Despite everything in her brain telling her to escape and find a Plan B, Aida had become accustomed to Missus Sharma’s and their set up with their living room couches or, as Mi’Sharma put it, the “Nest.”
What was once a doily-covered home of a nicely furnished house had become a pile of blankets, old food dishes, and books, stacks and stacks of thick books. From being a part of the royal family’s workforce, Missus Sharma had amassed a collection of history texts to make her own mini collection of priceless knowledge that she’d graciously let Aida borrow.
Two days after Carmine had fully searched the home, Aida had read through the thickest texts Missus Sharma owned. Royal lineage spanning back to the end of time, ancient maps with individual house markings. She’d learned Lorian’s full name, something normally kept within the depths of the royal line out of baseless superstition of witches casting spells on a person with their full name. Aida, even though it was in her nature to, kept that knowledge to herself.
She started a new journal not about dead royals, but one that documented her own life. It felt pretentious, but she didn’t write how grandiose her adventures were becoming and how she was changing into a better person. No, she just wrote the minute details. She wrote down the street she grew up on, her mother’s family tree, the first day she remembered as an adopted child to a bullshit family. The number of freckles on Lorian’s nose, Pinnacle’s entire timeline and character growth from book one to book six. She had to reference the books at times, which frightened her—she used to know everything by heart—but she pressed on. She wouldn’t forget her favorite book series if she had all of her notes to look back on. Everything was fine.
It was easier with Eve. Her entire, half-truth life was stored in books. Aida wrote down every single paragraph that held her name in her own words and memorized how the past talked about her. She was “a newly budding royal” when she’d married then Prince Meyeso even though it’d been expected that her older sister was to marry him. She was “licentious,” “rowdy,” “surprisingly intelligent despite her natural upbringing.” This was the way older authors put in their not-so-subtle biases to Visatorre. Now, however, while she knew Eve was intelligent, she didn’t know if “rowdy” was too inaccurate.
Turning the page to the last book she had, she uncovered a new medieval artwork piece of Eve and Meyeso—wildly inaccurate to what she’d seen in the past—alongside two blond-haired royals.
King Julius II and Queen Julia.
“The one who murdered her,” she muttered under her breath, then, looking at the blond-haired woman, “and the one who liked her.”
She paid closer attention to the two women. They were standing next to one another, their husbands farther off, coupling them. Their hands were out, palms facing the viewer, but their two pinkie fingers were touching, almost as if they were meant to be holding hands, and they had on those matching blue bracelets that looked familiar.
Aida kept reading. Underneath the picture, the author made a note saying that this artwork was seen in poor taste, as it depicted both queens in “unfavorable suggestion.” It was found in the Catacombs because of this, a place where “unfavorable” beings lived, and seemed to be in mint condition.
“Whoa,” Aida breathed out. She’d known the Catacombs themselves were ancient art pieces preserved in time, but she hadn’t known people had kept artwork down there. Paintings, etchings made into the manmade tunnels. She flipped the page and found an assortment of statues, broken vases, and beautiful stairwells she hadn’t known existed. They weren’t in any history books she’d read.
If they had all this hidden in the Catacombs, what else was buried down there?
Aida touched where the two women connected, wondering what type of relationship they had, how they did it.
And why the fuck was it so hard for her to reciprocate the same feelings? Lorian had outright declared her feelings to her. What was she supposed to do with that information? Reject her? Accept her? You couldn’t say, “We’ll see about that,” because that obviously sounded like a refusal and it’d hurt Lorian’s feelings. She equated it to her acceptance to Durante Academy. Everyone wanted to hear a, “Yes,” nobody wanted a, “No,” and hearing a, “We’ll see,” was no doubt the worst answer one could receive.
She didn’t know how she felt about Lorian. She liked her, yes. She liked being around her and liked her thought process and how she treated her. But that was the same with Missus and Mi’Sharma and with Eve, though she hadn’t formally met the latter. At what point did appreciation for a person become a romance? In novels, it happened so quickly, and Aida didn’t know if this was too fast for her liking. She just wanted…
She wanted to meet Eve again. She felt like she could teach her a lot on this topic.
Running herself into the ground, Aida fell back into her chair. After slouching for six hours, she couldn’t take her back and leg pain, but she didn’t want to stop researching. Her mind was just somewhat broken. She lifted her bad leg and gave it a good stretch.
She slammed her thigh down and flattened out her dress.
Lorian came out of the kitchen. She and the kids had been fiddling around on the second floor. Somehow, she was a natural with kids. She kept them busy while Missus and Mi’Sharma tended to the house or the animals. She played jacks and hide-and-go-seek with them without looking or acting embarrassed. Aida was impressed, as she didn’t think Lorian had much experience with children. Maybe she was just generally a good person.
“Onti and Chrissie and I are making sugar bread,” Lorian said. “They wanted to know if you’d like to join us.”
To check, Aida looked into the kitchen. Around the wooden column, the two kids had their noses up against the counter, their bags of flour and sugar ready, watching to see what Aida would say.
“Huh,” she drawled. “Sugar bread, huh?”
“Yes. It’s a traditional Roman dessert.”
“I’ve had it. Where do you think the sugar is grown, Aldaí?”
She expected her to laugh. She didn’t, just continued smiling down at her. “Of course. Do you like it?”
“Why don’t you ask the question you want to ask,” Aida said, “because despite those kids being cute, I don’t think they were the ones to think about inviting me to make bread.”
“Ah.” Lorian smiled, showing off the dimples that only came out when she smiled genuinely. “Then, Miss Mirko, may I cordially and personally invite you to our exclusive bread-making event as my admired plus one?”
“There we are. What happened to being upfront with me? You know I have a problem with that.”
“I apologize. I’m still learning when not to lie.”
“Yeah, I bet.” She nudged her in the hip, wondering when she’d become this affectionate with someone. It felt like it was mandatory with where they were in their “relationship,” but it didn’t feel that forced. “Come on, then. Bread takes hours to prove, it’s a horrible thing to wait on.”
“You do have to admit, it’s quite fun.”
“I wouldn’t know. My parents never trusted me to cook with fire. One wrong travel and the gas would be going on for hours unattended or I’d let the ingredients spoil. And you talk as if you’ve spent your days cooking for yourself.”
“Hey, I’m very well competent in cooking for myself. How do you think I made extra meals for myself when my father sent me away from the dinner table?”
“What, were you caught playing with your food?”
“More like threatening abdication and calling him a coward for not addressing important election concerns for Roman officials.”
Onti climbed up to his chair. “What does abdication mean?”
“It means she wanted to stop being addressed as a royal kid,” Aida explained, and put on one of Missus Sharma’s spare aprons. “Can’t blame her for wanting that.”
“So it’s true,” Chrissie said. “You’re a real prince—” She winced. “Prince? Princess? Mama said not to talk about it, but if you were a princess, that’d be really cool.””
“I suppose it would be,” Lorian said. “I was a princess, but I don’t know if that lifestyle is right for me. You, on the other hand, would make a remarkable princess.”
“I would?” Chrissie asked, eyes wide.
“Of course. Some girls are born to be princesses. I wasn’t meant to be like that.”
Aida watched her for any pained expression about her past, then helped her find a way out of the difficult conversation. “You can be the princess of Siina.”
“What’s Siina?” Chrissie asked.
“Oh, don’t get her started,” Lorian warned, but Aida was already ready to give a dissertation on the subject.
“Siina was a city-state in Roma almost 1,200 years ago. A city-state is a city surrounded by an entire other state. It was a place where hundreds of thousands of Visatorre lived peacefully under two Visatorre leaders, King Meyeso and Queen Eve.”
“What happened to it?” Onti asked, slowly stopping his kneading to listen to the story. “I’ve never heard of this before.”
“We don’t know for sure what happened, as it’s never taught in schools, but it’s believed that Eve and all of her people were murdered by the Roman king for murdering his queen. I don’t believe that’s true, so it’s up to us to find out what really happened to her and avenge her.”
“You’d make a great queen,” Lorian said as Chrissie listened passionately to this fairytale story. “What color dress would you wear?”
“Oh, a pink one! Like Mo’mma’s nightgown!”
“And I wanna wear a cape!” said Onti. “A red cape with lion fur at the end.”
Aida pretended that she was less interested to know what color any particular dress was when she could learn more about the person’s past, but seeing how much Chrissie was suddenly interested in this side of history, it was nice knowing she’d helped with that. She didn’t know where her love for history had sparked, but if Chrissie found it in dresses and wanting to be a princess or a queen, Aida let it be.
In all honesty, she loved dresses as much as any other little girl.
Cooking was by far less work than she’d imagined. At home, she avoided the kitchen because at least one of her family members would’ve been in the vicinity, and at the Academy, she was given three meals a day, nothing of significant taste or finery to make her interested in cooking, or baking.
Missus Sharma had graciously given them free rein of the kitchen. The wooden table provided them with wide space to knead the dough well. The light was poor, but a warm shine of sunlight had broken through the windows, heating up the room and making everything smell earthy, cozy.
“Can we make them into shapes?” Chrissie asked. “I want mine to be moons and stars.”
“Have you ever had bread in funny little shapes?” Lorian asked as she pounded her dough into an oval. Aida worked hers alongside her.
“We can try,” Onti said. “I wanna make mine into blue birds. They’re my favorite kind of bird.”
“I wanna make mine into a palace,” Chrissie said, and each child carefully crafted their bread shapes that would most definitely not resemble either of their dreams.
“I found another illustration of Eve,” Aida mentioned to Lorian. “Those things are few and far between. It’s in the Catacombs near the Roman palace.”
“Why did they ever think to hang up art in such a place?” Lorian asked. She folded her piece of dough and transported it into a wooden bowl. Chrissie, too excited for the next step, dumped too much sugar into her bowl and began pounding it with two hands.
“I’m not afraid of it,” Aida said. “I know the history of them and not stupid enough to graffiti down there like all the guttersnipes who sneak in there. I want to find more…” She squeezed the air in front of her. “Shit.”
“Hey!” Onti said.
“Stuff,” Aida corrected, then addressed Lorian specifically because she realized this wasn’t a conversation for a ten- and seven-year-old. “My jump gave me more information on Eve than dozens of books I’ve read on her. I feel like if I follow more in her footsteps, I’ll be able to find out this secret history the crown is keeping from us. And who knows, maybe this’s what our stupid future selves wanted us to do. It makes the most sense, don’t it?”
“You’re so passionate about this woman.”
“I’m…” She thought about it. “I am. Yeah. What, is that—?”
“It’s not weird,” Lorian said. “I just wish I had more to offer you. I feel like, because of my upbringing, I should have more secrets to uncover for you, but I was never interested in our history. I wanted to get away from it.”
“I can’t get over that you have no juicy secrets to tell me.”
“There’s honestly not a lot of secrets about the royal—”
Aida eye-rolled at her.
“—that I know of,” she added. “That I know of, and ones that’re not obvious to the public.”
“You’re part of the family, you dumbass,” she said through a smile. “Think of what we could’ve done, what we could’ve dismantled with your information. I still don’t believe you. I’ll break you. I’ll find everything out.”
“I really don’t know any. Trust me, if I did, I’d tell you. Like how I can tell you how most officers have spouses even though it’s technically forbidden, or about my mother’s interest in pastry decorating even though it’s uncouth of her to enter the kitchens.”
“It makes sense. She’s always been interested in humble lives.”
“Or about my sister’s incessant disinterest in our family matters.”
“Again, it makes sense. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her smile in any portraits. I can only assume you were close.”
“Well, we were twins. Are.” She set their bread in a cabinet to let it prove. “She was never one to smile or be engaging with anyone outside of the family. Or inside the family.”
“I can relate,” Aida said. “Sister’s are the worst.”
“Hey, Chrissie’s a good sister!” Onti exclaimed.
Aida disregarded them with a hand wave.
“But,” Lorian said with a finger to her chin, “before I left, I stole my fair share of inheritance money, jewels, and keys from my bank account.”
“What?” Aida asked.
“Along with my signet ring and skeleton key, I also broke out all the Lyria I kept from my bank account—”
“Forget about money. Keys.” She pressed Lorian up against the wall. “What keys do you have?”
Lorian smiled nervously at her. “Uh, well, it’s just…one key.”
“Lorian,” she said exasperatedly.
“It’s just one key because it’s a skeleton key. It’s what our parents gave us to let us wander around the palace without officers. It doesn’t open all the doors in the palace, but it’s—” Lorian quickly looked down at Aida’s lips, then gulped. “I-it can’t open my parent’s room or the war rooms, but the chapels, the galleries, the pace of arms, and entrances to the Colosseum and the Catacombs, they’re all able to be open.”
Aida almost screamed. “You have a key to the Catacombs!” she said, cutting straight to the chase and slapping her bad knee. “Damn you, well played, Lorian! If I’d known that stupid key could unlock all the secrets about Eve, I would’ve stolen it days ago! Where is it?”
“Right here.” She carefully undid one button on her shirt and took out a long necklace with a horse whistle, signet ring, and skeleton key attached at the end.
Aida reached up for it. “Let’s go, then! Now! Tonight!”
“Wait a moment.” Lorian covered the key and kept it close to her chest.
“What now? Lorian, thousands of Visatorre are buried down there, and there’s secret art and probably dungeons that’ll give us more information on Eve. Come on, you want us to follow in our future selves footsteps, don’t you? What if this’s what it’s leading us to?”
“Don’t ‘Aida’ me. We need to change the fates of all Visatorre, don’t we? Why not the place where it all seemed to end?” She began shaking, she was so excited. “We can do this, Lorian. We can find out the truths. Together.”
“But we can’t.” Looking over to the children eyeing them questioningly, Lorian took Aida into the living room and their Nest. She sat her down. “We can’t jump into this too soon.”
“Why not?” Aida argued. “I agree that we should plan this out—maybe wait a few nights—but we’ve been here for almost a week. We can make a plan, test it out. We can find Eve’s secrets, come on.”
“I don’t know. We shouldn’t be going out in public too often.”
“We aren’t, it’ll be dark. You know officers don’t often make rounds at dark, especially on doors they only expect royals to be using.”
“But Alessio said that officers know our faces. We can’t be reckless like we were near the—”
“Lorian,” she interrupted, “if going into the Catacombs means itching this fucking curious tick in my brain, I want it itched. Please. For me.”
Lorian pursed her lips, reading Aida’s unblinking, determined stare.
Aida tapped out her nerves. So many ideas and plans were forming, all she needed was Lorian’s agreement. She couldn’t do what she was planning to do alone, and she didn’t know why, but she felt like she needed Lorian by her side. It just made sense that way.
Her eyes went wide. “I’ll kiss you.”
Lorian let that sit for a beat. “Pardon me?”
“If you come to the Catacombs with me, I’ll kiss you. I’ll take your concerns to heart and plan this out thoroughly, but if you come with me, I’ll kiss you. On the lips,” she added, the juicy cherry on top. “Once we get there, of course.”
Lorian pressed her lips in a hesitant line, then looked off to the side, seriously considering her new offer.
Aida leaned into her, as if to get closer to her working brain. Intimacy was something most people craved, and while she wasn’t one to touch others right away, she took Lorian’s warm, sweaty hand and pressed it to her cheek. “Please,” she begged, “for me.”
Lorian stared down at her. Her fingers carefully cupped the fullness of Aida’s cheek like she couldn’t help herself and fondled the baby hairs around her ear. “O-okay,” she said. “I’ll go with you. We’ll find the answers to your questions.” She pulled out her key and gave it to her. “Together.”
“Together,” she agreed, and got to work on the mission to the Catacombs.