Beatrice’s time in Roma had been, as she knew it would be, dull. Incredibly boorish, and sluggish, and utterly, utterly dull.
It wasn’t as if she was unprepared for this. In Bělico, her husband took control of most of the country and her life. This included all of the duties, the meetings. Every strategic conference he had with his men in furs was for him, “not for women,” and she’d given up arguing with him about it. She’d tried it for the first year of their marriage, and after broken mirrors and a threat to push him down the main stairwell, she’d found it pointless and left him be.
During such conferences, her husband, her parents, and the royal sect from Aldaí argued and bickered about what to do about her sibling and her new girlfriend, and she stayed perfectly silent throughout it all.
“I believe we should bring more of Constable Carmine’s officers into the city,” one advisor argued. “We should elongate their shifts long into the night and double the number of men in the morning.”
Beatrice breathed harshly through her nose. As soon as he said, “double,” the room erupted in an unwelcome barrage of disagreement. They were in a circular conference room with a large chandelier above them lit with about a million candles. They’d melted down over the course of this five-hour yelling contest.
Beatrice had broken the rules and invited Nina to the meeting. She was currently underneath the table, sleeping in the folds of her yellow dress and using Beatrice’s foot as a pillow. Beatrice’s leg had gone numb an hour ago.
“We should add more of an incentive for the commonwealth to find these two hooligans,” said Dmitri. “I can hire a platoon of some of my most famous spies to look into this matter and be done with it.”
“We shouldn’t force any commonwealth to the work of its sovereign,” Zaahir said, trying to raise his voice to match that of Dimitri. Poor lad had big shoes to fill in the wake of his mother. She was ill, getting on in her years, and couldn’t make the journey here. Beatrice knew what it felt like to be the youngest in a room of sweaty, old men. She couldn’t imagine trying to be an equal at their table. “We should find them swiftly with the condensed version of His Majesty’s officer force and sweep the countryside for them. They couldn’t have gone far, and we can only assume they’re still here in the country.”
Like she suspected, her father’s advisors dismissed him by not even addressing his concerns. He was a prince, not a king.
“We should work on solving this issue as soon as possible, so it’ll do well by us to increase officers around the main districts of Roma City.”
“It’s been days since this woman has humiliated our officers,” said one advisor, and turned to Carmine, who’s been keeping upright with a hand on his fourth coffee that evening. She saw the tiredness in his eyes and the way he was trying not to slump in his chair. “Carmine has been run ragged trying to deal with this woman.”
“She seems attached to him,” another advisor said. “Could it be that the arrival has something to do with him?”
“She hasn’t given me anything to suspect that her intentions rely solely on me,” Carmine said, reading over his papers. “From what we’ve gathered, it seems that she becomes lethargic the more times she jumps in succession. She doesn’t seem to have a goal in mind when it comes to these pranks.”
“Calling them pranks is a little demeaning to the real threat she pulls for us. Don’t you think?”
“And what threat is that?” asked Zaahir, rather boldly. “Fact is, she hasn’t done anything blatantly wrong, has she?”
“Both of these people have attacked our leading Constable, who is considered Her Majesty’s right-hand man,” one advisor said. “It’s a very serious offense punishable by death.”
Beatrice rolled her eyes. She didn’t know how her parents didn’t realize that these drawings of “Lorian” were really their own child, just wearing different clothes with her hair cut. Even she knew that.
“Regardless of that,” Carmine said. “Not to put aside this offense, which we are still looking into, I believe we still have the case of Lucia’s disappearance to discuss.”
The room’s atmosphere shifted.
“I know we have many challenging decisions to put our full focuses into at this time, but I know that many of us in the room as well as the commonwealth are concerned about Lucia’s wellbeing and where she can be. If we can somehow find her, that might bring the morale we need in order to push our workforce into finding out the reasons behind this introduction into future Visatorres.”
The advisors, instead of arguing immediately, mumbled to one another, covering their mouths and thinking over the possibility of putting a person’s life ahead of the persecution of the innocent.
Then the king sat up and placed his fists on the table.
The room went deadly silent. Carmine dropped his cup of coffee. Zaahir pressed his back into his seat. Beatrice, who was thinking about dropping her cheek into her hand, sat up to act respectful.
Her father had aged ten years since she’d last seen him at Lorian’s wedding. His dark hair had gone more grey, and he hadn’t smiled, even when Beatrice had come back. During the wedding, while tormented about Lorian’s behavior—she’d locked herself up in her room, even when Zaahir had been introduced to the ballroom—he seemed at least content for the union and for Lorian’s future happiness.
“Happiness,” as if Lorian hadn’t been bawling her eyes out days, weeks prior, begging desperately for their father to change his mind. She’d witnessed her several outbursts from threats of abdication to even threats against her own life. Their mother was supportive, but their father was the king.
Beatrice had known. Despite everything her sister had said, Beatrice had always known Lorian better than anyone else. She’d just wished Lorian had known this before she escaped. It was her biggest regret in her life.
“What about Queen Beatrice?” her father said.
She looked up to her mother, who was silent against the word of her husband.
“What is your stance on the matter?” he asked her. “What do you think we should do? Should we put more efforts into stopping this Visatorre, or should we focus on finding Lucia?”
Zaahir and his advisors looked up in alarm, his knights casting confused looks at each other. Even Dmitri seemed to want to say something, but he was on King Durante’s land. He couldn’t be too outspoken.
Beatrice sat back. “Why would you ever want to hear my opinion on the matter?”
Her answer set him aback, as well as her mother and the rest of the room. Her mother gasped. Her father leaned in with an angry, quizzical look. She’d said the wrong thing.
Good. Finally put some spice into this godforsaken stalemate of an argument they had going.
Dmitri, who was slouching next to her, sprung up. “Y-Your Majesties. I apologize for my wife’s disagreeable attitude she’s had for the past few days. She’s tired, you see, from the long journey here.”
“She isn’t tired,” her father said dismissively, then, “This meeting is adjourned. Tomorrow morning, I will come up with new and revised plans for these two future Visatorre. We will put them in their place, once in for all. That is all.”
At that, the forty or so advisors shuffled their papers, thanked or ignored the advisors to their lefts and rights, and got up to leave. Her father’s top advisors and leaguemen talked with him before they left, but from that deep-set scowl, he wasn’t in the mood to talk, and they soon caught on and left him to his thoughts.
Beatrice slowly eased her daughter into her arms as she went to carry her to bed. One of her guards offered his assistance. The exchange barely awoke Nina as she drooled onto the man’s fur.
Dmitri caught up with her and almost went for her arm. “What were you thinking?” he whispered. “Do you have any idea what that kind of remark made on me?”
“I answered honestly, and honestly, I don’t wish to continue this conversation in the presence of so many ears.” She eyed a small man who was pretending not to overhear. He ducked his head out of the room as if he hadn’t caught a sniff of a royal marital fallout.
“You can’t keep acting like this in front of so many people,” Dmitri said. “It’s unbecoming, unladylike, and damn well unprofessional. Just because they’re your parents doesn’t mean you can continue to act like a child.”
Beatrice blew out her cheeks. Nina was a child, she who had a bedtime and loved sweets more than vegetables. Beatrice was only twenty-three and yet she was both barred from speaking out of turn while also expecting to cater to everyone’s expectations of her. She’d tried this set-up back when she was younger, forgetting herself to become more like her docile mother, but after having Nina and living through a mess of a marriage with Dimitri, she hardly cared about how people treated her nowadays, so long as she got to do what she wanted.
Before he scolded her any more, Carmine and her mother broke away from her father’s eyes and had rounded around the table to address her. Whenever her father was in one of his moods, Carmine often played the surrogate of her father. It’d been years since they acted this way, but when she and Lorian were younger, he’d take them on trips, go flower-picking with them, teach them new songs during their music lessons and sneak them desserts well after their bedtime. He was older now and it was difficult to see where that caring man went, but right now, she saw a glimpse of what used to be.
“Good evening, Your Highness,” Carmine said with a bow. “I apologize for disrupting you tonight.”
“Why did you give such a careless answer?” her mother asked. “Is something the matter?”
It wasn’t that she didn’t care, she just knew after countless attempts to be heard that giving an honest answer wouldn’t be worth the hassle of the men. She assumed this was cowardly, and it probably was. “I apologize. I’m quite tired from my journey here.”
Her mother’s worried frown grew creases on her forehead. She never had those before. “Darling, if anything’s bothering you…”
Just then, the king walked by, swarmed by men writing down notes on scrolls.
Her mother looked away, hands folded in front. Carmine bit his cheek before averting his gaze in a bow.
Beatrice and her father exchanged a wordless look to one another, saying both nothing and everything. Their eyes weren’t even the same; his dark eyes hadn’t tainted her emerald green. She inherited them from her mother, as well as her compassion and humanity.
The king scoffed and turned away, and Beatrice almost smiled at her triumph. She’d won.
Her mother looked back up, almost ashamed for speaking with her own daughter. “If there’s anything troubling you, please, talk to me in my study. It’s difficult to bring up a one-on-one conversation right now with all that’s going on, but in there, we can talk more.”
“In her study.” Code for, “Away from your father, the only place we can speak openly without fear of disturbing his Royal Majesty.”
Figuring she was being genuine, Beatrice nodded. “Thank you.”
The corner of her mouth raised, though her eyes still seemed pained. “Thank you. You’re well otherwise, aren’t you? I’m sorry we haven’t spoken much this past week. It’s been such a relief to see you again.”
“I’ve been as well as ever,” she said. “How have you been?”
She just smiled and tilted her head a little to the side. Her long, beautiful hair waterfalled off of her shoulders, almost reaching her knees. “Well as ever,” she repeated.
“That’s good. And you, Constable Carmine?”
He smirked at the use of the formal phrasing. “I’m quite well, Your Majesty, thank you for asking.”
“You don’t seem it,” Beatrice wanted to say, but both adults seemed a thousand kilometers away, overthinking more important issues Carmine had tried to raise during the conference.
“Your Majesty,” he said to her mother, “would you like me to escort you to your room?”
“Yes, please,” she said urgently. “I’ve been beginning to feel rather faint.”
“Then let’s not dally. Your Majesty.” He gave Beatrice another bow, which Beatrice replicated, before taking off with her mother down the hall.
Beatrice watched them go, wondering if she’d take her mother up on her offer, when she saw her father down the opposite hall, staring at her. He mouthed two words: “Come here.”
She wouldn’t have gone if not for her husband. If she insulted him, it would reflect badly on the country of Bělico. And Roma, technically, as she still shared their blood. And it would be a mockery to the king himself, and she knew he wouldn’t take kindly to that. She feared what would happen to Nina if she continued this bout of betrayal.
So, lifting up her dress, she obeyed and went to her father.
Later that evening, Beatrice, exhausted, fled to her balcony and locked herself on the little crescent of gated space to starwatch.
A strip of trees separated her from the royal gates, but still, five stories high, she saw enough. She saw the hills rising and dipping with the curve of the Earth, carrying with them hundreds of houses and municipality buildings. She saw the Colosseum, so close that she could see the individual fires flicker between passing guards. She saw the ancient pillars holding up nothing. She saw everything she could’ve been ruling.
She tried to flex her fingers, but they still hurt. Ten slashes, five on each open hand. The skin had sliced open upon the second strike, and one missed strike had opened her ring fingers to painful slashes that hurt whenever she gripped anything. The nurse on call had cleaned and bandaged them up to prevent any infection, and she was told to keep her gloves on for the remainder of her stay. Nobody would think twice about a Queen wearing gloves, but those who knew Roman customs would decipher that she’d been punished for acting out of turn.
Carmine had knocked on her door earlier that night and asked if everything was alright.
“Everything is as it should,” she’d said, and Carmine immediately looked at her gloved hands. If he’d appeared tired that morning, he looked positively dead that evening.
She hid her hands. “I’m alright, I promise.”
“Do you need any medicine, or new bandages?”
Too common this punishment was given to Lorian for her misbehavior. Beatrice never often got it, unless she’d been with Lorian the moment a vase shattered or rug stained. Still, Carmine was as familiar with the hidden hands as she was, a secret only the royal family knew about.
“No,” Beatrice said. “Thank you, but I’m well prepared.”
Even though she’d said that to help ease his worries, that sentence struck a cord in his heart. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Do you wish for me to leave it be?”
“Yes,” she said honestly, and away he went.
She would sleep out here, wouldn’t she, on the balcony, truly alone? Her husband was sleeping in a separate room as requested, and Nina had finally fallen asleep in Beatrice’s bed. Unlike Beatrice, Nina had grown up in Bělico. Now, Beatrice was reminded of how uncomfortable the Roman beds were, with their fluffy beds of feathers and not fur. It was cold out here, but nothing to keep her from spending the night here.
Someone knocked on her door again. She grated her chin and cheek against the railing. “Yeah?” she called out.
“My apologies, Your Highness,” her guard behind the door said. “Prince Zaahir Lahlou of Aldaí is here. He wishes to speak with you. Do you wish for him to enter?”
She hid her hands behind her back. “He may.”
Zaahir came in cautiously like he wasn’t supposed to step foot in this room. And he wasn’t. If either of their fathers caught them, they’d receive more than a few slashes to their palms. How shameful, how sensational for two royal heirs to be found together at night. No, their officers knew, as did Zaahir’s knights, or knight. Tonight, Kadar was, as always, right by his Prince’s side. Instead of waiting outside like Beatrice’s stationed officer, he came in with his royal monarch.
The officer made a face and checked that Beatrice was okay with this.
She assured him with a raised hand, and he shut the door.
She met with her guests at the balcony door, slouching against the golden finish. “Welcome, Your Royal Highness.”
Zaahir smirked only for a beat, then looked down. “How’re your hands?”
She took off her gloves with her teeth. She wasn’t able to stretch her fingers due to the pain, but she tried, squinting through it.
Kadar looked away. Zaahir grimaced. “I apologize. Here.” He pulled out a glass vial from one of his tunic’s inner pockets. Its label read the Aldaían word for “Nectar.” “I’m sorry it took so long to get it to you. I had a lengthy conversation with your father tonight. He had me positively fuming.”
“Just fuming?” She popped the cork and downed the honey-like substance greedily. It was a special elixir made from a golden beetle found only in Aldaí. It was meant to soothe bodily pain as well as get the person incredibly, irresponsibly high.
After downing half the bottle, Beatrice handed it off to Zaahir, who took a sip before passing it off to Kadar. He finished all but a mouthful of it underneath his headscarf.
“This sucks,” Beatrice lamented, finally able to vent.
“I know.” Zaahir slouched with her. “Not that you need to be made aware of this, but your father’s becoming more and more aggressive. His decision-making isn’t clear. He’s becoming unstable.”
“He wasn’t always like this. Or rather, less like this. Lorian’s disappearance is obviously affecting him. What in the fuck are we going to do? They’re looking for Lorian and Lucia when they’re both the same person. Not to mention this Aida person who came out of nowhere from Bělico. And, if we’re to use common sense, of which this whole idea has none, this girl Aida and this adult Aida are the same person, just meeting each other at the same time, which’s never happened before.”
“We need to make contact with Lorian. I was thinking of ways to call her out.”
Beatrice quickly switched over to the new name. In her head, she’d been calling her by what she’d grown up as, but saying her old name just felt out of place. “Everything Lorian ever cared for she’d taken with her a few months ago, and that wasn’t a lot.”
“Do you think she’s still in Roma? It’s been a week since your officers found a lead on them at that woman’s cottage, and it’s been a few days since they saw…” He paused. “What do we even call them?”
“I’m partial to doppelgangers,” Beatrice said.
Zaahir looked to Kadar.
“I’ve heard the term ‘future selves’ get passed around in the halls,” he said. “It’s what the servants have been calling them as well as the leading officials, amongst other derogatory names.”
“Your lead Constable said he believed only this Aida girl could travel forwards,” Zaahir said. “Is Lorian now suddenly a traveller?”
“I think it’s something else.” She sighed. “I don’t know. If they want us to know, they’d make a statement. Right now, they’re acting like fools and ruining both the royal and Visatorre names.” She tried outstretching her hands. “They’re acting like children. They’re not making progress.”
“That we know of. I’m sorry. Do they hurt that badly?”
She cast a hateful look at the nearest wall, narrowing in on where she thought her husband was sleeping. “You better make a better king than both of these men combined.”
“I’m trying my best. Here.” He offered her his hand. “Do you want to take a walk, take your mind off things?”
Fresh air was what she’d been trying to get all night, but she was still stifled in this palace. This place only held her mother, Carmine, and bad memories and punishments unjustly given to her for defending Lorian’s actions.
She put back on her gloves. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”