Onti covered his mouth to keep from yelping, but the fear in his eyes showed that he couldn’t hold it in. When Carmine ordered that they open the door, he shrieked through his fingers and jumped right out of the kitchen, clothes thrown off of his body in shock.
Lorian would’ve stayed frozen like a deer to a huntsman’s dog if not for Aida. After announcing the arrival of Carmine’s carriage, Aida yanked her back and kept her in the shadows of the bathroom.
Powerful knocks hit the front door. “Queen’s Officer Constable Carmine present. May I speak with whomever is in charge of the household?”
Missus Sharma, who was trying to help Mi’Sharma with dishes, turned slowly to the door. “One moment, please!” she called out, then whispered to them, “Come with me.”
She led them to a cellar door etched into the floorboards. It wasn’t covered by any rugs or furniture, but without knowing it was there, it must’ve been difficult to find. Lorian hadn’t seen it, so most officers probably wouldn’t. To be safe, she quickly grabbed her rapier to defend them.
“Go down the stairs,” Missus Sharma whispered. “Hide in the boiler room. When they leave, either Mi’Sharma or myself will come get you. If you hear footsteps coming down and you don’t hear us calling for you, I need you to stay hidden. Do you understand?”
Lorian felt Aida grip her cane like a weapon behind her. While Lorian loved Missus Sharma and shared a connection with her from the palace, she knew Aida didn’t share that sentiment. To her, this place was probably as good as their secret den underneath the barn, maybe even less so.
Lorian kissed Missus Sharma’s cheeks. “Thank you.”
“In and out,” Missus Sharma promised. “I won’t keep him for long.”
“Quickly,” Mi’Sharma said, looking between them and the front door.
When they closed the cellar door and started down the stairs, Aida whispered under her breath, “We’re screwed, we’re screwed, we’re screwed.”
“It’s not an ideal situation,” Lorian said.
“Really, it’s not? We’re cornered.”
“We’ll find a way out.”
The basement was small, with bales of hay alongside animal supplies and an old chicken coop no longer in use, and the boiler room. It could’ve been a decent hiding place if they needed a moment to hide, but could Missus Sharma keep Carmine from coming down here? Would she have to fight him for a second—well, third—time?
As Lorian pondered over her possibilities, Aida was already beelining to the back door. She listened through the screen, then poked her head out the windows to scan the outside.
The sound of men’s footsteps creaked above them. A muffled voice asked someone a series of stern questions.
“Our horses are still up there,” Aida whispered.
“I know. Hopefully my horse knows not to recognize Carmine.”
“How would a horse recognize an officer?”
“Well, aside from being an accomplice to many, many of my wrongdoings, Carmine did train her as a foal.”
Aida, who was trying to unlock the door, stopped what she was doing and stared into the wall, processing that. “Wait, she’s your royal horse? Like, bred in the palace?”
“Like a totally trackable, well-known, stupid horse that Carmine would easily detect? Are you serious?”
“Hey, don’t call her stupid. You’re going to apologize to her when we go back up.”
“If she’s still there when we come back.”
“Are we going somewhere?”
Aida unlocked the door. “If you think I’m staying trapped in another basement where we can get cornered, you have another thing coming.”
A white fence encased the backyard and separated it from the front. They both knew to walk on the grass and hide in the shade of the tree. Lorian helped Aida over the hip-length fence, as she had trouble getting her legs over. They both kept looking over to the house, but only the living room and Chrissie’s and Onti’s bedroom windows overlooked the gardens. Lorian kept her eyes forwards.
Not much of a “forest” grew behind Missus Sharma’s home. The trees were sparse and held pockets of daisies and mushrooms growing around the roots. Half a minute of exploration and they came out on the other side. Stone walls and old, ancient architecture made up a wall blocking one side of the street. There were no horses or carriages or carts, but down the way were pedestrians going about their morning routines. If they were wearing any cloaks to disguise themselves, disappearing into the morning crowds would’ve been a sure way to keep concealed.
As Aida walked around an upturned root, she stumbled and bumped into Lorian’s shoulder. “Sorry.”
“No need to be sorry,” Lorian said, but the butterflies in her stomach spoke louder than her lie. “You’re quite clumsy, aren’t you?”
“Well.” She wiggled her cane out in front of her, then tapped the thick heel of her shoe.
“No matter. I don’t mind.” She offered her her arm. “May I?”
“I shouldn’t. One might think we’re two lovers out on a mid-morning stroll, and we’re supposed to be wanted criminals, are we not?”
They looked over to the less crowded part of the street.
“I mean, the farther we go, the better,” Aida said, reading Lorian’s mind.
“Let’s go down here,” Lorian said, and helped her off the stone wall by taking her hand. “It should be less crowded this way.”
Down that very way, the clopping of horse hooves caught Lorian’s attention. The gait was unmistakable, but Lorian still checked regardless, as did Aida, and she saw a lone officer patrolling the busier street.
“Shit,” Aida cursed, though a devious smile was curling on her lips telling Lorian that, if they didn’t leave quick enough, she’d likely mess with him in ways they didn’t need now.
“Let’s run,” Lorian whispered, and both of them ducked down the alley.
They merged onto an open pavilion that hugged the eastern cliffside. Here, there was a small fountain with a sculpture of Circa in the center, a cobbler, and a bookstore. In the distance of the bright blue waves, you could almost see the outline of the country of Aldaí. As a child, Lorian would make up lies and say she could see the white flags of the Aldaín palace. She and her sister and mother would take trips to their private shoreline to splash and frolic without a care in the world. They hadn’t gone in some time, and now, the threat of Aldaí being so close to take her away frightened her.
With that threat gone, Aida let down her guard and strolled over to the bookstore. She went to it like she was commanded to, eyes in a soft glaze as she eyed the books on display. Many of them had gilded edges or were signed by the author themselves, others came in box sets with beautifully illustrated boxes. Aida’s eyes fell on one particular box set—the six-book box set of En Tempore Rose. With its childish lettering and comically red dragon soaring across the side, it looked a bit juvenile, but it was in the storefront for a reason. It’d captivated readers of all ages for the past seventy-five years. The box set even boasted that each book had the author’s signature.
Aida’s eyes sparkled as she looked at the building itself, feeling up the grooves of the stone like a map.
“We shouldn’t go in,” Lorian advised. “We’re too noticeable.”
“I know that.”
“But do you want it? The box set?”
She looked down at the price tag. “No.”
“Because I have the money.”
“And I have my pride.”
Lorian remembered the first night she and Aida had spent together, all the hours she’d blessed Lorian with with the explanation of her favorite stories. “Aida, can you tell me the story of Pinnacle Isle again? The full story of it.”
She pressed her nose to the glass, staring into the eyes of young Pinnacle traversing around the island’s edge. “It’s a story about a boy who wakes up on an island without his memories. Upon finding the island abandoned, he spots a castle at the highest peak of the island. He thinks it a good place to rest, but he finds that a massive dragon is living in the castle that he calls Red Dragon. He hides from Red Dragon and finds two of her babies, Yellow Dragon and Blue Dragon, and with their help, he’s able to reach the top of the castle peak, where he meets the Goddess, Sempre.
“The two don’t see eye to eye at first. Pinnacle is headstrong and is quick to anger, and Sempre is kind and soft-spoken, but after trying to coerce Red Dragon into sparing their lives, they end up forming a bond that cannot be broken by saving Yellow and Blue from a dangerous fall into a cavern. When Red Dragon sees that they’ve saved her children, she allows them passage on her back off the island. But right before they leave, Goddess tells Pinnacle that he’s just gained one part of his humanity back, and she disappears from his life, leaving him in want of friendship.”
“That’s how it goes in the opera,” Lorian said, “more or less.”
“The biggest flaw about the opera is that En Tempore Rose is a sextet. There’re five more books that explore Pinnacle’s life and relationships. Each one unlocks a key aspect of himself in order to win back his humanity. The first book covers friendship, the second family, the third love, the fourth community, the fifth death, and the six, a sense of self, when it’s revealed Pinnacle was actually a God all this time that’d lost his purpose after almost losing Sempre, his soulmate, and was thus demoted to a human.”
Aida closed her eyes. “I always connected with Pinnacle in the first book. He was untrusting, standoffish, he factored in reason and logic with every decision he made. For Circa’s sake, he named a red dragon ‘Red Dragon’ and calls her nothing else for 1,200 pages. But as the books continued and he started learning more about himself, learning to love the Goddess and the people on the separate islands…” She bit her inner cheek. “I don’t know, but I had trouble relating to those parts. It’s like Pinnacle became a whole other person, becoming more outspoken and fun-loving. That’s why I like the first book best. He feels the most like me in that one.”
“I’d like to read it,” Lorian told her, “both the first book and the rest of the series. It sounds interesting.”
“The author’s wife died while he was writing the fourth and fifth book, and I feel like the story took a turn after that, though some people like them.” She sighed. “Lorian, do you think Eve was a good person?”
“Eve. You know. The person I love to the moon and back. Back when I saw her, she was so much…different than what I’d thought she’d be. I’d put so much of her into the way I acted and who I wanted to be, but when I met her she acted so…carefree and young. She acted like my future self. Do you think I painted her in the wrong light like I did with Pinnacle? History says she killed King Julius‘s wife. Do you think that’s true?”
Lorian thought about it before answering, giving Aida the respect of her question. She didn’t have the passion to know everything about her life like Aida had. The thought of her killing someone in Lorian’s own family hundreds of years ago did make her think ill of her. 100,000 innocent people slaughtered, all because of, what she thought was, a rash murder.
Aida scoffed at her silence. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, I was just thinking it over. I know you regard her in a high light. I didn’t want to say anything to upset you.”
Aida put her back against the bookshop. “Why?”
“Why’re you so careful with me? I don’t understand. Do you think I’d break easily?”
“On the contrary. I think you’re incredibly smart and resilient. You think over your options more than I do, you’re booksmart as well as streetsmart. That’s why I don’t want to upset you with something I say off the cuff of my sleeve.”
“But you don’t have to.”
“You want me to upset you?”
“I want you to not think I can’t handle it,” she said bluntly. “No more of this pussyfooting around, worrying about this and that. You’re—”she mouthed the word “royal”—“aren’t you? Surely, you’ve dealt with worse. You’ve escaped a marriage and a toxic living environment. You survived your father. You joined the ranks. It’s not something most people can do. So, keep that energy with me. Fight me if you don’t like my ideas. Argue with me if you think I’m wrong and encourage me in the right direction. If you don’t, then I’ll stay stuck in my own head and end up with the answers only I think are right.”
Lorian’s mouth popped open. In truth, she was being careful with her. How many people had she pushed away due to her mouth, her actions? She didn’t want that with Aida. But how could you be careful with someone like her? She was as sharp as her rapier. If she wanted to be pampered or taken care of, Lorian would do that later. Now, as she was still getting to know Aida, giving her what she needed was best.
Lorian crossed her arms. “Then I think you should put more faith in me, and trust me more as a friend. I’m not going to hurt you. Sometimes, I think you treat me as a pet. Don’t do that.”
“Okay, I won’t. Then tell me things clearly, otherwise I won’t understand.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. And to answer your question, no, I don’t think she killed Queen Julia, because from what you’ve told me, it sounds like she liked her a great deal.”
“So we’re on the same page, then.” She pushed herself off the wall and walked towards the sea. “By the way, I don’t think ‘friends’ say what you said last night,” she muttered as she passed.
Lorian’s face flushed. How bold of Aida to bring that up. She’d barely remembered what she’d said, she’d been so nervous. All she remembered was the intent: to show the slightest hint of interest in a way Aida would like. She’d complimented her, praised her. She never made any physical move on her because of course she didn’t, but even then, had she gone too far?
She followed behind her, blushing heavily.
“Take a flirty compliment when you get one.”
She might’ve not known what a flirty compliment sounded like. Lorian liked playing around with her friends with flirty comebacks. She’d have to be more direct with her.
“I’ve liked you for a while.”
“I’d like to get to know you more than a friend.”
“I love you.”
She shivered at the last phrase. While she’d liked many people over the years, some knights, some maids, she knew she’d never been in love before. She didn’t even know if she was in love with Aida, she just knew that the dream she had about her last night left her hot and bothered until she washed.
Aida went to the merlons and looked out to sea. The tiny curls around her forehead tickled her thick brows. Lorian had to steel herself from fixing them behind her ear.
She looked down at Aida’s hand, aching to hold it. Her arms were crossed and her fingers were pressed into her forearm. She had moles all across her body, but because of her tights and her long sleeves, Lorian couldn’t see them. Even her braids covered most of her neck and cheeks.
Lorian had seen her naked twice, she knew what she looked like, and despite her inner desires, she didn’t like that. She wanted to earn her secrecy, her body. She wanted to earn her love.
Biting her lower lip, Lorian scuffled in her boots until her shoulder pressed into Aida’s. She barely reached the middle of her forearm, so Lorian leaned down so they—their faces—were closer.
Aida slowly looked over to her, eyes half-lidded not in lust but with irritation, or tiredness.
Or slight intrigue. “What’s this now?”
“You told me to be more direct with you,” she said, “so this’s me being direct.”
“Direct about what? You’re being direct about vagueness.”
Did people their age even say it openly? Could she even go on a date with Aida? Where, the beach? She wouldn’t like that. The library? She’d spend more time with the books than with Lorian.
Lorian licked her lips. “What I said last night, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I just wanted to let you know…where I stood, and shot my shot with you. I told you my feelings,” she said, now shaking, blushing. “That’s all.”
Aida looked back out to the ocean, staring out towards the horizon line. “What am I meant to do with that?”
“Nothing,” she said, then, “Well, when you’re ready, you can give me an answer so I don’t eat myself away wondering how you feel about me.” She cleared her throat. “If you have any feelings for me in the first place.”
“Feelings,” she repeated sarcastically. “Even I don’t know that. Look at me.”
She did. Had been. “What’s wrong with you?”
She threw her head at him and lifted her hand dramatically to point at her Visatorre marking.
“I see it, Aida. I see you, and that has not or will ever dissuade me.”
“You don’t know me.”
“And I’d like to.” An unknowing irritation clung to her voice. “If you don’t like me, Aida, you can say it. You don’t have to toy with me. But if you do like me, or if you want to try something with me, you can. Nothing about the way you look or think will bar me from thinking you’re beautiful.”
She blinked at that, a confused look that stalled her brain. Then she looked back up at Lorian.
Lorian clenched her jaw. What had she said? What was she doing? This was too soon. It wasn’t the right time.
“It’s not like I want to bar myself from anyone,” Aida said. “I told you, I’ve tried falling for people. I just don’t want you to—”
“You don’t want me to what?”
“To get fucked up by me.” She began talking with her hands. “Look, I saw how upset you were when I jumped. I know a lot of what you’re doing right now is because of me. And truthfully, Lorian, I don’t know if I can fall in love. It’s like that switch is turned off in my brain, and I don’t want to betray anything we may or may not have, if we have anything, you know? It’s confusing to put into words,” she ended in a sigh. “I’m sorry.”
The anger that was always so on the surface with Lorian fizzled away at Aida’s apology. “No. Forgive me. I don’t wish to put you in a compromised situation. We can take our time with all of this, see what you can withstand.”
“Don’t put your expectations too high.”
“I’ll be sure to be careful.” Feeling like that came off too hard, Lorian thought to her future self and what she could help inspire in Current Aida. “Here.” She held out her hand. “Back in your dorm room, our future selves were holding hands. Myself said that she can bring people to and fro while touching them. If you’re truly to become her, you can start with a simple handhold.”
“Thanks, but I’m trying everything in my power not to be like her.”
Lorian retracted her hand. She’d promised she’d work with Aida’s pace, she needed to be prepared for this type of rejection and fear.
She clenched and unclenched her empty hand. She hadn’t fallen in love, but she’d just tasted it, and now, unable to reach into it as far as she would’ve liked, it hurt her in a new way she wasn’t prepared for. It was terrible, but she’d at once been given everything she’d never asked for and denied what she wanted most. Now, with Aida, she felt afloat in uncertainty about what she wanted versus what she thought she deserved to have.
Aida owed her nothing, yet Lorian was willing to give her everything.
Aida nudged Lorian with her shoulder, and her soft, plump fingers intertwined with Lorian’s long ones. “I guess I can handle this much,” she said, her cheeks a deep pink.
Lorian’s cheeks hurt from smiling so hard. “I would assume so, but you did go a thousand years into the past a few days ago, so maybe things are more complicated for you.”
“Oh, just like trying to be a monarch was so complicated that you fucked off out of a window?”
She clicked her tongue. “Okay. Touché.”
Lorian’s heart lept over the edge and plunged itself into the waters below. The voice had come from behind them, a sneak attack she wasn’t prepared to meet again.
Alessio was standing behind them. He was armed with his rapier like a true officer, but it was sheathed, and his hair, which usually stuck up with the product he used, was stripped and was now cut a little shorter than it should’ve been.
“Cripes, Lorian.” Alessio checked behind him before running up to them. “Where’ve you been? All the officers in Roma City are looking for you, and you’re, what, having a date with this girl?”
“I have a name,” Aida said.
“I know you do, your names have been making rounds across the entire country. They’re printing posters of you, you know. Have you seen them? I’ve been trying to tear them down, but two more get put in their places.”
“Wouldn’t be a first,” Lorian muttered, then, “Is that so?”
“Don’t act like a snob, you’re in danger. They took me and Matteo and all the other boys out of the campus to scour the streets for you. You’re in serious danger. Do you have a place to stay low?”
“We do. Your horse is also taken care of, too.”
“She better be.” He looked behind him again. “Okay, you two need to leave, now. Every Constable and officer has their sights trained on finding you, or these future selves, or whatever the fuck they are. Do you know what’s going on with that?”
“We’re just as lost as you are,” Aida confessed. “Aida Mirko, by the way.”
He started, then gave a quick bow. “Alessio. Now go, before someone sees you. I can only stick my necks out for you two lovebirds so many times.”
“I’m glad you do it at all,” Lorian said, and raised his fist at him.
Alessio hesitated before crossing his wrist with Lorian’s, their bond frayed, but not torn.