Chapter VI: Nighttime Wandering

She didn’t know what time it was. After egging the Constable’s carriage, she’d found a tree to cry under, then a wishing well to throw rocks in as hard as she could. She’d passed by those officer boys, whoever they were, near the stables an hour ago, but she honestly didn’t care at this point. In her mind, her life was over.

“You will no longer be able to attend Durante Academy as a student.”

She breathed hard through her stuffy nose to keep from crying again. She wasn’t qualified? On what grounds? She was the most hardworking person she knew. Getting into this school was the only way she could become a historian, her fanatic dream that now seemed so stupid in her head. Who was she, without her learning?

Dead, she guessed.

She’d only been at the Academy for less than two months, but she’d found where to find her Nectar. She had to choose her dealers wisely, so she only trusted one chef in the eastern dining area for her fix.

The dining area was closed for the night. Aida knocked on the back doors, waiting for that Aldaían head chef to crack open the door and sell her some cigarettes, but no one came. He must’ve gone home for the night.

She looked down. Beside the door, beneath the window, was a half-pack of abandoned cigarettes. She’d have to thank Circa for one good thing happening to her that day. She’d run out in her dorm room two days ago and was starting to feel itchy.

A twig cracked behind her.

She pocketed the pack. The Moon was waning behind the cafeteria and she had no lantern with her, giving her little to stop whatever creature or person was spying on her.

She waited, hands in fists. No decent person would be out at this hour, but if it was some thing—a wild fox, a wolf, even a bear—she could kiss more than her scholarship goodbye. Along with her weak legs and occasional migraines, she also had a horrible immune system. One bite or scratch would send her to the hospital, or worse, back home.

She shuddered, and it wasn’t from the idea of hidden wolves.

When nobody and nothing jumped her, Aida crushed the pack of cigarettes in her fist and haphazardly jogged to her dormitory. She only made it about fifty meters before getting winded. She needed to find another cane. Circa knew she’d basically given up her cane along with her scholarship in the dean’s office when she’d thrown it at that Constable. She wondered if there’d be consequences for that.

She walked up the agonizing three flights of stairs to reach her room. She had to pace herself—one story, rest, one story, rest. She normally kept her head down, but now she couldn’t care to think how her classmates thought of her. She had no one to impress anymore now that she was unwanted.

But hadn’t she always been that way? Had she ever been wanted by anyone, truly needed by someone? Her mother had needed her, but only as a slave, to keep up with the chores as a measly maid. If she couldn’t be useful, even as a slave, she was unneeded.

At least they hadn’t changed the locks yet. If Aida was stealthy enough, she could’ve lived in the attics or basements, sleeping next to fireplace embers to keep warm. That’s what she’d do. She’d show them.

After entering her quiet, lonely, shitty dorm room, Aida locked the door, double-checked that it was locked, then collapsed against the doorframe and sobbed into her hands.

It wasn’t fair. She hadn’t any money to make it in Roma City, and she couldn’t work without a resume. In a few days, she’d have to go back to her home village, head hung down, the last of her efforts and dignity stripped away. Ekaterina and Olga would laugh, her mother would beat her. And that was if she’d take her back. Abandoning them for the fall and winter harvests could’ve been a death sentence to them. What if she was charged?

Her legs were giving out, so she fell over her bed, emotionally and physically exhausted. She looked out one of her windows that overlooked the front lawn. Beyond the horizon was the bustling country of Roma. If she squinted, she could see the silver domes and stone columns as part of the ancient buildings. She couldn’t see the royal palace—she’d tried; you couldn’t see it from any point of the Academy because of the forest that separated it from the city—but you could see the Colosseum. She assumed the builders had wanted every single Roman person to see the royal brutality from any part of Roma City. Who cared about a palace where they could kill off the poor and weak with a circle marking someone’s forehead?

She finally lit one of her cigarettes and let the smoke dissipate around her irritated eyes. What would she do? Send a letter to her mother detailing her failure? If the dean was cruel enough, he would’ve already sent one. But then what? Return? Become homeless in Bělico, where the winters were unforgiving, or Roma, a place that, even though she’d researched its history, she didn’t know a thing about?

The tears returned. She wiped them on the lace of her pillow. She hated Roma as much as she loved it, she just wished the city loved her back.

Just as she went to flick her cigarette bud on the windowsill, her head tingled.

She held her head in a groan. The tingling turned to fuzziness, then a sharp ache. Her feet disconnected with her nerves and left her feeling like she was sinking through the floorboards. She would’ve stayed on the ground, but she needed to reach her desk. Too many times she’d jump and come back three, four hours later only to land on and crack her glasses. She needed to put them somewhere safe.

She ashed her cigarette and grasped onto the edge of the desk, dropping two of her heaviest books. Now her eyesight was losing her, and she hadn’t even taken off the glasses. Had she?

With the world spinning, Aida reached for her desk. Her vision spotted. Damn her without her cane.

“Woah, careful now!”

She whipped around, dropping her glasses somewhere on the floor. That wasn’t Lorian’s voice, she was sure of that. She didn’t know who it was, but they were in her room, in the corner, a blob of dark black, hiding behind her bed like a common thief.

No, thieves. There were two of them reaching out to her. She hadn’t seen them because she’d kept the lights off, but in the light of the moon, she saw a figure no much taller than herself, and then another, running up to her.

“Cripes, you’re such a klutz,” one of the thieves—a woman—said. She sounded familiar. Why did she sound familiar? “Hey, why’d you keep it so dark and dreary in here?”

“What—?” The words slurred in Aida’s mouth. She was tipping over.

A strong hand grabbed hers, then another touched her side, dipping her dramatically as if she were a ballerina in En Tempore Rose.

The person’s hair flew out in front of her, long wisps of brown locks. Her round glasses caught on the moonlight filtering through her room and showed off the whites of her wide eyes.

Her white pupils, normally dark, were pure white, giving her a wild look. “Careful,” she told Aida. “We can’t have you getting lost now.”

Aida gasped. This woman’s face, the roundness of her face, her Visatorre marking, two circles instead of one…

She gripped the woman’s blue dress. She was desperate for answers, to anything. Who was she? How had she entered her room?

Why did they look so similar?

But then she was travelling, pulled from the universe, and then she was gone.

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