Lorian had given one officer a black eye and sent another to the infirmary before they had the sense to blind and gag them.
“Where’s Aida?” they demanded as they were restrained. “Please, I need to see—Let me see her!”
They fought for Aida’s sake. They hadn’t reunited with her yet, so Lorian showed these daft officers what their lives would be like until they were back together. They called their mothers every slur they knew, they never stopped thrashing against their vicelike grips. After they heard something crack and a man spat out a mouthful of blood, they bound Lorian’s feet and eyes so it made it difficult to fight back.
Difficult, but not impossible.
They dragged Lorian out of the cabin into a nearby carriage. They’d thought two officers in the backseats would be enough, but Lorian shattered one of the windows with their elbow.
“Restrain her!” called the driver.
“Give her back!” Lorian yelled through the gag, and their head was forced down. When their carriage ride ended, Lorian’s neck was strained from desperately pushing against the officer’s hand on their neck.
Ducks quacked upon their arrival. It was the first clue that they’d been dragged back to the castle. In the back of the castle near the servants’ entrance was where they kept the castle ducks, geese, chickens, and roosters. Only the finest eggs for a family much too deserving of them.
Without the means to walk on their own, Lorian announced they were back home by cursing out the people inside, their father in particular. They knew they did well when they heard a maid gasp in alarm.
“So much for the art of surprise,” one pissed officer said, and Lorian responded by degrading their mothers.
The remaining officers led Lorian into a spacious room. By how many flights they’d gone up and how aggressive the scent of perfumes and fresh linen lingered, Lorian only assumed it was their bedroom. Sure enough, once the doors were locked and Lorian pulled off their own blindfold, they were struck with godawful familiarity.
The portraits they’d ruined and tapestry they’d torn were now replaced with bolder, gaudier artwork. Their bed had been shifted and the locks had been changed. Their windows still had glass, which made for an easy escape, but there were now bars incarcerating them like they were a criminal. And when they checked their closet, they were met with dresses, petticoats, stockings, heels layering the floor like spikes.
Nothing smelled like them. Nothing smelled like Missus Sharma or her pastries.
“Fuck!” they shouted, and went for their bedroom door knowing what would happen but still needing to get out the energy that’d entered them. They kicked the handle, the center to see if their boot would go through. Their door had been replaced multiple times with stronger wood. This one hardly dented. “Let me out! You can’t keep me here!”
Nobody answered them.
“Please!” they begged. “You can’t—I can’t be here! I can’t!”
Nothing but the silence in this God forsaken place responded.
They pulled at their short hair. It was over. In a few minutes or hours, their father would come in and tear out the new chapters they’d written with Aida. He’d chain them up—literally or figuratively, it didn’t matter—and their signature would be forged to marry Prince Zaahir. They’d be sent on a boat and locked in another room that wouldn’t smell like them, and then…
“Enough!” the officer on Lorian Watch said through the door.
“Let me out!” they ordered. “I can’t breathe!” And they couldn’t. This world wasn’t ready for them and they couldn’t father children because if they did, if they couldn’t be with Aida…
“Your mother and father are in a meeting. They will be in to see you shortly.”
Somehow, that hurt the most and staggered Lorian back. They were too busy with work to even care that one of their children had come back home. It wasn’t unexpected, just something they wished might’ve been different: the definition of “insanity,” hoping to change the status quo that hadn’t been touched in a millennium.
Lorian held back their tears as they paced in circles. They wondered if their parents would even see them as their child anymore. Maybe their mother, but a look from their father would’ve changed her mind. Their father likely only saw them as a pawn to be wed off to a distant country’s prince, but no daughter, or son, or whatever they were now.
In his eyes, they’d always be nothing.
The rays of Sun that managed to stream through Lorian’s windows counted down their remaining hours of freedom. They passed through the forest trees where they’d last seen Aida. If Aida had been caught and Carmine had been as punctual as he’d sounded, she would’ve been on the last boat to Bělico by now.
Whoever had reset their bedroom to better appease their father hadn’t found Lorian’s hidden stash of Nectar bottles. They kept a few of them hidden underneath the floorboards near their closet wall. A missing stone that made up the insulation proved to be the most efficient hiding place for their things. They’d hidden notes here when they were a child, secret presents of animal bones wrapped in vines to give to Missus Sharma the next time she did their laundry. Next it was knives they’d steal from downstairs, and then cigarettes and Nectar onwards.
They finished through their stash once the Moon had risen over the trees.
They took a greedy swig from their bottle, letting the thick ambrosia burn going down. Their parents must’ve known the truth by now, that Lorian was Lucia and their runaway princess had become a time-traveller’s assistant in dastardly crimes. They wondered what Beatrice had said to them, if she’d said anything. Had she kept their identity a secret this whole time?
They took another swig. The officer outside their room was mysteriously quiet this evening. They didn’t hear them speak with other officers going to and fro about the castle and they didn’t answer any of Lorian’s questions pertaining to Aida. Carmine wouldn’t have hurt her, but what if one of his officers had? Was she safe? Had she fought harder than Lorian?
Itching for a fight, Lorian fell out of bed and crawled to the door. “I wanna go to the clock tower,” they slurred. “I can’t think straight.”
The stationed officer said nothing.
“You can’t keep me here! I’ve broken out before, I’ll break out again. I’ll—” They faced the windows. “I’ll slam my head in so hard—”
“Your Highness, you mustn’t say such things.”
“Don’t call me that!” they shouted. “That’s not me.”
Their head swayed. Wasn’t it, though? If they were to marry Zaahir, becoming the princess of Aldaí and princess of…
They returned to bed. They didn’t want to be a princess or queen, they didn’t want the responsibility of ruling a kingdom right now. They didn’t want any of this. What they wanted was Aida and what they needed was her guidance to get them the fuck out of here.
It wouldn’t happen now. They were nothing without Aida. She inspired them to be better and without her, Lorian was just a selfish, bratty princess who couldn’t do what they were told. They needed to accept that they wouldn’t see Aida again, or if they did, it would be her future self that’d likely destroy more of their future.
A knock rapped on their door. To answer, Lorian cursed them out and slipped getting back into bed.
The door unlocked with a key.
Zaahir nodded to the officer outside Lorian’s bedroom and entered with Kadar tailing behind his robes.
Lorian lifted their legs onto their bed. “What, is this beautiful wedding finally on? Are you here to ravage me?”
Zaahir pressed a finger to his lips until he and Kadar were out of earshot from the door. He walked around Lorian’s discarded bottles. He set one on their nightstand. “Are you alright?”
“You shouldn’t be drinking. Your father wishes to speak with you tonight.”
“Oh, really? I had no idea.”
“Lorian, please, stay with me a moment.”
“According to our parents, we’re to stay together for the rest of our lives.”
Zaahir picked up another thrown bottle of Nectar. “You must sober up. I cannot stress this enough. I know you’re upset and frightened about what’s to come. This past month with your father has been horrendous and I do not know how you survived short of twenty-four years with him.” He looked nervously at the door as if he was listening in. He drew closer to Lorian. Lorian scooted back.
Zaahir looked up, confused by everything Lorian was, then said something in Aldaían and opened his arms like he was going to fall backwards. “Lorian—Let me be perfectly clear with you: I have absolutely no interest in pursuing you in any romantic or nuptial way, and despite what you may think of me and what I’m going to suggest, I am simply not interested in this fifteen-year-long engagement our parents have molded around us, okay?”
Lorian’s eyes went crossed at his long speech, then came back when he stopped talking. “You don’t wanna marry me?”
“I never have, and I believe you’ve shown your distaste in the idea in more obvious ways than I have.”
“My liege.” Kadar leaned in to their conversation. “We need to hurry.”
“How come you don’t wanna marry me?” they asked. “I thought you wanted to marry me.”
“Was it not obvious that I’m already committed to someone? Haven’t I told you?”
“You’re in love?”
“But are you? Are you?”
He closed his eyes. “Yes, Lorian, I’m deeply in love with Kadar here. You’ve met him before, he’s a wonderful man.”
Lorian looked around the prince of Aldaí to his quiet knight. They waved. Kadar waved back.
Then Lorian jolted. “Wait! If you’re in love with him and I’m in love with Aida, then why in the Gods’ names are we still engaged? What’s the point if we don’t want each other?”
“Because we have obligations.”
“To whom? To the people who will soon be under our ruling?”
“There’re rules, Lorian, but listen to me.”
They did, now knowing that this secret midnight meeting didn’t have any nefarious undertones to it.
“If we can make this meeting with the king work, you and I can gain some advantage against him and end this nightmare we’re stuck in.”
“What’s your plan?”
“Your father just got out of talking with his counsel and he’s very upset with all of us. All this time, I’ve been trying to please him and make him respect me as a young heir, but now he sees me no more than a child trying on my mother’s shoes. Your sister has been helping me, but we need you to keep calm and to not rustle any more feathers to get some sense into him.”
“I have rustled no feathers.”
“I’m joking.” They fixed up their hair and shirt to look more presentable. “I’ll be good.”
“Good, because your father sent me up here to get you. He wants to speak with you now.”
Two officers, along with Kadar, escorted them to their father’s meeting room. Given that the country just found their lost heir, the halls were exceptionally barren. Elegant and rich, with paintings that’d been here since their mother’s grandmother’s time. The lights were lit low, heating the gold in a warm glow. The officers said nothing to them, and Lorian wondered if they’d been ordered not to pry. Their father controlled everything, even the people’s thoughts.
“Now, once you meet with your mother and father and they begin asking you questions,” Zaahir said, “I’ll take over most of the talking. Your mother values my viewpoints and your father might understand our situation through a sober thought.”
“I’ll sober up. I was just upset. Mother and Father haven’t even visited me.”
“I’m sure they’re busy tracking down those future selves of yours. You haven’t a clue what their next ploy is, do you?”
“No. That’s the thing with those future selves, we’re always gonna be ten paces behind them.”
“Do you know anything about Aida?” they asked hopefully. “Do you know where she is?”
“I do not. Did you hear about their carriage?”
The implication of that question smacked them awake. “What happened to her?”
“They don’t know. The officers driving it hadn’t heard anything from Constable Carmine and stopped the carriage to investigate. They found that both Aida and the Constable had disappeared without opening either door. It seems they’ve both time-travelled together.”
Lorian sighed in relief. Even with Aida’s whereabouts unclear, she hadn’t been brought back to that sadistic household. She’d bought herself some time and had gotten Carmine off of their back. Truly a wonder, that girl.
“We’ll figure this out,” Zaahir said, “you and I, and Kadar and your sister. Despite everything that’s happened, she still loves you very much.”
Lorian went to argue that last point. For every reconciliation they’d had, two fights were birthed from it. Hair pulling, screaming matches. They’d once injured a maid when she’d try to pull them apart. That was back when they could still punch each other and not send waves of unrest throughout multiple kingdoms.
They peered over to Kadar, who’d been holding his tongue like a true Aldaían knight. “When did this happen? You and Kadar?”
Zaahir smiled. “Do you remember when we first met? We were still too young to understand what was going on with our arranged marriage, but I was told to be courteous and chivalrous to you, to act like the prince I always read about in fairy tales. When I memorized what I needed to say and asked for your hand, your little six-year-old hand, I believe you told me, ‘Why in your right mind would I ever want to marry you, you…’ I believe you called me a ‘pompous shithead’.”
The officers gave in and turned their heads to such outlandish talk between royals.
Lorian laughed. “Did I really say that to you?”
“Yes. Our parents were furious, especially your father.”
“I’d believe it. I was so against the thought of marrying someone I didn’t know, I’d make myself throw up before meeting you. I tried everything to get out of it. It doesn’t seem I’ve matured past that.”
“Nothing of the sort. Despite only meeting you a handful of times, you inspired me.”
“I inspired you?”
“Greatly. You were the first girl—” He stopped short and looked to Lorian for approval.
“‘They’ is good for me right now.”
“Of course. My apologies. So, when I met you, I never knew children could deviate from the norm like that. Back at the capitol, while same-sex couples weren’t discouraged, royal heirs were expected to continue the royal line to keep the family trees pure. This meant we were expected to conceive a child with a favorable suitor already picked out for us. But then I met you and heard the way you acted as either a boy or a girl.”
“That as well. I hadn’t been raised with such nuance interpretations of gender and sexuality. After that, I began exploring my…options.” He fell back and took Kadar’s hand, which Kadar shyly reciprocated. “While I’m still expected to have heirs, I’m fully allowed to keep him in my heart. And right now, I only want him in my heart.”
All the hesitation Lorian had with Zaahir completely vanished. Knowing they shared a similar anxiety about deviating from the norm made him more real than ever. Before tonight, Lorian saw Zaahir as this pristine little boy from Aldaí. Now, he felt more like a true friend, an ally.
They turned the corner to a short hallway that Lorian knew too well. It held only one room next to a row of windows that overlooked the private gardens. Whenever Lorian acted out, their father would bring them into that room and lash out at them. Yelling, slapping, caning until he broke them. Even now, hearing a man yell at them made them flinch.
Lorian felt like vomiting again. Three armed officers waited by the door, signaling how many people of importance were in that room.
“It’ll be okay,” Zaahir whispered, and the officers knocked on the door.
There was a pause. Someone talking within the room stopped and got up.
“You may enter.”
Lorian locked onto their mother first, for when they came in, she bolted upright, hair and dress bouncing, a hand over her chest.
Lorian grabbed her arms to keep her from falling. She started crying, something that always hurt no matter what she did alongside her husband’s wishes. Her hair looked greyer, her features more pronounced like a detailed portrait.
“Oh, my love,” she cried. “I’m so happy you’re here with us again. I was so worried.”
Lorian massaged her back. She smelled like home. Her long face, her long, beautiful hair that reached the floor, it was comforting, despite all the harsh memories they had connected with her. They wondered if she’d been upset that Lorian had cut off all the hair that marked every royal Roman woman.
Their father was still sitting with two of his advisors. Their sister was on a couch by herself, hands folded on her lap. She did sit up when Lorian entered but didn’t speak.
Their father did instead. “Rosalia.”
Their mother pulled back from Lorian and bowed.
Zaahir and Kadar bowed to the room. “Thank you for having us so late in the evening,” Zaahir said.
Their father motioned at the empty couch in front of him.
Lorian refused at first, then remembered what they needed to do and sat.
They all sat in a circle, yet nobody made eye contact with each other. The quietness settled over them like a poisonous gas waiting to be inhaled.
Lorian tried keeping as still as their mother. They recognized this silence before the storm. They knew this side of their father.
Zaahir cleared his throat. “As we promised,” he started, “I’ve spoken with Lucia in detail about the events—”
“What will it take?”
They all looked up to Lorian’s father, who was now leaning forwards, his fingers interlocked in thought.
“What will it take,” he repeated, “to put this behind us?” He gestured to Lorian’s outfit like he was pointing to something tangible. “These…outfits, and these names you’re choosing to go by. If that’s what you want, you can have it. If it means keeping you here with us, I’ll allow this ‘Lorian’ in my Palace.”
Lorian looked around the room to everyone’s confused faces. They’d never thought that name would ever pass their father’s lips. Had she wanted it to? Did it deserve to be said in his voice?
What was his ulterior motive? That’s how it worked in these meetings. He always searched for something he could gain from every conversation he had. From asking for his mother’s hand in marriage to his constant questions about Aldaí’s resources and their own prince. He just wanted, like a sink hole in a field full of loose sand.
“That’s what you want, is it not?” their father repeated. “That’s why you left. That’s why you’ve been acting out ever since you were born. Well, now you have it.”
Zaahir faked a smile that Lorian was convinced young heirs needed to master to stay afloat. “What…fantastic news, Your Majesty. That’s incredibly thoughtful of you.”
Lorian readdressed the room. Their mother had taken out a fan and was hiding her mouth. Beatrice had knitted her brows in confusion. Their father’s eyes were as cold as the Bělico mountains.
They gulped. “In exchange?”
Their father continued glaring at them. They didn’t know how Aida was able to do this so easily and not feel intimidated by someone with so much power over them.
“In exchange for what you promised us when the Gods bequeathed us with two girls.”
That sick feeling churned in their stomach. They backed up into the couch to escape those eyes.
“No matter how many tantrums you throw, you are still engaged to Prince Zaahir, and I expect you to bear the children expected of you.”
Zaahir’s composure cracked. “Your Majesty, perhaps we should—”
“Silence,” he snapped at Zaahir, and Zaahir went still.
“You two are to abide by the rules instilled in all of us. What you’re called by doesn’t matter in the case of formal union. You are the royal successor to Roma. In three days’ time, you will be set to marry Prince Zaahir, to which you will consummate and make the marriage official. Until then, you’ll be kept under watch in your room until the ceremony begins.”
The simplicity of this fake family reunion cracked and bled out amongst the room.
“Dear,” their mother said. “This isn’t what you—”
“I told you that there’s nothing more to discuss. She cannot travel and run away from her duties like that delinquent child she’s been aligning herself with. All of this will be put to an end tonight.”
“Stop acting like a child!” their father roared, and their mother sobbed into her fan. “I’ll have no more time for these childish games. Pretend to be everything and anything you wish to be, but you are a royal child, first and foremost, and in three days from now, you will be married to Prince Zaahir and you will fulfill what is expected of you.”
“Wait!” Lorian stood up for themselves, their knees knocking into the coffee table. “Father, please, just give me a second to speak. I know you expect a lot from me.”
“Do I, after every single time I’ve given you what you want? I gave you your own clothes, I let you do so much that my father would’ve killed me for, and every day you insist on making a fool out of our family.”
That hit hard into Lorian’s heart. Their confidence wavered. “I-I know, but believe me when I say that this isn’t about me. Aida, the real one, the younger one, knows things. About the past,” they pressed, trying to make themselves sound urgent and intelligent and failing at both. God, why had she drunk so much? “She’s been to the past. She’s met Eve.”
Their father motioned for his wife’s men.
“No!” They backed away from the approaching threat. “Please, we’ve seen her. Zaahir and Beatrice, they’ve both seen her.”
Zaahir and Beatrice tensed, unsure of when or if to speak up on the burial of a 1,200-year-old queen.
“There’s so much that Aida knows that you need to learn about,” they continued. “It’s why we came here yesterday to talk, yet you attacked us without so much as asking why we were here.”
“Your future selves—”
“Fuck our future selves!” Lorian shouted. “They aren’t us! Not now! I’m here, and I need you to hear me out for once.”
“Wait until you’re sober. I can smell the honey on your breath from here.”
“Father, I think you should listen to them,” Beatrice said, but their father held up a hand, silencing everyone in the room.
“Keep her in her room for the time being,” he ordered. “I need to begin organizing the guest list and the cooks. Do not let her out until the eve of the ceremony. I don’t need her causing another mess like last time.”
The officers grabbed them, their one chance at persuading their father to finally listen to them not as an heir or even his own child, but as a person who needed their true voice heard.
The double doors shut before they got another word in.