Beatrice’s arm hit the ground with an unnatural thud. Bones poked out of her wet skin and severed tendons. Nothing splattered, nothing dramatic occurred from it. Her arm was just gone, her dress bleeding red.
Lorian still couldn’t move. Their body and mind didn’t react to the dead feelings clawing and decaying in their chest. They didn’t even know they were holding their breath until Carmine screamed and jump-started the whole hall.
Before Durante could fully react to what he’d just done, Carmine ran at him. The officers holding him down had lost their grips, the rest their wits. Some backed up in horror to show that, unlike their leader, they’d do no harm to their royal princess and Bělico’s queen.
Carmine dove atop his king and crushed his skull with his fist. All the feelings Lorian was currently suppressing came through him. Rage Lorian had never seen in him boiled over in his eyes. He moved like an enraged animal, feet kicking to stay on top of Durante. Durante was still lost as to why none of his officers were running in to save him. He was left defenseless against Carmine’s primitive state.
“You’re a monster!” Carmine screamed. “You’re a fucking monster!”
Durante rolled Carmine over and kicked him off, but Carmine grabbed hold of his cape and brought him back. His crown rolled off of his head and headed towards Beatrice and Lorian.
The officers who’d dropped their swords picked them back up. A few broke formation to help Beatrice. Through her sudden exhilaration, she was still standing.
Carmine grunted. He’d gotten hit in the nose, leaving a bloody trail down his fuzzy upper lip, and he was now holding his side from an injury.
“You—I am your king,” Durante panted. “You—”
“Fuck you!” Carmine shouted, and punched him again. “She’s my daughter, you—!” He went for his throat. Durante went for his eyes.
Lorian got back up. The most daring officers finally reached the two fighting men and began tearing them apart, but they were hellbent on maiming the other.
“Bea!” Lorian jumped up and grabbed her. Her dead weight almost brought the two of them down, but Lorian stayed strong for her, just as she’d stayed strong for them.
The officers defending her gently lowered her to the ground. She didn’t scream out once, but the strangled cries buried deep into her throat, gurgling and dying out as moans.
Carmine kicked Durante good in the mouth before three of his own officers brought him off and away from the king.
The room stilled. Frightened guests hid on the outskirts of the staircase and the doors, waiting to see what would happen next.
“—and get her to the infirmary,” Lorian said. They hadn’t realized they were talking until the officers were looking at them. “Make a tourniquet for her arm and get her to the doctors immediately. Help her stand. Don’t let her fall.”
Yes, Your Highness,” one said, and led her away.
Beatrice’s good hand reached for Lorian’s. Their fingers grazed before she was taken away.
Lorian watched Beatrice go.
They turned to two faces they thought they’d never see again: Alessio and Matteo. They were dressed in formalwear with their swords locked at their sides. Matteo had been crying.
“Alessio,” Lorian breathed. “Matteo?”
Alessio nodded. He looked older than he had that summer. “We need to get you somewhere safe and away from all this.”
“We can guide you to the infirmary, Your Highness,” Matteo said. “If you can follow us.”
Lorian looked between his two good friends. They’d never been ready to reintroduce themselves like this back at this palace. It was supposed to be their little secret, their two worlds forever separate.
Casting one last glance at Carmine getting dragged away from the king, Lorian followed their friends to the infirmary.
Everyone from doctors and nurses, maids and nuns, officers armed and unarmed alongside physicians and advisors, they all came and went. The public was politely kicked off royal grounds as they dealt with the medical and historic emergency, but Lorian could feel it in the air. All around them, people had their names in their mouths, wondering what to do about this world-changing news.
Lorian didn’t bother listening, and they couldn’t stand hearing their mother’s worried questions against their sister’s screams. She was strong—they both were—but this night proved too much on their fragile heart to help them.
So they fled. It was all they were good for, all they knew. Leaving their very own sister to fight the Gods of Death alone, Lorian found their chance amidst the chaos and ran towards the garden courtyard. It was an open patio completely surrounded by palace walls, colored by willow trees, neatly trimmed hedges, and bushes of flowers. It should’ve been covered with snow, but the palace gardeners had dusted them off to keep the look of royalty clear.
Fireflies danced around the flecks of night snow barely visible in the Moon’s rays. It was quieter here, and colder, enough to wake Lorian up from the stupor they’d found themselves in. They felt like they should’ve been crying or screaming, but all they felt was nothingness. A hollowed-out numbness had drained them of everything, even their tears. They couldn’t show this side to their mother. She’d think them a worse child than she likely already did.
Alessio and Matteo dutifully stayed by Lorian’s side. Maids and other officers asked if they were okay, but Lorian left them unanswered. They couldn’t speak.
After listening to the night bugs’ songs, Alessio walked up to Lorian. They were slumped on the railing, spitting off its edge and watching it disappear amongst the leaves.
Alessio spat with them. “Never had a clue, you know,” he said, “about you. You played it off really well. You’re a strong girl,” he added, “or…person. Don’t know which to use now.”
“Regardless of that, you’re really strong,” Matteo said. “I don’t get much of what’s going on, all this future self talk, but I really admire you now. Well, I did before, back in the palace and even before them when you looked different, but now I admire you even more so.”
“However you decide to move on from here,” Alessio said, “just know that we’ll support you. You may still be royal or you may abdicate fully. Whatever happens, we’ll have your back. You piece of shit.”
Lorian lowered their head into their arms, hiding.
Alessio’s and Matteo’s hands found their back. One of them ruffled their hair.
“You’ll be okay,” Matteo said in his calm voice, and Lorian mentally thanked them both, just for being there.
“Come on.” Alessio tugged them up. “Let’s clean up your face.”
Lorian jolted awake. They were alone save for Alessio and Matteo, who’d kept their promise and stayed by their side. They’d brought a couch into the hallway by the hospital door. Usually, they would’ve been reprimanded for it. Now, with the considerable lack of King Durante’s word in the palace, they got away with murder.
Lorian pushed back their hair. They felt abandoned, in a selfish way, like a ghost in these dark, vacant halls they weren’t meant to be in.
A light grew brighter around the hallway corner. Two silent pairs of feet made their way towards them.
Their mother’s robes were the first thing they noticed. She only wore them when she was sleep-deprived and took to pacing in her study. By the look of her smudged eye makeup, she looked beyond tired.
Then Carmine, and how they were walking arm in arm with their mother like lovers. He had a bandage underneath his bruised eye and walked with a limp. Free of any charges, it looked, getting off scot-free for defending the royal family—his royal family—to his last breath.
Lorian got up so as not to disturb their friends. Their mother hadn’t any bodyguards with her. They couldn’t remember the last time she was so alone outside of her own study.
When they travelled around the corner, Lorian collapsed into their mother’s arms.
Her arms were like vice grips around them. Despite the day she must’ve beared, her strength was there for them when they needed it most.
“She’s recovering,” she whispered. “They don’t know if…She hasn’t woken up yet, but they’re trying to reattach it. They said she might be able to use it again.”
The weight in Lorian’s chest didn’t lighten. They held onto their mother tighter, hoping she could help ease the burdens that kept multiplying with every breath they took.
She didn’t cry. Neither did Carmine. By the looks on their faces, so emotionally and physically tired, they must’ve run out of tears hours ago.
“I’m sorry,” their mother said. “We should’ve told you sooner. It wasn’t fair that we kept this a secret.”
Carmine tried to bow to them, but the pain in his side made him groan and straighten. “I’m sorry as well. Your mother and I wanted to tell you for so long, but…”
Lorian broke from their mother and stared up at Carmine, silencing any more apologies coming from them. They had nothing to apologize for.
They could see it, if they really tried: the similarities between them. They had the same large nose and eyes. Tall like their mother with the same face structure aged about twenty years. All the years they’d spent on this earth, all the happiness a father should’ve given their child, were colored by this man, who’d saved their life a dozen times without Lorian ever thanking him.
Lorian’s fragile heart cracked. “Can…can I have a hug?”
Carmine opened his mouth. It just hung open, the words slipping away.
One nod, and Lorian was tripping into his father’s embrace. They inhaled his scent. It smelled nothing like themselves, of Missus’ Sharma’s cottage and firewood keeping them and Aida warm, but no wonder they yearned for his affection. No wonder it felt so safe in his arms.
Lorian let go twenty-four years of built-up anguish against him. They sobbed like they’d never cried before. They let themselves wake the castle with the tears they’d been too shy to reveal to the world.
Carmine’s large hand cupped the back of their head, the other protectively wrapped around their lower back, and Lorian cried louder, harder. All of the barriers they’d placed around themselves to be strong and smart and caring broke, and they let themselves finally be vulnerable in front of their parents.
“I have you,” Carmine said, voice wavering. “I have you.”
“Your father, he was never able to have children,” their mother said in a rush. “He was threatening to take my life if I didn’t give him what he wanted. We were out of options, but then he went on a hunting trip in Bělico for one week. We thought…” She hung her head. “We thought what we did was best.”
“But we should’ve told you,” Carmine said. “You were old enough to know. It was just, with everything you were going through, we thought telling you would’ve upset you.”
“Which we should’ve paid more attention to, as your parents,” their mother added. “I cannot begin to apologize for that, Lorian. I’m truly sorry.”
Lorian pulled away. “But…this had nothing to do with me,” they said. “You shouldn’t have worried about what I would’ve…” Their thoughts trailed away. They had no idea what they were saying at this point, they just couldn’t bear to hear their mother and this man who he’d regarded as his father for so long be upset with them any longer.
“No,” their mother said. “You were hurting and in pain. You and your sister both, and we should’ve helped you, but instead, I was too fearful to speak up. I shouldn’t have done that to you, and I’m sorry.”
“We played into King Durante’s fear tactics,” Carmine said.
“We never went against him.”
“Even when he hurt you.”
“But things will be different now.” Their mother touched their face. “Your…King Durante will have to face the consequences of his actions. After he’s seen to, he will be confined to a cell until further notice.”
“In the dungeon?” Years of wanting to lock him up became a stark reality too soon. It seemed too comical for such a domineering man. “Really?”
“Yes,” their mother said. “After what he did to Bea…” She breathed deeply, her eyes closed. “I won’t allow such abuse to continue. After tonight, he will no longer be in our lives.”
Lorian let go another breath. Just like that, with the will of their mother who was finally unshackled by the abuse she faced. Her decision was absolute. It would be done.
“Statuses will change because of this,”. Carmine added, “and once your father is out of the infirmary, we’ll have to speak with him about the next step.”
Lorian shrank at the thought.
“Hey.” He took their shoulder. “We’ll get through this. We’ve been through worse. We’ve been through wars and hardships and your father’s temper all before, and we’re still here.”
Lorian nodded along with his newfound optimism. Their sister wasn’t here with them, the whole palace was a wreck with nerves and uncertainty, and Aida…
A tear fell off their nose. “Aida. She’s still…” They wiped their nose. “She’s still gone. S-she left towards Father’s study. Has anyone found her?”
Their mother shook her head. “I haven’t heard anything.”
“Nor have I,” said Carmine. “I heard that a few of my men pursued her through the entrance of the Catacombs, but they never found her.”
“But she’ll be found,” he added confidently. “She can never seem to leave me alone for more than twelve hours. I think you understand, seeing how much you’ve been with her in the past year.”
“Right,” they said. It’d been hours, though. She should’ve come back.
Their mother tried on a smile. “Let’s go see your sister.”
The doctors warned them not to come in. They told them that their sister was in a rather unstable condition and that they needed to monitor her for several days.
Then they saw the queen, and they let all three of them in without another word.
Wherever the king was, he wasn’t in the infirmary. It wasn’t a large space—ten cots all lined up around the dimly lit room. It was mostly in place for the officers and kitchen staff who got cut up while working in the palace. Lorian often visited this place for roughhousing as a child that adults thought was “too destructive” for a girl. It’d been years since they’d come here. It looked smaller.
Their sister was asleep. Two pillows propped up her head and wool blankets kept her warm. Her injured arm was wrapped up in bandages and gauze that looked freshly wrapped, because the room smelled of blood but Lorian saw no traces of it. Beside her, in the only other occupied bed, must’ve been Kadar’s bed. His curtains were drawn, meaning that he had his headscarves off. Zaahir was slouched in a waiting chair beside them. Lorian couldn’t tell if he was asleep until they closed the door and he didn’t stir.
It was hard to tell if Beatrice was breathing at all. She looked like a doll, her face too composed for what she’d gone through, but after watching for a few muted moments, her frail chest moved the bed covers. Lorian almost collapsed with Zaahir.
They took out one of the chairs provided to them by the nurses. Their mother whispered sweet encouragement to her, holding back her tears even though she didn’t have to. Carmine tried to find a way to fix her hair, but he ended up keeping his hands on the covers. Lorian kept waiting for her to take another breath.
“She’s so strong,” their mother whispered.
Lorian couldn’t agree more.
None of them bothered to sleep. Lorian couldn’t, after seeing Beatrice alive but with the smell of death clinging to her. Their mother needed to retire but stayed with Lorian, promising not to abandon them again. But they worried more for her now, knowing what awaited them that morning. If she could only rest, close her eyes with the one man who’d protected her best all these years.
“You should go,” Lorian told her after they finally left the infirmary. “You look exhausted.”
“We should all head back and get some rest. It’s been too long of a day to stay awake with the night.”
“Let me personally escort you back.” Carmine winced and pulled back. Their mother touched his lower back, reading his injuries without asking.
Lorian bowed for him, a custom they thought they’d fully scraped off the walls of their memories. It seemed being royal would always be a part of them, even if their technical statuses might’ve been evoked once the Sun rose.
“I need to go find Aida now,” Lorian said. “She’s able to jump wherever she likes now, but it’s been hours and I haven’t seen or heard from her yet. I’m worried that she might be…” They didn’t finish that thought.
“I’ll stay with you,” their mother said. “This won’t be like last time. I won’t leave you when you need me most.”
That wasn’t part of Lorian‘s plan. They needed her gone, all of them, but in truth, they didn’t want that at all. They didn’t know what they needed right now because when they were in this Palace, they didn’t have anyone they could trust. That was what they believed.
“Of course. Your Majesty,” they teased, and got a smile out of her.
They waited until they returned to their hall with the sofa with Alessio and Matteo now playing cards together. After losing the smell of their sister’s blood, they pressed their back into the wall and covered their nose and face with both hands.
Carmine reached them before their mother and friends. “Are you alright?” he asked. “Do you need to sit down?”
They shook their head. With their vague answer, both of their friends came up, ready to help if needed.
“I just can’t be alone right now,” they confessed, “but I didn’t want you all to keep doting on me. You’ve been through enough.” They peeked through their cold fingers. “A-and if any of you need time to yourself, you can go. I won’t force you to stay with me. I just…I…”
“Okay. Just breathe.” Carmine took them back in his arms, petting the back of their head. “I won’t leave you.”
“Nor will I,” their mother promised.
“I’ll stay with you until you slam the door on me,” Alessio said, “which you’ve done a few times, mind you. And I know this is horrible timing, but I still need my horse back.”
Lorian chuckled, then took a breath of Carmine’s scent. “Can we just…take a walk? I won’t leave the castle—”
“And go through the window?”
They hit Alessio’s arm, but they kept him close as the four of them traversed through the unusually quiet halls.
Lorian had never enjoyed the required officers who’d follow them throughout the Palace. Now they couldn’t imagine not having these three with them.
They walked near the windows, through archways lit up by the Moon and stars. It was a full Moon tonight, a wakeful presence that reminded Lorian of Aida. Lorian had half a mind to go down to the Catacombs themselves to try and find her, but they were still a coward of the past. And if Aida had truly been gone for this long with the full ability to travel wherever she could, that probably meant she didn’t want to be found, or she’d found herself in the past again.
That, somehow, didn’t make them feel any better.
Their feet brought them back to the clock tower. The thunderous ticking of the clock signaled it was nearly three in the morning. The little soldiers that danced around the hours were asleep at the clock’s side.
The bed Aida had made for herself was unmade. Neither of them cared to make theirs when at Missus’ Sharma’s, so it wasn’t unusual to see, but the pillows were thrown about. The blanket was launched into the wall and covering the spare boxes they kept lying around. A box with a silk, red ribbon was tossed to the side, likely the box that’d once held Aida’s dress.
Staring up at the form of the mighty clock was a dark figure silhouetted by the cool night. They had their back to them as they watched time tick by.
“Aida!” They shouldn’t have yelled, but they couldn’t contain themselves and ran in after her. They knew her silhouette by heart. It shaped theirs. “Aida, what happened? Where’d you run off to?”
She turned to them. She had her glasses off and quickly put them back on. Her Visatorre marking had gained its second ring.
“Oh, my goodness.” They went to push back her bangs. “You got your—”
Confusion and distrust struck her face like lightning. She backed away as she eyed them and their entourage with suspicion. “Uh, hi?”
“…Hi? What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
“Uh, I don’t think so. I just woke up here trying to figure out where I was.”
“You’re in the palace’s clock tower.”
She gave the room another once-over, then examined Lorian’s friends and family like unwelcomed roaches, who were all looking at her, waiting for her to make a move.
Lorian took another step back. “Aida?”
More and more of that hateful apprehension created a rift between them. She gripped her cane harder as she backed into the glass of the clock. “What is this room,” she asked, “and who are you?”