An arrow almost struck its target, but a hand pulled Aida back and saved her. She had a five-second delay on everything happening. All she saw were swords and smoke and her future self destroying any chance of talking to the Roman king.
Arrows littered the ground behind them. She registered officers and a Constable or two, but she wasn’t sure. She kept her eyes on her feet until she and Lorian left the smoke and were running towards the trees.
The forest didn’t have a gate around it. It belonged to the crown and was therefore still on their territory. She heard a rumor that the queen liked watching the deer that’d come to the clearing from her windows. From how meek she looked in the palace before the Constable whisked her away, Aida believed it.
“Go to your secret spot in the woods.”
She didn’t understand. Was it another lie concocted by her future self? Another rouse to get them into more danger? At best, she was an adult child who loved causing mischief. At worst, she was a devil sowing seeds of grief through their damned timeline. She’d essentially given them to King Durante for what? A good laugh? A befuddled look on Aida’s face? She wouldn’t have believed herself as easily as Lorian kept doing.
She could not believe she’d fucked up yet again. She’d had the chance to gain answers and finally be done with this game, and what had she done? Run away, giving up on ever getting the answers she needed. Why would anyone put their faith in her when she burned everything she touched? Truthfully, she’d been burning down her chances ever since she’d left Bělico, thinking she could make it in Roma when everyone, even the man in charge, thought she was useless.
The lights of the palace faded through the branches. The noise of the fight turned to chirping bugs and Lorian’s boots crunching down on snow and dry leaves. Snow piled up more the farther they trekked into the pine until Aida had trouble walking through it. Lorian finally slowed down for her when the forest became wilder and he needed to push past some of the thicker trees to get through. There had been a path he’d taken to, but he abandoned it a few minutes ago, opting for a less traceable route.
After twenty minutes of what seemed like aimless wandering, Aida found the thickest tree she could and leaned behind it to catch her breath. Her leg now had a steady heartbeat beating down to her numb toes, begging that she lay down and alleviate the pressure from it. Lorian stripped off his jacket as puffs of cold smoke left his lips.
She didn’t know what to say to him. What could be said? An apology? A deadpan delivery about their situation? A question? A demand? She kept panting to gain back some strength.
Lorian gave her a nod and motioned for her to keep following with a handhold. “We’re almost there.”
There he was. “Where? Some treehouse in the pine?”
“There’s a place my family and I used to visit out here. The last time we used it was about ten years ago, so I doubt they’ll search for us there. First.”
After another ten minutes of walking and stopping to breathe, Lorian slowed down and drew back to Aida’s side. “We’re here.”
The trees parted to a crystal lake that stretched a kilometer out. The Moon reflected itself off its calm waters and glittered silver and blue. Across the way, a homey cabin with a short dock made its home right on the water’s edge. Protective evergreens grew around it. An overturned canoe rested on its side. Its firewood supply looked endless stacked up against the side, growing moss in the darkening shadows.
“Ah,” Aida said, and finally realized what part of the woods she was in. “I’ve been here before.”
“In a jump. I think it was the jump I made when we first met. Back at the entrance to Durante Academy. You helped me to my dorm.”
“Is this where you went? This used to be my mother’s and father’s cabin when we went on hunting trips. We did them a lot when I was a child. It looks like they abandoned it.”
“Is it safe?”
“For the time-being, I can only hope. There’re a few other buildings in these woods, but they’re mostly for stocking and officer purposes. For right now, until you can walk better, I think we’re safest here.”
“I can keep going.”
“You’re limping. You’ve been limping since we crossed that stream.”
“I don’t remember crossing any streams.”
“We crossed two.” He gave her his arm. “Come now.”
Arm in arm, they walked along the curve of the lake. Their steps spooked lily pad frogs and water bugs back into the frosty water. Aida clung to Lorian just as tightly as Lorian clung to her. She felt if she’d let him go now, she’d sink into the river mud without the will to dig herself out.
No lights were on in or around the house, but the flowers growing around the patio and walkway seemed fresh and lively. An assortment of them grew in pots and throughout the earth, tiny pockets of needed color. Lorian opened the front door with his skeleton key.
As soon as she entered the threshold, Aida felt a sense of peace blanket her. It was heavily furnished cabin with couches, paintings of the Roman landscape, and flatware that must’ve cost hundreds of Lyria lining the glass cabinets. It gave off the impression of being lived-in and rustic, but tinges of royalty shined through. The fireplace hadn’t a scratch or burn mark on it. The kitchen was immaculate. The red rugs that matched the ones in the palace had neither a fray nor mark on them.
It reminded Aida of her mother’s house, in a way. It was the home she’d always wanted to truly relax in. No list of demanding chores, no fear of being too loud or too herself. She saw herself living here, even though it—none of it—belonged to her.
While Lorian surveyed the empty rooms and lit a spare lantern for light, Aida fell into an armchair nearest the front windows. Along the windowsill, someone had carved out a crude lion head with a knife. It looked childish.
She looked down at her tired, muddy feet, at the dress Missus Sharma had bought for her that she’d ruined from her run. As Lorian closed each door, she sniffled away real tears but couldn’t keep them from clouding her weird version. She was to become Future Aida, a loud and stupid and hurtful person to all who came near her. Whatever she had in store for them, it would be because of Aida and her stupid rashness to prove herself to strangers that she was more than her Visatorre marking.
She pulled herself free of her dress. She shrugged out of her bodice and petticoat like they were a disgusting second skin and kicked off her heels. When Lorian came back, he found Aida half undressed, her dress in a lump beside her, in nothing but her tank top, bloomers, and stockings.
He brought the lantern close to Aida. “Did you happen to jump whilst I was away?”
Without looking at him, Aida held out her hand in an offering. “Take this for me.”
He crept over warily. “What is it?”
She dropped her hand in his, a weak attempt at a hand shake. “My dignity, and any responsibility I have moving forwards when it comes to our relationship.”
He looked over his empty hand. “I don’t understand.”
“I shouldn’t be the one who has the final say in anything anymore, otherwise it’ll always turn up like this. Just take over for me. Change the timeline. Make things better.”
Lorian slowly wrapped his fingers around Aida’s offering. He must’ve had some semblance of authority in his blood, being royal and all. He probably wanted to take control of things, after everything Aida had done.
He knelt beside her and clamshelled her hand together, hiding it like a frightened firefly. “And you think I want that kind of responsibility?” he asked her. “Why do you think I left the luxuries of being royal? I want absolutely nothing to do with any type of power that I hadn’t asked for directly. You handle it so beautifully and strong, why would I ever take that from you? I can, surely, but Aida, I won’t be able to do it as well as you can.”
She scoffed. “What do you mean? I’m going to be her, Lorian. I’m going to be stupid a-and more abrasive than I already am. I thought I had a clear understanding about what I wanted from my life, but to know I going to be turning into her is awful.” She covered her eyes, her nails digging into her Visatorre marking. “I have no idea what I’m doing anymore, Lorian. I’m scared of our future.”
Lorian took her into his arms. “That makes both of us, Aida. I too have had reservations about getting you caught up in my life. What I’ve been doing is selfish and cruel to my people, but I’m too bull-headed to accept that maybe I should go back and right the wrongs I’ve made. You’re the one who has kept me grounded in a world where I feel like I have no power. You talk to me not as a royal heir but as Lorian Ashwell, a person who sometimes doesn’t know what to say, who tries to pretend everything’s going to be okay when it clearly, clearly isn’t.”
He touched the corner of her lips.
“You’re the only one to call out such things with me. You’re the only person aside from my sister to have ever done that with me. You’re smart and rational, you think everything through to the best of your ability. You care so, so, so much about people, to the point where you inspire me daily just based on your actions.”
He touched her forehead with his. “You’re an amazing woman, Aida, and I’m sure, through whatever crazy plot your future self is concocting, that everything you do is for the best.”
She sniffed. She never knew how, but the way he talked, just the sound of his voice, made her believe everything he was saying, even if some of it, he couldn’t prove.
He smiled and took her hand. “Let’s go somewhere a bit more hidden, in case they try to find us again.”
“If they’re meant to find us, our future selves already know.”
“At least we know we aren’t going to die anytime soon.”
She smiled. “That doesn’t make me feel any better.”
“Darn it. And I try so hard.”
They climbed up to the second and third floor of the cabin. Lorian waited patiently for Aida to make it. Her legs had really given out on her from the palace to here. Her bad leg was now quivering.
“Sorry. Just one more flight.” He pulled a string from the ceiling to reveal the attic door. “This’s where I used to sleep sometimes.”
“You have a strange fixation with sleeping in unusual places.”
“I guess I was a weird child.”
Despite being another attic space, Aida didn’t immediately hate the room. In fact, she rather liked it. It was furnished with a king-sized bed, a couch one could use as another bed, and its very own furnace to keep the space warm. A map of Lyria was tacked behind the bed frame, and there were two writing desks against the wall with books and papers still on it. From the corner of the rug flipped up to the dustless windowsills, the room looked well lived in, like someone had been using it the night before.
The moment she stepped into the room, though, a newer wave of familiarity warmed her like a fuzzy blanket. It stilled her for a moment, this feeling. It reminded her of the feeling she felt right before jumping into Eve’s timeline, making her feel so small and so big all at once.
It felt as if she’d already been here before.
Then she remembered she’d basically been in living in attics her whole life and buried that feeling inside.
Pushing up his sleeves, Lorian dragged one of the writing desks over the door and fastened the curtains closed. Aida beelined to the books in the writing desks. The History of Roma: Their Lives Untold. ‘The Classical Era Reimagined. The Sanitation System of Roma.
She fanned through the pages. “Were these yours?”
He looked over his shoulder. “I don’t believe so. I wasn’t too into reading as a child. Perhaps my parents or one of our officers left them here for storage.” He left to light the furnace.
“We can’t,” Aida said. “The smell will give us away.”
“Right.” He set his lantern aside and opened one of the closet doors. He fished out heavy, knitted quilts and plump pillows. “My sister and I used to make pillow forts with these.”
“Is that something normal siblings do?”
“Back before we started regularly fighting, I suppose, though I’d hardly call your sisters ‘normal’.”
He pressed his hand into one of the bulkier pillows. “There’s something here…”
It came out before he finished the sentence. The case slipped off the heavy pillow and a fountain of red rose petals sprinkled out across the bed. They collected on the quilt and tumbled down the bedspread like waterfalls. Some caught in the air like snow and fluttered for a moment before resting over the covers.
Lorian, gaping, checked the innards of his now empty pillow case. It had no pillow in it at all.
Aida choked on a blunt laugh. “Are you joking?”
Lorian’s fingers twitched to touch some of the petals. They acted like stinging poison on his skin. “I don’t remember putting those in there.”
“Maybe it was from your sister pranking you or something.” Aida closed the book she was about to start and waltzed over to the bed instead. Her weight jumped the petals and startled Lorian into backing up. “What’re we going to do now?”
“About the roses?”
“About our incoming prison sentence.”
He sat beside her. “What’s there to do?”
“Hide out in the Catacombs?”
He went to say something, then closed his mouth.
“Too soon,” she answered for herself. “I don’t know, Lorian. I really don’t.”
He gestured to the quilts. “Are these warm enough?”
She wrapped herself up in one. Lorian helped getting part of it over her exposed shoulder.
“Want me to redress?”
“…You don’t have to,” he said in delay.
“You really are a royal kid, huh? Ten minutes in your old family cabin and you’ve completely reverted.”
“Don’t say that. I’ve tried really hard. When I was a child, I was such a brat. I sometimes feel that personality creep back whenever I’m stressed or nervous. It’s hard to completely undo what’s been instilled in you since childhood.”
“I understand.” Aida’s roaming fingers found a rose petal. She played with it between her thumb and forefinger. “Tell me a bit about your life back then. How was the king and queen on their off days? What were your favorite meals to eat there?”
His real smile returned to him, and his hand found hers between the roses.
Two hours passed, and no one but Lorian’s memories and hooting owls disturbed them. He told her everything he’d yet to tell her in secret whispers. Little pranks he and Beatrice would play on the Constable, the time they’d stolen a handful of newly hatched sea turtles from the coastline. He told her of his times in this cabin, spending summer after summer hunting, foraging, getting caught in trees like overly-ambitious cats. He talked with a forlorn smile on his face; these memories hurt, but they held moments of happiness he felt comfortable sharing with Aida.
Aida tried to find any part of her history that was worth adding, but every time she found something to connect to him with, she remembered being beat or grounded and she kept quiet.
Lorian must’ve been a mind reader. After a particular memory that’d left her arm sore for two weeks, Lorian stopped talking and cuddled in closer with her. They’d taken to sharing one pillow and one blanket, their knees knocking, feet touching.
“Hey.” A stray hand tickled the top hairs of her head. “Everything okay?”
She nodded. “Just compartmentalizing.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“I’ll be okay. Go on with your stories.”
“I don’t think I have much else to tell you.” He looked up. “I’m afraid of you being too close to the window.”
“Well, you’re closer to the door.”
“I should’ve brought my rapier.”
“To a homeless shelter?”
In the end, Aida rummaged through the kitchen using the low-lit lantern and found a decently sized kitchen knife. It felt nice keeping it underneath her pillow but made her feel a little off, knowing that she needed one in the first place.
“Most trained officers aren’t used to working at night,” Lorian said. “It’s left for officers-in-training like Allessio and Matteo.”
“The king and queen will probably extend their hours into the night to find us,” Aida said, “but did you see the Constable? He was supposed to attack us, but he didn’t.”
“Well, I think he was trying to protect my mother.”
“He went against the king’s orders.”
“My mother is technically the true sovereign, plus, they’ve been friends since they were little kids.”
She smirked. “You think there’s something there?”
“God, I hope not.” He looked up to the ceiling. “I mean, given what we know about monarchs, who knows?”
Lorian yawned and moved up a bit closer to her.
“Thinking about sleeping?”
“Not really. Not yet, anyway.”
The ambiguity of that sentence lingered between them. Aida had scooped up most of the petals and tossed them out the window, but some were hiding underneath the covers and in-between their bodies.
“Aida, may I ask you something?”
She braced for the worst. She knew him well enough to know where this was going and didn’t know if she should’ve been leading him on like this. If this was leading him on, and if she knew what that meant. Should she’ve been sleeping on the floor? Should they’ve been sleeping in separate rooms? She hadn’t yet redressed.
He wrapped an arm around her waist. “I know you aren’t one for romance, or love, or feelings of any kind, not the ones I feel so strongly for you. I know it’s selfish for me to place those feelings onto you.”
Her stomach fluttered. That word didn’t sound real. It sounded like a dare someone was forcing her to be a part of. She steadied her breathing. “That’s not a selfish thing to say.”
“I’ve been so scared for you this year, so much more than anyone I’ve ever met. When I saw those officers honing in on us, when I saw my father so close to you, I was beyond terrified. More terrified than when we were in the Catacombs. I want to see you succeed with everything you see wrong in the world, and I don’t want to see you hurt or fearful anymore. I want to be with you by your side forever and take care of you.”
His nose brushed against her neck. “I love you, Aida.”
She exhaled, though she didn’t know if it was in relief or not. “That so.”
“It is. It’s always been.” His hand travelled upwards, almost touching her breast but not. She wondered if he could feel how fast her heart was beating. “Before anything else happens to us, I want to know if I have a chance to act on these feelings bubbling inside of me.”
“Feelings.” What were those? How did someone act on something that was concrete or able to be communicated easily? Whenever someone talked about love, they used poetic language and metaphors to get their image across. With anything else, with anger or jealousy or happiness, everyone knew what that meant and didn’t need long explanations to convey their meaning. People couldn’t do that with love. It was something so abstract that Aida thought most people didn’t understand it.
Just like her.
She kissed the rose petal. “Try.”
He lifted his head. “Pardon?”
“I don’t know how far I can go. I never tried experimenting with it, never had the chance or need to, but my adrenaline is unusually high right now. With you, now’s a better time than ever to try.”
He didn’t say anything. The breath on her neck faded. The bed creaked.
After an unreasonable amount of silence, Aida, red-faced, looked up.
His eyes were brimming with tears. He needed to cover his mouth to stifle the sniffling, but when they met eyes, he choked and let one tear go.
“Why’re you crying?”
“I’m just so happy. I’d be honored.”
“That sounds like a marriage…”
Lorian caressed her face with two caring hands, brushing back the stray hairs, before leaning in and kissing her.
How brave, how brazen of them, she thought, to kiss in his childhood cabin under the vigilant watch of the entire country’s law enforcement. But now, she partly understood the motives of most people: No matter how bleak and terrible a life was, it was lovely to feel loved.
Lorian dipped down and kissed her neck.
She gasped. His lips heated up parts of herself she never knew were cold.
Their thighs touched. Their socks grazed one another until Lorian lost one somewhere near the edge. He kept pressing into her like he wanted her to fall off the bed. It made her push into him, touching him more and more.
He cupped her breast. He freed it out of her loose undershirt. His hands had become so warm that it heated her up and burned her heart. She melted into it, unable to keep frozen any longer.
She understood it, why people touched like this.
His free hand wriggled underneath the covers and touched her upper thigh. “May I?”
She bit down her tongue. That was going too far, wasn’t it? At least she knew where he’d be touching when it came to her breast. This other hand could’ve gone anywhere and she couldn’t see it. “Y-you may. Not promising you anything, though.”
“You don’t have to promise me anything.” He tried for it, slowly. “It’s a bit awkward at this angle.”
His fingers slipped underneath her bloomer elastic, through the curly hair she now felt extremely self-conscious about. Did virginity have to be exclusive to penises, or could it be overcome by inexperienced hands? Did he have one? She couldn’t think.
His head dipped to kiss her collarbone as he reached down, down. Aida didn’t know what she needed to do on her end, so she copied what she read in books. She tilted her head back and spread open her legs. She let go a subtle moan to show that she was enjoying it, because she thought she was, but before she embarrassed herself any more, his curious fingers pushed through and curled up inside of her.
Her heart deadened. Disgusted, she grabbed his eager arm. “Stop.”
Immediately his hand shot away. He almost knocked himself out. “Sorry.”
She squeezed her thighs together to make the tingling go away. Kissing, she got. Touching, that was fine. Anything more was immediately pushed to the back of her brain as foreign territory. “You don’t have to apologize. I just don’t want to do that again.”
“I’m sorry. I knew that was going too far. I should’ve waited. I’m sorry.”
She took his face to make him look at her. The subtle features of his face came back into focus under the warm lantern light. She’d never gotten this close to him before. He had freckles, very light ones, kissing the underneath of his green eyes.
She leaned up and claimed his lips. “Don’t apologize. I command you.”
“Oh, you’re commanding me now?” He left a lighter kiss on her cheek. “Don’t think I’d mind that.”
“Is that what you’re into? Should I change positions?” She lifted one leg over his knee. “That better?”
“A little bit.” He sighed into her neck again. “I’m a little worked up right now.”
“I mean, I can try and do something for you, if you’d like, if it the threat of being found out doesn’t trample your boner.”
“I’m serious. Is that okay, by the way? I don’t want to use words that might make you uncomfortable.”
“I’m not sure.” He kissed her chin, then left his lips there. “I was thinking,” he said, “instead of she or he, how about we use what your future self keeps calling me?”
“She calls you, ‘they’.”
He nodded. “Why don’t we give that a try?”
“I know it sounds weird.”
“It just sort of sticks right now.”
“That’s fine.” She dropped her hands to their back. “It’ll always be fine.”
She awoke not on her own, but from a hand slamming down on her. A jolt, a stirring of darkness spilling from her head, and she had a hand over Lorian just as they had a hand over her. A bright light flooded the room they were in. It took a few seconds for her to remember where they were and what they’d done instead of remembering all the places Lorian’s hands had burned into her the previous night and how sweet and new those sensations had been for her.
Lorian was sitting upright with one hand over the blankets. It looked like they were about to escape but were waiting for Aida to wake.
A sword unsheathed itself from across the room. The Constable was standing at the top of the hidden staircase. The table had been thrown against the wall. It looked like he’d been scouring the forest for hours looking for them; his face was smudged with dirt and leaves were stuck in his hair.
“There you are,” he said, and took out a whistle from around his neck.
Aida covered her sensitive ears at its shrill tone. It was like a dog whistle that must’ve reached all corners of Lyria.
“Aida, go out the window!” Lorian warned. “Now!”
She tried, but she was more or less naked from her night with Lorian, and she was tangled in the blankets, and her head wasn’t yet screwed on.
“Oh no, not after the months of trials you’ve put me through. I know you aren’t those wretched future selves of yours. You can’t escape me.”
Aida grabbed her hidden knife and went to lash out at him, but from waking up so suddenly with the modest need to cover herself, her movements lagged, and the Constable easily knocked the knife out of her hands.
“Get off of her!” Lorian rammed their weight into him. Their elbow knocked against his jaw as he disarmed him of his sword.
The Constable dove backwards and picked up his sword. “Don’t move—”
He got into a sparring stance, ready to continue the fight, when he caught sight of Lorian. They’d uncovered themselves and left their naked body exposed. Once they realized what they’d done, they scrambled back to their side of the bed and covered their upper half.
The Constable’s shoulders slumped. His jaw hung open like a broken hinge not from injury but from something else. He dropped the sword he’d fought so hard to keep in his hands. It clattered onto the wooden floors like a saucepan until it stopped and the room was quiet, the sound of running officers closing in around them.
He was staring at Lorian’s arm, specifically the self-made tattoo they’d given themselves when they were younger.
“Lucia?” he breathed. “Is that you?”