Lorian could not keep up with Aida. It was like she was on a mission to go nowhere. All afternoon and evening Aida stopped around the campus, never attending her evening classes, never going to dinner. Lorian had lost her for nearly an hour through the forest and around the cafes only for her to turn up around a stable. She’d stopped crying, thank goodness. Any more of that and Lorian wouldn’t have been able to stop herself from asking if anything was wrong.
But then Aida might’ve thought ill of her. “Why, just because I’m a girl, you’re asking if I need help? Don’t you have a pigpen to guard?”
Not that she would’ve known about Lorian’s gender to know that they were more similar than they were different. She’d planned on telling no one about it, but with Aida, she would’ve made an exception. She would’ve told her everything. If only she’d let her in.
She blinked. In thinking over fantasy scenarios, she’d lost Aida again. It was getting dark now, and Lorian didn’t want anyone to see her following one of the only Visatorre girls on campus. Not that she was doing that. She was only protecting her.
She took to the western farmlands. From her sleuthing, she’d uncovered that Aida used to be a farm girl, or grew up on the farm, so, while perhaps uncouth in the eyes of her scholars and peers, she might’ve found solace with the farm animals.
Lorian couldn’t relate. She’d hated farm animals since she was very little, all but the horses, like Ether, who were grazing in the pasture with all the other officer horses. But farm life itself fascinated her in a childish way. Never had she worked hard for much of anything in her life, so she always admired those who worked tirelessly for their country to provide for their families. If she were to ever have kids, she’d be sure to teach them these ways.
When she hopped the fence, she was met with a group of highland cows’ hairy behinds and their piles of fly-covered dung.
She groaned and gave them a wide berth. “Should I just tell her?” she asked the cows. “About the expulsion, I mean. She might already know and that’s why she was crying, but she seemed so upset. I just want to be there for her. That’s what a boy’s meant to do, is he not? To comfort a girl down on her luck?”
The cow flicked its tail.
“Ass, that’s it. It’s all ass, isn’t it? You know, she called me a stalker. That’s not true, is it? When she gives me nothing to work off of. Do you know how long it took me to learn her age? Two weeks. She’s my age.”
The cows decided she made unserviceable company and turned their rears to her.
“You’re not helping. What’s the point of an animal if it doesn’t listen to you bellyache?”
When they didn’t answer, she blew her curly fringe out of her face and went to chase after Aida yet again when the sound of horse clopping caught her ears.
She’d trained herself to recognize the different types of horse hooves. Working-class horses usually carried a carriage with them, or had a different sounding gait than to royal horses. Royal horses walked with purpose, bred to be loved more honorably than most humans living in Roma City.
Lorian hid in the stables, hiding between stacks of hay, and listened to those honorary gaits.
“Her performance should’ve earned her a striking, Captain.”
“If word got out that I struck a defenseless girl, Her Majesty would reprimand me.”
Lorian’s mouth went dry.
“But still, Captain,” the man went on, “it’s the principle of the matter.”
“And she went at you with a cane,” another man said, “and she vandalized her carriage. That surely must be just causality to defend yourself.”
“We don’t know if she was the one who vandalized my carriage,” Carmine said. “We’ll speak of this no more, Officer Dowry. I’m tired enough as is.”
Lorian slid to her butt, covering her mouth so that she wouldn’t be heard. What on earth was Carmine doing here? She could neither see him nor his men from around the stable, but how, how could the gods’ timing be any less horrible? She thought she’d be free from his tyranny for at least another year.
She’d had a scrap with him near the docks a few days after she’d run away that resulted in her staying in hiding in the woods for a week. She’d ripped down some of her wanted posters in the fish market before applying to work at the Academy. That’s when he’d cornered her, and she’d panicked, flipped him over her head, and plunged him into the harbor with the anchors. He was so daft, not realizing Lorian was in fact the little Lucia he’d helped raise so many years ago. Maybe his age was catching up to him.
She strained her ears. It sounded like he and his men were walking in a circle, their horses treading the same ground.
“What shall we do about her?” one of the officers asked.
“We need to find her first, and take her in for questioning. She cannot get away with that sort of behavior, despite the…circumstances about her expulsion.”
Lorian dropped her jaw. So Aida had known, and she’d assaulted Carmine for it. And had vandalized his carriage. What a girl.
“We do have a record on the girl, Sir. Fights in primary school, and she’s estranged from her family. Her mother has been searching for her.”
“What about it?” Carmine asked.
“I’m saying that she doesn’t have a very reputable history. To be accepted to such a prestigious school that you yourself have graduated from, it mars the school’s reputation. And if she’s to act like this, to attack a Constable, who’s to say the rest of them aren’t like this as well? Might we go to every school in Roma and evoke the same rulings?”
“What do you suppose that we do?” Carmine asked. “Arrest her?”
There was a pause. The night wind shifted the dead leaves on the ground.
“I was thinking something a little harsher, sir.”
Lorian’s eyes darted around the fallen hay she was hiding in. A punishment worse than an arrest was…
Carmine was silent, likely thinking how to respond to such an inhumane thought and wondering if he’d show his true colors when he thought he was alone.
“I’ll think of a reasonable punishment when we hear her side of the story. For now, that’s all I’m doing.”
“Oh, well, I’m sure we know what His Majesty has to say to these rejects.”
Lorian almost gasped. These men were adults who were in charge of the safety of all Roman people, Visatorre and others alike, and this’s how they talked about their people? To young girls?
“Captain, if I can be frank with you,” said an officer, “it seems you’ve been quite lenient in your position ever since young Lucia has disappeared.”
Lorian’s foot slipped out from underneath her.
“I can say that all of us are quite worried about her wellbeing, but I don’t want to see her disappearance sully your reputation. You need to stand up to these people, otherwise—”
A horse jerked, kicking up dirt as it reared in a sharp turn. “I know quite well how to do my job, thank you,” Carmine snapped. “Princess Lucia has been on my mind the same way she’s been on all of our minds. Am I worried about her wellbeing? What type of man wouldn’t be? But I’m disciplined enough for it not to ‘sully my reputation’ or have it interfere with my work in upholding Roma City’s values. And if you think it is, you’ll be sure to write it in to Her Majesty The Queen as a formal complaint, do you understand me?”
The men went silent. A horse chuffed, but even it seemed to understand Carmine’s rage about this princess that would never return.
Reigns were tightened, and the horses set off.
“We’ll save this decision for Her Majesty,” Carmine said, voice fading. “Come now. We need to find this boy on these God-forsaken warrant papers. Where’re the girl’s dormitories again?”
After Lorian could no longer hear the horses, she snuck a glance into the now darkening campus. Carmine was here, searching for a boy but more importantly Aida. And he had his officers with him. He didn’t do that unless the operation was important, or deadly.
She had to do something. Get up. Act. Defend the girl who’d given her the pleasure of treating her as an equal. It’s what a man would’ve done. But that fear, the inability to make a rash decision kept her from leaping into action. Damn this ineptitude and damn her mother for instilling it in her. Everyone knew the queen was as meek as a trodden flower, and her own father hadn’t done much in making Lorian want to speak out or act when she knew a whipping would be awaiting her.
Then she pictured Aida’s smiling face, how her hidden dimples shone on her chubby face, how happy she looked in her dorm room that night, and contrasted it with the pain she must’ve been feeling, knowing her world was crumbling through her fingers.
Checking to see that the Constable had truly left, Lorian leapt out of the stable, spooked a rogue chicken from its pen, and ran.
She tore down the muddy tracks up to Aida’s all-girls dormitory. With the keys to every student building in her pocket, she barrelled into the antechamber and bounded up the stairs with ease. The halls were silent apart from the rickety creaking that came with the building settling for the night.
When she made it to Aida’s floor, she peered out the hallway window. Should she have knocked? Wouldn’t that have appeared badly, a boy knocking on a girl’s bedroom door at midnight? Should she’ve waited outside like this all night, becoming even more of a creep to Aida than before?
Then she heard a thud, followed by a much larger crash from inside the room.
Lorian unsheathed her rapier. “Aida?”
Another scuffle. Someone fell. Through the commotion, she heard Aida’s faint, scared voice ask a terrified question.
No longer able to stand by, Lorian shouted Aida’s name and went for the handle. It was locked.
A metallic zap echoed through the room.
“Damn it,” she said under her breath, and crashed her shoulder into the door. If only she’d let her in. “Aida!”
There was nothing. Silence.
Then footsteps. They walked towards the door quietly to mask their presence and unlocked it even quieter.
Lorian thrust open the still-opening door and struck the assailant with the butt of her blade, but with another zap of energy and magic, Lorian tripped into nothing. The person was gone, and the room was empty.
She surveyed the space. Aida’s bed was unmade and the room smelled of night air and cigarette smoke. Aida’s discarded clothes were scattered across the floor, and piles upon piles of books were left in tipping piles in the corners of the room. On the walls were clippings of famous operas Lorian had been to in her life, including En Tempore Rose. Aida had a wonderful poster of the opera, with signatures scrawled on the bottom in fancy, beautiful cursive around the ballerinas. It looked like the whole cast had signed it for her.
In the center of her room, amongst the pile of disheveled, tossed-aside clothing, a perfect ring of Aida’s clothing lay. It was like she’d evaporated on sight. Even her hair ties lay in figure eights across her neck bow. Her glasses were not far off, next to the desk on the floor.
Lorian felt the center of the pile.
Warm. She’d just missed her.
A piece of paper pricked her finger. It was nestled within the dress pocket. She went to put it back, then saw the royal lion cress inked on the document and couldn’t resist.
In Regards to the Termination of Aida Mirko’s 6-Year Scholarship
The words hit harder than she’d expected them to. Could scholarships just be taken away so impersonally? To ruin a whole student career on the promises you’d awarded them? It made her core cold with guilt and fear and shame. How could the country which she loved so much treat her people so animalistically? Just because it could? Because the monarch allowed it?
She looked around the room. Should she wait for Aida to return? She would return naked, of course, back from whatever old time period she’d visited, but someone should’ve been there for her during this time.
Lorian whipped around so hard, her short, low ponytail hit her in the cheek.
Carmine and his entourage of officers came up to her. All of them had hands on the hilts of their rapiers.
Carmine eyed Lorian with disgust, then slight terror at seeing her armed. “You.”
Lorian tried to hold back, but her fear made her spit out, “I’ve been called worse.”
Curse her nervous tongue.
Carmine stepped back. “Are you Lorian Ashwell, an officer-in-training of this school’s enlisted recruits?”
As if her uniform didn’t spell that out for him. She tried keeping her heart from bubbling into her mouth. “I am, yes.”
Carmine went for something behind him. “We have no records that a ‘Lorian’ by any name is authorized to hold a royal emblem of the crown and service his kingdom in any regard. We have been asked to apprehend you and take you in for questioning under the crime of falsely parading around the king’s orders.” He smirked, something that didn’t fit his face. “How convenient that you managed to be here. You saved me a trip.”
Lorian’s heart stampeded through her stomach and head. She tried to get up but couldn’t. She couldn’t breathe.
Unsheathing his rapier, Carmine aimed his sword down on Lorian. “Come with us, boy.”
Lorian held his gaze. This wasn’t fair. None of this was, but that wouldn’t stop them, and it wouldn’t stop her, even if what she was doing was technically illegal that could’ve sent her to prison, the stockades, the gallows. She was just a bit deviant in that regard.
Standing up to her full height, Lorian gripped the hilt of her rapier and crossed blades with Carmine.