their family is doing?”
“Henry was worried about his sister. The family has placed him in charge of everything.” She paused to let that information sink in too. “Tell mama that Henry and I are still planning on going dancing when we can fit it in around our schedules. He’s going to Mesa City next week to check on the family property there.” She disconnected and kicked her feet in the air. Yeah Papa, your daughter just had an intimate dinner with the president and is dating the head of the most powerful family in the country.
Alice thought she might not sleep that night from excitement, but she fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.
Alice sat beside Henry at the head of the dinner table in the Compound. A servant entered with papers on a tray. “The legislature just sent back the bill making sexual harassment in the workplace a crime. You wanted to sign it tonight?” Alice nodded and signed, President Alice Uzara-Fortenac
Somewhere on the grounds of the Compound, the phantom corpse of Ugly Uzara dissolved into the night air.