Lorian hopped over the larger of the two unconscious officers. She had very little space in which to fight Carmine; both of his subordinates were on the ground, knocked out instead of stabbed because she refused to maim anyone. One quick hit with the end of her rapier and another hit on the head with Aida’s bookshelf and they were out. Carmine had tried to run for help, but Lorian climbed over the bed and relocked the bedroom door, sealing the two of them in.
“Y-you’re mad,” Carmine wheezed, and lunged.
Lorian parried his blade with hers. She had her free hand clutched tightly behind her back like she’d been trained to do so. Her fingernails were digging hard into her palm.
“You know that, once this’s over, you’re going to be hanged. To draw swords with a Constable of Her Majesty—”
Lorian circled to his side and knocked him off-center with her shoulder. He tried to stab her in the heart, but he wouldn’t deliver a finishing blow. All these years after being promoted and Lorian had yet to see him kill anyone. Executions were rare at the palace, and without his men, he was just an undefeatable man and she was a person buying time.
For what? For when Aida returned? That could take hours, and Lorian was beginning to sweat. Another ten minutes of this and she’d have to start worrying. It’d already been twenty minutes.
“Give it up,” Carmine panted. He tried again, this time for Lorian’s legs. Lorian hit into Aida’s bed, rolled over it, and pranced back up on the other side, sword still in hand.
Carmine wiped his lips. “Who…taught you how to fight like this?”
Lorian cocked her head boldly. He wouldn’t have believed her if she’d told him that it’d been he himself that’d taught her, that she’d memorized his fighting techniques as a child because she’d admired him as a young man.
Carmine sighed when he knew he wouldn’t receive an answer. “This act is growing old. Just end it now. I have three men waiting on my arrival. Once they catch suspicion that I—” He lunged again, this time catching Lorian’s vest and tearing open her breast pocket.
Lorian jerked right, bringing her too close to Carmine’s free hand. She jumped back and, with the sword so close to her, hit his wrist and stole away his blade with her free hand.
Carmine exhaled as he stood weaponless, and Lorian readjusted her grip on now two rapiers. All she needed was Aida, and this fighting would be momentarily paused in lieu of a naked, defenseless girl on the battlefield.
The two of them stared each other down, timing what to do and how. If Carmine was the same as he was back in the day, he should’ve been equipped with a dagger or bladed dart or something with which to defend himself. Maybe he’d thought that a quick visit to a college wouldn’t have called for more than a decorative weapon.
Carmine grit his teeth. “Well?” he asked. “You killed my men, what’s stopping you from killing me?”
“I didn’t kill them,” Lorian said. “See for yourself. They’re stunned, not injured.”
Carmine’s brows furrowed, and he glanced down at the nearest unconscious officer for the briefest of seconds. The man moaned slightly and tried turning.
“I don’t kill anyone beneath me,” she continued. “It’s not right.”
“‘Beneath you’,” he spat out. “How dare you.”
“Well, you know.” Lorian gripped the hilts of her blades. “Kind of a bastard when it comes to choosing my words.”
“Why’re you doing this? What’s your game here?”
“Never knew you were one to make polite conversation,” Lorian lied. He’d been such an introvert at palace parties. “I want to be an officer, nothing more, nothing less, and nobody is taking that away from me.”
“Then why didn’t you sign up the way all boys do?”
“My father wouldn’t allow it,” she said truthfully, “nor would my country.”
“What, too unfortunate?”
“That’s what you’d like to think. That’s what I was taught to believe, that all boys my age would dream of enlisting, but it’s not that simple. Most boys join as a last result.”
He scoffed. “It’s not a mandatory draft.”
“To certain families, it is. Certain families expect extraordinary things from their children, and the more well-off they are, the worse they expect. Forced enlistment, forced apprenticeships…forced marriage,” she added, “but you’d already know about that, wouldn’t you?”
Out of everything she was saying, she didn’t know why that little quip got a reaction out of him. He snarled, actually bore his teeth like he hadn’t gone along with Lorian’s marriage as easily as his father had. Why had that made him so mad?
“Enough of this,” Carmine said. “Now that you haven’t killed my men, I can only assume…” He whipped out a small dagger. “That you shan’t kill me.”
Lorian slowly backed away. “N-nor will you. You’d never—”
“You’ve given me no choice.” He circled in closer.
Her back hit the door. “Wait.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and lunged for her one last time.
She shut her eyes. She hadn’t the time to dodge, to escape. “Wait, Carmello—!”
The blade pinched at the folds in her neck. She froze, as she’d never dare hurt him. She could never. Never kill. Never stoop at low as her forefathers had done in the past. These were the promises to which she held herself.
Carmine, too, had frozen, his dagger a hair away from her jugular. His face, once hardened to take her life, was cracking in perplexity as he stayed his hand.
He leaned in, breathing air into her. “Who are you to call me that?”
Lorian constricted her throat to keep herself from drawing blood. “Lorian…Ashwell, child of no one important, officer in training, and soon-to-be Constable to right the wrongs of three generations worth of sin.”
He moved in closer, studying her face structure, her green eyes stolen from the queen. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
She faked a smile. Without her makeup, earrings, long hair, blatant attitude, and corset, she thought she’d changed enough to sneak by the general public, but had it been enough for Carmine? “M-Mafi Harbor,” she quickly came up with. “I was caught stealing some fish, I dunked you in the water. It was quite comical.”
“No, I’m sure…”
A zap of electricity pulsed throughout the room, illuminating every corner for a blinding second. Then two eyes appeared from the darkness. “Leave them alone, old man!”
Something struck Carmine and sent him backwards to the floor. A flutter of long brown hair and a dress with multiple layers bloomed in front of Lorian. She couldn’t even register that it’d been Aida’s voice she’d heard, she was too stunned by the sudden and quite ill-timed violence that’d just taken place.
Two more zaps and Aida’s bed creaked loudly at the weight of a person jumping atop it. Two figures now appeared in the moonlight, their dresses and capes fluttering to a still around them.
“Appeared,” because they did not climb onto the bed, and they did not crawl out from underneath it. One man and one woman, once not there and then there, had materialized onto Aida’s bed.
The woman stood wearing circle glasses like Aida, with tan skin and brown hair just like Aida, who was just as big as the stubborn and passionate girl Lorian had come to know over this past year, but this woman wasn’t her. This woman was in her early thirties, and she had her hair down. Since Lorian had known her, Aida always kept her hair in two braids that ran down her front. And to be wearing a formal dress that showed off her bare shoulders with a fluffy petticoat that made her appear bouncy and free, this couldn’t have been her.
But it was, from her eye shape to her hands to her nose, and no amount of subtle changes would’ve dissuaded Lorian on that.
The person to her left, on the other hand, who was holding the Aida’s hand like it meant nothing, was like looking into a mirror. He or she was a few centimeters taller than Lorian and had grown out their hair into a full-length ponytail, and they were dressed as a king would be, wearing a full royal suit of red and gold with a cape tied around their neck. But other than those subtle differences, this person standing before Lorian had to be Lorian herself, just a little older and with the confidence to hold Aida’s hand like they were more than friends.
The woman who looked like Aida fixed her glasses with a wide, un-Aida-like smile. “Well, then,” she said, “I don’t remember our introductions being so obnoxiously loud and tumultuous, but it’s good to see you again, Little Lorian. A pleasure.” She curtsied like she was on stage. “And to Little Me.” She looked around the room, and her smile slipped off her animated face. “Oh, darn it, where am I? I thought I’d timed this out perfectly.”
“I told you we should’ve planned this out more efficiently,” the other person said, very clearly in Lorian’s voice but older, wiser. “We should’ve been listening through the door like I suggested.”
“I was impatient!”
“Oh, you, impatient?” the Lorian said with a smirk. “I would’ve never known.”
“Hey, you said Carmie attacked you, and it’s not like I was here to judge the situation by myself.”
“And you deal with that by kicking him?”
“I get a lot of leverage out of kicking.”
Lorian’s eyes darted from person to person, utterly bewitched by their existence. She felt like she’d just travelled for the first time. What felt natural to them was otherworldly to her, and she couldn’t comprehend the slightest bit of information. How, and why? What, and when? Were they even real, these people standing before her, and how had they jumped backwards into time like this?
She lowered her blades, lost of all answers.
Carmine sat up holding back a bloody nose.
“Circa, Aida, did you have to be so violent?” the Lorian asked.
“I didn’t mean it. Carmie,” the Aida said, “I didn’t mean that, you know that, yeah?”
When Carmine finally got a good look at the two intruders, he gasped. “Who are you? How did you get in here?”
“Can ya guess?” The Aida—Future Aida—pointed to her face, which was so much like Aida’s, it hurt. Her white Visatorre marking had an extra circle drawn inside of it, and her pupils were dyed pure white, making her stare a thousand times more unnerving.
Carmine looked between Lorian and Lorian’s doppelganger. “What on Earth.”
“Luckily we’re just dealing with Earthen qualities,” Future Aida said. “Now, she should be coming back soon, but I know that I don’t like being excluded from any hearings, so in the meantime, let’s catch up. How’s the weather back here? How’s studying going? How—”
Lorian’s rapier was ripped from her hand, and Carmine stood up and aimed it at the two strangers.
Lorian doubletook Carmine’s blade still in her hand. The thief. That was her rapier. Who was breaking the law now?
“I’m sick of these games,” Carmine said. “You three are to come with me, to be questioned by His Majesty’s men under the charges of assault of a Constable and two officers.”
“Oh, enough of that act, Carmie,” Future Aida said. “It grows old. Besides, we’re not here for you, we’re here for them.” And she pointed down at Lorian.
Lorian didn’t know whether it would be appropriate to draw her weapon at her. She and Future Lorian were unarmed, but like Carmine, they could’ve had a small weapon concealed on them. And who knew? Perhaps they weren’t even human, and mere swords and words wouldn’t harm them in this realm.
The Aida grinned wildly down at Lorian. “You, my dear little one, are in for a whirlwind of a time. You and your missing, very beautiful friend have a task to accomplish, one you won’t realize its importance until after it’s done. From here on out, all Visatorre and Mediocris now depend on your future actions.”
“They don’t use that word yet,” Future Lorian informed her.
“Ah, right. Visatorre and non-Visatorre. Anyway, Lorian, when Aida returns, go into town. Follow the crowds. Follow my voice. Then—”
A spark of lightning crashed through the room, brightening the room and scattering the shadows, and Aida’s body fell exactly where her clothes lay. Lorian turned away out of respect, but then she heard her gagging, choking, floundering like a fish like something was malfunctioning in her brain.
Drool spilled out of Aida’s mouth as she convulsed. She looked in pain, the way her arms were tight and shaking, legs flailing, but her face was expressionless, aside from her twitching mouth from in inner pain.
“Fuck,” Future Aida said, her bright smile dipping once again. “Ain’t it different from the other side.”
“Aida!” Lorian tripped over a fallen officer to get to her. She slid beside her and cupped her cheeks. “Aida? Aida, are you okay?”
She spasmed against Lorian’s knee, eyes wide yet unfocused. It looked like she was being choked by an invisible wire.
“What’s wrong with her?” Lorian asked the room, hoping for an answer to be shouted out.
“It comes with the territory, I’m afraid,” Future Aida said. “Keep her head steady. Both hands now. Help her out.”
She did as told. She hated the feeling of Aida’s head trying to thrash against her hand to hit the ground, and she hated how she didn’t know how to help her. She hadn’t been this bad when they’d first met. Did all jumps end this badly, with gagging and coughing?
Carmine hovered over them.
“Do something!” Lorian pleaded. “One of you, any of you, please.”
“She’ll be alright,” Future Lorian said. “She just travelled a long way. This’ll hurt her for the rest of her life, but do not worry. She’s still the same girl you fell in love with.”
Lorian faltered on that one line and how strange it sounded when spoken aloud, then asked, “How do you know what’s going to happen?”
Future Aida smiled dementedly. “Can ya guess?”
“This isn’t the time for games,” Carmine said. Despite wanting to kill Lorian minutes ago, he now knelt beside her in trying to help Aida. He centered her head. “Easy, easy.”
“Is she breathing?” Lorian asked.
“I believe so.”
“She is,” Future Aida said. “Look, you two, life’s gonna be challenging for you from this point onwards. Your whole world’s gonna fucking blow, but remember that this is going to be so, so worth it in the end.”
“Shut up!” Lorian yelled. “God, just shut the fuck up and help us! You’re not making any sense. She’s dying! Can’t you do anything besides fucking act like a child?”
“Uh, she isn’t dying, for one. I’m a good testament of that.”
“Honestly, is it really the time to be arguing right now?” Carmine asked.
“Shut up,” Lorian groaned. Even though she had a thousand questions for this pairing, right now, she wouldn’t have cared if she ever saw them again. The fewer bodies in this room the better. Then she could try focusing on Aida’s wellbeing. She’d stopped drooling but was now gurgling.
“Shit, no wonder they hate us,” Future Aida said. “I can’t think of anything to say.”
“You had a whole speech prepared,” Future Lorian said.
“Well, shocking to no one, I’ve forgotten it.” She checked her watchless wrist. “I think it’s time we scram. You ready?”
“Ready as ever,” Future Lorian said. “Good luck.”
“Like I need it.” She turned to Lorian and bowed. On her left wrist, she wore a woven bracelet that matched the color of her dress. Its single amulet shone against the white of the Moon. “Fare thee well, Your Majesty.”
Lorian cringed. She had no idea what she was planning. In truth, this woman probably wasn’t Aida at all, for Aida wasn’t chipper. She didn’t crack jokes, she wasn’t as demented as this poor loon of a girl was.
Future Aida sprung back up with that awful smile on her face and physically jumped off the bed towards them. Before landing on Lorian’s head, she pivoted at the right minute and landed squarely into Carmine.
“Here we go!” she said and, taking one handful of Carmine’s vest, she and he disappeared in a spark.
Lorian fell back on her butt. Once and there and then not. Just like a Visatorre.
“It won’t be any less surprising,” Future Lorian said, still standing on Aida’s bed. The room seemed to calm down now that a trickster god and the man who was about to murder Lorian were gone. Lorian finally heard herself breathe and Aida groan in pain.
Still holding onto her, Lorian regained her composure and fully addressed this mirror image. They really did look alike, like she was a real queen.
“I…don’t remember saying much here,” Future Lorian said. “It’s Aida who usually does all the talking. I apologize for not being much help right now.”
Lorian wanted to ask them at what point during the night had they been any help, but she took in their demeanor and pose and contrasted it with herself. How they held themselves, how they hadn’t learned to smile naturally when they were clearly tormented inside. Even the way they stood, slouched a bit to keep their chest from being so pronounced. So much like herself.
“Tell me,” Lorian said, “is what that woman said true? Are you really me?”
It sounded ridiculous when she said it aloud. How could she be talking to herself? She was right here, on the floor, and she wasn’t a Visatorre.
Future Lorian nodded. “Very much so, yes.”
She raked her brain to find a reasonable question to ask them. It felt like she only had one chance at this, like this impossible event could only last a brief moment before they disappeared. “Then…then tell me something only I’d know, something that’ll convince me that you’re me.”
She regretted it. She had only one secret nearly no one on Earth knew. If anyone found out, Roma would come crashing down in anarchy.
Future Lorian smiled warmly down on their past self. Their eyes looked so much older and softer, like their mother’s.
Placing one hand to their heart and one behind their back, Future Lorian bowed a deep and respectful bow. “I believe we both know the answer to that, Your Highness.”
Lorian’s eyes went wide. That was it, wasn’t it? What else had she been waiting to hear? What had she been hiding from since waking up and deciding that she would never marry Prince Zaahir of Aldaí, that she’d no longer be Princess Lucia of Roma, but be Lorian fucking Ashwell, a person of her own design?
Future Lorian straightened. “She’ll be back soon,” they said, “she” in reference to Future Aida.
“Where did she take Carmine?” Lorian asked. She should’ve called him “the Constable,” but with two unconscious officers and an unresponsive Aida, she decided she didn’t have to be careful with anyone but herself.
“Aida will discard him far away from here, giving you two a chance to escape.”
“Into town, although you don’t take the advice. What you and Aida have done tonight is treasonous against the crown. Hitting a Constable? Fighting Carmine and his dogs? The city will be after you, so you need to disappear however you see fit. I’d tell you what I think you should do, but I do believe you won’t take any advice I give you.”
Lorian pressed her lips together. “That attitude never goes away, huh?”
“Alas, it does not,” they said, and turned as if ready to jump into time themselves.
“Wait,” Lorian asked, “how are you here? You’re not a Visatorre. You can’t time travel.”
“Aida can take any living being with her into the past so long as she is touching them.”
Lorian looked down at the Current Aida, her Aida. She was panting in pain, each breath laborious, and trying to turn her shoulders to no effect. “How?”
“You won’t believe me if I told you,” Future Lorian said. “Just trust us. All of this is in Circa’s hands.”
“Circa?” she asked. “The Goddess of Time?”
A flash of lightning and Future Aida came back. She plopped down beside Future Lorian and almost fell before they caught her.
She whipped her head around to Lorian. “Good luck, kid, and take care of me! I’ll wake up soon!”
As if she could stop Aida, in any timeline.
Taking Future Lorian’s hand, Future Aida stuck out her tongue, threw up a peace sign, and vanished, leaving Lorian with an injured Aida, two unconscious officers, and a kidnapped Constable who wanted both of them tried by the crown.