It didn’t take much to convince the trio to follow Lorian out of the Catacombs and back down the dirt path to Missus Sharma’s. Seeing Aida convulse sent Zaahir into his protective nature, and Kadar did anything his prince asked.
Lorian felt Beatrice’s eyes on her for the whole venture back, judging her, hating her. She’d only agreed to come along per Zaahir’s polite request. It wasn’t like she could go back home without him. Lorian kept her eyes ahead, ignoring her. She’d learned to brush aside her poignant glaring from past family outings.
She was failing.
Even well into the night, the backyard lantern was still lit. Chrissie’s and Onti’s room were on the other side of the house, but she didn’t know if Missus and Mi’Sharma’s room shared a window on this side. The rest of the house was dark.
Mi’Sharma slammed open the back door with a candle in hand. “Lorian!” Her wrinkly face wilted when she caught Beatrice and Zaahir in her candlelight. “Oh, your Majesty.” She curtsied. “Your Highness, forgive me.”
Lorian hopped off of her horse before she finished trotting. “Aida’s hurt.”
“She’s alive,” she said, but it wasn’t convincing. Aida had stopped choking on her own breath, but she still wasn’t “there.” Her eyes were unfocused and she kept moaning whenever she moved.
Zaahir and Kadar helped Aida off of Kadar’s horse. They were tall horses meant to see over tall grasses, so when she fell, she fell hard. It took both of their combined strengths to keep her from twisting an ankle. Beatrice picked her dress off the ground, careful so as not to dirty it.
They helped her and into their Nest of blankets and pillows. Zaahir treaded carefully over the fallen pillows to find a place for Aida.
“Oh, no, dear, please.” Mi’Sharma motioned for the stairs. “Let her stay in a proper bed. It’s what she needs most right now.”
“But you haven’t any spare beds,” Lorian said.
“She can have ours. Missus Sharma has been busy reading, waiting for you to return. Oh, darling, what has become of you?”
Lorian didn’t know if she was addressing her or Aida. She didn’t have an answer for either.
They brought Aida up the stairs. She’d found her feet, but her knees were bent at odd angles and her head sagged and twitched at every step. It was like she was partly there, partly somewhere else, like she didn’t know why she was walking but knew that she needed to keep going. Lorian couldn’t fathom what she was going through.
At the top of the stairs, a door creaked open to Chrissie and Onti. Their whispers radiated intrigue about what they were seeing. At the sight of Zaahir, Chrissie blushed and ran back into the shadows. Her hands shot out and dragged Onti back to bed.
“Wait!” he protested. “They’re important, ain’t they? They’re royal, right?”
Missus Sharma took their entrance very well. She looked up, dropped her jaw, closed it, closed her book, and flapped open the covers for Aida. “Sit her here.”
“I’m sorry,” Lorian said.
“Did she jump wrong?”
“Yes. It’s worse than before. She—” She didn’t realize she was falling until she dropped to the bed with Aida. Her chest was pounding and she was breathing as heavily as Aida was. Aida herself fell asleep almost instantly. Her jerks subsided into slight head ticks and eye flutters.
“Is there anything we can do?” Zaahir asked. “Say the word and we’ll be here with doctors, medicine. We can be as discreet as possible, they won’t say a word.”
“I think we’ve done all that we can do,” Beatrice said. “They don’t have treatments for what she’s going through. All we can do is wait.”
Even though she’d spoken the truth, it still pissed Lorian off that she said it so nonchalantly, like she couldn’t care less about helping anyone so long as she could get back home before sunrise.
The night wind whispered against the house, shifting the walls. The low fire they had going crackled and sparked out of the fireplace.
Mi’Sharma cleared her throat. “Shall I make everyone some tea? Your Highness, are you hungry?”
Beatrice just shook her head. Back at the Colosseum, Lorian had nearly fallen into Missus Sharma’s arms, but Beatrice had barely looked at her. What was wrong with her?
“That’s quite alright, Missus,” Zaahir said. “We really should be on our way. The two of us shouldn’t be out like this in the first place. We appreciate you inviting us into your home. It looks like you have a wonderful family.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. Your Highness. Oh.” Mi’Sharma covered her mouth. “How did you do this for almost two decades, darling?”
“It comes with practice and expectations,” Missus Sharma said. “Neither of which I can muster up at this moment.” She pet back Aida’s hair as she rested. “Poor dearie. She’s gone through so much.”
“I’ll keep an eye on her,” Lorian promised. “I’ll stay with her all night and make sure…” She gulped. “Make sure she doesn’t…”
“She’ll be alright,” Zaahir said. “If she isn’t, you know where to reach us.” He touched Lorian’s shoulder. “Please, if you need to go to anyone, come find us. We’ll be here for you.”
“Thank you. And thank you,” she said to Kadar, “for helping her.”
He simply bowed, a hand over his belly button.
Missus Sharma looked over to Beatrice, the only one not addressed. Lorian pretended not to notice that.
“Oh, I can’t stand this!” Mi’Sharma said. “I need to offer you something, anything at all. If word gets back to my family that I neglected to serve tea to the future king of Aldaí, I’ll never hear the end of it.”
Zaahir smiled charmingly. “A spot of herbal tea will be lovely, then, thank you.”
“I’ll help as well,” Missus Sharma said. “If any of you need anything else, please, don’t be shy, I’ll be happy to get it.” She walked close to Beatrice and bowed. Beatrice bowed back. She almost smiled.
And almost went to leave with the two women. Went to, but didn’t. A conversation hung in the air, begging to be said.
“What?” Lorian asked. “You want to say something, don’t you?”
She turned to Lorian, her perfect hair whipping around her perfectly angled face. Somehow, she’d inherited neither their father’s aggression nor their mother’s meekness. Whenever anything upsetting happened, she was as emotionless as a corpse.
“I’m glad you’re okay.”
Lorian’s brows shot up.
“But I want you to come back home.”
Her face fell, as well as her expectations for her sister yet again. So close. Why was she so hard to love?
“I know you left for…reasons of which I understand, but you can’t live your life hiding and evading what needs to be addressed. You are engaged to Zaahir and you have a country and world wondering what you’re doing with this girl. You should speak out about what you’re planning. You should come up with a plan.”
“I do have a plan, and it’s staying as far away from Father as possible.”
“That’s not logical. You need to go back at some point.”
“Think about Mother.”
“I’m not going back!”
The room fell into an uncomfortable silence, the air radiating with unspoken energy.
Kadar, someone Lorian remembered as always being in the shadows, jerked forwards with a sudden hand over his temple. Zaahir was instantly by his side, holding him by the shoulders.
“Amar?” Zaahir whispered.
“I’m sorry,” Kadar grunted. “I need to…”
“That’s alright.” He led his servant to the center of the room. “I’m here.”
“But you’re alone. It’s not safe.”
“I’ll stay here. I’ll send a message to the king. I’ll be fine, okay?” He whispered more to him in Aldaían, then kissed the top of his brow before a bright light took Kadar from Zaahir’s arms.
Lorian jumped back, not expecting the disappearance. “He’s a Visatorre?”
Zaahir breathed out, controlling himself, then began folding Kadar’s clothes that lay scattered on the floor. “He is, yes.”
“And he’s allowed to be a guard? Not to be rude, but wouldn’t that cause liabilities?”
He went to the nearest open window and whistled with his fingers to his mouth, a quick, sharp pitch that carried into the night. In seconds, a pair of heavy wings flew to the windowsill. An Aldaían Hawk, brown and sleek with a black head, rested on the edge. It wore a small, woven pack around its thin body, the strings hidden within its fluffy middle.
Zaahir took out a small piece of paper and a writing pen from his pocket. “He’s not a liability because of the way he was born, but for safety reasons, I’m always followed by a carrier hawk in case I need to send an emergency letter anywhere I am.”
Lorian lowered his head, ashamed for how she’d been programmed to think. “I neither meant to offend you nor him. I’m used to how Roma works. Roman Visatorre can’t become officers.”
“I know.” He folded the letter, slipped it into the hawk’s pack, and sent it back into the night. “It’s one change I wish to see in Roma. I thought I could sway the way this country works after our marriage alliance. I had plans to reform your schools, help the Visatorre jobless crisis. We have so many models in Aldaí that we could’ve incorporated here that would’ve benefited both countries.”
Lorian looked away, as did Beatrice and even Zaahir himself.
“Well,” Beatrice said, saving them from speaking any more about this. “Since we’re going to be here for a few more hours than initially planned, let me go speak with Missus Sharma about our untimely visit.”
“Wait a moment,” Zaahir said. “Now that we’re finally together, we should think about what we’re going to do next.”
“My say is whatever you agree with,” Beatrice said with a wave of her hand. “We won’t get anywhere here with how we are now, so high-strung with emotions.”
“Aida almost died,” Lorian snapped at her. “She did die. Can’t you be a little more considerate of that?”
“I am being considerate. Her condition is why I’m saying we won’t come to a resolution with you acting this way and Zaahir’s mind on Kadar. Don’t deny it, Zaahir. I know you too well to know that that’s not exactly what you’re thinking right now.”
Zaahir sighed. “I do agree that we must come up with a plan of action for settling down your father with these future selves and what they’re planning, but I don’t think—”
“Well, Beatrice is clearly not going to voice her opinion on the matter,” Lorian said. “She gave it one try, no use in trying anymore.”
Beatrice flared her nostrils. It childishly got Lorian going. Her chest burned. “And you won’t get a logical answer from me, so there’s no point in adding me to the discussion.”
“Please,” Beatrice groaned. “Spare us this.”
Lorian jumped to her feet. “What is your problem with me? You haven’t seen me in months. I run away without giving a reason why. I’ve been tormented by these future selves who only want to poke fun at our misdoings, and I’ve been…I—” She felt herself tearing up at trying to come up with an excuse for this anger, but all she saw in front of her was Beatrice. The person who was supposed to be there for her. Her sister. Her twin.
“What the fuck happened to you?” she demanded. “Why did you become like this?”
Beatrice stood up taller with the scowl Lorian had been waiting to form. “I took care of what needed to be taken care of. We have duties, Lorian, and if you don’t wish to come back, then don’t. Don’t come back. Don’t abide by the rules. But state what you need. Abdicate properly. Annul the marriage. Let the world continue without waiting for you to decide when you’re going to stop acting like this. I couldn’t. I can’t. I’m already set for my path, but you aren’t.”
Lorian gaped at her. She was used to her sister’s lectures, but never before had she been this raw.
Lorian pushed her. “You make it sound like I don’t care for my country. It’s not like I want Roma to burn. I just don’t want to be an heir. You knew, you always knew I never wanted to be a princess.”
“You two, stop it—”
“Of course I knew,” Beatrice said, “and I never wanted to be married, either. What are you getting at? Do you think Zaahir wanted this? Do you think I wanted this? Our blood isn’t ours, it’s for our country. Zaahir has a lover and needed to marry you to appease our parents. I knew that the alliance with Bělico during an incredibly harsh winter season was needed for the family, for our country. It was what needed to be done.”
“You were six!”
“Yes, I was! Are you trying to say that it’s unfair, that being a royal heir means that you’re thrown about to appease others without our consent, because yes, that’s what it means! That’s what our lives will always be. So yes, Zaahir will marry a person he doesn’t love, I am stuck with a man who I couldn’t care less for, and you”—She pointed at Lorian—“will marry Zaahir, unless you abdicate properly and fail your country, like you should’ve done this summer. So yes, I think you’re a child. I think you’re a selfish, immature brat who can’t fight her own battles. If you don’t like it, then change my mind, because you’re doing a damn good job at fucking over your life without my input!”
Lorian didn’t know what happened next. One moment she was by Aida’s bedside. The next, Aida didn’t exist. All that was in her sights was Beatrice, then Beatrice’s shocked face, then Lorian reaching for her neck and squeezing. At that moment, history, whether it was past, present, or future, didn’t matter to her anymore. All that mattered was knocking her own sister’s teeth in.
Lorian slammed her into a royal painting hanging up on the wall. “You’ve never been there for me!” she screamed at her. “Never! What the fuck did it cost you to be there for me? Why couldn’t you be there for me, for once, the one time I needed it?”
Lorian hit her instead. How dare her? Life was always too easy for her. Do everything Father says, don’t fight, be complacent. She’d been molded to be perfect, and Lorian had been the outcast. She was always the terrible one. And instead of helping Lorian—fuck, talking to Lorian—she’d ignored her like a virus she couldn’t dare touch.
“Lorian!” Zaahir yelled.
Lorian battled Beatrice into the hallway. She punched her, kicked her. She sought after blood, ruin.
“Get off!” Beatrice ducked out of her embrace and shoved her away. Lorian, anticipating her escape, grabbed her puffy sleeve before she reached the stairwell.
She turned too quickly, looking over her shoulder to anticipate Lorian’s fist, but all she must’ve seen was Lorian gritting her teeth in pure rage.
The stairwell, it wasn’t long, but the sudden drop, their bodies slamming into the railing and feet disconnecting from the steps, recontextualized Lorian’s immediate feelings. One, she didn’t want to die in such heated anger. Two, she couldn’t let Beatrice die in such an anticlimactic way. Three, she hated herself more than ever for stooping so low.
At the last second, Lorian pulled Beatrice back and took the full embrace of the fall. Her side hit the ground hard, and her head was spinning even though she didn’t feel herself hit it. Beatrice tripped over her body and ate the ground hard, dress flying up, hair coming undone from her braids. Maybe that was all Lorian wanted, to see her come undone in the same way she’d felt herself becoming this year.
Lorian heaved herself up. The energy she once had dripped off of her like rain on a waxy leave. Apologizing would be the agonizing part, as she couldn’t remember a time when she’d apologized to her and meant it.
Missus and Mi’Sharma ran in, holding back a confused Chrissie and Onti. Zaahir ran down the steps and jumped the last two. “Now—”
Lorian almost missed Beatrice’s nails, but her claws cut into her cheek and drew blood. Her fist yanked down Lorian by her hair and smacked her chin into the floor, shaking her brain against her skull.
“Bea!” Zaahir grabbed her by the arms. “That is enough! Stop it!”
“How dare you?” Wriggling free from Zaahir, Beatrice punched Lorian hard in the chin and pinned her to the ground. “I did everything for you. I fought so hard to keep Father from tearing out Mother’s throat when he was angry with you. I spent hours and hours talking with him to not whip you or punish you, I tried teaching you how to lie and work around his anger, and yet—” She ripped off one glove with her teeth and showed Lorian her whipped hand. “I always received the pain he’d meant for you!”
Zaahir used all of his strength to rip Beatrice off. “That is enough.”
It wasn’t, not for either of them. “I used to spend night after night with Mother,” Beatrice said, “calming her down, telling her she hadn’t failed as a mother in raising us. What a great liar I’d become.”
Lorian touched the spot where Beatrice had got her on the cheek. Her fingers came back bloody, and wet.
Beatrice sniffled. “The night you left,” she added, “you left out the windows, didn’t you? With a ladder made of bedsheets? Everything was so cleverly packaged for you to leave and gather your thoughts, to leave and never return?”
Lorian blinked back her sister’s tears.
“Who on earth did you think did that for you?” she asked. “Who went out of her way to give you your escape?”
Zaahir, sensing the fight over, pulled Beatrice off of Lorian gently, helping her up without force.
“I thought I was doing you a favor,” Beatrice continued. “I thought this was the only way to make you happy and to give you more time to think about what you were going to do, so why is everything still so wrong? Why is Mother still crying herself to sleep?” She sniffled again. “Why do you still look more unhappy than ever? Why are we still fighting? What else am I doing wrong for you?”
Missus Sharma shuffled over and helped Lorian stand. “Lu—Lorian,” she whispered. “Come now. Sit up.”
Zaahir bowed at a ninety-degree angle to both of the Sharma’s. “I sincerely apologize for this inexcusable behavior. This was in no way how we’d meant to thank you for your kindness in allowing us into your home unannounced, and we deeply apologize for any damages we might’ve caused you and your family.”
Beatrice, after fixing her hair, copied Zaahir’s bow. “I apologize as well.”
Lorian knew they should’ve done the same, but at this point, what did it matter? It wasn’t as if anyone in this room would forgive her for behavior they expected.
Still, though, with Missus Sharma holding them so sternly, it slipped out of her. “I’m sorry.”
“I think we should leave,” Beatrice said.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot leave without my knight,” said Zaahir. “He should be back in a few hours. We’ll take our leave then. We’ll continue staying upstairs, away from anything else that might upset us. Again, please forgive us, Missus and Mi’Sharma. I didn’t mean to taint my first introduction to you in this way.”
“Don’t apologize,” Missus Sharma said. “It’s a tumultuous time in all of your lives. Lorian, come with me. Rossa, please make something for His Highness and Her Majesty. Chrissie and Onti, come upstairs with Lorian and me.”
Lorian had little say when it came to what Missus Sharma wanted after a fight. It’d always been like this, her swooping in to pick up the pieces Lorian had left scattered over their feet. It was how she thought a mother would be.
When they were alone in their bedroom, Missus Sharma closed and locked the door behind them. Lorian had just enough time to turn and look to see Aida still asleep.
Missus Sharma forcefully grabbed Lorian’s shoulder. “For God’s sakes, Lucia, what on Earth were you thinking? Your sister is a monarch now, you can’t start petty fights like that anymore and think there won’t be repercussions. You can’t—”
The first tear fell too quickly. She’d tried to stifle them back to preserve her honor, but really, did she have any left? Hadn’t she lost it all the night she left her wedding ceremony, too scared to face her friends and family, her destiny? Her sister had helped her escape, but it was only as a last-ditch effort. She was a lost cause in all of their eyes that would’ve been better off dead.
“Oh, Lorian.” Missus Sharma held like she’d always do, petting the back of her head like a grandmother with her grandchild.
“I’m sorry,” Lorian cried. “I couldn’t…I didn’t…”
“I know, dear. Just sit down and relax.”
“I know I shouldn’t have done it, I was just…I didn’t want to hear the things she was saying. But I know I shouldn’t have resorted to violence. I know I should know better.” She dug her hands into her eyes, not wanting to have this conversation she’d had a million times. “I’m sorry I’m such a lost cause.”
“Oh, dear.” She took her in her arms again. “You’re not a lost cause. Sometimes we act out when we’re feeling scared or helpless, or cornered, and I know that’s how you’ve been feeling all this time.”
“I just don’t want to be a princess,” she said into her shoulder. “I don’t want to marry a man and bear his children. I can’t.”
“I know, dear, I know.” She pulled back and kissed her cheek. “I want you to stay up here and rest, okay? You’ve had a long day, and I don’t want you to do anything you might regret in the morning.”
Lorian bitterly laughed at that. As if her whole life wasn’t something she regretted every morning.
“I should make up a bed for Zaahir and Bea,” Missus Sharma said to herself. “I think you should apologize properly to her, once the waters clear.”
Lorian looked at the door, hyping herself up only to be defeated by her own self-doubts. “I’ll try in the morning.”
Beatrice left early that morning with Zaahir and Kadar, who’d returned mostly unscathed, just a migraine that made him dizzy.
Allegedly. Lorian had heard it from Mi’Sharma.
Beatrice never came back up to say goodbye.