Sep 272016
 

“Are you out of your mind? I didn’t take you for that much of an idiot, but I suppose I ought to do some revising on my thoughts of you. Disappointing,” Marietta spoke through clenched teeth. “Did you want to be caught?”

“You helped yourself to our talk from the start. You had time to stop.” Shreya stood up to glare at her eye-to-eye. Without Ellie around, Shreya no longer had to pretend to be so demure. “No one invited you to listen.”

“You were in obvious need of my help. If you’d heeded my suggestions you wouldn’t have had to resort to pawing all over her.” All throughout Shreya and Ellie’s conversation, Marietta had been peppering in things for Shreya to say. Questions, warnings, ways to change the course of discussion. Ellie couldn’t pick up Marietta’s words, but Shreya’s sensitive ears could.

“Do you know a single thing about the character you’re playing?” Marietta asked.

“I am not a character. I am me.”

“That’s your problem! You talked about books and Elders teaching you the importance of language. You told her about your interest in Stockbrunn. You laid your filthy self right on top of her,” Marietta said. “Do you know how easy it would’ve been for her to take your hat off?”

Marietta reached for it. Shreya grabbed her wrist, stopping her while her other hand went for the hilt of her knife. Neither surprise nor fear registered on Marietta’s face. Instead, she snorted and freed herself from Shreya’s grasp with a light pull. It was a show of strength that made Shreya wonder if she’d underestimated the other animal.

“That won’t happen,” Shreya said.

“Is your hat secured with pins? No? Then any provocation could make you lose it.”

“Won’t happen,” she repeated.

“So you insist. The rest of your cover is more problematic, at any rate. Did you invent anything you told her today or were you entirely ‘you’? Have you been ‘yourself’ this entire time?”

“I prefer to be honest with her. I want her to know me.” It was a measured honesty, but Shreya was as truthful as she could be without giving herself away. She was as close to herself as she could be with Ellie.

Marietta huffed out a breath. “You lazy, unthinking beast of a creature. That is exactly why she’s onto you. Be thankful that Ellie is painfully slow-witted. A faster mind would’ve suspected you far sooner than this.”

“I do not want to hear you if you will insult us.” A fire plumed in her chest. She struggled to steady herself, to keep from giving in to it.

“My insults should break through your cotton-stuffed ears and get you to listen. You’re acting as a wolf who isn’t a wolf when you should be acting as a human who isn’t a wolf.”

“Do you claim to be an expert on that?”

“Expert or not, I’d do a better job at this fooling business than you. I must admit, though, that I’m impressed with the speed in which you captured her. Lonely girls make for good targets, don’t they?” Marietta asked. “Good, but easy. This is far from the first time a wolf’s taken advantage of an innocent girl. I wonder if their weaknesses are inborn.”

“This will be the last time I say this: I am not taking advantage of Ellie,” Shreya said. Her hand tensed into a fist at her side. “She is not my target, and never was. It is clear we care about each other.”

Marietta shook with laughter. “It’s not caring that you feel. It’s hunger, and hunger’s not an emotion. It’s a state of being.” Cruelty was her punctuation. “You’re not capable of having real feelings. You’re simply a wolf ruled by your instincts, acting out those instincts. Maybe that’s why you’ve opted for primal means of trickery over logical ones. Logic asks too much out of you.”

“Why are you saying this?”

“To get you to wake up. If you want to carry out your charade for longer, you’re going to have to do a smarter job at it,” Marietta said.

“This is not a charade,” Shreya insisted.

“Everyone knows what the ending will be. This sort of villainy is in your nature and I don’t know why you’re denying it rather than embracing it. You must be aware of the way you’re manipulating her, no? She’d never let you get so acquainted if she knew the real you.”

Shreya didn’t miss the disgust underlying the words in Marietta’s last sentence, the bubbling and churning of it.

“I am done speaking to you.” Shreya went to grab the toiletries bag.

“Not so fast, wolf. I have some advice for you that you’ll want to hear,” Marietta said. “You may have messed up on your facade so far, but you can salvage everything by keeping your guard up from this point forward. Play defense. Redirect the conversation. Cool the fires of her suspicion.”

She took a pause at that. “You think she does not believe me? Why do you think that?”

“She said it to you as clear as day. ‘You’re a woodsdweller but you’re not a woodsdweller.’ Something you said or did is making her doubt you. You need to be cognizant of that.”

“What do I do?” The words left Shreya before she could swallow them back. The last thing she needed was Marietta inserting herself where she didn’t belong, and such a question was almost asking her to do that.

The pig was nosy enough as it was. Giving her permission to be that way unfettered was equal to ushering in a nightmare. But…if Marietta wasn’t leading her astray about Ellie losing faith in her, then that meant she needed as much of Marietta’s help as she could get.

“You stay guarded. Do a better job of protecting your disguise. If you have to say something, you have to be vague, and you have to think about what the things you say mean for your character,” Marietta said. “Here’s your first assignment: tell me why a random woodsdweller would be obsessed with Stockbrunn to the point of wanting to learn the town’s language.”

“She wanted to learn about them.”

“Why would a dirty forest rat of a person want to learn about Stockbrunn? They don’t have any connection.”

“Rat of a person?”

“This cannot be your first time learning that woodsdwellers are humans living in the woods away from town. Boy, do we have our work cut out for ourselves if that’s true.” Marietta sighed. “It’s only you wolves that thought you could contend with Stockbrunn. You tangled with them. Everyone else, like the woodsdwellers and the smarter breeds of forest animals, knows to keep their distance.”

“I know they are forest people. I learned a little from Ellie. She is unfamiliar with them so that has helped,” Shreya said. “If she knew more about them, I think I would have more of a problem.”

“You would. The fact that she doesn’t know much about them confirms that the woodsdwellers and Stockbrunn aren’t well-connected. You lucked out on that.”

“What is your connection to Stockbrunn?” She had bits and pieces of information she could make a fragmented guess with (something about a hard life and prior ownership), but she chose to hear it directly from Marietta’s mouth.

“Born into domestication, and then liberated. If Ellie ever tells you that story, then consider yourself able to convince her to burn Stockbrunn to the ground. Unlocking that is the sign that you have her completely and wholly,” Marietta said. She shrugged, shoulders rising then relaxing. “On second thought, there are better signs than that, ones far more salient. She’s got a mountain of secrets that she only ever trusted her darling Freesia with. Learn those and you may be able to take your hat off for her.”

“I do not know if I ever will.” Shreya cursed her tongue for being so loose. “Do you think,” she stopped mid-sentence to reconsider her phrasing, “do you think I should learn her to hate me less? Me, the wolf.”

“It’s ‘teach her,’ not ‘learn her.’ How do you plan on doing that?”

“I can tell her about us. She can teach that we are not monsters like she thinks.”

“That last one was supposed to be ‘learn,’ not ‘teach.’ There are several problems with that plan. You’re a woodsdweller. Why would you care about wolves?” Marietta asked. “When would you have met them?”

“Ellie is not the first human I have met.”

“What happened to the others?”

There was no use in shirking the truth. “We needed to eat. I am not proud of it,” Shreya answered. “I was young then.”

“Goodness me, this gets better and better. So you want to play as a woodsdweller ready to defend wolves when you know for a fact that you, a bona fide wolf, have eaten people before. That’s rich.”

“We were starving.”

“No one cares about that! Do you have sympathy for your enemies?” Marietta crossed her arms.

“Is sympathy understanding? I want to understand them,” Shreya said. “Is that wrong? Why won’t they do the same for us?”

“We’re getting away from the issue at hand. You can’t be a woodsdweller who’s on the wolves’ side. It doesn’t make sense.”

“There must be different kinds of woodsdwellers. There are different wolves.”

“All the same amorphous blobs to Stockbrunn’s citizens. Diversity’s a dead concept.”

“So there is nothing I can do, is that what you are saying?”

“Nothing.” Marietta said. “You can’t advocate for your enclave. It’d be best for you to leave that alone. Focus more on what it means to be human, and bring that into your character. Your whole plan of attack right now needs to be about minimizing her doubts.”

“I do that by protecting my disguise. Vague and guarded.”

Lying by being someone else. Increasing the totality of the mask she wore. Adding distance out of fear that any further narrowing would out her. Closing herself off to Ellie. That wasn’t how Shreya wanted things to be, but if there was anything she’d learned these past few days it was that following her “wants” wasn’t always the best course of action.

Putting herself first had the tendency to place others in her blindspot. Her refusal to do anything about the rabbit and what that did to Danilo. Her desperation to stretch her alone time with Ellie and what that did to Sunflower. Her need to stymie the worst of herself by losing herself in Ellie, and what that was doing to them. Consequences.

It was said in her community that wolves fraternizing with humans were cursed. Paying them mind opened the door to a mind-crippling affliction. Madness. The dulling of their senses. The loss of what made a wolf a wolf. Was it happening to her? She’d thought the curse to be a myth, but here she was, slipping up and making mistakes that were easily avoided.

Ellie weakened her reasoning, her ability to see clearly. She needed space to think about everything and make sure she was going about this the right way. The problem was that that wasn’t what she wanted. For the time being, Ellie and this faked life she had with her were all Shreya had. Should Danilo perish, this could be all she’d ever have.

Shreya wasn’t cut out for the life of a lone outcast. This would have to do until she scrounged up the courage to face her sister and her community once more.

What if it had been Ellie? The thought came in whisper-thin, shifting in her mind’s eye like fabric. Ellie cut down; Ellie fading. Shreya would’ve made the rabbit answer for that, in much of the same way she imagined Shanti doing. Vengeance would be a brutal warning, its shock waves to be felt in their neck of the woods for years to come. Shreya’s delivery would not go lightly.

She stared at her hands, watching her fingers flex as she came back to reality.

“Thank you for the advice,” Shreya said. “I am going to go wash now.”

“Running away now, are you? I feel as though I have so much more to tell you.”

“I will ask you if I want to hear it.”

“There’s the coldness I’ve been expecting from you,” Marietta said, flashing a small grin. “You go and enjoy your bath time.”

~ * ~ * ~

Ellie Navarrete found her mother downstairs in the cellar, contemplating wine pairings.

Hilda’s hand drifted towards the burgundy, her hard times choice, before moving to the rosée collection. She held a magnifying glass to read the fine, cursive prints on the labels. The occasion called for something with a grand flair, a flourishing complement for the peafowl to be served.

The burning candles cradled in the wall sconces gave them limited light from which to see by. Their shadows stretched along the opposite end of the basement, Ellie’s more saturated than Hilda’s due to where she stood.

“They should be here any minute,” Ellie said.

“I am aware of that,” Hilda replied. She extracted a bottle belonging to a maker Ellie hadn’t seen before. “Shall we have a medium-bodied red or a full-bodied red?”

Ellie wasn’t an expert on this. Her opinion was merely being asked as a way of delaying her from asking any questions of her own. All her earlier attempts had ended with her mother brushing her off. She had told her to get changed, to do her hair, to not talk to her while she was preparing the roast and butter-herbed sides, and to go feed the dogs if she wanted to make herself useful (which resulted in Ellie having to switch dresses again). By the time she had her cornered, the guests were close to their arrival time.

“Bring both. Wilhelm told me Uncle Cornelius and Uncle Marinus made a casserole.”

“As expected of him. Cornelius has never trusted my cooking. Go fetch a bottle of white from the bottom rack that hasn’t hued orange. We need to clean this place out.” Hilda tucked a midline candy red and a deep crimson red under her arm. She choked a pink wine by the neck, watching her daughter flitter about. “Try not to muck up your dress.”

“I won’t.” Ellie chose a drink and held it by a flame to be sure. “This should be good.”

“It’s nice to hear that you’ve been talking to your cousin. He’s growing up well, isn’t he?”

And I’m not?

“I guess so,” Ellie answered.

“You should spend more time with him. It’d be good for the two of you.”

So I can learn to be more like him?

“He’s got his friends and I’ve got mine. Not a whole lot of time to spare there, sorry.”

“Regardless of that, you’re family. That’s a stronger bond than friendship,” Hilda said. “I don’t want you to regret not getting to know him.”

“Is that what this dinner’s for? We don’t need you guys to push us together. It’s not really your business whether we get along or not.”

Hilda regarded her daughter with weary, stress-lined eyes. “Elspeth. This is one of the rare times where I’ve felt strong enough to invite anyone into our home. I’d appreciate it if you could understand and respect that.”

Strong enough… Ellie hadn’t considered her mother anything but that. Hildegarde resided over Stockbrunn as someone to be respected, loved, and feared. She bowed for no one. During the Council meetings, the Intendants handed her their rapt attention. She was a commander, equipped with the right answers to every problem.

Townspeople revered her, sending gifts to the Navarrete Estate and showing devout loyalty whenever she was near or mentioned. They trusted her not to fail Stockbrunn, and they knew she wouldn’t. She was everything they wanted in a Chieftess. Hildegarde was more than strong enough to carry that weight-meant-for-two on her shoulders.

To think that something as benign as having guests over could knock her down, well, that was ridiculous.

“It’s not like you’re opening the door to an army. What do you have to be strong for?” Ellie asked.

She walked over to one of the candle-holders. “You should head upstairs and make sure the wine glasses are properly polished.”

It wasn’t an answer.

“Okay.”

Ellie left that hornets’ nest alone. She exited the cellar and went to the dining room.

The table was set, all the food laid out in a row. Her mother decorated the table with a red and gold accented runner, something that made the display look especially regal. A glass swan sat in the middle as the centerpiece, flanked by vases of elegant flowers. Ellie placed the golden white wine by it, keeping things as balanced as possible.

Candelabras set up and lit at each end added to the ambiance. The burning oil lamps provided a fuller warmth, but the candelabras were a good excuse to show off their expensive silver. Ellie had thought the cutlery would be enough for that. The silverware was set in proper order on each side of the chargers, the rims of which were colored metallic to match everything else. A simpler plate rested on the charger.

Every seat had a place card folded to a stand. It was remarkable to Ellie that her mother had gone to this length. If she didn’t know better, Ellie would’ve thought they were welcoming in someone from the Greater Council of Casterne. She examined each card with amusement for its rigid lettering style.

Sir C. Lambros-Dietrich would sit next to Sir W. Lambros-Dietrich who would have Sir M. Lambros-Dietrich to his right. Her mother had Lady E. Navarrete sitting across Sir W. Lambros-Dietrich, unsurprisingly. The head of the table was reserved for Lady H. Navarrete, and to her left and Ellie’s right was a plate and name card for one Sir V. Navarrete.

Her reflection shone in his wine glass, refracted and reversed.

She wouldn’t dare. Her father couldn’t accept solid food. There wasn’t anything for him to eat. What kind of conversation could he offer? His faculties were impaired. He’d only be able to sit and stare and watch, head lulled to the side as the rest of them tried to carry on with their meals. Henrik Stenberg, his nighttime caretaker, would have to attend in silence, wiping Vicente’s drool every few minutes. No one needed to see that.

Ellie was going to call her mother to talk some reason into her when she heard knocks at the door. Out of time.

She strode to the door, stopping briefly by a hallway mirror to ensure she didn’t have a hair out of place. Her marroon dress reached the floor, a layer of ruffles gathered at the edges. The upper portion of the bodice was of a simple yet elegant stitching pattern. It cinched at her waist, emphasizing a feminine silhouette. The cap-sized sleeves of the dress bared her arms. Her hands were covered in a pair of white lace gloves, her nails meticulously cared for.

Her effort wasn’t for their dinner guests. They were just reaping the benefits of it. This was all for a certain girl she planned to wine and dine under the stars.

Smiling at the thought of it, Ellie opened the door for the Lambros-Dietrich family. “Hello! Good evening.”

Marinus drew her eye first. Outside of his officer uniform, he was known for his flashy tastes in fashion. His brightly colored pants were hiked above his navel, his shirt round-collared and buttoned all the way up. The houndstooth cutaway coat he wore over it did little to tone down the look.

Cornelius’ style was on the more reserved side. Dark colors, and nothing experimental. It reminded her of something her mother might wear if she were picking out a shirt, waistcoat, jacket, and pants combination. Safe and unfussed over. His expression was as intimidating as ever, still as gruff as when she’d last seen it in the Council Hall.

Wilhelm was somewhere between his fathers when it came to his clothing. He had on a patterned vest over a collared shirt. His pants were kept up with a belt buckle that had the symbol for Stockbrunn’s police force emblazoned on it. He slicked back his hair to keep his waves tamed.

“Don’t you look stunning, Ellie?” Her uncle Marinus stepped over the threshold first. He gave her kisses on the cheeks, then a big hug. “How are you?”

“I’m good. Well,” she corrected herself. Ellie needed to mind her P’s and Q’s tonight. “How have you been, Uncle Marinus?”

“Wonderful.”

“Hello, Ellie,” her uncle Cornelius bent down to kiss her on the cheek in greeting. “Where shall we put these?” He gestured to the dish he was holding and the bag Wilhelm held.

“Um, I think the kitchen would be best,” Ellie said. She closed the door after them. “You can follow me.”

They walked down the hall together.

“It’s been so long since I’ve been here,” Wilhelm said. “Do you still have those silly comics we used to draw together?”

“From when we were kids? I’m pretty sure those are well and gone.”

“I remember you insisting that every character be a pretty girl. I had to fight to get a boy into the story, and even then you still scribbled out all of his speech bubbles.”

Had it not been for her uncles being there, she would’ve said something smart, but she had to hold her tongue. Marinus laughed and said something about that being an early sign. Cornelius agreed. Ellie’s ears threatened to turn red. She led them into the kitchen where her mother was waiting.

“Hilda! So good to see you,” Marinus said. They exchanged kisses on the cheek. “Ellie looks more and more like you every day.”

“I don’t see it,” Ellie muttered to herself.

“I could say the same thing about Wilhelm,” Hilda said. “How do you buy clothes for him? He’s taller every time I see him.”

“I admit that it’s a struggle. It’s like he’s a baby all over again,” Marinus answered with a chuckle.

Hilda hugged Wilhelm. He returned the hug the best he could, considering the dessert bag he held. She told him, “you can put that on the counter. We’ll eat it when we’re ready.”

Wilhelm pulled the coffee cake out of the bag and set it down. Ellie’s mouth watered at the sight of it. She’d have to buy one for her and Shreya some time.

“Should I put this on the dining table?” Cornelius asked his older sister.

“That depends. What’s in the casserole?” Hilda asked.

“It’s a blancmanger. Chicken and rice,” he replied. “You made a peafowl, didn’t you?”

“Can you tell by the smell?”

“I can tell by the blue feathers you left on the counter.”

“I thought they would make for good party favors,” Hilda said. “Ellie and Wilhelm, feel free to take some for your friends.”

“It’s better if they don’t,” Cornelius said. “They don’t need the town thinking that they’re flaunting their wealth. Need I remind you that most townspeople cannot afford the price of a male peafowl?”

“Is that why you chose to cook a chicken? You don’t have to lead a commoner’s lifestyle. You’re the Intendant of Agriculture,” she replied. “You can afford a few indulgences every now and then.”

“You’re the Chieftess—”

“Hey!” Marinus interrupted his husband. Jolly-toned, he turned to Ellie and Wilhelm. “Why don’t we head into the dining room and pick out our seats?”

“We’ve chosen them for you,” Ellie said. She spared her mother a glance, checking to see if she’d like her to stay. Hilda made a motion for her to go. “I’ll show you to them.”

Ellie led her uncle and cousin into the dining room. She gently closed the door connecting the kitchen to the dining room. Cornelius and Hilda could settle their brother/sister spat on their own. Looking at Wilhelm and Marinus, a shimmer of sympathy passed through her. Based on that tiny moment, her uncle Cornelius didn’t seem like a fun guy to live with.

Again, she found herself wishing she and Wilhelm were in an adult-free zone. The things she wanted to say clashed with her etiquette training.

“Did Aunt Hilda make all of this?” Wilhelm asked. He and his father sat in their respective seats.

“I wouldn’t say all of it. I mean, I helped lay out the spices,” Ellie answered.

“That’s an important job,” Marinus said like he was patting her on the head. “It’s a shame we’ll have to wait for them before we can start eating.”

“They shouldn’t be too long,” she replied. Not knowing anything better to say, she went for a generic question. “How has work been, Uncle Marinus?” Ellie wanted to add in a jab towards his boss, her Aunt Catalina, but refrained. The joys of being a proper and soulless child, where you’ve got to void your personality as much as possible.

“We don’t have to bore ourselves talking about that,” he said. Although he was as jovial-looking as usual, there was something about the way he said that that told Ellie ‘work’ was a subject to be avoided. “Let’s talk about you. Does our Heiress have her eyes on anyone at the moment?”

Ellie’s hand shot to hide her throat, then dropped when she distinctively remembered there not being any necking to speak of. Things had gotten slightly more heated than she intended, but they hadn’t left behind any proof of that. She reached for the pink-shaded wine. “Nope, no one.”

Oh, crap, they’re staring at me. She focused on the wine bottle’s label, following the loops of its fancy script.

Did they know? Could they see through her hesitation to answer? What if she’d just given herself away somehow? Sometimes liking someone came with a branding, like people could just tell that a young maiden was involved in a romance on sight. It was a marking, a catch in breath at the mere mention of that special person. A change in color and vivaciousness; a renewed energy and thrum reverberating through everything.

It had happened before. Age matured her reaction, but on the inside Ellie was squealing as much as she did back then.

“I’ve made some acquaintances you may want to meet,” Wilhelm said. “Do you know Idna Linkenhoker?”

“I’ve never heard of her in my entire life.”

“I thought every violet knew each other.”

“Do you know everyone in town that shares your preferences, dear cousin?” Ellie had to add the last part to take the edge off of her question. “Then you can understand why I don’t know her.”

“Fair point,” he said. “I think the two of you would get along well.”

Marinus added, “the Linkenhokers are butchers. They’re well-respected in town for their work. I believe it’s their beef cuts that they’re known for. You’ve more than likely heard of their shop.”

“It’s a possibility,” Ellie said. She didn’t keep track of store specialties. Every shop might as well be the same.

“I encourage you to meet her. She’s friendly and always up for a good conversation,” Wilhelm said. “She’d also love to meet you.”

“I don’t know when I could meet her,” she replied. “I’m booked up for the next month.”

“Oh, please, cousin, there’s no need to be shy. There’s nothing wrong with making friends.”

“It’s not that I’m shy. I just don’t have the time to meet anyone right now. Ask me again in a year.”

“I thought you said a month.”

“I forgot everything else I have to do. It’ll be another year or two, sorry.”

The door swung open. Hilda walked in first. She greeted everyone, then took her seat at the head of the table. Cornelius put down his casserole, and sat in the open seat between Hilda and Wilhelm. Neither looked angry so that was good. The bad air had hopefully been cleared.

“I apologize for the delay. Please take as much food as you wish,” Hilda announced. “I’ll pour the drinks. What would everyone like?”

“Ellie picked hers already,” Wilhelm said, smiling softly. “I’ll have the same as her.”

“The white wine,” Cornelius requested.

“White,” Marinus said. “You can pass your plates to me and I’ll carve off more of the peafowl for everyone. We can pass the sides and casserole around.”

Conversation didn’t continue until everyone had their food on their plate. Cornelius, Marinus, and Hilda busied themselves talking about something they’d seen in the newspaper. A run-away mother and daughter pair no one had seen in a week who most likely were trying to get back at the deadbeat they lived with.

Ellie pushed at the blancmanger with her fork. It looked pour, like a mash of rice and shredded chicken. The rice reminded her of porridge. Its baby food appearance paled in comparison to the slices of peafowl and greens it shared a plate with. She gave it a try, and was delighted to find that it tasted far better than it looked.

“Hilda, what are you running Ellie ragged doing that she doesn’t have any free time for herself?” Marinus asked.

Hilda stopped mid-cut of a peafowl chunk. “Did she tell you that?”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Ellie said. “I think you may have misunderstood me, Uncle Marinus.”

“She told me and Wilhelm here that she has a full schedule for the next year. Are you enrolling her in a training program?”

“I only said that to politely turn down the offer. I’m not interested in meeting any suitors right now.” Ellie brought her wine glass to her lips.

“You shouldn’t be,” Hilda said. She sipped from her glass, having gone for her preferred choice in drink. “Who are you planning to set Ellie up with?”

“Idna Linkenhoker, a butcher’s daughter,” Marinus said. His knife clinked, making contact with his plate.

“I wasn’t trying to set them up. I just thought they’d make for good friends,” Wilhelm said. “Honestly, I didn’t mean for it to come off any way but that.”

Sure you did.

“Hm, I think I remember meeting her family before,” Hilda said. “They seem like nice people.” She resumed eating her peafowl.

“Would you be opposed?” Cornelius asked her.

“My opposition is irrelevant. It’s Ellie’s decision on whether or not she wants anything to do with Miss Idna. The choice is hers to make.”

“Opposed to her being an eligible suitor, that is,” Cornelius said. “I see potential in her.”

“This isn’t a dinner table conversation,” Hilda warned. “We’re ending this.”

“If she was my daughter I’d—”

“You’re incorrigible, Cornelius, absolutely and utterly incorrigible.” She took a large swallow of her drink.

Mortified, Ellie sunk further down into her chair. Wilhelm mouthed a “sorry” to her. An apology couldn’t change her circumstances. People getting in the middle of the Heiress’ business was to be expected. Her business was theirs.

In a sense, Ellie was Stockbrunn’s daughter who would eventually grow up to be their mother. It was necessary for her to pair up with an acceptable co-parent, someone who would make up for Ellie’s shortcomings. Together they would move the town forward to a better future. Every generation, an improvement on the former.

The last girl, the last possible second mother, may have been right for Ellie, but she wasn’t right for Stockbrunn. No one wanted a repeat of the past to happen. Such a mistake would not be tolerated this time around.

Any love interests popping up in her life were going to be scrutinized to the nth degree. Satisfactory bachelorettes, like whoever this Idna girl was, would be arranged for her to pick and choose from in the hopes that they’d connect and become something beautiful for Stockbrunn.

She didn’t need reminding that her mother had married at her age, and had her three years after that. An early love that blossomed during the Casternian-Erzyan war, a declaration of marriage, and then the birth of the new era. Had nothing gone wrong years ago, Ellie might’ve been in a similar position at this point, but that’s not how things ended up.

Her mother assured her that times were different. Ellie didn’t have to be hasty in giving her heart away. And yet she did, and everyone was scalded for her folly. Maybe taking the easy way out would be a good thing. Chiefdom came with sacrifices. Surrendering was part of growing up.

Just as the smelter’s son needed to learn the joy in melting metal, she, too, needed to source the happiness of being the Heiress. Away from the dinner table, she wouldn’t be able to fall to this kind of thinking, but she was surrounded, trapped under the weight of expectations. Every bit of eye contact with her uncles implored her to consider it. Her and Idna. Her and whomever. Perfect harmony and perfect leadership.

Her and Shreya.

Something tightened in Ellie’s chest.

Stockbrunn would never allow them together.

“Intendant Fonseca made me an offer. I forgot to mention it,” Wilhelm said, using a napkin to blot the sauce from his mouth. “She said I could accompany some of her ambassadors to a northern town after they return from their trip.”

“Which town?” Marinus asked.

“She hasn’t decided yet. Possibly Baekstadt. I think she’s awaiting on information. We’d be leaving after next month’s festival,” he said. “I was wondering if you’d like to come with me, Ellie. There’s room in the caravan for you and some friends.”

“I’d have to think about it.” Showing Zinnia Baekstadt might be the kick that she needed to free herself of Stockbrunn. The problem would be convincing her to travel. And Shreya, well, she just wouldn’t.

“You do realize you have to get your parents’ permissions before heading off, don’t you? These trips can be dangerous,” Cornelius said.

“They’d have a trained guard with them,” Hilda said. “It’s important that they familiarize themselves with the rest of Casterne.”

“I just hope we’re not sent to that town with the rotational leadership, you know the one that changes every few years on the votes of their people,” Wilhelm said. “I’d like to establish a friendship with the town’s leader-to-be. It’ll make our future dealings easier on us.”

Cornelius nodded in approval. “That’s smart thinking.”

“Ellie’s in correspondence with a few. She can put you in touch with them if you’d like,” Hilda said.

It’d been some time since the last letter exchange, but that didn’t matter. It was an understandably slow-going pen pal network, consisting of children who probably couldn’t care less about it. They’d give each other non-perishable gifts and updates about whatever was going on in their lives. Light, meaningless talk.

“Yeah, it wouldn’t be a problem,” Ellie said.

The dinner chatter drifted away from politics. They kept busy by eating and listening to Marinus talk about something that happened during his last job as a painter. Something about a mix-up in pigments, and something else about additive color blending. Ellie thought she saw the faintest of smiles on Cornelius’ face throughout the tale. Of course he would find humor in something that no one else thought was funny.

What had started off as a heavy atmosphere eased its way into a lighter one as the night went on. The sibling rivalry died down to a murmur, the two of them coming to a consensus on street sign colors of all things. And Ellie may have actually laughed at one of Wilhelm’s jokes. Maybe.

Soon their plates were finished and second helpings were had. Ellie passed on her extra share, intending to eat it later on. She skipped out on dessert to save room. It was difficult to do—she had to watch her family tear into the coffee cake with especially exaggerated bites to goad her—but she had to do it. She had to stay strong.

“We’ll handle that,” her mother said when Ellie went to stack the empty plates. “You and Wilhelm can relax.” She took the plates from her.

“Would it be inappropriate if I paid Uncle Vicente a visit?” Wilhelm asked. “I won’t if you’d rather I didn’t.”

Ellie’s father never made an appearance at dinner. His chair remained pulled out, as if he had excused himself to the bathroom. Hilda stared at the empty place reserved for him before answering.

“You may. Ellie, go with him.”

She tried to ask her if she was sure with her eyes, but the question must not have crossed into her expression far enough because Hilda didn’t react. Marinus and Cornelius moved to help her with the rest of the plates, going in and out of the kitchen as they dropped things off at the sink. They didn’t say anything, but Ellie could sense the tension that had re-entered the room.

“It’s this way,” Ellie motioned to her cousin. Grateful, Wilhelm followed after her as she led the way up the stairs. The hallway was longer than usual, lined with too many rooms belonging to too many ghosts.

Vicente’s door was kept open a crack. Henrik’s voice filtered out of the gap, reading one of Vicente’s favorite stories. Ellie hesitated. It was for good reason that her father stayed in his own private room. Excess stimulation triggered reactions. Wilhelm’s presence would be a risk.

Wilhelm placed a hand on her shoulder. She pulled it away. “I understand if you don’t want me to see him,” he said. “I don’t want to be pushy.”

“You just wanted to look nice,” Ellie said. Alone with just the two of them, she could be more like herself. “No one’s here now so you can cut the golden boy routine.”

“Isn’t that what you were doing?”

“It’s not like your dads were making it easy on me.”

“I really am sorry about Idna. I was just as fooled,” Wilhelm said. “I mentioned her interests off-hand one night and my parents ran with the idea of coupling you up. It wasn’t my intention to get them involved in your love life.”

“You gave them an opening wide enough for a 400 pound bear,” Ellie said. “How wasn’t it your intention?”

“I had no part in it.”

“Whatever…”

“You don’t have to listen to them,” Wilhelm said. “Me, I don’t have a choice since they’re my parents, but you do. You can live your life how you want to, so I hope you don’t take anything Father said to heart.”

“That’s not as true as you think it is. It’s not like I can bugger off and become a locksmith,” she replied. “This is me.”

“This is us. You have a support system, Ellie, and I’m a part of it. Everything I told you after Freesia disappeared, all those things…they haven’t changed.”

“Is this you talking or is this a future Intendant talking?”

Wilhelm frowned. “Okay, I asked for that response by saying her name. That was wrong of me to do.” He sighed. “I’m sorry for that.”

“I’m sorry, too. It just snapped out of me.” She rubbed her eyes. Her head hurt. “Why don’t we go back down—”

“Excuse me.” Henrik peeked his head out of the door. He pushed his glasses up his nose from where they slid. “Chief Vicente can hear you talking. It’s beginning to upset him that he can’t see you.”

“What happened to Miss Johanna Stenberg?” Wilhelm asked. “I thought she was his nighttime attendant.”

“I’m her brother Henrik.”

“I think I see the resemblance. It’s good to meet you.”

“This is my cousin Wilhelm,” Ellie introduced him. “My dad should recognize him, but… If he doesn’t remember you, Wilhelm, don’t take any offense to it. It’s been a while.”

“I’ll be fine,” he said.

Henrik allowed them inside Vicente’s stale-aired bedroom. Streaks of dirt lined the wheels of his wheelchair, evidence of a backyard stroll that may have occurred earlier that day. The window blinds were open, outdoor lights peeking through. Every now and then, a breeze blew in that rustled the pages of the open book on Vicente’s bed.

Vicente lifted his head to see his visitors. The metal tree stood by him, its hanging bags emptied. The cords draped over a branch of it. Vicente hadn’t moved up from the liquefied diet Dr. Cuthberht placed him on. Ellie hadn’t inquired as to why that was.

“Ellie?” The fuzz of facial hair outlining his face dirtied his appearance. He was overdue for a shave.

“Hi, Dad. It’s me.” Ellie approached the bed. Wilhelm stepped in next to her. Henrik gave them distance. “I brought Wilhelm with me.”

“Wilhelm is Cornelius and Marinus’ son,” Vicente said. He shook out his hands. “Hi, Wilhelm. Tell me about your day.”

Ellie tugged on Wilhelm’s arm. He leaned down so she could whisper in his ear, “keep it short and positive.”

“Good evening, Uncle Vicente. I had a big dinner today.” Wilhelm patted his stomach. “It was delicious.”

“That is so nice.” Vicente copied Wilhelm’s movement, as if to better understand it. “Hi, Ellie.” He turned to her, eyes shining. “Tell me about your day.”

She followed her usual script, the same one she’d been using for years. “I had fun with my friends. We played games.”

Vicente slurred his response. “That’s so nice.”

“Henrik’s here,” she said. “We are going to let him finish reading to you.”

“This is the book right here?” Wilhelm picked it up. It was a picture book about a little girl and her flying machine. “Do you mind if I read a few pages?”

“I think Chief Vicente would like that very much,” Henrik said.

“Don’t you have to get going soon? It’d be rude to keep your parents waiting,” Ellie reminded him. She didn’t want to keep Shreya waiting, either. The sooner Wilhelm left, the sooner she could join her.

“I don’t think they’d mind having more time to talk with your mother,” Wilhelm said. “A couple of pages shouldn’t hurt.”

“I guess it shouldn’t.”

“We can take turns reading to him,” her cousin said, “I’m sure it would make his night if we did.”

Ellie chewed on her lip. It wasn’t like Wilhelm was wrong about that. Vicente loved story time, and Ellie liked to think that he especially loved her edits and additions to tales. How long had it been since she last read her father to sleep like this?

“Alright, yeah, we can do that,” Ellie said.

Shreya would understand if she showed up later than she wanted to.

“There once was a girl who wanted to fly,” Wilhelm read to Vicente. He held the book up so he could see the illustration.

“So she asked some birds how to fly,” Ellie continued, “and they told her she needed wings…”

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A/N: Special shout out to Era of Tea for helping me work on the designs for Wilhelm Lambros-Dietrich! Do you want to help create new characters for the story and see exclusive behind-the-scenes content? Subscribe for $1/month or more.

So that brings this colossal chapter to a close. Sorry for the delays. Hopefully the size helps to make up for the wait!

Voting will end September 30th at 11:59 PM EST.

Want more Redwood Crossing fun? Check out the official blog.

We had 22 voters for Chapter 31. 10 votes for Ellie losing her composure at dinner and Shreya learning something about Freesia. 12 votes for Ellie maintaining her composure at dinner and Shreya getting her insecurities preyed on. Close margins!!

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