A/N: This Interlude chapter takes place during Chapter 31: Iota.
Zinnia knew that she should have crossed the street as soon as she saw her, but she found herself hooked in the slightly older woman’s direction.
It’d been some time since they last talked, let alone seen each other. By keeping herself busy, Zinnia Trotter had done a decent job of avoiding anything to do with her, as per instructions. She stayed out of Arntzen and didn’t go anywhere near the spots her clients frequented.
It was strange finding Noemi Vrana out on an ordinary corner in ordinary daylight peddling her less-than-ordinary artwork. It wasn’t a ritzy area by any means, but it was off-a-ways from the fringe of the merchants’ district where she normally set up shop.
The inner-workings of Noemi’s mind never ceased to make Zinnia wonder about her. Painted on one canvas was a hand with leaking eyes for fingers, viscous fluid streaming down. On another, a disembodied mouth chomping a lampshade. The third, she had know idea how Noemi got away with displaying.
“Care for some art?” The artist offered. “I’ll cut you a discount.”
“No, thank you,” Zinnia said. “Not that your art’s lacking in charm, of course. I just don’t think my parents would approve.”
“That’s a shame. Maybe when you’re older.”
“My age doesn’t have a bearing on my right to decorate their home.”
“I suppose it doesn’t.” Noemi smiled. She waved at someone passing by. He tilted the brim of his hat to her, then continued walking. It had been a brief exchange, but not brief enough for Zinnia to be comfortable with it.
“Who was that?” Zinnia asked. Openly acknowledging customers wasn’t normal in their line of business.
“A man with good taste. He bought two paintings from my morbid fruit series yesterday.”
“What’s this series called?”
“The working title is body parts,” Noemi said. “My ears are open for suggestions if you have them.”
“‘Portrait of an Artist Gone Mad.'”
“Coulda blamed that on my wandering womb if I had one. Ain’t that hysteria?”
“Hysteria’s a concept that’s long been debunked,” Zinnia said. She raised a hand to the lampshade painting, curious to touch but hovering. Her art was too sacred to be ruined like that. “I should get going. I have studies to attend to.”
“So soon? How about another minute?” Softer, she asked, “everything’s been going alright with you? How’ve you been holding up?”
Since you fired me and left my family in a lurch? was what she wanted to slap Noemi with. Their groceries shrinking, Zinnia had to stretch out their food. They weren’t at the point of adding water to their milk and juice (those were days she never wanted to relive), but they had to be tighter with their spending.
The majority of her savings were set aside for the apothecary. Even with her considering a lower dosage, her medical costs still ate through everything else. She prayed her brothers and sister wouldn’t outgrow their shoes. They could float like this for another month and perhaps a half.
And then after that, Zinnia would have to face her regression. Her body would change, transforming into someone she wasn’t. She’d lose herself and the person she was, and there’d be nothing she could do to stop that from happening.
Her last name was blacklisted in this town. No one would hire her. Seedier, underground means of money making were out of the question. She couldn’t bear the thought of selling herself. It was Noemi’s trade or nothing.
Manners required Zinnia to phrase her words more tactfully than she wanted. “My fears are in the process of being realized. I’m preparing for the moment when everything comes to a head.”
Noemi looked taken aback at that. “Damn, that’s the saddest I’ve ever heard y’sound. What’s going on?”
“Why do you think I’m like this? I’ve ran the numbers and we’re not going to last for much longer. Upkeeping the farm, buying food, my medication… Things are hard for us, Noemi.”
“Quit actin’ like you’ve got everybody’s burden on your shoulders. You’re a Seide District kid.”
“We’re protected. I made sure there’s no heat on us,” Zinnia pressed on. “Ellie swore to me that she wouldn’t speak a word of our operations to anyone.”
“Was it a pinky promise?”
“…I need your help. I can’t have things go back to the way they were before.”
“Hm, I suppose if you’ve got the Heiress under control, I can find some work for you.” Noemi reached into her dress pocket. “You need my help and I need yours. Hold out your hand.”
She dropped what felt like a coin into Zinnia’s palm, and folded her fingers over it before Zinnia could see it.
“Is this an advance?” Zinnia asked.
“This is a pass code. You’ll need it if you’ll be joining us tonight.” Noemi patted her on the shoulder. “We’re organizing.”
“A group of concerned citizens. Shan’t say more than that, sorry, girly. You’d have to join us in,” she leaned down to whisper the location and meeting time in Zinnia’s ear. The directions were simple enough for her to follow. “You won’t get in without that emblem. Oh, and bring a mask and do your hair differently. We’re incognito.”
The round metal burned in her hand. “This sounds serious.”
“Change is a serious thing. If you’d like to have a part in it, come; or you can keep going on like this. I’ll have somethin’ for you t’run tomorrow night. Just thought I’d extend the invitation to you cuz this sort of thing’s in your blood.”
“I’ll have to think about it.” Zinnia slipped the coin into her pocket. Noemi hadn’t given her much to go off on, but Zinnia couldn’t deny her interest.
Noemi’s tone lightened. “Look natural. Your best friend’s coming our way.”
Zinnia’s eyebrows shot up when she saw Ellie. Ellie was positively storming her way towards them, her fury as loud and clear as thunder. Zinnia crossed her arms and put on an aloof expression, as if she’d only just gotten there and Ellie wasn’t interrupting anything. Her nervousness revealed itself in the tapping of her foot.
When Ellie arrived, Zinnia glanced in Noemi’s direction for some assistance. She wasn’t as good as her at being sly.
“Heiress Navarrete, how good it is to see you,” Noemi began. “My, my, Heiress Navarrete, you look like you’re packed for a vacation. Your bag’s bulging at the seams. What’s that sticking out of it?”
“Zinnia, let’s go get something to eat,” Ellie said, not acknowledging Noemi’s presence.
“Might I recommend Gosia’s Café? It’s around the corner from here,” Noemi offered. “Take a left at the Greenwurst sign over there. People kill for their breakfast pastries. You should order some.”
“Thank you for the recommendation. We’ll be going now,” Zinnia said. Not wanting them to be around each other for another second, Zinnia led Ellie by the arm towards the café.
She heard Noemi call after them. “I will see you later, Z!”
Perhaps that night for the organization or the next day for work, Zinnia hadn’t decided. Was it wise for her to get involved with whatever was being planned? No doubt they’d allow her a bystander’s role. They’d expect her to be committed to a cause she knew nary a thing about.
For all she knew, they weren’t an uprising. They could be a secret society of people upset with the government and aristocracy. “Concerned citizens” sounded like a cover for a group like that, and it wasn’t like Zinnia didn’t share their sentiments. Stockbrunn had its problems.
Zinnia needed time to sort out her thoughts on that matter and time to cool down the fire brewing in her friend. She’d give it her full attention after breakfast.
A/N: If it’s not past October 14th, 2016 at 11:59 PM EST, then you still have time to vote on the outcome of Chapter 33! Hurry and vote before it’s too late.
Ooh, now we know what Noemi and Zinnia were up to when Ellie showed up to whisk Zinnia away. Concerned citizens? Pshhh…I’m sure they’re just a friendly knitting circle. 🙂