When Aida awoke that morning, she was feeling as if the whole fall season had been a dream. Life flowed back into her bones and she kept down her food like she wasn’t on death’s door. Her head still contained the fog she couldn’t quite shake and she continued having trouble concentrating. It helped that she had more books to read.
Nobody had ever given her such a thoughtful gift before. During harvest festivals and New Years, her mother would buy her one or two random murder-mysteries or romances, two genres she had no interest in reading. Lorian, who she’d only known for a season, had easily broken through her barriers and given her something she truly needed at her worst. And he hadn’t even asked. He’d just known.
She touched her lips as she read. She’d wanted to get in a few chapters to sharpen her brain before breakfast, but he kept coming to mind. What he’d asked of her—how he wanted to go by he/him for the time being—and the way he’d kissed her. These actions—trusting her and loving her, giving her gifts because he could—had serious implications, didn’t they? It made them more than partners in time travelling crime. She’d been unknowingly swaying her hips, hearing the beat yet not knowing how to join the dance.
She did like him, she just didn’t know if her heart was big enough to take on his. He loved so earnestly and loudly with his touches and pecks. How could she compete?
They’d date, right? She’d kissed him and tasted that vanilla always clinging to his person. She remembered his hands delicately caressing the sides of her face, like he was afraid she might break, and how he’d cared for her in their Nest.
She closed Pinnacle Isle. She’d been lying on her back, so she turned to her belly and brought up her knees to alleviate some of the pressure from her lower back. Her mother’s marriage had been dismal. Marriages around her growing up were dismal and ended dismally. She didn’t want to put her everything into someone knowing it was just going to fuck her over in the end. She refused to mess up anyone else’s life.
“Lorian loves you,” a voice in her head said.
“Shut up,” Aida said to herself, and got ready for the day.
“What was that?” Lorian, who’d been sitting just across the room for her, put down his book. He was halfway through the second book of the series, right when Pinnacle should’ve lost Yellow and Blue in a snowstorm. He looked more than stressed. He was definitely at the right part.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Alright. Also, Aida, does Red Dragon die?”
She arched a brow. Should she ruin the surprise? While the opera did wonders for the story, Red Dragon was but a background prop of the overall plot. In the series, she had six books to shine but was only on five of the book covers.
She left for the bathroom, smirking to herself, and admired how strange her new two white irises looked on her. She’d been avoiding her mirror image and hated seeing her rat’s nest of curls in the morning, but ever since Lorian made her feel a little more wanted, she’d been spending more time in here.
“Aida.” Lorian almost dropped the book. “Aida, you come back here. She just survived a giant onslaught of horned wolves—she’ll survive, won’t she?”
After cleaning up, Aida made herself a bowl of porridge. Onti was sitting by himself at the kitchen table with his own breakfast. It was rare to see one rambunctious child without the other close by. As Aida made a cup of coffee, she looked around to see where the little girl was so early in the morning.
Onti sniffled into his piece of burnt toast.
Aida’s jaw dropped. “Did Chrissie jump?”
Onti scowled into his meal and turned away.
Lorian came in with his book bookmarked. “She left a few hours ago. I’m sure she’ll be back soon. We’ll have to bake her something delicious when she comes back.”
Onti pushed his food away and crossed his arms. Bundled up in-between his fingers was a red ribbon Chrissie often wore in her hair. “It’s not fair,” he mumbled into the nook of his elbow. “It’s not fair this only happens to us. I hate being Visatorre.”
“Don’t say that,” Lorian said. “It’s what makes a big part of you.”
“And I hate it. If I could, I’d rip it out of me so I could be normal like you.”
“Well, I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not in any way normal.”
“Yes, you are,” he said. He sounded more irritated than sad now. “You’re pretty, you’re smart, you don’t hurt all over. You’re royalty, so you’re rich, aren’t you? You get to travel the world and do really cool things with other people just like you. Visatorre don’t get those types of things. So, you’re normal. We’re not. We’re freaks.”
Lorian’s lighthearted smile fell off of his face. He looked away, ashamed for suggesting his differences could’ve been compared to theirs.
Aida opened her mouth to make both of them feel better, but there was nothing to make them feel better about. Being a Visatorre was, in all honesty, a terrible thing to be during this time, and nobody could’ve possibly had it worse than they did.
She’d thought. Up until college, she believed this little circle marking her skin only meant misery. That she was an unwanted mistake that would forever be in pain and outcast by everyone around her. It’d been her truth every day since she’d woken up.
But now, things were changing. She had this future to look forwards to, this woman who smiled despite her pain, who could laugh and hold hands publically with someone who Aida was getting to know better. It made her think about a future.
It kind of sickened her how optimistic and hopeful that made her feel. Since when had she ever been hopeful? Since her Durante Academy acceptance letter? Had she even smiled when she’d received it, or was it just a reminder of how much harder she needed to now work?
Aida took the seat across from Onti. “Being a Visatorre sometimes sucks hard. Look at me. I was bedridden because of it. I have to use a cane to walk around, all because we go back in time for an hour or two.”
“How come it happens?” he asked her. “Why is it only us?”
“Because we’re made of Gods. Circa and the rest are able to bend time and shape mountains for fun. They created stars and planets and all the pretty colors we see at sunsets, they created every single tangible—touchable—thing in existence. To have even an ounce of their powers inside of us, there has to be a trade off.”
“Because Circa gave us the power to travel back in time so we don’t repeat the past. We hurt, but it’s to better the world we’ve been given. We’ve seen evil things happen in the past, as I’m sure you’ve stumbled into one or two few scenes that you wish you didn’t.”
He nodded. Aida wasn’t used to this much eye contact with this one. Suddenly, after acknowledging that they were more similar than not, he seemed more interested in her. She wondered if he’d seen her in this way before this talk. Aida wasn’t used to little kids, just old sisters who wanted her smudged out of the picture. She hoped she didn’t come across this way to Onti.
She stood up a little taller. “So we need to remember that. We need to see the errors of the past and try our hardest not to see them repeated in the present.”
“But I don’t want to hurt anymore,” he said. “I don’t want my headaches.”
“I know. I don’t want my inner pain, either, and if I could, I’d take on the burdens you bear in a heartbeat. But think. My future self, have you heard about her? The girl parading around in the streets, causing a fuss to the villages and making the Constable crazy?”
He nodded. “It’s the person that scary man was looking for. I don’t really get it, but she’s like you, isn’t she, but grown up?”
“Yes. She’s learned how to jump without being hurt. She looks like a rabbit, hopping around from moment to moment. I swear, when I get to be her age and she becomes me and I figure out how to do it, I’ll tell you how to jump without getting hurt. I’ll tell everyone, and I’ll…I’ll make a better world for you. I promise.”
Onti blinked, his hazel eyes swimming with nervous hope at the declaration.
Aida was panting, her own brain rationalizing the promised she’d just made. In her future, she saw herself opening up a bookstore with her historian license. She’d wanted a space for people to learn more about a history that’d been scrubbed from the textbooks. Now, she wondered if that was too small of a goal. She was Aida Mirko, destined to fuck over the world by the time she was thirty. If she wanted to, she could’ve become a queen if she desired.
She looked at Lorian. Technically, if the two of them made out of this together, if he finally talked with his family about what to do…
Onti ate a bite of his porridge. “If this girl’s you,” he said, “and she can travel backwards and forwards, how come she hasn’t told you how to do it yet? If she has clues you’re trying to figure out, shouldn’t she have told you them already?”
“I guess she’s just a—” She stopped herself before the curse left her lips. “Complex woman,” she finished with.
“We’ll figure this out,” Lorian said confidently. “I’m sure of it.”
Just then, a spark of energy zapped in the upstairs bathroom, and Onti gasped and scurried out of his seat to reunite with his best friend. “Chrissie!”
Aida checked upstairs to see Chrissie upright and in one piece, holding her arm in pain but otherwise okay. Onti hugged her, hiding his tears with laughter.
Mi’Sharma, who’d been tending to the chicken coop, came in. “Oh, that’s good.” She read the grandfather clock. “Only forty-five minutes, Chrissie. That’s good.”
Aida checked the clock herself. Lorian had told her that, when she’d jumped during Eve’s death, she’d been gone four hours, almost double her normal jump time. And even then, two hours in the past, while not uncommon, have been her normal for nearly ten years. Her past chided her in that way, always reminding her that her life would be hard.
No. What had she just told Onti, and what did she believe? That being a Visatorre might’ve been painful, but it showed you a world outside of yourself, something nobody else could see, and that you shouldn’t be upset by how you were born.
And that type of self-reflection needed to start from the ground up.
“Mi’Sharma?” Aida asked. “Are there any community shelters nearby we can visit?”
“What type of shelters?” she asked.
“Shelters for the homeless, specifically ones that don’t shun Visatorre from their doors. I heard this year’s harvest will be plentiful. We should take advantage of that.”
“Did you want to do volunteer work?”
“Of sorts.” She nudged Lorian. “You still have your Lyria, right? All 12 billion coins of it?”
“A little less than that, but yes.”
“Good, ’cause we’re gonna drain your bank account dry.”
She nixed the meats and a lot of the eggs that they could’ve brought to families in need. This harvest had been good from what she saw at the markets, but the meat was still at exuberant prices. She figured half a kilogram of meat versus a kilogram of rice would’ve done a family better, and she kept that in mind during her shopping trips.
Discreet shopping trips. Hooded cloak and everything. Some people cast glances, but with her covered face, limp, and cane, nobody called the nearest officer or Constable on this old lady in a cloak that smelled like moth balls.
Lorian, like she thought, didn’t object to helping the needy, but she was surprised to see him so enthused about it. He didn’t argue with her or tell her how dangerous this could’ve been. It wasn’t like the Constable had ceased searching for them, but their wanted posters had faded. She saw that a lot of them had been ripped, hiding their faces in torn, yellowed papers.
Missus and Mi’Sharma, Chrissie, and Onti were just as excited to go out on this wintery morning to help feed the shelters. Their carriage was just able to fit all of them, so their food was secured on a wagon Lorian had helped attach to the back. Onti insisted that he ride in the back, which prompted Chrissie to tag along. To keep either of them from jumping out and hitting their heads, Lorian sat with them and their bags of rice, breads, beans, and jams. Aida stayed inside the carriage, feeling like she was a more recognizable target on these quiet streets thanks to her boisterous future self. She kept looking back, however, to make sure Lorian was okay as he told jokes to the youngsters.
“This’s a very noble thing for you to do,” Missus Sharma told her as she steered the horses into town.
“Aye, it’s very nice,” added Mi’Sharma, “though we shouldn’t stay very long. I don’t want anyone giving you trouble.”
“They’re not monsters,” Aida reminded her.
“Oh, I’m not talking about the people in the shelter, dear, I’m talking about the people running it. They normally have an officer or two around, making sure no fights or arguments come about. And when they get large donations like what you’ve put together, some people might get…riled. I’ve seen it back when we adopted little Chrissie and Onti. Many of the people there are very nice. Just be careful for anyone looking at you like a meal and not a person offering them something.”
That soured her mood. She wasn’t naive about pinching Lyria to stay afloat, but she’d never been truly homeless. She had run away from home, but it was just to Durante Academy, and then to Missus Sharma’s cottage. She had fought in her life, just not for a plate of food or a warm bath or a bed shared with her lover.
The shelter was a spacious building off in the eastern corner of Roma City, far away from the palace. There were no impressive structures or sightseeing pavilions here, but Aida still regarded it as an important part of Roman society.
They entered through the back door, where an older couple welcomed them and their donations. When they saw that everything in the carriage was for their establishment, the woman almost fainted in her husband’s arms.
“All of this, for us?” she asked. “Are you sure?”
“We wish to help in any way we can,” Lorian said.
“Are you sure? We don’t wish to impose.”
“You’re not imposing at all,” Lorian said, and held the door for them for the wagon.
The woman, who was almost as short as Aida, blushed and turned away from Lorian’s kindness. “My, what a polite, young man.”
Lorian beamed brightly at that.
The fires they had going were more than enough to keep the place warm, but the dozens of people sitting at the tables and in the corners of the room kept the shelter boiling. They sat as families or as companions. Children and mothers, lovers cuddling one another with a shared plate of buttered bread. The windows were iced over, but the candles were lit and gave everyone enough needed light for the morning breakfast.
Aida, Lorian, Chrissie, and Onti stayed in the back as the volunteers helped organize their wagon of non-perishables. They each wore a white cloth around their face to keep from breathing on the food, so Aida and Lorian grabbed two to better hide their faces. They should’ve stayed back as they were doing, but Aida kept stealing glances into the main floor. There were Visatorre who couldn’t walk, children who acted and survived more like aging elders. One had a missing eye plucked straight from their eye socket, leaving a dark hole in their face. Another had a crook in their neck that kept them twitching as if a bug were in their ear. They each thanked the volunteers for a warm meal. Mi’Sharma started crying.
She wanted to do more to help. What good was she like this, hiding in the shadows? She was a little head-fuzzy and technically a criminal according to the law, but something inside of her told her to do more for the Visatorre people. She felt it in her bones, her broken, hurting bones.
She leaned over the counter. Out of everyone sitting or standing near the tables, one person caught her eye. She was on the floor, near the fireplace to keep warm. She was dressed only in a thin, white sheet that hid her face.
Aida squinted at her. She looked familiar though she couldn’t place it.
Chrissie tugged on Lorian’s sleeve. He knelt down and let her whisper into his ear, to which he laughed and corrected her on an assumption she’d just made.
Stealing a moment, Aida crept out to the main floor.
She beelined for the cloaked woman. An itch she couldn’t wait to scratch grew stronger as she came in closer to the woman’s circle.
“Excuse me,” she asked, “are you okay?”
The woman didn’t move. She had perfect, dark skin and long, healthy limbs. She looked radiant, glowing, even. Aida couldn’t turn away.
Physically, she couldn’t. She’d been drawn to this woman like she’d been drawn to Eve or knowledge, but her feet wouldn’t move. Her eyes wouldn’t even blink as they began watering uncontrollably.
She started breathing heavily. Never had she not been in control of her body. Had she been drugged? Had someone placed a curse on her? Why was she scared stiff, and why was she trembling?
Aida looked only with her eyes at where she’d last left Lorian. Her head was fixed in place to face the faceless woman.
The woman’s cloth fell from her head, revealing long, white braids that were hidden down her back. She towered over seven feet tall and had a face that was perfectly shaped without a single flaw, at once youthful and wise in age, round and long, human and something not-so-human. She was divine like that, like someone who shouldn’t have existed in this realm.
And she was smiling. Wildly, wickedly, reaching from ear to ear but not her eyes. They were wide and unblinking, bright blue like the sky, with white pupils like her future self, like Eve.
Aida’s body seized as her vision exploded into stars. Her world burst into color and sights and sounds she’d never experienced before, like she was discovering a new medium of art unexplored by the past. She heard a buzzing and then a loud explosion of white noise, but her head felt a hundred times heavier with an influx of thoughts and feelings. She couldn’t make out where it was originating.
She fought through it. This wasn’t at all like her jump in the ruins, where she felt lightheaded and untethered from the earth. She’d blamed it on seeing Eve, but this was different.
She looked up. The room had been completely undone. The empty chairs had been tossed against the wall, the candles had been snuffed out. Lorian was in the middle of the room with a ladle in hand, confused. Chrissie and Onti were staring at her in horror.
A black circle of ash surrounded Aida’s trembling figure, the same stain Eve had left from her final jump.
The tingling rushed her in one powerful blow, making her stagger around in the circle. She tried to voice her concern, but she couldn’t find it. She couldn’t think.
When Lorian rushed to steady her, she did what came naturally and grabbed his sleeve. She fell back as he fell forwards, her vision blotted out, and she travelled somewhere into time with his hand in hers.