She flipped through the third history text she’d finished that week, trying to spot any more clues she’d missed. It was lunch time, so she’d yet again found herself in the campus library instead of the dining hall or open piazzas with the other students. She’d tested the librarians and found that not many of them came around this corner of the ancient building. It let her eat her lunch of bread and butter in peace.
She pushed up her glasses as she leaned over her spine-broken books. It’d been two weeks since the semester started and she’d already finished all of the reading and had a head start on her essays and future projects, giving her ample time to read up about her new country’s history. One of the key aspects of wanting to get into Durante Academy was this library. More than 40,000 books were archived here. Everything from pre-classical recipes to first editions of history texts. She’d discovered a new biography on Eve’s life. Her favorite color? Burgundy. Aida couldn’t wait to buy a dress in that deep shade of royalty.
But she was getting nowhere today. Not only did this volume not have the answers she was searching for, there was a bug burrowing into her brain.
She hadn’t spoken to Lorian since the day they first met. It shouldn’t have mattered, being that he’d only done her a favor. She couldn’t remember a lot about what happened because she’d gotten completely baked, but she remembered that they’d bonded, right? That’s what people did, right? Or acquaintances at best. Her sisters often talked to one another about school, boys, girls. Their favorite actors and which ones they wanted to marry, what they wanted to be when they grew up. They’d never asked Aida what she wanted, never cared about her passions, but this boy had. That had to account for something, didn’t it?
So why hadn’t they talked since?
And why the fuck did it bother her so much?
Someone giggled. Down the aisle of books, three girls from one of Aida’s history classes were hiding. They had their hands cupped to their mouths as they whispered and pretended not to be looking at Aida. As a distant grandfather clock chimed for one, they ran off, their black dresses catching on their long legs.
Aida bit hard into her bread and chewed the tough crust so she couldn’t hear her thumping heart.
It didn’t bother her.
They didn’t bother her.
Her stomach growled in upset, so she organized her borrowed books and readied to leave. All she’d managed to find today was a new spelling of Queen Eve’s name—“Eta,” though scholars said this might’ve been a nickname used only by her loved ones—and, unfortunately, a new drawing of the Colosseum’s interior.
She didn’t know why she put so much time into these dead monarchs. Who were they but people who started and ended wars, who fucked and died vigorously and left palaces as their tombstones? The crown was now tolerable at best. No ruthless killings of Visatorre in the Colosseum, none that were publicized. She was able to go to school now, it wasn’t banned anymore. So why put all this time and energy into a system that didn’t give a damn about you in the first place?
She started. She recognized that voice, and all of her nagging suspicions and fears suddenly disappeared with her upset stomach.
Lorian bounded up the library steps two at a time to meet her. He was waving, like she wouldn’t see an officer coming at her. Well, officer-in-training; she couldn’t let him get a big ego around her. “There you are!” he said, and took off his hat in a bow. “Good afternoon. Did you have lunch yet?”
She shuffled her books together and wiped any sort of emotion from her face. “How do you keep finding me? Are you spying on me?”
“Of course not. I’ve heard from the teachers that you enjoy spending your afternoon’s here, and I had a free afternoon to myself, so I decided to come find you.” He looked around without his eyes catching on anything. “A little medieval here, is it not? Different from the newly upgraded buildings.”
“A building built two hundred years ago with history dating back to the Classical era is medieval? No.”
He smiled that smile of his that irked her. “You have me there. So, have you learned anything more about Eve?”
She was surprised he remembered that. “Not much, only that—”She checked her notes. “People who loved her called her ‘Eta’, like how some Aldaían call their spouses ‘ama’ for ‘beloved’. That’s not well-known.”
“I didn’t know that, and I’ve been taught a lot about Roma’s history. You know, I didn’t know that she’d killed King Julius II’s wife. I was taught she’d killed him.”
“He’d killed himself a few days later. That’s what the books say, anyway. What books did you read from that? I’d like to research that topic. Most books say the opposite.” She started putting away her books. “Back when we were indulging in unfavorable substances, I pegged you as someone who didn’t know much about Eve.”
“I was…incapacitated at the time. Do forgive me if I said anything too obtrusive to you. I don’t remember much of what happened.” He looked around the now empty floor. “Please keep that night confidential. I don’t want it to harm either of our reputations.”
“What, two young people enjoying one another’s company with a natural reserve akin to morphine?”
“I mean two young people spending their time in…a woman’s bedroom. At night. It’s highly provocative, and I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“It was my dorm room, but sure. I’m sure that Roman standards suggest you spending your time elsewhere.”
“Please, don’t think me immodest, Miss Mirko. Aida,” he corrected when Aida gave him a look. “That had been my first day on the job. I’d…left my home quite suddenly not too long ago, and I was still getting my bearings when I was allowed entry as an officer for this prestigious Academy. I sought only to do the right thing, though I did enjoy our company that evening.”
“The evening spent with me talking at you for three hours straight about shit only I find interesting.”
“On the contrary. I found much of what you told me quite interesting. I was true on my word about never meeting a person as outspoken as you are.”
“Because the upbringing was that bad?”
He only nodded. “Very.”
“Then that’s something we have in common.” She stood on her tiptoes to put away a book on a high shelf. Lorian went to help but stopped once he realized she had it.
“Were you taught history in school?” Aida asked.
“In my teachings, yes. I didn’t really go to school, I was more so homeschooled. Why?”
“Because not many of us were lucky enough to be taught history. The good stuff, anyway. The shit that makes you think. A lot of what’s done in Bělico is taught orally. That’s how it was with me before I pushed for secondary schooling. Some of the schools don’t accept Visatorre into the school system. They’re still stuck in the past. I was the only one in my graduating class. It’s why I care so much.”
“That’s quite admirable. Not many people our age are adamant about getting the word out like you are. Most people just learn what’s needed to pass and carry on.”
“It’s the stuff that everyone should know about. What else we gonna learn about? The current royals? Gag me, I can’t stand them.”
Lorian offered to place one of the books on the high shelf. Aida tried it herself before giving in and lending it to him.
“Do you know if…the Bělico queen has done anything?” Lorian asked. “You’re from Bělico, right? Is she alright?”
“Queen Beatrice?” Aida asked. “Fuck no. I haven’t even seen the queen in person and I lived there all my life. She’s just like the queen here.”
Aida gave him a curious look before carrying on. He was a part of the royal guard, how did he not know about political affairs? “All they do is sit on the sidelines while their husbands do all the work, and it’s terrible work. Absolutely dreadful. If I were queen, I’d be like Queen Eve, who got shit done during her lifetime. Irrigation? Reconstructed. Trade routes from here to Aldaí? Reinvented. She’d helped to fund the first school for the blind, did you know that? She was interested in eyesight in a time which eyeglasses hadn’t been invented yet. Roman scholars would lead you to believe the good and loyal Romans did all that, but no. It was done by a queen whose city no longer exists. I’d honor her by doing everything she couldn’t do and more. I’d rework the entire system of Lyrica.”
“Will you now?” Lorian asked, leaning down to meet her eyes.
She tasted a sense of sarcasm on his tongue. She fought against it and stared into his eyes. It was hard, doing that with some people, but not so much with him. “Yeah, I will.”
“I’d fix the school systems first. All children deserve to be taught, and it’d be the easiest change from a financial standpoint. Aldaí is progressive when it comes to this, so we can leave that to Prince Zaahir and that new princess he married. What was her name again? Beatrice and Lu…”
“I-I don’t recall,” Lorian said quickly, “but I agree with you. Aldaí is very progressive.”
“So then, if we can work out some type of stronger alliance with them, we then get to work on local modernization through the help of showing that the crown actually gives a fuck about us. We never see the royals, ever.”
“They do make public appearances from time to time,” he defended.
“Yeah, bullshit, I’ve never seen them. If anything, they only visit the biggest, strongest cities that’re pouring lyria into their pockets.”
Lorian shrugged in agreement. He looked like he had more to say on the matter but kept quiet so as not to interrupt her.
“So, I’d make them do more public showings. It might make the extremists angry, maybe make them more targets than they already are, but the monarchies have to show the people that they’re fighting for them. It’s exactly what Eve did in Siina. She was such a vocal, public figure, always visiting street markets and meeting with the people. And how do they do that?” She pointed at Lorian.
“I haven’t the faintest—”
“By listening to the people, yes, thank you. Open up more administrations and city councils so the people can be more in charge of their fates than the fucking officers and Constables frightening us into submission. No offense.”
She looked down at one of her history texts. “We’re in a golden age of the world. No one is fighting one another. We’re not wasting hundreds of gold lyria on war strategies or extra officers. The last one was back in, what 1137? Twenty-two years ago? Back when we were babes? And that was just a fourteen-month fling where important Bělican crops weren’t being properly regulated across the sea because of unforeseen trade agreements. It left Roma without sugar for nearly a year. You see, I could change the world if I was given the chance, but I can’t do that because I have a fucking circle on my forehead!”
Her voice travelled across the library, skipping up the stairs and across the aisles of hidden knowledge. Lorian pressed his thin lips together, pretending he was an officer for the crown and did not enjoy breaking the rules.
Aida cleared her throat. She was getting ahead of herself again. She was going to push him away by being herself. She dialed it back. “The only chance I have is to become a historian. I might not be able to get a job right away, but when I graduate with a diploma from this Academy, I know someone out there will take me seriously.”
Lorian gave that considerable thought before nodding to himself. “Well, if it’s any consolation, I take you very seriously.”
“Course you do. The first time we met, I was fucking naked.”
“E-excuse me, I averted my gaze. I have values.”
“Like a true gentleman.”
Lorian opened his mouth to say more, then caught on whatever she’d said and smiled. “Yeah, I suppose so.”
She smiled back at him. She didn’t know what she had with this officer-in-training and why they clicked as well as they did—he was charismatic, helpful, charming, kind, easy-going. Everything she wasn’t. She hadn’t seen him in action, but he was probably good at his job, and had more friends than he knew what to do with. Total opposites in every regard, aside from the fact that they could share a blunt and be perfectly content with simply being near each other.
She frowned, not knowing why that made her so sad.
The heavy, wooden double doors leading to the main halls opened, and one of Aida’s advisors, Mister Omar, came out. He had a note in his wrinkled hand and his balding head was sweating from getting from his officer to the library before lunch period ended.
Lorian stepped back from Aida, self-conscious about how close they were to someone’s eyes. “Well, I should be off, then.” He bowed and put on his hat to cover his eyes. “Farewell, Miss Mirko, Mister Omar.”
“Farewell,” Mister Omar said, and watched him leave before whispering to Aida, “Miss Mirko, I just received a letter from the dean. He said he wishes to speak with you as soon as you’re available.”
“What does he wish to speak to me about?” Aida asked. “I was just getting back to my classes. You can’t fight me for choosing to spend my lunch here.”
“I don’t believe it’s about your elongated breaks in this great Rosalia Library,” he said, trying to be funny and failing. “Uh, no. Well, here. You can read it for yourself, but it came with a message saying to come to him before the end of the day.”
Aida took the letter.
In Regards to the Termination of Aida Mirko’s 6-Year Scholarship
She covered her mouth. Something inside of her split open and was releasing a foul rot in the pit of her stomach. Her hands went cold, her face hot. She strained her eyes to see if anything more had been written on it, but that was it. A simple declaration that had taken all of her hopes and dreams into bettering herself and the world and throwing it out like an unwanted child.
She ran. Fighting on her cane to make her go faster, she broke around the corner and ran out of the library. She wouldn’t read the rest of the letter. There wasn’t any time. She’d go to the dean and fight. She’d demand her right to be here and fight. They wouldn’t take this knowledge away from her, not now.
She pushed through the pain and trotted down the wide marble steps from the cloister into the open courtyard. Here, students in black and white uniforms continued their lunch in peace. Girls decorated flower crowns and boys tackled one another to the grass like toddlers. A couple flirted with one another near the well in the center of the yard. Aida ran past them all. This was all a mistake. It had to be.
The dean’s office was one of the older buildings covered in ivy, right beside the church that students seldom used. At the front gates, two statues of lions acted as guards for the door. Two actual officers stood watch over the building at all hours of the day. The leather holding the rapiers on their hips were worn from use.
Aida forced the wheeze back into her throat. “I have…a letter from the dean. Open the gates. Please,” she added, wondering if these grown men would care for novelties like “please” and “thank you.”
The two men looked at one another, then shrugged and went to open the gate.
She barreled in before they fully opened the door and knocked furiously on the knocker. Beside the dean’s home was his personal horses and carriages. Aida had locked-on to his carriage, as she’d thought about egging it multiple times, but beside his carriage were two other carriages she didn’t recognize. They had the King’s Lions engraved on them in gold: a Constable carriage.
“Fuck,” she cursed, then shook the thought out of her mind and knocked louder. “Dr. Falco!” she announced. “Dr. Falco, it’s Aida Mirko. I’m a freshman who just started this year. You called to speak to me. May I please come in?”
The door unlocked twice, and one of the dean’s maids welcomed her with a bow. “Hello, Miss. What was it that you wished to—?”
Aida let herself in.
“Excuse me, Miss!”
It was a magnificent house that smelled of syrup and old collections. Books on shelves she could never reach and busts of naked men and women from a tainted royal line. Walking around a terribly gaudy zebra pelt, Aida snaked into the main room and knocked on the door.
It opened upon her third knock.
Dr. Falco was sitting in a large chair behind a mahogany table. Around him were papers and texts, and behind him, a map of the world was centered between two windows. Bělico in the west, Aldaí in the east, and Roma centered amongst it all, even though the Earth was, in fact, a sphere, and nobody was truly in the center of anything.
Between Aida and the dean stood three men. Two wore the same uniforms and pants as Lorian, but their ages and medals told her they were actual officers, not ones training to please the king and queen.
The other man, one with curly brown hair and golden aiguillettes and sashes across his jacket, indicated who he was immediately.
The Constable looked down at Aida with hollow eyes. They were cold and dark, as if he was looking at a sheep ready to be slaughtered. He set down the document he was reading and turned to face her. One hand went to his waist belt, to his rapier handle which shone gold in the sunlight. “Welcome, Miss Mirko,” he said.
Aida gulped at him knowing her name. Constables were leaders of twenty, sometimes thirty men in Roma, and with the air of stuffy egoism on him, this man was probably high in rank.
She swallowed back her fear. “Why was my scholarship terminated? What have I done wrong?”
“That’s the thing. Have a seat, my dear.”
The Constable waited. “My name is Carmello Carmine, right-hand Constable to Her Majesty the Queen.”
She didn’t blink.
The Constable narrowed his eyes, then focused on her cane. “I’ve been informed that your scholarship to this school was for six years based on the principles of your excellence in history and language as well as your race and upbringing.”
“And?” she said, itching to fight him for how he said that.
“And a law has just been put into place to make amendments to that initial proposition. Under the new, current law—”
“What law?” she interrupted. “I never heard anything about that in the paper.”
“The law,” he pressed, “indicating that it is unjust to allow a student any favorable outcomes when it comes to the acceptance rate to any Roman academy.”
Aida looked over the letter about her scholarship expulsion. “So what does that mean? I’m still enrolled into the school, aren’t I? I earned it. I left everything I had for—”
The Constable picked up his paper again. “The dean and I were going over your academia records and attendance rates.”
“I’ve been to every class!” she said. “I even started doing extra credit!”
“And,” he said, ignoring her, “unfortunately, we’ve concluded that your grades do not meet the qualifications to earn the scholarship for the next six years. Unless you can come up with the funds to attend this coming year, which we’ve estimated that someone who’s living on-campus would come up to 510 gold lyria, we unfortunately cannot enroll you into Durante Academy at this time.”
Aida tried doing the math in her head, hating herself with how long it was taking her. She thought it cost 450 gold lyria per semester, not 500 and change. Her mother didn’t even make that in a year with the farm. For six more years, at 500 gold lyria a semester…
She dropped her head. “I don’t have that kind of money.”
He lowered his paper. “Then I’m sorry to deliver the news—”
“But that’s not fair!” she exploded. She tried digging for any sort of advantage to keep her at his level. It was like fighting with her mother. Her eyes were watering.
“—that after this semester—”
“You will no longer be able to attend Durante Academy as a student.”
Aida tried to read her letter again, searching for a loophole that already made her acceptance to this Academy shaky, but she couldn’t think. No matter how much she fought these people to be seen as equal, it’d never happen. It’s what Queen Eve had tried to fight for and failed. It’s what people like her had fought for for centuries and failed. All because of these kings and queens and these rules they bent to make their world more hateful.
She grit her teeth. In history, they said that the Visatorre queen had killed the king’s wife. Others said she’d killed the king. Aida had never believed either statement, but now, feeling the anger pulse in her ears, her eyes water in front of four men aiming to hurt her, she wouldn’t have blamed her for wiping people like this off the face of the fucking planet.
Holding back tears, she threw her walking cane at the Constable, scattering their papers and spooking the Constable backwards. “Fuck you! Fuck you and the crown you serve! All of you deserve to be buried in the Catacombs for the amount of shit you do for us!”
“Good God, Miss!” he said, staring down at her thrown cane. “Control yourself!”
The other officers unsheathed their rapiers, but the Constable held out his hand to make them put them away. “Miss, do you realize what you’ve just—”
She spat on the ground, cursed their mothers, and left, tears steaming from her bloodshot eyes.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair. She’d worked for years to get here, she’d dedicated her life to this cause she believed in. She was to learn all this new information she was hoping to uncover about Eve and for this stupid bullshit country, but she hadn’t done shit.
Her mother was right about her.
She left the house through the back, through the gardens and near the horse-drawn carriages. She didn’t want those damn officers seeing her like this, and she didn’t want to be seen leaving the headmaster’s home in tears.
The chickens in the nearby coop clucked at her. The hens pecked at the ground while their rooster counterparts watched from the top of the coop.
The door to their coop was left open, letting them roam the contained land.
Aida cast a seething glare at the house behind her, then at the carriages left unattended.
Then she crawled into the chicken coop and started collecting her throwing eggs.