“Where are you?”
“Here, by the window,” Shreya said. She covered her mouth to keep from laughing at Ellie struggling in the darkness. The heiress used her dog as a guiding shield, pushing her forward and walking heel-to-toe with her. “I considered pulling these clothes away, but privacy is safer.”
Ellie clutched onto Sunflower as they made their way beside Shreya. The change in Sunflower’s behavior towards her didn’t make Shreya any less wary. One sudden movement and she could revert back to saying “bad, bad, bad” ad nauseum, or worse. Although the plant lowered the likelihood of her attacking, the possibility lingered. Shreya saw it in Sunflower’s eyes, the way they stayed trained on Shreya’s movements.
It was a wonder that Sunflower could keep her head up, let alone stand. She had to have been running on an incredible amount of willpower. The khadarven flower she’d chewed was known for its relaxation effects. It set busy minds and bodies to rest.
Bliss didn’t accompany its ingestion so much as detachment. Its distancing quality was the main draw. It functioned as a fast track to an out-of-body elsewhere. Khadarven kicked people outside of themselves, hard enough for them to not care about their realities. With that, came the khadarven user’s suggestibility.
Shreya’s khadarven experiences had been under controlled circumstances: never alone and always in someone’s care. Its addictive properties made that a necessity. Retreating into khadarven-induced nothingness was comforting, but it ruined productivity. The Elders allowed it on select, special occasions, only by their permission.
Yet, someone on this half of the woods knew about the plant and how to abuse it. They doused a khadarven-stuffed rag with double-sourced blood, fed it to Sunflower, and left her behind to be found later. Someone should’ve been waiting for them. Everything was set up for a near flawless trap for a human, but they were somewhere further off.
When she and Ellie found Sunflower, Shreya had smelled the range of scents lingering in the air. Grime. Dried blood. The pungent sweat of unwashed people. Touches of a dark floral smoke. A fresh killed animal or two was mixed amongst all of that, throwing Shreya off from being able to pick out the finer details.
She was too focused on getting them out of that situation to ruminate on everything right then.
“Pulling these clothes away? What’s that supposed to mean?” Ellie asked. “If you’re talking about yours, I’m not gonna stop you, and I won’t get in the way of your privacy, so no worries there. Do as you wish. Get comfortable.”
Ellie’s eyebrows creased, her eyes visibly straining as she tried seeing in the blackness of the room. Shreya’s smirk grew. For someone too shy to change in front of her, Ellie didn’t seem to have any problems with the reverse.
“These ones that hang by the window,” Shreya explained. She gave one a tug. “The starlight may reach us without them.”
“Oh, the curtains, yeah, those are curtains. For a second there, you made me think you wanted to get down to your undergarments…or less.” She giggled behind her hand.
“What if I already am?”
“No, you’re not serious.”
“Is there something wrong with that?”
“Some people would call it indecent. Nobody exposes themself for no reason, you know? It’s intentional, and, um, showing off your body to someone, it’s supposed to be a private thing. Or so they say. I don’t know. Plenty of people don’t care about that,” Ellie rambled. She hooked her finger around the collar of her gown. “Sorry, I talk a lot when I’m nervous. You’re not actually naked, are you?”
“You would not know, would you?”
Ellie moved her hand, searching for Shreya. Shreya offered her her still sleeved arm. “You’re not!”
“Of course not.” The most she had done was discard her cape. “Some people would call it indecent.”
“It’s the same way for you guys? I would’ve thought you’d be more free-spirited than that, what with the woods and nature and all.”
“I have never connected bodies and ‘decency’ before. That sounds strange to me.” Bodies were bodies, masses of skin, muscles, and bone. They didn’t need any behavioral or moral codes attached to them.
“Me, too! I mean, it’s different in other places but in Stockbrunn it’s more about protecting yourself than about purity or stuff like that. You have to be careful and you need to be discreet, or else you’re being immodest and that’s bad. But what are we protecting ourselves from? We’re girls and unless you’re a lavender girl we don’t have anything to worry about.”
“Is lavender another shade of violet?” Perhaps the Violet Women’s Society members existed in various degrees along a spectrum of purpleness.
“It’s about a flower in its species. A hybrid thing. I don’t know what’s in the stuff they take. Chemicals? It’s a mix of things. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Let’s just say they can get girls pregnant because they’ve got the equipment for it,” Ellie said. “Ugh, this is so random and weird to talk about, sorry. Who talks about pregnancy stuff like this?”
“It is interesting. I like hearing about your town.”
Sunflower whined for attention. Her head drooped to the side, her shoulders slumping. Ellie patted her on the back, unable to see the movements her dog made.
Shreya spoke for her, “you should let Sunflower sleep. She has been fighting it for so long.”
“Yeah, she has. Poor girl. Sunflower, go sleep. Bed.”
As soon as she flopped onto one of the beds, Sunflower passed out, her arms and legs splayed out. Shreya’s ears picked up on her soft, languid breaths.
“There won’t be any long lasting effects, will there be?” Ellie asked. Without Sunflower to lean on, she wandered closer to the window.
“She will be okay. We helped her the best we could. Let her rest for as long as she needs.”
Ellie dragged one of the curtains aside. She revealed a sliver of the nightsky, a smattering of white dots against a black backdrop. Shreya craned her head to find the moon. Shadows overtook more than half of it.
“Do you know what astronomy is? It’s the study of everything you see out there. The moon, the stars, all of it. If I brought you a telescope, you could see it closer. It’s this thing you look through to bring far away images much closer, in case you wanted to know.”
“It is fine without one,” Shreya said. “I can see the stars like this.” She stood on her toes to get a better view of the ground below. Satisfied not to see anything out of the ordinary, she decided not to drag Ellie away from the window.
“Astronomers have figured out patterns to the stars. They call them constellations, and everyone’s all about discovering new ones to name after themselves. Gotta stake a claim on the stars, y’know? Stockbrunn’s got constellation maps.”
“How do you know where one constellation starts and one ends?”
“That’s a good question,” Ellie said. “Um…I guess it has to do with the patterns. And you can’t always see every constellation all the time. Yeah, I almost forgot that part. It’s a right place, right time thing.”
Shreya gazed through the glass window. “Show me one.”
Ellie drew her finger from bright twinkle to bright twinkle, creating a shape. “It’s a rhombus! Cool, huh?”
“But what about the other stars?”
“I don’t think they count because they’re not flashy.”
“Could this be a constellation?” Shreya traced something out above Ellie’s rhombus. “It is wearing a hat now.”
“I don’t know if that counts, either.”
“The stars change every night. What counts should change along with them,” Shreya said. “Honestly, it is silly to claim stars. What good is their ownership?”
“It’s like you’re leaving your mark. You decide a bunch of stars means something, and everyone else gets on board with that. Then when people check out that hat shape in the sky, they have you to thank for it,” Ellie said. “I dunno, getting a chance to be important’s exciting. You’ll be in books.”
“You do not seem to like that. You do not like your importance.”
Ellie stiffened. “Because it’s not like I picked that out for myself. I’m the heiress by default, remember?”
“I know. Forgive me if we have talked about this before, but what else would you like to do?”
“Shreya, I could talk about the same things a million times with you and never get bored.” She let the curtain go and adjusted it back into place. “I’d be a hunter or a farmer. Maybe I’d work for my aunt and become an officer, or…” Ellie trailed off in thought. “Oh, I guess I could work something out and become a locksmith’s apprentice. That’d be unusual and unlikely, though. Very difficult.”
“You like all of those things?”
“Those are the paths I could take. Switching onto another path’s hard. Things are different if you wanna leave Stockbrunn, but that’s pretty much the way it is if you’re staying. People are generally raised in their careers.”
“It is less rigid for us,” Shreya said. “We choose and switch when needed.”
“What do you wanna be?”
“Relief. I want to know many trades so I can help anyone who needs it. I like learning new things and I like helping. I do not know the word for it in Casternian.”
“It sounds like you wanna be a floater,” Ellie said. “That’s cool. It makes sense for you. You…when do you think you’ll go back home? I forgot.”
Something sunk in her core. “When the time is right for it.”
“It could be a week or a month. I will return before anyone worries.”
“It takes that long for anyone to care?” Ellie asked.
“We trust in our capabilities. Knowing my sister, she will tell everyone I am chasing rabbits,” Shreya said. “There have been hunting parties gone for months. It would be an easy story to believe.”
“You sound sad all of a sudden.”
“Tired,” Shreya said, wondering if the dark heightened Ellie’s perception.
“Do you want me to wake you up or do you wanna go to sleep?”
“Can we fall asleep talking? I do not think I can sleep on my own.” She reached around Ellie to touch her back, to give herself something to hold onto before the storm of her thoughts began.
“Talking or talking?”
“Talking.” She was careful to keep the word even.
“Yeah, good idea. Wouldn’t want to get too tempted.” Normally, Ellie saying something like that would be accompanied by an awkward grin, a gesture that would cool the heat off. The dark emboldened her. “Getting into anything here would be a recipe for disaster.”
Shreya wondered how long Ellie could keep her composure for. “Hm, and what would we get into?”
“Kissing is not a disaster.”
“It’s dangerous. You’re dangerous,” she corrected herself.
“I understand. We need to follow Stockbrunn’s rules and protect ourselves.” Shreya sought a reaction.
Ellie went taut. Shreya struck a nerve she wasn’t aiming for. “You know I don’t care about that. I’m just saying that if we start anything, I don’t think we’re gonna stop, and I’d rather avoid that whole mess. I’m weak and you’re hard to resist and—” She cut herself off, her expression changing as if she remembered something. “Ah, you know what’s fun in the dark?”
Shreya’s lips didnt get a chance to form a word before Ellie interjected.
“Telling stories! You’re right. We should tell stories!” Ellie exclaimed. “What’s a sleepover without storytelling?”
“…Are you okay?”
“When I’m with you, I’m fantastic.” She shuffled away from her, her hands outstretched and patting the air to find a bed.
“I know storytelling may be important, but this feels forced.”
“What’s forced is this story about this servant girl who everyone was ungrateful towards. She made out like a thief by the end of the story,” Ellie said. She found the mattress’ edge and sat on it. “It’s not realistic, but it’s fun to pick apart.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
Ellie shook her head. She spoke in the wrong direction. “You didn’t do anything wrong. It was me. I just didn’t like where I was taking the conversation.”
“Do you want a restart?” A second try might clarify what the mood whiplash was for.
“I can’t keep getting restarts. That wouldn’t be fair to you. Anyway, why don’t you get in bed for storytime? I’ll switch to Sunflower’s when you fall asleep,” Ellie said. “I’ve got a bunch of children’s stories memorized from when I used to read my dad to sleep.”
“You would think he would do that for you.” Shreya wouldn’t put it past Ellie to come up with a silly role reversal game like that.
“You would think so, yeah.” She crossed her arms, her tone dulling.
Since her body language was less than positive, Shreya refrained from looking into it any further. It wasn’t like she wanted to talk about her Papa, either, or anyone in her family for that matter. Some subjects were too personal and this must’ve been one of them for Ellie.
Shreya went to the other side of the bed. “Is it alright if I dress down?”
“It’s like what I said earlier. Get comfortable. Not like I can see.”
It was for that reason that Shreya could take off her hat and give her ears a well-needed break from being flattened down. She took a seat, massaging them while she waited for Ellie’s story to begin. This had been the longest stretch of keeping herself in her disguise. She hadn’t noticed the aching at the base of her tail until she sat down.
She slipped off her top. The bed creaked as she leaned forward to undo her chest wrappings. She had them on for the dual job of support and keeping her tail against her back.
Ellie cleared her throat. “So, as I was saying, there’s this servant girl. Her step-family employs her to do everything. Cook. Clean. Wash their ‘pits for them. She takes care of it for room, board, and food.”
Once free, Shreya had to swallow her sigh of relief. Her tail waved behind her, still cloth-bound to thin it out. “What is a step-family?” The other things she decided she’d have to understand through story context.
“A family through marriage. Her father remarried so she got a step-mother and some step-sisters. New ones, not related by blood. And let me tell you, they were foul. Rude and spitting everywhere,” Ellie said. “They were nasty to our kind-hearted servant girl. Slovenly and avoidant. Can you guess what she did?”
Shreya fed her tail through the slit in the back of her pants. “She accepted it because they are her family.”
“Yes! And it’s not like she got nothing in return. They gave her things, but things aren’t enough. Getting the bare minimum doesn’t make you feel special, does it?”
“Is that a question for me to answer? I suppose it does not,” Shreya said. She pulled her top back on, then put her hat and bindings near her pillow. As long as she woke before Ellie, Ellie would be none the wiser.
“They never talked to her ’cause they didn’t know how to deal with the servant girl’s grief. The servant girl didn’t have her old family anymore, and there she was with this new one who figured she’d want to make herself useful at home. It was better for her to do that than work the stables or farm. Baby steps.”
“And then one of the step-sisters started talking to her.”
“Mmhm. She told the servant girl about this glamorous ball that was happening in town. They could all go together. The problem was that the servant girl didn’t have a dress.”
“She stole one.”
“Her step-sister gave her one.”
“You’re close. What happened was that she did this blood magic ritual thing, called up a fairy witch, and the fairy witch took care of everything. It’s a fantasy story so there’s gotta be some magical elements.”
Shreya got under the covers and rolled onto her stomach. “Why would she not ask them for one? A blood magic ritual sounds extreme.”
“Because they never had any heart-to-hearts. She didn’t feel like she could trust her step-family. The servant girl thought they’d never give her anything to wear. It was all assumptions on her part,” Ellie said. “Sometimes, people take the hard way out when they don’t have to.”
“There were consequences for the blood magic ritual,” Shreya said.
“She got greedy. She had the dress, but she wanted the most gorgeous guy at the ball. So she took that ritual further.”
“Someone was sacrificed.”
“She created the perfect man from her blood. No other man could stand up to him. No person. She became obsessed with an unreal relationship, created from her imagination.”
“That’s good.” Ellie brought herself closer on the bed. “But nope, the story’s not headed in that direction. She did steal something and it was a pumpkin. It turned into a carriage only big enough for her and no one else. Greedy.”
“Did the step-sisters know of the dress and carriage?”
“Yep. The step-mother found out about it first. She asked the servant girl where it all came from and the servant girl slapped her in the face. Now, granted, the step-family was awful and standoffish towards her but that’s because they didn’t know what to do with her.”
“Her step-mother hit her back,” Shreya guessed.
“She cried and cried, knowing that the servant girl was tainted.”
“By the blood magic ritual.”
“By greed. By the step-family’s indifference. By them not asking her how she wanted to be treated,” Ellie said. “A combination of things ruined her.”
“Did the servant girl regret what she did?”
“She thought her step-mother deserved it. The night of the ball came. She looked beautiful. She latched onto Mr. Gorgeous and danced all night with him. Her step-sisters watched in horror, because they knew the truth about Mr. Gorgeous.”
“He was the carriage.”
“What? No, he wasn’t the carriage. The carriage was the carriage. Mr. Gorgeous just had a thing for feet. That’s why the servant girl dropped her glass shoe for him, so he could have an excuse to check out everyone’s feet.”
“I feel like you skipped something in the story.”
“Oh, I forgot that the blood magic ritual thing only lasted until midnight. She had to get home before her carriage turned back into a pumpkin and her dress turned back into a broom. Her glass shoes stayed regular because, I don’t know.”
“You cannot not know. Why would her shoes stay and everything else change?”
“She found them in the back of her closet.”
“Are glass shoes normal? They sound like a bad idea.”
“Maybe if you’re heavy-footed. So, yeah, she leaves behind a shoe and Mr. Gorgeous gets to put the shoe on everyone’s foot in the town, trying to find someone who fits the shoe perfectly. The thing was that he never had to do that, since he knew her face and everything. It was all an excuse to feel up some feet.”
“This story is moving in a strange direction…”
“Eventually, he finds the servant girl. Mr. Gorgeous is actually a prince. She leaves with him to another kingdom and doesn’t spare any money to the family she leeched off of for years. A life of luxury awaited her,” Ellie said. “The servant girl lived happily ever after, but the step-family suffered under a massive debt. Wanna guess the moral of the story?”
“That’s right. Never be cruel to your helpers. Never stop checking in on someone who’s hurting, because the next thing you’ll know they’ll get tainted by a blood magic ritual and run off for a happy ending.”
“I feel like there should have been a fight. The step-sister should have reasoned with the servant girl.”
“What do you say to someone who’s made up their mind?”
“You meet halfway. This story would have been solved if the step-family convinced the servant girl they loved her.”
“Love conquers all? How romantic of you,” Ellie teased.
“It would have made her stop to think about what she was doing,” Shreya said. “They needed to fight.”
“The step-sister tried inviting her to the ball with them. She went halfway and got burnt for it.”
“There was a fire?”
“Metaphorically burnt,” she said.
“I disagree. Halfway would be them being nice to her from the beginning. They failed to build trust and failed every chance to build it. The step-mother slap. The carriage greed. Mr. Gorgeous. They had chances to try, but they never fought.”
“Shreya, I’m sorry…” Ellie’s voice softened. “We need to fight.”
She turned over to look at her. “Why?”
“Because I’d rather hurl myself out of that window than have you be hurt.”
“If you fight me you will hurt me.”
“I’m sorry, but we have to, because you know what hurts worse than that? Regret. I’m not leaving here without you.”
“How many more times do I need to say it? I am not going to Stockbrunn,” Shreya said. She grabbed her hat and squeezed it in her hands. “I will never go. I am safe where I am.”
“Are you afraid of the town? I’ll be with you. I swear I’ll make it so no one bothers you.”
“You cannot promise that.”
Ellie pounded her hand into the sheet. “I can! You want a house to yourself somewhere on our lands? You got it. You want to be a floater for us? You can have that. You can have everything.”
“I do not want that. I want to be here,” Shreya replied.
“Here, where they’re torturing people’s dogs and leaving them out as bait? You can’t stay here.”
“You swear off the forest for one bad thing. You used to sing its praises.”
“Meet me halfway,” Ellie urged.
“I told you this was not a place for you. Now you understand why, and you have become afraid. I do not share your fear.”
“One day, you’re going to mess up. One day, something bad’s gonna happen that you’re unprepared for. It can happen to anyone.”
“It can happen anywhere! How safe are you within your walls?”
“Nothing like this is happening in Stockbrunn. My town’s dangers are nothing like the dangers here. Face it, your argument doesn’t make any sense.”
Shreya dragged her hat down over her head. “You are the one who does not make sense. See it from my view. You know nothing about this place and pretend to be an expert.”
“I never claimed to be an expert,” Ellie said. “I’ve put my life in your hands time and time again here.”
“And I protect you.”
“And I let you because I trust you. Sometimes I don’t know if I should—”
“Then do not. Why would you not trust me?”
“Please don’t go there. I was trying to say that sometimes I don’t know if I should, but I go with my gut and I do it. I completely trust you.”
Was she listening to herself as she talked? “You do not. If you trusted me, you would leave me alone. I know how to take care of myself. Nothing will happen to me. I am not a dog or a townsperson. I know how to survive here.”
“Can you at least tell me why you won’t let me help you?”
“Your town doesn’t like people like me,” that was the closest she could get to the truth. “I do not understand why you act like that is untrue. You told me your aunt would have killed me if she knew about us. How do I go there knowing that?”
“I wouldn’t let anyone near you.”
“We are closer now than we were back then. What would everyone think of that?”
“They’d have to get over it. We’re not their business.” Ellie held a fist to her heart.
“You are theirs,” Shreya said. “They would never accept us. I would be killed in the night.”
“I’d avenge you. I’d make them pay.”
“What good is that if I am dead?”
“You shouldn’t be scared of that. Do you know what the odds are? I’ll get you security. I can…meet you halfway and send you guards here.” Ellie smiled. “Perfect! I’ll bring Stockbrunn to you.”
“You do that and I am gone.”
Ellie’s face fell. “Why?”
“I do not want Stockbrunn.”
“Whatever bullshit your elders fed you about Stockbrunn is wrong. We won’t hurt you,” said the girl who hours before this called for a genocide of Shreya’s people. Ellie was as fired up about saving her as she was about killing her kind.
“I am sorry. I must refuse your offer.”
“Why can’t you trust me on this? What am I doing that’s so wrong?” A crack. A faltering. A sharp breath inwards.
“You’re stubborn about the wrong things. You kept me safe here. Let me keep you safe there. Trust me. Go halfway and trust me.”
“I want to.”
I want to tell you everything.
“Do it. What’s stopping you?”
You hate me.
“I cannot say.”
Shreya was thankful that Ellie had trouble directly facing her in the dark. It allowed her to miss the full intensity of her gaze, instead taking it in parts that nonetheless shook her to the core. Light’s absence gave Ellie that kind of strength, the power to look as though she was seeing through Shreya’s depths.
“Is it okay if I lay down?”
“Yes,” the word got caught in her throat on the way out.
What she didn’t expect was for Ellie to stretch out on her side next to her, instead of on Sunflower’s bed. Ellie switched between bending her knees and straightening them out, the bed creaking from her uncertainty.
“I might as well be setting our relationship on fire like this. Smoke and flames.” Ellie tucked her arm beneath her head, using it as a pillow. “How are you feeling?”
“Torn. There are things about me I am not ready to tell you. If you knew me, you would… You would light the fire that would burn us.”
“We’ve both got secrets. Torn’s a good way to describe what I’m feeling, too. I feel like I’m pushing you away. You’re gonna run from this and I’m only gonna have myself to blame.”
“It is not that I hate your offers. I cannot take them,” Shreya said.
“What if you stayed with Marietta? She lives in a section of the forest that’s close to town. It’s safe there. No one from Stockbrunn visits her but me,” Ellie said. “It’s the best compromise I have.”
“I cannot promise staying there a long time.”
“Try it for a few days, at least. Give time for whoever those people were to pass by.”
Shreya dug her nails into her thighs to keep from prolonging their argument. Ellie’s words were nothing more than wishful thinking. The people who drugged Sunflower could pass by, and a new, more sinister group could replace them. There wasn’t any way of predicting something like that.
“Is it truly a distance from Stockbrunn? What about dogs or other animals?”
“It’s outside of Stockbrunn. Marietta pretty much has the area to herself. I haven’t seen other animals around there, other than Sunflower. Like I said, I’m her one visitor. It’s a small place but I’ll bring you blankets from my house.”
“Alright… If I leave it won’t be because I did not try.”
“Try not to leave without telling me first,” she said, “but I get it if you feel like you have to. Just leave a note for me on where I can find you, and I swear I’ll reach you.”
“I promise I will.”
“Thank you for trying.” Her voice had a scraped-open rawness to it, like the way it sounded after she cried. “You don’t know how scared I was for you. Another night here? I couldn’t stand the thought. Oh, but I’m rambling again. Sorry.”
“Can you tell me another story?” Shreya sunk deeper under the blankets so they’d cover her head. “Something we can fall asleep to.”
“S-sure. This is about a girl locked in a high tower…”
A/N: We had 13 votes for Ellie convincing Shreya to go to Marietta’s house and 9 votes for Shreya staying in the woods and encountering a stranger. We also beat our record. Congratulations, everyone, for working together to reach 22. I look forward to more near-50/50 split votes with you all.
This vote ends Tuesday, August 30th at 11:59 PM EST. The next chapter will be September 6th.
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