Chapter XVI: Nighttime Highs

Missus Sharma continuously told them that moving in wasn’t a big deal and that they didn’t have to worry about it.

It was a big deal, and Aida was very worried about it.

A family, actually caring for your wellbeing, asking if you’ve eaten enough or if they could do anything to help. A family, being kind? She’d never heard of it. She had to keep her guard up, waiting for Missus and Mi’Sharma to betray her in some way. It’d been three days and nobody had hurt or crossed her, but still, she waited, waited for someone to double-cross her.

By adding two new people and two new mouths to their home, Missus and Mi’Sharma had completely redone their home. They’d rearranged furniture, kept the fires going for longer. They didn’t have a spare bedroom for them to hog and Onti and Chrissie had a child’s bunk bed that would’ve fit neither Aida nor Lorian.

So she and Lorian, for the time being, occupied the living room near the patio doors. They had enough light and space to call their own, but Aida didn’t like the idea of someone peering in and watching her sleep. Knowing she wasn’t in the position to voice her concern, she took the time to fasten the curtains shut whenever they slept.

With permission from Missus Sharma, Aida and Lorian took the couches and pushed them together to form one bed. They didn’t know why they’d done this, but after the first night of sleeping separately, they mutually agreed on Together Couches. From this setup, she found out that she didn’t hate sleeping with someone. In fact, knowing Lorian was close to her made her sleep better.

She didn’t know why.

Missus and Mi’Sharma worked twice as hard to make sure Aida and Lorian were fed. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and those two women were making meals as if Lorian was still a royal kid. Porridge and biscuits, toast and homemade jam, fresh fruit from the nearby market and frosted pastries that made Aida’s mouth water.

And she didn’t know how, but these two women cut their own firewood. Aida had tried to cut wood back at home, but it always threw out her back and made her bad leg numb.

After three days, Lorian discovered that these grandmothers were chopping their own wood and offered to help.

“Oh, Lorian, sweetheart, don’t even think it,” Missus Sharma said. “Go back inside, dear. I’ll be done with this in a second.”

“I don’t mind.” She unbuttoned her jacket and hung it up on a nearby rake, exposing her shoulders and upper chest. “I’d love to take out some tension in my back.”

“Oh, dear, no.”

“You don’t think I can do it? You put so little faith in me, Missus Sharma!”

“Oh, it’s not that, love.” She handed her the axe. “Do be careful.”

Aida watched her. Secretly, of course, with her nose hovering above the windowsill. Without Lorian’s uniform and the corset she wore—Aida hadn’t known she wore one—she saw the curves and dips of her hips, the gestures that might’ve marked her as a princess as she split the wood in one strike. Sweat jumped off of her curly bangs as she worked.

She had a tattoo on her upper forearm. It looked like she’d done it herself, tiny stars and moons like a child’s doodles. Aida knew from her studies that the royal family wasn’t allowed to have tattoos, but it wasn’t surprising to know that Lorian had somehow inked one onto her rebellious, royal body.

Aida still couldn’t believe that she was the lost heir, and that she wasn’t dead in some ditch somewhere or kidnapped. She was so normal, so utterly normal in a way Aida favored, yet her mannerisms could’ve marked her as upper class. Her speech, the way she held herself while sitting.

Aida didn’t know if she should’ve changed what she called her. She never flinched when Missus Sharma accidentally called her “Your Highness” or said her old name, but Lorian had asked her never to call her that. She’d honor the simple yet important request for the time being.

She kept watching, perplexed, until Missus Sharma came over to dust the window Aida was peeping through. Aida excused herself and helped Chrissie clean out the fireplace.

Despite working harder for Aida and Lorian, Missus and Mi’Sharma gave them no chores to work on. They offered, and sometimes, the two women let them work, but what sucked the most was that Aida kept forgetting what to do and where to go. She was especially having difficulty remembering Chrissie’s and Onti’s names. She didn’t know why it was difficult for her to remember that Chrissie was the girl and Onti was the boy. She blamed it on both of their names ending in the same sound, but she knew that something had permanently messed up her brain. She had trouble concentrating and remembering. She kept forgetting where the living room was around the corner.

So, she kept repeating the things she struggled with over and over, relearning. She wouldn’t lose her mind to her powers. She just couldn’t.

Lorian didn’t seem to mind their sleeping arrangements. She must’ve acclimated herself to moving around at a moment’s notice, whether it be for crown-related business or from her time running away. She seemed pleasantly pleased with everything now that she had a small part of her family back.

Aida sat on her back, the most comfortable position for her bad legs, smoking a spliff. Lorian, after making herself some tea, took a seat beside her. Wearing just a tank top and baggy pants with her hair down, she looked very at ease, very cozy.

“Do you smoke Nectar every night?” Lorian asked.

“It keeps me calm. How’d you smoke it and get away with it in the palace?”

“I drank it.”

“Raw?”

“It was cooked, so the smell and effect was diluted and you could have it with meals without suspicion. It was helpful that it looked like regular honey. Zaahir gave us a good supply of it.”

“The Aldaí prince,” she stated. “Your fiancé.”

“Don’t say it like that, but yes. Turns out most royalty needs to calm down every now and again with some illegal substances. Legal, in his case. It’s recreational there.” 

“Maybe you should’ve gotten married off to him just so you could get high every night.” Aida offered her her spliff.

She took it and relaxed with her.

“So,” Aida said, “can I finally ask how the king and queen are behind closed doors?”

Lorian took another inhale. “What do you think of them?”

“They’re cowards.”

She coughed in laughter. ”I still can’t believe how frank you are with them.”

“What? It’s true. They’ve been in a wreck ever since you died, or ran away, I guess. You hardly see them in public, they never give out any formal decrees. There’s been no interaction between them and Bělico or Aldaí, none until our future selves came into the picture. They’re just like King Julius II. God.” She pushed back her bangs. “We need to find out why everything got so fucked. The day I travelled back, everything was so different. Visatorre and non-Visatorre were mingling with each other like friends, and their jumps were so different, like it didn’t hurt them. And Eve.” She flew up her hand. “What a queen.”

Lorian hiked up her legs, getting even more comfortable. “I can’t go back to royal life. I’ll have to marry Zaahir and be his wife. I’ll be swiped up into the monarchy again, used as a pawn for my parents’ greed. I know it’s selfish of me.”

Aida sat up. “Just because I like Eve doesn’t mean I expect you to become a queen like her. You aren’t obligated to do anything your parents force you to do. You’re your own person, so if you want to be an officer and live with your grandma, then fine. They shouldn’t be able to stop you, even if they’re royal.”

Lorian went to argue but stopped herself. Her eyes looked different tonight. The softness of her emerald green eyes shimmered against the fireplace she’d lit a few hours prior. The glow warmed her hair like a halo around her angular face.

“What do you think,” Lorian then started, “about your jump?”

“What about it?”

“To jump so far, and with the arrival of our future selves, do you think they’re connected?”

She blinked. They probably were, and she was upset that she hadn’t thought of that sooner. First she jumped a millennium back to meet Eve, the woman she’d idolized for years, then she met her future self who knew everything in advance, indicating that Aida and Lorian had something grand for the world.

She held her head. A headache began forming behind her eyes. She took a drag to calm it down.

“Are you alright?”

“No. I just think that jump really fucked me up. I thought the pain would’ve gone by now, but it hasn’t.”

“I’m sorry.”

Her headache panged. “I hate when people say that. When it’s not their fault for someone’s feelings. You didn’t do anything to hurt me.”

“I believe people say it because they’re sorry for someone they like feeling anything other than happiness.”

“Well, I’m never happy, so you’re gonna have to be saying that often.”

She smiled. “Is that a challenge?”

“No, it’s a threat.”

Lorian just laughed and licked her lips.

Aida’s brain hurt in a new way. She didn’t understand what Lorian was doing. This wasn’t the Lorian she’d come to tolerate. She seemed so carefree tonight, like they hadn’t been through the weirdest week in Roman history. She was…at peace, here, with Lorian.

Aida stared up at her, neck craned over her pillow, spliff teetering out of her mouth.

“Yes?” Lorian asked.

“How come you have a tattoo?”

She touched the underside of her arm. “When did you see that?”

“Answer the question first.”

She smirked down at her. “I’d asked for one on my sixteenth birthday. When I didn’t get what I wanted, I destroyed a priceless painting of my great-grandmother and gave myself one.”

“A bit of a brat, ain’t ya?”

“A bit?”

She tried containing her smile. Maybe they had even more in common than she’d already thought. “What’re we gonna do now?” she asked. “Live here? Stay in hiding? I don’t want that. I want to learn more about this side of Eve and this Julia person she was so close to. I’d never read that she and the queen were that close. And she had an heir. Can you believe that? They must’ve killed it, the assholes.”

“What about our future selves? They said we had to do something to protect Visatorre history.”

“Those future selves can go jump off the Roman cliffs.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Why not? Why do we have to listen to ourselves—or us? Fuck. Okay.” She sat up to make her point clear. “For all we know, they could be some type of trickster gods, or demons. They could be shapeshifting into us. Like, do I seem like I’m my future self?”

“I very much believe I’m my future self. Back in your dorm room, they’d called me out, saying I was Lucia. They wouldn’t have known that if they weren’t me.”

“But if they’re all-knowing gods, they would know that about you, yeah? And if they really wanted to be helpful about the future, wouldn’t they just tell us what we have to do? And if Future Aida can whip people around in the present, why hasn’t she done so with us? Just plop us where we have to go to learn or accomplish whatever we have to do? Why string us along like dogs?”

“I do see your point.”

“I don’t think they’re us. Not ‘us’ us, not in this timeline. I think they’re either demons or some type of other universe version of us, bent on making us fail at something important.”

“I hope we see them again to put that to the test.”

“Put those words back into your mouth, I swear to god.”

Lorian chuckled again and, taking a long inhale from her spliff, relaxed on her part of the couch. They were wide cushions filled with wool and feathers, making them almost as good as mattresses.

But she didn’t sit beside Aida. Normally, at least. Getting comfortable underneath her blanket, Lorian sat backwards, her feet by Aida’s head, her head near Aida’s feet.

“Is this how royals sleep?” Aida asked.

“No. I thought sleeping side by side would make things…uncomfortable.”

“I guess,” she said, but she didn’t know why it would be. “You know, you don’t have to treat me like a maiden. I’m not the type of girl who swooned over you at the palace.”

“Not many girls swooned over me,” Lorian said, and before Aida could comment, she added, “though I wish they did.”

Her ears piqued. “Did you now?”

“Yes. It would’ve made my father even more furious with me. At once, I neither wanted to marry a man nor intended on marrying one.”

Outside, the crickets seemed to chirp louder than when Lorian sat down. Aida pretended to keep calm, but really her mind was reeling. “So you like girls?” she asked directly.

“Of sorts,” she said. “I seem to be attracted to most people, but girls always seem to catch my attention.”

“What’s your type?”

“Short,” she said instantly, “with a strong personality to rival my own. I like passionate and strong-willed people. I never met a lot of them like that while in the Palace, so I’m very much drawn to that type of girl. Looks also play a big factor.”

Aida exhaled in relief. She almost had something to worry about. “Then, I guess if we’re being extremely and uncomfortably open with our feelings tonight, the same goes for me.”

Lorian’s couch shifted.

“I-I guess,” she added quickly. “I’ve never been into hormones or fretting over if she likes me or if he likes me. It’s never been on my mind, though I suppose, if I were to ever settle for someone, it would be the same for me. I think.”

Lorian was looking at her now, arms crossed to hold up her head. She tilted her head, cheek against her knuckles. “Never?”

She met her eyes. “Never. And don’t convince me that it’ll happen one day because I spent all of my teenage years waiting for it. I tried everything. I read romance novels, I watched plays about young, beautiful people falling in young, beautiful love. I’ve even tried it out to see what I was missing.”

“How bold.”

“I know, and it never happened. Once again, Circa fucks me over for no reason at all.”

“You know, if we’re taking the whole world into account, there’s more than one God.”

“I only prefer Circa.”

“Goddess of time,” she mused.

“Goddess of Visatorre,” Aida corrected. “Back in the day back when people actually devoted their lives to the Gods instead of just whispering their names under their breath, Visatorre only recognized Circa. Tympos and Ukrei were considered the non-Visatorres’ Gods and not part of the culture.”

“If that’s the case, you don’t seem to favor your God.”

“I greatly dislike many of her choices for me.”

“Well.” Lorian lay on her back, arms crossed behind her head. “I favor them if it meant I ended up meeting you.”

Aida’s nervousness fluttered dormant feelings in her. “Pardon?”

“If the Gods control fate, then they helped me meet you. It’s true, you’re unlike many of the women I’ve met, but that’s not a bad thing. They all act like dolls, all perfect and pristine and always kissing up to me and my parents. And who could blame them? It earned them advantages to be fake. But ever since I met you back in that library, I knew you were different.”

“What, because I read? Newsflash, Your Highness, but a lot of girls like to read.”

“That’s not what I meant. I meant you, throwing your cane at the Constable. I meant you, staying so strong despite the world constantly fucking you over. You challenge me, Aida, and that’s something no man or woman has ever done before.” She laughed. “Goodness, you’re so guarded. Take a flirty compliment when you get one.”

Aida gawked up at the ceiling. Compliment? Where had she given her a compliment? She’d just accused her of being odd, and she heard that enough times at home and around Durante Academy to know that was true. And she wasn’t guarded. She never held anything back and she always spoke her mind. But flirting? No, no way. When, and why? Why her?

Not that people couldn’t. Good for them for trying. She even encouraged it at times. When she’d spent most of her days without speaking to a single living soul, she sometimes pictured a person by her side. Being married to them and cooking for them. Having a child with them or finding one to have like Missus and Mi’Sharma. But she’d also pictured a cat in this scenario, though she surmised that having a person did have its charm.

She supposed.

She covered her mouth as her brain shamefully went against her will and imagined such a thing. Her, having a person like Lorian. Sleeping on one couch instead of two. Maybe the same bed when neither of them were high and they just enjoyed being near each other. Having sex.

She hated it. She wanted to stitch herself up and keep that discomfort out. She was born different, she couldn’t give Lorian all the things she wanted. Why was she doing this to her? And why was she insinuating that she wanted to pursue her? Nobody pursued her, who would?

“Anyway,” Lorian said, rolling over. “I’m gonna turn in for the night. Goodnight.”

“…Night?” she said in a question. While she too was tired, Lorian had left her with more questions today than ever, and she believed they had much more to talk about.

But the words slipped away. Night settled in around them, and the time to question Lorian’s wording faded into the next morning.

;;

They woke up to the smell of sausages and eggs and the sound of bacon popping in a skillet. Mi’Sharma was skilled with cooking and often took over the morning and evening meals. Missus Sharma was readying the children for school, tidying their uniforms to some thirty-kid school for Visatorre. Aida knew they existed, just not in Bělico. There, most Visatorre either dropped out or didn’t enroll due to bullying or peer-pressure, and they were forced to keep working the land or find an apprenticeship for an old farm couple.

“Is there anything I can help with?” Lorian asked. She’d dressed and cleaned herself for the day. Aida was still waking up in the bathroom mirror.

“Oh, dear, sit down. Chrissie and Onti will be heading off to school in—Goodness, now! Off, you two, hurry, or you’ll miss roll!”

“Wait!” Mi’Sharma swung around her skillet and divided her eggs onto two plates. Chrissie and Onti gobbled them down as politely as two hurrying children could.

Aida hid her amusement by braiding her hair. Normally, her sisters would hog up the bathroom for hours and force her to get ready in her room with her hand mirror. She’d never started the morning off warmly, with a family not yelling at each other for stupid reasons. This family, she decided, was pretty alright.

Someone knocked on the door. Lorian, who was closest to the windows, went to go answer it.

Then she froze mid-stride.

Aida exited the bathroom, brandishing her cane as a sudden weapon.

Lorian gulped. “It’s Carmine,” she said. “He found us.”

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