Aside from helping with grocery runs and exercising their horses so they didn’t go stir crazy, for most of the next month, they stayed indoors. They didn’t plan any heist to infiltrate the palace, they didn’t go back to Eve. Zaahir had sent her a hawk detailing the events of Eve’s burial. He’d got permission from Carmine to bury her, and he’d hosted a vigil and a peaceful burial. Lorian thought about responding to thank him for doing this, but it felt unwise, and she knew he must’ve known she couldn’t respond. She wrote a letter regardless and watched it burn in the fireplace.
Aida recovered as winter rolled into Roma. After their hammock kiss, her fever returned and she became bedridden for most of November. They’d finally returned to their Nest of couches, giving Missus and Mi’Sharma their bed back. She also had to skip meals at the dinner table because of this, so Lorian ate with her, keeping her distance from Aida’s runny nose.
“It’s because I always get sick during the winter months,” Aida said, sniffling. “It’s not because of my jump.”
“Yes, yes.” Lorian wrung out a rag and placed it over her forehead. “How’re you feeling?”
“Better than ever. Can we go back to the Catacombs now?”
“How about you learn to keep your food down before we plan any more illegal trespassing?”
“I just won’t eat, then. Problem solved.”
Lorian licked her lips before leaning over and kissing the rag over Aida’s head. “No one in this house will let you go to bed hungry. Come now.” She blew on her spoon before hand-feeding her.
“Am I a baby bird?” she asked, but took the bite regardless. “It’s good.”
Lorian beamed with approval. Missus Sharma had taught her well.
“I’m still surprised you know how to cook, being a princess and all.”
Lorian lowered the serving tray until it almost tipped over the couch. Then she faked a smile and prepped her eating station. “I picked it up easily.”
The next day, Lorian woke up early and cleaned the first floor before Missus and Mi’Sharma awoke. When they slogged down the steps in their nightgowns, they jumped to see someone already in the kitchen.
“Good morning, Lorian,” Missus Sharma said, and fixed her glasses to see Lorian’s handiwork. Eggs in different varieties, perfectly crisped toast, orange juice with hints of sugar on the cup bottoms. “What a lovely spread.”
“I hope I made it to your liking.” She pushed out her seat for her. “Would you like any milk? Any coffee?”
“No, dear. Thank you.”
“Did something happen to make you so jolly?” Mi’Sharma asked.
Lorian rolled on her heels. While taking care of Aida was everything she dreamed of…
“And I suppose you, too, are quite a pretty girl.”
She cleaned off her hands and washed them in the sink.
“Being a princess and all.”
“I’m just happy to see Aida recovering so swiftly,” Lorian said.
“You said she went back into the past with that Eve person,” Missus Sharma said.
“How is she doing this?” Mi’Sharma peered into the living room. “Her poor soul, I can’t imagine her living through this. And to catch a cold as well. I hope she’ll be okay.”
“I’m sure she will.” Lorian dried off her hands. “I wanted to ask if you minded if I took a walk.”
“A walk?” Missus Sharma asked, already worried.
“Just a walk in the woods. With all that’s been going on, I wanted to clear my head. You know I’ve never been one to stay inside for very long.”
“Well, I can’t bar you from doing so, but do be careful, Lorian. I worry so much about you being found out or taken away from me again.”
Lorian was already putting on her coat and boots. She’d tailored her hood so it covered both her mouth and most of her forehead, concealing her identity better. “I’ll be sure to be the most careful.”
She hated to lie, especially to Missus Sharma. It was tied to her past, as she never wanted to show her true self to her parents, so she flaunted her fake persona as much as possible. To them, to her maids, to Missus Sharma, the first person she’d told. Then she realized that she needed to lie in order to save herself from a beating and a stern, three-hour yelling match behind closed doors. Her gender and sexuality was something she always had to hide, and she never felt worse about it than now.
She most certainly didn’t have to lie about this to Aida, but as she passed by Missus Sharma’s garden and beelined for the forest with no intention of just “taking a walk,” Lorian felt a pang of guilt.
“And I suppose you, too, are quite a pretty girl.”
She was born a girl, a princess meant to birth heirs and be married off to men. Surely, she should’ve felt at least a little bit feminine. She liked girls, both romantically and the idea of them, and she didn’t hate her body too much when she looked at herself in tight-fitting clothes. And dresses were fine. They were pretty. Cute.
It was just that there was something more inside of her, something more than just a girl and just a boy that she didn’t have the words for. She knew some ancient gods were like this, featuring both male and female attributes. Sometimes their names changed depending on the culture. She wished Aida never knew about her past, that she could reinvent herself based on her own terms.
Lorian had noticed something, the day she met her future self. Future Aida, while holding Lorian’s hand, called them a “they.” No she. No he. They.
She fixed her vest over her chest, admired the size of her shoes and contrasted it with Aida’s size five heels. She didn’t hate being a girl. She didn’t despise it.
She just wanted more from the label.
She wanted more.
She crept down the busier street corner and slipped her way into the little bookstore on the corner overlooking the sea. It was emptier than before; not even the clerk was readily available, but she didn’t need him quite yet. With her pouch of Lyria, she had all she needed by the windows.
The one good thing about being a royal heir: when you quietly abdicated, you had a wealth of coins to spend on your loved ones.
She searched for the colorful box set of Pinnacle Isle. It came with hand-painted covers and box art of Red Dragon and the Goddess. With how much energy Aida put into it, you would’ve thought she owned the entire sextology, but she only had the first book. It was weathered, the spine cracked in several places. You could hardly read the author’s name on her copy.
She picked up the box set and went to pay for it.
Someone knocked on the glass door and startled her.
She glanced up at her own reflection. She was staring at herself, her older self, the one that was somehow taller than her even though they should’ve been the same height.
Lorian jumped back and covered her own mouth.
Future Lorian gave her a “sorry” smile and motioned for her to come outside.
Lorian looked between them and the box set, then groaned and went to the front desk.
A minute later, she came out with her new purchase and a pit in her stomach. She’d only spoken to this person once, but their presence usually signaled chaos and bad news, and she’d had enough of that for a lifetime.
Future Lorian was waiting by the side of the bookshop, near a discarded barrel filled halfway with snow.
Lorian approached them carefully. It was so odd, seeing someone with your face, but slightly altered. She’d almost go so far to say that this person wasn’t her, but those awkward mannerisms, the smile, the hair, they could be no other person.
“Hi,” they said.
“…Hello,” Lorian said.
“I apologize. This must be very awkward for you.”
“Being that you’re a wanted criminal, I’d be awkward walking the streets, too.”
“I’d agree. Luckily, that sense of vigilance goes away soon. It gets replaced with anxiety. More anxiety than you have currently, of course.” They sighed with a smile. “It’s odd, seeing you like this.”
“Wouldn’t you remember this happening?” Lorian asked, somewhat cornering herself to answer. “Since you’re me? Or are you not? Are you just a trickster god playing with us?”
Future Lorian gave her an incredulous look, then chuckled. “Ah. I forgot this was a debate you had about us.”
“Where is she?” Lorian asked. “Future Aida?”
Future Lorian looked down the alleyway. It led to a small ledge that overlooked the deeper part of the city. Somewhere, a man yelled and a woman laughed at her triumphs at making his life a little harder. Then the two of them, Future Aida and Carmine, came dashing through the streets. They were far enough that neither Lorian had to fret about being seen. In fact, it gave them a comical front row seat to Future Aida’s antics.
She was ahead of Carmine, but just barely. Carmine had his arms put to capture her, and just when he went to touch her, she jumped behind him, then pushed him. As he went to fall, she caught him, danced around him, and continued their game of cat and mouse in the opposite direction. Carmine roared, actually roared in irritation, and threw his hat on the ground before continuing the chase.
“What’s her goal by doing this?” Lorian asked.
“She likes teasing him. It’s quite humorous to watch him come out of his shell.”
“‘No, I meant why can’t you just tell us what we need to do? Her doing this is just making us stay cooped inside longer.”
Future Lorian rolled on their heels. “Then perhaps, maybe, you need to keep leaving the house despite the rules forbidding you from doing such a thing. It’s something you two have experience with, is it not?”
Lorian didn’t disagree but said, “We saw Eve die. She died in my arms. What is there left to find? What else do we need to be searching for?”
“I can’t tell you that. It’ll ruin the surprise.”
“Ruin the—?” That anger Lorian had been suppressing since meeting with her sister resurfaced. “What can possibly make this more entertaining? Aren’t you me? Don’t you remember her dying in our arms?”
Her face fell. “I do. Aida made sure to be there when it happened. We wanted to see it happen again.”
“We’re really not.”
“Then help us!”
“I am.” Future Lorian got closer to her. “Listen,” they whispered. “I know you’re stressed out. You don’t know what’s going to happen next and the future seems all sorts of frightful to you. But understand this: It. Will. Be. Okay. You’re going to figure out what you need to do on your own terms and you’ll know what path you need to take. And you have Aida, so you already know that you’re going to be alright, don’t you?”
“I don’t know anymore,” she said. “She hasn’t been doing very well.”
“Are any of us? You just bought her that box set, so you should be going through a lot of emotional duress right now. You’re trying to find a way to tell her that you’re more than a woman, right?”
Lorian wondered if she should’ve bothered lying to themselves.
“Tell her, Lorian. What’s there to be afraid of? Do you think she’d ever be upset or angry about something like that? You know she’s a good person and she’s smart, and you know that you’re a good person who deserves to be with her. She’ll understand every and all parts of you, so don’t be so afraid. The anxiety will still be there, but you don’t have to let it dictate how you live. Just be smart about those choices,” they added. “Sometimes Aida gets a little over her head. It’s hard to rein her in.”
At least that was one thing they agreed on. “How’d you tell her? Does it go well?”
“What do you think, Lorian? I know we’re not a Visatorre, but we know how time travel works by now, don’t we?”
“Not really, no. It seems like a crazed fool is playing with the timeline to suit their needs.”
“See? You know more than you think you know.”
A distant jump crackled the air, and Future Lorian turned to meet it. “I hope you don’t hate me too much for that,” they said as they left. “If I could, I’d tell you all that I can.”
“It’ll ‘spoil the fun’, wouldn’t it?” Lorian mocked with hand quotes.
“Too right, it would.” Before leaving the shadows, Future Lorian paused and turned the corner.
There, as if waiting for them, was a Visatorre child of barely six dressed in rags. Future Lorian waved at her, knelt to her level, and handed her a handful of coins that shimmered in gold. The child’s eyes widened at the miracle and double-checked that it was okay to have before thanking them and scurrying off with their new meals, clothes, and whatever else she could buy.
Lorian examined her own coin purse and how full it still was even after buying the box set. How many lives could she have changed between now and her future self? If she hadn’t left the palace, what could she’ve done for all Visatorre people?
Before she had time to think, she heard the voice of two officers, and she went to warn Future Lorian.
But they were already gone.
When Lorian came back, she found Missus and Mi’Sharma still in the kitchen, cleaning up their plates and talking about going shopping. Lorian quickly hid her paper bag around her back.
“There you are,” Missus Sharma said. “Where did you go? I looked outside and couldn’t find you.”
“I was in the forest, just like I said. I’m sorry I worried you.” She trotted into the living room. “I’ll stay closer to the house next time!”
Aida was still curled up in their Nest but sitting the wrong way, holding a book up with her chest. She gave Lorian a wave without looking up. “Hi. Where’d you go?”
“Out into the forest.”
“And where after that?”
Lorian held up her tote.
That got her to look up. “I hope it was for a good reason. Please tell me you bought a book retelling the history of Visatorre slavery at the end of the Classical Era, because I’m trying to figure out how many of us were enslaved and how many were free people. Three of these books say it was about thirty-seventy, which I thought was propaganda, but from what I saw with Eve and King Julius, it seems like a lot of us were just normal serfs, same as everybody else. It’s weird. It’s like we’re living in two different timelines.”
Lorian squatted beside the couch and handed her the bag.
“What is it?”
“Close your eyes and smell it.”
She gave her a strange look but trusted her enough to follow the instructions and sniffed.
Her hands moved quicker than her eyes. In seconds, she had ripped open the bag and yanked out the heavy set of books. “Did you really? Is this about the history of Roman monarchical—”
She lifted the box set onto her lap, taking in the illustrated dragon painted over the cover.
She flipped it around and thumbed down the line of six books, each book growing in page numbers. The last book had almost twice as many pages as the first.
“You’ve been sick for so long, I wanted to surprise you with something other than Eve or my family’s history covered in bloodshed.”
Aida opened up the second book and fanned the pages close to her nose, taking in its scent. “How’d you pay for this? Did you steal it?”
“I used my own gold to buy it, but I did steal it from my own vault at the palace, so in a sense, yes.”
She smirked but still looked incredulously at her gift. “How’d you know?”
“That it was my birthday yesterday.”
“What? It was your birthday? Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Because I usually despise it. My mother would never celebrate it as grandly as she did with my two sisters. After a while, it was too painful to deal with, so I stopped dealing with it. Over time, they stopped congratulating me on being born.”
Lorian got up closer and pet back Aida’s flyaways. “I appreciate that you were born. I appreciate that I found you, that we found each other, and I thank Circa every day for having you in my life.”
Aida smiled up at her with hurt in her eyes. Hurt and love and comfort knowing that she now had someone who cared for her life.
Lorian poked her side. “Just don’t breeze through those books in one night.”
“I won’t. I’ll finish it in two.” She flipped through the first chapter, pretending that there was a sparkle in her newly changed eye. She smudged it away with the back of her hand. “Do you mind if I talk about it?”
“I’d be honored.”
She crossed her legs, manually adjusting the bad one so it stayed. Her idle fingers then rapped over the blankets she’d been living in that month.
She turned away before patting the empty space next to her. “Hop in, then.”
Lorian waited to hear more of an explanation for such an odd request from Aida of all people. It was true that they’d technically slept together before they’d even kissed, but she didn’t expect this from her.
But she sure wasn’t going to waste the opportunity she’d dreamed about for weeks now.
She got in carefully, making herself tiny so Aida didn’t have to move from her warm spot. Aida brought the blanket around them and snuggled up quite closely to Lorian. She almost spooned Lorian, for Circa’s sake, but instead held her book just above the pillows, like this was all very normal.
“So, where was I?” she said, not looking up at Lorian. “Ah. So, Pinnacle had a best friend named Ivory, did you know that? She’s a bit of a foil to Pinnacle that you meet later in book three who they cut from the opera adaptation, but they could’ve at least cast a nod of appreciation to the book fans. Oh! Can I tell you my hypothesis on Red Dragon and her eye color? Trust me, it’ll make sense.”
Lorian carefully brought her hidden hand and drew circles over Aida’s shoulder. “I’m listening.”
“Excuse me.” Missus Sharma waddled into the room. “Before anything happens, may I intrude?”
Aida and Lorian looked up.
“Did I hear that it was some lucky girl’s birthday this week?”
They didn’t have any readily available presents, but both Missus and Mi’Sharma promised Aida ten year’s worth of presents come next year. In exchange, they made her a strawberry cake full of frozen strawberries and white icing. Onto and Chrissie woke up to the best breakfast ever and wished Aida a belated happy birthday with their mouths stuffed with 9 AM cake.
With their bellies full of cake, Lorian listened to two hours of vivid and passionate explanations about the world of Pinnacle Isle from someone who’d somehow memorized the entire lore to the story she loved. She read all of it off from a journal she now had, a series bible she’d created since being at Missus Sharma’s. Back before, she was able to tell Lorian all of this from her own mind. Lorian didn’t mention that; Aida was having too much fun.
She relearned about how Aida visualized the Goddess, how Red Dragon’s babies are a direct reflection of the author’s own children. She rocked when she got excited and started shivering with excitement when she reached her favorite fan theories. Lorian wished this author would write more books just so Aida could be happy.
“What do you think?” Aida asked, biting into a juicy strawberry. “Do you think Pinnacle has dark hair or blond hair? This’s very important.”
“Isn’t it blond? It was blond in the play.”
“Wrong! The author specifically…” She double-checked her notes. “In book one, it specifically states that he has dark hair that appears cobalt near the sea, but the stage adaption gave the actor Finneus Craw sandy brown hair, so between book three and four, he changed it to blond to appease the new readers.”
“Ugh,” Lorian said sarcastically. “How dare he.”
“I know!” Aida said seriously. “I spent three years reading Pinnacle with black hair! He said it wasn’t important to the story, but fuck that. I need visuals. If you’re not going to write out your character’s hair color, eye color, and skin tone, what’s the point of writing a book?”
“I completely agree with you. You should write your own version of the book.”
“I have! Thirty pages of it.” She blew out her cheeks. “I love these books. I love this boy so much.”
“I know you do.”
“Thank you for buying this for me. You didn’t have to, but I appreciate it more than you know.”
“I figured you’d enjoy it a tad.” She laced her fingers in her lap. Throughout Aida’s explanations, Lorian had been trying to figure out how to ask her a very important question.
“And I suppose you, too, are quite a pretty girl.”
She waited to see if Aida had anything more to say. She had, she knew she would, but Lorian took her chance before she caught her breath. “Hey, Aida.”
She looked up.
“Can you call me a boy for a little while?”
Immediately, she cringed. That wasn’t at all how she wanted to ask that. “Call me a boy?” Who said it like that? She’d been trained to give speeches and addresses and dictate herself properly. What had become of her?
Aida stared at her—at him—all the joy stripped from her face. “Yeah,” she said. “Did something happen?”
“No. Just want to try some things out.”
“Okay. Anything else you want me to do?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Alright, then.” She reopened the first page of her book, staring at nothing. Then she slammed it shut. “Did I tell you about the alleged leaks that came out during the writing of book four when we found out that the Goddess actually has a mortal brother because it seriously keeps me up at night and I’ve been dying to tell somebody about it.”
Lorian just laughed and readied himself for another tangent.