Chapter XXXIX: Circa’s Decision

As if she hadn’t just thanked her Goddess for blessing with her the tiniest amount of luck in her unfortunate life, as the stone door closed behind her, the poof of air snuffed out her torch.

The darkness washed over her like an ice storm. Her ears picked up a white noise she hadn’t heard moments before, and the walls, even though they were still as gravestones, seemed to be closing in around her.

She struggled to push the door back open, but it was cemented shut by whatever—whoever—had moved it.

“Oh, come on!” she yelled. Maybe being found by officers wasn’t such a bad thing anymore. “I did everything right, didn’t I? I opened up, I fought to get into school. I made friends, I fucking fell in love. I survived through time and back, I watched the woman I loved and admired die without being able to change anything. Now, after all that, I die in a crypt by following you? Nothing gets solved, Lorian gets married off to a man they don’t even like? That’s it?”

Without a reasonable answer to follow, Aida ripped off a piece of stone from the wall and chucked it behind her. “Fuck you!”

The stone she expected to hit rock instead hit something solid and warm, like a hand grabbing hold of it, and didn’t fall to the ground with the clatter she’d waited for.

She froze. All that was in this crypt was her and the statue, nothing more.

She pressed her back against the door. “Hello?”

Nothing shifted in the darkness, but her heart was beating hard. Her bad leg shook. Had there been a hidden entrance an officer had used to get in? Would they kill some useless Visatorre girl with a limp and poor eyesight in the dark, one who, years from now, would assault the king just because she could? No, that didn’t make sense. So why did it feel that way?

The torches around the crypt lit without matches. One by one they came alive, until each corner of the room was aglow in orange.

The statue of Circa was staring down at her, eyes wide and smile straining, fully formed into the real person, real Goddess.

Aida slowly dropped to the ground. Naturalistic, showing her submissiveness to one who she knew could end her life a thousand times over. “Sorry,” she said, unsure of how to apologize to a Goddess she’d just cursed out.

Circa stepped off of her statue’s podium.

Aida bowed her head. “Hi. Uh. I didn’t, you know, mean all that stuff I just said so confidently a second ago. Y-you know how it is, thinking you’re…about to die and all.”

Circa cocked her head, a curious owl sighting a plump mouse.

Aida swallowed back nothing. “Um—”

Circa reached out her hand, and Aida, on instinct, flinched. Dominant women, whenever cross with her, had the habit of striking her instead of warning her about being disobedient. Which is what she was. She’d always been disobedient and probably deserved most of the strikes she’d been dealt. She just didn’t think her second first impression with the Goddess of time would be so uninspiring and bad.

When she peeked one eye open to see the damage, she found Circa still with her hand out, palm out: an offering, or waiting for an exchange.

Aida waited, let the room settle, the fire flicker, before taking her hand.

Her heavy body floated her to its feet. Weightless, like being underwater but without the fear of sinking. She was so stunned that she didn’t move or breathe, allowing Circa’s magic to lift her.

When she touched back down to Earth, she dared a quick, thankful breath that she hadn’t been killed. She didn’t know why she thought that dark, it just made sense that the ruler to all things would, if they had the chance, kill her. Put her out of her misery, end her and her future self, if her future self wouldn’t also die or have never existed if she died. She figured she’d still live up until her future self’s death, but who knew with Circa? She could do anything, because what would stop her other than herself?

Circa’s flesh was neither warm nor cold, neither soft nor calloused. It was like touching something inanimate, not knowing what magic flowed through her wrists.

She brought Aida towards the locked door.

“Wait—Circa—” She flinched as Circa walked straight into the wall, materializing like a true ghost. As Aida’s and her hand touched the stone, she waited to feel the pain of being pushed through the cracks of something tangible.

Merciful Circa allowed Aida to walk through the wall with her.

Traversing the Catacombs was far less terrifying as a ghost. With the power to walk through walls, Circa led Aida through locked tombs and tight corridors. Torched lit and got snuffed out as the Goddess passed them. She made no noise as she walked, no footprints, either. She simply existed, and carried Aida with her.

The sound of Officer footsteps closed in on them. They came up incredibly close and fast, too soon for Circa to walk them through any wall. Aida fell back, hiding behind her like a child with their mother.

The officers came. Then went. They breezed right through them, fluttering Aida’s dress and the tiny wisps of hair clinging to her forehead.

Circa continued on her path like nothing had tried to stop them.

Aida tried reading anything from her expression. With that unbreaking smile, it made her appear inhuman, despite looking very much like one.

Circa glided down a small hall that ended with a door with no handle. If Aida had come across this, she would’ve seen it as a dead end. But not for Circa. Keeping her hand light on Aida’s, she easily brought them inside.

It was half the size of the first crypt dedicated to Circa. It couldn’t have fit a life-sized statue of a God, much less a child. All it had was a small platform raised in the center. The walls curved in around them, and at the center of the ceiling, rings like a tree stump radiated out and down around the room in dark, sooty lines.

Circa led Aida into the center of the room.

Aida waited. The room settled. She heard herself breathing but not Circa. She didn’t need to breathe.

“Should I—”

“Be doing anything” was the end of that sentence, but as she tried to form the words, she plunged down into the Earth and back into darkness.

All she had was Circa’s hand to hold. Her feet left the stable ground, her hair bubbled around her like she was truly underwater.

The air or whatever was around them shifted, whistled like the night wind. Aida’s kicking feet touched back to ground, and the world around her came into focus like a dirty mirror.

She and Circa had fallen into a grand bedroom. The walls were gold and decorated from floor to ceiling in amazing artwork of landscapes and rich portraits. The ceiling was carved in constellations and phases of the Moon, and the floor’s carpet felt expensive and was illustrated with roses and thorns.

Lounging on a settee was Eve, bare feet kicked up while wearing one of those beautiful maroon dresses she loved. She was eating sweets dipped in golden honey and sugar.

Aida placed a hand over her heart. “Eve,” she breathed.

Her husband, Meyeso, was sitting by her side. He was in a rocking chair, head drooped, a hand dug into his black, curly hair.

Eve bit into her pastry. The filling came out and dripped down her jaw. “Meyeso.” She snorted. “Meyeso, look. Look at me.” She arched her neck over the settee’s armrest. “Look. Imagine Julius’ face if he—”

Meyeso doubled over and coughed up a mouthful of splattered blood.

Eve sprang up and wiped the cream off of her face. The doors in her bedroom opened. A knight—Frederico, the one who’d died in the Catacombs defending Eve—came in. “Your Highness—”

Eve held up her hand and ushered him back. “Leave us.”

Aida almost left on her command. Being in her queen’s bedroom, seeing her in these intimate moments, it didn’t seem right. She looked up at Circa for guidance.

Circa was bouncing on her heels as she watched the tense scene play out. 

Eve knelt beside her husband and ran her hand down his cheek. “Hey—hey, amar. You’re alright. This’s nothing, is it not?”

Meyeso continued coughing into his hand. Each cough seemed to take all of his strength away, until he was bent over in his armchair and sniffling. Eve took him into her arms.

“I’m sorry,” he said, breathless. “The medicine you gave me…doesn’t seem to be working.”

“We’ll find something new to use.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No. Do not say that.” She lifted his chin. “We will get through this. You will get better. You have a little one to meet.” She brought his hand to her stomach. “I know she can’t wait to meet you.”

Meyeso leaned his weight into her. “You don’t think it’ll be a boy?”

“No. She has my spirit in her, and your love. I sense it.”

Meyeso chuckled weakly and leaned up to touch his Visatorre marking with hers. “Whoever she becomes,” he said, “I’m sure she’ll be wonderful.”

As they cuddled up closer together, sharing this one moment Aida knew wouldn’t last, Aida stepped back and pulled on Circa’s arm.

“Why’re you showing me this?” Aida asked. “Why do you keep showing me her life? I know how it ends. I saw it—” She choked up. “I saw it end. It ended because of me.”

Circa’s smile, somehow, widened even more, the thought of Aida’s failures filling her with delight.

Aida tried to walk backwards towards the windows. “I don’t want to see her anymore,” she confessed. “Bring me back.”

Circa didn’t let go.

“Please,” she repeated. Guilt was beginning to strangle her. She could’ve saved her. Why hadn’t she saved her? She could’ve done so much more.

They sunk back into the ground,  the world distorting before her eyes. Tethered to Circa, Aida had no choice but to land beside her in a hallway quite familiar to her now.

It was months later. Eve’s belly bump was growing nicely against her tight corset, but her usual smile was wiped away by mourning. Her eyes were heavy like she hadn’t slept in days. Her maroon dress had been dyed black.

King Julius II and Queen Julia were standing before her in a hall Aida had once run through. Julia had her hands folded and was standing behind her husband with his gladiators. All of them were wearing black.

Each of them bowed. Eve barely moved her head down in acknowledgement.

“Allow me to speak for both of us,” King Julius said, “when we say we give our sincerest condolences to you. He was a good king and a strong man to have led Siina. He will be missed sincerely and deeply.”

Eve said nothing back.

Aida tugged on Circa. “Couldn’t you have changed this? You could’ve saved him. All of this would’ve been different if you’d intervened, so why didn’t you?”

Circa continued bouncing on her heels, watching the opera play out before her, waiting for the climax.

Julia broke from her husband’s side in a choked sob. She captured Eve in a hug and cried on her shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Eve. I’m so, so sorry.”

Eve looked past her into the chandeliers, shocked from the touch.

“I hate to see you this way. I wish to see you vibrant and full of love, and I’m so sorry you’re being put through this by the Gods. Oh, God, you don’t deserve this, Eve. You don’t deserve this fate.”

From this angle, Aida saw it. Eve’s eyes pooling with tears, about to spill but being held back from her looking up. She blinked once and they were gone, yet in their place, sadness cracked down her face, the release she’d been waiting for, a chink in her armor.

She buried her head into Julia’s shoulder. Her nails dug into her like a scared dog. They whispered something only the two of them heard, but whatever Julia had said back made Eve’s eyes soften in the same way Lorian’s did when they were sharing a bed at night: an unlocking of love.

Aida turned away. All her life she’d wanted to dig up one more piece of history relating to Eve. No one had spoken about her, like she was some failed monarch with only a few months of ruling under her crown instead of ten years of ruling. If she’d asked, Circa would’ve likely let her live like her, replaying every second of Eve’s life to watch the mistakes both of them had made.

The scene melted away. They were now in a dark room lit only by a few candlesticks. Eve was in bed, gripping the sheets as she screamed in pain. Gladiators and nursemaids were there for her with burning sage and bowls of water. Julia was by the bedside, helping her through the delivery.

She brushed back Eve’s sweaty bangs. “You’re doing amazing, Eta. Just breathe. She’s almost out.”

Eve screamed and banged her fist hard into the bedpost. It cracked in multiple places. “Curse this process.”

“It’s almost out—Frederico, hold her leg now, please.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” He helped spread them open, and Eve covered her eyes, panting. 

Julia placed a damp rag to her cheek. “One more push, Eve. You’re so close.”

Upon her command, Eve’s body seized, she screamed, and one last push birthed the infant, or heir to Siina, into the world.

It was a lot different than what Aida had imagined. The baby was not cute and was covered with this white film that made it look more grey than pink. It screeched like a banshee, and everyone in the room began to cry with it in relief for this bald, wrinkly almost-human with a grandfather’s scowl.

Julia was the happiest out of all of them. “Look,” she told Eve. “Eta, my love, look down. Look at your baby.” She took the baby and immediately placed it against Eve’s bare chest.

As the weight of her baby nestled into her heart, Eve looked down. She tried stroking her head, then cheek. The softness she displayed with her contrasted the baby’s wailing and the rashness Eve was known for.

Aida touched her own cheek, wondering how it must’ve felt for a mother to touch her daughter.

“She looks just like you,” Julia said.

The next few scenes passed by too quickly for Aida to make much sense out of them. Jumps between Eve’s palace and the Roman one, of fields where Eve and Julia were sitting, just the two of them, an argument with Julia in tears, Eve’s child, her having sex with Julia and then Julius, neither of them realizing what she was doing to both of them.

The last scene they landed in, Eve was sitting at a desk in a child’s playroom, trying to read something in an old book.

“Mama, how come it’s so hard to read?”

Hiding underneath Eve’s dress was a little girl. She’d been reading her own book of fairy tales and placed it in her lap with a confused pout. “My eyes keep getting blurry when I focus on the letters.”

Eve set aside her work. “They say you inherited your father’s poor eyesight, my love. There’s nothing that can be done with eyes such as yours.”

“How is that possible? You’re a queen, and the most wonderful queen there is. Surely you can make something to fix it. I was thinking…” She reached her tiny arms across Eve’s desk and picked up a glass paperweight. “You see how this glass, once you place it across the words”—she demonstrated it—“enlarges them and makes things easier to see? Well, I was thinking, Mama, what if you put a thinner glass near both of your eyes?”

She held the heavy weight against hers, magnifying the brownness of her eye. “You could hold it up with sticks or something around your head or behind your ears, and allow the weight in the front to be balanced on your nose. That way, someone who can’t see would always be able to see. What do you think? Do you think that’d work?”

Eve examined the paperweight from her daughter. “That…does seem like it could help, yes.” She set it aside and scooped up the little girl. She left heavy, wet kisses all over her face. “How did you grow up to be so smart? Every day you amaze me.”

“It’s because you’re already so amazing, Mama!”

Aida took off her glasses and rubbed down the frames. How long until this little one was able to see the world for what it was?

The scene faded into shadows, and Circa brought Aida back into darkness. There was no sound, no light, but she saw Circa and herself clear as day, and she saw a few stars twinkle above her. They must’ve been outside, but they seemed to go on forever with no horizon line in sight.

She was lost to time, trapped in a state of non-existence.

Aida swayed, hit Circa’s side. She fell into her robes like a blanket and kicked out her legs to keep them from cracking. Her hand never left her face. “Please, don’t show me anymore,” she begged. “I can’t take any more.”

Circa looked down, head cocked, watching and listening yet never acting.

“I understand, okay? I get it. I ruined every decision with my own selfish ones. I’m stupid. I studied history and writing for years, I learned about wars and the people who survived them. I knew everything I thought I needed to know, but I didn’t. I’m a Visatorre. I know nothing and will die knowing nothing. So please, just take me back. Take me back to Lorian so I can pretend to be useful to them just to fuck up their life, too. It’s all I’m good for.”

“Stop that, my love.”

Aida jerked her head up to her Goddess, but she was gone, ten meters back, always at a distance.

Across the way, standing alone, was the woman Aida had poured her everything into. She was wearing that beautiful maroon dress Aida had first seen her in. No hole in her stomach, no baby or toddler resting in her womb. She was simply there, wonderfully brilliant and alive.

“Come now,” Eve said to her. “There’s no need for all that self-pity. It’s ill-suited on you.”

Aida quickly wiped away her tears. Shame and embarrassment hit all at once and made her feel small. Would there be any time where she met Eve with dignity? “I’ve gone mad, haven’t I? I lost my mind wandering the Catacombs.”

“You have not. Whether you want to admit it or not, you have a strong mind, Aida. I presume, at least. I heard that your parents were exceptionally wise.”

Aida looked up. “You know my parents?”

She smiled warmly.

“My birth parents?”

The smile tightened. “One of them, yes.”

Aida didn’t believe her. She didn’t even know her own parents.

She thought. Oh, how she thought it, thought around it, against it. She knew one had to assume that all these ideas and paths leading her to this hypothesis sounded inane. Not “sounded,” it was, in every way. She’d foolishly thought that Eve felt too familiar, too close and personal that maybe, somehow, they shared more of a connection, a distant relativity, but that felt too good to be true, and good things never happened to her. It was Circa’s way, making her life harder than she could handle.

She held her head. It was pounding. From her brain or heart. They were too connected in her body, too sensitive, too affective.

Eve walked up to Aida. “Stand up, my love.”

She did, but her head hung down low, low enough that she couldn’t meet this woman’s beautiful eyes.

“You didn’t let me die, so don’t even let that thought pass you.”

Aida shut her eyes until they stung.

“You were experiencing a painful, awful jump. Nobody would’ve expected nor asked of you to save someone already in death’s arms. People die, Aida. No matter how much we scream and beg and pray, we need to accept that death comes for everyone unfairly and cruelly. Yet still, the world continues on. It allows us the room to grieve and, in time, fate allows the pain to subside, and you will be able to let new love in to your very full heart.”

Aida only shook her head. Her eyes were beginning to sting all over again from new hurt.

Eve hugged her, her body warm and there and alive. “We cannot think about what we should’ve done. All we’re able to do is spend what few, precious moments we have in becoming our best self, which you have been doing since the moment of your birth. And between you and me,” she added, “it ain’t our choices, it’s her’s.” She motioned to Circa, who had yet to move. “It’s been 255 years, and I haven’t gotten a peep outta her.”

Aida sniffled. “Tell me,” she said, “your baby, the one you gave birth to, where is she now?”

Eve chuckled and kept massaging her back. “You know the answer, don’t you? You’ve known for a while.”

Aida shook her head. Her tears left a wet spot on her embroidered sleeve. “No.”

“Aida.”

“No.”

“My Aida.”

A strangled sob left her throat as she held on tighter. She couldn’t let her go, not now, not again. She wanted to savor in these feelings she’d been barred from for years. A mother’s touch, one whose world revolved not on their child’s devotion to them, but the love to see their child grow and learn into a newer, better person.

Eve let her cry, soaking in her sorrows as a true mother would. “I’m so happy to see you again.”

“How?” Aida cried. “How’re you my…?” She barely pushed out the final word. It sounded like a curse, like bringing it up would shatter the reality being formed.

“You were born such a curious little child,” Eve reminisced. “Always looking for answers, reading everything you could get your tiny hands on. I had you just after your father passed. I was distraught, unable to keep my own people in harmony, but then I found Julia.”

“Did you love her?” Aida asked, because she needed to know. “Did you really love her, or was she just a means to and end, like King Julius was?”

“I loved her almost as much as I love you. I had to do many things as queen that I regret, many entailing rather unfavorable favors to that wretched man Julius in order to see Siina prosper. But I did—I do—love her. Julia helped raise you while I worked on advancing Siina. We gained land and wealth, and I gained two lovely, beautiful, strong girls whom I cherish with all of my heart.”

A thousand more questions hit her: her time as a child, how she’d been brought to the future, how her father had been. What was Siina like? What did their palace look like? Was it grand? What were the pillows made out of?

But she needed more important questions answered before she broke. “How were you able to travel into the future? What does the second Visatorre marking mean? How come I can barely do it and my future self can do it so well?”

“Circa has the same marking, you noticed.”

“Are you a Goddess?”

“I don’t believe so. I think I’ve been made a saint a few times, yet I only had a small handful of Circa’s powers before I died.”

That stung more than Aida expected it to. She could cross “immortality” off the list.

“My powers, like your powers, are a gift from the Gods. Back in my time, Visatorre were able to travel without the pain they feel today. We were blessed by the power of the Gods to bring back information from our past that allowed us to live safely. We were treated respectfully. We were treated right.

“When Julius told me he was going to murder all of the Visatorre in that Colosseum for being with Julia, I’d planned on dying for every single one of them. I was going to fight until my dying breath to keep my people safe. Circa had seen that. Before I lost my life, she took me here.”

A flash of lightning lit up the dark space, and off to their side, about as far as an actor was with their audience, were another Circa and Eve. Past Eve was on her knees, dressed in her tattered rags with her hands recently unshackled. She looked at them, wondering how she was momentarily free, then noticed she was in a dreamscape of neverending black. When she saw Circa standing in front of her, she cursed and backed up.

Circa leaned over Past Eve, that smile never leaving her face.

“My Goddess.” Past Eve bowed. “Please, Circa, my Goddess, my people are in danger. Your people, they’re about to be unlawfully and unjustly slaughtered by my actions. I’ll do whatever it takes, anything, Circa. Please, help me help them.”

Circa’s robes fluttered against the non-existent ground. A wind Aida couldn’t feel  lifted Past Eve off the ground. Energy sparkled around her like snow, congregating around her Visatorre marking.

Aida watched carefully as Circa lifted one arm out to Past Eve, moving closer until her finger touched the middle of her Visatorre marking.

Past Eve’s head was thrown back with the force of an arrow piercing it. Her eyes went wide, staring into space. It should’ve snapped her neck, but the forces that be prevented her from dying right there. Her body burst in a brilliant fire of white, and the two of them disappeared with a harmonious crack of lightning and thunder that echoed in the liminal space.

“She gave me the tiniest powers of a Goddess,” Current Eve said, bringing Aida back. “She saw what was going to happen and gave me part of her powers to save them. You saw, didn’t you? How I jumped to and fro with complete control? I did it quite well. I could’ve done wonders for our people.”

“So why did you die?” Aida asked, looking to where Circa was still watching from the dark. “If she was to give you the powers to save your people, why just let you die seconds afterwards? Why let them all be murdered anyway?”

“Do not look so afraid, my love. The Gods do not wish to see us in constant suffering. They give us choices to better ourselves every day.”

“But she didn’t,” Aida argued. “She watched you suffer and did nothing—”

Eve placed the gentlest of fingers against Aida’s lips.

“You were born with so many thoughts about your beautiful world in your head that the only way to let them go was by discussion,” Eve told her. “I missed that about you. I loved hearing you speak, but let me tell you everything before you form your opinions about the Gods, because believe me: They have good in them.

“All my life, I cheated and lied and fought my way to the top so that my people could thrive stronger than ever. I wanted so much, and when she gifted me these powers, I thought she was going to take my life, which I accepted gladly.”

The pain dripped down her face as she faced the inevitable end. “To become a Goddess, you must give up a part of yourself that you treasure most.”

“So, what, she took away your life?” Aida replayed the timeline over in her head. She’d lost so much in one day, and for what? “That’s insane. What does that teach you?”

“She didn’t take away my life. What she took away—” She sighed, brokenly. “From the moment I was born, I was a terrible girl. I cheated and I lied and I bartered with people’s love. Once I became queen, I became mad with power. Slowly, I lost my composure, my respect. I lost the husband I cheated my way into marrying and my crown, I lost you. I lost my pride,” she finished with. “I lost what I loved most about myself. That is what she took from me.”

The scene returned across the darkness, but now, Past Eve and Circa were with Little Aida. Past Eve was now on her side, screaming in pain as Little Aida tried her best to keep her alive.

“Mama!” she yelled. “Mama, Mama!”

Past Eve looked up, back up to Circa. Her pleading eyes now held a trace of anger at the Goddess who she thought had betrayed her. “Circa!” she said, blood gargling in her throat. “Why? I thought I…I—” She rolled to her knees, holding in her innards. Little Aida backed up with tears welling in her soft, brown eyes.

Aida was almost thankful she had no memories of this happening.

Past Eve turned to Little Aida,  took her hands and brought her towards their Goddess. “Circa, please. Forgive me. Forgive me for the sins I so knowingly committed in your name. I know my wrongdoings now. But please, Goddess Circa, oh, please, don’t punish my daughter. She is all I have left to my name. I know I am not a good person. I know I have my faults. But my Aida.” She placed Little Aida in front of Circa. “Do not let my mistakes ruin her innocent timeline. If I cannot be saved, please, save my daughter. Save my Aida.”

Circa cocked her head at the little girl being given to her. She must’ve been a giantess to her. She cowered in fear of her mother dying behind her and the God weighing her life before her.

Circa stretched out her long arm, and before Little Aida could react, the Goddess touched her forehead, and Little Aida fell limp into her arms.

Circa picked her up, cradling her so her head didn’t sag. She appeared as an infant tucked against a mother’s chest.

Past Eve, despite losing her life with every tick of the clock, bowed her head until it touched the ground. “Thank you, Circa. Oh, thank you—”

Circa turned in a circle and walked away, her dress moving like a wave crashing into shore.

“Circa?”

Circa didn’t look back.

“Circa, where are you taking her?” She groaned as a new wave of blood emptied from her stomach. Her shoulder fell against the ground. “Circa!”

Without receiving her answer, both Circa, Little Aida, and Past Eve disappeared in a flash, off towards the far future.

“She delivered you 1,200 years into the future, far away from the aftermath of my mistakes, and  delivered me into your arms, deep within the Catacombs, not a second later.”

Aida covered her mouth. Knowing that she was not only cared for by a mother who’d risked her life for her, but had been the cause of so much misery for generations to come…

She choked on a sob. “I shouldn’t have called out to you,” Aida said. “Back at the Colosseum, if I hadn’t called out to you, you’d still be—”

“You wouldn’t have been able to stop it. Can you imagine a life where I kept my powers and continued ruling? By that time, Julia had already found out about my relationship with Julius. We were having a falling out, and I would’ve run both Siina and Roma to the ground. I was able to have you in my life for six years, and it was the happiest I’d ever felt.” She wiped away Aida’s tears. “You’ve grown into such a beautiful princess, Aida Alba Meyeso Costa.”

Aida held Eve again. It was the only place she felt safe in.

Eve pet her head. “Circa had taken a chance on me, and I’d abused my powers yet again. Because of my selfish choices accumulated for many decades, Circa had cursed the Visatorre people with indescribable pain, and hasn’t chosen another person to wield these powers since.”

Aida, despite herself, pulled back. “But what about—?”

She felt a presence against her back, and she turned to see Circa standing statue-still over her.

Aida hid close to Eve.

“Circa has been watching you, as have I. We’ve seen you grow into a loving girl who selflessly let people into your small heart even though the thought of that happening terrified you. You want to save people not because it’ll earn you favors, but because it’s the right thing to do. You only want the best for Visatorre people. You want what’s best for your country. You help them, you help others. You’re passionate and determined. You’re the perfect person to inherit the gift of the Gods.”

Slowly, Circa reached out her hand.

“But,” said Eve, “you know that the Gods do not give us anything we don’t think we can handle. You have a choice in your decision, as do all of us in life. If you do not want this, you do not need to accept it.”

Aida ran the incalculable numbers in her mind. If she were to become part-Goddess, what was it that she loved most?

Well, Lorian. That was all that was coming to her. Lorian’s happiness, Lorian’s family, Lorian’s life. She couldn’t lose them or hurt them from this decision, even if it cost her being closer to Circa.

But Future Aida had Lorian, and they looked loving together. It had to be something internal, then. Would she steal away her mobility? Her wit? Her intelligence? What did she have that Future Aida didn’t? She still had Lorian, she was still smart, at times.

The thought, the unthinkable thought racing through her mind, made her shiver. The one thing Future Aida didn’t have…

Aida folded her hands in front of her, unsure of what to do or say. All her life she’d wanted to speak to both of these people, these Goddesses in their own right, but now, with the floor open to her, she just wanted to crawl into somebody’s arm and just stay quiet for a moment.

So, that’s what she did. She held Eve and breathed in, breathed out. She thought about how freely her Future self looked when she jumped, how carefree she’d become over the course of her life. A few months ago, she hated both herself and her Future self, herself because she couldn’t make friends and didn’t know the true feelings of being wanted and needed, and her future self because that’s what she had, with Lorian, with herself.

When she was ready, Aida cleared her throat. “If my future self is me, hasn’t this decision already been made? Aren’t I going to inherit the powers, anyway? Hasn’t this already been done?”

Eve smiled again. “It has. Circa knows everything that has, is, and will ever happen. It is charted in her eyes. She knew that I’d be born ruthless and die the same way, and that you’d be sent to a little village in Bělico and fall in love with Julia’s kin. She already has the story written out, Aida. She’s already known your answer just as she knew mine, and she’s been preparing you for this moment from the day you were born. She is our author. She’s just piecing the scenes together.”

Aida dared another look at Circa. That wicked smile of hers was becoming less malicious and more proud, proud of the story she’d been able to watch unfurl and grow over the course of centuries.

Aida chuckled. “Ya’ll are a bunch of bored, egotistical loons. Who writes stories just to see people suffer?”

“That is simply what makes life worth living.” Eve took something out of her pocket and began wrapping something around Aida’s wrist.  It was a piece of thin rope made from the same twine the bracelets Eve and Julia had worn.

“Your roads will cross and tangle and appear untreadble at times, but you will make it through. You will return to your past and find the roads to lead you back here. Remember to be kind to yourself, Aida.” She secured the bracelet, then winked playfully. “If you can help yourself.”

“That’s…” She laughed at nothing. Now, she couldn’t imagine not teasing herself for how silly all of this now seemed. This time last year, she was eating herself rotten at the promise of getting into Durante Academy. Now, in just under five months, she’d become a princess—a queen—to a dead country. How could she not tease her, just a little?

Eve touched Aida’s face, her soft hand tracing her subtle features. Aida broke the final barriers between them and touched foreheads with her.

Eve chuckled. “You’re so strong, just like your father.”

“Just like you.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m scared,” she whispered. “Don’t tell that seven-foot-tall woman over there that I said that.”

“I’m pretty sure she knows. I just have that feeling. You know, with her knowing all.”

Aida embraced Eve’s touch, feeling her smile, her breath that may or may not have been real. It didn’t matter to her. Fact or fiction, she knew what she felt and what this woman meant to her.

And what she needed to do for her, for herself, for her people. For the future.

She turned back to Circa and pressed the Goddess’ finger into her marking. “Do your worst,” she said.

And then her heart stopped beating.

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