The second Aida stepped off the boat, she was struck with awe, an intense yearning of something grander than she’d ever thought was possible.
Then the seasickness sullied the occasion, but she wouldn’t let her bodily issues ruin this once in a lifetime experience.
You could feel when you entered Rome, when you officially made it to the country you’d been dreaming about for months, years. The air was different, the energy warmer. Unlike Bělico, which sprawled out into farm valleys and snow-capped mountains with the occasional farm, Roma was anything but. Firstly, the people here had a place to be. They hauled barrels of water on to carriages, they sang for money, they bartered and sold their wares with the utmost power to their actions. The streets always seemed to be moving, something Aida had wished for in Bělico but didn’t know how in which to hold herself.
After exiting the carriage that brought her deeper into town, she kept herself small, the grip on her cane and rucksacks making her hands sweat. The buildings were ancient and tall, and the noise overwhelmed her to the point of freezing her in place. She knew there were taverns near the center of the city, which was where she was going to sleep until the semester started, but here, in the middle of the busy streets, she was stuck. All at once, it felt like people were staring at her and ignoring her, like she was an uninteresting problem they couldn’t be bothered to solve.
She took a breath, pressed her weight onto her cane, and carried on.
The architecture was dazzling. Rich period houses made of brick, cottages built around markets selling seasoned meats and sugary sweets. Unlike her time as a child, when she thought food was free and people were kind, she now knew what to use her money for and bought cheap food to keep herself alive.
The streets were decorated in triangular pennant flags and ancient art, not for a festival, just to preserve the ancient traditions, and in the center of the intersections, written on that rich paper Aida fancied, was a drawn illustration of that princess that went missing.
Aida heard Lucia’s name whispered in the streets. Women with their hands over their mouths. Men with their hands on their hips, nodding about the obvious as to why she’d left. There were more officers walking around, the men in the red jackets and black hats who kept Roma safe. They patrolled the streets with vigilant eyes, waiting to spot the hidden princess in her wedding dress.
An arranged marriage. Aida didn’t know much about the people of Aldaí, though she supposed one of her birth parents might’ve claimed a place of origin there. The prince sounded like a normal fellow with average values. Though, if she were to re-examine the predicament, she couldn’t blame the princess for escaping such a marriage. If Aida had been arrange married, she too would’ve run, though probably not the day of. The girl must’ve either been a juggernaut for chaos, or an incredibly indecisive person.
The streets winded and were made of cobblestone that the Siinans and Eve herself must’ve walked. It was difficult discerning which parts of the city belonged to Siina, which streets and plots of land had been claimed by the Roman crown after the city-state’s destruction. The city had white, ancient columns, fountains with Circa’s statue atop them, and even a few ancient buildings preserved from the Classical Era. She knew how to spot them with their white walls and timber frames. They must’ve been 1,000 years old, so close to Queen Eve’s timeline yet too far away for her to ever have seen them. Aida wondered how many ancient people had walked these same cobblestone streets, how many buildings Eve might’ve walked into. She’d have to plan a full day just to explore to take everything in.
No true Romans seemed to be paying attention to the history around them, but the notable tourists were looking up at the columns in the same fervor as Aida. She wanted to take a tour of every ancient building. She would’ve even dipped into the depths of the infamous Catacombs that lay underneath her feet, but she couldn’t make a spectacle of herself. She saw Visatorre roaming the streets, those with the circles over their forehead and those who were quite obviously hiding them in head wrappings. Most looked unfortunate, dirty. Some were begging for a bronze lyria. Aida gave them what she could, knowing she should’ve kept all of it for herself, being that she was, in a sense, homeless as well.
As she toured the shops and eyed the delectables of frosted cookies and her favorite, sugar bread, she came across an abandoned shop with its windows boarded and door signs stripped away. It looked like it hadn’t been touched in years, so she rested against its walls to catch her breath. How far had she made it, two kilometers? It was another three to the nearest taverns. Should she’ve called for another carriage? Would they stop for her? She needed to read up more about the unspoken rules in Roma, not ones from a millennia ago. Should she have hidden her marking? She would’ve rather died.
She went to clean off her glasses when a figure in white caught her eye. It—she—sat on the steps, a poor woman wrapped in rags. At first glance, she resembled more of a pile of laundry than a woman in need, she was so knelt over. She was tall, though, even when crouched down, and barefoot. Aida had no choice but to help her, she was drawn to her. How tall was she, two meters? Her sitting state was almost Aida’s full height.
Aida walked closer, eager to help yet keeping back in fear of the unknown. “Excuse me.”
The woman’s eyes were completely bound by bandages. She wasn’t injured—they weren’t bloody or stained—they just looked like a reminder to show the public that she simply did not have eyes.
Aida pulled back. Most Visatorre, when the time travelled, only travelled back a few decades. The farther back you went, the more messed up you came back. Five years back would get you a bad cough or a throbbing joint. Fifty years and you’d end up with a permanent injury, like her shitty leg or a fucked up eye. 200 years back and who knew. You could lose your leg, your head might fall off. Aida had known one girl from her village that travelled back 150 years, give or take a decade. She had regular bleeding from the brain. It lasted two months before she died an agonizing death.
People had theories as to why a time traveller jumped, and scholars and medics have tried their damnedest to find a solution to why travelling hurt the traveller once they returned, but all signs pointed to the Heavens above. Those who still believed in the Gods—very few in her generation—believed that these things happened simply because the Gods willed them to happen. Why did it happen? Why did the Gods take away children right when they were born? Why couldn’t humans live as long as trees or Aldaían turtles? It was simply nature, a nature human beings had yet to understand.
Taking in the woman’s differences, Aida closed her hand around the coins. “Here,” she said, “it’s ten bronze lyria.”
The woman slowly lifted her head, showing Aida a wide, unnerving smile that seemed otherworldly. Wildly, wickedly, reaching from ear to ear. Despite being homeless, her teeth were perfectly white. They were almost blue.
Aida slowly retracted her offered hand, but still dropped the ten lyria next to her hip. Roma was incredibly different from Bělico. It was grand as well as poor. Beautiful as well as filthy.
Interesting as well as confusing.
She couldn’t imagine what she’d see near the Palace, and the Colosseum.
Where Siina once lay.
Students were given access to Durante Academy a day before classes officially started. This was mostly for students and their families to tour the campus, to admire the plaques of royal statues and feast in the dining hall together. Aida had no family to see her off and she’d already known everything that was written on the plaques, so she’d taken to just moving in without any spectacle. Alone. Up four flights of stairs. Without anyone to help her.
It was fine. She was fine. It didn’t matter that nobody helped her or that her mother hadn’t come looking for her. It’d been three weeks, sure, and maybe communication between Bělico and Roma would take that long. And it could’ve snowed, so the post might’ve been halted or stopped temporarily.
Maybe her mother had never come searching for her, and who cared? Finally, Aida had become unburdened by the weight of family life. It was all she’d ever wanted.
She just wished, against her better judgement, that she had somebody to pay and help her. She’d spent most of her savings on lodging at a nearby inn before the Academy opened. She would’ve paid for the help with what little money she had left, but she was carrying the weight of every Visatorre in Roma City. Out of the 2,500 people attending this Academy, she’d sniffed out that only six of those 2,500 students were Visatorre. .2 percent. Ten years ago and no Visatorre had the rights to attend higher education. She couldn’t let this opportunity be tainted by her own missteps and selfishness.
Stepping onto the soil of the Durante Academy didn’t feel real, like she was stepping into a painting. It was built up like the Roman Palace, with arches and red brick holding centuries worth of knowledge. It’d been built at the turn of the Neoclassical Era—the Era they were in now—but it was still more than 200 years old. It’d been named Scoppio Erutus Academy in honor of the first king of Roma, but then King Durante had been so arrogant, he forced his wife to rename a historic foundation after himself. What she would’ve done if she meant the man himself. Gouge out his eyes, she would.
She touched the iron-clad gates, then where her acceptance letter was in her bag. She’d done it. All without her family’s help.
She’d taken all but four steps through the Academy gates when she felt her body tense. She’d familiarized herself with her normal bodily aches apart from these ones. When she felt like this, when the world shifted around her like someone was tilting it with both hands, that’s when she knew. That’s when she knew a jump was about to occur.
The first thing she did was take off her glasses. Nothing came with you when you teleported into the past, not even your clothes, so it did right by you to make sure you secured any loose valuables or breakables on your person before you left. Stumbling across piles of clothes was commonplace, and it was a jackpot for thieves or terrible people to loot a defenseless, temporarily lost person of their money.
When she travelled backwards into time, her only concern was someone stealing her books and throwing them into a fountain.
A loud zap of energy stole her from the present. The travelling itself didn’t hurt, not at first, but it left her feeling floaty. That’s the only way she could describe it. You left the Earth that grounded you and was brought somewhere, somehow, against your will and into Circa’s hands. It was magic, Aida knew that, but everything magical about going into the past was stripped from her when she knew it’d leave her with a bloody nose or worse.
She dropped into a forest. Nothing spectacular, just an endless sea of untamed land and pine cones. She would’ve preferred something a little more interesting like a town or even a house. When you went back in time, you couldn’t interact with anything around you, so if you jumped into someone’s room, there you were, and you were stuck there until someone from that time period happened to open a door or window big enough for you to squeeze through. Open spaces like this, while bereft of anything eye-catching, made Aida thankful that she hadn’t jumped anywhere too stifling.
She wandered. It was all you could do for one, two hours in this pause in your life. She heard the birds chirping to each other, she heard the skittering of squirrels and rabbits who didn’t know a traveller was meters away from them. And she felt the wind, heard it flutter through the leaves and branches. But it was strange, distant. And smell, that was something you had trouble with. It was like walking through a moving painting. You were there, you were exploring, but you couldn’t interact with this painted scene before you. It was better, in that sense, if you came across something important. A meeting between generals, an unsolved murder with a new key witness. You could learn about the world in a way most people couldn’t.
And all she got was a forest. Just. Her. Luck.
After maneuvering around a fallen tree, she did come across something prominent: a crystal lake that sparkled with the bright blue sky. It perfectly reflected the white clouds and the treetops around them. Bugs danced across the water and frogs leapt atop their lilypads. And curled within the lake’s natural perimeter lived a cabin that honestly looked like it’d seen better days. It was modern, giving Aida context as to how far she’d jumped back, but some of the windows had cracks in it, and a natural ecosystem grew where its cut lawn should’ve been. It looked cozy, if not a little worn.
The sound of hammering skipped across the lake. Without her glasses, Aida guessed that there were two people sitting on the roof, patching up a hole.
She circled the lake. She heard them speaking, but she couldn’t make out their words or accents, leaving her lost as to who they were and where she was. She almost called out to them before remembering neither of them would hear, see, or acknowledge her.
She tried anyway. “Hey,” she called out. “Where are you in the world?”
Just when she was able to make out their faces, she felt her body being pulled back into the present. She tried to step out of the pull, to find out more about this abandoned cabin, but no Visatorre could do that. They could only go where Circa desired them to go and left when Circa wanted them gone.
When she fell back to the present, reality slammed down with her. Her aches, her bodily pain, the weight of being alive. She was a mass that affected the world, and it sucked and hurt. She was dizzy and it was hard to keep her eyes from spinning, but all in all, she was fine, meaning that she’d only travelled a short way for an even shorter time.
Then she tried to sit up and immediately crashed back down, her legs too tired to hold herself up. Yeah, she wasn’t dead, but check back in two hours when she had a bag of ice on her lower back and a migraine beginning to form.
The Sun had long since set. Night bugs chirped from the bushes around her and most of the lanterns were out. With the Moon’s help, she patted the ground for her glasses, and found them and her bags, shoes. They were all still there, but she’d have to double-check just to make sure. She’d needed to know her books were still with her, otherwise, what was the point of all of this? If she lost her journals…
“Miss, are you alright?”
She lunged for her dress. One-pieces were the easiest clothing for Visatorre to wear to regain their modesty, or what they had left of it, but someone had already seen her, and they sounded like her age. What a great first impression to make at the Academy.
The person coming up to her was a blur without her glasses, but she saw that they were tall—everyone was tall to her, being that she was only 144 centimeters tall—and they had blond hair and fair skin, wearing…
An officer uniform.
Just. Her. Fucking. Luck.
“Here, let me assist you,” they said, this time with a noticeable lisp.
“I can assist myself, thank you. Sir,” she added, hoping she wouldn’t get written up for being too crass with an officer, and got dressed in front of him. She didn’t worry about her undergarments or socks, she just needed to cover her body in front of this person.
A piece of fabric draped over her shoulders: his jacket.
“Please, allow me,” he said, and now, he was way too close. She had a thing about that, about people touching her, getting into her personal space without her consent.
“Not really helping,” she said, and shrugged it off to button up her dress. When she still felt his presence behind her, she said, “Give a woman some privacy?”
“Oh, of course.” He turned on his heel with his hands behind his back. “My apologies. I was keeping watch over your things in case you came back. I heard a loud snap, then saw all these clothes on the ground. I thought it’d be best to help you once you returned.”
“Were you expecting me to disappear?” She flicked out her glasses and put them back on.
“No, I just didn’t want you to be frightened once you returned.”
He was indeed an officer, wearing that gaudy fit the crown made all officers wear—a red jacket studded with gold buttons, black boots that reached their knees—but he was an officer-in-training: no medals or aiguillettes to signify rank, a short rapier attached to his belt as opposed to the long ones real officers used. He was another young fool pulled into the system meant to serve a monarchy who couldn’t be bothered about you.
His green eyes shot down at her naked legs. A hint of red was scratched across his long face. “Forgive me, Miss. I’ve never seen someone jump into the past before. It’s like you were there, then in a flash, you were taken away.”
Ah, so he was pampered. Aida saw his whole life: sheltered, kept away from real life. Most Visatorre weren’t rich, so you either saw them on the streets, working in the fields, or doing manual work to get by. Given that, and by how clean and posh this boy sounded, he’d probably never fought a day in his life.
He stepped back, taking her in from a different angle, then gasped and knelt down to collect her things. “It must be hard,” he said, “disappearing like that and all.” He handed her her shoes, taking note of her right one that weighed heavier than the other. He checked inside for any rocks.
“It’s fine,” she said, and put them on. If the cane didn’t give away her ailments from being a Visatorre, her mismatched shoes would’ve. “The right one has a larger heel due to my limp. Keeps me balanced.”
“Oh.” If he had anything else to say on that, he didn’t.
She sighed. She didn’t need this kid’s pity tonight. She moved to gather her own shit and strained something down her leg. Her right one was worse, the dead weight that made her limp so bad. Sometimes it radiated its anger up her spine and left her toes numb and body with feverish aches for the whole day. This boy didn’t need to know that, he didn’t need to know anything about her. Lucky for her that he’d just seen a part of her that she hadn’t meant neither a man nor woman to ever see. She picked up her bags, her upper lip curled.
“Please, Miss, it’s no problem at all,” he said. “I can help you take them to your dorm if you’d like. Which house is it?”
“…Willows,” she said, though she was unsure if she should’ve been telling this boy where she’d now live.
“That’s across the campus. Here.” He picked up all three of her bags with one arm, as well as her books and uniforms she’d received earlier that week. The Academy almost sent them to her stepmother’s house before she’d intervened.
Aida stepped away from him. “Why’re you helping me?”
“Because I’m an officer.”
“But…” She sighed again. It was too late and she was too tired to argue. “If you do anything insidious, I’ll scream so loud, I’ll make you deaf.”
“Oh.” He frowned. “Please don’t think so ill of me, Miss…”
“Aida. Mirko,” she added, and curtised shortly, shoeless with her braids coming undone. “What a first impression to make, ’ey?”
The boy chuckled shortly, then bowed, a hand over his stomach. “Lorian Ashwell. A pleasure to meet you.”
Aida scoffed and started walking towards her dorm, her bloomers tucked over her arm. “Not so much from my end. What a bastard of a way to see your first jump.”
“I’ve heard many different tales of it, no doubt. My father is rather…orthodox when it comes to the views of Visatorre.”
“So he’s a cock.”
Lorian choked on his own spit, then burst into a laugh that Aida couldn’t help but smile at. “How bold of you! I’ve never heard a woman speak so crassly as you do.”
“You must not meet many girls.”
He turned away, still chuckling. “That is true, yes.”
Her forced confidence shrunk. Wasn’t she supposed to make a good impression on this school? This kid must’ve been a hired officer to patrol the grounds at night. He’d report her behavior back to the dean. She needed to watch her mouth.
“So, where are you from?” Lorian asked. “No one from Roma would speak as confidently as you do, and your accent is quite unique.”
Aida arched a brow at him. “And you call me bold, asking for my name first, then asking where I’m from based off of my accent? What about your accent? Wouldn’t that be invasive if I asked you about that?”
He lost a step beside her and touched his lips. “My lisp isn’t something I can control, Miss Mirko, though I have been taking therapy lessons to correct it. I’m sorry it offends you in some way.”
Aida cocked her head at the sudden dip into aggressiveness. “When did I say anything about your lisp? I ain’t that rude despite what everything thinks of me. I said ‘accent’. You speak properly, so one can assume you came from wealth, but I wasn’t gonna say that out loud.”
“Oh.” Lorian shot her a look she couldn’t read, then he smirked and dropped his hand. “You are quite something, Miss Mirko.”
“You just met me, Lorian Ashwell, so cool it with the conclusions.”
“Please do forgive me. I haven’t met many people my age. I’m still getting used to the acclimation.”
“Were you living under a rock up until now?”
“You could say that, yes.”
Aida harrumphed. Rich and ignorant. She didn’t know a worse combination.
But she couldn’t knock him. He was kind, doing all of this for her. Her hands almost relaxed out of their fists, but she kept her guard up. She still had her cane to dig into his eye sockets if he fucked up.
He helped her all the way up the spiral staircase, stopping whenever she needed to. He never mentioned her cane or how she sometimes walked into him due to her balance problem. For a boy who hadn’t properly met a Visatorre before, he was taking it better than most. Most threw questions, insults. Rocks, if they were truly cowards.
Her dorm room was small yet curved along with the edge of the building, giving her an extra window. She also had a writing desk, a small poster bed, a wardrobe, and a sofa. Her radiator had been polished and her bedsheets smelled of freshly cleaned linen. It didn’t yet smell like her, but it would, in time.
She took it in in a circle. No longer would she shiver upstairs in a house she didn’t feel like she belonged in, waiting for a better tomorrow she thought would never come. She’d gotten it.
She turned to Lorian, who’d invited himself in and was placing her things on her bed.
“You can go,” she told him. “Don’t need you sniffing my clothes and seeing my journals.”
“Journals?” He dropped her bags. One of her thickest journals dropped on his boot.
“My apologies.” He picked it up and scanned the cover, noticing the tiny drawings and carvings she’d etched into the old binding.
She’d gotten that journal from school in which to write assignments, but she’d used it to write down her actual thoughts instead. After a few weeks, she’d torn out the older pages and spliced in new ones about her interests in history. Timelines, character sheets, her own theories about what she thought might’ve happened in Siina. By now, the journal was near bursting, the original pages yellowed and loose, with thousands of furious writings smudged around her crude drawings.
Lorian smiled at the dried flowers kept between the pages. “What a beautiful piece.”
She grimaced. He didn’t even know what it was.
He didn’t know, yet he still called it beautiful, this handmade book that meant so much to her.
“Thanks,” she said. “It’s what I do when my brain isn’t broken.”
“Is it for school?”
“No. It’s my thoughts on history.”
“Which part of history?”
“All of Lyrica.”
He weighed the book between both hands. “May I?” he asked, and went to open the first page but stopped for Aida’s consent.
She didn’t know. Back home, her sisters had never cared for it, and her mother hated that she wasted her time writing when she could’ve been tending to the farm.
No, she had to stop thinking that way. That place was no longer a home, it was a place, a memory.
“If you can read my handwriting,” she said.
He crossed his ankles as he flipped through the first few pages, skipping over a few centuries worth of notes about the founding of Lyrica, then Roma, then Roma City. He focused on her doodles of all things, the clothing styles and landscapes she thought Siina would’ve had throughout the eras. Not that she was embarrassed because she wasn’t, she just thought the word told a better picture than the, well, pictures.
When he didn’t say anything, Aida, feeling restless by silence, took to decorating her space to fit her needs. She threw her clothes off to one side and organized a few of her books onto the shelves. She stacked her playbooks one the table and centered a figure of a glass ballerina on the windowsill. After getting everything out of her bags and Lorian still standing there, Aida caved to her desires and lit a blunt she’d pre-rolled for the trip.
When she struck her lighter and realized that there was, shockingly, an officer still in her room, Lorian looked up at her.
She took the blunt out of her mouth. “Oops.”
Lorian checked that it was indeed a blunt and not a cigarette that might’ve gotten her off easier. Then he chuckled that damn chuckle of his. Was it irritating? She couldn’t tell. “Oops, indeed.”
“Don’t nark on me. I thought you were cool.”
“And what if I do? It’s in my job description to relate all illegal activity to Dean Falco, and I recently got this job on a whim. I wouldn’t want to disappoint anyone.”
“Nor would I. I have a reputation to uphold. So.” She crossed her arms, joint in-between two fingers. “Whatcha gonna do, officer?”
Lorian’s smile widened, something Aida noticed about him more than anything, and he held out his hand.
Aida smiled back and handed him her joint.
The hours kind of…passed, which was something Aida wasn’t used to. She usually had her daily chores to grind the day to a halt. Wake up, feed the animals, make breakfast, do dishes. Work, clean, attend. Only at night could she waste her sleeping hours doing what she wanted to do, and that was to get high and study her craft.
Things were different with Lorian, this shitstain of a dude. He wasn’t an officer. She didn’t believe it. Officers were prissy rich boys who wanted to fight because of their terrible childhoods. This kid was, in every way, normal. He didn’t react volatile to the blunt. He was interested in her take on history. She ended up rambling about her life, her mother, her sisters, her desire to become a historian, and she didn’t fear that she was speaking too loudly or too much. What was this, a set-up? Good things rarely came her way, especially in the form of people. Maybe it was a dream.
“So, you’ve tried Nectar before, I reckon?” she asked. They were both on her bed, but for some reason, she didn’t feel embarrassed by it. Lorian didn’t seem so either. His cheeks had returned to their normal shade.
“I have dabbled in it, yes, though I’m more used to drinking it rather than smoking it.”
“Isn’t there less of a high when you drink it?” she asked. Nectar was the golden honey from Aldaí. When mixed with the Aldaían poppy flower that often grew near the beehives, it left you with an incredible high that could last for hours.
“Yes, but I lived in a household where it was frowned upon to smoke,” Lorian said, “so I snuck it in with luncheons and dinners. I feel like my mother knew about it, but as long as my father wasn’t aware, I was fine.”
“And the raw shit is more expensive,” she noted.
He just shrugged and motioned for her joint, which she gladly passed to him. “My household was…it was fine, you know? Once you strip away its policies and protocols, we were normal. But sometime’s life’s just, like, you know, shit? Like it’s all shit, like you can’t get out of it, no matter what you do.”
“I absolutely hear you,” Aida said. “My mo’mma’s the same way. When I become queen, all this shit? Changing immediately. Effective immediately. Life’s not gonna be what we thought it was.”
“You’re going to be queen?” he asked.
“Then you can take my pl…” He paused. “You can’t become a queen. You must be born into it, unless you marry someone who’s high enough in rank, but why would you?” He kept using air quotes as he talked, like it wasn’t obvious that that’s how you became an official royal person. “Royal life sucks.”
“I can take care of it. Those two princesses or whatever ain’t gonna be it like I am. One’s off in Bělico, the other’s…somewhere. Did you hear she died?”
Lorian took another drag, his eyes half-closed. “That’s what they’re saying now, huh?”
“That’s what I hear from the latest paper. Hey, you know what? You don’t seem like an officer to me.”
Lorian dropped his hand. “I am.”
“I received a recommendation from His Majesty the king that the dean stupidly took. It was very generous, and I’m not letting the opportunity of a lifetime go to waste.”
“I’m an officer.”
Aida glanced over to him, curious that that got a reaction out of him. Here she thought he was a prissy officer, but now, not only was he a stoner, he had a mouth.
He was looking over at her, his cheek pressed against the ruffled covers. “I’m an officer now,” he said, adding on the needed adverb. “I know I may not be as refined or as skilled as the others, but I’m trying my best, and I want nothing more than to show what I can do.”
Aida’s lips parted. Finally, something that clicked. Finally, something she understood. “Good,” she told him. “Maybe you’ll be the officer to finally fuck over the king and make Roma a better place, because I know I’m going to be the historian to rewrite this country’s history.”
“Yeah. I know so much more than any historian’s in Roma, and I’m going to change the world with what I know.”
“What do you know, Miss Mirko?”
She got up and started pacing. “Well, I know that Queen Eve’s full name is Eve Hyuang Costa, ‘Costa’ coming from her Siinan heritage, and ‘Hyuang’ comes from a province in Aldaí, specifically from the eastern provinces, meaning that she was multi-racial. Not many historians bring that up, but I’ve cross-referenced diary entries from King Julius II and his wife where they both mention her middle name in passing, and how she truly was ‘a blossoming flower’, which is what ‘Hyuang’ translates to. Her full name means ‘a blossoming flower in the river of life’. Isn’t that pretty? They also wash her mother’s heritage from the history texts, you know. I’ve even read texts where they change her surname from Zhao to Zangari. Isn’t that messed up?”
Lorian nodded along to everything in confusion. “It is, but, pray tell, who’s Eve?”
Aida’s jaw dropped, a hand to her heart.
“Did I offend—”
“Yes!” She swiped back her joint. “How dare you say that in my presence? All of my work rests on that woman’s shoulders. She’s the reason I want to be a historian because the history books have her history wrong—No, sit down,” she said as he began to stand. He plopped back down. “Unless you have somewhere to be at—” She checked the watch that wasn’t on her wrist. “God knows what time it is, you’re sitting your ass down and listening to me.”
People her age didn’t look at her like an equal, or someone of much worth, so the way Lorian kept doing that with Aida, it terrified her. She’d built herself up with barriers and outcast people before she got to know them. She didn’t know how this boy had gotten past her, this Lorian Ashwell. Maybe he’d be the one officer Roma City needed, just like she was the best person to fix the country.
“Please, continue,” Lorian said, and she did.
She spent the next two hours talking to him about Queen Eve and how much this dead queen meant to her. She talked about the queen’s upbringing, her beliefs, how her older sister was supposed to have married King Meyeso but Eve had persuaded him to marry her instead. She was passionate, outspoken, energetic, youthful, and she never let any ruling stop her from achieving what she craved. And she’d done it all as a Visatorre, before the Roman king had murdered her for allegedly murdering his wife.
“Isn’t that fucked?” Aida asked, needing some sort of validation from this boy.
Lorian just kept staring at her. His hand never left his lips.
“Well? Isn’t it?”
He kept staring at her.
“I like the way you speak,” he told her.
She faltered. Scratch anyone listening to her rambles, nobody had ever told her they liked the way she spoke, or thought, valuing her thoughts and brain as something to be admired. She pulled down on her dress cuffs, feeling exposed. “Okay.”
“You know so much.”
“It’s one of the things I pride myself in.”
“Do you pride yourself in many things?”
He rolled around. “What about this?” He pointed his boot at her playbooks. “En Tempore Rose. What a collection of playbooks.”
“Woah, wait.” She leaned over Lorian’s figure, the ends of her newly done braids tickling his nose. “You know about Pinnacle Isle?
Lorian pressed himself deeper into her bed. He held his lips in a tight line. “Not the, uhm, book series, no. But I do enjoy the opera—”
“I love the book series!” Aida interrupted. “I have a first edition of the first book in my bag. What’s your favorite chapter? Who’s your favorite character? Mine’s the Goddess, but Pinnacle is always a close second, as is with the Red Dragon, of course.”
Lorian looked down at Aida’s lips. “Sorry, I’ve only known the opera. My parents always took me to see it when—”
“Oh!” Aida moaned. “Oh, for shame! For shame that Roman sensibilities have negated you from indulging in the purest form of art that is Pinnacle Isle and the utter perfection of the hero’s journey.”
She stepped back, a drunken high making her unstable. “Pinnacle, our orphan boy dropped on a forgotten, desolate island. He thinks he’s alone and so unbelievably screwed, but at the end of chapter three, he finds that a feral dragon is being kept at the top of the island’s tower, and it’s up to him, his guardian/Goddess, Sempre, and the dragon’s own two scaly children to find a way off the island before the storm comes. How could you only indulge in the opera, a mere fanfare of what the books truly means to us readers? Have you no shame, good sir?”
Lorian looked Aida up and down. He sucked in his lips as he gave her a simple shrug. “Not really, no.”
She pointed down at him. “You, Lorian Ashwell, are a fake fan, just watching the enormously inaccurate opera instead of enjoying the pages and pages of Pinnacle’s and the Goddess’ story. I need you to stay with me tonight so I can tell you the greatest story told on Roman soil. Do you hear me? You’re staying with me.”
Lorian bit his soft lips. “I wouldn’t mind that in the slightest, Miss Mirko.”
“It’s Aida,” she reminded him.
“Aida, then,” he said, and she didn’t know why, but she liked the way that sounded in his mouth.