No longer working for Noemi meant that when Zinnia returned home from her time in the woods, she stayed there. Normally, she’d make everyone dinner, put the children and her mother to bed, and then quietly leave to make her sales. She and her father would never cross paths.
Zinnia figured that he’d come home some time while she was working. She just never knew how late. With the practiced way he walked into the house—so careful, so tip-toed much like she did when she was trying not to get caught—she knew this had to be a common occurence.
Vervain stood in the doorway, watching his daughter rock to and fro in his wife’s rocking chair.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?”
Zinnia lifted her teacup to her lips. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“Get out of that chair.”
She did as she was told, careful to balance her cup on its plate. “I’m sorry.”
He left the room. Zinnia didn’t move, didn’t even dare to take another sip until he came back. Vervain wore a bag over his broad shoulder. She couldn’t tell what it was filled with.
“Are you leaving, Father?” Farming this late at night wasn’t a productive endeavor. The limited light ensured that.
“I have things to take care of,” Vervain said, his jaw set. “You better not sit back in that chair while I’m gone.”
He was out the door before she finished speaking. Zinnia looked back out the window, drinking more of her chrysanthemum tea. She’d had her suspicions. His distant attitude. Him giving excuses as to why he needed to stay on the farm for longer than necessary. When was the last time he joined them for dinner?
It wasn’t Zinnia’s place to voice any of this. It’d break what was left of her mother’s heart to hear it.
Zinnia focused on a tree outside, and the way its branches gnarled downwards. What was it that her mother always looked at? That tree or something else further off into the horizon? Ianthe saw something no one else could, while missing out on everything else.
~ * ~ * ~
Ellie came home to her father’s screams.
She ran straight up the stairs, her heart pounding as hard as her boots against the floor.
“What’s happening?!” She ran into his bedroom.
Her mother cradled Vicente against her chest. She laid in bed with him, still dressed in her day clothes. Tears streamed down his face, his mouth opened in a long wail.
Bodil held a tube in her hands. It led to a bag resting on top of a long pole on wheels, the bag filled with a tan-colored liquid. Henrik stood off to the side, spluttering some nonsensical syllables. Something about how sorry he was for messing up.
“Shhhh,” Hilda spoke into the top of Vicente’s head. “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.” His sobs subsided into pitiful hiccups.
“We were trying to administer a tube feeding,” Bodil explained. “Your father didn’t take it well.” She cleared her throat for Henrik’s attention. He nearly jumped. “Take the line.”
“Ellie’s here, Vicente,” her mother gently said. “Do you want to see Ellie?”
“Ellie!” He struggled to hold himself up. His arms shook from the effort. Hilda helped prop him up. Vicente smiled at her, his mouth slanted and uneven as he did.
“Hi, Dad.” She couldn’t do this. Not in front of everyone. Not while they were all watching her and hoping that she’d be the trick in getting him to take whatever that feeding tube was.
“How was your day? Did you have fun with your friends?” His words came out slow and clumsy.
“Yes, yes, I did,” Ellie said. She took a step backwards.
Catching onto her escape, Hilda warned, “Ellie.”
“I love you, Ellie.” Vicente wiggled in Hilda’s arms. Bodil picked up the end of the line that was meant for Vicente’s…mouth? Nose? Ellie wasn’t sure how the whole thing worked.
“I-I love you, too, Dad,” she said. “I, um, I forgot to drop off some food for my friend. She realy needs it. So… I will be back.”
“Ellie,” her mother said again.
“I’ll be back!” Ellie rushed out the door. She hurried down the steps, her heart thumping too loudly for her to hear if any of them called after her. Her bag slapped against her back as she ran.
~ * ~ * ~
The next morning, she was in the middle of rinsing her and her mother’s breakfast dishes when her Aunt Catalina came for a visit. The two women chatted in the adjacent room, their conversation too heated for them to keep their voices down. Aunt Catalina was her father’s sister, and Stockbrunn’s Intendant of Internal Affairs. She handled crime and other legal matters concerning the city. They weren’t talking about anything to do with that, though. It sounded more like they were talking about Vicente’s treatment.
“How can you stand to let them do this to him? He’s not a toy for them to play around with,” Catalina shouted. “Why wouldn’t you talk to me about this first? Why did I have to hear about this secondhand from the doctor?!”
“He’s in my care. What happens to him is my decision.”
“Hilda, this isn’t right!”
“Dr. Cuthberht said this was the best thing to do for him.”
“I’m not talking about… No. Do you think keeping him like this is the best thing for him? It’s been ten years. He’s not coming back, Hilda.” Catalina’s voice lowered. Ellie halted her dishwashing to hear better.
“It’s possible. It’s happened. I’ve read studies. Ask Dr. Cuthberht for them. She knows about these experimental treatments where—”
Henrik came into the kitchen. His presence pulled Ellie out of her mother and aunt’s conversation. She went back to scrubbing an already clean plate, just to make herself look too busy to bother with him.
But since he was the type to never get a hint, Ellie asked him in an annoyed tone, “you’re still here?” She glanced at him over her shoulder, then refocused her attention back on the plate she held. “It’s past the end of your shift, isn’t it?”
“I wanted to stay longer,” he said. “I’m only going home now because Bodil’s forcing me to get some sleep.”
“Yes, you should do that.” Ellie fit the plate on the dish rack.
“Have you seen Zinnia? Is she okay? She’s missed school a couple days in a row now… It isn’t like her.”
Ellie whirled around. “If you care so damn much, why don’t you ask her yourself?”
Henrik didn’t look taken aback. “I know what you’re going through must be stressful,” he said. He used the same tone he used with her father: light and delicate, like she could break from his words. “You know, with Chief Vicente and everything else… You should talk to someone. The clinic has nurses trained in talk therapy.”
Nurses trained in talk therapy who would no doubt take whatever she’d tell them and reveal it all to her mother. Ultimately, they were all extra ears for the Chieftess. Information gatherers, pretending like they cared. No, there was no way Ellie would tell them a single thing about what was going on in her head. There was no trust there to be found.
“Go home, Henrik.”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“Excuse me,” Henrik said. He bowed his head, then left the room. Ellie let out a big breath in relief.
The other women had gone quiet. Whatever conversation Hildegarde and Catalina had been having seemed to have finished. Ellie sat down at the kitchen table, trying to do her best not to let any of the cracks in the wood remind her of the feeding tube. She squeezed her eyes shut.
Boots padded into the room. Catalina and Hildegarde. Ellie kept her head down on the table, not looking at them.
“Taking a nap?” Catalina teased. Ellie peeked through one eye at her. Her mid-brown skin had a golden tan to it. She had long hair in loose curls spilling over her backs and shoulders, something that Ellie would’ve killed to have inherited from Vicente’s side of the family.
“Something like that,” Ellie mumbled. She didn’t bother with any formalities when it came to her aunt. Aunt Catalina was too cool for that.
“Wake up,” Hilda said, sounding as bossy as ever. “You’re going to be spending the day with Aunt Catalina hunting.”
Ellie sat up in her chair. “What about this?” She pointed to her bandaged hand. “I can’t hunt like this.”
Catalina tsked at her. “What is that, a papercut? I’ve hunted with much worse.”
“It was a sickle. Aunt Una said it was bad.”
“Una overreacts,” Hilda said without so much of a smidgen of sympathy. “Go upstairs and change into something better for hiking through the woods.”
“I’m supposed to be with Zinnia today, though,” Ellie tried. “We’ve got school work to catch up on together.”
“You’re going, Ellie. This is important for you to learn.”
Ellie bit her bottom lip. All of her plans, everything that she’d been looking forward to…gone in the blink of the eye.
“That look’s not going to work on me,” Hilda said. “You can let Zinnia know you can’t hang out with her today before you leave, so she knows that you didn’t abandon her.”
Ellie wished she could do the same for Shreya. Being friends with a woods dweller made simple things like that difficult.
~ * ~ * ~
Ellie followed her aunt along, her crossbow weighing heavy in her arms. Catalina had a backpack on full of gear, a bunch of bolts strapped to the back of it. To her surprise, it was only her and her aunt on this hunting trip. No one else had joined them, which could only mean one thing: they were going to talk, and this trip was going to be extra miserable. Okay, that was two things, actually, but those two things stacked on each other.
“Elspeth, you shouldn’t panic so much,” Catalina said. Ellie cringed at hearing her full name. “Panicking is what gets people hurt. What if you’d hit me by accident? Tell me.”
“I’d be in big trouble?” Ellie guessed.
“No, I’d be the one in big trouble, because you don’t know shit about first aid,” Catalina said. Away from Hildegarde, she was free to swear as much as she wanted. That was one of the things that made her particularly cool in Ellie’s eyes. She was real. There was nothing fake about her. “So do me a favor, Elspeth, and don’t walk around with your finger on the trigger, okay?”
“Can you stop calling me Elspeth?”
“I’m doing it to make the lesson stick,” Catalina said. She set her crossbow down. “Here, I’ll load a new bolt for you. Did you see where the one you fired went?”
“I don’t know. Off into a tree somewhere?” Ellie had gotten startled by a bird and shot it by accident.
“Next time you screw up, watch where the bolt goes. We’ve got a limited supply with us,” Catalina took Ellie’s crossbow out of her hand. She set it down, stepping onto the stirrup-looking part of it. She tugged the string back, and snapped the bolt into its proper placement. Once the loading was done, Catalina handed it back to Ellie.
They started walking again.
“Isn’t this trip taking away from council business?” Ellie asked.
“I’ve got my subordinates to handle things for today. That’s what they’re hired for,” Catalina said. “Besides, this trip is practically official duty. Your mother wanted me to show you some things.”
Ellie groaned. “If this trip is for showing me that the woods are dangerous, then let’s end it now. I’ve gotten that message like a hundred times now. I’ve got nothing new to learn about that, trust me.”
Catalina raised her eyebrows. “Who’d you hear that from? Your mother?”
“Yep,” Ellie said, popping the ‘p.’ “My mom. My friends. That bird I was trying to hit. Everybody.”
Catalina laughed. “Hell no. I’m not telling you that. Right now, we’re the scariest and most dangerous things in the forest. We’re the dominant forces here. Do you see our weapons?” She held hers up. “We’ve got things the likes of which these animals have never seen.”
“Don’t animals have weapons, too? The non-feral ones?”
“Not with this level of engineering, no. They’re nothing to be afraid of. We’re the ones to be feared.”
“I don’t feel that way,” Ellie said, frowning. “There’s so much I don’t know how to do. Tracking. Loading a crossbow like you can. Hunting animals.”
“Ferals are easy to hunt. Anthropes are harder,” Catalina explained, “but nearly all of them are smart enough to stay out of our way.”
“Nearly all?” Ellie repeated.
“The wolves have their own part of the forest, that-a-ways. They’re the ones we have the most problems with,” she replied. Catalina didn’t have to tell Ellie that, though. “They couldn’t stand sharing, because they thought they were at the top of the food chain, and we thought the same. You can’t have two groups thinking that way living together.”
Ellie looked in the direction her aunt gestured towards. As far as she knew, they lived somewhere beyond the other side of Ianes’ Wall. “Why let them have any space at all? They’ve gone back on their word before.”
“You don’t trust them?” They kept walking as they talked, towards what, Ellie didn’t know.
“It’s only a matter of time, isn’t it?”
“It’s funny… Your mother pushed for the non-aggression pact thirteen years ago, and pushed for this latest one, as well…but her thinking’s more in line with yours, despite all of those agreements she’s worked out.”
“She’s two-faced, that’s why,” Ellie said without thinking.
“Don’t be disrespectful. She’s cautious, for good reason.”
“If we’re such dominant forces like you say, then why don’t we crush them?” Ellie asked. “What are we keeping them around for?”
“Maybe we should’ve let you keep napping. It sounds like you woke up on the wrong side of the kitchen table.”
Her mouth ran faster than her brain. “I’m just tired of no one wanting to take care of their problems.”
Catalina’s words took on a more serious tone. “I think this one will be more than taken care of. You should’ve seen your mother at the council meeting we had the other day. She’s not calling for war, but she’s trying to funnel the city budget towards a project that’s doomed to lead to that.”
“What is it?” Ellie thought back to one of their more recent dinner conversations, the one they had over wine and pheasant. She’d mentioned an argument about something revolutionary that she wanted to happen.
“You’ll have to talk to her about it,” Catalina said. “And I hope I don’t need to say this, but don’t mouth off about any of this to any of your friends. You’re only privy to this information because you’re the heiress.”
As they walked, Catalina pointed out various plants to her. She talked about leaf patterns and color combinations that were too much of a risk to go near. Everything she was saying felt like it went through one ear and out the other. This was supposed to be a hunting trip. Ellie could get that information out of a textbook. That stuff was, like, primary school level. She needed to know more important stuff, like everything that Shreya was going to help her with.
Shreya… Hopefully they wouldn’t come across her. Catalina couldn’t know about her, their friendship, or anything that even hinted that Ellie was a frequent woods visitor. If they happened to see each other, they couldn’t act like they were friends. Whatever happened, Ellie hoped that Shreya wouldn’t approach them. They were holding crossbows, that should be enough of a signal for her to stay away.
“Have you ever been to Ianes’ Wall?”
Ellie schooled her face into a neutral expression. “The border? I can’t say I’ve ever been there. It’s dangerous, you know?”
“Did you forget that we’re the ones in power, Elspeth?” Catalina grinned. “Have you ever wondered what it’s like to step on their side of the line? We can do that if we’re feeling daring enough. We could wander right into their territory and see what happens.”
“What about the treaty?”
“Good, you passed the test. I wanted to see how daring you actually were.” Catalina’s grin widened. “Because what makes us powerful is being smart. Every move we make is calculated.” She pointed at a cluster of six-leafed plants on the ground. “Do you see those? If they look like that and have veins underneath, then don’t eat them. This knowledge may be rudimentary but it’s something you should brush up on. Hunting can take a long time… When I was your age, we’d be out for hunts for weeks on end. We’d have to gather plants to eat when we ran out of provisions,” she said. “Me, Vicente, our older brother Federico, our parents, and the other hunting families… It felt like an adventure. Sometimes, I miss it. I miss a lot of things.”
Ellie wondered if she should bring up what she overheard her mother and aunt talking about. That sounded like a good opening for a discussion about her father’s care. Maybe, she’d take Henrik’s advice after all… If there was anyone she could trust with her personal life, it was her aunt.
“Aunt Catalina, when I was in the kitchen, I heard—”
“Wait,” Catalina silenced her. “See that girl coming our way? I want you to be on guard.”
“Girl coming our way?” Ellie’s mouth ran dry. It couldn’t be…
It was. She could tell it was her by the way she walked, that same hat pulled down over her head. Ellie clutched her crossbow tighter, her hands tensing up. She glanced at her Aunt Catalina. Would she catch on? Would she spot the familiarity in their eyes?
“We should turn back,” Ellie urged her aunt. “This isn’t safe.”
“This isn’t the time to panic,” Catalina said. “She’d be foolish to try anything against us, even if she is a thief. We’re too risky of targets.”
Ellie widened her eyes, hoping that Shreya would understand the look on her face as no, no, no, turn around, not a good time, go away. She shook, her grip tightening and her palms sweating against the crossbow handle.
Shreya kept heading for them. She smiled. She actually smiled, and Ellie felt sicker than she’d ever felt. If Catalina knew about them…she’d make sure Ellie’d never leave Stockbrunn ever again. Bad things could happen to her. Bad things could happen to Shreya. What if Catalina locked her up? What if she forced her back to Stockbrunn? What would happen then?
Ellie had to stop her. She had to make sure Shreya stayed away. Ellie lifted her crossbow, shaking too much to properly see through her sights.
Just close enough for conversation, but still a decent bit away, Shreya started to say, “oh, hello! Is this a new—”
The bolt flew from Ellie’s crossbow. A warning shot. One that would be enough to drive Shreya away. One that hopefully wouldn’t hurt her if it did accidentally hit her. Hopefully…
All three of them froze.
A/N: Here we go! Our first Friday update. This poll will end Monday at 11:59 PM EST. Did anyone see this vote coming?
Last week’s poll was 5 for Zinnia getting caught sneaking back home, and 10 for Zinnia not getting caught.
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