No matter how far she strayed from her past, Lorian could not separate herself from Missus Sharma.
She’d tried with her sister, who was thirty meters away on horseback who would’ve instantly recognized her because they essentially had the same face. Zaahir, he could’ve forgotten Lorian, as they’d only met a handful of times and, while he’d agreed to the marriage, seemed uninterested in her overall.
Her parents, they were complicated. Like Carmine, she used to like the adults in her life. Then things changed. Her docile mother now looked weak, her passionate father had become vengeful. And Carmine had become…
But Lorian couldn’t detach herself from Missus Sharma. She smelled like home, like sweet pastries and fresh milk. It looked like she’d aged ten years when it’d only been a season. Her soft hair held traces of white streaks in it like clouds whisking through a sunset sky, and her hands, cupping hers now, felt colder and more cracked than usual.
Every memory Lorian should’ve had with her mother and father, she had of Missus Sharma. Her bathtub lullabies, her gentle embraces when they were alone. She’d sneak Lorian her homemade desserts and laugh at her terrible jokes. While she could never forget her mother’s and father’s care, she hadn’t fallen asleep without thinking about loyal nursemaid.
Missus Sharma pulled back and held Lorian’s face in her hands. “Oh, mi dolcezza. My baby.”
Lorian licked her lips at the pet name. “I know,” she said, not knowing which emotion to feel. “I’m here.”
“But why? What happened? Where did you go? Are you safe? I saw the papers in the square. What’ve you done?”
Shame Lorian didn’t know she still had hit her in the stomach. She hadn’t told anyone that she’d run away. She didn’t think Beatrice knew, though she found out most things before Lorian even thought of them. She’d wished she could’ve told Missus Sharma, but she couldn’t do that to her. If her father had known Missus Sharma knew about her escape plan, she would’ve been punished for withholding information from the crown. She didn’t think she’d have to face this disappointment so soon.
“I apologize,” Lorian said, “but we can’t stay here. Mother and Father are here. They can’t see me like this.”
“Oh. Yes.” Missus Sharma looked past the heads of the crowd to Beatrice, blinking rapidly. “Do you have a place to go, a place to hide?”
Lorian shook her head.
“And your friend?”
She turned to Aida, who had a puzzled, slightly irritated look on her face. Yet another lie she’d chastise Lorian for. They’d never end. Come next summer, she’d be sure to despise Lorian.
“Her name’s Aida,” Lorian explained. “Missus Sharma, do you live close?”
“I do. Dear, are you okay to walk?”
She addressed it to Aida, who was now leaning on her cane with both hands. She straightened and nodded once.
“But we didn’t get everything on the shopping list,” the little boy said. He, like the little girl beside him, we’re Visatorre, their marks almost proudly displayed on their wide foreheads.
“Hush, Onti,” Missus Sharma said. “Take Chrissie’s hand and be soft and quiet.”
Keeping close to Missus Sharma, Lorian, Aida, and the two little ones followed her through the crowds and down a narrow alleyway leading east. Lorian didn’t dare breathe until the crowds dwindled. The cheers from whatever Lorian’s family was doing faded behind the brick buildings.
“Your parents were introducing Bea and Prince Zaahir to the public,” Missus Sharma explained. “I’ve heard that your father asked for them personally to come on a special matter. Apparently, there’re two Visatorre who can jump in a special way. I don’t know too much about it, I was out getting groceries. Such a maelstrom of news. Lucia, dear, how have you managed to keep hidden for so long? With all these officers about, I was sure they were to find you.”
They passed a hidden cafe with outdoor seating. A few people were dining out. Two officers lurked in the alley.
Lorian ducked down her head and continued on before speaking. “It’s not safe here,” she whispered.
“Oh, yes,” Missus Sharma said, downcast. “Of course, yes.”
Lorian’s guilt ate at her with every step they took. From Missus Sharma’s bad back to the little ones to Aida’s legs, they had to walk at a snail’s pace, making her fill deeply with regret and almost shame. Shame for running away, for lying, for endangering Aida and hurting Missus Sharma’s feelings all at once. She’d hoped to have more time to sort this out, but reality had crashed down around her and she was left to pick up the pieces she’d broken.
She only wished Aida would’ve said something. Anything. No questions, no utterance. Somehow, that hurt the worst, knowing how confused and distrustful she must’ve felt yet not being able to speak openly about it.
Missus Sharma’s wealth from the crown showed in her house: a three-story tall cottage with a large yard surrounded by a stone wall that looked to be from the Classical Era. The brick was overtaken by vines and a giant lemon tree that grew behind the house like its shadow. The delicate flowers Lorian often associated with her nursemaid bloomed around the cottage, spotting it with natural color and warmth.
“Here we are,” Missus Sharma said, lifting up her heavy dress. “Please do mind the mess, your Highness. I would’ve cleaned up if I’d known I’d be having company.”
“It’s quite alright,” Lorian said. The “mess” came from the front lawn. When she unlocked the gate to her carriage driveway, hula hoops and play swords were scattered across the lawn. Both Onti and Chrissie looked away like they weren’t to blame.
As they all travelled towards the house, Aida stood back by the iron gates, like a phantom unable to pass a certain entry point.
“It’s okay.” Lorian reached out to her. “You can trust her. She was my nursemaid from before. She’s kind.”
One of Aida’s eyebrows arched, questioning her.
“Please. If you can’t trust me, I understand, but trust her. She’s a good person who won’t hurt us.”
Aida pressed her lips together in a tight line, unconvinced yet still challenging her to prove her wrong.
To test her, Lorian kept her hand out, pleading with her eyes.
Aida shifted her cane from one hand to the other. Then she said, “Your name.”
Lorian only nodded.
“Which is it?” she clarified. “Which do you prefer? Lucia or Lorian?”
“Oh.” She dropped her hand. She never expected that foul name to leave Aida’s lips. It didn’t sound right. “Lorian.”
“As a girl? Or a boy?” She looked away. “Or something else?”
“I don’t know,” she said honestly, “but not Lucia. That’s not me anymore.” She bowed. “I’m sorry, but I have no more secrets to hide from you. That was my last, worst, most protected secret, and now I have nothing left to hide from you. I’m stupid and impulsive and don’t think my actions through, but all I want to do now is prove that I’m trying to be better, and stronger. I want to be a better person, and that starts with leaving that life behind. I’m sorry I ruined your trust, and I’m sorry my actions have led us here. It was unfair to you, and for that”—she bowed—“I deeply apologize.”
Aida kept staring at her. And staring. And Lorian was realizing how much power this one girl had over her. Everything she thought about her dictated her worth. She had been a princess meant to rule in the most powerful ally Roma had, and this girl held more authority over her with a simple stare.
“Okay.” She handed her horse’s reins to Lorian, then walked over the grass to meet with Missus Sharma, who was patiently waiting for them on the porch with her children.
Lorian watched her leave, everything unsaid building in her heart with how much she wanted to hug her and thank her and tell her how extraordinary she was for accepting a bastard like her. She tied up the horses alongside Missus Sharma’s, a shy smile barely able to push through her trembling lips.
Missus Sharma’s cottage had just as much clutter on the inside as it did on the outside. Vegetables lay abandoned in iron pots on the counter. More toys, scattered, stuffed between the couches and underneath rugs. A few candles had been lit in the kitchen area, but a generous amount of light came in from the front windows, which held potted plants of basil and herbs, pie tins, and a baker’s dozen of muffins set out to cool.
A woman was sitting in a well-used sofa chair, reading an even more well-used book. When she went to greet Missus Sharma and saw Lorian instead, she gasped. “My word, would you look at that.”
“Iris, darling, put the tea kettle back on the stove for me,” Missus Sharma said. She shuffled around them, touching Aida’s shoulders and making her flinch. “Aida, Lucia, go sit in the living room. Chrissie, put away your treats in the proper cabinets, Onti, make sure you put away your shoes.”
“I always do,” he whined, and launched his two boots towards the front door.
“Please don’t run about for our sakes,” Lorian said, worrying what Aida would think about the treatment.
“Oh, Lucia, sit, please. You poor thing.” She took Lorian’s officer jacket and began folding it. “I have so many questions for you, Lucia. I’m so confused.”
“She doesn’t go by Lucia anymore.”
They pulled back.
“The name’s Lorian now,” Aida said. “Not that other name.”
Lorian wet her lips again, more unease spreading through her.
Missus Sharma inhaled, a hand to her breast, then exhaled slowly with a pained expression on her face. “Oh. Yes, I…Forgive me. Yes, I do remember you mentioning something like that a few weeks before you left. My apologies, Your Highness.”
“And it’s not Your Highness anymore,” Aida continued. “It’s just Lorian.”
“Oh…” Less enthused with that answer, Missus Sharma went into the kitchen and helped bring out refreshments.
With formalities out of the way and out the window, Aida flopped down next to Lorian with a groan.
“Are you alright?” Lorian asked.
“Yeah. Sore, but I’ll manage.”
“That’s good. I mean, better. I mean…” She gulped. “Thank you,” she whispered, “for understanding.”
“Oh, we’ll talk about that later, don’t you worry,” she said, but Lorian didn’t hear any malice left in her voice. She wondered if it was from a change of heart or Aida’s sickness catching up to her. Even though she said she was fine, Lorian saw the tiredness in her multi-colored eyes, the sway of her head indicating that she needed more sleep. It looked infected, that eye.
Iris came back with a plate of tea and some crackers she’d expertly laid out in a half-circle. “Here you are, baby. My, if I thought I’d be hosting guests, especially you, I would’ve dolled myself up.”
She looked beautiful in Lorian’s eyes. She was Aldaían, with dark skin, wrinkled eyes, and her coil hair pulled up with a headscarf seen often in Aldaí. Lorian hadn’t recalled Missus Sharma talking about any relatives from Aldaí. She’d thought she lived alone.
Missus Sharma came in with Chrissie and Onti on her heels. They all sat together on one side of the living room with Iris in her chair and the little ones by Missus Sharma’s. The table between them felt like a river.
“It’s a great honor to finally meet you,” Iris said, breaking the tension. “My name is Iris, but you can call me Mi’Sharma, uh…”
“Just Lorian is fine, and this’s Aida Mirko, my…friend.”
Aida side-eyed her.
“How did I meet you in the Roman Plaza?” asked Missus Sharma. “You’ve been gone nearly two months. Where were you?”
“I was with her,” Lorian said, and after taking a cup of tea, she explained her summer away from home.
The children soon grew bored and took to the floor to play with crayons and hidden toys under the rug, but Missus Sharma and Mi’Sharma were as engaged as if they were hearing a fairytale for the first time. Lorian could see how someone could be enrapt by her story, but she didn’t feel hopeful about her story having a happy ending. From the moment she escaped her wedding, all she felt from thereon after was nothing but dread. Every day she feared Carmine coming for her. And he had, and she’d just barely escaped only for her name and face to be back in the public eye for them to judge.
When she finished, Missus Sharma began fanning herself. “Goodness gracious.”
“I was just about to say,” added Mi’Sharma.
“I’m deeply sorry for all the heartache I must’ve caused,” Lorian said. “How are my mother and father?”
“I don’t know personally, Your—” She paused. “The day after you ran away, I was fired from my position under the crown.”
Lorian sat up. “They fired you? How could they? You were with my mother before Bea and I were born, they couldn’t—”
“Unfortunately, with Beatrice now living in Bělico and you leaving us, they had no choice. I was ready to leave as soon as your wedding day was coming up, I just thought it’d be under better circumstances.”
“She worked for them for nearly twenty-five years,” Mi’Sharma grumbled. “I wanted to walk right up those palace steps and give them a piece of my mind, I did.”
“I had no place there without Lucia and Beatrice trotting up and down the halls. They thought my time had been served. It’s no problem, though. Mi’Sharma here tends to the animals out back and sells goat milk to get us by, and I’ve saved most of my earnings from my time as your nursemaid, so we’ll be able to get by peacefully.”
That guilt returned and slapped Lorian good upside the head. She couldn’t imagine the Roman Palace without Missus Sharma doing the laundry, baking pastries, making sure Lorian was cared for the way a mother would.
“And so,” Missus Sharma said, “Carmine—excuse me, the Constable—is now looking for you, because of this woman and her partner, and how they’re…you?”
“It sounds very nonsensical, I’m aware, but both of us have witnessed it. She—Future Aida—she jumps about like a rabbit through time, able to carry herself without faltering or injuring herself, clothes and all. She said we had a mighty task to undertake in our near future, one that will shape the lives of both Visatorre and non-Visatorre alike. But now that we’re here, I feel more lost than I was two months ago.”
“Well, you’re more than welcome to stay here for as long as you’d like.”
“No buts about it,” she interrupted. “I lost you once, and I’ve lost Beatrice to that awful man from Bělico. I won’t lose you again.”
Lorian’s jaw strained to tell her otherwise, but what was she to do, now that she was an even more sought-after target? “Thank you,” she said.
“Of course. Onti, Chrissie, is that okay with you? These two older kids are going to stay with us for a while, okay?”
Onti pressed his Visatorre marking into the table corner. “Is it true you’re a king?”
“No, he’s a prince,” Chrissie corrected.
“I’m neither, actually,” Lorian said with a chuckle. “A pageboy, if anything.”
“Pageboys are lame!” Onti said. “My brother was a pageboy before he died and it was lame.”
“Onti, hush now,” Missus Sharma said. “Please forgive him. He does mean well.”
“Who are they, if I may ask?” Lorian asked. “Are they your children?”
“Oh, yes. I adopted them from off the streets years and years ago. And this’s Iris, my partner. We met almost thirty years ago when she was visiting from Aldaí.”
“Really?” Lorian said. “I’ve…never known. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
“It wasn’t good for servants to talk about their family life when not prompted, Your Highness.”
Lorian almost bent over with how much guilt she was now carrying. Had she never asked Missus Sharma about her family life? Ever? She’d assumed she lived by herself, she never once brought up her family life. How rude of her.
“But we know all about you,” Mi’Sharma said. “Cara here has told us countless stories about you and your sister since the two of you were smaller than little Onti here. You’re practically family as is, like you’re my little godchild. N-not that I’d impose such a title on you, Your Highness! Er, Lorian. Sir—Miss—” She covered her face. “Golly me, I’ve never been in the presence of royalty before. I’m not as equipped as Cara is.”
“Please, don’t think of me so highly,” Lorian said. “Most of that is in my past now. And it’s a pleasure to meet you all. Aida, this’s—”
“I know,” she said flatly.
Lorian faked a smile. “Uh, please excuse me, but would you mind if I spoke to Aida privately for a moment?”
“Of course,” Missus Sharma said. “We’ll have to make accommodations for you two. Iris, can you help me bring down some blankets?”
Instead of staying in the living room, Aida left outside towards the backyard. She closed the screen door but not the main one, leaving it ajar for Lorian to follow.
Outside was the mighty tree that craned over the roof of the house, along with a small garden, a stone walkway, and a chicken coop built against the house. Near what Lorian believed to be the washroom and laundry room was a small goat barn with a tiny pasture for them to graze in with an even smaller pond where two ducks swam.
Aida found a hammock built against the tree and one of its smaller saplings and hopped in. Her feet dangled above the grass.
“May I?” Lorian asked.
She stared at her tiredly, then tried scooting to make room. She kept sliding into the middle.
Lorian got in next to her. Their hips touched. She pretended not to notice as much as she did.
“So,” Aida started, “escaped-princess-turned-officer-turned-criminal.”
Lorian added it up. “Throw in ‘runaway fiancée’ and you should be good.”
“Wow,” she drawled out. “What a troublemaker you are.”
“Unfortunately. Are you sure you’re alright? You seem different.”
She blinked slowly. “I think something’s wrong with my head. When you were talking back there, and when we were walking through the streets, I don’t know, but my head seemed clouded, like I can’t concentrate like I normally can. It’s been like this ever since I saw the Colosseum for some reason.”
“I’m sure it’s just a temporary haze because of your jump. You’ll feel better after a few day’s rest.”
She didn’t look optimistic. “By the way, uh, you’re married?” she then asked, “to the prince of Aldaí?”
“Technically, he’s my fiancé.” She showed off her ringless hand. “I’d only met Zaahir a handful of times during parties and country meetings I had to pretend to be interested in. I didn’t know him at all. It’s why I left. They wanted me to be sent off to his country to bear his children. I wasn’t doing that. My country’s here, and my choice deserved to be heard.”
“Way to stick it to your father.”
“We’ve never seen eye to eye.” She smiled as a memory tickled her brain. “I got the idea from that opera, of all things. My family visited the theater quite frequently, and I grew very accustomed to their vitality. You know En Tempore Rose.”
“Oh, I have no idea what that is,” she said, “it’s only my favorite opera based on the book series that I clung to since I was six. Pinnacle, the Red Dragon, the Goddess Sempre and her beautiful, long, blond hair. I know that bitch like the back of my hand.”
“Have you gone to see it?”
“Not the official one, but there used to be live performances in Bělico. My sisters played two of the snowflake dancers. Visatorre aren’t allowed in the theater.”
“You really are a royal heir, ain’t ya? We’re not allowed into a ‘professional’ setting, else we might cause ‘risk’ to the performance spectacle. It’s not a rule that’s set in stone, but most bigoted people don’t want to see a Visatorre jump in the middle of the performance and get startled.”
“Oh.” She laced her fingers in her lap.
“So,” Aida said, “how did En Tempore Rose change your life?”
“Right. So, you know how the main boy—”
“Pinnacle. Pinnacle Pescatore. A fifteen-year-old emotionless bastard when the book starts but a twenty-three-year-old considerate God when the book series ends.”
“Right. So, towards the end of the opera, Pinnacle is faced with a decision: to hop on the dragon’s back and leave the island he’s been struggling to leave for months, or stay with the Goddess.”
“You know, in the book, both he and the Goddess hop on Red Dragon’s back only for the Goddess to tell Pinnacle that he’d just gained part of his humanity back and disappears, and he spends the next five books earning each piece: friendship, family, love, community, death, and sense of self. His whole journey about regaining his humanity is summed up in a two-hour opera. But yes, go on, continue.”
Lorian chuckled at her passion. “Yes, yes, I’m a fake fan, but in the opera, he wields a sword, and looked so much like a gladiator from the Classical Era.”
“Don’t even get me started with that technical inaccuracy.”
“Oh, I won’t, not now, but the way Pinnacle held himself, I always saw myself as him in that moment. I want to be something more—I wish so badly to be a knight and to slay the dragon atop the mountain—but I’m chained to the ground, unable to reach what I want. That’s why I wanted to be an officer. I wanted to be a gladiator.”
“I love the, uh, what’s her name.” Aida’s foot tapped in the air as she thought. “What on Earth’s the Goddess’ name? Why can’t I remember—Sempre,” she said suddenly. “Fuck, I’d just said that, too. Anyway, she’s always given this long, beautiful hair that the ballerina has to work with. Usually the performers keep their hair tight in buns and gel, but she’s supposed to stand out. They often keep it braided down her back.” She played with one of her braids. “I always thought that was beautiful, but it was always hard for me to braid my braids down my back, so I always do them down my front.”
“Well, they look beautiful regardless.”
Aida stuck out her tongue and stared into the grass.
“I mean it, they do.”
“And what, am I supposed to give you a compliment in return?”
“It’s not manda—”
“I like,” she said, freezing Lorian, “that you were able to run away. I’m glad you didn’t let yourself get married to someone you didn’t like.”
Lorian settled more comfortably next to her. “Thank you.”
“’Cause I know it must’ve been hard for you, and all.” She fiddled with her hands. “It’s not like your compliment, but, you know…”
Lorian smiled. She never thought she’d see Aida so nervous. It was cute.
“We should go see it,” Aida then said, “the play, when we’re not running from the law.”
“We will,” Lorian promised, and cleared her throat. “It’s a date.”
Aida lifted her leg onto the hammock. “Yeah, I’ll sit next to the Constable, you with your family. Beatrice, yeah? That sister who you probably have no qualms with.”
“Oh, absolutely none. We’re the perfect siblings.”
“And Prince Zaahir.”
“Perfect,” she said, and fell back into the hammock.
She squinted through the lemon tree branches. “Uh-oh.”
“Stop ‘uh-ohing’. What is it?”
She pointed above her.
On the highest branch hung Aida’s stolen bag.