When Zinnia Trotter answered her door, Ellie Navarrete was the last person she expected to see on the other side.
Ellie lowered her hand, mid-knock. “Can we talk?”
Zinnia checked over her shoulder. “I’m sorry, I’m supposed to be with my mother right now.”
“Please? It won’t take long.”
She chewed her bottom lip, then threw another glance behind her. “Okay. Go straight upstairs and don’t say anything. She can’t know you’re here.”
The last time Ellie had interacted with Ianthe Trotter hadn’t been pleasant. There’d been screaming. Tears. Rage and sorrow rolled into guttural wails. Not knowing what to do or say, Ellie had just stood there, letting the older woman grieve. It wasn’t an experience she wanted to repeat, so when Zinnia gave her those instructions, she followed them to the letter.
As soon as they were in the Trotter sisters’ shared room, Zinnia shut the door. Ellie stepped onto the side of the room where Freesia’s things had once been. Streaks on the floor indicated that her bed had been dragged out. Freesia’s bed had been a perpetual mess of patterned pillows that clashed with the duvet cover, the blankets never on the right way.
Sometimes, Ellie wondered if at any given moment Freesia had more clothes on her floor than in her closet. Freesia couldn’t just pick out an outfit for the day. She had to try on everything she owned, parading herself around her mirror to see which combination looked best from all angles.
Ellie remembered sitting on her bed, her legs swinging as she leafed through a magazine. Freesia held out yet another skirt for an opinion. Too short? Too long? How about the way it moved, was it the right amount of flouncy? Not looking up from her page, Ellie murmured a sure, and giggled at how silly “flouncy” sounded.
And once Freesia caught on that Ellie wasn’t listening, she took the magazine out of her hands and playfully bopped her on the head with it.
Outside of the memory, Ellie looked over at Zinnia, and the dull way she organized her half of the room. Everything was kept in a neat and orderly fashion.
“Are you storing her stuff somewhere?” Ellie asked. Zinnia’s half of the room hadn’t grown any. She’d maintained the fair split they had.
“My father burned it all. Everything he could get his hands on,” Zinnia said. “I couldn’t talk him out of it.”
“That’s alright… There’s plenty of room at my house for her,” Ellie replied. “Freesia can stay with us.”
Zinnia smoothed out her bedsheet before sitting on it. “You never told me what you wanted to talk to me about,” she said.
“I’m worried about you.” Ellie fidgeted, not knowing where to sit. Zinnia either ignored her or didn’t notice. “You weren’t in class yesterday and nobody said they’d seen you.”
“I stayed home.”
“Not ’cause of what happened the other day, right? I know it was awkward but…it’d be too easy for us to stop talking because of that.” Ellie took her bag and put it on the floor, glad to be relieved of the weight. “Let’s not take the easy way out.”
“Wouldn’t that be be better, though? Freesia’s not here anymore. We don’t need to be friends.”
“We’re friends because we want to be, not because we need to be,” Ellie corrected her. “We can’t not be friends, Zinnia. Avoiding me isn’t going to change that.”
Zinnia leaned forward. “It’ll change something. It’ll make it hurt less when you tell the Chieftess about Noemi. You’re going to make good on your threat, won’t you?”
A flurry of emotions sprung up in Ellie’s chest. Noemi? Noemi was what had Zinnia all out of sorts? Ellie latched on to the closest feeling within reach, her muscles tensing. “Is that what she pulled you aside about? She told you not to talk to me anymore?” Her face heated up.
“No, she cut me off. I’m out of things for the time being.”
That took some of the edge off, but not by much. At least that part was taken care of. Zinnia was free from Rat’s End. “Is she going to stop giving you your medicine?”
“Noemi’s not that cruel. I’ve got enough to last me for a bit, anyway,” Zinnia said. Her tone softened as she talked. “Who cares about me? What’s going to happen to everyone else? The pigs have to be fed. Their shelters have to be maintained. We have to eat. That money went a long way.”
“I’ll pay for it.” Ellie didn’t hesitate. She laid her hand, the palm wrapped in bandages, over her heart. “I’ll pay for all of it.”
“With what? That’d be an inappropriate use of Stockbrunn’s treasury…bail-out money for our family of all families.” Zinnia sighed from the heaviness of her words. “Your mother would never approve of that.”
“Your family’s owed for damages.”
“Those ‘damages’ go both ways.” Zinnia looked at the floor, took a second to gather herself, then looked back up at Ellie. “I’m not in the mood to point any fingers. Let’s drop it.”
Ellie reached down for her bag. She pulled out her notebook and passed it over to Zinnia. “I dog-eared the page. It’s what you missed in class yesterday.”
Zinnia had to know if it was real, if Ellie the notorious no-notetaker had actually taken notes. She opened the book, her eyes widening as she took in the detailed words. “Thank you…”
“You let me copy you all the time, so I figured I should finally return the favor.”
“What happened to your hand?” She pointed at the injury. A bit of red had leaked through the cloth.
Ellie cradled her bad hand in her good one. “I was weeding some plants and I missed with my sickle. Hurts like nobody’s business.” She winced, reliving the moment. “Luckily, Aunt Una knew what to do. She said the same thing happened to my mom when they were our age. I think she only said that to cheer me up, though…” Hildegarde would never be that careless.
“You’re farming? Why? Are you doing it because you think it’ll get me to forgive you?” One day of hardship wouldn’t be enough to change Zinnia’s opinion of her. Try years of it.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with you,” Ellie said. “It’s something I worked out with my mom. If I help out my aunt or uncles with their farm work, I get to skip out on school.”
So that was it. It was all part of a deal, not out of generosity. Zinnia should’ve expected as much out of her. “You’re going to the woods, aren’t you?”
“Yep,” Ellie said. She toed her bag. “I’ve got food, water, a hatchet, and some lockpicking stuff in there.”
“Are you bringing Sunflower?” She didn’t remember seeing her dog when she opened the door for her.
“She’s resting. The last time we went out she hurt her foot.” Ellie kept it at that.
“How about Marietta?” Zinnia cringed as she said her name, as if it was beneath her to say it. “I saw you guys when you came back the other day.”
“Why’s that matter? It’s not like you’re going.” Ellie wanted to avoid hearing a Marietta-focused rant. Zinnia’s issues concerning her ran deep.
“I’d go if she doesn’t.”
“What? Really?” Ellie’s face broke out into a smile.
“Yes, as long as I don’t have to see her.”
“Why do you hate her so much? She was a Trotter pig.” It’s not like she belonged to a competitor’s family.
Zinnia bunched up her blanket. “You’re wrong. She was never ours. She was Freesia’s.”
And Freesia was a Trotter, so what was Zinnia trying to say? Ellie left it alone. She had something more important to tackle, namely Zinnia’s sudden interest in coming along with her. Was it a decision made on a whim? Curiousity getting the best of her? Whatever the reason behind it was, Ellie didn’t want to lose it.
“Okay,” Ellie said. “We won’t even have to visit her. I’ll save her food for later.” They were already one animal down. Marietta would make two, but…this time she had a hatchet. They’d be okay as long as they did a better job of sticking to the path.
“Thank you,” Zinnia said. She got off of the bed and went to her closet. When she threw the doors open, Ellie saw that Freesia’s clothes were gone. Every last piece. Even the ones they’d bought together, even the dress that made her glow like she’d just walked out of a painting. They were all gone, and no one had given her a chance to save them.
Ellie turned to face the wall, to give Zinnia privacy as she changed into something more suitable for woodswalking.
“How far do you usually go?” Zinnia asked. Ellie heard the shifting of fabric as she tried things on.
“Not too far,” she lied. Then again, ‘too far’ was subjective, and to her, Ianes’ Wall wasn’t too long of a distance away from Stockbrunn. Ellie had to admit, though, that she was probably alone in her opinion.
“Is it within screaming distance?”
“Is that supposed to be a joke?”
“It’s not…” Zinnia said. The brightness of her tone made it hard for Ellie to tell if she was being truthful. “Does anyone else know you’re going?”
“My mom does. She’s the reason why I’ve got this hatchet.” That wasn’t a total lie.
Zinnia fell for it. “Good. Do I need to bring anything?” She went over to her mirror to fix up her hair. “You can turn around. I’m done changing.”
“No, I’ve got enough food and water for us. We’re just going to walk, talk, and then go home.”
“Alright,” she said. Zinnia combed her hair as they talked. “We have to be quiet when we leave. I don’t want to startle my mother.” Ianthe could manage without her. It was likely she wouldn’t even notice her being gone.
“What about Mace, Linden, and Myrtle?”
“They’re with my father back on the farm. He kept them longer to teach them some things. I left so I could check on my mother,” Zinnia answered. Finished, she set her comb down. “We can’t exactly afford to have people come in and watch her, so…”
Ellie had to actively stop herself from offering monetary help. If Zinnia wasn’t going to accept her money for anything else, she definitely wouldn’t for that. “We should get going. I’d like us to have as much sunlight as possible.”
“Right. Remember to be quiet.”
The heiress picked up her bag, and the pair set off to leave.
A/N: We’re finally back on our normal schedule. Thank you for bearing with me these past few weeks while I was busy with another project! Since it’s now released, I have more time to devote to RWC again. It looks like Shreya and Ellie will be meeting again soon…is anyone else as excited as I am?
Let me know what you thought of this chapter in the comments! Every comment is VERY appreciated. I’m especially interested in any theories about Freesia you may have. We’ve been learning about her bit by bit as we go along…and we’ve got even more to learn.
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