(The Princess Bird)
In a way, everything had been spelled out for her, and yet Lysa now found herself in a point of more confusion than before.
Lysa had often fantasized about her grand return to her father's palace in the capital city, and these dreams had returned full force when she'd found out that she would have an audience with her father, once she was let out of quarantine. It made her two weeks under sterile quarantine conditions much more bearable; she'd dreamed up parades, epic poems detailing her heroics, and even a ball thrown in her honor.
She hadn't ever imagined that her stay in her father's palace would be spent under lock and key, imprisoned with very little explanation. Large windows of unbreakable glass and a door with a massive locking mechanism made all the lovely furnishings in her guest bedroom seem pointless. She would rather have returned to quarantine than continue on in this way, but of course, it was out of her control.
Every morning, she demanded to see her father, but it was one excuse or another. He was away. He was feeling under the weather. He was busy kissing babies. She needed to speak with him, needed to see if her father was someone she could trust. The longer he delayed her, the more it built turmoil in her mind.
It was her serving girl, Sonya, who took the brunt of Lysa's frustrations.
"How many fucking babies can my father possibly be kissing?" she had asked rudely one morning, only to be met with shocked silence. She had felt badly about that, to be sure, because Sonya was otherwise quite chatty, regardless of if anyone ever spoke back.
She spent the first four days trying to figure out if there was a way to hack the locks, but her doors were coded heavily, codes which only her serving girl appeared to know. Lysa tried to observe every time the numbers were punched in, but Sonya was always careful to block her view.
So Lysa wrote a few letters, the ones she had no fear of being examined by her jailers, and she tried to plan. But planning too excessively can be an exercise in futility, and so it became for Lysa. Instead, she spent hours practicing her walk, attempting to look regal, imperial. Sometimes, she walked as silently as possible, avoiding the tell-tale squeak of her boots against the floors. Still other times, she practiced skipping or jumping as far as possible.
Anything to while away the days.
When she grew tired, she would return to the window sill and press her ear as close to it as possible, imagining the hustle of the capital city, the traffic, the life. She was met with silence and stillness. Oh, the things she wished to see! She had heard so many stories of the capital city- that it was full of spice markets, sorcerers, and the fastest and most beautiful vehicles in the empire.
She tried to forget about the outside world, to allow her mind wander. Today, she was thinking about her mother- the way she used to pile her hair into an enormous black braid. It had been the fashion, back then, to have long hair. Staring at her reflection in her vanity mirror, Lysa now saw the hint of a resemblance. She had always had darker skin, like her mother, but now she saw other things as well. The bow shape to her lips, the long, straight nose. She drew her hands to her head and then paused. She had never made a braid before.
There was a sharp rap on the door. Lysa stood up abruptly as a tiny blond girl rushed into the room, her cheeks flushed. She stood up straight and patted down her blue robes before clearing her throat. "Apologies, Your Highness. Announcing-"
But before the girl could get another word in, a stocky brunette tumbled in, unable to wait for the proper introduction. "You're alive!" she yelled, throwing herself at Lysa. They embraced, and for a moment, Lysa was reminded of her cousin as a girl, soft smiles and whispered secrets. But Acacia came as a soldier now, not a girl, and she disentangled herself to bow deeply to her Diadochos, remembering her manners.
Lysa lifted the older girl from her knees and then kissed her on either cheek. "You came, Cousin," she said. Turning towards the little blond, she nodded slightly. "Sonya, you may go."
The girl scurried off.
Acacia took in Lysa's appearance, her eyes pausing over the long locks of black hair. She didn't have to ask to know that it had been much, much longer than a few months for Lysa. The Diadochos had aged considerably.
Lysa interrupted her thoughts. "There's no need to examine me so thoroughly. The doctors were very exacting before they released me from my quarantine. I told them exactly what to do, but you know how it is with doctors. They never appreciate young genius."
Laughing, Acacia tucked a brown lock behind her ear. "Same old Lysandra, I see." She was not the same Lysandra, however. The physical changes were numerous, the scars and the deep tan to her skin only hinting at the ordeals the girl had suffered. She had lost weight and her limbs had lengthened. Lysa seemed to her much like a wire-girl.
Lysa cleared her throat. "And you, promoted to Centurion, I hear. My felicitations!"
The soldier clasped her hands together shyly, as though she didn't quite know what to say. "I was very grateful to your father for interceding on my behalf," Acacia said, her expression a bit distant now. "If you hadn't returned safely, Lysa, it would have been the end of my career."
Lysa rolled her eyes. "I'm only sorry then, that it took me so long. My calibration was not so perfect as I would have hoped..."
At this, Acacia could only laugh. "Trust me, it's enough that you're safe. I can't believe they locked you up in here?"
Lysa put a finger flush against her mouth. She moved swiftly but silently towards the far corner of her room, gesturing that her cousin should follow. She wanted to be as far out of Sonya's earshot as possible before they discussed more sensitive subjects.
She stopped when she stood before the tall glass window. The view was disappointing, really. She'd always hoped to get a glimpse of her father's city, but instead all she could see was into a room across from hers, and it was always dark, the curtains drawn tightly as though the sunlight were its natural enemy.
"I meant what I said in my letters, Cousin," Acacia insisted as she walked up to Lysa. "I am in your debt. If there's anything I can do..."
For a moment, Lysa was silent. She was not a fool; she had invited Acacia to speak with her for the very purpose of extracting a favor. She leaned in closer and met her cousin's eye. "Thank me with your allegiance, Acacia".
The older girl stepped back as though stung. The silence was thick as Acacia realized the implications of what Lysa was asking. Was it treasonous to swear allegiance upon an heir, instead of on the Throne? It was certainly not the "done" thing, not while the rightful Emperor still reigned.
Lysa knew her cousin's thoughts. "I serve the same purpose you do, Acacia; I am loyal to my people and to my father. But there are strange things happening, and I need someone I can trust, someone who will keep my secrets. Will you serve me?"
They stilled completely, each girl trying to get the measure of the other. The games of empires were not usually played by princesses or newly promoted centurions, and Acacia must have wondered if the Diadochos was out of her depth. In the art of inspiring confidence, it appeared that Lysa was still a bit untrained.
There was a short pause as Acacia considered, a smile now hovering on her lips. She bowed her head deferentially, her mop of brown curls falling over her eyes. "As ever, Cousin."
Lysa smiled. It was small, but it was a triumph. Soon to be put on trial by the Greater Lords, she would need every friend she could get. She slipped two carefully worded letters into Acacia's hands and whispered instructions for their delivery into her ear.
Acacia nodded and then hid them inside of her jacket, before hesitantly pulling something out. "I almost forgot," she said, holding out a pair of long silver shears. "Just as you requested in your letter."
Lysa scoffed at the idea that anyone could forget such large shears hidden inside of one's jacket, but she thanked her cousin and then they bid each other farewell. Acacia crept out and closed the door shut behind her, leaving Lysa alone in her beautiful prison once more.
The shears glinted in the light as she examined them. She walked up to her vanity mirror and then paused, seeing her mother's face in her own. If she wanted to rule an empire, she would have to be as cunning and wise as her father, but more than that, she would have to look the part.
Gripping the shears somewhat uncertainly with her right hand, she began to snip away at chunks of her long black locks, quickly losing any resemblance to her mother. The floor was soon carpeted with her black curls, but her head was nearly bare.
There was a quiet strength that thrummed through her now. She looked princely.
"You look like a stork." He looked over her long arms and legs critically, as though she were changed for the worse. "Or perhaps… a crane? I struggle to find a creature gangly enough to describe your current condition."
His dark eyes held her transfixed for a moment before she struggled to cover herself with her bed sheets. She was annoyed both that she had been caught sleeping and that Sonya hadn't announced her guest. It was still dark out, she noted, and a quick glance at her clock confirmed at it was only 5:30 in the morning.
"Thank you, Sir. You always knew how to flatter a girl," she said, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.
Anker stiffened and narrowed his eyes. "Is it just 'Sir' to you now? You used to be so affectionate in your endearments, Cousin."
Anker was as imposing as ever, she noted, dressed in full military uniform just as his sister had been when she'd visited. The look suited him, tall and lanky that he was, and she found herself looking him over before shaking herself out of her thoughts. She bit her lip, recalling what she had learned about Anker through her time traveling. He was going to steal her throne, but that was hard to remember when she was faced with those endearing dimples of his.
It must have been a joke of the gods, she thought, to have gifted such a wicked man such a charming face.
Snake. Killer. Usurper. She struggled to regain her bearings. Lifting her chin imperiously to meet his eyes, she put on a look of disdain. "That was before you convinced my father to keep me locked up and put me on trial for some trumped up charges of gods know what. You are no cousin to me." She tried to keep her voice steady, she really did, but from his smile, she knew that he had caught the shake in her voice.
He glanced around her room, a smile ever on his face, and then drew up uncomfortably close, extending his hand down to her cheek. "I'll admit that I don't always feel cousinly amity towards you, my little bird," he said, moving his hand towards her close-cropped hair. He gave it a tug.
Lysa's mouth quivered. She twisted out of her sheets and took several steps away from him, but Anker closed the distance efficiently. "I heard through my sources that you arranged a visit with my sister Acacia. Are you gathering your allies? I'm hurt that you wouldn't think to call on me."
Of course he had heard. She wouldn't be surprised if the entire royal staff was under his thumb, and it infuriated her. He was a handsome devil, but she wouldn't let him charm his way onto her throne. If he was going to steal her job, it would be after she gave every last ounce of fight for it. "Get out. Get the fuck out, you snake."
He turned away from her, hiding a fleeting look of disappointment on his face. It probably shocked him as much as it shocked her, but he collected himself shortly afterwards. "I see," he said, though she didn't think he saw at all. He marched up to her wardrobe, his demeanor business like, and then began to rifle through her drawers and compartments, as though he were looking for something.
"Wh-what are you doing?" Lysa asked, aghast at his sudden change in personality. He ignored her. Whatever it was he was searching for, he didn't find it in her wardrobe. He turned towards her and then noticed the drawers in her vanity. He walked towards it in a leisurely fashion and then began to empty out the dainty little drawers, tossing her makeup and hair combs every which way.
He shrugged and then stood up, brushing imaginary lint off of his pants. "It is my right to go through your things, as you are a prisoner. And an uncooperative one at that."
So this was how he would treat her if she didn't play nice? She wouldn't be intimidated. "Will you be going now?" she asked, frustrated at the mess he had made of her room. Poor Sonya would have to clean all of it.
"You're coming with me, of course. Your father wishes to see you."
Lysa hesitated, remembering that she was still in her nightdress. She looked at him with uncertainty and then at her beautiful dresses, strewn across the floor.
"You would keep your father waiting? Don't be ridiculous," he said, roughly grasping her left wrist and ignoring her cry of pain as he pulled her along and out of her room. It was no mistake on his part; he had read her doctor's reports, she knew, and had chosen her bad arm on purpose.
She did her best to mask her pain as his grip tightened. It didn't do to show a weakness to the enemy.
He led the way through several winding passages, many of which seemed unnecessarily complicated, as though he were taking the scenic route just to aggravate her. She couldn't help but ogle all she saw, however, and soon stopped being conscious of her improper dress. As they reached the heart of the Inner Palace, the architecture seemed more and more old fashioned, the stones larger and more crude in their placing.
Dawn's light seeped in through the little windows, and all around her, there was a busy hush. In these hallways and spaces, there were many more servants than she had ever seen at home. They all wore the royal insignia and matching blue uniforms, hurried in their paths as though they didn't have a moment to spare. No one looked at each other or paused to say "good morning" as they passed. No doubt many of them were younger sons and daughters from noble families, trusted with the secrets that would never reach ears outside of the palace.
She tried to slow down to observe people or situations, but Anker was relentless and wouldn't let her pause to breathe.
They arrived at what she assumed was her father's bedchambers, but they had to first clear the security through several guard chambers. She was patted down and forced to answer several personal questions, much to Anker's amusement, before they were finally in.
It was an enormous room, but it felt empty. As far as furnishings went, it was surprisingly lacking. Straight ahead, there was a large screen with a fast ticker flashing by every few seconds. There were a few coffee tables scattered throughout the room, where she imagined that her father took his tea. In the far corner, there was an extravagant bed covered in purple and gold sheets, along with mountains of embroidered pillows.
"I've brought your daughter, Your Majesty," Anker called out, his voice reverberating through the room.
Lysa had to do a double-take to notice that her father was lying down in his bed. The man was so frail that she hadn't even seen him there. He held up his hand in acknowledgement, and then seemed to beckon them to come closer. Lysa felt frozen where she stood, her feet taking root to the ground. She gaped, but no words came from her throat. It had been so many years; she no longer knew what to think of the man she saw before her.
Anker rolled his eyes and then shoved her forward. "Well, go on then. Go greet your old dad."
His touch made her recoil and brought her back to her senses. Lysa crept slowly towards her father, trying not to make a sound. The man in the bed was her father, but he looked nothing like how she remembered. He appeared to have a fever, his steel grey hair damp with sweat. She climbed the dais and then lifted herself unceremoniously onto the bed, forgetting propriety.
When he spoke, his voice came out like a sigh. "Lysandra." He pulled a hand out from under his purple sheets, pressing it against her own. His veins shown bright green through his pale skin. He was hooked up, she noticed belatedly, to an IV drip. She read the information on the pouch and surmised that it was a basic saline solution.
His Majesty Anatole had largely faded, but his eyes were still the same, still sharp, still knowing. Realizing this, she smiled. "Father, we have so much to discuss!" Lysa exclaimed, throwing her arms around the man. "I wish to address your people with a public speech, Your Majesty, to inform them of the dangers our Empire faces in the future. The virus-"
"Stop," Anker said. "Can't you see that he's ill?" Though his expression was flat, Lysa could have sworn she heard a smile in his words. She felt unnerved; she hadn't even noticed him approach.
His Majesty Anatole held up his hand, his expression unreadable. "Let your Diadochos s-speak," he managed to gasp out, as though every word cost him dearly. His loyalty to her warmed her heart, and she squeezed his clammy hand tight. Lysa wondered how many people knew that the Emperor was so sick. The lands would be in a state of fear if news got out.
Anker grabbed Lysa's wrist once more, causing her to gasp in surprise, and forcibly pulled her away from her father. "My Diadochos? She won't be fit to inherit anything unless she can clear the charges I've brought up against her," he said to the Emperor.
The Emperor shut his eyes, as though he could bear no more. "Then... go."
Anker turned back to Lysa, pulling her hand out of her father's and then dragging her down the dais. She struggled against him, but it was no use. Her father gazed at them sadly, but said nothing.
They were well past the guard chambers when Anker finally spoke again. "I brought you here for a reason, Little Bird. I wanted you to know that you won't get any special favors just because of who your father is. He can't intervene with the rule of law... but I can."
She stared at him, the blood pounding in her ears. She couldn't believe what she was hearing.
Anker ran a hand through his dark hair, as though unsure of what to say next. "I want to propose a-"
Lysa yanked her hand away from her cousin, enraged. "I am above the laws!" she yelled, not caring that several servants paused to look at her. "I am master over Time! Do you really think that your laws can hold me?" Even she could hear the blind egotism in her voice; it made her cringe once she realized what she'd said.
"Time travelling without permission was an act of treason!" Anker yelled back, slamming her roughly against the stone wall. Her head spun and stars flashed behind her eyelids. She struggled to keep from falling.
Only one thing kept her heart rate in check- she knew that Anker never really lost his temper; all that he was doing now was for show, to scare her into submission. "You fucking bastard..." she said through gritted teeth. She knew now that regardless of if her father was innocent or guilty in overlooking his Empire, he was now powerless to make any changes, and if she didn't play her cards right, she would be powerless as well.
Anker's black eyes bore into her. "You caught a dangerous virus and brought it back with you, endangering the entire Empire. We cannot all suffer just because our Diadochos is a free spirit."
Lysa squirmed under his grip, afraid that he was right. The words hit their mark. He pulled her along again, holding her wrist more gently now, but she hardly noticed. The Inner Palace, in all its busy splendor, was no longer enchanting to her. Just another prison for a girl who didn't seem to fit in any time or place.
"I always thought you were encouraging me to be more adventurous," she mumbled, recalling his words at her last birthday party.
Anker scoffed. "I was reminding you of your shortcomings, not trying to make you brave. An Empress should be easily cowed, Lysa, as malleable as clay. She should not be able to fly away without a moment's notice. Prove that you'll be that woman again and I'll allow you to inherit your throne."
"What would you gain by stopping me? You hope to be Emperor? You are far from being the next in line." Even as she spoke the words, she remembered what the future would bring. Someday, somehow, Anker would be Emperor.
He smiled, showing off his boyish dimples. "I'll settle for being Kingmaker. It's more fun anyway."
She heard no hint of deception in his voice and wondered if what he said about his aspirations were true. It didn't explain what would come to pass. It seemed that both of them were thinking things through, as they walked the rest of the distance in silence. He walked her all the way to her door, where Sonya was waiting for her, and then awkwardly placed a kiss on Lysa's cheek before rushing off.
Sonya seemed to bristle at the kiss, as though it disturbed her. She walked Lysa into the room to get her dressed for the day.
"Dragging a girl off in her nightdress, now that is just horrid!" she exclaimed. Lysa looked over at her, but it seemed that Sonya was talking to herself again. She followed after her towards the dressing room, ignoring the girl's mumbling.
More and more, Lysa felt torn about her decision to come back to the Now. If she'd only been able to stay in the past, she would have been with Maxine, happy as clams. She had belonged there, hadn't she? It wasn't like the Now, where no one talked to her like a friend.
Sonya brought her a tea service as the day turned to evening. The girl seemed more troubled than usual, playing with strands of her blond hair that had fallen out of the tie, or adjusting and readjusting the belled sleeves of her blue robes.
Lysa took a long sip, making an effort not to betray the shake of her hand as she held the cup, and then placed it back onto the table. "Sonya," she said, "is something the matter?"
"N-no, Your Highness."
Lysa straightened her posture and looked the girl straight in the eye. It was time to confront her about what had happened in the morning, or else neither of them would be at ease. "You should not have let Anker into my rooms without announcing him first," she said, keeping her voice appropriately stern.
The girl paled and then mumbled to herself. She paced for a moment before meeting Lysa's gaze. "Forgive me, Your Highness. I didn't want to be your serving girl, but Alexei made me do it. I knew there would be trouble, I just knew, but when he says 'jump', I say how high. I hate that boy!"
"Alexei?" Lysa's breath caught in her throat.
"Yes, my cousin," the girl said, her tone matter-of-fact. "He told me this job would be easy and that all I would need to do is keep an eye on you. But with that Anker fellow breathing down my neck, I can't even do my job properly! I'm sorry I didn't announce him, but the man sneaked right past me!"
Lysa considered this new information. Alexei was having her watched, then. Was he watching her back, or was he watching his own? She now had more than enough information to blackmail him with, but she needed him as an ally, not an enemy. Not for the first time, she wondered if Alexei from the future had told her the entire truth. Maybe in the future he was her enemy, and he lied to her to protect himself. Maybe in the future, he was her lover, and he lied to her to protect her own self.
Or, perhaps, he had told her the truth. She took another sip of her tea.
"Interesting," Lysa replied, mulling the thought over in her head. Sonya clearly saw no conspiracy, but Lysa saw it everywhere. She dipped a biscuit into her tea, swirling it around before popping it into her mouth. Any girl could have served Lysa, but Alexei had specifically chosen his cousin for the job.
Sonya bowed her blond head. "There's something else you should know, Your Highness. After you left with that man, several guards came to search your rooms. Looking for some suspicious perfume bottle, one of 'em said to me."
This caught Lysa's attention. "Did they find anything?" she asked, wondering if that had been what Anker was searching for earlier.
Sonya shook her head, which should have settled Lysa's thoughts. She couldn't help but wonder what Anker was looking for, however. It seemed that he'd started looking once he realized that Lysa wouldn't cooperate with him.
The Diadochos stared off into space for several minutes, her brow drawn in concentration. "Curious, Sonya," she said at last. "Very curious."
"I suppose you're done with your tea, Your Highness?" Sonya asked. Upon receiving a nod from Lysa, she took the tea service out with her.
Part of being a prisoner meant that she had no access to media. She hungered to know what the world outside knew, and had requested that her mini-screen be brought back to her. She pretended that the main reason she wanted it back was to play games on it, but her request had been denied anyway.
As the days passed, however, Sonya became friendlier towards Lysa, and she brought ample conversation with her each time she served meals. It was always idle court gossip, but the more Lysa listened, the more she understood how the little indiscretions piled up into a larger story.
It was her cousin Acacia, however, that brought the most serious news- Lysa didn't have a chance in hell to win her trial at the end of the month, because Anker was blackmailing Lord Esidor.
Of the seven Greater Lords, Lord Esidor held the most power. Lords Heron, Cleon, and Phineas all shared borders with him and were thus in danger of being swallowed up by Esidor's army. They never publicly disagreed with Esidor, meaning that Anker would already have four of the seven votes.
Lysa didn't have enough time to try to secure funds and undo the ties Anker had made in her father's court. No. If she was going to win her lords back, she would need time, which was the one thing she didn't have. "Only ten days before the trial, Acacia. I'm doomed!"
Acacia mumbled words of comfort, but they passed right through Lysa's ears. If she were found guilty of Anker's charges, she would be ineligible to be Diadochos, leaving Anker free to play Kingmaker as he liked. The thought sent shivers down her spine. Who would he choose? Would it be someone he had already corrupted, or one of her younger cousins, "easily cowed"?
And through all of it, one thought wouldn't leave her head. Five years from now, Anker himself would be emperor, if Alexei had spoken the truth. How it would come to pass, she still didn't understand.
She couldn't believe that anyone related to Acacia could be so goddamn aggravating. "Your brother is a pox," she said, as though the mere mention of him left a sour taste in her mouth.
"I never liked him much myself," Acacia answered easily, which Lysa knew was true. She went on to tell Lysa that Anker had seemed different lately- afraid, almost. He'd mentioned to Acacia that he had misplaced something, though he gave no indication as to what manner of object it was.
"Whatever it is, he's very intent on having it back, and soon," Acacia said. "He's questioned me nearly thirty times, can you believe it? Whatever it was, he was keeping it in our shared vault."
Lysa smiled. "Probably he lost his list of wicked things to do," she joked, and her cousin laughed with her. They sat together for a few minutes before Acacia excused herself to training practice.
Lysa spent the rest of the day in uneasy silence. Sonya came to chat now and then, offering her light meals and snacks, and then helping her get ready for bed. Before Sonya left for the night, she slipped a note into Lysa's palm and then hurried off.
"Be dressed by 22:00. We need to talk." the note read, signed only with the letter A.
Lysa rolled through names in her head that started with A. It was not Acacia, for she would never be afraid to sign her name. Anker, on the other hand, would not have been courteous enough for a note.
It was Alexei, she realized. It would have been easy for him to slip a note through his cousin Sonya. She slipped out of her nightdress and struggled into her evening robes, rushing around the room to look presentable without making too much sound. She didn't dare switch on the lights, but she still checked her reflection in her vanity mirror, teasing out her hair with shaking hands. The moonlight seemed to highlight her scars against the dark tan of her skin.
She thanked the gods that she had managed to dress herself without too much difficulty. She usually had Sonya's help, after all, with the intricate lacing. Tonight, she hadn't even bothered, leaving the ribbons dangling at her sides. Alexei wouldn't notice.
She scolded herself for being such a girl. What did it matter how she looked? What did it matter that he kissed her five years in the future? It didn't mean anything in the Now.
As Time marched on, she fidgeted more and more. He was over ten minutes late, now. What if she had misread his note? She unfolded it yet again, reading the lines she now knew by heart. The paper was slowly falling to pieces in her hands.
She squeaked. Swerving away from her mirror, she squinted in the darkness, slowly able make out the silhouette of a man standing by her door. She didn't need to see him to know that it was him, of course. She would recognize Alexei anywhere, his voice, his figure, his stance. How many months had they lived together, as captor and captive? Now it seemed that they were back to playing the game.
He stood there, as though he was waiting for her permission to enter. "I waited until after Sonechka was asleep... don't want her mixed up in any of this," he said. She couldn't see his expression in the darkness, but his voice sounded sincere.
"I like her..." she said. "Please, come in." It was surreal. Now that he was here before her, in the flesh, she had no idea what she wanted to say to him. Should she apologize? Should she ask him for advice? Should she run far, far away? He walked closer to her, as though he wasn't sure what to expect. They were alike in that regard, she thought to herself.
"It was a rather cryptic note you had Acacia send me. You wrote that I'm supposed to meet you five years from now, at a hospital..." he trailed off, sounding wary.
She nodded her head. "I'm meant to meet you there. It's fate, that's all you need to know." Even though she spoke confidently, she herself wondered at how much of what she knew of the future was true.
He didn't look like he believed her, but he took a seat on her bed and then leaned forward until he was only inches away from her face. "How do you know I'll do it? The last time I saw you was... injurious to my health."
"My regrets. I left you more than enough gold-"
"Enough," he snapped. She had hurt him on more than just a physical level, she realized. But they were even in that regard too. Perhaps he had forgotten how he'd kept her chained to a wall? She wasn't one to hold grudges, considering that he would save her in the future, but it was still entirely terrible of him to have treated her that way.
He stood up abruptly and moved towards her window. The moonlight played across his features, and Lysa noticed the cut that ran along his hairline, where she had smashed his head with a glass bottle. It made her cringe.
He must have noticed, for he looked over at her and then gave a half-hearted smile, as though he knew her thoughts. "You didn't tell anyone about me being a rebel," he pointed out, before his features hardened once more. "Are you hoping to have me in your debt?"
He was insinuating blackmail, she realized, and she felt her heart twist. As though she would stoop to Anker's level? "I'm asking you as an ally," she said. "If you don't help me, Anker will be free to choose the next Emperor. I need to figure out how to win the trial."
He leaned his head against her window with a thunk and closed his eyes. Alexei was reevaluating her now, she knew. For a moment, neither of them spoke, and Lysa took the time to look him over closely. He seemed very similar to how he'd been when she had seen him last, save for the scarring along his hairline. He had needed stitches, she recalled. She wondered how long he'd been stranded in the past before he was able to return to the Now.
He opened his eyes, perhaps sensing her analysis of his person.
"You won't win the trial," he said. "I'm sorry."
She blinked back tears. It was surprising to her that she felt it so deeply, the loss of her crown. Hadn't she hated the idea her entire life? And yet, here she was, fighting to the ends of her means for the chance to prove herself to her people. "Are none of my Lords loyal?" she asked, her voice shaking.
He rolled his eyes up into his head, making a show of counting. "Well, let's see here... Lord Briseus, perhaps, and maybe Lord Pietr. But the rest of them? Not to a girl they don't know, Lysandra. To ask more from them would be stupid."
She couldn't help her tears now. Anker had kept her confined to her bedroom, and this was probably exactly what he had wanted to happen. He knew she would go mad from the strain of it. She sniffed and tried to regain her composure, knowing that no one would help a blubbering girl. She told herself she had to be a strong Diadochos if she wished to succeed, and wiped the snot dripping out of her nose with the back of her hand.
Alexei bit his lip and then turned away from her. "Look, the most I can do is help you escape. Anker has made it difficult to find access to a Machine without his knowing, but I could probably pull a few strings..."
She shook her head. She couldn't just fly away like a bird whenever the going got tough- Anker, as much as it disgusted her, was right about that much.
"Maybe a time traveler isn't meant to be an Empress, Lysandra."
His words made her face heat and her fists clench. She thanked her dark complexion once again for masking her blush. Where was the idealistic Alexei that she remembered? Surely a few months had not seen him so changed? "Maybe I'll never be Empress," she said, "but I won't just abandon my people! The Alexei I knew would have fought tooth and nail for even the shadow of a dream."
Hearing the passion in her voice, he gave a great sigh of relief. His smile reached his light eyes, as though he had been aching to smile at her for months. "You've grown up since the last time we met, Lysandra. I'm glad, because you and I have some work to do if we're going to win back Lord Esidor."
She stared at him, her mouth agape, tiny pricks of shock running up her spine.
"I've already struck a bargain with Lord Esidor. We're going to sneak back in time and steal what Anker is blackmailing him with."
She paused. It was too easy to become hopeful and think everything would magically work out, when all signs were pointing to her failure and Anker's rise. "Hypothetical question. If you met yourself, or a friend of yours, in the future, would you trust them?"
He narrowed his eyes. "Not really, not fully. I mean, your future self might have totally different interests and investments than yourself in the Now. What you wanted yesterday may not be what you want tomorrow."
Good answer. Did she have reason to doubt the Alexei she had met in the future? While the kiss had definitely been no lie, it didn't mean that Alexei's future self had been telling the entire truth, either. She had no way of knowing if she was just being used as the future's pawn.
And yet, with Anker in the picture, she had bigger problems in the Now.
Alexei squeezed her hand, and she felt light when she realized he had purposely grabbed her right hand to avoid hurting her. "So, Allies?" he asked, showing off the hint of a smile.
"Allies," she replied, and mentally added 'for Now'. The whispered word was swallowed up in the dark, but she had no doubt that he heard.
author note: when i started off, i wanted to write a cute, self contained futuristic love story. i guess what i wrote ended up being a little bit bigger and maybe a little less cute, but i still think of it as a love story, with lysa confronting her distrust and choosing to take alexei's hand.i really enjoy writing about lysa. she's a character with ambiguous ethnicity (confirmed half greek from her fathers side), she takes a lot of physical damage, and she struggles, but ultimately she is pretty badass. she's arrogant, but she tries hard. i enjoy her.
although this is "the end", i know that there's some uncertainty about if she actually prevails or not. i don't think that's the point- i think her struggle to come up to this point was the focus of my story. lysa's story is about liberation from constraints; these constraints include her insecurities, her enormous ego, the nature of fate, and even alexei chaining her to a wall. it's also a story about her developing her focus towards becoming the liberator of her people.
here's what i WANTED to get across, although i have no idea if it worked: basically, i feel like she's made headway concerning the issue of fate; she used to be very resigned to her future, but now she knows that it's not clear cut; she has no idea what the fuck is going on, and that liberates her. she is not master of time, she is just a girl that the machine is kinder too than others, and she doesn't understand the nature of time any better than anyone else. maybe her future self is conspiring against her. maybe alexei is a douchey future ex boyfriend. maybe he's her true love. the point is that lysa will be free to find these things out on her own.
this is a time travel story that is complete at this point, because glimpses of the future have already hinted at what will happen in lysa's "now". granted, a lot is still left very ambiguous. i consider this a completed story, but one that may be continued in a sequel.
what do i see for lysa's future? i think she'll face a lot more physical hardship, for one thing. she's very reckless with how she travels, and this will leave her with chronic illnesses/pains, and/or with her actually getting "spliced", although i guess we're not entirely sure what that means yet. i also think she'll run into maxine again. maxine as an adult is a soldier with long blond braids, and i'm sure she'd love to give lysa a piece of her mind about lysa's patriotic speech. as for anker, he will become emperor, but whether he remains emperor is uncertain (certainly there are many who conspire against him, including alexei and his friends). for those of you who haven't figured it out yet, anker doesn't actually want to be emperor, he wants lysandra, and he wants to be the power behind the throne. i guess you could say that anker became emperor in a roundabout way. i guess we don't all get what we want. as for if alexei and lysa "end up together", they are clearly on kissing terms in the future, although i guess you'll have to wait for the sequel to find out if she's actually being used as a pawn by either her future self or by alexei's future self. i think that if i could travel time, i would definitely go back in time and steal money from myself when i was rich and had access to my dad's credit card. past-me would probably feel totally betrayed, but whatever, she had more than her fair share!
i hope most of all that lysa uses time in a way that frees her, instead of in a way that puts her into a smaller and smaller box. this is part of the reason why i don't feel like i'm currently skilled enough to approach the sequel. but i hope i've presented you with some cool ideas and given you a look into a world that exists in my head. i hope it wasn't too cliche, although this did have some typical time travel cliches in it.