Ellie slammed open the door to Dr. Cuthberht’s Clinic. Her dog, Sunflower of Navarrete, limped in after her. Marietta had already ditched them.
There wasn’t an empty chair in the clinic that day.
The smaller children were stuck having to sit between their parents’ feet. Men and women fanned themselves with the health brochures they had no doubt read over dozens of times while waiting. The chatter was kept to a low volume, helped by the “keep noise to a minimum” signs tacked up around the lobby.
She went straight to the counter. “I need to see a doctor.”
“Heiress Navarrete.” The receptionist’s eyes widened in recognition. She wore a cloth mask that covered her face from nose to chin. “I’m sorry to inform you but you’re going to have to wait in line. Please take a number from the jar and I’ll call you when the next nurse is available.”
“I’m not taking a number. I’m going back there.” Standing around would only prolong Sunflower’s pain.
“There’s a line,” the receptionist stressed. “If you’re here for your dog, I can book her an appointment with the veterinary surgeon. Unfortunately, the vet doesn’t have any more openings for today. Would tomorrow be alright?”
Ellie cringed. Sunflower’s wound had reddened. It was beginning to swell. Waiting for tomorrow wasn’t an option. “No, it wouldn’t. We’re seeing someone today. My dog’s hurt bad and we can’t wait.”
“I wish there was something I could do for you, Heiress Navarrete, but since you don’t have an appointment you’re going to have to join the walk-in queue.”
She leaned over the receptionist’s counter. “What’s your name?”
“Hm, okay, Jaquelin.” Ellie said. “I wonder how my mother will react when I tell her how unhelpful you’ve been. She takes our dogs’ health very seriously, and if she heard that you weren’t treating one of our dogs with that same amount of seriousness…” Ellie let Jaquelin’s imagination do the rest of the work.
“I’ll check in with the medical staff.” Jaquelin got up from her seat. She pushed through the waist-high door attached to the counter. “Perhaps there’s an opening after all.” She left down the hall that led to the examination rooms.
Throwing her weight around usually did the trick. Not many people were brave enough to stand up to a threat like that. Ellie sighed in relief. She turned to look at the rest of the waiting room. Knitted ‘brows. Frustrated looks. Dry coughs muffled into hands. Sweaty faces constantly being wiped with towels. Shoulder-to-shoulder seating. She needed to talk to her mother about the wait times.
One man in particular looked especially miserable. A pensive woman sat next to him. They had a stubby kid with them that kept gnawing on wooden blocks. The blocks belonged to the waiting room’s toy chest, an addition to the office that cut down on the amount of antsy children. Having been chewed by many a child before, the cubes were devoid of edges.
The receptionist came back. “Heiress Navarrete, I’m pleased to tell you that Dr. Cuthberht herself can see you and your dog.”
The miserable-looking man shot out of his chair. “That’s ridiculous! We’ve been here for hours and she’s going to see the Heiress just like that?”
The woman beside him reached for his arm. “Please don’t make a scene, dear. If you know what’s good for you—for us, you’ll stop talking.”
Other people in the room looked away. They minded their own business. He struggled, like he was going to say one more thing, and then sat down.
Ellie couldn’t find her words for a moment. What was that about? She got a hold of herself. Squared her shoulders. Stood a little taller. Didn’t let her gaze waver as she spoke in confirmation, “yeah, listen to your wife. Let’s go, Sunflower.”
“It’ll be room 6.” The receptionist called as they passed her by.
~ * ~ * ~
Ellie cut into her slice of pheasant with more force than was necessary, her knife clanging against her plate.
It was later that night. She sat across the dinner table from her mother, Hilda. Normally, they’d sit at opposite ends, but Hilda had changed her seat so Ellie followed suit. The close distance made her fidget in her chair.
“Good evening, Mother,” Hilda said. Her bitter tone didn’t go unnoticed. “How was your day?”
“It was alright, daughter. I had a ministry meeting and took care of administrative work.” Ellie gestured to the uncorked bottle of red wine. “You usually bust out the burgundy when you’ve got a ministry headache.”
Ellie wondered how long it would take for Hilda to reel her anger onto her. The best thing for Ellie to do was to drag out this ministry subject for as long as possible. She speared some more game bird into her mouth.
“There’s a project on the table that they’re at odds about.” Hilda winced, reliving the memory of that meeting. “There are disagreements about whether or not it’s a worthy project for us to invest funding into. I estimate that we’ll be deliberating over it for months.”
“What is it? Is it something top secret I can’t know about?”
“It’s revolutionary. You should shadow me at the next meeting to find out what it is,” she replied. “Words don’t do it justice.” Hilda poured herself some more wine. “There will be meetings like this one in your future.”
“Frustrating and annoying ones?”
“I suppose you could call them that. That’s why it’s best that you learn how to negotiate and navigate these kinds of discussions early on. It’ll help you prepare,” Hilda said. “I wasn’t that much older than you when I became Chieftess.”
Not this again. Ellie used her fork to nudge her potatoes around her plate. “Maybe… But it’s not like you and Dad are dying any time soon. You’ll be Chiefs for a long time.”
“You could be crowned sooner than that. You need to act like your title. You’re inheriting a legacy.”
Ellie mumbled, “okay.”
“I’m aware that you weren’t in the fields this morning. I stopped by Aunt Una’s.” Una Maxime, née Dietrich, was Hilda’s youngest sibling and only sister. Her husband had died from an infection years ago, leaving her with two small children to raise on her own. Ellie didn’t know how she did it.
“I was with Uncle Kier.”
“Ellie, don’t even go there. Lying is a disgusting habit.” Hilda narrowed her eyes. “Your cousins miss you. You should pay Julien and Astrid a visit some time.” She swirled the wine in her glass to aerate it. “Don’t you think it’s time you’ve come back?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
Hilda didn’t say anything back for a while. Just kept sloshing around the wine in her glass. “What happened to Sunflower? I noticed the bandages when I went to feed the dogs.”
“We were playing and she tripped. Hurt her ankle.” Ellie stopped to chew on a potato chunk. “Dr. Cuthberht took care of it.”
They spent the rest of their dinner quietly, the loudest noises being their silverware tapping porcelain. Once they were finished, Ellie gathered the plates, and put them in the sink. She was glad they lived in a piped water zone. Imagining having to journey every day to a well made her cringe. Even with the piping, though, her mother still lectured her on not leaving the tap on, as if an extra few seconds would lose them a river.
A knock at the door. Ellie busied herself with scrubbing the plates as her mother answered it. From her place in the kitchen, she listened to the door open and the voice of their visitor. Henrik Stenberg, her father’s nighttime attendant, saying something about Dr. Cuthberht having a message for Chieftess Hildegarde. Something he couldn’t be told.
Her mother immediately guessed it was about Vicente. Henrik apologized in his usual over-the-top way. He didn’t know. Just that when he went to report in to the doctor, she asked him if Chieftess Hildegarde could come to the clinic and speak to her. Perhaps it could wait until tomorrow.
Ellie imagined the look of death Henrik must’ve gotten for suggesting that. Her mother said something back to Henrik, then left out the door. No doubt bewildered, Henrik closed it after her. He came into the kitchen as Ellie was finishing up with the dishes.
“Hey, Ellie.” He waved. “You look tired.”
“It’s been a long day, that’s all.” Ellie fit the plates on the drying rack. “Did Dr. Cuthberht seem upset?”
“She was her usual self.”
“Okay.” Ellie wiped her hands off on the drying rack. “Okay, well, I’m due for bed so I’ll have to talk to you later. Tell Agnes I said hello.”
“Mmhm. Good night.” She excused herself and went upstairs.
~ * ~ * ~
Ellie was in the middle of scooping porridge into jars when her mother came into the kitchen.
The sun’s early morning rays streamed through the room. Ellie had forgotten how nice her mother’s hair color looked lit up like that. If she’d been smiling, she would’ve made for a nice photograph in an article about style and power.
“Come into the backyard when you’re done.” Her stern voice ruined the illusion. She left, the thud of her shoes alerting Ellie that her mother was wearing what she called her trouncing boots.
Ellie took her time, which was probably a mistake because as soon as she’d made it to the backyard she nearly got chopped in the neck with her mother’s fighting staff.
“Put down your bag and pick up the spare staff over there. I’d like to check on your training.”
Hadn’t they already established that she’d been slacking off on her training? Ellie shrugged off her bag. Shaking fingers grasped the staff, a long stick of wood carved for the perfect balance of striking force and durability.
The dogs were in their doorless shack, their heads peeking out to happily stare at Hildegarde and Ellie. Hilda had put them in a “stay” command they wouldn’t dare break. Sunflower barked, the only dog to vocalize. Ellie admitted that she looked out-of-place crammed in there with the rest of the guard dogs. She was like a fluffy blanket amongst knives.
Hilda stood, holding out her staff. Okay, Ellie remembered what to do at this part, at least. She raised her staff to meet hers in the middle so they would start their spar at the proper distance. Hilda took a step back, then used the inner hollow of her foot to kick the staff up into her free hand. She slid into her stance. Ellie had to settle for a much clumsier way of wielding it.
“Are you going to call the moves?” Ellie asked hopefully.
“No one calls moves in the real world. I’m giving you three seconds.”
Hilda arced her staff upwards. Ellie’s staff connected with it. Low block. Her mother bounced back, then came back in for the next strike, this time from above. High block, then a battle for dominance as Hilda pushed forward.
Their staffs stayed crossed in the block, Ellie’s arms shaking from the effort. Hilda took advantage of that. She lifted her staff away, swung it in a side-arc, and tapped Ellie’s hip before she could react.
“You’re dead. Me, 1; you, 0.” Hilda said. “Let’s start again.”
They returned to their starting positions. Ellie decided to go on the offensive this time. She thrust the staff at Hilda, who easily knocked it out of her hands. 2 to 0. During the next reset, Ellie tried to do what her mother had done earlier. She went in low, attempting to use Hilda’s size against her.
That didn’t work. Hilda brought her staff down on Ellie’s shoulder, softly. Dead again. She must’ve died dozens of times throughout the next hour. Decapitated. Stabbed through the stomach. Bashed in the head. Dead on her back; dead on her side.
Once, she’d even killed herself in a particularly embarrassing maneuver. The staff had gotten stuck in the grass and she’d accidentally vaulted herself.
“C’mon, I can’t do this anymore!” Ellie cried. Her bruises had bruises. “Why are you doing this to me?”
“Ellie, fight. Three seconds.” Hilda hit Ellie’s staff so hard that it spun out of her hands. She gently shoved her daughter off balance, making her fall. Hilda stood over her.
“I’m not picking it up again. I’m done.” Ellie moved to stand up. Hilda’s staff, held out over her head, stopped her. She stayed on the ground.
“Really? Because I thought you were a proficient fighter.”
“Why the hell would you think that?” She was too tired to mind her language.
“Because you’ve been sneaking off into the woods on your own. Obviously, anyone that ventures into the woods alone is capable of handling themselves in a fight.” Hilda said. “Am I wrong?”
“I wasn’t alone. I took Sunflower. She was with me. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“What if something happened to her again? Another hole?”
Dr. Cuthberht must’ve ratted her out. So much for doctor-patient confidentiality. Thankfully, Ellie had cut the story off at Sunflower being stuck in a hole trap. She said, “Marietta was with me too.”
Hilda didn’t accept that. “You keep gambling with your life, Ellie. You’re beginning to make me wonder if you’re… You’re not trying to hurt yourself, are you?”
“No, no… I was looking for flowers. I’ll be more careful.”
“Careful would be you staying in Stockbrunn, but for whatever reason, you refuse to do that. Why? What keeps compelling you to go there?”
“I… It’s because…” Ellie couldn’t say it. And she couldn’t tell her mother that of all times, she was the safest she’d ever been. Shreya had saved her life more than once.
“I’m almost ready to assign guards to you, ones that will keep you here.” Hilda rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I hope me knocking some sense into you makes it so that I don’t have to do that.”
“I won’t if you don’t give me another reason to.” She sighed. “I get it, Ellie. You went through a lot and you want to push back against the world. This isn’t the way to do it. You’re better than this. I know you are.”
“I’m sorry…” Tears pricked at the corner of her eyes.
“I shouldn’t have to keep telling you how dangerous the woods are. You know this already.” Hilda moved the staff away from her. She tossed it off to the side. “And I know you well enough to know you’re probably going to disregard everything I’ve said. Take a weapon. Know when running is your best option. Remember what your life’s worth. Just…don’t make me lose you, too.”
Ellie hugged her knees. She kept her head down, her face away from view.
She didn’t say another word. She didn’t have to.
~ * ~ * ~
Zinnia Trotter had to have been dreaming.
That was the only way to explain why Ellie was in class that afternoon. Not only that, but it seemed like she was actually focusing on the lesson. She took down notes. She asked Gaurin clarification questions. When Gaurin randomly called on her, she formulated thoughtful responses. She seemed like she cared for once.
At the end of class, Zinnia went over to Henrik’s desk. “Is it okay if they come over again today? Agatha’s tooth is Linden’s latest obsession.”
“Yeah, of course. My mom’s beginning to think of them as her second children.” He lowered his voice, “is something up with Ellie? She was weird when I came over last night.”
“When isn’t she weird?” Zinnia whispered back. She glanced over at Ellie. The heiress was talking to Gaurin, probably trying to get another explanation for one of the concepts she was having trouble with. “I think this is the strangest I’ve seen her, though.”
“Maybe something happened to her.”
“No, I wouldn’t think that far.” She replied. “I’m certain this is all part of some ulterior motive of hers. She’s crafty.”
“You don’t know her like I do.”
Henrik hummed in thought. He dumped his notebook into his bag. “I’ve got to hurry out of here if I wanna catch the kids. I’ll see you later, Zinnia.” He left out the door, following the other students who were filing out.
She put her notebook away. Zinnia didn’t expect to see Ellie standing in front of her when she looked back up. “Erm…hi?”
“Do you wanna hang out?” Ellie smiled.
“I can’t, sorry. I’ve got plans.” Zinnia waved her off. Had Ellie conveniently forgotten the way she treated her the other day? She practically insinuated that she was as heartless as her father. “How about a rain check?”
Ellie leaned into her personal space, a move that would have been intimidating if Zinnia weren’t taller than her. “I don’t wanna be home right now. Can’t you help me with that?”
“Like I said, I already have plans. I’m seeing some friends. You’ll have to try someone else.” Zinnia took off, leaving the school. Much to her chagrin, Ellie refused to take no for an answer. She stayed right on her heels.
“I’ll join you. I’m sure your friends won’t mind.”
Zinnia whirled around to face her. “It’s a private gathering.”
“Look, I know Theres hates me but it’s about time she got over that, huh? I know I said some stupid things but she deserved them.”
“We might as well make up.”
She decided to take the out Ellie provided. “Theres isn’t ready for that. She’s never been the forgiving type.”
“Let’s shake up her life, then.”
“Ellie, I’m sorry, but I’m going. I’ll bring you up to her and see what she says then.” Zinnia said. “Don’t follow me.”
“Fine.” Ellie drew out the word.
Ellie could act as surly as she wanted for all Zinnia cared.
Zinnia went onwards to Arntzen District, making sure to go a windy way that didn’t make her path so obvious in case somebody was watching her. The streets were a familiar and welcome sight. Dark, dingy, and undesirable. She kicked a trash wad out of her way.
The smell, on the other hand, was another story. Mafalda Street stunk of waste. Someone must’ve relieved themself in the alley by Gracja’s house. How pleasant.
Two men traded puffs of tobacco back and forth. They hung out on the stoop next door, their eyes shutting blissfully whenever they took a drag. Perhaps there was more than tobacco mixed in their shared pipe. Absent of any sweet notes, it wasn’t a product Zinnia recognized.
She knocked on the door, two-knuckle style. Lucio pulled her in and shut the door so fast she almost fell over.
“What’s the Heiress doing here?” Lucio brought Zinnia over to the window.
Across the street, Ellie Navarrete stood, looking all too clean and vulnerable. She looked straight at them.
Zinnia covered her face with her hands. “This can’t be happening.”
“Get rid of her before Noemi wakes up.” He pushed her back towards the door. “Fast, fast, hurry, hurry, go.” Lucio opened it for her. She raced down the steps and went straight over to Ellie.
“You have to leave.” Zinnia reached out for her arm. Ellie batted her away. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“I knew you weren’t going to see Theres,” Ellie said. “But I never thought you’d be going to some weird house in Arse End. What are you doing here?”
“Rat’s End,” she corrected. “And it’s none of your business.”
“Those guys are smoking and I’m pretty sure someone took a dump over there. Why are you here?”
Zinnia looked back over at the window. Lucio stared at her, his lips pursed harshly. “I’m visiting someone.”
“That guy? What the hell? I saw the way he pushed you.”
“He was freaking out because you’re here! Your presence scares people. He doesn’t want to get in trouble.” Zinnia said. “No one wants to get in trouble. You’re scaring everyone here.”
“Which means they’ve got something to hide.” Ellie placed her hand on her hip. “Why would you be visiting these people? Is this your way of acting out? Pushing back against the world?”
Ellie shoved Zinnia’s shoulder. “Trying to get yourself killed?”
“I’m not. Ellie, you have to get out of here.”
“I’m not leaving until you tell me what the hell you’re doing here.”
It had to be magic. The way that Ellie always got what she wanted. That pushy, overly entitled attitude. Zinnia looked back at Lucio. He hadn’t moved, still staring. Still watching and hoping that Zinnia would get rid of Ellie in time.
“I’m…” Zinnia breathed in. “You’ll really leave if I tell you?”
“Yeah, and you better not lie to me.”
“I’m buying drugs. They’re cheaper here than at the apothecary.” Zinnia settled for telling her that.
“You’re what?! You’re a drug addict?” Ellie brought her hand to her mouth. “No…no way. There’s no way you’re a drug addict. A-are you? Is this my fault?”
“No! I’m not addicted to drugs.”
“You’re in Arse End. This is where druggies go. Did I do this to you? Is this because of me…? Zinnia, you have to stop!”
“It’s not because of you.”
Their attention snapped over to the doorway of the house. Noemi waved at them. Lucio wasn’t at the window anymore. “Why don’t you continue your conversation inside? You’re bothering the neighbors.”
That clinched it.
This wasn’t a dream.
It was a nightmare.
A/N: We’ve reached Chapter 8! We’ve now seen the results for the question about whether Ellie will tell someone about Shreya, and about Ellie finding out what Zinnia’s involved in. For “Will Ellie tell someone about Shreya?” we had 3 votes for yes and 5 votes for no. For “Will Ellie find out what Zinnia’s involved in?” we had 9 votes for yes and 1 vote for no. Last week, we managed to have 17 votes…but the results are yet to be seen. 😉
Voting will end by Sunday, March 6th at 11:59 PM EST.
Vote for RWC on TWF to help us get and stay on the charts. Every vote counts! We’ve been doing a good job of staying on the charts so far.