If Lorian liked anything about being royal, it was the parties.
As a child, they wanted no part in them. The way the creepy old men and women fawned over them made them uncomfortable in a way they couldn’t verbalize, and the dresses. Gag them will all those frills and lace. The things were so heavy and they hated not being able to sit in them the way they wanted to. Later into their rebellious stage, when their father had given up on their rule-breaking, they’d discovered the fun of parties. The drinking helped forgive their crude remarks aimed at the older women. They could sing poorly, dance even poorer, and eat as many chocolate-covered strawberries and bowls of gelato as they could before getting sick near the orchestra.
Their first wedding ceremony had changed their opinion on such parties, and this second ceremony would’ve made them thrown a bitter tantrum all over again, but tonight, they were somewhat at peace. At peace because, somewhere in the palace, Aida was with them.
They kept in touch via Carmine. Lorian was still in quarantine in their room, doors and windows padlocked shut, but Carmine was given access. Apparently, he’d spun a tale to their parents about being trapped in time with Aida only for her to mysteriously vanish, leaving him locked in the palace library from which he escaped unharmed. He played the part perfectly, able to keep up with a lie as easily as Lorian and Beatrice could.
From Carmine and the muffled voices they heard through the door, Lorian found out that two hundred people were coming to the palace. A cut from the six hundred guests that’d come during the summer. Relatives and representatives from Aldaí and Bělico who were already in Roma were now coming, but honestly, who’d want to show support for such an unstable relationship? Only the assholes who wanted nothing more than to kiss the feet of the royal family no matter what they did or how they treated them.
Lorian heard the rustling of the party getting ahead of schedule. On the second day of their lockdown, with Carmine’s approval, they were allowed on the floor’s balcony for fresh air, and they heard the carriages come up to the main entrance while maids and officers scurried the halls like hungry, frightened mice.
Lorian threw back their head to Carmine. He was dressed extra special for tonight, wearing his full military regalia and golden aiguillettes. He’d even gelled back his hair, leaving his silly black hat somewhere in his quarters.
“Don’t call me that,” Lorian said. “And why are you dressed like that? You never get this dolled up, not even for my own wedding.”
“It was upon orders of the king. He wants everyone looking their best for this weekend.”
“Pretend like everything’s not falling to shit, huh?”
“Language.” He joined them at the edge of the balcony, enjoying the scent of the winter night.
“How’s Aida?” Lorian asked.
“She’s still up in the clock tower. I’ve brought her blankets and pillows as well as some food, but she hasn’t slept or eaten. She’s been practicing her jumps in case anything were to go wrong. She’s planning on speaking to your father.”
“Is she well?”
“That’s not news to anyone.”
He nodded, slightly annoyed yet not really. “I became aware of this personality ever since she threw her cane at me while meeting with the dean of Durante Academy. She is quite…resilient, I’ll give her that.”
“That’s the best part about her. I really think she’ll do great things for Roma if this damn country will give her one break in life.”
“Let’s beg she does nothing to break Roma first.”
Lorian smirked. Either way, to them. “Thank you for helping us.”
“She didn’t give me much choice in the matter.” He sighed. “Lorian, I sincerely apologize for the pain you’ve been through.”
“Aida was there to help me through it.”
“I’m talking about before then. Back when you were growing up, I tried doing all that I could for you and Beatrice, but I’m realizing that it wasn’t enough. I…knew you were struggling with everything. With your father and the whole wedding and your gender. I’m sorry I’m…” He refigured himself. “When we’d have music practice or when I’d bring you up to the clock tower, I never asked about what you were going through. I thought lightening the mood was all that you needed, but then I was chastised for being too lighthearted, and then I became a Constable and I was distant from you.”
“I was a bastard, Carmine. I don’t blame you for getting deeper with me and prying into my personal life. Not like I wasn’t used to it with Father.”
“But I should’ve. You should’ve felt comfortable opening up with me.”
They already found themselves drawing back emotionally. For some reason, they felt like they shouldn’t burden Carmine with their life problems. They knew it was wrong, that they should’ve felt comfortable opening up to the only adult who had their side in the palace, but they just couldn’t. Hopefully, more time with Aida would help with that.
They faked a smile. “You’re not my dad, so you shouldn’t have been expected to take on that responsibility.”
Their answer had meant to brighten him up, but his face drooped even lower, draping the balcony in a wet blanket.
They tried again. “Carmine, I don’t blame you for anything that happened in my childhood. You and Missus Sharma made this place feel more like a home.”
“I pointed my sword at you,” he said, “back at Durante Academy. I almost—”
“But you hesitated.”
“Only because you called me by my first name, and only you, Beatrice, and Rosie—” He shut his mouth. ‘J-just members of the royal family use, so I got suspicious.”
“Rosie?” they teased. “Do you possibly mean my mother, Carmine? Calling Her Royal Majesty by her first name, and by a nickname, no less. How audacious.”
“I-it’s a name from our childhood, it’s hard to…” He bit his inner cheek. “This wasn’t where I wanted the conversation to go.”
Lorian crossed their legs and got better comfortable over the railing. They’d known almost for too long that Carmine was smitten by their mother. He didn’t hide it well, nor had their mother when she’d assigned him as her personal right-hand man. Such gossip was banned from the castle walls, but that didn’t stop the servants. Little information was known about their family, anyway. It was fun making up stories that may or may not have been true.
“Just let me know,” Lorian asked, “that you are going to help Aida and I, that you aren’t going to screw us over like our future selves seem to be doing.”
“Of course not!” His hand shot up to his chest in allegiance. “I’ll do whatever I can to make sure you’re safe. I failed the first time—first several times—but I swear to you, I’ll stay by your side this time.”
“Okay, okay, easy, Constable Carmine. If Aida trusts you, then I trust you. Just don’t go screwing up our plans again.”
“Oh, goodness, Lorian. You really need to use better etiquette. Have all those lessons faded?”
“Right, I’ll just ask Aida how to act like a royal.”
Carmine rolled his eyes. “Oh, by the way, Aida mentioned that you go by, uh, a different way of presenting yourself. You use different pronouns now.”
“I use they/them.”
“That okay?” they questioned.
“Of course. To be honest, I always knew, ever since you tore all of your dresses when you were six. But, uhm, if I mess up or get anything wrong, please correct me. I don’t want to do anything that might drive you away again.”
“I won’t run away again,” they promised. “This time, I have someone to fight for.”
“That makes me happy to hear. It’s good to hear you having a drive for someone.” He crossed his arms over the railing. “Do you ever think, if your father was a different man, you could try to stay in the royal line?”
Lorian blew out a cold breath of air. “What do you think? I mean it,” they clarified. “What do you think I should do? I’m not planning on a royal marriage—if anything, I’d like to marry Aida.”
They smiled into their hand. “I haven’t known her long, but I know that I don’t want to live without her. She’s smart and kind, straightforward with me when I need it and lifts me up when I think I don’t deserve it. She introduced me to this book series she loves, and we think the same way, even if her way usually winds up going ten more paces than I would’ve gone. And to keep up with being modest like you like, she has one of the prettiest faces I’ve ever gotten to look at.”
“You’re that taken by her?” Carmine asked.
A devilish grin overtook them. “Just as you’re taken by my mother.”
Carmine’s face fell like a brick in mud. “What?”
“I’m not stupid, Carmie, and, I don’t know if you know this, but I’m a hopeless romantic. I know love when I see it. I’ve seen the way you reach for her, how you’re always near her and comforting her when my father acts out.”
Carmine didn’t lose the fear in his eyes and backed up.
Lorian stood up straighter. “Is there something—?”
“No,” he said, still tense. “No. Just. Don’t bring that up again. I mean it.” He left for the doors. “Come. You need to get ready.”
“Do I really need to get primped up for this days in advance?”
“If you don’t want your father to throw an even bigger temper tantrum than he threw last night.”
Lorian shrugged and gave in. They knew this wouldn’t go through, not with Aida cocking up whatever scheme she had to talk with their father, but if they were going to dress up for the only wedding their parents would attend, they should dress up for the occasion.
They checked the time at the clock tower, craning their neck and leaning over the balcony railing.
In the darkness, the clock face shone in pure white, showing them the clear outlines of the numbers and the tiny soldiers waiting for the hour. They had four more hours until midnight.
Sitting in the curve of the clock, near one of the swinging doors used for maintenance, sat Aida. She was far enough away to be out of sight of someone looking for intruders, but Lorian recognized those braids and the casualness of her lounge anywhere, telling them this was their Aida and not some Aida from the future. She had her cane tucked by her side and a cigarette was lit in her mouth, surrounding her with smoke.
She gave a single wave. Lorian returned it and mouthed their love so only they could hear it.