Zinnia kept her gaze transfixed on a crack in the flooring, willing herself not to engage with the other two people in the room. Distancing herself from them helped her pretend that she wasn’t a half-step away from them.
Cultivators. Runners. The mastermind. The real lords who ruled from the shadows. They were all cut from the same mucked-up, gutter-soaked cloth.
Lucio whistled through the empty gap in his mouth. “Want something to eat? Got some corn so good it’ll make you cry.”
“No, thank you. I’m fine.” Politeness came to Zinnia automatically, a kneejerk response. Vervain and Ianthe had raised her well.
Gracja squinted at her. “You’re turning down the best damn corn this side of the city. Y’sure you wanna make that mistake?”
Zinnia folded her hands in her lap, tight, to keep her nerves from showing. “I ate before I got here. Do you know when Noemi’s coming?”
“Loosen up! Yer way too focused on Noemi.” Lucio squatted down next to her. She braced herself on reflex. “We’re all friends here.”
“Baby Z’s always forgettin’ that.” Gracja stuck a lollipop into her mouth. “Always ready to bounce as soon as the deal’s over. No time to hang out with her real friends, unless their name starts with a big ol’ N. Actin’ like she’s got flies up her nose and shit.” She directed her next question directly at Zinnia. “Do we embarrass you?”
“It’s not like that.”
“Tolerate us, then?” Gracja crunched down on the candy.
“Hey, can I get one?” Lucio held out his hands. Gracja pulled out another lollipop from her pocket and tossed it over to him. He ripped open the paper wrapper.
“I don’t tolerate you.”
“Ooh, I think that means she has a problem with us.” His teeth too fragile, Lucio had to let the lollipop melt on his tongue.
“Please don’t twist my words.” Zinnia took a deep breath. “I meant that I like you guys. I’m sorry if it seems like I’m racing out the door every time I’m here. You know what it’s like for me at home.”
“Thing is that we don’t.” Gracja said. “Knowin’ ’em is more Noemi’s thing.”
“I see what you did there.” He grinned.
Gracja didn’t miss a beat. “And by ’em, I mean you strays. She’s got a mysterious way with you guys. No one likes hanging out with me and Lucio, but they’re all over Lady Noemi. What’s she got that we don’t have?” Another crunch. More candy ground between her teeth.
“It’s that lavvie mindlink power.” Lucio tapped his hairline. “Pree sure that’s how they met. They have an ear out for each other.”
“That’s our Pied Piper. Lures ’em right in.”
“I’m not a child, and I wasn’t lured in, either. I asked her if she needed help.” Zinnia explained. She bit her tongue to keep from saying anything further. It was bad enough that she’d let them get under her skin. She didn’t want to give them more satisfaction than she already had.
“And became another one of her pawns running all over Stockbrunn. Nice.” Gracja said. “How wonderful.”
“Do you actually think you’re not one just because you’re a grower? It doesn’t work that way. You’re as much of a pawn as I am.” Zinnia couldn’t bite her tongue down hard enough.
Gracja and Lucio looked at each other, then back at her. Lucio’s eyes bulged out.
Zinnia’s words hung in the musky air. Her throat went dry. Why couldn’t she have shut up?
“I’m sorry,” she said. She couldn’t look at them and their shocked(?), angry(?) faces. “I can wait for Noemi outside, if you’d prefer. I’ll…I’ll go and do that. Sorry.”
The housemates burst out laughing.
“Shit, Z, no, don’t go anywhere.” Gracja grinned, her lollipop stick dangling from her lips. “We were stickin’ you inna bottle.”
“Oh…” They were just messing with her. A game. It had all just been a playful round of teasing.
“Sorry, you’re an easy target.” Lucio said. “Gracja, give her a ‘pop for being a good sport.”
Gracja tossed one to her. It hit her chest and fell to her lap. Red. Cherry, maybe strawberry. “Thank you.” There was that automatic polite response again. Gracja and Lucio gave her hell, and yet she was still thanking them for a candy she didn’t want to have. There wasn’t an easy way to split it up for three people. No doubt that there’d be an all-out brawl over it.
“Good sport for what?”
The woman Zinnia’d been waiting for stood at the doorway, a couple of paintings leaned against her leg. The artwork was as depraved as it usually was: lacerated lips dripping with red, a piano linedancing on a pair of smooth, slender legs. Noemi smiled at her when she noticed her staring.
“Damn! Hate it when you do that float-in-like-a-ghost thing. Say something when you come in, wouldja?” Gracja said. She and Lucio popped up from where they were sitting to exchange greetings. Kisses on each cheek. Something about the flamboyancy of it made Zinnia look away.
“I take it no one bought anything today?” Lucio asked. His words were muffled around his lollipop.
“Nah, I made a good 20 off of the flowers. A cat helped me. Gorgeous little thing, that one.” Noemi said. She shrugged off her jacket, carelessly dumping it on the floor. Her dress was tight to her body, the corset top more than accentuating her features. “He didn’t do anything but lay there but that was enough to get people’s attention. Cats are king.”
“‘Course it’d be the flowers that sold. You’ve got a good eye for those.” Gracja said. “That 20 should be enough for some more oil. Supply’s getting low.”
“Your little friend stopped by.” Noemi placed the paintings in the corner of the room. Just their addition alone seemed to brighten up the place. That taunting up-tick at the end of her sentence was enough for Zinnia to know Noemi was talking to her.
“The heiress. You should’ve seen her. She was looking at the piano legs so hard I thought she was going to ask for its measurements next.” Noemi said. “Kinda like what you just did. Since y’all so hungry, y’all should meet and eat.” The joke made Lucio and Gracja explode into a fit of laughter again.
“Great joke.” Zinnia clapped slowly. “It was as great as your terrible art no one wants to buy.”
That got Lucio and Gracja to scream “oooh” in unison.
“Don’t mind Z. She’s just hangry after a century of not being touched.”
“Funny you of all people should say that when we all know you’ve got cobwebs growing down there.”
Lucio pounded his fist on the floor. Gracja couldn’t hold it together anymore.
“I’m sorry, which one of us went out with a girl who gave us a coin on a string and called it a bug necklace?”
“It’s a beetle!” Zinnia clutched her necklace.
“Mmhm, right. Which of us went out with the supermodel?”
“She wasn’t a supermodel just because you painted her. She was a cheesemaker!”
“At least she knew the difference between a coin and a bug, like, damn, what the hell is that? Glad you dumped her.” Noemi paused for dramatic effect. “Oh, wait a second, you didn’t dump her. She dumped your ass.”
“It was a mutual decision,” Zinnia said, “unlike you and the cheese girl who got tired of all your stuff.”
“Stuff? Can you not say the word ‘shit’? Are you like two years old?”
“Two years is longer than any relationship you’ll ever have.”
“Enough is enough!” Gracja cried. “You’re killing us.”
“Yeah, let’s take care of things before Lucio spits out another tooth. Gracja and Lucio, mind giving us some space?” Noemi asked them.
“Sure, sure.” The words whistled out of Lucio. “We got some packaging to take care of.” The redness hadn’t faded from Lucio’s face. Gracja fanned him for more air, then the two of them left down the hall. Zinnia heard them repeat one of her jabs and she smiled, pleased with herself for seemingly coming out on top in that round of trashtalking.
Noemi shoved the living room couch back, tilting its angle so she could get to what was hidden underneath it. “Don’t look so smug. I went easy on you.” She pulled up the loose floorboard and took out a small sack, tied tight at the top. “How’d the last batch go?”
“It practically sold itself.” Zinnia took the sack of coins out of her bag.
“Economy’s gone down the toilet and yet folks still gotta get their fix. All of this fervor for some seed pod paste. Funny, ain’t it?” Noemi traded her sack for Zinnia’s. “There’s less this time. Apparently, something went down during transport. Batch got botched.”
“We’re not going to get in trouble, are we?” She felt the compact bricks through the bag.
“Nope. The whole line knows about it. Whoever-messed-up’s been taken care of, I’m sure.”
In other words, they’d been killed for their mistake. Zinnia swallowed. “I also need a refill.”
“Of course, of course. I was thinking you were due soon. Wait here.” Noemi put the couch back in place, then left for her room. Zinnia did as she was told, not moving from her spot.
They’d met at least a year and a half ago, when Zinnia’s life was at its lowest. Initially, Noemi was a cheaper alternative to the apothecary, someone who wouldn’t price gouge the drug she depended on. She relied on Noemi to maintain her appearance and her psyche. But, then, the two of them got to talking, and Zinnia became one of Noemi’s runners. She leveraged her network of down-on-their-luck farmers and the rest was history.
She did what she had to do. The thing that happened left her with no other choice. The Trotters needed money to rebuild. Zinnia needed a cheaper source that wouldn’t be as hard on her family’s income. Noemi helped give her all of that and more.
A friend who genuinely listened to her. Someone far removed from the tragedy, who didn’t know her before it happened. Someone who didn’t remind her of it. And in those rare moments of weakness when Zinnia did need to talk to someone about it, Noemi was never the one to brush her off.
Uttering her sister’s name was like uttering a curse upon the town. No one wanted to acknowledge her existence or the swirl of things that happened because of her.
Noemi came back into the room, holding a bundle of twined-together leaves and a tiny jar of ointment. “Have you ever tried injections?” She handed the drugs over.
“A dog would sooner get a syringe than I could. Animals in Seide District get better treatment than the people in Arntzen.” Zinnia put it all away in her bag. “It’s wrong. It makes you wonder who’s really the animal.”
“Hey, cut that out.” Noemi scolded her. “In the end, we’re all anthropes. Dividing us into humans and animals is arbitrary bullshit.”
“These distinctions were established for a reason.” Zinnia liked Noemi’s use of arbitrary, even though she disagreed with it.
“Someone felt bad about not having special ears and tails and shit, and decided to be a ‘human’ when everyone was just fine being one pool of anthropes all together.”
“You’ve got a vivid imagination.”
“And so do you, pretending like you were born and raised in Rat’s End. You may know Arntzen, but you don’t know it. At the end of the day, you’ll return to your cozy bed in Seide and be damn glad you’re not sleeping here.”
“I’m sorry if I implied that,” Zinnia said.
“You sure did.”
“Seide’s not as great as you’d think. Everyone there lives in a daze. They have no idea what’s really going on in Stockbrunn.”
“Stockbrunn or Casterne at large?”
“Both.” She answered. “They’re missing everything. It’s like they’re asleep.”
Noemi folded her arms. “What makes you so enlightened, besides your trips over here?”
“…I don’t know. You can tell I’m different, can’t you? Isn’t that why you helped me?”
“I helped you because you looked like you lost everything.” Noemi said. “Loss and rebirth come with the territory of being a lavender girl. Excuse me, a lavender woman. Yeah, we understand the destruction/creation cycle better than anyone else.”
Zinnia mused. “I’m not sure that statement applies to every lavender girl.”
“But it does to us, because of the shit we’ve gone through. That’s why I helped you. Mutual understanding of shitty circumstances. I could tell that about you as soon as I saw you.” She relaxed. “I’m not mad at you, by the way. You do good work. Great work. Never had a reason to complain about you.”
“I don’t have any complaints about you, either.”
“Good. You wanna talk about anything? You’ve got this sad girl vibe going and I’d hate to have you leave that way.”
Where should she begin? The handful hours of sleep she got every night because her mornings, afternoons, and nights had her pulled in three different directions? The fact that sometimes, she really would like to get out of Siede and stay with the three of them? Or how about that no-way-out feeling that seemed to be suffocating her more and more each day?
“Maybe tomorrow. I want to see if I can make any sales tonight.”
“I’ll look the other way if you ever want to have any. It helps with anxiety.”
“No thank you,” Zinnia spat that out faster than she intended to. “I’m okay.”
“Then don’t say maybe. I’ll see you tomorrow and I’ll be here waiting for you.” Noemi helped her off of the floor. “We can talk privately. Everybody knows Gracja and Lucio are like hens, ready to peck up any gossip they can get their greasy beaks on.”
“I know, right? You’ve got to do something about them.” Zinnia hugged her. “I’ll see you.”
“What kind of hug was that?”
Zinnia tried again, this time fully embracing her. “Is that better?” When she let go and stepped back, she felt twice as self-conscious as she usually did, and that was saying something.
“Yeah.” Noemi read her embarrassment loud and clear. “You better get home in one piece. See you later, Z.”
Zinnia shot out of the room, out the door, and back onto the streets of Arntzen District.
She wiped the goofy smile off of her face with the back of her hand.
It was time to get to work.
A/N: So now another part of Stockbrunn has come to light… The results from the last 2 chapters of voting will hopefully be revealed in the next chapter. It all depends on how lengthy it gets. As always, feel free to leave a comment. Your comments have the chance to affect the story, too, so use your power!!
Voting will end by Sunday, February 28th at 11:59 PM EST.
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