The Liberated Prisoner

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Chapters 6-10

The first place he takes me in the beautifully sculptured palace is something he calls 'the chamber'. On the way there, I see outdoor rooms that he calls ‘courtyard’ that are full of trees and chirping birds. The air in the hallway is fresh and reminds me of how I smelled after my banho. I wish the wheels under my chair would break so I could sit and enjoy everything around me. But Frigidianus nearly runs me through the corridors (at least that's what I feel like), giving me a feeble glance at the fixtures of the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the artwork and sculptures..

“STOP!” I call out and he jerks me to a halt. Frigidianus circles around to face me, a large, confused frown on his face.

“Is everything alright?”

“Who is that?” I point to a picture on the wall and a growing suspicion bubbles in my stomach.

A large exhale. “That is you.”

“And what am I doing?”

“The artist was a witness of the event, actually. Right here,” he points to a bit of unreadable figures below it, “Amalia the Liberator rallies the people in the city of Gazea to overrun the palace. A sight I shall never forget.”

I peer at the painting and try to make something of the way the artist portrays Amalia. Her hair is short, almost to her neck, and it blows in her face as she looks angrily at the crowd of simple-looking people. She isn’t angry at the crowd, but she must be trying to get them angry. She wears a plain beige dress, something that also blows this way and that-definitely an action my current apparel would never allow-just like the crude object in her hand. A tattered piece of fabric tied onto a pole. In the other, she clenches a parchment that flaps loosely.

“This palace?” I question. I-she-was here.

“The one and only,” he remarks with a grin. “It is the most moving speech I’ve heard to this day.”

“She must have been quite wonderful,” I sigh. What made her that wonderful? I guess I’ll never know.

“She was. If she hadn’t been taken away, she would have been ruling the government.”

“Did she want that?”

“Who knew what she wanted after the king and queen were overthrown? We wrote up only a part of the Condicio before she went missing.”

I scowl at him, “After everything you went through together, you never told each other your dreams? Or even motives?”

He shakes his head, “I told her my dreams, what I intended to do. Marriage had only been just agreed on before... everything. But it took her the longest time to decide, to put herself above the people and actually consider what she wanted.”

“Would it be so bad if all she wanted was freedom from oppression?”

“No, of course not. However, there was more to her life than that. I was there-supportive of her-every moment of the campaign. But she had her priorities, and those matters were more important than her heart,” Fridigianus explains wistfully. I can hear a bit of sorrow in his voice, and I pity his misfortune that actually led him to hold allegiance to her for the rest of his life.

He stares at the picture for a moment or two longer before quickly turning back to me with a pained smile. “Would you mind if we continue on?”

I nod and grip my hands together. I feel as if my very presence is wounding him. “Of course not.”

“There is actually someone I want you to meet, Amalia.” He says impulsively and starts to push me forward.

“Oh? Have I met them before?” I glance back at the painting once more, hoping that perhaps I would someday meet the artist who painted it.

“No-” is all he says before rolling me through a curtained room. A curious sound fills my ears. The ceiling is higher than any in my series of rooms, and the space more white than any place I’ve seen so far. In the center a petite little girl sits at a desk. Her hands run across it back and forth quickly. I close my eyes at the peaceful joy that radiates from the sound. I remember Cantor’s exotic, foreign bass voice as he sang tunes from his old land.

“Music,” he whispers in my ear. The lone little girl jerks at the small sound and beams.

“Frid!” She holds her arms out and he embraces her swiftly, taking her in his arms and swinging her in the air in a wide circle. She giggles and clings to his neck in delight. I am entranced as I watch them.

“Dearest, I know you aren’t expecting me, but I have a special person I would like you to meet.” The child looks at me with a sideways glance. She cannot be more than six years old. Yet, the way she struck the instrument seems to suggest that she has played it for more than a lifetime. Her eyes are dark, not brown like Frigidianus, but like the heavy clouds this morning before they released the rain. Her hair is long for her age, and the fringes of the locks are curly. Surprisingly, her dress is very plain and loose, with one distinguished color and belt that nearly hangs off of her slight form, with sandals on small feet and a band across her forehead that encircles her head.

Frigidianus leads her to my chair, where she bends low, holding her skirt and lowers her head shyly. “Amalia, I introduce you to my ward, Iotha. Iotha, this is Amalia, my-my...old friend.” Normally, I would watch Frigidianus’ face for his reaction concerning me, but I am gazing at the child. She is innocent, young, and her skin looks so soft, despite her thinness.

“Pleased to meet you,” Iotha takes my gloved hand. Her voice is quiet and gentle.

I hum in agreement and am silent. What do I say to this stranger? I have no questions, because she does not know my past. She knows nothing of me either.

“Iotha is our little prodigio in the house. She performs for Praeses Fidelis at supper parties quite often, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she nods.

“Is he intimidating?” I ask. Perhaps it is strange to me that someone so young is put under such pressure. I remember Edite telling me that the Praeses is the commander of armies and the government.

“Fidelis is a harmless, quiet man. He wouldn’t insult Iotha and I with any rude comment. Especially since she has never done anything short of excellent.”

“Oh? She is quite talented?”

Frigidianus raises his eyebrows at her and the little girl clears her throat nervously. “Frid thinks so. I’ve played forever.”

“Does she call you Frid?” I look up at him curiously. He blushes and looks fondly at Iotha.

“As a toddler, she had trouble saying ‘Frigidianus’ so she decided on that nickname. She’s the only one that I've allowed to call me that.”

I raise an eyebrow at him, “I actually rather like ‘Frid.’ It’s easier for me, personally.”

“Do what you like, Amalia. I won’t stop you.” I look up sharply at him and frown with concentration.

“And who are her parents?”

“What parents?” he scoffs, “That is the precise reason I took her as a baby.”

“Are they dead?”

Frid squeezes the child's shoulder as he answers, “No. Iotha here, is un bastardo.” I frown even more. What is that title? Why does it brand a crude-sounding label on someone so small and helpless? “Iotha would have been left with a working mother and no father. A nameless, useless life, so I took her.”

A working mother? Is it wrong for a female to work?

I look up at him with a troubled statement, “The mother agreed?”

“More or less. I persuaded her to let me give Iotha a life, one she could not offer, no matter how much love she held for the sick little babe.”

“She was sick?”

Frid laughs coldly and lifts one of Iotha’s arms, showing me how thin she is. “Never had much meat on her. Probably from the conditions of her birth, and she doesn’t like food as most kids do. Pitiful creature really.”

I watch Iotha steadily through the discussion. She zones out and stares dreamily at one spot on the ceiling, not even responding when Frid touches her arm or even says her name. Her eyes are big as she stares, and I can almost see her as an infant, although I don’t know how I know what a baby looks like.

"Well I am glad to meet her, nonetheless," I give her the closest thing to a smile that I can muster. Her eyes are sad and I wonder, how could such a talented, and sheltered girl go through any sorrow at her age?

She nods and beams at me, giving me another little lowering of her head and bending of her knees. “I shall play for you any request.”

“I’m afraid, Iotha,” I look up at ‘Frid,’ “that I am not familiar with any songs you know. Could you continue with the song we interrupted when we came in?”

“Of course,” she lowers her head again and somewhat limps to the instrument. She picks up from the spot she left off and continues on as if we were not there.

“I love watching her,” he whispers to me, “My favorite part, about everything, is the way she gets lost in the music. She stops listening to others around her and listens to the composer’s purpose.”

“Composer? Who is that?”

“They create music.”

“How?” I know, from Cantor’s dronings on the way his tribe used to dance to the music, which was filled with ‘drums,’ pipes, and voices in a loud, spontaneous choir. He would say with some struggle to us, “Music make itself. I not make it. You not. Some power make it, and it come to if listen.”

“They write down notes and distribute it to instrumentalists like Amalia. They play it together to create a song.” I nod, though I know he has it all wrong. Perhaps the composer heard the music. But they did not make the music.

“Cantor used to sing tribal songs when there was nothing to do.”

He watches me for a moment, “Is this Cantor someone you met there?”

“Yes. He was my friend. I was closest to him. “ Talking about him makes me sad. Even if he hadn’t given up on his life, like others had done, he still died in that prison. I feel the tightness around my eyes as I squint at him, “Was it meant to happen? Did I have to be the only person to live? Was I always going to have to suffer in that prison?” I don’t expect him to answer the onslaught of questions; he instead turns to watch Iotha with renewed interest and attention. He looks uncomfortable; I must have asked him something that hurt him.

“Music brings out these type of questions in us, doesn’t it?” He laughs and miles at me, “I never feel so enlightened after hearing Iotha practice.”

“I guess,” I look back his goofy smile with confusion. Why would he brush off my soberness with such a statement? Why is he not taking me seriously? We listen for a few more minutes before we say goodbye to Iotha.

He pushes me into the hallway and after we hear her start to play on her instrument, he turns to me with a pitiful look. “Poor child. She is destined to die.”

“Aren’t we all ‘destined to die?” I ask skeptically.

“Because of the conditions of her birth, she was terribly sick. I think I explained that...correct? Yes, well the Medice has attended to her whole life. And she was born with a disease that is fatal.”

“Frid,” I test it out, liking the sound as I say it, “you are too obsessed with life and death. Everyone will die from something. Life is fatal.”

“Perhaps I am obsessed because I think that young people are the ones who die more often and before their time than the elders.” He argues passionately, “This prodigy will only have at most four more years to live. And much less time to play her music. Her strength is already leaving her, and she is suffering from seizures every day.”

“How do you know all this?” I am completely shocked. I had not seen any symptoms when I looked upon her.

“The Medice has cared for numerous patients in his lifetime, including this disease. No oil, plant or medicine can stop it.”

“So her fate is decided?” I glance back at the room filled with beautiful sounds and sorrow suddenly strikes me. Seizures occurred to me once or twice before, and that was when I was in serious condition.

“Yes.” The word sounds like a death sentence itself.

“Is...Is there anything else you’d like to show me?” I ask. I feel weary suddenly.

“The city will have to wait for a few more weeks, Amalia. We still have to cleanse it from all dangers.”

“Threats? From the Invicta?” He wheels me forward again and he takes me through gold-lined halls that are decorated differently from the rest of the building.

“Yes, whoever it was in Sollante that imprisoned you is quite upset that you are out.”

“Amalia must have been very important.”

“Very. She was the future. For the peasants, for women, for all minorities. This country would be very different had she been here to establish the government. Without a natural leader like her, the corrupt, male Senate fell from the original ideals she upheld.” I nod and observe the tiles. They have turned from white to an older gray, cracked stone. “The only voters are still male tax-paying, landowners.”

“So, the same as an aristocracy?” I ask.

“Virtually, yes. We have the same type of rich men from before controlling and ruling the land. And they are not partial to the minorities.”

“Do they not have a say?”

“No. So the odds are never in their favor. Corruption runs rampant in every election for a seat in the Senate, and especially for the Praeses.”

“When I came here...well the first words Donato said to me talked of some group that I heard you also mention. I’m confused as to how they play a part in the government.”

“Oh? What did Donato tell you?”

“He said that ‘the Blind Ones’ had heard of my location and immediately sent someone to rescue me.”

“Ahh,” he chuckles, “I can see how that would be curious to you. Well,” he pauses and turns me to another room. He pulls back the curtain to reveal a large, plain room. In the middle of it is a long table, covering a dark brown and red rug.

“This is the location of trials the Blind Ones conduct for treasonous offenses.”

“Are they actually blind?” I wonder if blindness is the same sensation I felt in my cell when I could not see anything but nothingness that seemed to last for an eternity.

“Yes, so beware of some deformities.”

I gape, “Wait...you veritably perform an operation to-”

“They perform it themselves actually. They take their own eyes out.”

I close my eyes to hide the horror I feel. “And what cruel mind came up with this deformed idea?”

“Yours, actually.” I whip my head to face him so quick that my back aches acutely.

“Amalia...she couldn’t have.”

Why am I defending her? I never knew her!

“She thought it would decrease prejudice, against those who speak, look or even if they wore different clothes. She thought it would bring out the most fairest judgements and justice to the land.”

“So they take their eyes out to ensure fairness and justice? That’s a little harsh.”

“Amalia, the position is honorable and the most respected in the nation, even more than Praeses. These men hold the status until they die, and they live here in simple luxury, always taken care of. I doubt that any peasant would object to that.”

“Are there peasants though?”

“Of course! Multiple ages too. There are young men raised just for the role on the council. The small history they have before becoming part of the Blind Ones can give bias to those from similar backgrounds, so we weigh out the rich and poor equally.”

“It’s a good cause,” I reason. He’s partly sold me on this idea, except for the fact that there is a vulgarity in it that repulses me. I can only imagine what the Blind Ones look like!

“It’s meant to be,” He agrees and pushes me out of the room.

“Does it suffer from the same corruption as the Senate?”

I watch him with surprise as he bites his lip and nods. Quietly, he answers, “They are only suspicions...but there are a few that do not have the country’s best interest at heart. One of their other roles is to make sure the Praeses does not take too much power. There is a group of Blind Ones that somehow always find the most personal, secretive acts of the current Praeses. I can only imagine they know because they were involved in the plot and were not satisfied in the products of their deal.”

“What are you talking about?” I ask. Everything is so confusing and unclear. A few moments ago, he was praising the Blind Ones of upholding integrity in the government, that the very reason they took their eyes out was to achieve a goal of ultimate justice, and yet now, they were being condemned by him for betrayal?

“In private, I will explain it. Too many eyes and ears here. I don’t want anyone to know that I suspect.” I nod and only hope to make it to my room without asking anymore questions.

I hear a small noise as he pushes me back, and I turn my head around for the slightest moment. It seemed to me an almost illusion when I see the flash of bright eyes and the edge of a cloak disappear around the corner of the hallway behind us.

My blood turns cold.


Chapter 7

My breath finally returns to me when we reach my rooms. The sight of that man listening in terrifies me. Edite said that everyone loved Frid, so will that adoration protect me? Are there many people listening in on every conversation at every corner? It seems to me that the whole palace had been empty through most of my tour; why did there have to be someone lurking about at that moment, during that conversation?

"Frid-" I start, but he cuts me off.

"Amalia, before you say anything, I must apologize for my lack of discretion back there. If anyone had overheard, I would have been putting you in danger." My throat clenches and I struggle to gulp down my fears. Perhaps the person was an illusion, born of my weariness.

But the eyes, I shall not forget them.

"How is it that dangerous?" I ask. If the public knowledge is that the Senate and Praeses is corrupt, why is it different from the Blind Ones?

Frid sighs and pushes me to my bed. "Amalia, the Blind Ones are the most authentic organization in this country. There have been past Republics that have tried and failed, but this government is totally unique because of the Blind Ones. If that fails...our republic has failed. Our young nation would be no different or better than any other country's government system...even Sollante. If our justice system fails, then we are just as corrupt as Sollante. We would be hypocrites to our enemies."

"So the country would be...unstable?"

"It could be overthrown."

"As in...taken over?"

"As in a monarchy, a dictatorship."

I nod with some confusion. But what is the better country? A corrupt democracy that doesn't check their Praeses or a dictatorship or monarchy that has an all powerful leader who has unlimited power? At least the autocracy is truthful about what their government will be like.

But I stay silent on my thoughts. Somehow, these matters don't seem unfamiliar. From now knowing some of Amalia's past, it makes sense that the ideas and terms of the government are forming in my head without much explanation. Past knowledge coming back to me. Perhaps other facts will push back up to the surface.

But I push down those positive thoughts and shiver. Frid jumps up immediately at the slight action, probably watching for any signs of a problem within me. "Are you cold, Amalia? If I may..."

He holds out his arms to me and I hesitate. I give my permission by shifting my body so he can pick me up.

His arms cradle my head and back and the other in between my knees. My dress covers my ankles, thankfully, and it elegantly flows to the floor. I watch his face and wrap my hands around his neck. He smiles gently and I notice that his face is quite close to mine. His eyes are dark, and they remind me of the rich colors of the rugs and fabrics on the floor. For a reason unknown, I cannot pull away from his gaze, but after a few moments of silent, charged staring, he breaks away and sighs.

"You need to rest, Amalia, I am truly sorry for my mistakes this afternoon."

"Frid," I lighten the features in my face at the little affectionate name Iotha gave him, "If you wouldn't mind," I stutter, "I wouldn't mind if you ate with me tonight."

"Amalia, I would love to,” he sighs sadly, “but a banquet for the Senators is being held tonight."

I nod and look off to the window, feeling a little disappointed at the rejection. But an idea strikes me. "Is it alright then, if I invite Iotha to eat with me?" He stiffens and looks inquiringly at me.

"Are you fond of her?"

"No, because I do not know her. But I feel I have the capability of becoming fond of her."

"That's a comforting thought, actually." His smile is strained as he says it. I tilt my head and watch him closely as he leaves.

For some reason, I feel that there is something wrong with the two. His fondness for Iotha seems genuine, but almost over exaggerated to me. His condemnation towards her birth is vulgar, even though there is no way an innocent child could possibly choose to come to the world in such circumstances. There should be no fault upon her head.

I pick up the little metal contraption next to me and clang it back and forth for a few minutes. In my certain moods, I can either be annoyed by the clanging noise, or fascinated by the ringing. When Edite comes in warily, but also slightly irritated, I can tell it is from the incessant noise I'm making.

"Senhora?"

"What is this marvelous beauty called? I love the sound it creates." I watch her with hidden amusement as she struggles to be patient.

"A bell, senhora, and gratefully, the sound is quite loud and carries quickly to the maid's room next to you."

"Next to me?"

"Mestre has ordered that I sleep in the chambers adjacent to yours."

"Is it comfortable?"

"Sim, senhora. Simple compared to this, but luxury if you see the bed I share with another servant girl.

"A bell...interesting." I carry off to a different topic and turn my head back to the little metal object. Edite watches me expectantly until I form all the words of my orders in my head.

"Frid-Frigidianus," I stutter, "gave permission for Iotha to come eat with me tonight. I prefer if we could eat out on the varanda."

"Of course," Edite nods and bends her legs at the same time.

“I’m going to rest until then, so wake me up when everything is ready.” I close my eyes and rest for a moment. That moment turned to a longer one, and that turned to a snooze, which lets me lose every thought of disease and corruption.

“As you wish, senhora.” She lowers her head and bends her knees again before striding out of the room. I look groggily over at the bell for a moment. I like how the noise it makes crashes initially, when a second later, the sound diminishes quickly.

I set it down and sigh, really getting comfortable in the covers of the bed. I close my eyes and see Frid’s face as he puts me in the bed. How odd that yesterday I woke up to this world. I’ve met Frid, Edite and Iotha, and only a city and the rest of the country awaits me in introductions. The thought reminds me of Amalia. Perhaps I met her yesterday too, and I wonder if Frid could give me any more information about her past...not their courtship or her political career, but her birth and family. Did she have siblings and parents? A home? Where did she grow up? What stimulated her?

My curiosity succumbs to my overwhelming weariness and ache. The crook of my back lances with sharp, tight pain if I move the slightest. My hands are damp in the fabric hiding them and I grit my teeth as I throw the gloves off of me. I itch them for a few moments, feeling relieved as the cool air rids them of the irritation. I sigh once more and am asleep.

My eyes slit open for a moment, and then shut immediately at the bright glare of the Sun. But I can sense the person behind me, the Rescuer. His arms encircle me, keeping me safe on this bouncing animal. I can hear it panting as it gallops. If he lets me go in this state, I’d fall off and perhaps get trampled. I can hear him sniffle in my ear occasionally, but stays silent every other moment. It is just him and I.
Something...something is different about this. Before, the Rescuer was a strange, unfamiliar man. But with him closer and near to me for such a long period of time, my previous stiffness from his carrying me in the prison is gone, and I lean into him with safety, knowing he is there.

We slow to a stop at one point, and I can feel his hands keeping me lifted up as he hops down and then carries me in his arms a few paces. I lay on something hard, not comfortable, and I can feel the texture of the twigs and blades of grass beneath me. He moves about the area, doing what, I’m not sure. But he drops a large collection of objectss and eventually, a quiet roar reaches me. enveloping me with heat.

Then...I hear the singing. It is husky and just a little harsh and forced, but the emotion is what stays with me. At one point, the voice chokes off in the heavy threat of tears, but at my unconscious state, I cannot fathom why. I try to ignore the pain enveloping me throughout his song.

But once he ends and I hear his soft breathing, it comes back. I can feel the raw ache and the drugged effects of the potion overpowering me to a physical fit at my resting place. I feel hands on me, trying to keep me still as my body struggles to stop the seizure.

Amalia.

Amalia!

“Senhora Amalia!” I gasp and sit up, but immediately regret the mistake. My head churns with unsteadiness. I blink away the moisture in my eyes to focus. Edite has a hand on my forehead and tries pushing me back onto the pillow.

“Perhaps you should have Senhorita Iotha here another time. You need to rest.”

“No,” I struggle against her. “I just rested...and at what I just felt, I don’t think I could sleep very soon again. How long has it been?”

“Only about three hours, senhora.”

“I think it’s been long enough. Now go fetch Iotha.”

“She is waiting outside, actually.”

“Good, now push me to the varanda, and then let her in.” Though I’ve already met Iotha, I dislike the idea of her first private conversation with me starting out as I lay in bed. I don’t want to appear weak to anyone. Even Edite, who seems to receive the brunt of my post-trauma most of the time, has seen the harder parts of me, where I call her weak and afraid.

“Right away.” She lowers her head and bends her knees in the same gesture I see everyone repeat here.

“What is that called?” I blurt out. Edite frowns in confusion and looks around, “I mean...that position you do whenever you follow my orders. Iotha did it too. And Fr-Frid...he also.”

“I’m bowing. Or curtseying. It’s a sign of respect.”

“So I’m supposed to do it too?”

“Not to me!” Edite exclaims hurriedly. “But you can -or rather-should bow to your equals or to superiors. Like Mestre, or the other senhoras you will soon meet.”

“Why not you?” Edite sets me down in the wheelchair, and pushes me toward the bathing room.

“Because I’m your servant. I’m your inferior.”

“But-” I stutter and gather my thoughts. “But you can do more than I can! You deserve to be honored for everything you’ve done for me...just in the past two days. I am not superior to the poorest or plainest of peoples. I am lower than all of them-practically equal to swine.”

Edite stops as we reach the outside room. I can see the busyness of the city is still alive, even this late in the day, with the sun on the opposite side of the sky, casting shadows and golden, peaceful light. She moves around the chair and kneels to the ground in front of me. Her lips tremble as she takes my hand. It reminds me that I must ask her to fetch the gloves before Iotha can see them.

“Senhora...the only reason you see yourself that way is because you’ve been treated like an animal. But you survived. Many people wouldn’t have the strength or will to live. Even if you don’t believe in hope, I think something inside you does. Something that helps you make it through every individual day.”

I blink quickly and break away from her gaze, back to the fluffy clouds in the sky. They are turning orange and red. I try to brush off her words like they were never spoken and remark, with little heart, “At least pigs can get around their pens. I have to have someone push me around mine.”

“You can say empty words all you want. But this is something we say in Portraia; something Papai told me on the ship passage over from home. Cada campo precisa de um pouco de sol.”

“What does that mean?” I avoid looking at her, and watch the sun as it slowly sinks downward.

“Every field needs a little sun. It means that you need something to look forward to every day. Otherwise, you will wilt and die from the darkness of night.” She leaves me to admit Iotha into my rooms. How easy it sounds for her to say, even to apply. But the action for me, to let in a little light, is harder than anyone else can imagine.

But now, I see the little girl slowly approach behind Edite. The dying day's light falls upon her head in an almost halo, and I sit up rigidly. How frightening and yet totally comforting the moment is! To give up another part of my life-Prisoner 164-and all the darkness and anguish that came with being that person, or (rather more fitting) that shadow. For I was nothing more than a shadow.

Iotha can be a little part of my Sun, if she allows me to.

"Iotha," I greet. She smiles at me and curtsies. I lower my head as well, and try to cover up my bare hands as well as the effect this child has on me. She limps a little to her seat at the assistance of Edite, who then lights a few long candles to accommodate the dimming day.

“Lady Amalia. I am graciously able to accept your invitation to supper tonight. I am looking forward to becoming more acquainted with you.”

I peer at her, just a little dumbfounded at her vocabulary. Perhaps I do not know how to judge what age a child is. I’m beginning to wonder if she is quite older than what I originally assumed. It is just her appearance...I shudder at the thought of the sickness that ails and prevents her life from its successful path. I wonder if she knows.

“And I you, Iotha.”

“So you arrived in Gazea a few days ago? What do you think of it so far?”

“I-well… I’ve been awake for two days, and from the few glimpses I’ve had from this place, the city is quite beautiful.”

“You haven’t been to the city yet?” She exclaims. Her bright gray eyes are lit with a youth’s excitement.

“No, Frid wants to make sure I’m safe and healthy before I go there.”

“Of course, it would be such a hassle with that wheelchair.”

“Yes,” I agree tightly. I wonder if the knowledge should be kept from her. Is there an age where I can properly explain the meaning of torture and memory loss to such an innocent?

She glances down at my my legs, covered by a thin blanket, and then my hands, which I conscientiously try to hide in the folds of the fabric, but not in time. I forgot the gloves.

She is thinking. I see it. She wonders how it happened, but she is too polite to ask. She looks away from me with an obvious reddening of her cheeks.

“Well, when you go, tak-” she is cut off by the jerk of her hand. It had been resting on the table the whole time, until it spazzed and struck the glass cup, knocking it to the ground. We hear a large crash and Iotha cringes. She looks about as shocked as I am.

“Terribly sorry, my lady! I-this happens sometimes when I’m practicing or...anywhere really. I can’t control it.”

“It’s fine,” I say, and look at my plate. It must be a symptom of the disease. My conversation with Frid comes back to me.

Poor child. She is destined to die.

Aren’t we all destined to die?

If we’re all destined to die, why am I so upset that Iotha is destined for it to happen sooner than anyone else? Or does it mean more for Frid and I since we know the short time frame? While for anyone else, they live in blissful ignorance, taking advantage of the fact that death is a mystery to them? That death is surely another decade (or more) down the road for them… but in reality it is waiting for them the next morning.

Death must come unexpectedly. Or are there signs for all of us, and we just don’t catch it? I watch the broken glass that Edite is now obediently picking up. Iotha wipes at her eyes a couple of times; does she catch the signs? Does she know something is wrong?

“There is no issue,” I try to lighten the mood, but my perpetual frown does nothing to convince her so, “Edite has to do this all the time. See?” I knock my own glass to the floor too, where it crashes next to the shards the servant is picking up. I hear a strangled gasp from Iotha across from me, but she covers her mouth with her hand quickly. Her eyes are shining brightly and through them, I can tell she is smiling.

Edite slowly looks up at me in shock and anger. Her lips are tight as she replies, “Sim senhora, I have had to pick up the broken glass of many cabeçudo noblemen.” I bite my lip and gesture to Iotha.

“As I said before, this is a daily occurrence, Iotha. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

Iotha giggles uncontrollably, "I can see that you have a very huge problem with clumsiness, Lady Amalia."

"Precisely!" I exclaim and mistakenly set my palms on the table. My fingers spring a fork into the air, where it flies over the edge of the varanda’s waist-high walls. Iotha rushes to the edge and watches its descent to the street below.

Iotha falls to her knees and for a moment, I worry she is collapsing in pain or succumbing to some symptom. But then I hear her laughter and she gasps in between breaths, "You just...." she makes the same fateful gesture, "and then it...wooooh" she makes a curve in the air and clutches her stomach as more waves of giggles overcome her. I watch her fondly, glad I helped her forget her perpetual end. Edite, though shaking her head, is smiling as she watches the girl.

"Edite, bring the food. We don't want anymore destroyed or lost table settings."

"I will retrieve more glasses and utensils for you also." Edite curtsies and leaves the lavatio.

"I don't know," Iotha laughs, "she might have to clean up fallen roast and clean up spilled sauces. I pity poor Edite."

"Do you know her well?"

"Edite? She used to care for me. Very attentive and always waiting to be called."

"That is nice." It makes sense, that perhaps Edite met or became more acquainted with Frid through nursing Iotha.

"And who is looking after you now?"

"Oh, just a nurse named Heppia. She and Medice watch over me whenever I am not sleeping or visiting with Frid and a few friends."

"Who are your friends? Are there many children here?"

"A few. A lot of the Senators are unmarried and if they are, they don't have any children. The closest friends my age are Pandie, who is four. She likes to play with dolls and toys a lot. There is also Philip. He loves to sing with me when he has the time, but he likes to run around the city better than the courtyard. (I agree though) But my closest friend is Aecia. She visits every day. And the rest are too old and scary."

"Is Aecia your age?"

"Two years older than me. But we're like sisters." Edite returns with two platters, one covered by a silver dome, and the other carrying two metal goblets and a fork.

"I'm glad. But why do the senators choose that life? Why not have children?"

"You know, I have absolutely no idea. Frid's not even my papa."

"Do you wish he was?"

"It doesn't matter to me. I just wish that he would find a nice woman to marry." I flinch but quickly recover and raise the serving spoon to my dish. I only put simple foods on it, in small portions.

"Does Frid have his sights set on one woman? Or is he just waiting for her to show up?"

"I don't know actually. But I think that he will know when he meets her.” She watches me hopefully, making my face burn. The pressure makes me very uncomfortable, and I look to Edite. Maybe she will save me. “What do you think, Edite?”

But my pesky maid throws it back in my face, “I wouldn’t know, senhora. But sometimes I feel his happiness is so close it is literally within his grasp.”

My face falls and I sip more out of my new goblet (this time, a substance that will not shatter). “Oh?”-is all I manage to get out.





Chapter 8: Friend or Foe?


I clasp my hands. Unclasp. Clasp. But I cannot stop myself from being nervous. Behind me, Frid dutifully pushes me through the palace. Trailing him like a duckling, Edite mumbles her native language under her breath. Every so often, he turns and commands hashly, “Stop that, Edite! You’re making everyone nervous!”

I can’t say I disagree.

She apologizes and is quiet for a few minutes before saying something to herself. I clasp my hands and unclasp them again. I feel sweat sticking the fabric of my long gloves to my palms as I try to internally ready myself for the next hour. I’ve been trying to ready myself the past few days, but with adjustments, sicknesses and nightmares, this important day snuck up on me.

There are the doors. They open, and there he is: a man only a little taller than me. His hair is light, his eyes dark, and at his side, a young girl I can only assume is Aecia. Iotha was advised by Medice to stay in bed earlier in the morning, so she left me to be introduced to Aecia and her father, Fidelis. As in the Praeses. Little Iotha had failed to mention that about her closest friend.

"Amalia," he greets and bows with familiarity.

"Praeses Fidelis." My voice shakes audibly, and thankfully my head-bow hides my ashen face.

The man smiles at me pitifully as he introduces Aecia, whose likeness of him is visible. She has light hair similar to his, but the features of her face are too huge for her size. An adults’ size of nose, ears and eyes on a child’s face. Her limbs are thin and bony, like Iotha, but there is a rouge to Aecia’s cheeks that is absent on her. Perhaps a normal child looks like this.

If she is, Iotha and I have a lot more in common than I thought. Both of us are strange: hard to be deciphered because of our differences. Both limited by physical aspects that set us behind the others, requiring us to catch up to them through the talents of intellectualism.

“I’ve heard a lot from Iotha about you, Aecia. She appreciates your visits.”

“I’m glad,” Aecia smiles sweetly. She doesn’t appear to turn red at every praise, like Iotha. “I missed her this morning. Is she unwell?”

“Yes, Medice thought it best if she stay in this morning. At least until she gets her strength up.”

“Can I visit?” She looks up at Fidelis hopefully. He smiles at her, about to say yes to her, when Frid clears his throat loudly. The Praeses looks up with surprise and an apologetic look.

“Well, Aecia. That isn’t for me to decide. Ask the senator for permission.”

Frid smiles coldly and watches Aecia with a hard gaze. "Iotha is going through many trials. I think it would be best if you left her alone with the people who care about her for now."

I scowl at his harshness, and so does the girl whose words, though respectful, are spoken in an angry, biting tone. "I understand, Senator. You want me to stay away from your ward. And I know why, but I-"

"Now, Aecia. That is no way to speak to your superior. Apologize to Senator Frigidianus." The rebuke from her father was surprisingly quiet and kind.

Most likely because of her father's tone, the girl relents and bows her head, "Forgive me, Senator. I will find better ways to express my strong feelings with politeness in the future." My lips quirk up a bit at the cheek of her attitude towards Frid. But the way he looks at Fidelis and his daughter is like they attempted a murder on Iotha. Surely a girl that young could not get into so much trouble, especially when her father is in charge of the whole country.

"Amalia," Fidelis turns to me with a strained smile. "Could I schedule a meeting with you sometime today?"

"Of course. I doubt that we have anything important to do at the moment. Right Edite?" She widens her eyes in surprise but doesn't respond, not even with a gesture of her head. "Edite?"

"It's alright Amalia," Frid interrupts, tearing my confused stare to him. "But do remember you promised prandium with me."

"I won't forget," I reassure. "I suppose I will see both of you later." Edite, as unresponsive as before, walks submissively behind Frid.

As he passes by me, Frid whispers, "Don't trust what he says, Amalia. Every word is a lie." I quickly try to recover as Fidelis comes closer to my chair.

"Do you mind?" He gestures to the handles and smiles warmly.

"Of course not," my voice quivers a little. My mind is reeling. Up until now, my impression of him and his daughter was positive. What exactly should I not trust about his words? Which words are a lie and how can I tell when he says one? Why hadn't Frid explained the situation to me beforehand? I feel conflicted about my feelings towards the Praeses.

The Praeses....

The Praeses who runs a corrupt government, who was corrupt himself, so that he could rule the army and the law of the land without any to question him?

The Praeses who was only questioned and checked by the Blind Ones. The Blind Ones who could be corrupt themselves. Frid had already informed me on this information thoroughly, and I had been unable to connect the dots. Will he try to hurt me?

No, his daughter is in the room.

“Aecia, could you go see what your Mater is up to? I believe she needed your help with planning the banquet for tomorrow.”

“Yes, Pater.” No Aecia. Don’t leave. Don’t leave me here! Don’t you know your father-! The door closes quietly, but to my ears it slams, and my earnest stare at her back is separated by it.

Fidelis smells musty, like the prison, and his breath is regular, which smells like honey and wine as he pushes me to a different room. Much to my surprise, two men in plain clothing stand at the entrance of it with spears in hand. Fidelis waves them off and they disappear the same way Aecia left.

“I apologize for the security. I wouldn’t ever be caught alone with a woman in my suite, but this is important.” I stiffen and become even more alert. He stops me next to his desk and comes to the other side to face me.

"My my," I say without emotion. "I can't imagine what could be."

“We’ll get to that,” he smiles at me and crosses his legs. His shoes are small blue slippers and his billowy white robes are astonishingly clean. “First, how is your...rehabilitation?”

“As well as Medice can do. He visits every day.” I flick my eyes up to his face while I’m talking. He listens in thoughtful silence.

“The Medice here is the most learned and qualified of his trade. Whatever treatment he gives is the best out there.”

“Thank you,” my voice trembles. How am I scared of this man? I frown at his intimidation that hasn’t even been pressured on me yet. He’s only been kind so far. Besides, there is nothing physically strong about this man. His arms are thin, like his daughter, and his legs are small, not good for running. His talent lies on the inside of a building. Thus, his smell of musty air. He must rarely leave the palace; his skin is pale, almost to the verge of unhealthy.

“Well I trust Senator Frigidianus is providing and looking after you? He has given you a suite? A servant?”

“Yes, Edite, a girl from Portraia is looking after me.”

“Ah, yes I know the girl. Aecia talked about her from time to time when Edite looked after Iotha.”

“I hope you’ll forgive me for my bluntness, sir, but I wish to be forthright. What do you really have to say to me?” Fidelis quirks a smile in amusement.

“You don’t prefer small talk?”

“I wish to avoid it and get straight to the point.” He nods, his eyes still sparkling with silent laughter.

"It has to do with Senator Frigidianus."As I suspected. I close my eyes and nod.

"Has he done something wrong?"

The Praeses chuckles, "Anyone involved in politics has done something wrong."

"Aren't you-"

"Now now, Amalia, I did not ask you to come here to discuss my person,” he laughs, “ I wanted to warn you of the dangers Frigidianus exposes you to."

"So far, the senator has done nothing but help me transition here. He has never threatened me."

"Of course he wouldn't, my lady. But he has threatened others. He's dangerous. On the verge of treason."

"Are you going to accuse him of plotting? You would do such a thing to an amans patriae?"

"A power-hungry patriot. His interest is not for the Republic, but for his own agenda. You would be wise not to trust him.”

I laugh without humor, “Funny, he said the same about you.”

“Perhaps,” He fiddles with a feather on his desk and avoids my gaze, even though he grins at my reaction, “Perhaps he and I are both correct.”

I gulp nervously. Both men traitorous and guilty? How could that be possible? I watch the Praeses’ smirking face and glare back. His smile, as opposed to Edite, Frid and Iotha, is cold and calculating. He is happy that he can play with my disability of ignorance.

“What is your motive?”

He stares at me blankly, caught off guard, “Excuse me?”

“What was your purpose of talking to me? Why show me your true colors? I would never have guessed your dark side.”

“I don’t have a dark side.” He stops, and smirks, “At least, not one that I’ve shown to you”

“What a lie,” I laugh without smiling. He frowns with confusion, “Praeses, how gullible do you think I am? I may have been secluded from the human race for the last few years, but that experience made more apparent to me than ever-” I lean forward in my chair and with a burst of energy...anger or adrenaline, I stand on my two feet. I nearly gasp, but grit my teeth in pain instead, and speak to the now shocked Fidelis.“that there is always a dark side. A flaw, a weakness. Whether it be physical or mental.”

“You-how did you…? I thought-” he stutters as he leans back in his chair in fright, like I could jump over the desk and attack him. No, I can barely stand, my head is whirling in time with the uneasiness of my queasy stomach. There is a huge possibility that I might just throw up all over him if I don’t sit back down soon. But my intimidation is almost complete. I have to bear it for a few moments longer.

“You thought I was helpless? Il invalido?”I slam my hand on the table. I try to hide a satisfied smile when he flinches,“Just like you, appearances can be deceiving.” If only I could have stomped out of that room, but no, I fall back into my chair and stare at him. “What was your purpose in conversing with me.” It is not a question but a demand, and Fidelis clears his throat nervously.

“Now that we are on the same page,” he gives me a strained and frightened smile, and tries to regain his earlier calm composure. “I will explain. I can give you advice. You may think you are well off with Frigidianus as a protector, but I want you to know that allying yourself with him will give you numerous, dangerous enemies and put you in danger. There are plenty of options for you, but casting your lot with him is unwise.”

“I’d rather cast my lot with him than with any of your puppets. You are fearful of Frigidianus because he knows the truth about you.” I know bluffing is unwise in my situation, knowing so very little about the country, but dangling a string over his head is much too tempting and actually….amusing.

“The truth…?” he stumbles and turns white. Of course he is fearful. He’s done something. Something corrupt, for his personal gain, and definitely not for the country’s interest.

“You say Frigidianus is a traitor because he has his own plans that differ from yours, but you are far worse. You betray the country. You are the traitor.”

“How would you know any of what happens here?” He slams his fist on the table and hisses, “You were liberated a month ago and awake for much less. You have no right to tell me what is betrayal and treason. I know what is illegal and what isn’t. And you know nothing of Frigidianus’ plans for the country.” His eyes blaze and he rings a bell, most likely to send for someone to take me away.

“I do not know many things about this life in the government. But I will...very soon,” I promise. “And I know that there is a difference between you and Frigidianus. I can tell a bad motive from a good one. You meant to turn me against Frid-I um...Frigidianus.You meant to intimidate and lie to me to trust you and help you.”

He doesn’t deny it, only twirls the bell handle in his fingers and scowls at me. “I am not worried about you, Amalia...or whoever the person in front of me is. I invited you here to take account of your emotional and social status, and I see that you are nothing in comparison to the real Amalia. You take her name, sleep in her old rooms, and pretend you are her. Your harsh words are filled with emptiness while hers were filled with power and motivation. She inspired action while all I can see radiating from you is hatred. Pass your judgements for all I care, but no one will listen to you. Because you do not matter.”

I open my mouth to retort, but no words come out. My eyebrows tremble with tension and I try to choke a sound out at least, but a man with a spear interrupts and steps into the room. I blink quickly and wait.

“This woman is leaving. Please take her back to her chambers.”

The man bows and spins me around to the other door. I refuse to turn and look back at Fidelis, even though I feel his stare directed at me.

_________________________

"Amalia, are you alright?" Frid exclaims as soon as the door shuts behind Fidelis' soldier. I must look quite terrible and shaken up to him.

"I guess as alright as I could be in a private conversation with Praeses Fidelis."

He frowns with discontent at my answer, "Not well, I guess. What did he say to you?" I drag torturous eyes to his, thinking about what Fidelis told me about him. Frid told me that I shouldn't believe a word Fidelis says, but the praeses said the same about him. Which should I believe? Everything in me tells me to follow Frid, but is that false, blind trust? I believe in Frid because he's the first person to help me. Or is it wrong to trust him because he was the first person to help? How would it be possible for someone to want to help me in this state unless they had hidden, interior motives?

"He just...said things. He insulted me. Tried to convince me of false things."

"Amalia, as I told you before. Don't listen to anything he says-"

"They don't matter to me," I confess. "Whatever he said-things I won't repeat of course- they hold no weight over me. I have a good idea of what felt wrong and then what felt true. He was trying to intimidate me, but I believe that I ended up scaring him."

"Really?" Frid says with amused disbelief. "He was frightened by a crippled woman in a chair?"

I bite my lip to keep from lashing out. Frid often uses harsh titles to describe the people he looks out for. But he seems to do it unintentionally. Besides, he doesn't know I can stand on my own two feet without assistance from Edite.

"I suppose so." I don't know why I keep that fact hidden. He would be overjoyed to find out my continued progression. But I keep my mouth shut. When I'm alone I will confirm what happened and make sure of it myself without anyone watching. There won't be any pressure, or wasted hope. Kill me before I should give anyone hope.

“He expected me to be more like her. I think he was disappointed that I wasn’t… What was she like with Fidelis before?”

“From what I could tell, she tolerated him because he was a rich supporter of the revolutione. There were very few of those since almost all of the aristocrats remained loyal to the crown. They weren’t close-she just knew about him.”

“Then why would he try to-”

“He wants power. He needs something huge to be reelected in a few months. The sight of you on his side would surely do that.”

“But he never told me that. Once he found out I wouldn’t heed his warnings, he lost his temper and tried to-I don’t know what-but it was ineffective and foolish.”

“Fidelis, like I’ve said before, is a harmless idiot. There is nothing he can do to harm me.” I watch Frid intently, remembering what Fidelis said about him. How is he close to treason?

“Why would my support of him help his reelection?”

“The people adored Amalia. She was their voice. And the sight of you, however modified, would rally them to anyone’s side. As long as you tell them to.”

“Do they even know I’m alive?”I glance up at him and then Edite when I am met with silence. “Well?”

Frid looks down at his feet sheepishly. “No.”

“And why not?” I breathe loudly through my nostrils and glare at him.

“Because it’s not the right time.”

“For you politically, or for me emotionally?”

He also exhales loudly, definitely with frustration, and rubs his forehead. “It’s not that simple, Amalia. Politics is not simple. It’s never that black and white. You can never be untouched by a misdeed while striving for a goal of your own. It will never be achieved if you don’t give in.”

I close my eyes; is this a hint about his threatening ways? That he wants to do good, but it warps into something darker? “Maybe, you should strive for something not quite so far-fetched. And I honestly want to know if my timing for being introduced to society is a political move for you? To positively affect your career? Or are you worried that I’m not strong enough to face everyone?”

His fists tighten as he looks around the room in anger. “I-I….I don’t have to answer to you Amalia. There are some things that you wouldn’t understand after eight years of imprisonment.”

“Frigidianus,” I say coldly, and he whips his head back to me, and his dark eyes are turbulent, “I understand more about light and darkness-much more than you could ever comprehend. I know the product of evil. Just look at me.” I gesture to myself, to my legs and think about the...the things called my hands, “I’m deformed and full of hate and revenge. If you look at your ward, she is the opposite. Iotha is beautiful and kind and innocent. So pure.”

“And yet, she is the one who is going to die.”

I twist my head around at the small, shocked gasp from behind me. Edite stands there like a sapling in a spring storm. Does she not know-?

“Mestre!” She cries, “Mestre, do not talk of that disease. She will be strong and-”

“Edite, do not talk to me with such boldness and disrespect,” he orders, “and you must come to terms with it. Iotha will die, and there is nothing you can do to stop it.” And much like a few nights ago, the servant bursts into tears and runs out of the room.

We both look at each other with exasperation. Frid exclaims, “She is such an emotional wreck whenever Iotha’s disease is mentioned!”

“Or when the awful truth of reality is spoken of. Her fear of death and tragedy has overcome her,” I agree quietly.

“She is in denial. I fear that it will be the dissolution of her,” Frid comments.

I look up at him as he stares wistfully after her. “Why do you think that?”

“Because she is afraid of death.” He looks to me pointedly, “So desperately afraid that she would do anything to avoid it. To be protected.”

I nod and look away. The smell of food wafts into my nose and my focus draws to the needed substance. “Well, shall we dig in?”

“I’ll serve since Edite is...absent.”

We sit, and I try to taste more of the richer sauces and thicker, chewier meats. But I grimace at the overwhelming smell for most of the foods. I chew them, but my insides churn uncomfortably. A burn up my throat And then I let it out. Frid looks up in surprise and grimaces at the sight of the liquid all over the delicious food in front of me.

“Would you like to-”

“Be alone? Yes.” I clasp my hands in my lap and look up at the ceiling. I can feel my long fingernails digging into the fabric at my palm out of humiliation. Do I have to be so revolting?

Quickly, Frid pushes me to my bed. His touch when he picks me up and sets me on it is stiff and indifferent. We avoid eye contact. And when the door shuts, I sigh heavily and bring a hand across my face. Some days are slightly good. Others like today are simply awful.

Then, the looming question; can I stand? Even walk a few steps? Or is my back going to shake and collapse? Edite will find me, however long later, on the floor? But the humiliation is worth it. Perhaps I’m used to being pitied, cared for and looked after. Falling off a bed could happen to anyone, it’s just the getting up that will trouble me. But I shift closer to the edge of the bed. I feel like it’s my mountain and the floor, my valley, a valley a thousand feet deep, with rocky terrain and barren trees. I’d rather not jump off the mountain, but it has to be done. I have to test myself.

I let my right foot fall to the ground, cold stone sending goosebumps up my legs. The other foot settles on the stone within a few inches of the other. I close my eyes for a moment, before putting my body weight on two, thin legs that are really more like sticks. How can they support me? I lean forward and feel the pressure of my heel on the floor.

The Dolor leads me down the corridor, and I obey silently, no questions asked. He’s brought me down this passage before, and if I struggle, it will only prolong the inevitable. It is dark, no candles. No noises. Only walls. Only dirt. Only him.

I gasp and try to push away the frightening memory and lean forward the rest of the way, so my backside is hovering in the air. I breathe quickly. In and out, in and out. Somehow doing that helps me handle the burn of my legs. No ache from my back. Just pain in my legs.

It’s the last time I walk. He finds me lost in the maze of tunnels some hours, perhaps days later. My back, which protests any motor movement at all, freezes my legs as they tried to run away. My escape of that….monster, that nightmare, ended as soon as his strike collapsed me. The noises...the voices that sound devastatingly like home...and the mask of a terrifying face. They all disappeared as soon as I fell. I can’t even shrink away when Dolor carries me through the black labyrinth and back into the Blood Room. He gives me tainted water, and it tastes like the potion.

I fall to the floor, my gloved hands on the stones as well as my feet. My hair falls in my face and I squeeze my eyes shut. I can still feel the immediate effects of the potion. It closes my eyes. The pain increases until it overtakes me, making me leave everything behind. Even my family, my history.

164, what is your name?

164, where were you born?

164, when were you born?

164, why are you punished here?

164, what is this person to you?

164, what is this person to you?

My nose flares angrily and I take a huge breath, open my eyes to see my room, the white tile in front of me. “164,” I groan and ask, “Can you walk? Why can’t you walk?” I breathe again.

I stand upright.

I gasp.

I walk.

Step by agonizing step.












Chapter 9: An Attack

“Iotha? I heard you weren’t feeling well?” I question through the door.

A small, shaky voice floats its way to me. “Yes, I just...couldn’t get out of bed this morning.”

“Could I come in? I brought Edite to serve libae and pour the mulsum.”

“I suppose. I...well you’ll see when you come in.”

I look up at Edite. She is just as worried as I am. She opens the door and gives a little gasp. Her face is white as she faces me to pull me through the entryway.

Iotha is sitting in a mobile chair. A chair with wheels. And her hands are gripping the armrests with fright. I don’t say a word.

Her place should be mine.

I should be the one who is deteriorating, while she recovers. It shouldn’t be the opposite.

"I suppose we have a lot more in common now, Iotha," I try to soothe. "Perhaps now we can spend the long, lonely hours together."

"Yes, thank heavens I have you milady. Aecia hasn't visited for the past week. I just don't know what happened to her."

I glance at Edite, remembering the conversation I had taken part in with Praeses, Aecia and Frid, where he had put an end to her visits to see Iotha.

"Mestre said that until you feel better, we should limit your visitors to those close to you." Edite eyes me warily, as if I would spill out that there is a lie obviously on her lips.

"But Aecia is quite close to me. She knows me better than her." She looks at me angrily. Her lips pout extremely and I try to smile.

“I’m sorry, Iotha. Perhaps, we’ll bring Aecia with us next time,” I suggest. Iotha’s foul mood brightens immediately and her torso strains to move, even though her legs refuse. Instead, she reaches out to me and clasps my hand gratefully.

“ If I could see her, I would feel much better!”

“We’ll do our best,” I squeeze back. Edite huffs and moves around the room to begin preparations for serving the libae, a soft, little roll with mozzarella cheese and mulsum, a honeyed drink that was more for the washing it down than the quenching of thirst. I pour very little for Iotha, knowing that it isn’t acceptable to drink very much of it, regardless of age.

Edite must think me insubordinate to Frid’s commands, but he never told me to stop her little friend. It just makes me wonder what Frid’s real motives are. Does he plan to ease the pain of parting when Fidelis is not reelected and moves away? Or is it because Aecia is working with her father to bring down Frid, and they are just using Iotha to get to him and learn his plans?

"So, Amalia, how is your recovery?" Iotha takes the plate of libae and a small goblet of mulsum with such gentleness, I'm surprised that it doesn't slip the her fingers. Is she afraid that she will spill again?

"Well," I smile. I have not told anyone my accomplishment a few days ago, of taking my first steps. Just like the secret of my life is being kept from the people, the secret of walking is kept from everyone else. If Edite wasn't there I might have told Iotha of my new ability. Every time I catch the time alone, I test my legs out.

Sometimes I strain myself, which makes it hard for me the following day. As opposed to my first day, where I struggled to even step a few times, I can make it to the table and back to my bed. It takes some of my resting time in the middle of the day. Most nights I would fall onto my bed, if I was physically able to.

"Senhora has been eating much more and finally getting closer to a better, healthier weight. Medice says that she may even be able to move around by herself soon.”

Iotha leans forward with excitement, “How wonderful, my lady! I’m sure it is profitable for you too, Edite. You probably get tired of pushing her around every day.”

Edite laughs, “Whatever I am told to do by Mestre, I will do with pleasure and loyalty, even if it means I must push senhora all day.”

“Oh you just say that, Edite. But you can’t really mean it,” Iotha comments and takes a sip of the mulsum, “I know that I would complain too often about my workload if I was a servant. They would throw me out in an instant.”

“You are young, senhorita. I understand my place in this Republic. I am a servant and you are a musician. There can be no society without the rich and poor. We work for the people with money, and they provide for us in return. We consume and they create, just like you, Iotha. You play the music, and people come to see you. We could not have a concert without the audience or the performer.”

“Rightly said,” Iotha smiles. “That makes me feel better. Sometimes...I feel I am spoilt. That I have so much that others my age do not. A wonderful palace to grow up in, people who love me, a servant and a nurse waiting for me to order them about. I feel I don’t deserve it.”

I crinkle my eyebrows in concentration. How could a child like that feel guilty? One who may have comfort and luxury yes, but is cursed to die at a young age? To suffer extremely at the degradation of her body? At that moment, her legs jerk and kick the table. Her hands twitch uncontrollably as they hold her goblet.

“Edi-!” She cries and reaches for Edite who is already there, keeping her from injuring herself as a seizure heightens. I stand in surprise and feel my face heat up at my maid’s astonishment.

“Senhora! What? How-”

“No time, Edite. Just let me stay with her while you fetch whatever she needs."

Edite shakes her head in bewilderment before running out the door. I move as quickly as I can to reach Iotha, who twitches and lolls her head back.

"Iotha! It's alright, child. Edite will be back soon." I hold her shoulders still as she shakes involuntarily. I hold her neck to keep her from waving this way and that, but her weight and my weakness causes her fall to the ground even if I try to hold her up. I crouch to the floor next to her and hold her sides. "Edite!" I shout, "Where are you?"

After a few minutes of struggling, the most helpless in my life, Iotha stills against my knees and I sigh. “It’s alright, Iotha,” I lie. But she can’t see me, and I wonder if she can even hear my choked voice.

The next moment, Frid rushes in, with Edite trailing behind him.

“Is she hurt?” He kneels next to her other side in urgency.

“I don’t know,” I say throatily. Is it bad that she stopped moving? “She was going to fall off her chair, so I moved her to the floor.”

“And how did you do this? What strength do you have? How did you get out of your chair?”

“Don't ask questions about me, Frid! Iotha’s the one in need of help. Medice is coming?”

“Of course. He should be here any moment.”

“Is there anything we can do now?”

“Open her mouth, she may have vomit in there.” He tilts her head so that her mouth drops open. He scoops two fingers into her mouth and comes away with brown colored liquid. Perhaps I would've gagged if I hadn't puked over myself so many times in the prison. To me, it’s a pure sign of Frid’s compassion and pity towards the child. Frid sighs and raises his hand. Edite wipes it off with a rag and gives him a clean one. He slides the cloth underneath Iotha’s head gently.

Then, he fingers the sweaty curls around her forehead affectionately. I move away for a second and hoist myself onto my aching feet. Edite watches me in silent awe as I somewhat hop and limp to my chair. She holds it still for me when I plop down into it. I catch my breath until Medice comes in, a gray-haired man dressed in white every time I see him. He starts asking questions about the seizure and all I wonder is if the notes he records are a bad sign.

“How long was the seizure?”

“It was quick. No more than two minutes.”

“Did she puke?”

“She had some,” Frid answers. “ Edite has it on that cloth.”

“I won’t be needing it. It’s mostly the food she just ate before this. How did she get to the ground?”

“ She was jostling in the chair and I worried that she would collapse and fall on something wrong, so I helped her to the floor.” I rub my cold arms with discomfort at the memory that I wish I could forget. Forget? How is it that everything I wish to forget is what I remember and what I have forgotten is what I want to remember?

“Good, we don’t want her to injure herself by falling without support. I’ll just check her limbs to make sure she didn’t bruise or fracture anything.”

He crouches next to Iotha and Frid and begins to examine her body. I look up to Edite with sudden exhaustion. “Could I go back to my rooms? I wish to rest until prandium.”

“Of course, senhora.”

She nods to Frid and pushes me out of the room. I ask quietly, “Is Iotha going to recover?”

“This wasn’t a bad one, if that’s what you mean. She’ll still be able to do most things...for now.” Edite’s voice chokes off, and I turn my head to see her face, which is red with tears. “Peço desculpas, senhora. I can’t-”

“Just compose yourself, Edite. We can talk privately once we get to my rooms.”

“Of course, senhora.”

She sniffles the rest of the way and avoids eye contact with any of the rest of the servants we pass by.

She breaks down again when she closes the door behind her. She falls to the floor on her knees and sobs into her fingers. The loose hair in her braid sticks to her face as it gets wet and looking upon her in such a state gives me the first feeling of sympathy towards her the whole time I’ve known her. She left me right at the entrance of the door, immobile in my chair, and my most pressing instinct is to get up and walk to her. What then, I have no clue.

I sigh and grimace as I shuffle to her. “Edite.” I put a hand on her shaking back, but it seems uncomfortable, like I haven’t done anything for her in comfort. I kneel next to her and wrap my arm around her shoulders. She starts and looks up at me.

“Senhora!” She recoils for a moment and begins to sob all over again but wraps her arms around me like I need to be carried somewhere. She grips my back tightly as her head buries into my shoulder and wets my hair and neck as tears flow like a tidal wave. I can see over her shoulder when the door silently opens.

Frid looks in, his eyes widen as he sees the scene, and he backs out quickly, only giving me an assured nod before he disappears. I grin at his understanding. How flustered and embarrassed Edite would be if he walked in on her in that state? I know I would never want anyone to see me cry again, not after that bug incident. I scratch the wound involuntarily but force myself to grip Edite’s shoulders.

Eventually, when the tears cease, her hold on me goes limp and I pull away. She turns pink and lowers her eyes to the ground. “Peço deseculpas, Eu não abraçou, senhora.”

I nod with confusion at her foreign words, though I’ve known all the time how she slips when she is emotional. Though, I can tell she is apologizing for her behavior. “Edite, I cannot judge you for your pain. Though the very opposite of my past tears, you’ve seen my own. You’ve seen my lowliest state, and yet you’ve been kind to me. Even in my impatience”

“I try, senhora. I suppose what you go through, is also very hard,” she sniffles and looks up to the ceiling, “and with pouco Iotha on top of that, I am glad that there are a few ways I can help. Through serving. I am not useless that way.” My eyebrows crinkle at the softness in her. I never realized, underneath that first bold, loud laugh that resounded in my ears during our first conversation, that she could feel as tiny as I sometimes do.

“What you do is not little, Edite. You’re kind, and in return, please take some time for yourself. Bathe, if you want to. It’s relaxing.”

“Bathe? In a lavatio?” The suggestion looks unthinkable to her by her wide eyes and astonished expression.

“Yes, mine, if you prefer.”

“I used to take a banho once a year before I moved to the palace. Here, they don’t want me to smell so they make us do it often. But the water is always dirty and brown. Someone else uses it before me, usually the people like you, from upstairs, so I...I can’t. I wouldn't be used to such a luxury. I may get a rash!”

“Say, that you’ll do it right away!” I exclaim. “And you will not get a rash from bathing in clean water.”

“I will use the cheapest oils, senhora. And I won’t-”

“Edite, put whatever you want in that bath. I don’t care.”

“Obrigado, obrigado, senhora!”she exclaims happily and quickly leaves the room to the lavatio. I sigh and look back at the door, reminding myself that Frid is waiting, with perhaps news on Iotha. the thought of her getting even worse spurs me to trudge to the door, rather painfully.

He smiles brightly when he sees me on my feet. “I only heard from Edite that you were walking! How wonderful!” He walks into the room and frowns, “Where is a certain sobbing servant?”

“In the lavatio. I’m letting her bathe. It always calms me down, when I’m afraid or hurting.”

He’s silent but both of his eyebrows rise, creating wrinkles in his forehead. “I’m glad you sent her away actually. I don’t want her sobbing at every explanation of what is going on with Iotha.”

“She’s alright then?”

“Absolutely,” he smiles, but his lips are too thin and stretched. Perhaps smiling can hurt sometimes. “You know of her condition, though. That after a certain part of the disease, she will not recover. She will lose her strength, and Medice says that eventually she will forget how to even speak or move.”

Perhaps I’m in a sensitive mood. The anguish on his face...I can see straight through to his soul. I move closer and hesitate. To embrace Edite is one thing. There is something different, something that makes me feel shameful when I think about his arms around me. I look away and resist the pull to touch him at all.

“I am very sorry, Frid. Iotha is a….” I trail off, not enough words being able to explain my deep feelings for her already.

“I-I know, Amalia.” He reaches and squeezes my hand. Even through a layer of fabric, I can feel my fingers go cold at his touch. I shrink back at the goosebumps that erupt. He watches me closely and draws his hand back. “You’ve become her friend now that she has none.”

“Only because you sent the closest one she had away! Why did you have to forbid Aecia from visiting?”

He puts his hands up in defense, “Calm, Amalia. I have plenty of good reasons for my actions. You should not question my motives.”

I roll my eyes and walk to my chair.My legs give way just after I sit. I sigh with relief that I made it. My muscles had protested so much since Frid entered the room that I thought I would lose consciousness. My head feels light and the edges of my vision are fuzzy until I take deep breaths and the pain subsides.

“Are you feeling well?” He puts a hand over my forehead, wearing a deep frown. “Don’t exert yourself more than necessary. You’ve only just begun to walk yourself. You could harm yourself by taking this recovery too fast.”

“I have been taking this slow,” I reveal. “I never told anyone I could walk. I practice every day, but I’ve never gone so far as today.”

“You’ve...You-You could walk this whole time?” He exclaims with exasperation. He almost looks angry.

“No, it’s only been a settimana at most. I-”

“Why did you keep it a secret? Why didn't you tell anyone? At least the Medice?”

“Perhaps I have plenty of good reasons for my actions. You should not question my motives,” I mimic his words from earlier. This time he rolls his eyes and moves me to the table . When he sits across from me he clears his throat.

“Now that you are walking a good deal, I can actually introduce you to the Senators. The people who matter will be at a banchetto in two days, which will start a celebratory festival for all of the city. You will not have to walk the whole time. Il banchetto, a feast, will only require you to sit and eat and socialize with the elite. Il festival would have you stand by me as I deliver a speech. Then you may go and sit or rest, or partake in whatever you activities you desire.”

“And I don’t have a choice?” I bite my lip and stare at him hard. His jaw clenches tightly as he looks back at me, “Only if you aren’t ready, amore mio.”

Amore mio…it sounds familiar. A title or an epithet.

“I don’t know. Today has been long...and I wouldn’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say a word, Amalia, your presence will be enough.”

“Somehow, that doesn’t comfort me.”

“Everyone will love you, Amalia. No matter what you do I-we...we will always love you.”

“I just don’t understand why their opinion of me is so high. I’ve done nothing so far-”

“But you have. You survived! We always knew you were strong! You founded this country, and if you really are alive, they have hope that every injustice with this infant country will be set right. You’ll see.”

“But I’m not really alive, Frid.”

“How can you say that? Of course you are!”

“No, just listen-”

He cuts me off and I am shaking my head immediately,“Amalia. You shouldn’t be worried about-”

“Frid, let me say what I want to-” I try to start, but he interrupts again.

“There is nothing to worry over. You-”

“Just stop! Let me speak!” I exclaim with more volume than I intended.

He stares, his wide, brown eyes following my every movement. “Just let me say what I think,” I lower my voice to a whisper. “You wondered what I meant when I said what I did. That I’m not really alive.”

“I don’t understand-”

“There, you see what you’re doing? Let me explain why I feel that way before you speak again.” He clamps his mouth shut, like they are forever combined and doomed to never separate. That gives me courage.

“I’m not really alive. That is what I said before. And I mean it. Amalia was her own person and she really did die. Her life is over. She was engaged to you, started a revolution, and laid out the plans for this government with you. I have never done that. I wouldn’t know a thing about how to lay foundations for a country. No matter how much you hope that I will take up the part of my past...I can’t be her. There is no way. Amalia and I are too different from each other.”

“Amalia and the person in front of me are one in the same,” he urges, “It’s not because you are in the same body. As someone who knows both personas,” His hand moves to the left of his chest, “I see the similarities. You just don’t recognize them yet. You will go back to the person you were before the Invicta took you away. It will just take time.”

I rub my eyes with exhaustion and stare at the designs in the wood with sudden interest. Swirls continue into circles and eventually turn into long lines that end with the edge of the table. Can lives turn to long lines where they always progress and are steady like these embedded into the wood? Or can some cursed lives never get to a point of progression, or is it just I with that destiny?

I look back to him and he is searching my reaction. I sigh heavily, feeling weariness flow through my body like blood through my veins. “Frid, I’m not sure I want to go back to that person before…” My eyes flick back and forth between the table and his face.

He nods with encouragement, “I understand, Amalia. You wish to be your own person, not what everyone remembers you as. And all I have to say about that worry, is that Amalia was and still is a good person. It’s alright to be her. It’s been so long that I wonder if the Senators or the people even remember what she wanted.”

“I don’t remember what she wanted either,” I mumble. Every time he says my name, I feel myself flinch. It doesn’t bring me comfort to hear it like it did at first, to hear him address me with another person in mind. He has this image in his head of Amalia. And it isn’t me. It’s her when she was with him, when he saw her for the first time, when she perhaps accepted his proposal of marriage. There will never be a man who will want to marry you, Amalia, not even Frid.

“That’s why you have me, isn’t it?” He laughs and blinks one eye at me. I frown at the gesture, which is abnormal to most people’s interactions.

“I suppose so,” I agree without truly agreeing. Because I don’t have him.

A few moments of silence are interrupted by him. “Well, I have a treat in store for you tonight, Amalia. It is something I believe you will enjoy.”

“What is it?” I ask skeptically.

“A surprise during cena. It will help with the banchetto.”

“How so?”

“That’s the point of a surprise, Amalia. It can’t be explained until it is revealed, otherwise you will guess and it won’t be a surprise anymore.

“Alright,” I give him a suspicious look. What is so special about a ‘surprise’ that I cannot look forward to it? What if I don’t particularly like the ‘surprise’?

“Just rest Amalia,” he smiles and bends to me. After picking me up, he presses his lips to my forehead. I stare up at him in wonder. What was that? His small, satisfied smile stays with me even when he has left me to rest on my bed. I rub my shoulders a few times to take away the chill of the goosebumps.



Chapter 10: Performances

By the time it’s over, I wish I could stand. I wish I could ask them for another go. I look to Frid in awe and whisper, “I must thank them!”

“Why,” he scoffs. “They are just musicians.”

“I might remind you that your ward is a musician.”

“That’s different,” he sputters and shakes his head, avoiding my gaze by examining the ceiling with indifference.

I turn in my seat, ignoring Frid’s protests and ask them to come to me. The first that approaches holds a sleek wooden cylinder. While they had performed, he held it to his mouth and a pretty sound came through the bottom of it. “Thank you for sharing your talent, signore. What is this called?”

The musician bows his head and smiles, “A recorder, signora. Would you like to try it?” He laughs at the disbelieving look on my face, and brings it closer. “Here. I’ll blow air through the tube and you move your fingers on and off of the holes.” I warily bring down a finger on the first hole. He blows through the mouthpiece consistently, so when I move my fingers down the holes to the bottom, each makes a different sound. The high pitched tones are squeaky while the lower, deep pitches sound soft and melancholy.

“I believe you are finished with this instrument, Amalia. Next. Show haste!” Frid interjects. I glare at him, but the musician obediently walks back to the performing area. Another man, younger, with blonde-white hair carries a bigger, bowl-shaped instrument. He did nothing with his mouth to make a sound come out of it. Instead, his hands had fluttered across a number of strings.

“Thank you for your entertainment,” I nod to him. He straightens from his bow, “Now, what is this called?”

“A lute, signora. Would you like to try?” He hands me a thin, triangular object.

“What is this?”

“A spectrum. Just pluck it across the strings. It’s not difficult whatsoever.”

I bite my lip and move it across the multiple strings, creating the same type of high to low tones as I move back and forth. “Now just pluck one string,” he directs. I pick one on the edge. He shifts his fingers from high on the string to lower on the string. The sound changes as well.

“Amazing,” I complement. “Good work.”

“Let’s see the next one,” Frid orders impatiently.

The musician moves on and puts his lute into a box shaped with the same outline. Another nears and bows. I nod my head and attentively listen to three others with their viol, pipe, and harpsichord. They let me handle their instruments with kindness, but as the musicians continue to talk to me, Frid becomes more and more insufferable. The last, a weak old man. His skin sags around his face that somewhat reminds me of the state of my hands. I try to be gentle as he shows me his instrument called a harp. The sound it creates nearly makes me smile. I look at the musician with admiration as he drifts his hands across it so gently, I wonder if it will slip through his fingers. The harp seems sacred to him and he tries to speak effectively, but it only reveals his missing teeth. Frid sighs heavily and shoes them out of the door as soon as the old man’s interview is over.

His eyes strike me though. The old man looked half-crazed. His hair and the state of his aging body did not suggest he was...all the way there. But his brown eyes were piercing and vigorous. Clever and full of understanding.

As soon as the door shuts, I turn my glare to Frid. I say rigidly, “I am very thankful for your ‘surprise’, Frid. But I am not thankful for your juvenile attitude. You spoiled a rather enjoyable experience for me with your intolerance and impatience.”

He laughs coldly, “My apologies, signora.” He gives an exaggerated bow and a mocking smile, “Did you realize they all called you that? Just like Edite? They are servants, and they understand that their place is not to converse with their employers. Musicians are meant to be heard, but never seen. In banchetti, they sit behind a curtain, separated from the guests. And that is what they will do in two days.”

I have few words to explain my disbelief at his statement. “If you really believe that, Frid...this is an atrocity! Your ward-you’re daughter-is a musician. Wouldn’t you rather she be seen and praised for her accomplishments?”

“Iotha is the daughter of a Senator. And she is no normal musician. These...these amateurs did not deserve the praise you gave them.”

“But-”

“They hold the same status as Edite. Do you believe that she would want us to clap and praise her for every bath she draws, every meal she serves, every corset she tightens?”

“No,” I hesitate, “but that’s just her-”

“Exactly, Amalia. There is a line in this society’s structure. And the line is thick. People will question you and your motives if you try to cross it so often.”

I scowl as I think. Perhaps he is right. Perhaps...servants should be appreciated silently. “I find you correct, Frid. But I do not agree with your view on the society. If everyone-peasants and officials- are supposed to be equal, why is there a class structure, or even drawn lines?”

He smiles and moves closer to me in his chair. “Equality has so many diverse definitions. In this country, especially in this city, equality is a right, something that each deserves. Everyone is entitled to the same rights in a trial or in their ordinary dealings, as a citizen, as a human. The equality you intend at the moment is everyone’s status.Citizens have different privileges because of the life that they live. It is impossible for everyone to be equal in the way you wish. The people, especially you, must realize that.”

“What would Amalia have believed? What did she do with this issue?”

“She created the Blind Ones. She wanted equality, in that area especially. During the reign of the kings, judges would be paid off by the richest man, or even by the monarchy. They chose the punishment based on the favored politics in court at that time. Amalia...you...wanted there to always be a right and wrong to a trial.”

“I’m glad. But what if there are opposing people who are both in the wrong? What happens then?”

“Ah, you found the loophole everyone questions. There was and still is no answer for that. Amalia was taken before she could finish her outlines for the government.”

“But surely, she would have told you,” I lean toward him and watch him closely. He shifts uncomfortably for a second in his seat before stuttering out a response.

“Well..I think, my opinion. I don’t-I don’t believe that she..well she never spoke of that. I don’t think that she ever figured out how to fix it.”

“Oh,” I frown at the idea that she hadn’t seen all the possibilities that the imperfections of men could bring to her vision. I pause for a moment, and inquire of Frid, “Was she...did she only see actions as right and wrong? Was there no ‘in between’ for her?”

He smiles sadly, “We argued so much about it. Even in her case, no one person can be perfect, though I thought her so. On the other side, none can be completely evil.”

“Is that true? I agree with the impossibility of perfection. But to be totally corrupted is certainly possible.”

“You speak of the Invicta?”
“Yes, of course.”

“Perhaps...perhaps you did something to him that he couldn’t forgive? Perhaps he wanted revenge?”

“Revenge does not justify any backlash!”

“Of course,” he pats my hand and rests his on mine, “What he did to you...it was…”

“Unpardonable,” I give him the word. He nods profusely and watches me quietly.

“I haven’t asked this for some time,” He hesitates for a moment, flicking his eyes to me and then downward before inquiring, “But how are you?”

“How am I?” I gawk at the question. “As well as anyone could expect, I guess.”

“You’re mental state? Is it...are you-”

“No, I do not recall any memory outside of that prison,” I say in monotone, “if that is what you wonder about my ‘mental state.”

“No,” he shakes his head and squeezes my hands. “How are your actual memories from the prison? You can talk to me about nightmares, about how you feel, how you are adjusting. I want to help you. How can I assist you in this new life?”

“Frid…” Speechless. Why would-or even should-he care? “I-I wouldn’t know how to open up, Frid. For years, I was only asked about remembering if I knew certain things about my past. And because of those events or people, I have forgotten everything else. My whole life was connected to my parents, my origins, my purpose, my name, even. And-” I trail off and squint at Frid, scrutinizing his features.

“Have you had any answers to those mysteries?” I nearly hop out of my seat at the underlying question-do you want answers? I blink quickly. Perhaps he never knew my parents. Perhaps he didn’t really know Amalia after all. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.

“I know one...at least I thought I knew…. but because of what you just said, I realize I still don’t have the whole answer. I was in that prison partly because I, or she was a political leader, and the Invicta didn’t agree with her. Like you said, there has to be more to the story than power.” I look at him shyly and glance down at my lap, where my hands clasp and unclasp. He leans in as my voice gets softer, “But I have figured out one fact on my own.”

“And that is?” He raises his eyebrows and moves even closer than I thought possible. My face is inches from his, and a strange tension, something that is pulling me towards him turns my hands cold. I pull my eyes away from him and stare at my frozen hands. How odd, that they feel so chilly, even though they have a warm layer of fabric covering them. He grasps them, and I feel a little better, that the stiffness is going away at his touch, melting and tingling instead.

I look back up and flick back and forth across his two eyes. I cannot catch both of them this close. “I remember that one of those faces in the portraits was you. I know that the sight of you sometimes made me sob, or struggle against my chains, even if I didn’t recall your name or what you meant to me.” It’s true. I couldn’t recall initially, but every day of seeing him since, my memory was picked of the face of the man I was supposed to forget.

His eyebrows furrow as he shows his ‘pity face.’ I blink back tears at the remembrance of anything that happened during the prison. He still catches one though, his finger wipes away the wetness on my cheek. His hand, scalding my icy skin, starts to cup my face. I close my eyes to avoid having to see his face, totally in awe and full of feeling. I cannot describe the look-only that it is passionate. Passionate to me, so entirely unique from the feelings that he holds for Edite, for Iotha, for his friends.

His thumb strokes the skin near my ear, and with that hold on me, he pulls me closer to him. So gentle, I feel like I am made of the same fragile glass that shattered because of Iotha. His breath, which smells of the spices in the food we ate and the wine we just drank, hits my face, my mouth especially. Only a tiny distance more...and-

Frid’s mouth interrupts all thoughts. It presses against mine. I do not know much about this. But I do know this is special. Not everyone can feel this way. I feel a warmth run throughout all my body, and it is so instinctive to respond to him. I move my hands to his face too and somehow enjoy it even more. This feels so right, to fuse our lips together. He pulls away too soon and rests his forehead against mine. I suck in a deep breath and smooth my hands down to his shoulders to help me stay steady.

We meet each other’s eyes and he smiles at me. “Do you know what this means?”

‘That we can do that again?” I ask. He bursts out laughing and nods.

“Sure. But we can do that again because I love you. There has been so much keeping us from each other. But despite everything trying to pull us away-the Invicta, our demon memories, just life-we are still forging this future, our future. It’s worth it.”

I almost smile at how correct that sounds. “Even if it is ten years in the making,” I remark. He laughs, gives me a short peck on my cheek and stands.

“From what you heard today, can I convince you to come to il banchetto? There are so many Senators I wish to introduce you to.”

I sigh, look up at him and roll my eyes at the subtle manipulation. “Fine. But I can’t promise to like any of them.”

He hangs back his head and laughs. “I won’t expect you to be anything but yourself, Amalia.”

I strain to even nod to him before he presses his lips to mine again. But I can’t give myself wholly to this sensation, to be lost in it again. When I pull away, he leaves, just like that. My face feels numb, and I wipe stupid tears streaming from my eyes. This is the man the Invicta wanted me to forget...

Why should I cry? Frid just...I don’t even know what that is called! But in my heart and the recesses of my “164” mind, I know. I know that I am competing with a dead woman. If he knew me, he would would never speak to me again. And I don’t want that. I want him to...what were the words?

Love?

What exactly is that?



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