Lorian didn’t take well to stress. Whether it was her father punishing her or her being caught for doing something wrong, instead of trying to explain herself, she’d freak out, act like a child. Throw, hit, attack. It was her animalistic reaction that she hadn’t yet mastered, and it was near impossible to deal with those emotions now without Aida.
Eve groaned and fingered her open wound.
“Please, stop doing that,” Lorian begged. “It’ll only make it worse.”
“Oh, will it, young one?” She coughed weakly. Her breath was barely there anymore. “I wasn’t aware.”
“Just keep still. You’ll be alright.” Keeping her fake smile, Lorian eyed the pillar holding her and Aida’s future selves. They were still there, watching like onlookers at the Colosseum.
“Do something,” she whispered to them. “Please.”
She looked down at the dying monarch.
“Tell me. Your beautiful locks, your fair complexion. Are you of King Julius’ line?”
Sensing she had no reason to lie to Eve, Lorian said, “I am, Your Majesty. He’s one of my grandfathers. I’m second in line for the throne.”
“So his reign continued. How fortunate. And…And Aida…” She reached over her head like she was still there. “Where did she go?”
“She jumped, Your Majesty. She’s a Visatorre, just like you.” She gulped, not ready to hear the answer to her next question. “H-how do you know her? Did you know her future self, older self? Have you met her before?”
“Aida.” Her eyes closed. “I need to speak to her…again.”
“No—no.” She gently shook her. “Please, stay with me.”
But it was pointless. Lorian knew that. It wasn’t as if a few stitches or a hasty surgery could save her now.
A tear hit Eve’s cheek. She opened one eye.
“I’m sorry.” Lorian sniffled. “I’m sorry I can’t do anything to save you. Aida, she loved you. She’s studied every history book that mentioned your name. She would’ve loved to meet you. But you’ll be with Circa soon. Soon, you’ll be with your God.”
A blissful smile painted over Eve’s face. “She loved me?”
“Loves. She loves you, and I know meeting you has made her whole life so much better.”
If she could’ve, she probably would’ve laughed. Lorian saw the corners of her mouth, the twinkle in her eye; she wanted to laugh but couldn’t. Instead, she took Lorian’s hand and squeezed it like a newborn baby.
Lorian smiled back as she stroked her thumb. “I have you. You’re going to be okay.”
Eve’s eyes focused on Lorian’s. “You’re lying.”
She nodded, face now scrunching to keep from herself openly sobbing. “I am.”
She closed her eyes. “As a royal would.”
The next few moments passed very slowly and too fast all at once. At times, Lorian thought if she ran hard enough and found a doctor, she could’ve saved her. If she’d allotted more time with her nurses, if she’d studied suturing or chest compressions or tourniquets, she could’ve helped.
Lorian hadn’t known her, but with how often Aida mentioned her and how long she’d been in the back of Lorian’s mind, she felt like a lost family member Lorian hadn’t gotten to know.
When she stopped breathing and death finally took her away, Lorian, alone, cried for her. She didn’t know how long: ten minutes, a half-hour. The cold Catacomb air froze her tears to her face as she wiped them dry. It wasn’t fair, or right. She didn’t want this memory in her.
She looked back up to the pillar. Without realizing it, she and Aida’s future selves had vanished.
Overcome by true loneliness, Lorian sobbed into her hands. It’d been months since she’d truly been alone. All her life she had her family, her maids, nurses, officers, and advisors to heed her every selfish call. After leaving the Palace, she’d cried just like this in the woods, overwhelmed by the feeling of not having anyone to talk to. If only she had Aida back.
Her eyes went up to the pillar, but it was still empty.
It should’ve been recognizable, that voice. It was her’s, pitched an octave higher, her emotions withdrawn instead of always on the surface.
Behind her, standing in one of the open archways with two lanterns, were Beatrice, Zaahir, and Zaahir’s lover, Kadar.
Lorian tried to move away, but Eve had become dead weight, literally, and weighed her down. All the life and tenseness she held in her body was gone. She was as helpful to explain this situation as the cracked skulls watching them.
Beatrice lifted her dress and walked down a short staircase to get to Lorian. She eyed the ancient artwork and Eve’s body skeptically. “What’re you doing?” she asked, then, clearer, “What did you do?”
The last sentence struck Lorian with more pain. They hadn’t seen each other in weeks, and all she had to fling at her was accusations, like it was expected that she’d mess up.
Reading the atmosphere, Zaahir came up close to her but gave her—and Eve—their space. “Are you alright?”
She didn’t know why, but hearing that, that one question only for her, broke her. Her senses overcame her, she began to tremble. Breaking fully to pieces, she lowered her head and sobbed in front of the world’s two monarchs-to-be.
Thankfully, the humiliation came and went. Her leaving her own wedding and disappearing seemed to have helped, but it just solidified her incompetence in front of these two. They’d inspired her, made her want to be better in every way, not just as a royal, but as a person. Her sister was that of a second parent, always knowing what to do, being so level-headed and emotionless, and Zaahir. When Lorian had first met him as a child, she’d thought he was already a king with how he carried himself. He was so strong and authoritative.
She was never meant to be like them. She’d been born wrong, in every way, left to act like a child while these true leaders held up the world.
Zaahir let Lorian cry on him. His shoulder was warm and his breath smelled of Nectar.
Kadar eyed the clearly dead body with revulsion.
“What happened to her?” Zaahir asked in a soft voice.
“I-I don’t know. She jumped right in front of us. She was already bleeding, I tried to…” She sighed breathlessly into her hands. “I couldn’t do anything in time.”
“What do you mean? Was she visible when she jumped?”
She nodded. “She’s Eve. Eve Costa. She was the queen of Siina a millennium ago.”
Zaahir looked down at the monarch’s face. Her eyes were still open, the tranquil look becoming more unnerving than anything. He touched her wet bangs to reveal her unique Visatorre marking, then checked her pulse by placing two fingers against her throat.
“I didn’t do it,” Lorian told them. “It wasn’t my fault.”
Beatrice, at seeing the way Eve’s body lifelessly rocked back and forth, turned away with grit teeth. She was never good with death. Who was?
Zaahir kept staring at Eve, then looked up at Lorian, composed. “I believe you.”
Lorian went to keep defending herself, then stopped, unsure of how to respond to someone who wholeheartedly believed her at the first try.
“Her haircut is reminiscent of that of the Roman style in the Classical Era, and her skin, aside from…” He eyed her wound. “She smells like Roman roses, and you can see the remnants of that on her skin.” He pointed at the side of her neck that was slightly stained red. “This was very common during that time period. And I’ve never seen you this distraught, and I can’t imagine you ever doing something like this to someone. I believe you, so do not worry.”
“I-I wouldn’t,” she said, cursing the stutter now present in her voice. “She just fell into us.”
“Aida and me.” She gulped. “The, uh, girl I’ve been with.”
“That future self.”
“Yes. But she isn’t like that. Gods, it’s so difficult to explain. We don’t know anything about what’s going on.”
“Easy.” Zaahir took her so she didn’t stain his beige robe. “How long has it been since she passed?”
“Just now. Aida jumped somewhere. It’ll take hours for her to come back. I don’t know what to do.”
She dug up a fistful of cold dirt. She wanted her back. She didn’t want to be alone for another second, worrying for her and wondering if this would be the last time she ever saw her. She couldn’t stand another goodbye tonight.
Zaahir pushed up his sleeves. “She needs a proper burial. Officers will be skeptical about her body. She will have no records, no proper documentation about being a citizen of Roma.”
“You can lie,” Lorian offered. “She’s a Visatorre, we can just say she was homeless. It wouldn’t be unbelievable.”
Zaahir nodded. “I will see to it that she is buried here, with her people, but we can’t stay here. We need to get help.”
“I can’t leave,” Lorian said. “I need to wait for Aida to come back. She won’t have any light to come back to, and to see Eve’s body—“ She choked on her breath. What would Aida say if she knew Lorian had let her die?
“We can’t stay here,” Beatrice argued. “It’s not safe. These walls are ancient. Any piece from the ceiling can come crashing down on us.”
Lorian whipped her head to her. “I’m not going back to the Palace.”
Beatrice stared down at her like a bug. She couldn’t believe that after months of not seeing her, she was still disgusted by everything Lorian did that wasn’t up to her standards. Even when she was crying in a cemetery their ancestors had created.
Beatrice held firm. “If you come back to the Palace now—”
“Listen to me,” she said. “If you come back, we can set aside these rumors and misconceptions about these…people.” She made a face. “What is this, these future selves that everyone’s been going on about? What are you doing with them?”
“Beatrice, might we—?”
“What does it matter, I’m not going back!” Lorian argued. “That’s the whole reason I left, to be rid of this. I have no idea what those two are doing.” She pointed upwards at the empty pillar they’d been sitting on. “They’re our future selves, ergo, I have no say or control over what they do. They’ve only spoken to us twice, telling us there’s some grand plan we need to do, but whatever we try to do ends up blowing up in our faces. We get chased by Carmine, we think coming down here will result in finding answers, but we just lost the only person who could’ve helped us, so stop yelling at me for the right answers, because clearly, I have none!”
She knew her voice was rising, so she huffed and ran her hand through her hair. “I don’t know what’s happening, but I know I’m not going back home. I shan’t.”
Zaahir nodded understandingly. “Alright, then we won’t bring you to the Palace.”
Beatrice looked at him.
“But we should take refuge while you calm down. Your sister is right, it’s not safe for all three of us to be here, and this scene is unsettling. Is there anything we can do to help right now?”
Lorian began folding Aida’s clothes, collecting her fallen shoes. “I just need to wait for Aida to return. Something’s been wrong with her jumps, she keeps going back farther and farther in time and she keeps getting hurt, and I don’t know…I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know how to help her.” The tears came back. She blotted them with her sleeve, keeping Aida’s clothes clean. “I have to be here when she comes back. I have to protect her.”
“That’s completely understandable.” Zaahir took off one of his winter robes and draped it over Eve’s body. Then he took Lorian’s hand, and the four of them went towards the wall, behind a pillar. “Why were you down here in the first place?”
Lorian crouched behind the pillar, knees tucked close to her chin. “We were searching for clues. Aida said she had a hunch to come down here tonight. Looks like that hunch was right, but…” She dug the balls of her hands into her eyes.
“Lu…” Zaahir knelt beside her. “Is it Lorian now?”
“Okay, Lorian, I know you don’t wish to go back to the Palace, and if that is your wish, we will not force you to go back. But can you please tell us what your plan is for the time being? What do you wish for? What are you planning to do next?”
Lorian chuckled and covered her eyes. “Do you think someone like me thinks ahead of her actions?”
While Zaahir smiled politely at Lorian’s attempt to be humorous, Beatrice just clicked her tongue and turned away from her, hands crossed like she was a mother upset by her child.
Lorian had so many mixed feelings about her. At once, they’d be playing games in the Palace grounds, the next, Beatrice would be yelling at her for being a nuisance. She got into as many troubles as Lorian did, yet she’d always wiggle her way out of scoldings. As the years progressed, Beatrice became closer and closer to their parents and their ideals, leaving Lorian by herself, now seen as the sole heir who was a disappointment to the throne.
She hadn’t even hugged her or said how thankful she was that she was alive. She hadn’t even smiled. Was that asking too much, for a smile and a, “How are you?” and not a, “Why are you like this?”
She turned away. She knew it was. She’d known for years that this’s how her sister was, she only wished it was different, that they’d finally see eye to eye, but it wouldn’t happen, and she needed to accept that.
Lorian tried not looking at her.
“When we were coming down, we heard a crash,” Beatrice continued. “Was that from the Visatorre jumping, or…”
Lorian looked down at her own hands. The blood was still there. She didn’t know if wiping it off would help or only make matters worse. “Yeah. Their jumps have been different. Why were you three down here to hear it, anyway? Surely your knights wouldn’t allow the next heirs to have a fling in the Catacombs.”
“We were taking a stroll to clear our heads. Your father has been very adamant about finding these two future selves to calm down his city. It’s why we seemed so pushy when it came to learning about what’s really happening. Then we heard what sounded like loud gunshots coming from the open door of the Catacomb, and we decided to come investigate.”
“Who’s being impulsive now?”
Lorian leaned over. “Frog in your throat?”
“The air down here is not right for our lungs.”
“Well, I’m not leaving without Aida, so, by all means, leave if you so wish. Nobody’s forcing you to make choices you obviously disagree with.”
“Lorian.” Zaahir sighed. “I don’t wish to see us fighting again. Now is not the time. Where have you been living?”
“You won’t rat on me to my father, will you?” She looked to Kadar. “Not him, right?”
Kadar placed a pointer finger to his lips.
“He’ll take any secret with him to his grave,” Zaahir promised. “As will I.”
Lorian drew circles in the dirt. “I’ve been with my nursemaid, Missus Sharma.”
“She’s keeping you?” Beatrice asked.
“Yes,” she said, and gave them a condensed version of everything that’d happened since the wedding.
They didn’t interrupt her. It wasn’t like in council meetings where everyone was yelling at each other to speak louder. The ones she’d been allowed in had been that way, and it always made her dizzy with panic. She appreciated their silence, but it was odd talking for so long and not being interrupted with facts or knowledge that she wasn’t aware of.
When she finished nearly an hour later, their lanterns had dimmed to a deep amber. Zaahir had his ankles crossed and was holding the back of his head with his hands. Beatrice was leaning on a falling column. Kadar hadn’t moved.
“That sounds all very exciting, don’t you think?” Zaahir asked.
“Not really. I’ve been nervous since I left. All this hiding and running about in the dark. My future self scares me the most. She’s dressed like a queen, or king.”
“Maybe she is,” offered Zaahir. “You have royal blood in your veins. Maybe you’ll become a great ruler.”
Lorian didn’t entertain the fact. “We were thinking they might be from an alternate universe. I’ve heard about those in fictional stories. A world where it’s almost the same as ours, but certain things are different. Instead of riding horses, we ride things like wild pigs or birds, or something entirely different, something we can’t even fathom. And maybe, in this world, these two are Gods dressed up like us to deliver a message.”
“Why do you think that? Being that they sound like you, talk like you, act like you—”
She held herself. “Because I can’t imagine myself putting a crown back on my head.”
That snap, the electrifying pulse that shaped the air whenever a Visatorre travelled, now made Lorian terrified. Her heart jumped not in fear of seeing someone naked or finding someone gone from the world she knew, but fear of pain, death, and uncertainty brought upon by their chaotic future selves.
To Lorian’s relief, Aida wasn’t choking or convulsing like she’d done the last time she’d jumped back to her. She simply looked asleep, knocked out from a regular jump.
“Aida.” Lorian ran over to her.
She was staring up at the ceiling, her eyes unfocused, mouth agape.
Lorian’s heart thudded in her ears. She shook her shoulder. “Aida?”
She didn’t react.
She shook her much rougher than she should’ve, but she needed to see her move, breathe, something. Aida wasn’t the type to keep quiet, and she wasn’t that heavy a sleeper.
Her head thrashed back and forth. Her unfocused eyes stared off at nothing.
Lorian blinked back tears and searched her body for another way to test it. She wouldn’t believe it. It didn’t make sense. She had a future self, she had so many plans set to come true. Surely, this wasn’t two timelines. She knew she’d just mentioned the alternate timeline, but she knew it was wrong. She knew that boisterous, fun-loving woman was a part of Aida. She couldn’t have ended it here.
Zaahir ran up to her. “What’s wrong?”
“S-she’s not breathing.” Lorian choked as she looked between all of them. “W-what do we do? She’s not breathing.”
“Let me try.” Zaahir checked her pulse himself, blinking rapidly as he searched for what Lorian couldn’t find. Then he stood up above Aida’s body, opened her airways, laced his fingers together, and began pressing down hard into the middle of her chest.
Lorian scooted out of the way. The amount of pressure he was putting on her chest was sure to splinter her ribs. She almost told him to be gentler, but he seemed to know what he was doing. He counted under his breath the number of seconds he needed to keep going in order to bring her back.
Minutes passed. Sweat jumped off of Zaahir’s jaw as he worked on Aida’s lifeless body. He’d stop, check for breathing, listen to her heart, continue. That lifeless look in her eyes, she looked so much like Eve at that moment, it made Lorian sick.
“Come on,” Zaahir panted. “Come back to us.”
“Please,” Lorian said. “Aida, you have so much more to do. You can’t leave me now. I won’t allow it.”
Zaahir sighed, tired from chest compressions, and tried breathing into her mouth again.
Aida gasped, hoarse and broken but there and back from the dead. She reached out for Zaahir, but he kept her down.
“Easy, easy,” he said. “You’re alright, just relax.”
Lorian didn’t know whether to feel relieved or not. Aida had her back arched, contorting herself in agony. She sounded like she was choking on water, but nothing was coming up other than her own air.
Beatrice, Beatrice stayed back in the shadows without saying a word.
Kadar came around and helped adjust her. She was scratching at her neck, indicating that she couldn’t breathe, but she was still gasping properly, or improperly. Lorian didn’t know. How lost she felt, seeing someone she loved in indescribable pain and being unable to do anything to help them.
Giving room for Zaahir and Kadar to work, Lorian crept up to Aida and held her hand.
Aida gripped her fingers as if she was moment’s away from a true death. Her nails cut into her skin and made her bleed. She didn’t look over to Lorian—honestly, she probably didn’t know Lorian was there—but this, it was enough, to have her back.
“We need to take her to a doctor,” Zaahir advised. “I’ve never seen this type of attack in a Visatorre before.”
“We can’t,” Lorian said. “They’re looking for us. If they find out that we’re still here, they’ll have her detained or hanged, and I’ll…” She paused, wondering if this was a selfish request. Who cared about if she wanted to see her parents again when Aida was this badly hurt? Missus Sharma could do most things, but Lorian didn’t know if she was able to act like a doctor could.
Then she figured what Aida would’ve wanted, or hated, rather. “We can’t,” she finalized. “We’ll take her back home.”
“Where?” Beatrice asked.
Lorian helped lift Aida up. She pretended not to notice Eve’s body still watching them in the shadows. “To Missus Sharma’s cottage.”