Aida steered frightened Ether back on course. “Wait! Give me back my things!”
“Hold on!” Lorian said. “She might be dangerous!”
“She’s me,” Aida said, but she didn’t know how much weight that carried. From years of being alone, she knew herself inside and out, from her faults to her gifts. Never would she’ve been this reckless or loud and, well, annoying. What a child this “Future Aida” was, playing keep-away with her when she should’ve known she was still recovering from her jump.
This woman was crazed. Jump after jump she carried herself down the path, hopping down the trail, stooping in trees like an observant owl, pretending to bide her time by kicking a stone when Aida and Lorian were too far away. This was all a game to her.
As they descended into the farmlands and Roma City’s vineyards, Aida noticed that Future Aida was pacing out her jumps. At times, they lost sight of her for minutes, only finding her sitting atop a farmer’s shingled roof. When they got close enough, she saw Future Aida panting, a haggard expression making her smile look all the more fake.
“She’s baiting us,” Lorian said.
“I know, but I can’t imagine her hurting either of us. You saw the two of them in my room, didn’t you? So we know we aren’t going to die now.”
“But we can’t trust her.”
“Do you?” she questioned. “She’s wired. I just want my things back.”
“Well, it is hers.”
Aida rolled her eyes. “We’re not doing this. From here onwards, she is she, and I am me. We are not the same.”
“Whatever you say, Current Aida.”
Her jaw clenched to keep from smiling.
The grape vineyards that seemed to stretch on for acres ended at the entrance to the city. And it was massive, the entrance marker. Pillars the size of palaces holding up ancient concrete archways with scrawlings written in the dead Latin. They were more than 3,000 years old, dating back before Eve and the growth of Siina. It used to bring travellers to their knees, thankful to have finally made it all this way, while slaves had told horror stories of the ancient archway. Now, nothing but weeds and dandelions grew around the stone, dating it as a forgotten piece of architecture.
They’d lost sight of Future Aida again, but how could they track her here? As they passed the market and entered into the main streets of Roma City, the people were about in full. The cobblestone streets held rickety carts guided by Bělican oxen, their usual thick fur shaved to adjust to the mild Roman autumn. It must’ve been a market day, for hundreds of small shops had their doors open with signs and banners welcoming in customers. Street carts sold everything from bread to ice to meat to exotic bugs trapped in wooden cages for children to admire. A musical group played lively music near a fountain, and children danced while their parents bid and bartered.
Aida contrasted the scene to her jump. She tried tracing the streets, to find where exactly Eve had come from and walk in her footsteps once again, but it was hazy. The street layout was different, the buildings either redesigned or torn down completely. And, despite trying to remember so hard, she couldn’t recall exactly where she’d been.
Though not too far off, Aida made out the famous clock tower of the Roman palace, then the nearby broken stone of the Colosseum. One said a true Roman could never be late, for they could always look up and see the time.
She saw a few dozen people with Visatorre markings, but they didn’t make her feel any better. They weren’t the ones manning the shops or entertaining the crowds. They were hiding, in the alleys and sitting on planks of wood without jobs. Those who were brave enough to be in the sunlight were dressed down in layered rags. The Visatorre children were skinny, the woman waited in the darkest alleys. Some looked okay, which comforted Aida, but it hadn’t been like this in Bělico. In Bělico, everyone worked. Visatorre overworked because they needed to, tending to crops and herding the sheep for their employers. In Roma, it felt like they were unneeded ghosts.
What hurt the most was that Aida found herself looking away from them. When she caught herself ignoring their plight, she cursed herself and went to the first Visatorre sitting near a broken set of columns holding up nothing. She offered what she had left: a few bronze Lyria. The man gave her a short nod, clutching the coins like diamonds in his gloved hands.
“I’m coming.” She guided her horse back to Lorian, who was watching her intently with a question on his mind.
“Do you do that often?” he asked.
“When I can. Do you?”
He thought about it, then said, “I always thought my contribution as an officer was enough, but after living in the real world, I now understand my ignorance of my people’s plight is what’s blinding me.”
“You got any Lyria to throw their way?”
He smiled. “A few coins, yes. Once we settle down, remind me to make a donation to a shelter.”
“And find my bag. You’re tall. Do you see her?”
He peered over the heads of the crowds.“I do not.”
They decided to hop off their horses and weave through the streets on foot. The crowds along with the noise of bidding and exclamations of prices made Aida fold in on herself. She tucked her head close to her horse and stared into its side, hoping nobody would look at her.
A sneaky arm wrapped over her shoulder.
She looked up at Lorian. “’Ey.”
“Where to, Miss?” he asked coyly.
“What a gentleman you are,” she said sarcastically, but she couldn’t find what was sarcastic about it. True, he was smiling, and she was, too, so why was she against this? “Would you be doing this if I was a boy?” she asked him.
“Well, it’d depend on the boy.”
“How about that boy back there at the Academy?”
“Oh, definitely not.” He scouted up ahead. “Do you not like crowds? I can drive us down a different route. I know these streets very well. We’re close to the Palace.”
“I’ll be fine. We’ll get out of here soon. I’m just not used to it, so I can fix that. But we shouldn’t walk near the Palace.”
“No tour around the Palace gates?”
“Eyes ahead, officer.”
He obliged. “Oh, speaking of eyes, do yours feel any different?”
“Should they feel different?”
“Well, your right pupil is completely white.”
She stopped dead in her tracks, startling their horses backwards. “What?” She tried opening her eye, then gave up and trotted over to the nearest fountain sputtering out drinking water. The stagnant water was a little murky, but it did the job as a needed reflection.
She knelt down using her cane to get a better look at herself. She tried to blink it away, tried to blame it on a cloud breezing above her, but it was permanent, unevening her and making her stand out even more.
The red-haired boy’s horse took a drink from the fountain. It rippled Aida’s stunned expression.
“It must’ve appeared when you came back from your jump,” Lorian explained. “After you met Eve, was it?”
“Yeah.” She tried rubbing at her eye again.
“Was it everything you wanted?”
“Meeting Eve,” he said. “Was it everything you wanted?”
She should’ve said yes. Should’ve, but then she’d be lying. “I don’t know. She wasn’t anything like I’d built her up to be in my head. She was our age, jumping around her carriage and fountains. And she was a lot shorter than I imagined. She was a bit like…” She stopped herself. “She was just different.”
“But not bad?”
“She’s Queen Eve. She’ll never be bad in my eyes.” After splashing her face with the cool water, Aida set off. “If every day I grow closer to looking more like that woman, I’m gonna throw myself off the palace clock tower.”
“Eve, or your future self?”
“Take a wild guess.”
“I think she’s rather charming, in a crude sort of way.”
“She’s deranged, Lorian. Don’t tell me that’s your type.”
He simply laughed as he turned a corner, the street layout somehow memorized in his mind. Then his face fell. “Uh oh.”
“Don’t ‘uh oh’,” Aida said, then looked to see what he was “uh-ohing” about.
Tacked onto a bulletin board were two expertly drawn pictures of Aida and Lorian. They were the newest, covering the posters of murderers and tax evaders for everyone’s eyes to hone in on.
“Uh oh,” Lorian repeated.
“Stop that.” She grabbed his horse’s reins. “Come on. Let’s go this way.”
To answer, all he did was point ahead.
The shock of so many bodies hit her first, then the loudness, and then the massiveness of what they came to see: the Colosseum.
When her family had visited Roma City, Aida hadn’t realized the wrongness of admiring such a bloody history marker, but she’d been young. Now she knew its history. It loomed over her, blocking out the clouds with how tall it stood. The Sun filtered through the hundreds of arches rounding around its curve, where a few officers and tourists poked their heads out to wave at the people in the plaza.
She held her heart. An unfamiliar type of pain entered the careless organ. Countless people had been slaughtered for sport here, but when Queen Julia had been murdered, the entire 100,000 person-populace of Siina had vanished in a bloody ocean of innocent lives.
The plaza itself held more tourists than she could count. Food carts, fountains, statues, benches, patches of grass and trees where children and dogs played. As Lorian led her into the crowds, she spotted Bělico farmers in their sheep-wool ponchos, Aldaí families wearing their robes, headscarves, and elegant dresses made for the desert Sun. Tour guides, families on vacation, carriages stationed so their horses could drink from their troughs, Roman Visatorre.
Her light-headedness came back. The chase and run from Durante Academy had her blood pumping, now it drained to her feet and left her dizzy. So many people, so much noise…
“Aida?” Lorian asked.
“I’m fine,” she said. “Let’s keep going.”
“Are you sure?”
She closed her eyes as she let Lorian lead her. “When I saw Eve, there was a type of festival going on. Visatorre and non-Visatorre were mingling like friends. I didn’t even see any slaves or Visatorre being treated unfairly, which I should’ve seen for the time period. And I saw boats used during that time, and the Colosseum—” She tried looking at the top Colosseum arches a few streets away. “It looked brand new.”
“Isn’t that, I mean, I thought Visatorre could only jump a few decades into the past.”
“If that. It’s a miracle I survived.”
“Is there any chance it might’ve been earlier?”
“The people were screaming her name. She was pregnant, and Visatorre were able to jump without pain. I saw one man jump two hundred years back. Lorian, history is completely different from what we knew.”
“But if what you saw was true, that means Visatorre—”
“Were a free people, well-integrated into Roman society, who were able to jump without pain. They were like gods.” She didn’t know why, but she held Lorian closer. “History is wrong, Lorian. A thousand years ago, Visatorre weren’t slaves or thought of as lesser, not like they are now. Something happened between now and Eve’s death that fucked us over. Your history, my people, it’s like they were cursed. I mean, who knows if Eve or Julia even died, you know?”
“You think they’re still alive?”
“Preferably, yes.” They entered deeper into the crowds. “If my future self can jump in the future, why not her?”
“Well, I hope for your sake, it’s true. If anyone can figure out the truth, it’s you.”
A man bumped into them without apologizing.
“There must be something going on today,” Lorian said. “It’s never this busy. Perhaps there’s a town meeting, though my…the king doesn’t work on Sundays.”
Aida stared at the ground to keep focus. She felt nauseous and didn’t know how far she’d be willing to go to get her possessions back. What could’ve happened? Was Circa behind it? She was their Goddess of Time. If she could’ve stopped anything bad from happening, she would’ve surely done so. That’s what Gods did, they protected the people who believed in them.
“Shit!” Lorian stepped back on Aida’s foot.
The crowd around them erupted in applause. The taller folk stood on their tiptoes while parents grabbed their children and raised them in their shoulders to better see. Something was happening near the Palace, the Colosseum.
Aida cursed her small height. She hopped to better see over a bald man’s head. This was just like her jump, when Eve had come into town.
“I-it’s nothing,” Lorian said. “We just need to leave. Now. It’s not safe.”
Aida crouched down, hands on her bad knees. She couldn’t see much, but through the legs of the crowd she could see them parting quickly, making a circle for someone important.
“Aida, we must leave.” He grabbed both horses’ reins and tugged them away. “Hurry.”
She didn’t. There must’ve been a reason why he wasn’t disclosing who was about to enter the plaza, and she didn’t think it was because their safety was in jeopardy. She moved in closer.
“Aida, no!” He grabbed her sleeve and tugged hard.
The royal flags, that’s what she saw first. Those yellow and red stripes whipping in the air. Then the officers—constables—atop their horses, wearing their medals and black hats. Constable Carmine of all people, who stood in front of the platoon, gazed fiercely into the rambunctious crowd like a guard dog protecting his family.
And beside him, why the crowds had gathered that morning: Roma’s own King Durante and Queen Rosalia, their daughter and former heir of Roma, Queen Beatrice, her husband and the Bělico king, King Dmitri, their daughter, Princess Nina, and the future king of Aldaí, Prince Zaahir.
“Holy shit,” Aida breathed out. She recognized Zaahir from his portrait her sisters would swoon over, and Beatrice and Dmitri from the Bělican currency, and who could not know Queen Rosalia? Her beautiful blond hair reached the floor, and King Durante had this face that screamed, “I own my title like a god,” all sturdy and set. But these people never made public appearances. And it wasn’t a major holiday, not that she remembered. There shouldn’t have been a reason for them to be here.
They both snapped and turned around, Lorian with his hand on the hilt of his sword, Aida gripping her cane.
Two Visatorre kids were staring up at them through the crowd holding each other’s hands. One boy and one girl, the boy a bit older, the girl a bit taller. The girl had a small basket of picked dandelions under her arm while the boy had a large bandage over his cheek. They both stared at them like wonders of the world.
“Aida, we need to go. Now,” Lorian pressed. His voice was shaking with his grip tearing at her dress. He kept looking between her and the two heirs up ahead.
“Aren’t you the one from Mama’s picture?” the little girl asked.
“No, we aren’t,” Lorian said halfheartedly, then to Aida, “Aida, we need to go. Now.”
“No, at our house,” the boy reiterated. “We have pictures of you all around the living room.”
“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about. Go off and find your Mama.” Lorian backed up and Aida went with him.
She’d never seen him so off-kilter before. She thought him as a docile, obedient servant to the crown, not a person with such a wealth of emotional range.
As he stuttered on an excuse, Lorian walked backwards into a woman carrying a basket of pastries.
“Oh my!” She gasped and almost took a header on the cobblestone, but Lorian caught her without a misstep.
The little children ran over to her side.
“My earnest apologies, Miss,” Lorian started. “I wasn’t looking where I was—”
He caught one glance at the woman and dropped his hands. She was a plump, older woman with greying brown hair and a soft face. She had on a knitted cloak that she wore over her shoulders and an emblem of a lion on her breast.
When she fixed her glasses and got a good look at Lorian, she lowered her basket until it dropped and the pastries scattered across the cobblestone. The kids bent down and helped pick them up, their eyes never leaving Lorian’s handsome face.
The woman slowly covered her mouth with one wrinkled hand. “Lucia,” she gasped in a whisper. “Lucia, my love, is that you?”
Lorian kept staring at her, too stunned by their meeting to talk, too terrified by this older woman who thought who knew him.
Lucia. Aida had heard that name a hundred times before. She thought it hadn’t mattered as she didn’t associate herself with the current reign. Before Lucia’s disappearance, the public rarely saw them to get a good look at their facial features, but after they lost her, her picture was everything: the tall beauty of golden curls and fair skin, the one who kept silent to the public beside her beautiful twin sister.
What the public didn’t know was that both of their royal heirs had come back to them today, though the infamous Lucia was now a strapping, quarrelsome officer who went by Lorian Ashwell.
“Oh, fuck,” Aida said, her realization coming to her one month late.