Lorian couldn’t help it: She was absolutely whipped by Aida.
She’d tried to hold onto her wits and dissuade her, but she’d worn her key for a reason. Instead of keeping it hidden in the zip-up pouch within her bag, she’d tied it around her neck, knowing Aida would one day learn that she held the key to every door she wanted open.
She knew this was going to happen, so why did she have the feeling that everything was going to go wrong?
Aida had been right. They couldn’t hide at Missus Sharma’s forever. Knowing Future Aida and Future Lorian, these little pranks around Carmine would only increase. Trickster gods like them didn’t just stop their antics. They’d keep pushing the envelope until something ripped.
“So, does this mean you’re going on a date?”
Lorian covered up Onti’s mouth. “Shh.”
“Do you like her?” Chrissie asked.
The two children had cornered Lorian into receiving an answer. She looked over to Aida reading something furiously only meant to be understood by old scholars. She bit the end of her quill as she reread the pages. When she was like this, her nose scrunched up and eyes intense, Lorian could spend hours watching her, dreaming for the day she’d tell her about her love.
She touched her own chest, rubbed down the fingers that’d held Aida’s soft cheek. Aida had finally touched her, connecting with her. She’d said she’d tried falling for others, never fully completing the pact, but what’d happened between them? Did she like blondes? Did she like more masculine people? More feminine? Did looks matter more to her, or was it more so about the heart, the brain?
Their future selves had held hands. Lorian wondered if she could try again tonight.
Chrissie pulled on Lorian’s sleeve. “So? You like her, don’t you?”
“You held her face,” Onti said. “Only moms and dads do that.”
“She’s a very nice girl,” Lorian said, knowing Aida was too wrapped up in her notes to hear them. “Don’t you like her?”
“Yeah, but you like her in a different way, don’t you?” Onti asked. “You look at her like how Mama and Mo’mma look at each other. That’s totally different.”
“That’s a special kind of love,” Chrissie explained.
Lorian turned back into the kitchen to the two mothers. They were helping each other with the dishes Lorian and Aida had made while making bread. Mi’Sharma got a dollop of bubbles on her ring finger and bopped it on Missus Sharma’s nose, making her giggle.
Lorian clasped her hands together to keep them warm.
Aida was busy working on their plans until midnight. They were planning to leave tonight for a few hours, just to see if they could open some doors. But Lorian didn’t believe that. If Aida didn’t lose feeling in both legs, Lorian would have to pry her out of the Catacombs herself before she decided to leave.
“Okay,” Aida whispered, careful not to wake a sleeping cottage. She took out a map she’d cut out from three books and taped together. The art style varied, but they each gave their distinct views and pathways of the Catacombs. “It’d be wise not to take our horses. Two people walking is more inconspicuous than two horses, one of which is a royal horse.”
“She can just be a horse now,” Lorian said.
“Whatever. Are you ready? I won’t leave unless you’re one-hundred percent with me.”
“Yes, I’m only nervous. I feel like the world is very unstable right now.”
“You can feel the world?”
“No, but…” She tried finding the words. “Back in the Palace, whenever my parents were gone for extended periods of time, I always got this pit in my stomach. Their absence meant they were off in an important meeting or conference that would decide the fate of hundreds, thousands of people. Sometimes, if they were out of the Palace entirely, it meant they were overseas, in charge of the fates of even more people. I don’t know how to describe it, but I have that sinking feeling right now.”
Aida pulled a jacket over her dress and began tying up her boots. “I have the same type of feeling, but it’s the opposite. I feel like if we don’t go now, something bad might happen. I think—” She lowered her voice even more. “I think it might have something to do with Circa. I mean, the trip to meet Eve, me finding these clues about her and Queen Julia in the Catacombs, and you telling me you have the key to unlock all of that? It can’t be a coincidence.”
“I believe you,” she said honestly. This uneasy feeling could’ve been anything—her past coming back to her or the thought of trespassing over royal grounds.
“If you come with me to the Catacombs, I’ll kiss you.”
She got hot all over again. Had she meant that? Would she really kiss her tonight in exchange for this simple yet dangerous favor? And if she’d meant it, would it mean as much to her as it’d mean to Lorian? Did she like her at all? Lorian hadn’t dressed in her best pants, blouse, and dark overcoat for nothing. She wore her good one, too, the one that reached her knees with gold laced into the expensive fabric. No officer would recognize that she’d stolen it from the Palace, as neither princess would be caught wearing such an outfit.
Her mind spun in circles. She focused on helping Aida and tied on her boots. This was important not only to Aida and herself, but for the future. Somewhere in the depths of Roma’s Catacombs, they’d surely find their answers.
“Are you okay with walking?” Lorian asked. “It’s about a forty-minute walk from here.”
“I’ll manage. Once we get there, I want to get a general layout of the entrances and exits. Have you been through a lot of them?”
“Some, yes, but I was very small when Bea and I explored them.”
“Unsupervised? You and Bea?”
“She never enjoyed it as much as I did. Most of the time, I dragged her along with my childish plans.”
“What a criminal.” She tied a small pack to her bag. “Alright, you ready?”
“Let me carry that,” Lorian insisted.
“I got it. Trust me, I’ll hand it off when it starts to irk me, but even then, I ain’t gonna let it bother me now.” She addressed her bad leg. “You hear that, you piece of shit damaged nerve? You’re not ruining this for me.”
Lorian chuckled at her playful tone, but what was she exactly expecting to find? At best, they’d find a dark, damp, empty corridor that’d stretch on for 200 meters before they reached the bones of slaughtered Visatorre. She’d heard the rumors about the place, but seeing the skulls and dusty bones of dead people was something to behold. When she’d first seen it with Beatrice, she was laughing and poking out the eyes of the skulls, testing if they were real or if worms would crawl out. When she’d turned to Beatrice, she’d been crying, and the two ran back up to the Palace before they were found defiling the dead.
Lorian looked up to Aida standing confidently in the moonlight.
She nodded and left for the front door.
The two froze. From all of Lorian’s time running, she’d expected an officer or even, God forbid, her family. Her emotions had been so over the place that her brain expected the worst.
Missus Sharma stood at the bottom of the staircase wearing nothing but her nightgown. She held out a candlestick to witness their departure.
Lorian bowed to her conditionally. “I apologize. Did we wake you?”
“Where are you going?” she asked. “It’s dangerous to go out now, especially when so many of those officers are looking for you.”
A lie was already beginning to form in her head, something about sleeping outside because Aida was more comfortable around the sound and smell of farm animals. Missus Sharma already knew Lorian’s hidden joy of sleeping where she wasn’t supposed to, so it’d make sense to her. But for some reason, seeing Missus Sharma’s worried expression, she couldn’t find it in herself to lie. Breaking, she confessed, “We were—”
“We’re going out to investigate the truth about Eve,” Aida said. “We found something out pertaining to our mission that we need to go investigate.”
“Where is it that you’re going?”
“The Catacombs. Near the Colosseum,” she added when it looked like Missus Sharma was about to protest, “so it’s not far.”
“But that’s near the Palace.”
“We’ll be walking the east side of the Palace, closer to the Colosseum and the pillars and ruins where the overgrown grass will mask our footsteps. We’ll be covered and hidden, and we’ll be back before morning.”
Missus Sharma’s frown deepened, and Lorian couldn’t blame her. She must’ve known both Lorian and Aida didn’t take well to authority. Nobody could tell them to do anything, and once they—Aida—had something on her mind, nobody could stop them. They could only warn them about the dangers of reckless impulsivity.
“I don’t know about this,” Missus Sharma said. “I’ve seen so many officers around the market. I don’t want them to hurt either of you.”
“There won’t be many at night,” Lorian confirmed.
“Trust me,” Aida said. “King Durante rarely assigns officers this late into the night.”
“And most of their shifts end at midnight,” Lorian said, “and it’s usually officers in training, being given the night shifts the higher-ups are too lazy to cover themselves.”
“We’ll be fine,” Aida stressed, “and I appreciate your kindness, Missus Sharma, but we really have to go, and I think time is only going to be against us the longer we waste it. I just have that feeling about that. I think Circa is with us tonight.”
Missus Sharma lowered her candle. The little flame flickered, their tiniest source of light.
“I fear so greatly about you two and all these choices you and your adult lives are making,” she said. “It keeps me up at night how much I worry about you. But…” She gulped. “I don’t think I can stop you from leaving. I think Circa has many great plans for you, and it’s not my right to stop you when she’s giving you strong hints.”
Lorian, who was ready to fight for their right to leave, closed her mouth. She knew her nursemaid was a spiritual person, but she never thought she was this resolved on Circa.
“Thank you,” Aida said. “We won’t be long, for your sake.”
“Thank you. I’ll keep the lights on on the front side of the house. The childrens’ room is on the other side of the house, so they shouldn’t be bothered.” She came over and gave Lorian a big, warm hug. She smelled of her powder and a hint of something flowery. Lorian nestled her face into her, taking her in.
“Be safe,” she whispered.
She turned to Aida. “I have a feeling you don’t take well to hugs.”
“You’d be right.” She held out her hand, and the two of them gave a firm handshake before she and Lorian left on their journey.
The autumn night air had turned Roma chilly and the ground hard and icy, bringing out their breath in puffy clouds. As they left Missus Sharma’s lawn, Aida lit a cigarette to keep herself warm, their only artificial light down the dirt roads winding around the valley.
“Do you want one?” Aida asked.
“No, thank you. It’s bad for my nerves long-term.”
“It’s the opposite for me.”
Lorian looked to an upcoming oak tree around the bend. What a terrible first date, if this was even a date. Back at the Palace, she wasn’t allowed to have any type of interaction with men her own age, and the only courting she had experience with was disgustingly bland meetings with Zaahir surrounded by her guards and his knights. She’d envisioned it, practiced what she’d say to her person during her baths, but deep into the night and she couldn’t find her tongue. Even a joke to offset the uneasiness, it wasn’t there. She had the same problem when she’d first met Aida at the Academy. Maybe she should’ve taken her up on her offer and smoke as much Nectar as she could.
They walked towards the beginning of a stone wall, and Aida pivoted and started walking on top of it. She held out her cane for balance.
“Careful.” Lorian reached for her hand, and she took it. Lorian hated how they were growing farther apart the higher she went.
“I always am,” Aida said. “Now, I’m not one to read the room, but from the vibe you’re giving off, it sounds like you want to say something to me.”
When their hands were about to break apart, the stone wall leveled out back down to earth, and Lorian guided Aida back to her side.
They continued walking. Neither of them let go of the other’s hand.
“Well?” Aida asked.
The blush forming on Lorian’s cheeks spread to her neck. “I don’t want to say anything in fear of messing up what we have.”
“Have you always been such a romantic?”
“I suppose. I’ve read a lot of poems growing up. Some of the etiquette must’ve stuck.”
“That, and you’ve been bred to be a princess one day, dressed like a doll and set to marry a man you’d probably never truly love.”
“It’s why I ran away.”
“And I’m glad you did. If that were me, I would’ve run a long time ago.”
“Because you marrying a man and meant to bear children has been all you ever dreamed of, hasn’t it?”
She gagged, and Lorian laughed, and the comfort she always felt when she was with Aida came to her in a calming wave.
They entered the heart of Roma City on dirt roads and through alleyways, trying to stay as inconspicuous as possible. Lorian only counted three houses with their lights on, and they were far away, up on the hills near the Palace. The Palace itself was coming into view at a staggering pace. When she’d been a princess, she rarely left its cage, and when she did—when she wasn’t escaping like a hooligan—it was in a gold carriage with the windows blacked out or on a ship where she saw nothing but endless ocean.
She walked through the marketplace, down where the meat market met the bakeries that still smelled of fresh dough. Down the way, nearing her family home, she found a hair parlor, a dress shop with magnificent dresses locked away for the night. So much of her people’s lives came from these shops. From the poorest haggler to the richest noble, people walked the streets and continued making Roma a beautiful country with an awful history. From fear of being caught, Lorian kept away from such crowded places, but now, with only Aida by her side, she felt the purpose of the city and its potential for growth and change.
Someone who could run a country would take great care of it. That someone wouldn’t be her.
As they made their way across the main district, they met their target: the ruins. Ruins were everywhere in Roma City, if you knew where to look. Here and there, ancient archways or pieces of school buildings grew from the cobblestone, made only as free accessories to the business country Roma was becoming. But between the city and the Palace, more of this architecture unveiled itself.
Their pathway dipped into the slope. Giant pillars of white stone grew around them, some turning into arches, others crumbling into the air. Guardrails helped keep delinquents like them from climbing to their deaths, and wooden signs had been placed around the corners to warn passerbys of the fragility of the structures around them. The Colosseum was just above them now, hiding the Moon behind its hundreds of arches.
“These were around when Eve was the monarch,” Aida said, hand grazing the stone as she walked. “They say her Palace was built around here. All of this architecture is thought to belong to Roma, but really, this’s all Siina.”
Lorian looked behind her. Conflicting feelings arose, and that moment of pride she had for her country was once again tainted by its bloody history. “Why was her Palace so close to the Roman one?” Lorian asked.
“The true Roman Palace was actually built ten kilometers to the west. After Julia’s murder and the eradication of the Visatorre population, they rebuilt their castle in Siina and took it over. That marketplace we just went through used to be a part of Siina.”
Aida walked over to a sign reminding people that officers would be in the vicinity from dawn until dusk. She read it, huffed, then took out a dark piece of charcoal and began scribbling over it.
“Aida,” Lorian said in a mocking tone. “How dare you? That’s private property.”
“Well, it wasn’t theirs to begin with.” She signed her work with a circle, then paused before adding another circle in it.
“That’s your future self’s marking.”
“I thought you disliked her.”
“I do, but try to meet anyone who doesn’t hate themselves.” Without dissecting that throw-away, detrimental saying, Aida ashed her cigarette into the wall. “Well, where’s the entrance?”
“Aida, do you hate yourself?”
“No, I just said it to be funny. Look, this place is freaking me out, and I wanna go into the Catacombs as soon as possible.”
Lorian searched the grounds, though her mind never left Aida’s thoughts. “The easiest way is down through here, through the eastern side.”
Aida grabbed Lorian’s hand a little too hard and led the way.
It wasn’t as if the entrance was hidden, and it wasn’t like it was guarded twenty-four-seven by armed officers. The precious artwork and bones were seen as worthless or cursed by the people who’d viciously murdered them.
She shivered as she unlocked the unmanned door. It was heavier than the door to her parents’ war room. When she opened it, stone steps led into pitch black.
“We can finally use this.” Aida pulled out a lantern from her bag and lit it with her lighter. “You ready?”
“Not really,” she said honestly, but followed her in regardless.
Lorian couldn’t tell when they left the surface in exchange for the Catacombs. There was the subtle drop in temperature, the dank air akin to a cave on a wet night. Their light barely provided them any help; it was like walking into pure darkness, the only difference being the dark shades indicating a curve in the hall or locked doorway.
Aida stopped walking and inhaled, and Lorian instinctively reached for her rapier. “What’s wrong?”
She shivered again, and the walls closed in on them. Something was watching them. The heavy air became oppressively stifling like it was weighing on her back. She checked behind her just in case a ghost had followed them into this dead end.
Her parents had sugarcoated this place to her in her youth, telling her she wouldn’t find any decaying bodies or hung-up corpses, that it was just a place meant to bury the dead.
Hundreds of skulls had been pushed into the wall until they looked like bricks packed heavily on top of one another. The fillings between each skull: bone fragments and long human femurs lined up so carefully that they looked like doorways to nowhere.
And deep inside every single skull, as if burned into them with a cattle prod, was the thin halo of a Visatorre marking.
The brutal reality stung Lorian’s eyes. Aida had gone on about how this wasn’t her fault, that it was the result of her forefather’s prejudices, but how could she think that now? This was the history her family had created. It was difficult for Visatorre to obtain jobs, go to school, to work for their livelihoods. She could’ve stood up against her father or at least questioned his ruling, but she’d taken the coward’s way out and ran away. All she thought about was herself, a selfish heir to a selfish kingdom.
Aida kept her face stern as she took in skull after skull. Some had been chipped, some were missing parts of their eye sockets or teeth. The shadows catching on the grooves of the skulls’ jawlines made them seem alive, like they were whispering to them as they passed.
Lorian walked up closer to Aida.
“We’re going to change this,” Aida whispered. In the passage, her voice carried.
“How?” Lorian asked.
“We’ll go back in time and fix this.”
“But you can’t do that now.”
“I’ll find a way. We’ll change it so that none of these people will ever be forced down here in unmarked graves. Even if it means…” She swallowed. “Even if the threads of time and fate get so unbelievably knotted and twisted that I don’t come out of it on the other side, I’ll change this God-forsaken timeline. I swear it.”
Behind her eyeglasses, her eyes, which were fixed in the path in front of her, burned with as much hatred as Lorian’s with determination in the words she spoke. She wasn’t simply announcing a new goal out of the many she already had, she was manifesting it into reality. She was going to change the rules of time or die trying.
Towards the end of the hall, they entered a large, echoing foyer that reminded Lorian of the Palace’s wide ballrooms. This room had the fewest number of skulls crudely buried into the stone, and instead had pillars holding up nothing but empty space, carved out steps leading to new parts of the Catacombs that’d fallen apart. As Aida angled her lantern, they found bats hanging upside down from the ceiling. They neighbored the spider webs that colored the domed ceiling a dusty grey.
Aida stepped forth into the room, her boots echoing like thunder. On the wall were her pieces of artwork she’d been researching: a Palace Lorian couldn’t recognize, people in faded paint being carried by birds to the Heavens. They passed a door with iron gates blocking them from passing. Aida lifted her lantern towards the ceiling.
Centered on the wall was a six-meter tall painting marred beyond recognition. The only traits of a painting being there at all were the subtle paint etched into the stone. Lorian saw two people holding hands, the top of a crowned head, and the gold border the artist had must’ve spent days illustrating.
Aida walked up to the painting, then acknowledged all the other parts of the room. How elaborate the stonework was around the doors, how the artists had elegantly shaped the room with a dome. It wasn’t needed—this place would never have windows to show the world—but these touches helped bring this place regalness, meaning.
Aida went to touch the painting, then she leaned backwards, like a non-existent breeze was whisking her away.
“Are you alright?”
She stumbled back, knees trembling. “I’m gonna jump soon.”
Lorian immediately went to her side. “O-okay. Where should we go? Should you sit down?”
“Take my glasses. They always fall.” She tried to take them off herself, but with her fingers trembling, Lorian took them off for her.
“Here, sit down. I have you.”
“I-if I don’t come back in an hour, you can leave. Tell Missus Sharma—”
“What’re you talking about? I’m not leaving you. How long do you have?”
“Just take my glasses.”
“I already did.”
That telling spark of electricity sliced through the air, indicating that a Visatorre had just jumped, but Aida was still in Lorian’s arms. It came from above.
Two figures were perched on the tallest pillar, one sitting, one standing, watching over the gravesite like owls. So far away from their light, it was hard to guess who they were, but Lorian wasn’t daft. She saw the flowing hair, the dress, her very own hair tied into a longer ponytail: Future Aida and Future Lorian.
Aida’s shoulder hit the stone wall. “S-something’s different,” she panted. “It’s different.”
“Is it more painful?” Lorian tried watching both her and their future selves. What were they doing? What were they planning?
The air shifted. It scattered the dust and howled like a dying wolf.
The next crackle came slow, building itself up from nothing. Lorian saw it in the air, the electricity. No, the energy. It flecked the air in blue and gold like diamonds sparkling in the air. It was alive, birthing itself into the world.
The dust on the ground bubbled in front of them. The earth shook. The shadows cast in different directions and splattered the ruins with excited light. Something fell in front of them, but Lorian had to close her eyes; the light was too bright.
A hurt voice gagged for breath, and Lorian looked up to blood. Blood splattered across the wall, over the cobblestone like someone had taken a paintbrush and decorated the ancient stone.
A woman was hunched over and staring at her bloody hands. Her stomach was bleeding out profusely over her burlap dress. It ran down her legs and onto her dirty shoeless feet as she walked in circles before collapsing. Around her, the earth had been scarred by a black circle. “Circa?” she called out. “Circa, God’s Death, where have you gone? Where have you taken her?”
Lorian stepped away with Aida in her arms. Flecks of her blood had dirtied their boots.
She clawed at the ground. “Circa! Circa, why…?” She began crying and held her ripped-open stomach. “Where have you brought me?”
Aida fell to her knees with the woman. Lorian battled between helping her and helping this dying stranger. “You’re in the Roman Catacombs.”
“Where? How?” She coughed. “When am I?”
“The year is 1159. Miss, you mustn’t move.” She took off her jacket and helped pat off her blood. What did one do for an injury this bad? She feared pressing down to stop the bleeding. It would’ve made it worse. There was a hole like she’d been pierced by an arrow or spear.
The woman finally looked at her, then the Catacombs around them, the ruins, the art.
Then she smiled. “Hell on Earth,” she cursed, and fell.
Lorian broke through her duties to Aida and dove to hold the woman steady. She had no head injury, but her face looked worn. Her brownish-red hair was short and unevenly cropped, her scleras were yellow due to lack of nutrients. But as Lorian looked at her, she found her pupils were solid white.
And her Visatorre marking was a double ring, the same as Aida’s future self.
Lorian reexamined the woman’s accent and manner of speaking. “Are you from the past?” she asked. “Have you travelled forwards?”
The woman coughed wetly and squeezed where her heart was. “A-aye. From the past, I…” She suppressed a scream. She was shivering, shaking her resolve. “Oh, Julia, my precious jewel, my love, I’m so sorry I’ve forsaken you.”
“Don’t talk,” Lorian begged. “You’re hurt.”
“Oh, my dear, forgive me. I tried, and I failed. I admit my wrongdoings now. I do, I do.”
Lorian wiped her now sweating forehead. “Let me call for someone. Aida—”
Aida was staring down at the dying woman, mouth opened in shock. But she wasn’t staring at the blood or Lorian’s need for someone to take over. She was staring into the woman’s eyes, and she was crying.
“Eve?” she asked, whispering the royal name.
Eve arched her neck to see her and her face, twisted in pain, fell. Mouth dropping just like Aida’s, she twisted her body to reach her. “You.”
Lorian went to warn her that the movement was making the blood come quicker, but she expected that this woman—this queen—already knew her fate.
Circa, with all her power and wisdom, was a truly awful God to these people.
“You,” Eve breathed again. Her voice was growing fainter. “How?”
Aida, grimacing through her delayed jump, reached out for her, and Eve, queen of the Visatorre, caressed her cheek lovingly. A smile rose to her lips. “Aida.”
A stray tear fell from Aida’s face. Lorian saw a thousand questions flicker through her eyes, trying to pick what question to ask the person who meant the world to her.
Aida looked up, passed Eve, passed Lorian. She opened her mouth to speak.
As soon as the question formed, her body jerked right, her lantern tipped over and, in a flash of light, she was gone.