Aida woke up. Then died. And on and on it went, and all the while, she was extremely and indivertibly pissed off.
The first time she awoke, the sky was spinning, stars falling and blurring together, her body ablaze. Then she felt someone close to her, maybe holding her, but she couldn’t form a single thought, let alone demand that whoever was touching her better knock it off before she started kicking.
The last few times she awoke, the Sun was out. She could hear its rays and feel it scorch her skin. When she forcefully opened her eyes and found that she was not burning alive on the surface of the Sun but rather in some basement, she almost went back to sleep. She didn’t want to deal with this. She was on stone, though, giving her a headache that throttled her the moment she was semi-conscious.
This went on for several days, it seemed, her dipping in-between being alive and being something else. Her one constant was that her head hurt and that someone was watching her, always watching her. And the bluebirds. She heard them singing outside, their peaceful lullabies. It helped her keep track of the days.
Sometimes, she felt a large hand cup her cheek, touching her without her being able to tell them to stop or keep going. It was nice, feeling the touch of another human being, but she didn’t know to whom it belonged. Eve? Her mother? When had she returned to Bělico?
Around the third day of her tossing and turning in her own mind, she willed herself out of her slumber. She couldn’t keep like this, so defenseless and annoying. If anything, she needed to wake up and actually see where she was and if she was actually in a basement, because she was now hypothesizing a dungeon and she did not appreciate that.
With her eyesight blurry, Aida struggled to get herself vertical again. It was one thing to be so tired that you didn’t want to leave your bed, it was another to have the will to get up but your body was incapable of pushing you out. She felt like a prisoner in her own body and wanted out.
The ceiling opened and blinded her with sunlight. “Aida!”
She fell backwards and covered her eyes. She wiped down her skin of flames.
Someone touched her. “Are you okay? How do you feel? Are you hurt?”
She covered her ears. Why were they shouting? She did what she had to and shoved them away.
Lorian fell on his ass. “Ow.”
In a rush of confusion and memories, Aida spat out, “What on Earth are you doin’ here?”
“I…sincerely apologize. Did I frighten you? It seems you have your strength back. That’s good.” He looked closer into her eyes. “My goodness, your eyes.”
“Where…where am I?” She touched her throat, surprised to find it so dry. They’d hung out that night, right? She’d talked about Pinnacle Isle. No, that was earlier.
“B-beneath one of the stables near the training officer dorm. I’ve kept you here. What happened to your eye?”
She did smell it now—the horses and their thick, wet hay—but around her was also a lantern, a kettle of water, and most of her belongings: a satchel filled with her clothes, a bag of her books, her cane, her glasses. Next to them were two other bags that didn’t belong to her, but they looked to hold some of Lorian’s officer clothes.
Her breathing hitched. “Did you…kidnap me?”
“Oh, Gods, you kidnapped me. Why would you do that? I don’t have anything. I don’t—I—” She felt an airiness between her legs. Aside from a white nightgown, she was completely naked. With a boy.
Her blood went cold. “You sick fuck.”
“Aida, you have things mistaken—”
Aida brandished her cane as a weapon and aimed it at Lorian. Her ass was numb. “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted you. To think I thought you were one of the good ones.”
“I didn’t kidnap you,” Lorian said. “Please, listen to me. I can explain everything. I’d overheard Carmine—the Constable—talking about taking you from the Academy. I got worried, so I went to your room to tell you. I heard a scuffle, I knocked until someone unlocked the door, and you were gone—you’d jumped—and then Carmine—”
“Liar. I didn’t jump. I would’ve remembered that. I would’ve…”
She paused. Had she jumped? Her, ambling through unfamiliar streets…
“The Constable had been searching for me,” Lorian continued. “You see, I’m…I’m not a real officer. Or one in training. I’d forged the papers to get into the training regimine…”
What streets had she walked through? She remembered a toothbrush. Maybe some hats? A brothel?
“…didn’t hurt him, but I did, well, duel him.”
“Who?” she asked.
She stared at him. “You fought a Constable?”
“The queen’s Constable, yes. When you came back to us, when he cornered me and was about to kill me, I was…” He bit his lip. “You won’t believe me, I know you won’t, but right before I was outmatched, you and I…came from the future.”
Before she could even process what he’d said, Lorian stammered, “I know it sounds ridiculous, and it is, but these two people appeared from nothing. They looked like us but older, in our thirties or so, and they were spouting out absolute rubbish, and then they, well, stole away the Constable. Or you did. The one who looked like you jumped towards him, snatched him up, and vanished alongside with the future me. And you were convulsing so terribly when you came back, I thought you were going to die. So, without any real plan, I took you down here, and, well, here we are.” He opened up his arms. “In hiding.”
He bowed his head. “I’m sorry for these inconveniences. I know you must be upset and hurting.”
No, she wasn’t upset. She’d been looking for something, hadn’t she? And she’d found it, but just like everything else in her life, it’d been taken from her…
She slapped a hand over her mouth. Eve. Her husband. King Julius II. Queen Julia. And all those happy Visatorre. In Roma City. No, Siina. It must’ve been. She’d gone into the past. And the distant past, too. Ancient, during the time of Queen Eve’s rule over the lost city-state of Siina. How had she forgotten something so important? What was wrong with her brain?
She began to sweat. She gathered her belongings in a rush, clumsily putting on her glasses and strapping on her heels. Why hadn’t she remembered something she’d been hoping for for years?
“Wait, be careful,” Lorian said. “Don’t move around too much. They’ll be looking for us.”
She’d been looking for Eve, and she’d found her. She was beautiful and strong and liberated beyond her years. And she’d been pregnant…
She looked down at her hands. 1,200 years into the past and all she felt was a little tired with her memories hazy? How was that possible?
She dropped her hands. “Wait, what did you say?”
“The officers,” Lorian said. “Carmine. They’re both looking for us.”
“Because I attacked them.”
“So? That has nothing to do with me.”
“It…does, in a way. You were in the room when it happened, and that woman—I’ve been calling them Future Aida and Future Lorian—sort of kidnapped him. I heard he was dropped somewhere in the Palace. Because of this, and because they’ve yet to find you and I along with our future selves, they’ve posted wanted posters of us all across the city. At least that’s what Alessio told me. I haven’t been out too often. I did go out to steal back your cane and some of your belongings from your dorm room. I have some cheese somewhere. Are you hungry?”
“Wait, just…” She held her head. “How long was I out?”
“Two days. Your jump had left you shaking and unresponsive. When we set you down, you immediately passed out. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to leave you alone.”
Despite sounding genuinely concerned for her wellbeing, Aida didn’t chance it. He’d gone through her room, but he’d saved her when she was hurt. He’d lied to her, but he’d defended her.
This was all too confusing, and it wasn’t getting any clearer with him. “I don’t believe you,” she said. “You said this ‘Future Aida’ jumped forwards in time? That’s not possible. And you’re not a Visatorre.”
“I know it’s unfathomable, but I don’t have the answers you’re looking for. I’m just as lost as you are.”
“It is unfathomable, so if you’ll excuse me.” Wobbling a bit from her light-headedness, Aida redressed herself, leaned on her cane, and left through the open door.
If her botched memories were anything to go off of, he was right about one thing. She, as of this semester, was no longer welcome at Durante Academy. Her scholarship, the tests she’d been studying for, none of that would ever matter again. To ensure that was true, she took out her expulsion letter from her dress pocket, stamped and sealed by the king’s men, and tore it to shreds. She needed answers, and she needed to find a new future.
She sorted through her bags. She had a good chunk of the clothes she’d brought from home, and Lorian had packed away her most prized books including Pinnacle Isle, her journals, and even her signed playbook. How considerate, the liar.
She shook her head. No, he shouldn’t have done any of this. He’d pillaged her room. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t go back and reclaim her possessions. They weren’t owed to the state, and she’d be sure to steal a candlestick or picture frame as a bitter momentum.
“Aida, wait!” Lorian appeared by her side, gripping her arm. “It’s not safe.”
“Let go.” She shoved him off and continued en-route to her dorm.
“Stop being stubborn. Didn’t you hear me?” He looked nervously around the grounds. “We’re wanted. A dozen officers have been scouring the campus looking for us.”
“Well, I don’t know why they would be, considering I’m innocent.”
“Not in their eyes, you’re not. You attacked the Constable.”
“I threw my cane at him.”
“And they’re connecting you with this Future Aida. Apparently, she’s been playing with the Constable, stealing his hats and freeing his horses. Everything she’s doing, it’s falling onto you.”
“Well, I still don’t believe all this future talk. It sounds like you’re making it up. Which, if I have anything to go off of from you, I wouldn’t put it past you.”
Lorian threw back his head. “I didn’t know you were this…this…”
She waited for the insult and to throw a worse one back at him.
“Strong-willed,” he landed on.
Her eyebrows shot up. How rare it was for someone to give her a compliment.
“Fine. If you’re not going to listen to me, at least let me walk you to your dorm,” he said. “That’s where you’re going, right? I heard they’ve been through there, looking for clues to where we went.”
“Are you serious?” she asked. “The nerve of this Academy. Why did I ever want to come here in the first place? I heard it was elite, but I didn’t think it’d be this forward with immorality.”
“Welcome to Roma,” Lorian said, throwing up his arms as they turned the corner, “where the people are terrible and the history is even more—”
He jerked back, grabbed Aida by the arm, and brought her around the building they were about to pass.
“Shh,” he said. In the distance, two men were arguing and growing closer.
“I said I don’t know, sir. I apologize for being unhelpful for this ghost chase.”
Taking a peek, Aida saw a red-haired officer-in-training and an officer arguing near one of the school’s wishing wells. The boy was about their age and had his chin held high, hands defiantly on his hip bones.
“I already told Officer Vato,” the red-headed boy said. “I saw Lorian and that girl leaving through the forest. By the time I came over to ask what they were doing, they were gone. Neither Matteo nor I could find them. It’s as if they both jumped.”
“We searched the forest from top to bottom. Their footprints end at the forest. Are you sure they went in?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Like I said, they were gone before we came. And I’ve already searched through his supplies and his side of the room as per my initial orders. I found nothing. I have nothing. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help at this time.”
Lorian gripped his bag straps as he and Aida eavesdropped. Were he and this boy close? Was he bluffing, or did he have worse memory problems than Aida? She tried reading their expressions. Both seemed like incredibly good liars.
“By all means, search the grounds again,” the boy said. “I’d help, but I have sparring practice to finish.”
“Your sparring can wait,” the officer said. “Come with me. We’ll do a more thorough search around these parts.”
“Do you believe me now?” Lorian whispered to Aida. “We need to be careful. I can’t be found out. I’ll be killed, and you’ll be thrown in jail without having a witness to defend you.”
She chewed on her inner cheek. “Trust” wasn’t something she gave out easily. In fact, she didn’t know if she’d trusted anyone in her life. Her sisters? No. Her mother? Absolutely not. Who else did she have to put her trust into?
Lorian, she guessed.
She found herself nodding despite her better judgement. “Okay,” she said. “Where should we go? Back to that crummy barn?”
“I think, just for the time—”
The larger officer was looking straight at them, sword drawn for attack. “You two, stay right there!”
Cursing under his breath, Lorian unsheathed his own rapier and readied his stance. “Aida, go! Take my horse!”
“The horse stables behind us!” He ripped something off of his neck and threw it at her. It was a necklace with a horse whistle attached to it. It was engraved with gold and silver, the horse head shimmering in diamonds.
“Go!” he yelled when he caught her examining it.
He was insane. An absolute nutter. To attack not only the queen’s most-trusted Constable but also another officer in the same week, just for her…
The corner of her mouth twitched in a smile as she took off towards the nearby horse pasture. What a lad.
Dozens of horses grazed in the short grass, unaware of the fight happening close to them. There had to be twenty. “Wait, which one’s yours?” she called out.
“Ether, the palomino one!” He said more, but the clash of steel against steel drowned him out.
Aida didn’t look back. She spotted the gold-coated mare grazing by herself near the white fence. Luckily, the door had been left open, so Aida ran down the trodden-down earth and entered the field.
She’d ridden a few horses in her life. When she’d been lighter and her mother thought kinder of her, she’d ridden their horses for practice, sometimes even for fun, when nobody was in the house and she could smile comfortably without being made fun of. But then her anxiety built up, along with her weight, and now she was nervous about getting on the back of one.
She circled the horse, testing its friendliness. “Hey there.”
The horse thrashed its head.
“Oh, c’mon.” She looked around for treats, then examined the horse whistle. On the necklace was also a silver ring and a giant key, though she didn’t think the other two were too important for the task at hand. “This what you want?” she asked and blew into the whistle.
The horse’s ears perked up. She looked Aida right in the eyes, then sniffed between her ear and temple.
“Overly-friendly,” Aida commented on, earning a little nip around her ear. “Just like your owner, ’ey?”
The horse chuffed.
“Okay. Don’t buck me, I swear to God.”
Ether had on her saddle—she didn’t know officer horses just kept those things on—so it was somewhat easier to climb on. Still, she felt like the saddle would fall off or that she’d fall and hit her back or twist her leg. But the horse was good, far better than most humans, and she maneuvered to her weight so Aida didn’t fall.
Out on the main courtyard, Lorian whistled.
Trained to his voice, the horse obeyed her new trainer and galloped out of the pasture.
Aida hunkered close to the horse’s center. Why was she going so fast? Why did she move like the wind despite someone as heavy and clumsy as Aida riding her? She must’ve been well-trained, and well-bred. The rich bastard.
He was gone. Lying on the ground was the officer, unconscious with his hat knocked off of his head. Alessio was staring around one of the stables, then jumped at Aida’s arrival and her horse’s lack of direction.
She turned. Lorian had found himself another horse, a dark brown colt with white spots and black reins. He galloped towards her with Ether ready to follow.
“Hey!” the red-haired boy shouted. “Stop! That’s my horse!”
“I’ll return her, Alessio, I swear!” Lorian said. “I’ll drop her off at the colosseum! Find her there in a day’s time!”
“Fuck you, Lorian! That’s my horse!”
Aida just waved at Alessio as Ether ran after Lorian. While she normally justified certain “borrowing,” she couldn’t really condone stealing someone’s horse. She supposed this was a special case.
“You’re a desperate, incredibly stupid man,” Aida said at Lorian, “and you’re gonna get both you and me killed.”
“Thank you,” he said, “but, if you’ll believe me, I did see our future selves this week, so there’s a chance both you and I continue living and making bad decisions for a long time.”
Aida concealed her smile by staring up into the sky. “Fuck you.”
The two of them rode down the path leading away from the Academy and into a denser part of the forest. Here, the trees curved in around them, the branches masking them from the Gods likely judging these two misfits who’d broken a number of laws that week. After ten minutes of Aida bracing her legs and back from the horse’s gait, Lorian settled into a normal pace beside her.
“So,” Aida said, “in the case that I do believe you and that you’re not an insane, sword-wielding liar who wouldn’t lie to a fair maiden such as myself, what on Earth am I going to do with you?”
“Well, when I’d left my home, I’d hopped from tavern to tavern, sleeping in rooms while doing labor work on the side to earn my way up. I know a few taverns that we can stay in, but they’re few and far between in terms of safety.”
“I’m not sleeping with you,” she said, then quickly corrected herself by saying, “not in the same room, and I don’t have any money. If I can’t go back to my dorm, this”—she showed him her bags—“is all I have now, thanks to you.”
“Thanks to me? You’re lucky I went back to collect your things.”
“You’re right. I’m the luckiest dame in the country.”
“Are you seriously mad at me?”
Aida looked up at Lorian’s hurt face, and she backpedalled. That wasn’t the reaction she’d wanted. She thought she was being funny. Isn’t this what friends did? “No. I apologize. I’ve just been through one fucking weird week, or a lifetime. Oh!”
Her startlement shocked Lorian and his stolen horse. “What? What’s wrong?”
“My trip! My jump!” she said. “Fuck me, fuck seeing our fucking future selves, I saw Eve!”
“That queen you like?”
“‘That queen’, he says. Yes, you dolt, the queen! My queen. Good God, how did I forget to mention that?”
Lorian stopped and stared at her. “As in the queen from 1,200 years ago? You saw her?”
“Yes, yes!” Her mouth hung open, trying to decide where in the story to start, when the sound of electricity cracked and ignited so close to her that Ether whinnied in alarm.
The person jumped right in front of their horses, but she hadn’t come back the way you were supposed to, naked and delirious. She’d come back like that man in Siina: fully clothed, wearing a beautiful blue dress that sparkled like a summer ocean, and she was smiling. Her grin was wild and manic.
She was Aida. Or her future self. Her mirror image, doppelganger. While she wore her hair down and smelled of vanilla, the roundness of her cheeks, the shape of her hands, the dotting freckles that only came out when she was in the Sun. Whatever this was and whatever Lorian had poorly explained to her, all of it was proven true upon her arrival, a catalyst to chaos.
“Hey, little me,” Future Aida said. She teleported again, this time too close to Aida’s right, and her bags were ripped away from her. Another jump and she was in front of them, the booms from her jumps still sizzling in the air.
“Hey!” Aida said, reaching for what belonged to her.
“Hey again!” Future Aida said back. “And no, you’re not getting these back unless you chase me for them. Come on!” She jumped back farther and farther down the path, her presence fading as quickly as it came. “Hey, don’t you want these back?” She took out a handful of Aida’s playbooks and spread them out like playing cards. “If you don’t want them, I’ll be happy to dump them in the River Tiber for you. And you know I will.”
“I’m not waiting, Aida, you know I won’t! Now, come now!” She laughed. “Off to Roma City!”