Lorian threw another glass at the wall, shattering it to pieces. They’d lost their voice hours ago screaming to anyone who’d hear them, so breaking bottles had been the next best thing.
They felt sick with themselves, violated and betrayed by their own family’s hands. For years, they’d explained through tears that they couldn’t marry Zaahir. Back then, they hadn’t the words for their feelings, but they knew being married as Lorian was just as terrible as being married as Lucia.
On Circa’s name, they wouldn’t do it. They’d run away again. Somehow, someway, they’d leave this accursed palace and reunite with Aida, wherever she was in the world.
They tripped on their rug and fell hard on the ground. Either the officers outside their door had been ordered to ignore them or they were truly that alone. Their gut fell at the thought.
Then the officer outside their bedroom hit the door. “Your Highness,” they said. “His Majesty has requested that nobody enter this room.”
“I’m sorry, did you hear that from Her Majesty the Queen, because last time I knew, the leading monarch has the final word of such matters. Please move.”
Lorian backed up from the door. She sounded so put-together, like her own sibling’s life hadn’t been ruined for a second time that year.
Beatrice entered their destroyed room with perfect poise and ease, the officer keeling over to her natural charm. Lorian had always been jealous of that power she had, able to command the officers to do whatever she wanted. It was likely due to the officers seeing Lorian grow up so callously and thinking her the natural substitute as their only good heir.
She was dressed down more so than usual. She’d taken off her gloves since they’d seen her, and her dress lacked their normal grandeur. Coupled with a throw over cardigan, she looked ready for bed.
Lorian couldn’t meet her disapproving eyes and covered their eyes in shame. She’d married her husband and had a child without this much protest. She did what was told, never spoke out of turn. She was the perfect daughter, perfect monarch. They weren’t ready for her talk.
Beatrice stopped in front of them. Her shadow froze Lorian in their submissive crouch.
“We never wanted this.”
They squeezed their eyes harder.
“You and I never asked for this. We grew up rich and wild and lost like spoiled animals, and we were beat for acting as such. I tried my hardest to keep Mother and Father happy, but you had a different agenda. You always had.
“I talked with them, Mother and Father. Every time you lashed out, when all the doors were slammed shut and you wouldn’t speak to me, I’d run to Mother and Father and defend you. From the moment I knew how to speak, I was always defending you.”
Lorian didn’t deny it because they didn’t know if it was true. It didn’t sound like her.
“And I now know that wasn’t enough.”
“I should’ve helped you and been there for you more…presently, instead of helping from the sidelines. It’s what you needed most growing up and I wasn’t there to provide that to you, and for that, I apologize.
“But I can’t defend you from Father now. I’ve tried. He’s become unhinged on gaining this alliance with Aldaí that Aldaí doesn’t even want anymore, and we know Mother isn’t strong enough to tell him to stop. Zaahir nearly broke into Father’s study with how he spoke to you, and Mother hasn’t stopped crying. Nobody other than Father wants this, and that includes me as well.”
Her recovering hands found their way to Lorian’s cheek, forcing them to finally meet eye to eye.
Her emerald eyes were cloudy with tears. She blinked them back. “I love you, Lorian, in however you choose to live your life. I’ll always have your side. I know I don’t show it. I know I have trouble showing my emotions, but I favor you, and if you truly cannot see yourself marrying Zaahir tomorrow night, then I swear, I won’t let it happen to you. I’ll do better this time. I’ll be there for you.”
Perhaps, despite everything Lorian thought about their sister—how deadpan she was, how she didn’t seem to care for anything other than her obligations to whatever crown that was under her head—there was some semblance of her left in Lorian’s heart. She’d always been there, but their upbringings and days of unfair injustice had separated them. The threads had been frayed, but not torn.
Lorian bolted upright and hugged their sister. They cradled the back of her hair, digging their fingers into her long hair, pressing so hard into her just in case they’d never have this chance again to hold her like someone they truly loved and needed.
Beatrice returned their embrace.
“I’m sorry,” Lorian choked out. “I’m sorry for everything.”
“I’m sorry, too.”
And they broke down harder. They cried into her shoulder. She was so warm. Had she always felt like this?
She held them for as long as they needed, which, unbeknownst to them, could’ve lasted the whole night. She felt like their mother and Missus Sharma, of a home they felt safe in. So much of Lorian’s memories had tainted her in an unsightly darkness. They hadn’t realized they were both tainted, and that that darkness hadn’t come from them, but their shared childhood that’d nearly killed them.
They didn’t want to let go. They wanted her back in their life, to never have to leave her again.
But things were getting awkward, them holding each other in the dark, and Lorian pulled back to clear up their face.
“You’re an ugly crier,” Beatrice pointed out.
She rubbed their shoulder. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. I’ll do better now. Twenty-three years too late, but I’m here.”
Lorian did the math in their head. “Almost twenty-four.”
“Almost half of half of a century.”
“You mean a fourth.”
She blew out air from her nose, which must’ve been her adult laugh. Lorian remembered her babyish laugh. They’d never forget those embarrassing snorts.
Not much sound came through the walls. If anything, they could hear the maids scurrying about in the hall or the morning birds in the palace trees outside when you had the windows open, which the palace forbade them from doing without supervision.
But above them, through the ceiling, they heard that familiar zap of a Visatorre jump.
The two looked at one another, a silent question and answer passing between them.
No Visatorre worked within the castle walls, and unless there was a squatter in the clock tower…
Beatrice lifted up her dress, Lorian grabbed a lit chamberstick, and the two of them bounded out of the room.
“Hey!” The officer failed to grab them in time.
They ignored the rules placed upon them for two decades and bounded for the nearest staircase. Nobody but the staff and those with skeleton keys had access up here. Well, them, and those who weren’t constrained by the limits of locks.
They climbed up the tight, spiral staircase leading up to the spacious room in the clock tower.
“Who is it?” Beatrice asked. “Aida or the future one?”
“I don’t know, I can’t read her mind.”
“With how close you two are, I wouldn’t doubt it.”
“Shut up, I just got to forgiving you.” They unlocked the door quickly and flooded the room with warm light.
Carmine was on the floor, legs over his head and hat gone.
Aida, wobbling on unstable legs, had landed right beside him, but she’d dropped to her knees and was trying to get up with his help.
The two of them found each other, arms wrapping around the other’s back and shoulders. She was so cold, all they could think to do was hold her and give her all the rest of the warmth inside of them. “Where were you?” they asked her.
She just held them tighter, burying her face into their chest until they worried she was suffocating. Her hands dug hard into their back until they felt her nails dig through her corset.
Lorian gave her her time to process things and hugged her tighter.
The giant clock ticked in time with their synced breathing. Little soldiers paraded around the numbers each time it struck the hour. Back in the day, Missus Sharma would hum the song to them as a child, making up stories about the little nutcrackers and the angel that waited for them at midnight. It always put them to sleep, the anthem of their country.
The dust settled around them. Without Lorian coming up here and taking naps against the roundness of the clock, the room smelled of dust. But it still held that familiar air of home they always searched for a few stories beneath each other.
With Aida still like that, Lorian turned to Carmine for answers. The memories of how he’d treated her made Lorian back up with her. “What happened?”
He made himself presentable, fixing his cuffs and collar from his first jump. “I was on my way to bring Miss Mirko to the harbor, but she jumped into the past and took me with her.”
“Really?” Lorian asked the top of Aida’s head. They kissed it. “You’re getting better at controlling it.”
She smushed her face deeper into their chest, making them blush at how well she trusted them to protect her.
They moved her away from Carmine. “She’s not leaving me.”
“What?” The tension of another fight left as quickly as it came.
“I know,” he repeated. “I…understand now. This might be bigger than what I’d initially thought. I now see how…you two, you might be on the right path for Roma’s future, and I don’t believe it’s right for me to object in your efforts any longer.”
Lorian looked into Carmine’s brown eyes, reading him, finally, in the same way they’d done as a child. Before all of his medals and expectations had hardened him into a man she barely recognized. Without his hat and the hatred for disorder in his face, Lorian recognized him as the family friend who’d only wanted the best for them and their sister.
When Aida hadn’t let go of them, Lorian said, “May I speak with Aida alone for a moment? I promise I won’t run away. Not when I have her again.”
Carmine and Beatrice exchanged looks, then Beatrice nodded once and left for the stairs, just like that, completely trusting them and their truth. Carmine left after a moment of hesitation, seemingly tied to both twins.
When the door closed, Aida sighed tearily into Lorian’s chest.
“Hey.” They pulled her face up to theirs and kissed her cheek, then forehead. They wiped her eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“I saw it,” she explained, “En Tempore Rose. Back when I was a kid and ran off to watch it when my family was visiting Roma. I saw it. And I saw you.”
“You and your family were seeing the same opera. Both of us had wandered off like we weren’t supposed to and met, and—” She sniffled. “We knew each other as kids, Lorian. Years before we met at Durante Academy, we still found each other.”
They pet the back of Aida’s head. They didn’t have many concrete memories of their childhood—the ones they did have were painful and blurred and rushed together—but they knew they enjoyed going to the theater with their family. They did it often when they were a child, but like their hunting trips, they’d become less frequent the older Lorian and Beatrice became.
“Our parents separated us back then, and it left me feeling so…empty. I was such a stupid kid and you still accepted me.”
“You’re not stupid. You’re a brilliant girl that I was smart enough to fall in love with, twice. Did you tease me back then, too?”
“Is that what I do?” She wiped her face and boogers on their shirt, then looked up at them, eyes red.
She frowned and pulled away. “What’s wrong? There’s something wrong with you. What happened with your parents?”
Lorian’s reality came back to them like a clap of thunder in a distant, dark cloud. “My father’s going along with the wedding. It’s happening in three days.”
Aida squinted up at them, and after going through her own timeline and watching them as little kids, surviving with Carmine, and reuniting with them, she laughed breathlessly. “Yeah, right.”
“No, we had a talk tonight. He told me I had no choice.”
“No, I believe you, but if he thinks they’re marrying you off without your own damn consent when I’m still in the picture, he must be as stupid as he is bigoted.” She patted their now wet vest. “You’re not getting married to someone you don’t wanna marry. Get that through your skull now. You’re with me, and you’ll always be with me. Unless you don’t wanna be with me, which is fine, might make your parents happier, but until then, Lorian, no one is ever, ever taking you away from me.”
Lorian watched the whole world swirl in her eyes, her white irises like full moons. Unlike their sister and their own doubts, Aida instilled an unwavering pledge that promised that everything would be okay. It’d faltered in them, but she picked it back up and sewn it into her heart. And what she wanted, she fought for and got, no matter the cost.
Lorian couldn’t help themselves and leaned down to kiss her. They missed her for all that she was, their reliance in a world that hated them, their smile when nothing was going right. They missed holding her, and it’d only been a day.
Aida kissed back, gentle despite the outrageous claims that’d just passed through her lips.
“What’re we going to do?” they asked into her. “How’re we going to stop the wedding? If my dad sees you, I don’t know what he’ll do.”
“Some pretty damning blackmail I have on Carmine will keep him on our side, so we’ll have him for protection. And I’m getting the hang of timing my jumps, too, though they’re not anywhere as precise as my future self’s.”
“Can you jump anywhere, at any time?”
“Not yet. That last one took the most out of me and my brain is all mush. I’ll keep out of sight for the time being, just to be safe, and concoct a plan to sneak you out of here when I’m ready.”
“You’re incredible, Aida.”
“I told you,” she said, “on Circa’s name, nobody is taking you away from me.”
The clock struck midnight, singing in twelve loud, musical charms.
“Two days until we ruin another wedding,” Aida said. “Let’s go.”