“Have you ever heard of it? It’s a flower that can bring people back to life.” She slid the book over to her. “Isn’t it pretty?”
Ellie traced the lines of its petals, its dark and light colors intertwining. If she hadn’t been touching the illustration, she would’ve confused it for reality.
Both of them thirteen years old, she and Freesia sat together on a walking bridge crested above Kadlec Road, overlooking the commercial district.
Carts wobbled across the cobblestones below, dragged along by sunhat-wearing merchants. Buyers raced after them. The best goods went to those who showed up first. Or maybe they just went to the people who shouted the loudest. The level of passion some people showed during chicken auctions astounded her.
“We should go and find it!” Freesia called her attention back over to her.
“Things like that aren’t real, silly,” Ellie said.
Freesia put her hand on the book to keep her from shutting it. “You have to see through the folklore aspect of it. That’s their way of saying it can heal people.”
“Whoever came up with that crap should stick to drawing.”
“Don’t you think it’d be fun, though? The two of us going off on an adventure to find it?” Freesia leaned her head against Ellie’s shoulder. “Adventures are where real magic happens.”
“Oh, really? Because I think real magic is happening here.” She put her arm around her, her internal Ellie punching her fists in the air for having pulled off a line that smooth. Finally being in a relationship didn’t make saying things like that any easier.
Freesia giggled, squeezing in a little closer. “Nice one.”
Ellie’s eyes flickered down to the ribbon tied around her wrist. “Is that for Marietta?”
“Yeah, you know she can’t get enough of them,” Freesia said. “I think the polkadots are gonna look nice on her.”
Ellie nodded, keeping quiet about the issue. Fraternizing with animals as much as Freesia did wasn’t normal, but it was a quirk of hers she was learning to accept…with some apprehension. She looked up to watch a small group of people pass them by, baskets of produce in their hands.
“Have a nice day!” She greeted them, remembering how important simple things like that were. According to her mother, it all stacked up. Every smile. Every hello. Every correct memory about a townsperson’s life. Doing things like that would set her up for a better future as Stockbrunn’s next Chieftess.
Freesia didn’t slack, either. “Good luck in the market today!”
All of this would be hers too, some day.
~ * ~ * ~
“You’ve never had one before?” Ellie mused. She’d pegged Shreya an expert on all things woodsy, but apparently, there were things even she didn’t know. The other girl stared upwards at the trees’ hanging leaves. They were peppered with black, triangular-shaped fruit. “These are farlila berries. They’re not poisonous or anything.”
She jumped up, caught a cluster of leaves, and brought the branch down to eye-level. With her free hand, she picked off a berry for Shreya to try. “Here,” Ellie said. “They’re sweet, kind of like candy.”
Before Ellie could warn her, Shreya rolled the berry around in her palm. It left a purple stain on her hand. “I broke it?”
“They’re delicate.” Ellie grinned. Farlila berries were sometimes used as an ink ingredient. “Quick, eat it. I’ll get you more.”
She watched her face intently, pleased to see the corner of her mouth lift in appreciation. Ellie handed her more of them, Shreya’s smile growing with every berry she had. By the time she’d given her all the berries within her reach, she realized two things. One, she hadn’t thought to feed herself, and two, she’d dyed her bandages.
Oh, and one more thing. “You’ve got purple on you.” Ellie scratched her cheek where the smear on Shreya’s face was.
It got worse when Shreya wiped at it. It looked like she’d ran a paintbrush down the side of her face, like she was one of those weird bodypainters who sometimes walked the streets begging for money. Ellie didn’t know what was funnier: picturing Shreya like that, or the deep frown she was currently sporting. She clutched her stomach, laughing so hard her face turned red.
“No, I think it is you who has purple on her face,” Shreya said.
“Nuh uh.” Ellie knew enough to keep her hands away from her face. This wasn’t her first dance with those darling farlila berries. “You’re the—”
Shreya cupped her cheek in her hand. Whatever Ellie was saying left her in a pitiful squeak. The dark haired girl smirked, leaning in. “Guess what?”
“W-what?” Ellie asked her, all too aware of how close they were.
“Now you do.” Shreya let go, her smirk becoming a full grin. She gave her a gentle push on the shoulder, snapping her out of the daze she’d inadvertently put her in. “Purple is a nice color on you.”
Ellie fanned her face. Where had all the air in the forest gone all of a sudden? “Okay, whew. Yeah, purple. You’re so right, Shreya! That’s me. So, so purple,” she said. Ellie clapped her hands together. “Cool, okay, let’s get moving, huh? Can’t let the food get cold, nope!” She ran off before she could make a fool of herself.
~ * ~ * ~
It happened to her later, the whole making-a-fool-of-herself thing. Everything had gone well at first. She unlocked the door, pulled out a chair for Shreya (which she had to explain to her, but that’s a minor detail), set out the oatmeal jars, and laid out the spoons on the table.
Food. Girl. Chance to take the next step in fixing everything she messed up. Suave line she’d been rehearsing for days ready to be put to use. Ellie had it all lined up.
And then she had to go and sit down without making sure she had a chair behind her. That suave line disappeared along with her pride in that moment. Once she finally got herself situated, Ellie received another blow to her pride, courtesy of the girl she sat across from.
“Do you know how to make other things?” Shreya asked her. She popped the lid off the jar.
“Why, you don’t appreciate my cooking?”
“It is good.” Shreya dipped her spoon into it. “I ask because I want to know more about your town’s cuisines. We have a limited diet.”
“Oh, of course I can make way more things than this,” Ellie said. “Oatmeal travels the best, that’s all. You should see what I can do with a pheasant.” Hopefully, Shreya never would. Her forays into the world of cooking had never turned out well. “Too bad that stove over there is broken, because I’d totally show you my skills. You wouldn’t be able to eat anything other than my cooking.”
“We could cook together over a fire,” Shreya said. “It has been some time since I helped the community firepit. It would be fun to do that with you…like our own community.”
The last part of Shreya’s sentence took Ellie back for a moment, to a time when Freesia had called Stockbrunn that—our own community. A town they could craft into a new direction. They were going to work together to make Stockbrunn better than it had ever been. Back then, Ellie had believed Freesia’s ideas to be possible. But now, after being left behind by her…
“Did you write this letter without help?” Shreya freed it from Cavalier‘s pages. Ellie wasn’t sure when Shreya had brought the book out. She’d been too lost in her thoughts.
“Yes, I wrote everything myself. I used to be tutored in penmanship. I admit that my hand’s shakier than it used to be, and that I messed up on some of the formalities, but it was all me.”
“We should write together,” she replied. “I thought about writing a response.”
“But hanging out in a tree was more fun?”
“I was angry. Sorry. You confused me.” Shreya sighed. “Thank you for the letter. It took me from…what is the word? The words escape me, but I went from ‘high anger’ to ‘low anger.'”
Ellie opened her jar. She brought it to her nose, taking in its cinnamon scent. “Glad I could do that.”
Shreya pushed the letter closer to her, and pointed at a line. “What is the meaning behind this line? I’ve failed to do that in the past with someone important to me, and I refuse to let history repeat itself here.”
The heiress set her untouched food aside. “Are you asking for a translation, or…?”
“Not a translation. An explanation. Did you lose someone?”
“Yes,” Ellie said, finding it easier to admit than she’d expected. She didn’t particularly have a reason to hide this part of her past from Shreya, other than her own discomfort at picking at this old wound. “Her name is Freesia. She’s been gone for, ah…two years now, I think.” She didn’t think. She knew.
The day of Freesia’s imprisonment hadn’t left her. Ellie’d been reliving it all this time. No one had given Freesia the benefit of the doubt. They didn’t care about her side of the story, or why she’d done what she’d done. These were the same people who scrutinized Ellie and Freesia’s relationship from the get-go, so of course they wouldn’t listen.
On the Chieftess’ executive orders, they shoved Freesia inside of a cage and locked the key. They were deliberating about what to do with her when she disappeared.
“Freesia’s Zinnia’s sister,” Ellie explained, “and she’s someone very special to me. She caused something terrible…and my mother had her locked up for it. I tried to get her out, but I couldn’t. And when I came back later, she was gone. She escaped somehow. They blamed me for it at first, until I explained to them that if I’d done it, I would’ve gone with her.
“You know what the worst part is? Everyone in Stockbrunn acts like I’m in the wrong, like me acting the way I do is the wrong way to go about things but…they don’t know what it’s like to lose someone like that, to be left behind like that. It hurts.”
“Do you feel like she is alive?” Shreya asked, her tone soft.
“If anyone could be, it’d be her. Freesia was everything. You called me pure-hearted, but I’m not. She is. She’s so loving of everyone and everything,” Ellie said. She took great lengths not to give in to the way her voice was breaking. “I think she ran off without me because she was trying to protect me. I wouldn’t have been able to survive these woods back then. Hell, I can barely survive these days. You moved like a shadow and had a knife to my stomach that easily. Anyone could’ve killed me.”
“We can work on that in our training. I will teach you to be more aware.”
“Thank you. I need to be. I have to find her. Zinnia won’t help me.” Zinnia had written her sister off a long time ago. “I can only travel so far with Sunflower before she gets too nervous. And Marietta? Heh, there’s no way she’ll ever set a foot in here again. No one else in town wants to hear Freesia’s name. It’s like they passed a law about it when I wasn’t looking.”
Shreya reached across the table for her hand. “If you think she is out there, I will help you.” Had it not been for the purple streak across Shreya’s face, Ellie may have cried. Good people come into your life for a reason, don’t they?
Ellie asked, “have you ever seen a girl who looks like Zinnia wandering in the woods before? At any point?”
She shook her head. “No, not that I can remember.”
“Thank you, anyway, for wanting to help. No one else believes me. Everyone expects me to have moved on by now, but I can’t. If it was the other way around, I know Freesia would be out there every day looking for me.”
“Would she not have been afraid of people like me?” Shreya smoothed her thumb over Ellie’s knuckles, soothing away any tears that threatened to surface.
“Freesia was everyone’s friend. Not everyone returned those feelings, but she was trusting of everyone,” Ellie said. “I’ve always thought she’d be out there looking for a certain flower… It’s the only clue I have about where she might be hiding. If anyone else from Stockbrunn finds her, I know they’ll kill her.” She winced. “My aunt, for instance, she isn’t one to be messed with, and she sets the tone for our legal system. Had she known about you and me, you may have been tortured for information. Something worse than the bolt would’ve happened. Are you okay, by the way?” Ellie moved her hand away from Shreya’s.
“It was the confusion that hurt the most. I thought you wanted to kill me.”
“Never,” she said. “I’ll never hurt you again. The worst I’ll ever come to hurting you is if we’re sparring or playing Slaps or something.”
“What’s that? What’s Slaps?”
“You’ve never heard of Slaps?!” Ellie leapt up from her seat. “Everyone’s played it! It’s where you hold out your hands over someone else’s. Your palms are down and theirs are up. The person whose hands are on bottom tries to slap yours. They come up real quick, like this motion.” She made the motion. “You lose if you get hit. They lose if they don’t hit you. Have you really never heard of Slaps?”
Shreya toyed with one of the strings hanging off of her hat. “No…I have not. Is it fun?”
“Yes! Come over here. Put your hands over mine,” Ellie instructed. Shreya went over to her, following the order. “Your job is to try not to get hit. I’m going to come up from the bottom and hit the top of your hand, okay?”
“I do not see how this is fun.”
“The winner gets to ask the other person a question. I’ll count off. Three, two, one…” Ellie slapped her hands. It was an easy feat, since Shreya hadn’t moved at all. “You were supposed to try to get out of the way.”
“We’ll pretend that was a practice round.” Ellie rolled her eyes. “I’ll be fair and let you ask me a question. Anything you want to know.”
“Can you tell me more about your family?”
“I’ve got uncles, aunts, cousins. Some of them are farmers, some of them are hunters, and a couple of them are, like, high-ranking officials in the town. My mother and father are the big shots. Chief and Chieftess,” Ellie answered, sparing her most of the details. “I already told you I’m an only child, right? It’s not like they wanted it that way. My mom tried to have three before me but they didn’t make it. I’m her miracle baby, and the heiress-by-default. I’m expected to rule Stockbrunn alongside my own Chieftess, and then we’ll have heirs, and this whole stupid cycle will continue.”
“How do you have heirs if there are two Chieftesses?”
Ellie, understandably, had been thinking about that question for a long time. “It’s happened before. There’s been two Chiefs together, too. You have to select a third party to be your, um, helper, and then that it’s it. The third party doesn’t get any claim to the royal line whatsoever, and the heir doesn’t belong to them in any way, but they’re basically treated like family. It’s a huge honor.” Realizing she may have been blabbing on for too long, she asked, “what’s it like in your community again, with authority and stuff?”
“It might not be the same for all communities, but authority in our tribe is determined by age,” Shreya said. “They’re the ones with decision-making power. We can make suggestions to them and let them know what’s going on but they’re the ones who decide.”
“What about your family? Is there anyone else beside your sister I should run the other way if I ever see, like an aunt I don’t know about?”
“You have to win the game to get that answer,” she said, dodging the question.
Ellie wasn’t going to let her get away with that. “I gave you two free questions. It’s only fair I get some free ones, too.”
“Fine…” Shreya looked at the ceiling, gathered her thoughts, and then resumed eye contact with Ellie. “Only my Mama and sister are alive. Papa was killed.”
“I’m sorry.” Ellie’s eyes widened. “We don’t have to talk about this.”
“He deserved it,” Shreya continued. “I had a brother and two sisters who died, too. They became sick or their bodies gave up. One of those two.”
“Really, we don’t have to talk about this anymore if it’s a bad subject for you.”
“Death is something that we are used to in my culture. Many die young,” she said. “Many births do not thrive. Seeing pillars of mourning smoke is a sadly common sight. We just all do the best that we can with the little resources we have.”
“We should try working something out! Your community and Stockbrunn, I mean. We can set up a trading route.”
“The Elders want us to be content with how everything is at the moment. We cannot sacrifice our pride to get more than what we have now.”
“What about better tools? We could teach you better ways of hunting and things like that,” Ellie tried.
“You do not have the authority to make agreements like that. Neither of us do. My community is not one that wants to talk to yours. We have to stay separate,” Shreya explained. “I remind you that they exiled me for a day after I brought them that bear. They have worse punishments than that. And how about you? Your Mama and your aunt? No one would be okay with either of us proposing a trade route idea.”
If either of them did, they’d want to pry into the motivation behind such an idea. It’s not something anyone would come up with out-of-the-blue, especially since Shreya’s people were so hidden-in-the-woods mysterious. “I guess you’re right…”
“Do not worry about me or my community so much. We know how to live. We have been living this way for a long time. My siblings…I still mourn and miss them sometimes, yes,” Shreya said. “Their deaths, and all the others’ deaths, too, have taught me to hold onto people while you still have them. It’s why our community is the way it is with taking care of one another. And that’s why I didn’t hesitate to assist you in finding your friend. If she’s out there, I would like to help you.”
“Wow…I had no idea. Thank you for sharing that with me,” Ellie said. “And thank you again for being so willing to help me. It means a lot to me.”
“Is there anything else you want to know? You have one more question.” Shreya smiled to lift the mood.
“What’s your type? Um…like what kind of person are you interested in?”
Shreya tilted her head in thought. “Humble. Talented. Passionate. Determined. Fun. Unique.”
“How about girls who may or may not be some of those things?”
“You are out of questions. You have to win Slaps to find out.”
Ellie growled. “Alright! Best two out of three, then. What do you want if you win?”
She gave the question as much consideration as she did her type. “A history book.”
“That’s it? That’s so easy! What else?”
Shreya looked away. “What is your type?”
Ellie looked off towards where she was looking. A wall. Easy place to hide embarassment. “Well! Since you get two questions, I should, too. If I win, you have to tell me what you think of me so far, like, the whole honest truth of what you think of me. Heh…and if you win, you get to hear what my type is and I’ll bring you a history book later. Deal? Do you agree?”
“Yes, I agree.” Shreya put her hands out.
A/N: LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!!!! This week’s vote will end on Tuesday night.
We had 10 yes votes for Ellie talking to Shreya about Freesia, and 4 no votes.
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