“Did you seriously expect to sneak out of the house without getting caught?”
Ellie nearly dropped the plate she was holding. She righted herself, putting her shoulders back and coming to an on-the-outside relaxed stand. The lid to the icebox stayed lifted open, cold air blasting out of it. It chilled her through the fabric of her dress.
“I was hungry and getting something to eat,” Ellie said. She kept her head down to avoid looking at her mother. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“If that was true, you wouldn’t have that overnight bag with you,” Hilda pointed out.
“It’s easier to carry food upstairs that way.” They were in the storehouse room of their cellar where they kept their iceboxes. Leftovers, including the peafowl and sides they’d enjoyed an hour or two before, were kept cold there.
After the Lambros-Dietrich clan went home and Hildegarde retired to bed, Ellie packed her things for the night. The telescope, constellation map, blue-green feathers, spare plates, cutlery, napkins, and partially filled drink jars. She had everything squared away. She just hadn’t accounted for the possibility of Hildegarde finding her in the middle of moving bird to porcelain.
“That doesn’t explain everything else you have,” Hilda said. Her slipper-clad foot tapped the pack. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I wanted to eat outside—hey, don’t touch that!”
With ease, Hilda one-hand lifted the bag to Ellie’s eye level. “Clearly, you aren’t planning on eating alone.”
“Okay, okay, I’m not. I’m bringing food to Marietta.”
“In your dress?”
“I didn’t want to waste any time by changing,” Ellie said. “I can’t keep her hungry and waiting, you know. It’s kind of my responsibility to keep her from starving.”
“You had an ample amount of time to change.” She shook the pack.
“Please don’t do that.”
“Elspeth, I’m only going to ask you this one time. Where are you going and who are you seeing?”
“What, who? No, no, you’ve got it wrong. I’m not seeing anyone, not like, seeing them seeing them. No way.” Ellie would’ve waved her hands in surrender if it wasn’t for the plate she held. “I’m just going to Marietta’s.”
Hilda lowered the pack to go through it. “I know when you’re lying to me. Don’t think that you can get one over on me.”
“That’s my stuff!”
“This bag? I bought it. These jars? I bought them. This food? I paid for. The house you’re standing in? It’s mine. You don’t have any ‘stuff.’ Everything you think you own is mine.” She stopped talking to inspect the collapsible telescope. “If you don’t start talking…”
She didn’t have to say more than that. All of the possibilities packed into that trail-off was threatening enough.
“Alright! I’m gonna go hang out with Zinnia at Marietta’s place. We’re gonna do some stargazing. That’s what I bought the telescope for. I’m not getting anything over on you.”
“After I gave you permission to spend all day and night with her yesterday, you decided to sneak out in the middle of the night to see her again? Why didn’t you ask me if you could go?”
“I thought you were asleep,” Ellie said. “And I thought that, maybe, I dunno, I could get back home before you woke up and it wouldn’t matter. It’s only Zinnia and Marietta. Nothing else is going on.”
“Is there something going on?” Hilda asked, eyebrows creasing to form a glare. Even in her nightgown and sleeping cap, she still intimidated Ellie.
“Between me and Zinnia?” The thought drained the color from her face. “Mom, no, she’s her sister. I wouldn’t, she wouldn’t; neither of us would even consider it. That’s just so wrong. I mean, we’re friends. I can’t even begin to tell you how wrong that’d be.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing happened,” Hilda said, “but I warn you that no one would approve of it. There would be riots in the streets.”
“Good, because we don’t approve of it, either. Trust me, we’d be on the front lines of those riots,” Ellie reasoned. “So now that you know that can you let me go? I promise I’ll be home in three-ish hours. If I’m not home by then you can shave my head and strip the leather from my boots.”
“You’ll be home in one hour. I won’t sleep until you return.”
“But how are we supposed to eat and stargaze in the space of an hour?”
“Two hours, and you’re changing out of your dress.”
“Fine. Yeah, I’ll do that.” So much for the grand entrance she wanted to make. She’d have to settle for a clean set of casual clothing, something a cut above the traveler’s clothes she normally wore but levels below what she’d hoped to wear. “And I’m gonna take some blankets to sit on, if that’s okay with you.”
“There are old ones in the closet you can take. It’d be a waste to wash them, so you can keep them at Marietta’s.”
“You know that I love you, right?” Her voice softened. “Your uncles were speaking nonsense tonight. Please don’t take any of their insinuations to heart. Your life isn’t their business.”
Ellie shrugged. “Isn’t it, though?” Everyone had expectations for her.
“The choice of Chieftess is your choice to make. We may guide you, but the decision is ultimately yours,” Hilda said. She set Ellie’s bag down. “If you do start to like someone, can you let me know? I won’t judge you for who it is.”
But you’ll make sure she’s nothing like Freesia. She had to be suitable, someone who could carry out Stockbrunn’s ideals. Anyone who couldn’t would be deemed unacceptable. Ellie hadn’t forgotten that only a minute ago, her mother was warning her against a relationship with Zinnia.
What kind of riots could she and Shreya incite? That was a question best reserved for later in the future, but imagining it made her head spin. Chaos. All-out anarchy. Stockbrunn wouldn’t be able to handle an outsider paired with their leader-to-be. They’d go into shambles over it. Fire and brimstone. Shattered windows.
Worse than that would be the riots that would happen once she and Freesia reunited.
“Sure, yeah, as soon as I fancy somebody new, I’ll let you know,” Ellie said. “Maybe in another year? I dunno.”
“Whenever it happens, I’ll support you.”
Like how you were so supportive before, Ellie thought. Maybe this was her way of trying to make up for the past. It’d take more than that to right the wrongs she’d committed, especially the ones surrounding the events of two years gone.
Hilda said, “I think we’ve left the icebox open for long enough. I’ll reheat and pack up the food for you while you change. There’s no sense in you serving cold slices.”
“You’ll do that for me? Thanks!”
“It’s dark. I’ll leave a lantern and a knife for you,” she replied. “Be sure to bring Sunflower along.”
What Hilda didn’t know was that Sunflower was having an overnight stay at the veterinarian’s office. They needed to hold her there to see if there would be any lingering effects from the poison. It was the best thing for her, even if it killed Ellie to leave her dog alone.
Curse dogs and their whimpering and their all too expressive eyes. They had the power to convince anyone to slip them an extra treat for no good reason. Once she had Sunflower back, she was definitely giving her whatever was left of the peafowl.
“I will. See you later!”
Ellie set down the plate, gave her mom a hug, and hurried up the stairs. She didn’t want another minute to go to waste.
~ * ~ * ~
Shreya’s other senses picked up on Ellie before she arrived. The huffing of her breath as she ran. The thud of her boots against the dirt and the grass. Something creaking on its hinges and a muffled clinking of glass on glass. The pleasant aroma of cooked meat.
“Hey, sorry I’m late! Tried to get here as fast as I could.” Ellie had one hand tensed on the strap of her bag and the other one holding a fire vessel aloft. Another blanket roll was fitted under her arm. She sniffled, her nose tinged pink from the crisp air. “I’ve got lots of stuff for you.”
Marietta emerged from her home, a different bow fixed in her hair. This one was brown and blue striped. She lifted her face, her nostrils flaring as she took in the scent of food.
“Well, what are we passing time here for?” Marietta asked. She motioned towards Shreya. “Help her get everything laid out.”
“Right.” Shreya approached Ellie, and put her hand out for her bag. She kept her distance from the flame bowl Ellie had gripped by its handle. When the other girl accidentally swung it closer, Shreya ducked away from it.
“No worries, I’m fine,” Ellie said. “Why don’t you guys get set up on the blanket and I’ll get everything ready?”
“I can help.”
“No, let me do it. I wanna make this special for you. And for Marietta, too, yeah,” she added on. “You deserve it for how long I made you wait.”
Seeing further protest as pointless, Shreya sat down on the blanket across from Marietta. Ellie set the plates and utensils for them, then slid their shares onto their dishes. Shreya breathed it in, taking in the spices she couldn’t identify.
She went to pick it up with her hand, but stopped herself when she saw how Marietta was eating. Take the tined tool. Stab the meat. Knife off a smaller piece. Then bring it to the mouth and chew. It was the same drawn-out process as the wheat oatmeal, spoon, and jar, only in a slightly different format. Shreya followed Marietta’s lead.
The fire vessel, sat off to the side of their blanket, illuminated a soft orange light over the scene.
Ellie giggled as she took her seat. “Do you like it?”
“Yes, it is good,” Shreya answered mid-chew. The flavors overwhelmed her mouth. Every bite uncovered another dimension to the food.
“It’s a peafowl, probably raised, not hunted,” Ellie said. “I’ve got a present for you guys when you’re done eating.”
“What type of gift is it?” The prospect of a present got Marietta interested enough to stop eating for a moment.
“You’ll see. It’s brilliant, I assure you.” She ate a bit of bird off of the serving plate. “So how’d the rest of your day go?”
“It was okay. We talked. I bathed. I read.” Oddly, the only choice Shreya had for reading was the fiction story. The history book hadn’t been brought back. Marietta’s words weighed on her when she realized that. It was further proof of Ellie’s growing distrust.
Her open body language didn’t indicate that. Nothing about the subtle way Ellie leaned towards Shreya or how she looked at Shreya with such care showed that. In this moment, they were fine. Simply girls eating together and sharing how their days went. Everything else in the background fell away.
“That’s great! How about you, Marietta?”
“I had an enjoyable day conversing with your friend,” Marietta said. “While she read, I color coordinated my collection.”
“Great,” Ellie replied.
Shreya drew some pleasure from Ellie’s difference in enthusiasm. She kept herself from smirking about it by filling up on more food. As she ate, she allowed Ellie and Marietta to carry on the brunt of the conversation.
Ellie spoke to them about the dress she’d planned on wearing for them (politeness prevented her from saying she wanted to wear it for Shreya outright, but Shreya could read between the lines). The design sounded impractical, so Shreya was glad Ellie’s mother forbid her to wear it. What if something happened, and they needed to run? Looser clothing would be the better option.
That being said, Shreya still felt for the other girl. Her disappointment hurt. Had Marietta not been there, Shreya would’ve said something sweet to doubly embarrass her and reassure her that the dress wouldn’t have made a difference. As long as her clothes were smart for their surroundings, it didn’t matter what Ellie had on.
But Marietta’s presence meant that Shreya needed to be conscientious of what she said. Anything could be used as an arrow against her later. As it was, she felt like she was being examined. Everything she said had to be right and had to line up with the advice that Marietta had gave her. Fear of making a mistake led to Shreya sounding terse and guarded.
If Ellie had noticed, she hadn’t betrayed any hints of such.
Their conversation coursed from the dress to flower garlands and then to the fabric quality of the latest ribbon Ellie had brought for Marietta. The phrase “exquisite elegance” was thrown around more than a few times by both parties. Since the subject didn’t hold any interest for her, Shreya busied herself by eating and adding in non-committal nods every now and then.
“I’m expected home in another hour. Curfew,” Ellie said once everyone had finished their meals. Some time during the discussion, she’d pulled a chained disc from her bag. She gave it a look of disdain before dropping it back inside. “You guys wanna see your presents?”
“Yes, I believe we would,” Marietta said.
“Okay, close your eyes!”
“How do we see our presents with our eyes closed?” Shreya asked.
Ellie gently pushed Shreya’s shoulder. “Just do it, silly girl. It’s supposed to be a surprise.”
“Alright.” Shreya covered her eyes behind her hands. She listened to Ellie rustle through her things.
“Here we go. Feast your eyes on this!”
She had a feather in each hand, one for Shreya, and the other for Marietta. Dark and light striations of blue-green ran along its length. Round concentric shapes flared at the top of it, reminding Shreya of a sinister eye. Its unnaturalness unnerved her, but she took it and thumbed through its ticklish hairs.
“What animal is this?” Shreya twirled the feather.
“It’s the peafowl we ate. It’s super expensive, like my uncle was freaking out about me and my cousin giving it to any of our friends,” Ellie explained. “He didn’t want us flaunting our wealth or whatever.”
“Wondrous,” Marietta declared after hearing that. “Thank you for bestowing us with quite the marvelous gift. This is as exuberant as the meal. I will cherish it.”
“I knew you’d like it.” Ellie stared expectantly at Shreya. “And you?”
“It is beautiful,” and scary. It was difficult for her to imagine a bird full of feathers this vibrant. How did it survive sticking out this way? It would have to be a predator in order to take care of itself. Sheer strength would keep it safe. “Is it a big bird?”
“Um… It’s bigger than a chicken and smaller than a turkey. Maybe like this with some big tail feathers.” Ellie motioned the shape of the creature.
It must’ve been packed and brawny. Its meat didn’t taste in a way that said anything about its muscular stature, but the cooking preparation could’ve misled her about the bite consistency. Perhaps if it lacked in muscles it made up for that with fast flight and razor-sharp talons. Shreya crossed her arms, hoping that she’d never have to witness a peafowl for herself.
“Are they common in Stockbrunn?” Hadn’t she mentioned the possibility of raising them?
“Kind of rare-ish. I think somebody imported them and started a tiny farm for them. I dunno, I could find out for you and get you more—ah, actually, I don’t think I can get you more feathers, but I can tell you all about them,” Ellie said. “Wanna know something interesting? Only the boy peafowls have these tail feathers. They’re like wide fans. The girls don’t have them.”
“I wonder why that is,” Marietta mused.
“Good question… Hey, I have another present for you, if you’re interested.”
“We are,” Marietta answered for them both.
“Yours is here, Marietta. It’s a slice of coffee cake,” Ellie said. She took it out from her bag and handed it over to Marietta. Marietta unwrapped the linen cloth from it, her eyes widening as they took in the dessert’s crumble-textured top. “It’s the last of it, which everyone knows to be the best part of any cake.”
“Yes, that is certainly true,” she replied as she grabbed her fork and knife.
“And Shreya, your second present is this way. Would you please excuse us, Marietta?” Ellie stood up, hoisted her bag and its contents over her shoulder, and put out a hand to help Shreya up.
“You’re excused. Who am I to interfere with your budding romance?”
“Heh.” Ellie let out a small snort of a laugh. “Hope you enjoy your cake. Let’s go, Shreya.”
It amused Shreya that Ellie said that with her hand in hers, and then proceeded not to move. They weren’t going anywhere without someone taking the first step.
“It is a present for me. You take me there.” Shreya squeezed her hand.
“Oh, yeah, that’s right.” Ellie returned the squeeze. “Do you want to hold the lantern?”
“That,” she said, using her foot to point to the fire vessel. “Lamp. Fancy torch. Fire globe. I’d just call it a lantern, though. It’s safe to hold by the handle up at the top. The glass is really hot. It’ll burn you if you aren’t careful.”
“Okay. I will be careful.” Willing away her hesitation, Shreya tucked the feather in her belt and picked up the lantern. The bowl’s heat licked at her fingertips. At home, portable fire came in the form of a burning stick. Stockbrunn’s version shielded it in cloudy glass. It emitted a smell both sharp and dizzying.
Shreya held the lantern in front of them to provide Ellie a guiding light. They moved far from Marietta’s home. At times they would stop, Ellie looking upwards at the trees scraping the skies. She’d comment on the inadequacy of the spot, then they’d go on ahead to another place.
In that place, the night soaked into the leaves and grass, coating the area in an all-over darkness. A sheen of glitter speckled the shade that haloed them overhead. Shreya held Ellie’s hand a little tighter. Smiling in response, Ellie called her name for attention and pressed her lips to hers. The delicacy of their kiss lingered even after Ellie skipped away to sit on the green floor.
She took a metal tube out of her bag, skinny at one end and larger at the other like a slim-lined funnel.
“This is a telescope,” Ellie said. Next, she pulled out a rolled-up scroll. “And this is a constellation map we can use. Mind setting the lantern down over there?”
Its position gave them a circular light they could read the map by. Shreya took her seat by Ellie’s side, resting against her as she unfurled the paper before them. Ellie pointed out various star charts, the energy and zazz behind her words more intriguing than the words themselves. Honestly, most of what Ellie said went in one ear and out the other, but it was cute seeing her so excited.
Shreya’s opinions hadn’t changed. The astronomers bought their distinctions, drawing lines in the stars wherever they saw fit. Discovery was a race-to-the-finish. Get there first, stake a high priced claim, and everyone was expected to fall-in-line with that paid-for theory. Ellie’s explanation of the science behind it failed to convince Shreya to change her mind.
“…and yeah, so that’s what the guy at the store said. The Antillion Model indicates that this blob over here means…”
“Ellie.” Shreya touched her thigh. “You should show me some stars.”
“Ah, right, here’s the telescope. Point it at the stars you want to see, look through it, and close one eye.”
That wasn’t what she’d had in mind when she said that. Shreya sighed and went along with it. The telescope brought a blinking star closer to her. Horizontal and vertical beams of light pulsed from it. To its left, a grouping of dots shone. They led towards a swirled, glowing belt of dust.
From there, her gaze dropped to an interlocking pattern. The paths the stars took merged into curved X-shape. Shreya looked away from the telescope to identify it on the constellation map.
“You know, there are people out there who believe fate’s written in the stars. I think they’re called astrologists, and they believe in something called astrology,” Ellie said. “They say you’re doomed if you’re attached to a bad star.”
“Do you find it true or false?” Shreya asked.
“I wouldn’t like it if it was true. I mean, they think everything’s predestined just because something up there says so. Your life. Your wealth. Your family. Your relationships. Things are good because of the stars, things are okay because of the stars, and things are bad because of the stars. It’s not about you.”
“Is that not freeing?”
“Why would it be freeing? Just because you’ve got something else to blame if things go wrong in your life? ‘Oh, the crops aren’t failing this year for a rational reason like we weren’t watering them the way we should, but ’cause the stars wanted them to fail,'” Ellie said. “I bet you that when times are good, astrologists are ready to take all the credit for their work. ‘I did this; I did that.’ Whenever it’s a bad outcome, it’s all the stars’ fault.”
“I think the astrologists would never take blame. They would thank the stars for the good and the bad. They live for the stars.”
“Okay, but they should be living for reality. Lights and dirt in the sky don’t mean anything. Can you believe there are folks out there who think there are big ol’ stars out there just as important as the sun and moon? They’re calling them planets. It’s more astrology-astronomy nonsense!”
“Come here.” Shreya pushed the map and telescope aside and stretched out her legs. She patted her lap for Ellie to take. Once Ellie was situated facing her with her arms around Shreya’s shoulders and Shreya’s hands on her waist, Shreya spoke. “Was my second present you showing me lights and dirt, as you say? Romantic.”
“Stars, actually. I went a little overboard on calling them dirt. I just don’t believe in celestial bodies or anything spiritual like that,” Ellie said. “Ghosts and stuff, like the presence of life after death? Nope. It’s not real. The dead aren’t walking among us and there’s nothing proving that to be possible.”
Shreya played with the fabric at the back of Ellie’s shirt. “The dead may not walk, but they can help you.”
“You can pray to them for help.”
It was a Marjani cultural practice to create and keep relics of their deceased. Those representative objects could be used to forge a connection between the living and the dead. The beyond one would grant the practitioner some qualities that they sought. For example, a hunter may call on the spirit of another fallen huntsman, and ask that huntsman to lend him his accuracy.
“I don’t get how that’d help anything, sorry. You’re still stuck alone with your problem,” Ellie said.
“We believe that—”
Guarded. Withdrawn. Not so freely giving.
Marietta’s advice broke through to the forefront of her mind.
“Who? You and your people?” Ellie asked.
“We are not concerned with the stars,” Shreya said, “but I can understand people who put their faith in them.”
“Had I put my faith into stars, I never would’ve met you. Nothing in those stars would’ve predicted this.”
“Was it not fate that brought us together?”
Shreya caressed Ellie’s face, her fingertips following her jawline. Ellie stroked her cheek against her hand, an unmistakable smile on her face. Her eyes filled with a fondness that Shreya felt overtaking her own.
“I’m not above using the word. I think I’ve said this was fate before, so yes, maybe I’m in a bit of denial and contradicting myself here. I dunno. Maybe fate has had a role in this.”
Ellie eased her hands down Shreya’s sides. She took her time, sometimes adding pressure close to where Shreya wanted it, but not close enough. As if she forgot something the first go around, Ellie repeated everything from the top at a more agonizing pace.
Not one to lose in the “who can fluster the other one more” war they loved to play, Shreya got to work. Shreya used her thumb to part Ellie’s lips and then met them with hers in a kiss that was a continuation of what they’d started last time. She slipped her tongue over hers, the contact drawing out renewed appreciation.
“I think I like fate,” Shreya said. She gripped Ellie’s shirt for leverage as she went in to kiss her neck. It warmed her soul that their scents were made more similar by the shampoo and soap she’d borrowed. It took the edge off of how different they were as people in actuality.
She brought herself back to eye-level with her. Ellie took that opportunity to return the favor, her mouth at Shreya’s pulse point. As gentle as her kisses were, the thought of her adding teeth thrilled her. Ellie trailed her way back up to Shreya’s face, then pulled back to give them some distance.
The warm glow of the lantern highlighted the blush on her face.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I did all of that,” she said. “I just lost control of myself.”
“It is okay, lakita. I lost myself, too.”
“Huh? Who’s lakita?”
Should she tell the truth or redirect the conversation? She could pretend like she didn’t know the word for something and wound up saying gibberish. That would probably be the best thing to do according to Marietta: hide more of herself, swipe away anything especially incriminating. It wasn’t the first time Shreya used her native language around Ellie, but this was her using it after being told to wise up.
“Um…” Shreya toyed with her hat strings. She went for honesty. “You. You are my lakita.”
“What’s it mean?” Ellie smiled, seemingly too interested in Shreya’s slip-up than what was bothering her before.
None of the translations she came up with fully illustrated the meaning. She settled for, “it means you are special to me.”
“It does?” Her smile wavered. Ellie shut her eyes.
“What is wrong? Are you crying?” Shreya hugged her closer.
“I’m trying not to. Oh, man, I’m trying so hard not to.”
“Cry if you need to. Crying can be good,” Shreya said. She rubbed her back.
“I know. You’re just too much for me sometimes, in a good way. How did I find you?”
“But where does fate end and where do we begin? It’s just as well that fate could make us lose each other,” Ellie said. “Fate’s what I’m afraid of. What’s to say we’re not stuck to a bad star? I’m not giving in to that, no. We’re not going to work if we leave everything to bullshit like fate and destiny, Shreya. It’s cute, it’s beautiful, but it’s not real.”
“It can be real.” Shreya tightened her hold.
“What’s real is that at dinner my uncles were trying to set me up with some girl, and you know what? I think I would’ve been tempted to say yes if I didn’t have you. You appeared in my life with incredible timing and you shook up a lot of things for me, and, and, and…I don’t know what I’m saying, never mind.”
There was another reason why Ellie wouldn’t have said yes. Her lakita.
“I understand if your family duty means you—”
Ellie pulled away. “No. As long as things between us stay like this, then no one else matters. I’m fighting for this, remember? We’re both fighting for this, and that’s why we have to promise each other something.”
“What is it?”
“If this comes to an end, it won’t be because of our families, our towns, or our communities. They’re not going to ruin this for us. No matter how hard things get, we just have to think of this as you and me.”
Shreya’s heart beat twice as fast. “Yes. This is who we are, not what we are.”
“Mmhm,” Ellie confirmed. “This is a promise and it’s effort on both of our parts, okay? I promise that this is about you and me, and everything else can go to blazes for all I care. I’ll drag the stars down into the fire if they get in our way.”
“You are passionate,” Shreya said. “Be careful you won’t get burned.”
“I know. I know I’m out of control, but this is the kind of mood you put me in, like I’m charged up and can do anything. It’s kind of scary, if I’m being honest with you. I feel like you’re gonna get me into trouble, heh.”
“As long as you are not like this all the time, then I think you will be fine.”
“I’m not like this all the time… Time. Time!” Ellie fell off to the side, grabbed her bag, and yanked out the chained disc she’d been looking at earlier. “Ten minutes?! I’ve gotta get home before my Mom kills me. You can keep the telescope and the map.”
Shreya picked them up, then handed the lantern over to Ellie.
“Race you to Marietta’s?” Ellie asked, grinning. “Loser has to face a penalty.”
“Get ready to lose.”
They took off running.
A/N: We’ll have another Interlude chapter some time this week due to the delay. (EDIT: It is Interlude 4: Coin.)
We had 23 voters last week. The results of the vote were hinted at in this chapter, but I’ll more fully reveal them in 34 or 35. I will say that one option had 22 voters and the other option only had 1.
Voting will end October 14th at 11:59 PM EST. Chapter 34 will be up by the end of next week.
I’m also thinking of doing another survey next week. Let me know if you have any suggestions for questions, thanks!