Aida’s life was forever changed when she received a letter in the mail.
She never got letters. Being adopted into a small family in a smaller farm in Bělico didn’t bless her with birthday gifts or congratulatory mail. She estimated that no one other than her stepmother and her stepsisters knew of her existence, so Aida ghosted through life without much interference.
But she knew this letter, had been anticipating it for weeks since she’d sent in her application under her mother’s nose. It was handwritten on high-quality paper, the feeling new to her, foreign, and was branded with the seal of the Roman lion. She’d dreamt of getting these royal letters in the mail, wishful hope turning into dread come nighttime, but she hadn’t thought she’d receive a reply, let alone a letter of acceptance.
She’d been tending to the farm, or the cows, mainly. The chickens, pigs, sheep, and goats had been taken care of and her stepmother and stepsisters had their two horses out on a carriage ride to the village, so all that was left to handle was their five highland cows. Big, burly creatures more fur than hide. It took Aida more time to heave the heavy bales of hay into their stables, to groom them, wash them, clean out their troughs. She’d hadn’t even heard the post carrier arrive, she’d been on the other side of the property. When she realized her family would be home soon, she hurried to get everything done so her stepmother would be in a better mood. Well, a less shit one.
There was one piece of mail that day, and it’d been addressed to Aida.
When her mother and sister finally came home and found Aida on the floor, frantically rereading the letter with the envelope torn with her teeth, they must’ve assumed she’d had jumped and was writhing in pain as a result.
She was writhing, but not because she’d travelled backwards in time. Her brain was spinning, eyes watering due to some type of emotion she couldn’t name. After fighting for years, she’d finally earned this damned six-year scholarship to Durante Academy.
Not that wanting to dorm at a school named after King Durante’s lineage was something she was excited about. She detested almost everything the royal family did, and she didn’t even live in Roma. Roma, or Roma City, was 1,500 kilometers away, across the sea and doing far better for itself than her home country of snow-covered farmlands. She should’ve loathed becoming a student in the country with the bloodiest warpath, the worst, most prejudiced ruler, and the shittiest armed forces since the time of gladiators.
But how she’d dreamed of walking through those academic halls, taking in the prestigious lessons in fervor and staying up late to perfect a soon-to-be perfectly marked test. Schools in Bělico, you were expected to drop out of after primary school to work your family’s farms. It made sense for some people. Agriculture was the biggest export for the country, so families expected many hands to tend to the fields.
But that wasn’t Aida’s path. Ever since she’d been adopted, Aida Mirko had set her sights on becoming a historian, and that path was only attainable in the sparkling, problematic country of Roma.
It was only after Aida heard her mother slam the door did she realize her mistake: being indulgent.
“What’re y’all doing?” one of her stepsisters, Ekaterina, asked.
“You tracked in mud,” her other sister, Olga, said. She had her upper lip curled as she looked over where Aida had run in from the fields.
Her mother looked over the mess Aida had made, then at the letter still in her hand.
Then she slapped her across the cheek and sent her glasses across the living room.
She should’ve expected it. How dare her. Here she was, trying to better herself in a world where most people wanted her kind dead, and she’d just been accepted into one of the world’s most prestigious academies known in Roma. It had only a seven percent acceptance rate. To any parent, that would’ve been cause for celebration.
Her mother grabbed Aida by the collar and dragged her upstairs to her room. Her mother and sisters lived downstairs near the warm fireplaces, while Aida had the joy of taking the stairs she struggled with and lived in the cold attic at the top of the steps. She had a fucking cane and a limp, and these people couldn’t care less.
Her mother slammed the bedroom door behind her. “How dare you?”
Aida fell backwards into her bed.
“You ain’t going,” she decided. “You have obligations here. You work the farm, you care for us. How selfish can you be, leaving all of that to become a damned academic?”
“I want…to be a historian,” Aida said, trying so hard to carefully explain something she’d wanted for years. With her limp, it was difficult to do any sort of manual labor. She got tired easily, her dizzy spells were becoming more frequent. Her sisters, they weren’t expected to do half the chores she was forced to do, yet she did them. She hated herself, but she did as she was told because it gave her a roof over her head and food on the table and a bed to dream about a life better than this. In the rare hours she had for sleep, she studied and overworked her abilities to prove that a Visatorre deserved to learn, something that’d been barred from her people for centuries.
She didn’t expect praise, or admiration. She couldn’t dream like that. All she wished was for her mother to stop hitting her. She didn’t know why she was selfish asking that.
Her mother stood tall over her. “You ain’t going.”
Aida fixed her broken glasses over her nose. “I was accepted.”
“I ain’t paying for it.”
“I know that.”
“What do you mean ‘I know that’? You won’t be able to afford it. The journey ’cross the sea alone is ten gold.”
To her mother, it’d seem that way, but Aida had been saving up. For years, she’d been putting away her childhood allowance underneath the broken floorboard next to her bed. After turning fifteen, her mother had stopped paying her for her work. Aida had thought it was because her mother had finally seen her as a daughter more than a servant. Then she found out Ekaterina’s and Olga’s allowance had doubled.
So, she’d taken to writing school papers for the local village kids. Those who were able to write had trouble forming their thoughts in persuasive essays, so Aida wrote them top-grade papers about history, war, massacres of her own people and the rise of these dictatorships she hated, all behind her mother’s back. If her mother had found that out, she would’ve thrown Aida into the village stockades for lying because “Visatorre folk weren’t smart like normal folk.”
“I have the money,” Aida summarized.
“I don’t care if you got a fortune! Y’all ain’t gonna throw away your life and waste it on an academy when you’re needed here.”
“I’ll be gone, isn’t that what you’d want?” she shot back, the fear of speaking back pitching her voice. “I’ll be gone for six whole years, and I swear, whatever money I make—”
“‘Money I make’, she says. What money you gonna make there? You know Roma don’t take well to you folk as well as Bělico people do. You’ll be ridiculed. You’ll be ostracized.”
“So how different would it be from here?” Aida wanted to ask. Circa, how she wished she was brave enough to say that. If she’d been high, that defiance would’ve come out, but it would’ve only resulted in her being hit harder.
Aida lowered her head, feigning a defeat.
Her mother harrumphed and tied up her brown hair in a messy bun. “That’s what I thought. Now.” She held out her hand. Aida flinched. “Give me that letter.”
“No,” Aida said. “Please, just…let me keep it. For memory’s sake.”
Her mother rolled her eyes and wiped her hands on her apron. “Get up and help with the groceries, since you didn’t want to help when we came in. The rest are in the carriage.”
Aida nodded and went for her cane. It was a dark, simple thing made from a tree branch in the woods around them.
Her mother kicked it and knocked it into the wall. The force made it tip and spill Aida’s half-filled drinking glass to the ground.
“Realize your stance in this house,” her mother warned, “and stop making such foolish decisions behind my back.”
“I will,” Aida said, and waited for her mother to leave down the stairs, where she heard her sisters whispering about what their mother had just told their servant daughter.
She gripped her cane as tightly as she could. The one thing about being in your twenties was that, while you might’ve been afraid of your parents and they’d wrecked your self-confidence and self-worth beyond recognition for more than a decade, if you had the money and the drive to defy the Gods, you could change your future for the better.
After hearing her mother leave, Aida went for her travel bags.
Nights at the Mirko household came early, as they—she—had to get up at four in the morning to take care of the livestock. Feed them, gather the eggs, change the hay, sweep out both barns, weed out the gardens. Aida half-expected her mother to put more energy into their own livelihood instead of working on how to destroy her own daughter’s confidence, but she couldn’t expect much of anything from them anymore.
Aida knew she was smart. She wouldn’t have gotten her scholarship if she hadn’t been. All the years of extra-credit and letter after letter of recommendations had paid off. It didn’t matter what her mother thought of her. She would reclaim her dignity without her.
The night she received her letter, Aida woke up at three and began packing. It’d taken a chunk of her savings to leave now, as she’d planned to leave later towards the school year where travel costs decreased, but she’d manage. She always did. She currently had seventy pieces of gold lyria to her name. It wasn’t much—it barely covered a month’s worth of groceries for her family—but if she used it right, it’d get her a life without them in it.
Because, in all her twenty-three years of living, she knew that “family” could go fuck themselves with how much good they did for her.
She dressed in a black dress fit for the night and braided her hair in her favorite way, down her front in two braids that never seemed even. She was bigger than most girls: both of her sisters’ weights combined. She hoped the school uniforms could accommodate her, and that they weren’t tacky. She needed a self-esteem boost, not a downgrade from what clothes she’d been given.
After packing her non-essentials, she got to work packing the more important items: her journals, thick with cut-outs and pictures from used books she’d pasted into it; her history texts on the once luxurious country of Siina and its murdered queen; the first book in the En Tempore Rose sextet, Pinnacle Isle; and the signed playbooks from the opera-ballet adaptation she’d bartered for in exchange for an eight-page essay.
She’d gone to see the opera once, and by “seen,” she meant she’d snuck away into the theatre for ten minutes during a family trip to Roma City when she was six. It’d been during a trading festival where they earned their summer wealth. She’d snuck into the massive theater constructed within the colosseum and caught the last few minutes of the performance before being discovered.
She’d been beaten so hard that she didn’t remember much of the opera, but she remembered loving it. Those few minutes near the stage that made her heart stop and restart with the love of her favorite stories, both real and imaginary. The ballerinas dressed in snow-white lace, the glitter that danced from the rafters. It’d sparked her desire to be a ballerina before she found out that Visatorre were neither allowed to be performers on the stage nor were they allowed to even watch a costly opera to begin with. They were a “risk” to those around them if they travelled backwards into time.
At least she had her journals. She had a dozen or so hand-bound journals she’d made herself because God knew her mother wouldn’t have bought them for her. They detailed her favorite moments in history. Nothing of wars or tyrannical, egotistical kings she couldn’t stand learning about. She was interested in the people, the interpersonal relationships between the royal families and their citizens. Their dresses, the food they ate, the ways they lived their menial lives a millennia ago.
And Eve, a magnificent, tolerant queen to a dead city-state that once held 100,000 Visatorre within its peaceful walls. Aida loved her, knew everything about her life from the minute she was born to the day she was executed. Her city-state, Siina, had once been a well-established community within Roma that could’ve rivaled the country in time.
History said Eve had murdered the Roman king’s wife, so in retaliation, he’d killed her, her lineage, and all 100,000 Visatorre of Siina, burying them within the Catacombs underneath Roma City.
Aida knew for a fact that that part of history was wrong. She’d written papers and thesis on Eve for years, and she couldn’t see the dead queen dipping so far as to murder someone she should’ve seen as an ally. She’d been a young, proud, dedicated Visatorre that housed and raised and loved the biggest population of Visatorre the world had ever seen. Yes, she was rash with some of her decision-making, and she might’ve been labeled “eccentric” in today’s terms, but to murder someone so powerful for no reason, it didn’t add up. It didn’t make sense.
So, Aida was bent on becoming a historian, to rewrite the history books with the truth rather than the propagated schlock crammed down their throats.
After zipping up her final bag, she readied her three-kilometer-long walk to the village. It was mostly leveled terrain, but still, it always burdened her legs. One bad jump six years ago had fucked up her hips, or her back, or her spine, or all three, given her exceptionally bad luck. No doctor had a concrete reason as to why Visatorre were injured when they jumped into the past, they only knew the farther back you went, the worse you came back. Some Visatorre who’d jump 100, 200 years back would come back burning from the inside or with missing limbs, screaming in pain until they needed to take something to their skull to mask the pain. Aida, with all that was stacked up against her, always considered herself lucky that she only needed a cane to get around.
She closed the garden gates slowly, taking the back entrance so she didn’t wake the easily spooked ducks. No more farmlands, no more chores done by six and being hit behind closed doors. Despite years of fucking up, making her think she was useless, too slow, too stupid to be anything more than a servant in her own home, Aida was to mentally burn this place to the ground with her accomplishments.
Or physically, if she became so bold and dire for actual jail time.
She paused at the start of the cow field, eyes darting left and right. While she wouldn’t burn down the farm—she couldn’t hurt the animals—she could do something else. Something more.
She crept into the chicken coop and burgled twenty-four of the largest eggs, enough to keep her fed for a few days, and another six for the carriage. Not hers, but her mother’s, or the one she’d already promised for Olga when she eventually married. Keeping her movements quiet, Aida smashed her extra eggs into the seats and dug the yolk deep into the hides. Then she took charcoal she always kept in her dress pockets and ruined one side of the barn in graffiti. She dumped the milk she’d gotten for that day, she let the chickens loose from the coop. Dumped the drinking water over the hay, overturned the trough. Everything she could do to make her family’s life horrible, but not enough to send an officer after her.
If they connected it to a Visatorre’s doing, she might’ve had one on her tail. Luckily, she wasn’t planning on ever coming back.
She paced herself as she made her way into the village. Idti, a racist outcropping of 500 farmers who’d sell their own daughters for a lick of gold. She kept a knife in her pocket when walking down the dirt roads, waiting to hear someone run up behind her and rob her. Luckily, the carriage house she was planning on using was close to the main road. Beyond the village stretched out a long path to the sea. She could almost smell the cold, salty air.
One driver was smoking near his carriage and reading the paper with his boots kicked up. As Aida neared with lantern and cane in hand, he gave her a look. He made no attempt to hide his ogling at her Visatorre marking: a white circle engraved in the middle of her forehead. Every Visatorre obtained one the first time they travelled, but that didn’t stop non-Visatorre from staring like she had three legs.
“I need a ride to the harbor,” Aida said, keeping her face devoid of emotion.
“Now?” the driver asked.
“Not yesterday,” she said, and gave him three of her gold lyria coins. “The quicker, the better.”
At the sight of priceless gold, the driver instantly folded his paper and sat up. “You’re the Visatorre girl who works up at that farm, ain’t you?”
“Aye.” She took out one of her own cigarettes and had him light it for her. She needed one after this week, and her mother hated the smell in the house. “Let’s say I got fired.”
“Didn’t you live there?”
“Didn’t you need to bring me to the harbor?”
The man clicked his tongue and helped her with her bags.
She took one long inhale as she surveyed the land. The morning birds had yet to begin their songs, and the lack of light let the Moon and stars shine over the country, painting it a deep blue.
“Did you hear the news?” the driver asked, making unneeded small talk. “The princess of Roma, Lucia, she just went missing. Paper’s sayin’ she vanished from her own wedding. Say she got kidnapped or something.”
“Wouldn’t be a change from what we see,” Aida said. While the royal family now was in charge of what she did, she didn’t care for them nearly as much as she cared for the dead ones. The dead ones had more of a history to them that always intrigued her. Plus, she never saw the two twin princesses. One had been married off to the shitstain of Bělico’s King Dmitri as a kid, the other barely left the palace. What was the difference if she went missing?
“Do you think they’ll find her?” asked the driver.
In the distance, Aida saw the faint outline of her home. Her mother’s home—it had never belonged to her. Her mother had tried to be a good mother when she’d first adopted Aida, but the years had tainted her into a villain Aida couldn’t wait to see get their comeuppance.
She gave her home the finger and hopped into the carriage. “Who cares about some dumb princess?”