When the past came for Luzetia, it came in full regalia. At the East Gate, an outrider in blue furnished the Romagnan city guard with the diplomatic seals of its arrival. Its procession down the avenues of neatly aligned olive trees and up the Via dell’Universita was the event of the year. Neighbours crowded porticoes, pointing out each outlandish colour as it passed, the pinks and blues and yellows that could not be had this side of the mountains for less than twenty silver thalers per silk yard. One girl was so taken with the lead horse’s caparison that she resolved to become a knight on the spot, a dream that would culminate, seventeen years later, with her victory at the grand tournament honouring the visit of the Margrave of Al-Teluria. When the procession came to a stop outside the School of Anatomy and a herald stepped down from the beaten-gold carriage, there was hardly a person left in the city not aware of its presence; and it was the herald’s cry, entering through an open window on the first floor, that finally found Luzetia in the anatomical theatre poised above a cadaver with scalpel in hand.

“My apologies,” she said to her students, her surgeon’s training serving to keep her voice steady as well as her hands, “but I expect to shortly be called away. The lesson is concluded.”

Relief from the back row mingled with disappointment from the front. The scalpel she removed, wiping its blade as fastidiously as if it had seen hours of use.

“My apologies to you as well,” Luzetia said to the cadaver after the last of her students had filed out. “But I think I will have cause to envy your position before the day is done.”

“Talking to the dead again?”

The Arthesian Professor was standing in the doorway, hands tucked into her sleeves. By the disorder of her pinned-up hair, Luzetia judged that she had not anticipated leaving her rooms until evening, but curiosity had, characteristically, gotten the better of her. It wasn’t every day Romagna saw the likes of the procession outside.

“They are remarkably good listeners.”

“My mentorship will only go so far if the faculty gets it in their heads that you’re an eccentric.” The Professor’s lips twitched with amusement, breaking for a moment her air of aloof scholarship. “Corrupting the youth, they’ll call it.”

“Let them,” Luzetia said, washing her hands of dissection and her manner of nerves. “Shall I follow you to the library?”

They fell in together, walking through the arched hallways of the School as if it were a normal summer day. If only the situation of her patronage were as simple as the Professor imagined and Luzetia were nothing more than a moderately accomplished scholar relying on the good word of a respected colleague to maintain her position; if only there were no quiet payments from abroad, no thrice-sealed letters submitted to the faculty in absolute support.

There were many things for which Luzetia owed the Professor, but protection from the faculty was not one of them.

“I did not mention a visitor,” the Professor observed, pausing at the base of the smooth marble steps that gave access to the second floor. “Much less that they were waiting in the library.”

This was her way of asking a question. Luzetia weighed the value of a response, but the exercise was merely a formality. The Professor deserved honesty. “The library is the only part of the School formal enough to receive this guest,” Luzetia said. “Come up with me. Sit in on the meeting and see for yourself.”

The Professor cocked her head like a gossip feigning innocence. “I do not mean to pry.”

The lie was so shameless it made Luzetia laugh. “It will be for my benefit as much as yours. You can reassure yourself that my funding does not originate in the black market, and I can sleep easier knowing there will be no midnight raids searching my rooms for ivory dust.”

“I would never have ordered a midnight raid,” the Professor said. “I’m not a monster. They would have come at noon. But—” She smiled her age, brightly unconcerned. “If you insist.”

The marble was comfortingly cool beneath Luzetia’s soft slippers. A student stood by the entrance to the library, corralled into service as a sentry. He watched curiously as Luzetia swung the heavy wooden doors open, his instructions evidently not forbidding the Professor’s presence. She appreciated this small show of respect for the School. The scholars of Romagna would not have dared to gainsay as august a personage as waited inside, had he decided to post his own guards.

Before her eyes had adjusted to the gloom, the herald’s voice rang out, echoing oddly between the shelves: “His Grace, the Duke of Exmere is happy to receive Her Majesty, Queen Wislawa IV of the Exland-Woltani Commonwealth!”

The incredulous “Who?” from the Arthesian Professor was enough to get Luzetia through the moment, to draw the absurdity of the situation around her like a cloak. “It’s Luzetia, now, and I would prefer you to not burden me with titles that may not be mine.”

“Luzetia?” A different voice—the Duke materialising out of a lamplit corner. Felton of Exmere had been in early middle-age when Luzetia had last seen him, and he was in late middle-age now. It sat well on him, the scar across one cheek setting off his silver statesman’s beard with just the right amount of rakishness. “After your father? Well, why not. Queen Luzetia sounds just as good. Better, even. Always good to get a bit of foreign blood in, eh, when there’s revolution on the breeze.” A pause. “Who’s the girl?”

Exmere had not been a bad man in Luzetia’s youth, when he’d encouraged her to follow her academic interests no matter how far afield they took her; nor had she reason to think he was a bad man now, if the news from Exland was to be believed. But of all the things he might have said, such flippancy was surest to set Luzetia on edge. No one in Romagna would think to call the Arthesian Professor girl. Young she might have been, but she had held the Arthesian Chair since the age of seventeen, and a decade on, there wasn’t a crotchety old man on the faculty who’d deny her right to it.

Luzetia stepped into the duke’s circle of light. “What do you want, Exmere?”

Exmere had the grace to look regretful. “You, Your Majesty. Your sister’s appetite for tyranny has outpaced our checks on it. There is already open rebellion in the Western Reach, and the rest of the country will follow in a matter of weeks. We need you.”

“Agata is rightfully queen.”

“Your Majesty—”

“Stop calling me that.”

Luzetia.” The fact that he was using it to manipulate her did not make his desperation less real. “Her grip on the throne is only as strong as you let it be. No one living knows the order of your birth. If you name yourself the elder twin, it will be her word against yours, and the country will rally around you. Without you, it will be chaos. Every canton for itself. Years of famine. Anarchy. With you, the war will be over by winter. Nice and neat.”

“No war is neat,” the Arthesian Professor said from somewhere between the shelves.

Exmere paused a moment, as if expecting Luzetia to chastise her, then frowned and said, “We need you.”

“And if I told you my mother gave me the secret before she died?” Luzetia clasped trembling hands behind her back. “That I know I am the younger sister?”

Exmere glanced from her to the herald, to the Professor, hiding in the stacks. “I would say that was a conversation for another time. But one that ultimately makes no difference.” When Luzetia did not immediately reply, he added, more jovially, “Of course, I do not expect you to agree on the spot. Think on what I have said, Luzetia, and find me at the Scarlet Mitre.”

Luzetia’s mind was already formulating the arguments she’d muster against him there, and it was not until he’d taken his leave that it occurred to her she could have refused him here.

How, Luzetia mused, to describe the reign of Agata III? The Arthesian Professor would have likened it to a disease progressing piecewise, rearing its head here and there but always retreating before the preparations of modern medicine, until one day it erupted so fiercely there could be no bulwark against it.

The Duke of Exmere would have called it tyranny.

Luzetia? Luzetia called it the lesser evil.

Afterwards, the Professor gave her a look. Luzetia acquiesced and followed her to her rooms on the third floor of the School. The suite was a testament to the perks of a professorial chair, cool and expansive with tall windows letting the afternoon in.

“Let me see if I have this straight,” the Professor said. “But for a fluke of history, my brightest student would be the most powerful person on the continent.”

“That’s one way of putting it.”

“Do you like your sister?”

Luzetia laughed. It was an odd question to ask first, but the Professor had seen the results of Agata’s campaigns firsthand. She had written the book on their death toll.

“No,” Luzetia said, which was both the truth and the right answer.

“But she’s your patron. She’s the reason you can be here.”

“Yes.”

The Professor got up, poured a glass of cucumber-scented water, and commenced pacing by the window, as if this were a lecture hall and the world outside her slate-board.

“Your life here was a bribe. She pays to place you here, doing what you love doing, and you agree never to challenge her for the throne.”

“Yes.”

“A strange thing to admit so easily.”

“I’m not ashamed. My calling here is more noble than Agata’s court ever was. How many physicians have I trained? How many patients have they treated?”

“You don’t need to convince me that the work of medicine is more important than a throne. But that man in the library thought otherwise.” The Professor’s mouth twisted distastefully. “You know him? Was he always condescending?”

“He is—hidebound.”

“Ha! Call him a boor and be done with it. Is he right? Would your presence stop a war before it started?”

“No. Or at least—” Luzetia cut herself off. She was old enough to recognise what was wishful thinking and what wasn’t. Exmere could be right. “Maybe.”

The Professor turned away from the window. Her face was blank, as if lost in a faraway memory. “No war,” she said softly, “is ever over by winter.”

Looking out over the rooftops of Romagna, red-brown stone glowing in the sun, Luzetia felt suddenly sure that her store of peaceful summer days was running thin.

Exmere received Luzetia for an afternoon meal three days later at the Scarlet Mitre. His rooms were only modestly appointed, but the food made up for it: a spread of the breads Romagna was famous for, patterned on the outside with the inn’s stylised mitre and stuffed variably with balsamic figs, goats’ cheese, and cured meats. It was a typical lunch, extrapolated to great excess. Exmere delighted in picking through the breads and discovering each fresh combination of ingredients.

They were not alone. A woman sat to Exmere’s left, unassuming in green and brown.

“This is Maria,” Exmere said by way of introduction. “She is the—would you say leader?”

“Spokeswoman, my lord.”

“The spokeswoman of the Woltani refugees in the city.”

“Refugees,” Luzetia repeated, taking in Maria’s appearance anew. She was dressed in a tunic of Woltani cut, favouring straight lines and fine materials. Her face spoke of long days in the sun, and the way she said m’lord, almost as if it was one word, marked her as from the Eastern Reach—the seat of Woltani, and therefore of Agata’s, power.

“There are not so many of us yet. More arrive every week.”

There was something in the way Maria’s gaze flickered this way and that. “Exmere has told you who I am,” Luzetia guessed, “but not to let on that you know.”

Exmere laughed. Maria said, “Your Majesty.”

“Don’t call me that.”

Maria did not look away. “With all due respect, Your Majesty, I fled my home for the right to call you that.”

Something twisted up inside Luzetia, as if her heart were a hand now forming a fist. It was difficult to imagine people whispering her name—her old name, the one she had given up—to themselves in the dark, making a symbol of it, sacrificing their homes for its sake. It felt wrong. Like a violation. The truth that had led her to accept Agata’s bargain in the first place reasserted itself: She did not want to be used.

“I am not a leader. I did not ask you to flee your home.”

“I wish you had. That and more.”

“As ploys go,” Luzetia said, sharpening her voice now that she was addressing Exmere, “this one is transparent.”

“And how! You saw right through it.” Exmere was rummaging through a bowl of olives, extracting only the wrinkled black ones that, packed in salt and sold for half their weight in silver, occasionally found their way as far as the markets of Exland. “That is a good trait in a ruler. And yet—” He looked up. “What is happening to your people is no ploy. It is reality.”

Luzetia turned back to Maria, who was regarding her with the stubborn lack of deference on which the people of Woltan prided themselves. “How are conditions among the refugees? Is there disease? Do you have enough food?”

Maria hesitated. “We have food, but—it was a difficult journey for many of us, and we are living in closer quarters than anyone is used to... I do not mean to complain. Disease is inevitable in cities.”

Luzetia barked out a laugh. “Nothing is inevitable. Go to the School of Anatomy. Tell them I sent you. They will give you soap and teach you how to treat your water.”

“Soap and water?” Exmere interjected. “You are obscuring the point, Luzetia. Soap and water will solve nothing.”

“Believe what you like,” Luzetia snapped. “I do not have time to debate public health with someone whose people still believe in miasma theory.”

Exmere studied her face as if seeing her, for the first time, as the woman of medicine she’d become. For a moment Luzetia wanted to press this advantage, to prove to him that Agata was in her past; that she was a different person, now, with different concerns. Then she remembered that she had not been aware of an influx of Woltani refugees into her city. The lesser evil was still an evil. She would look it in the face.

“Tell me, Maria,” she said. “What is happening to our people?”

The Arthesian Professor had installed herself in the front room of Luzetia’s modest house, as if to ensure that Luzetia did not sneak away in the night. “You were a long time at lunch,” she said immediately upon Luzetia’s return, pre-empting the surprise of her presence. “Exmere must have been convincing.”

There was a bowl of olives at her elbow, large and deeply verdant, exactly the type Exmere had been avoiding. It made Luzetia laugh, which earned her a quizzical look, and she stopped herself short of asking which shelf of her pantry the Professor had raided. Not that Luzetia begrudged her a jar of olives. The Romagnese ran on olives, and the Professor was Romagnese to the bone.

“Not as convincing as his guest,” Luzetia said, and repeated the stories of home that Maria had told her over the long course of their lunch: abuses of power, each a shade more blatant than the last, as if testing how far a complacent citizenry might be led; of emboldened whispers, claiming that soon only a single religion would be allowed in Woltan, where now there were half a dozen or more; of the borders between cantons, abolished decades ago, raised once more to keep each people in its freshly designated place. “I cannot pretend,” she concluded, “that this is not a deliberate plan of Agata’s.”

The Professor frowned and idly flicked an olive pit onto the floor. “I did not think that was in doubt,” she said as Luzetia stooped to pick it up. “Your sister makes an unpleasant tyrant. The question, surely, is what you are to do about it.”

“I left Woltan to avoid exactly these sorts of machinations. Nothing has changed. I will not let them use me.”

“It seems to me you are already caught up in them. Exmere has made sure of it. Why else would he parade through the city that way? And if he made the same fuss traipsing through the countryside, it will hardly have escaped Agata’s attention that he is here. She will have heard weeks ago.”

Luzetia froze. How had she not considered that aspect of the situation? Exmere had done everything short of hosting a ball to announce his presence. He’d processed through the heart of the city to turn up at her doorstep. No one would doubt his intentions. And how long would Agata maintain her patronage of Luzetia, knowing Exmere had come to visit? Were her agents in the city even now, bearing the messages that would rescind that support? How long would the learned scholars of Romagna tolerate Luzetia’s presence if doing so meant risking her sister’s wrath? Luzetia felt tears forming in the corners of her eyes, the sort of tears a child sheds when confronted with the reality of injustice. It wasn’t fair, but it was the truth. Exmere had forced her hand, and he knew it. That was why he was content to play at patience. Her hands tightened around the seat of her chair.

“Luzetia?” the Professor said softly. “I—”

Whatever words of comfort the Professor was mustering were interrupted by a knock, harsh and sonorous. Luzetia made to get up, but the Professor waved her down, squeezing one of her shoulders in sympathy on her way to the door. Luzetia closed her eyes.

The door creaked open a little, then slammed wide the rest of the way. The Professor cried out, surprise cut short by a hiss of pain.

There was a man in her house, dressed in Romagnan fashion but betrayed as Woltani by the piercing green of his eyes. Luzetia did not recognise him, but she had no doubt Agata had sent him. She knew her sister’s taste in enforcers well enough. For a wild moment she thought he was here to treat with her, like Exmere; another splinter of her past.

Then he backhanded the Professor away, sending her staggering into the table, and drew a knife from within the folds of his clothing. Luzetia could smell olive oil. The bowl must have spilled. She reached behind her, as if righting it would right her life, too; would extend it past the seconds separating her from the knife.

When the man was almost within arms’ reach, the Professor barrelled into him. His expression, comically indignant above a neat beard, burned itself into Luzetia’s mind. Perhaps that was how her brain coped: making memories of the innocent details, not the pertinent ones; not the way the Professor was surely about to be carved open, the way Agata’s man would step over her twitching body to reach Luzetia.

Except the seconds were passing and the Professor was still upright, still alive, lunging at the assassin, and—Luzetia blinked. Pre-formed memories dissolved before the real thing. The man staggered. The Professor struck again. He looked at Luzetia, opened his mouth, and toppled. Flat on his back, Luzetia could see two punctures in his throat, and in the Professor’s hand the weapon that had made them: a paring knife, which Luzetia had left on her table the night before instead of putting away.

Sound returned to her. The Professor was shaking her shoulder with one hand, the other clutched to her chest.

“You’re hurt,” Luzetia said, her voice flirting with panic. She coughed the cloying smell of olives out of her throat. “Let me see.”

It was as if the sight of Luzetia uninjured robbed the Professor of adrenaline. She sat down, hard. The cut was along her forearm, jagged and deep enough to show flashes of pale radius and ulna between spurts of blood that were, Luzetia noted clinically, pulsing in time with the beat of the Professor’s heart. For a moment, she simply stared. She could feel herself giving up. It seemed impossible that anyone could undo an injury so intent on draining its host of life.

Then her training snapped into place. The reality of the Professor’s arm, warm and alive beneath her fingers, overlaid itself on the countless anatomical diagrams Luzetia had studied over the years, on the cool, clammy flesh of cadavers with their own arms laid open.

“Radial artery,” the Professor said. She sounded distant, surprised; and yet she raised the injured arm over her head and gripped it right below to the wound, and Luzetia would have bet she wasn’t even aware of doing so. The flow of blood slowed, but the Professor’s good arm was already beginning to tremble.

Luzetia did not waste time. She reached for the paring knife, ignoring someone else’s blood marring its blade. She spared only the briefest thought for the lengths of clean cotton gauze in the School’s storerooms, then wiped the knife on her trousers and used it to cut strips from her shirt. She’d worn her best to meet Exmere. Clean, recently washed. She told herself it would do.

“Where did you learn to... defend yourself like that?” she said as she worked, as much to satisfy her curiosity as to draw the Professor into conversation.

“I spent over a year in the field,” the Professor said. Her voice was still distant but steady, and she winced when Luzetia propped her arm up on the table and began applying the makeshift bandages.

“As a surgeon. I did not think you could fight.”

“There is a lot of boredom to go around in a military campaign. I was curious. Picked things up. Helped that I already know where to aim. It’s bleeding through,” she added, and it was the same force keeping her voice calm and Luzetia’s hands steady.

Luzetia sacrificed more of her shirt to the wound, tightened her grip on the bandages, and when that did not help, gently pried the Professor’s slack fingers away from her upper arm and squeezed, hard enough to pin the brachial artery against the humerus. Slowly, finally, the bleeding stopped.

“You’re good at this,” the Professor said.

For the first time since the intruder hit the floor, Luzetia had the luxury of looking at the Professor’s face. The first thing she noticed was the bruise blooming on her cheek, where the door had hit her; the second was her expression, framed by the loose mess of her hair. It didn’t seem right. The Professor was unflappably calm under pressure. She was the prodigy of Romagna, seasoned beyond her years. She was not this young woman with her shallow breaths and dark brown eyes full of fear, whose skin was showing the pallor of blood loss, whose voice was, still, perfectly even when she added, “Thank you.”

The threat of death had trapped Luzetia’s emotions, as though behind clouded glass. Now, the glass cleared. Fear tore into her like a newborn’s first lungful of air, painful and necessary at once. The Professor could still die. Perhaps there was too much damage to her radial artery, and the wound would bleed anew the moment Luzetia eased the pressure on it. Perhaps it would fester. Perhaps she’d lost too much blood already. And if the Professor lived, there was still the question of the assassin, and the entirely different kind of fear he had brought with him. Luzetia was not a fighter. The events of the last ten minutes had proved that definitively, but now she had cause to fear for her life. It meant change. It meant her comfortable existence in Romagna was over.

And yet her hands were steady.

“No,” she whispered. “Thank you, Alessandra. You will be all right. I promise.”

The Professor surely knew it was not Luzetia’s promise to make, but she smiled anyway. It restored some colour to her spirit if not her face. And with that smile, that smoothing away of pain, it was as if a path unfolded to Luzetia, hidden amidst the choice her past had laid at her feet. And when the first passers-by, wondering why her door was wide open, came to offer their aid, she had already decided what she would say to Felton of Exmere.

Luzetia met the Duke outside the city walls a week later, on the day of his departure. A tent had been erected for the occasion of their meeting, topped with Exmere’s own ensign. She took her time paying the porter who had brought the luggage out of the city, then stepped into the shade. The Professor hung back a step, hovering by the crate of dark green olives she had refused to leave the city without. Her injured arm was in a sling.

“Luzetia!” Exmere’s cheer was not as genuine as it had been. She had kept him waiting until the very last moment. It had been necessary, to give the Professor as much time to recover as possible, but Luzetia also found a petty pleasure in making him wait. “I was beginning to think you wouldn’t be joining us. But never mind, I’m glad to see my assessment of you was correct.” He cocked his head, feigning uncertainty. “You are coming with me?”

“I am,” Luzetia said.

“Splendid! Say your goodbyes, and I’ll have someone take care of your—”

“Wait.”

He hid impatience well, but not well enough. “Yes?”

“I have something to say, first. You are right that my sister must be stopped. I will help you stop her. But I will not claim her throne.”

“Wislawa...” Exmere started, as if her birth name might be the key to her compliance.

“Agata is my older sister. I know this for a fact. And I have been playing her game for too long. I thought to remove myself from the board, but as long as it was her name opening doors for me, I was her pawn. I acknowledge that, but I do not regret it. I have done good work in Romagna.”

Luzetia raised the envelope in her right hand.

“This is a letter denouncing Agata and committing myself to opposing her in any way I can.” She met Exmere’s gaze. “It is also a letter affirming the order of our births. I have sent copies to her court and to every other city between here and Woltan. I will not play that game, Exmere. I do not want her throne. If it is selfish of me, then I am selfish. I will not play.”

“If that is true, you have doomed us before we started.” Exmere spoke with the heavy disappointment of a father whose child has failed to live up to expectations. “What good are you now?”

“I am a trained surgeon. I can teach others. I bring with me the continent’s foremost expert on battlefield medicine”—here she gestured to the Professor, who waved at Exmere with her good hand—“and if you cannot find a use for us, then you do not deserve to lead an army.”

“I came to Romagna seeking a symbol. Not a doctor. We have those in Exland.”

The Professor snorted. “Trust me, you don’t.”

Luzetia spoke over Exmere’s spluttered objection. “Make a symbol of me if you must: the woman who gave up a throne and dedicated herself to saving the lives of her people. Do you have such a low opinion of the Woltani, Felton, that you think they will only rally around a pretty figure on a horse? I am not a leader. I will not lead. But I will come with you, and I will help you the best way I know how, because that is what I have dedicated my life to doing.”

Exmere stared at her for several more seconds. His eyes flickered from her face to the letter in her hand, as if the mere intensity of his gaze might recall those other copies from their destinations.

Then he motioned for Luzetia and the Professor to follow.

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Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko is a Slovenian-born writer and translator. He grew up in Slovenia, Ireland, Australia, and the UK, and currently resides just outside Portland, Maine. He understands that his name is a bit confusing and would like you to know that "Drnovšek Zorko" is the surname. He attended Clarion West in 2019, and his work has previously appeared in Clarkesworld and Escape Pod. In his spare time he is a keen quizzer—British readers may recognise him from that one time he was on University Challenge. Follow him on Twitter @filiphdz.

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